October 30, 2011

Planning the NaNoWriMo novel

The start of National Novel Writing Month is only two days away. I am participating for the second time, with the goal to draft a manuscript for my second novel. Having just finished my first book of fiction, From my Mother, I have also spent plenty of time thinking about the next. 

Some aspects of the story are clear in my mind, while others are not. I probably have made more decisions than I consciously realize, and will only discover them once I start on the manuscript on Tuesday. 

In Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block says: “Writing the novel is an organic process, and we carry the book with us wherever we go.” I've been happily carrying this book for months already.

Decisions I have made include the title, Sub-3 Marathon. I have designed a cover as I love to have a visual. As the title suggest, it will definitely be a book about running in general, and running marathons in particular. In other words, it will be sports fiction, and will fit the contemporary fiction category, too.

The protagonist is a female runner who wants nothing more than to cover the 42km distance before the clock above the finish line reaches 3:00:00. Self-doubt is one of her main adversaries. There are other obstacles to her fulfilling her dream including her spouse, though it might take a while for her to realize that this is the case.

There will be a mentor, probably someone who will remain anonymous even to the main character for most of the book.

The story will be told from the protagonist's point of view.

There are many other important decisions to make. A crucial one is the age of the protagonist. In my initial synopsis, she is 39. Her name is Emily. Emily is a marathon runner who has been trying to break the 3-hour mark for years. About to turn 40, she fears time has run out. Until a secret mentor changes her mind, and her training. Will it be enough to reset the clock? Emily's fiancé certainly doesn't think so and her competitive sibling isn't too convinced, or supportive, either.

But one early morning this week I was thinking about all the amazing senior marathoners such as the world record-setting Ed Whitlock and Fauja Singh. Others are not running record times but are amazing nonetheless such as in the races I did this year including in the Victoria marathon.

At the post-race awards ceremony, the two female Victoria marathon finishers in the 70-74 division looked strong and fit, and far younger than their years. A male runner in his 80s notched another finish and is close to completing 400 marathons.

Suddenly I thought: What if my main character was 20 years older? How about a 59-year-old woman trying to break the 3-hour mark? That would certainly be more noteworthy. And it felt like an exciting tale to tell.

However, was it realistic, believable?

I checked the world records and discovered that for women 55-59, it's 2:51 and for 60-64, it's 3:14. My excitement grew.

What's more, more research showed that the 55-59 record was set by a woman who did her first marathon at the age of 49. She had always been active with various sports but had never been a runner. The marathon came along because her daughter was training for it and they thought it would be a fun thing to do together; Mom finished the race in 3:18, an hour ahead of her daughter.

Seemed like a great basis for a novel.

I also did an age-graded check with thiscalculator, which confirmed that a sub-3 marathon for a woman in her 60s is within the realm of possibility.

It's a very different story, though, than the original one I was planning to write. Suddenly we are talking world-class performance, rather than striving for a personal goal that is still noteworthy but hardly headline material.

It also means that there will be a certain amount of "sudden success" and "natural talent", purporting the false idea that fast runners are simply born fast rather than the result of years of training. (While elite runners have superior genes to those of the average age grouper, it takes them years of training, too, to make the most of that potential.)

But I like the possibilities that the story of a senior female runner striving for a world record offers.

So, I decided to change my synopsis for Sub-3 Marathon.

Suddenly, the name Emily no longer seemed appropriate. I checked the most popular names for girls born in the 1950s and have changed the name of the main character to Robin. She'll probably have adult children. I have to think about a spouse but I would like there to be conflict of some sort.

Importantly, I must also think about the main reason for the story, the yearning of the protagonist: What does Robin want most of all, and why? Of course she wants a Sub-3 Marathon, and in turn a world record, but what does that really mean to her? What does she truly want, what does the quest represent?

There will be a mentor, secret or otherwise. Will he or she be a driving force or present an obstacle for the main character?   

I cannot wait to start writing on Tuesday and find out! 

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