Cross-Training for Writers

It has been a weird couple of weeks in the UK, and not exactly the backdrop to the launch of my book I was expecting. It is released on the fourth of July, available to order in both digital and physical formats from all the usual online book places and I hope to get it into some local book shops too. Well obviously, I hope it eventually makes it into a lot of book shops but one step at a time. I’m very happy to have already had some pre-orders so we are on our way but you have to break these grand projects down into small steps.

This takes me to the heart of what I wanted to discuss.

When I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the book coming soon, I was asked, ‘When did you find time to write a book?’

In my roundabout way I will attempt to answer that question.

I have fiddled with words in one form or another for most of my life. I have always loved reading, and I fiddled with little stories, wrote bad songs with the occasional good lyric, and helped arrange better songs. A couple of years ago, having somehow written two books over the course of perhaps a decade I began to get more serious. I started writing short stories for competitions; I started submitting to magazines and agents.

I also started to think more about writing. How to get better at it, or at least how I would try. There’s all kind of books and articles written about how to write. I’m not going to be exhaustive in advice that worked for me, what I wanted to talk about now is how I got better at writing books by not writing books. Specifically, the cross-training that informed how I approach writing books and I think made me better than I was. It is up to other people to decide if the resulting books are actually good.

Cross-training, is an idea from sports where you train in different disciplines to get better at your main sport.

16-06-30 Weights

Why a picture of weights? I want to talk about how lifting weights has made me a better writer. This might seem a little strange, but trust me there is a rationale behind it. The obvious benefit would be that a writer spends a lot of time hunched at a keyboard, or over paper depending on your method, so performing any kind of exercise helps keep you fit and gets the blood moving.

However, what I wanted to talk about is how making the regular lifting of weights a part of my life has helped me make writing a regular part of my life, and it’s not just that it is another habit I have picked up.

I am by no means an expert, my numbers would be singularly unimpressive to a lot of people and I definitely do not have washboard abs. However, over the years of trying, failing, and finally finding a routine that works for me I’ve noticed the habits picked up lifting weights are very similar to the ones I use for writing.

Approach – A Marathon Not A Sprint

Fitness is one of those areas where everyone has a shortcut, or a plan to sell you, not helped with the offseason claims of pro-athletes to have added 20 Ibs of muscle or dropped to an impossible body fat percentage.

In some ways it is easy, want to get stronger? Lift heavy, lift often, and crucially, be patient. It takes time to build strength. Most people can’t walk into a gym and deadlift 100kgs. The truth is, there are no shortcuts. You have to go through the process. In fact you have to enjoy the process, and you have to be prepared to put the work in.

Want to write a book. Write. Write often, and crucially, be patient. It takes time to build a book. You have to take a story idea, and turn it into words, all the while watching as it twists in the process of writing into something different to what you first imagined. You have to cut things you love because they don’t serve the story you are telling. You have to enjoy the process enough to keep going.

Planning – Something in Mind

If you wander into a gym with no plan, then you are not going to build towards something, and will very likely hurt yourself.

If you sit down and write a book without a plan, then you might write something brilliant, but the odds are that you are not a reincarnation of Shakespeare or Dickens and I’m pretty sure that the idea of them sitting down and just writing masterpieces is rubbish – they had to work at it like the rest of us.

For lifting, I am using a version of Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program. I have modified it a bit so it works for me, but only after doing it for a year and figuring out that I get better results with smaller increments and learning to be flexible but keep getting the main lifts and body weight work in.

There’s a strong chance that you have no idea what that last paragraph means. That doesn’t really matter for our purposes. The key thing here is that I had a plan, I modified it slightly but stuck to the principles, and most importantly, I listened to my body.

For writing, this means write often, but if writing every day without fail turns your love into a chore, give yourself the weekends off. You have to watch that rest doesn’t turn into the habit of not writing, but if you enjoy a process then you are more likely to keep doing it.

With weight training and exercise rest is incredibly important, it is not just a matter of getting bored by the same routine, you have to factor in recovery and adjust as your body dictates. You really have to give your body time to build more muscle.

I believe it is the same for writing. You have to plot, plan, but adjust your plan as words drop into place and twist away from you. Trust me, sometimes I’m as surprised at a character’s actions as you are. Maybe there a writers who can do all this at the same time as they type or write with a pen, I can’t. I have some idea of where I’m going, but the scenes takes shape over days. I can see problems on the horizon and solutions present themselves when I’m not trying, but when my brain is roaming. Carrying a note book for these moments has proven to be a good idea.

Execution – Goal Setting and Tracking

You don’t just need to plan your lifts, you have to track them and update them. I have a nerdy spreadsheet to keep track of my four week cycles. I know what sequence I am doing my three different workouts a week, what weights progressions I should go through. The workouts move days or swap around as the week dictates, but I make sure I complete all of them.

For writing I have rough word counts. These change depending on if I’m blogging about the NFL (a practice that in of itself is cross training) or here. I don’t worry about long term goals and getting a particular quantity of words written in a month. I have a full time job, a band, and I write books and a blog. I can get 20, 000 words out in a month during the NFL season, but whilst I’m tracking what I do, I am not aiming for word limits but certain articles each week. Even then I don’t always make it. Life gets in the way.

With fiction, I aim to write between 300-400 words when I sit down to write. It doesn’t sound like a lot. It isn’t a lot really. However, if you keep adding them together they add up. If I have to break out into a deep bit of research to sort a problem then I don’t beat myself up for missing my creative writing total for that day. I keep a log so I can see it moving along. Keep doing that, and whilst the world sails around you, a book appears.

I’m still working on a sequel to A Ghost Called Dog. I’m still working on benching 225Ibs.

And as long as I keep chipping away in small steps using what I’ve learned under the bar to inform what I do at the keyboard, I am confident I will achieve both.

The difference is that 225Ibs will always be 225Ibs (physicists please let me ignore fluctuations in gravity for this comparison), while a book may be finished, but it doesn’t mean it will be any good. That’s why editors are amazing.

I think that pretty much anyone would benefit from some form of strength training just to feel healthier, but it might not be such a bad idea for your writing either.

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