Writing marathons: Don’t take my word for it

I’m pretty excited about hosting a writing marathon in the St. John’s region this coming June. But while this is an easy sell for me, it may seem a little daunting for some. That’s why I decided to do an interview with writer Kaarina Stiff about her experiences with novel writing marathons.

Kaarina is a full-time writer and editor living in Ottawa, ON.  She has participated in three novel writing marathons and was the Young Adult category winner in the Toronto Novel Marathon in both 2015 and 2016. She was gracious enough to answer a couple of questions about the process so that I could share her experiences with potential participants.

Did you ever have any anxiety about participating in a writing marathon?
Absolutely, but it was the best kind of anxiety—the kind that says, “Oh jeezus, is this a good idea? I have no idea what I’m doing! But wait, it it doesn’t matter because I have absolutely nothing to lose by doing this!” I absolutely believe this is true—only good things can come from it.
Would you recommend a novel writing marathon to a new/emerging writer?
In a heartbeat. The best thing about a novel writing marathon is that it forces you to put words on paper, and to put them there quickly. They won’t all be in the right order, and many of them might not belong there in the end, but the most important thing is that you get the story idea out of your head and on to the paper so that you have something to work with.
What was your experience with the adjudication process after the marathon ended?
From the outset, it’s heartening to know that the people who judge novel marathons know that you wrote a marathon, and so they’re not expecting perfection. Knowing that mistakes are okay is incredibly liberating—you just need to get the story out as best you can. For the Toronto Novel Marathon (which is a comparatively small event), the judges gave amazing feedback on what worked for them in the manuscript, and where they saw room for improvement. Receiving their comments gave me a reason, and a path, to move forward with the stories I wrote. I was also thrilled to have won the Young Adult category in the Toronto Novel Marathon in both 2015 and 2016. Although the publisher ultimately passed on both manuscripts, they also provided incredible feedback that still left me feeling that these are stories that I can work on, and take somewhere.
What were your favorite parts about the marathon writing experience?
Two things stand out for me: focus and creative energy—especially for in-person events like the Toronto Novel Marathon. By signing up, you commit to focusing on your writing, and nothing but your writing, for a whole weekend. In the grand cosmic scheme of things that’s not a very long time, but it’s time that we never usually give ourselves to write. It’s a wonderful gift to give yourself, regardless of how much writing you normally do. And once you’re focused, there’s nothing better than being surrounded by other people who are doing the same thing that you’re doing. It’s like ideas are floating in the air all around you, and you just have to reach up and grab one when you need it. People feed off of each other’s excitement, and encourage each other to keep moving when you feel stuck.
Any negatives?
Inevitably, you hit points where you think, “Why on Earth did I invent this character?” Or worse, “This whole story is stupid.” You just need to remember that this is a completely natural response—writers go through it even when they’re not writing marathons. Since a marathon is time-bound, you just need to get over it faster. Oh, and as someone who adores sleep more than most other things, it’s an exhausting weekend. But that would never stop me from doing it again.
Do you have any advice for first time marathon writers?
Do. Not. Edit. I know that no one will follow this advice, but really—try hard not to edit while you work. When you get stuck, instead of going back to tinker with what you’ve already done, work on a different scene or chapter to keep you moving forward. You can edit later. Also, take breaks. It might feel counter-intuitive when you have such a limited time to write, but your mind will stay sharper if you give it an occasional rest (or heaven forbid, a few hours of sleep).
Anything else you’d like to add?
Have fun. If that means surviving off potato chips and cheesy popcorn for three days, then do that. It’s a wonderful thing to take a few days and do nothing but write. Make the most of it.
Kaarina Stiff is a professional writer and editor in Ottawa, ON. For more on Kaarina check out her website at onpointwriting.ca
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