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From the Couch to 5K Words: How to Write Your Way Out of the Starting Blocks

When I started writing my second mystery, I wanted to write about women whose high school friendship had crashed and burned in the face of competition. They would be in this race that nobody could win—figuratively but also literally. To my surprise, the girls who started looking out from the pages ofLittle Pretty Things were runners. Good ones.

My high school sport was the yearbook staff. I was a runner once as an adult, for about five minutes, and then the seasons changed and I had to stop for fear of sliding off the sidewalk ice into traffic and an early death. I haven’t run since. That’s the kind of athlete I am—pretty certain things could turn tragic and easily talked out of breaking a sweat.

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Column by Lori Rader-Day, author of the newly released LITTLE PRETTY THINGS,
and THE BLACK HOUR. She has also published fiction in Good Housekeeping,
where she won first place in the magazine's first short-story contest; The Madison
Review, which awarded her the 2008 Chris O'Malley Prize in Fiction; and other
journals and magazines. She lives in Chicago, where she is active in the Mystery
Writers of America Midwest Chapter, Sisters in Crime Chicagoland Chapter,
and International Thriller Writers. In addition, she is an instructor for Story
Studio Chicago, where she teaches mystery writing.
Connect with her on Twitter.

But I don’t lack the ability to motivate and discipline myself. Proof: I’ve written two novels (and counting). And, from what I’ve learned from writing about running, getting off the couch to learn to run and sitting down to learn to write have quite a few things in common. Only when you say you’re training toward 5K at a keyboard or notepad, the K isn’t in kilometers—it’s a measurement of words by the thousand.

Ready to see if you can turn yourself from a couch potato to a disciplined writer? Set. Go:

Make the commitment
It’s all fine to say you’ll start writing tomorrow or next week, but how often have you said it without following through? Figure out how you’ll work writing into your busy life and then make that commitment on your calendar along with doctor’s visits and dance recitals. Keep your appointments.

Remember to pace yourself
A running program that hopes to wedge you out of your spot on the couch asks you to take it slow and make friends with incremental progress. Writing is the same way. You don’t need hours and hours—just spend ten or fifteen minutes, but spend it today. And then spend it again and again.

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Keep track of your progress
When you keep your word count promises to yourself, keep track. Mark a calendar with a red X every time you make your goal, or keep a separate document or spreadsheet to track your efforts. When you want to skip a day, check out your pretty progress. Take a look at that shapely paragraph you wrote yesterday and you’ll want to keep it up.

Adjust the program to fit you
For a beginning runner, there are no rules. If you need an extra week to get comfortable with the time or distance you’re doing, take the week. In writing, it’s the same thing. Work up to a certain daily time goal or work up to a word count goal that makes sense for you. Adjust as needed.

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Don’t jump ahead of yourself
Beginning running programs are slow paced on purpose. It’s easy to get impatient and want to skip ahead. With beginning writers, it’s even easier. Don’t worry about editing or getting an agent if you only have 25 pages written. You’ll have time for all that later. Write the book. Make it the best book you can, using everything you have. You might have to write a few books before you get an agent and then an editor. Slow and steady can honestly win the race.

Take care of yourself as you go
Running: hydrate, invest in good shoes. In writing, same thing: keep healthy habits that protect you and keep you fit for service to the story. Don’t push yourself into bad sleeping habits or into a takeout-only existence. Leave a little in the tank to make it to the finish line.

Surround yourself with a community
Runners love to move in packs, and so do writers. Find a writing group or a professional organization to join, or even just trade pages with a friend. Connecting with another writer gives you both accountability, and it’s helpful—not to mention fun—to have someone along beside you.

Set a new goal
Once a runner finishes her first 5K, it’s unlikely she’s done improving her stamina. In writing, of course, you’re hoping for the same outcome. Hit that first 5K—the first five thousand words—and you won’t want to stop there. Embrace the role of beginner once more. Set a new goal and stretch toward it.


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