Endurance and Mindfulness: In Writing as in Sport, Focus on the Small Steps by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Photo Caption: One of the hardest parts of the 70.3 triathlon: transitioning into the half-marathon, following the bike, with over two hours to go and legs made of lead. The trick: stay in the moment, even if the moment hurts.

Last week I competed in my first 70.3 Ironman, an eight-hour triathlon. I was one of the least-experienced newbies there, positioned at the very back of the starting chute, behind 1900 other participants, entering the lake only three at a time. (That’s a long wait.) But I wasn’t the only person at the limit of her physical and mental capacities. A woman next to me cried silent tears for nearly an hour, even as other racers tried to console her. After the swim, I saw a man sit down next to his bike, sobbing. In both cases, they were reacting to the fear of what was just ahead or the disappointment of what had just happened. I watched them, I took deep breaths, and I reminded myself to stay in the present.

Now the race is done, and I’m both relieved and oddly, inconveniently bereft. But I also know that what I learned on the day of the race will stay with me, and it was this: You can only think about the next small step. Think too far ahead, or go searching for the next problem, and you’ll lose focus on what’s ahead of you, whether it’s swimming to the next buoy or handling a steep hill or running just a few more minutes, to the next aid station.

What I’m describing is really just mindfulness, and like most people who have tried meditation or read any kind of self-help, I’ve worked at it for years. But I’m also a planner at heart. I love long-term goals and I live too often in the future.

That doesn’t work when you’re gasping for breath during a cold, mile-long open-water swim. It doesn’t work when you’re writing and revising challenging writing projects, either.

Of course, you need goals and a dream and a plan. But then, each day, you need to forget about that plan and just do what’s in front of you. Write the next scene. Revise for one issue—but not all of them. Spend time puzzling over one element you could improve.

In my writing life right now, that element is suspense.

In the novel I am deeply revising for the eighth time, there is lots I could be focusing on. But today, I thought about only one thing: how do I make this book more suspenseful? What are the strategies used in the suspense genre anyway, as versus say, the mystery genre? (My novel has elements of both.)

Having worked on this book—and read fifty or more books in this category—over nearly three years, you’d think I’d know the answer. But it’s one thing to intellectually contemplate a craft issue while reading and another to think about it while drafting a novel, yet another thing to think about it while doing a first (or fifth) revision, and yet another thing to think about it after you’ve received rounds of conflicting responses, both positive and negative, from early readers, editors, agents and publishers.

Every time, you start again and think: What do I think about this now? How can I do better? How can I break this down into the smallest possible steps, focus on each one, and learn from the process?

Today, I found some online articles I missed the last time I asked these questions. I listened to one podcast and lined up a handful more (by searching “writing suspense” in my podcast app, which turned up lots of specific episodes of shows I’d never listened to before), focusing on interviews with authors I admire. I sent some audio messages to my daughter, also a writer. I listened to some audios from a good friend who has read several drafts of my book and had her own opinions. She’s not a writer, and yet her insights delighted me.

I opened a new document and listed all of my new ideas for amping up suspense in my manuscript, which will involve reworking several minor characters and writing many new scenes. I will undoubtedly re-read parts of books I’ve admired in the past, trying to see past the entertaining stories to the bones of the craft.

In the past, I’ve taken this active approach, but half of my brain has been fixated on other things coming down the road. What the publishing process will be like. What reviewers will say. How I’ll deal with the rollercoaster of promotion and sales. What I’d like to write next.

What my recent Ironman experience taught me is: to do something really hard, once you’ve made a plan, bring your focus back to the small steps. Once you’ve figured out what those steps are, making them even smaller. If you think about everything, you’ll freak out, or feel overwhelmed, or quit. Think about that next buoy or aid station and you’ll discover you can keep going, longer than you imagined.

If it sounds painful, putting so much work into a book—or a race—then I can only say, yes, but it’s my favorite kind of pain. It’s the one you can handle because you’ve asked for it, you can handle it, and you know you’ll learn from it.

I can’t wait to start revising again.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of five novels, with two more in progress. In July, she’ll be teaching a two-hour online seminar, Historical Fiction: A Crash Course, for Lafayette Writing Studio. Follow her on Instagram at @romanolax.

1 thought on “Endurance and Mindfulness: In Writing as in Sport, Focus on the Small Steps by Andromeda Romano-Lax”

  1. And you improved your novel while out there for eight hours, flitting your mind to your work and sanding with the finest grit. Nice work!

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