Marathon Training to Finish Your Book

I hear it over and over again: If only I had time, I’d finish that novel. Except you do have time. You just don’t realize it. I wrote Dolls Behaving Badly as a single mother working two jobs.

How did I manage? I followed Hal Higdon’s marathon plan. But what, exactly, does marathon training have to do with writing? Long distance running and novel writing both demand discipline and focus, and require months, if not years, of solitary hard work.

GIVEAWAY: Cinthia is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).



   cinthia-ritchie      dolls-behaving-badly-novel

Guest column by Cinthia Ritchie, former journalist who lives and runs
mountains and marathons in Alaska. Her work can be found at New York
Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Under the Sun,
Memoir, damselfly press, Slow Trains, 42opus and over 45 literary magazines.

Her first novel, DOLLS BEHAVING BADLY, releases Feb. 5 from Grand
Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group. The novel, billed as “a story for
every woman who’s earned a little fun,” was called “a fun read” by Publishers
Weekly and “a compelling debut novel” by Booklist. Find Cinthia on Facebook
or Twitter. Find the book on Amazon, B&N, or IndieBound.

Base Training

Before you can write book, you need a base. This could be an MFA program, workshops, online classes or hours and hours of reading well-written books.

Slowly move up to the book planning stage. Outline chapters, compose character sketches, conduct research and stock up on printer paper and chocolate.

Let’s Start Training

The bulk of marathon training consists of longer runs interspersed with rest and recovery days.

Your writing schedule should follow the same premise: A few short writing stints, followed with a longer write on Saturday or Sunday (your Long Writing Day, or LWD). A good beginning might be 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and two hours on your LWD.

Use this time to refine your voice and familiarize yourself with characters and motives. You may feel “sore” after these sessions, but no matter: You’re building up your writing muscles.

(Look over our growing list of literary fiction agents.)

Speed It Up

Gradually increase your writing sessions until you’re up to two hours three times a week and three to four hours on your LWD. If time restraints intrude, substitute with “speedwork,” shorter, more frequent writing bouts (i.e., five minutes as you wait to pick up a child from soccer practice, 10 minutes between work projects, three minutes while waiting in line at the grocery store).

Hitting the Wall

Sooner or later, it’s going to get rough. Every marathoner knows this, which is why most fear the dreaded 20 mile training runs that crop up midway through the training cycle.

Likewise, the central phase of your writing plan will feel equally imposing. You’re now writing for eight hours a week plus an additional eight hours on the weekends (which basically pans out to two additional work days). You have no life. Your wrists ache, your head hurts. Everything you write sounds like dribble; you want to quit more than anything.

(How NOT to start your story. Read advice from agents.)

This is where you hit the wall. It’s inevitable, and the only way through is to keep writing. Work your full eight hours, no matter how you stumble or stutter. Take frequent breaks but do not stop. Believe it or not, a good part of what you produce will prove salvageable.


The majority of marathon plans highlight 14 weeks of increased mileage, followed by a two week taper.

In order to avoid writer’s burnout, do the same. Periodically reduce your writing to the bare minimum, and then take it easy. Watch trashy TV. Eat a lot of junk food. Rest up and recover.

(How to Research a Novel.)

The Finish

Most of us can’t finish a novel in 16 weeks, of course, but we can complete a few solid chapters or even a quick rough-draft.

Repeat the marathon writing plan until you’ve completed your book. And remember what marathoners say after each race: If it were easy, everyone would do it.

GIVEAWAY: Cinthia is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).



The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
most recent updated edition online at a discount.


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16 thoughts on “Marathon Training to Finish Your Book

  1. silentwyllow

    This is a very interesting take on writing a novel–I wished I would have followed this advice. My experience was more like a drunken walk home without a shoe–you know you’ll get there eventually, but the journey is long, painful and filled with many regrets.

  2. Amanda Socci

    Chuck Sambuchino: Reading this blog post was confusing. If this is a guest blog post by Cinthia, that should have been noted at the beginning of this blog post. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that you wrote a book as a single mother? Thank you for highlighting Cinthia. I have begun following her on Twitter. Her cover includes a blatant grammatical mistake. I cannot get past that to read the book itself.

    I have created a different model of marathon training for nonfiction writers. We are preparing for 10 months of the year in order to complete a month-long challenge to write nonfiction in November. This is Nina Amir’s nonfiction alternative to the popular NaNoWriMo:

  3. Dawn Hansen

    As a fellow marathoner, I really appreciated your perspective on the discipline required to write. It was spot on. Looking forward to reading your maiden novel, just as soon as I finish this set of CECs. Good luck with your writing career and hope to see you on the trails.

  4. anulka

    As an erstwhile marathon runner, I love your use of Hal Higdon’s marathon running plan as a metaphor for your plan of attack for your writing. Each requires a certain discuipline, and committment, whilst starting with a firm base. A snack of dark chocolate at the end of each foray is definitely helpful, too!

  5. GypsyCelt

    I’m very new to the world of writing and I’m finding that articles like this, while pointing out that writing is hard work and not necessarily for the faint of heart, also point out that writing is rewarding and can be lots of fun too. I’m not the most self-disciplined person or the most focused, but this gives me an idea of where to start with my writing and what it takes to be a great writer, regardless of what other may think. Thanks for the encouragement!

  6. vrundell

    Very true about ‘finding’ time you didn’t think you had–and writing with it. Every minute you put into your writing is a self-investment. Important to remember that reading-time is part and parcel of it!

  7. bmurphy

    I enjoy your perspective on writing and analogy regarding how to overcome writing obstacles and motivate yourself to great levels of determination! Thanks for all the advice! Greatly appreciated, and congratulations on your own success. Enjoy 🙂

  8. Donna Freedman

    I’m picturing people in line at the customer service desk, furiously tapping away on their tablets vs. sighing and shifting their feet. “Sprints,” indeed!

  9. missnelso04

    @Amanda: I am the same way! If I think I don’t have a set period of time when it’s absolutely quiet and no one is going to bother me, then I can’t (don’t) write.

    I like the idea of using a training method, though. It can be a great focusing tool!

  10. Amanda Helms

    Thank you for the analogy! I’ve been struggling with trying to figure out ways to fit writing in on my busy days. I need to get over my “must have at least a full half-hour in order for anything worthwhile to come out of it” mentality. It’s helpful to remember that sprints have their uses in training.

  11. wendylikesbooks

    This is so true!! I’m training for a half, which is almost here, then “training” to write the book. I have figured out both take a plan, a routine and discipline. Good article!

  12. lcmcdonough

    What a terrific metaphor! Having trained for a marathon in the (sadly distant) past, I identify with the comparison. Developing a solid base is key – I read many books on running and getting a few 5Ks under my belt before starting my long distance training, and had I not invested the time in that, my training would have suffered. Likewise, a solid understanding of writing fundamentals is incredibly helpful when working on a novel. There are many ways to achieve a solid base, but it’s not an optional step, else we run the risk of building our house upon sand.


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