May 29, 2017

A Short Story Writing Marathon: The Plan

Run/Write: The Briefest of Intros

I’ve been writing seriously and regularly since 2009. I started running in 2015 and it has given me great perspective on writing. You see, writing is a subjective art, running is a measurable, quantifiable sport. Applying the lessons of running (the need for training, a race plan, proper support, gear, etc.) all help illuminate writing for me. I will be applying this concept to this series of blogs and plan to write more about this run/write concept. See all the posts about run/write.

A Run/Write Plan

So, as I described in the introduction, I’m looking at the adventure of writing 30 short stories back-to-back as a marathon. To continue on, I am going to go through planning and strategy from that perspective allowing the hard realities of running to guide what can be much squishier thinking about writing.


I did a quick spreadsheet to get an idea of what this is really going to take. It comes down to two things:

Distance: 30 stores at 3,500 words per story on average (a big guess) is 105,000 words

Speed: Finished words are what count here. In my old style of writing I wrote first drafts as quickly as I could, looking back as infrequently as possible. This strategy served me well for my first few years when getting to the end was the most important thing. I would then move on to the next first draft and get to revisions when I could. My speed for first draft is over 1,000 word per hour.

That won’t work for this challenge. I need a way of writing that ends in a nearly finished, clean first draft. I’ve read Dean Wesley Smith‘s blog for years and he has a process where he cycles through the story and when he gets to the end, it’s basically done.  I am adapting that (see below). It’s still a guess, but I think this will bring my speed down to around 700 words per hour.

Hours: That turns 105,000 words into 150 hours or 2.5 hours per day for 60 days.

For those that like spreadsheet’s here you go:

Stories 30
Average Story Length 3,500
Total Words 105,000
Words/Hour Finished 700
Hours Needed 150
Days in Challenge 60
Finished Words / Day 1,750
Hours / Day 2.50

The math here, which is pretty brutal, shows what it will take to write these stories. And honestly, it’s a lot. But it’s a marathon, there is no expecting it to be easy.


You couldn’t get off the couch and go run a marathon, right? You would train, and plan, and get support where you needed it. So I have taken this month and trained for this short story writing marathon

My best short story writing year, in terms of number of stories finished (short stories and some longer novelettes), was 12 for a total of 44,000 words. My best year in terms of words (with longer stores) was 8 stories and 54,350 words. That doesn’t represent my total output, I was also writing novellas and novels during that period, but it shows that this is a big leap in terms of short story output, so training is required.

To make the above math easier there are two variables that can be attacked. 1) 3,500 word average length; and 2) 700 finished words per hour. I have been training on both of those ends. Getting better are doing shorter length stories, and working towards the “clean first draft” idea.

This months training has resulted in completing 9 stories for a total 45,000 words. A big leap, for sure, but a few of these stories had been started previously and I just finished them this month. It does, though, help show me the way.

Rules and Definitions

I guess I should pause and define some things for clarity:

  • The stories for this challenge need to at the stage where you send it to a beta reader. This is not quite ready for market and is missing final changes and copy editing, but it is nearly done.
  • One thing Dean did a bit was use some existing story starts and I’m going to do that too. This would be a previously written opening that I take up and finish. Think of it as running down hill for a little bit. My rule for this is that if I use a story start, the final story must be four times the length of the start. So, a 1,000 word start must result in a 4,000 word story to count. No grabbing stories that are 90% done.


You don’t run a marathon the same way you run a sprint. You do what you can to make it easier on yourself so you can finish the race without injury. The same is true here. I have no intention of creating 30 brand new worlds, one for each story. I won’t be writing stories that need a bunch of research. This is a very particular kind of challenge and I will do what I can with my writing to make it easier. Here are some of the strategies I’ve prepared:

  • Story starts (rules on use above) to get me started or get things moving on tough days.
  • Worlds. I have a list of worlds I’ve already written in, that I know the characters well.
  • Lighter stories. A lot of my stories have some pretty heavy themes, so I  am going to lighten it up a bit.
  • Serialized stores. Like writing in the same world, but more so. During my training month, I’ve come up with some fun worlds where I can write a series of stories that interlink into a larger story. Think of a television series that wraps a story line every week, but tells a larger, more complex story over the season.
  • Team. I’ve got Dean, my wife, and a bunch of other people on board and encouraging me. This kind of challenge can’t happen without support.
  • Variety. I plan to write all kinds of stories at a variety of lengths to keep things interesting.
  • These blog posts. Taking this public adds a layer of accountability. Thanks for following along.

In running terms, this is about knowing the course, taking into account the length, understanding the weather conditions, taking into account your nutritional needs, and making a plan that makes sense for that.

Oh, and one more strategy, really the most important one: Have Fun! This will take a lot of time and a lot of focus so if it’s not fun, it’s just not going to happen.

Run Your Own Race

This is a maxim for running, that you have to run the race your way, not like other runners. This, of course, applies to many areas of life, including writing. I described Dean’s style up above (as well as I understand it, that is) and as I’ve been training this month, I’ve been experimenting with it.  It helps, but I can’t quite do it like he does.

What happens to me is that after I get to the end and have a fairly clean first draft (much, much better than in the past, but not super clean yet) my mind is still mulling over the story. A day or two after, I keeping getting insights that will make the story better, usually with only minor tweaks.  I remember things I’ve forgotten, or understands characters well enough to add a bit of depth. Sometimes I remember bits about the story that were in my head, but never made it onto paper.

Also, with math above and the fact that I have a job and lots of other responsibility, 30 stories  in 30 days is just not possible (yet).

So, running this race my way will look something like this:

  • Write the first draft as quickly and cleanly as possible, cycling back when stuck, making corrections earlier in the story as soon as I think of them.
  • Let the story sit for 24-48 hours before finishing it,  then read it to my wife (because I see so much that I missed when I read it aloud)
  • Send it off to Dean and my other beta readers.

This will mean I won’t produced any stores for the first few days, but after that I should be able to keep them coming regularly. This requires that I juggle a few stories at a time, but that’s worked out fine this month.

What to Give Up

I need to average 2.5 hours per day for 60 days. That means that I have to give things up to write this marathon. The same, of course, is true for running a marathon. It takes a lot of time and a lot of prep. You have to give things up.

What I will give up:

  • My best writing time is early in the morning, so I will be expanding on that by shortening my morning exercise and banning facebook, email, and the internet until my morning writing time is over.
  • My consumption of entertainment (Netflix, Hulu, reading, etc.) will have to go down, a lot. I will be entertaining myself with my writing.
  • Lunch breaks will be for writing whenever possible.
  • I’ve cut back my running some, still running 3 times per week, but a bit shorter. One big challenge at a time is enough.
  • Writing will happen 7 days a week (this has been part of my training)

What I will not do is:

  • Give up much sleep
  • Stop working. If possible, I will cut back just a little bit.
  • Ignore my friends and family

The trick here is to give up thing that are less important than this challenge, not the things that are more important. I can’t go hide in a cave until I get this done. Life will continue as usual.

But… But… But…

Every few days the doubts assail me. It goes something like this: “This is crazy, you don’t have enough time, you’ll never get it done.” “You are not that good of a writer, so why even try?” Or, simply, “Are you crazy?”

The doubts, the fears, the judgments, they will be one of the hardest things about this, I suspect. So what to do about it? I’ve got a goal, a plan, and support. During runs, some miles suck, just the way it is, and the same will be true here. My plan is to keep busy, keep writing, keep moving no matter what that nattering little voice in my head has to say. Simple, right? But, easy? Nope.

On Your Marks…

The fun starts in a couple of days. Stay tuned for the highs, the lows, and everything in between.

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Robert J. McCarter

Robert J. McCarter is the author of more than ten novels and over a hundred short stories...... learn more

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  1. Sweet, dear Robert! I heard a lovely idea on Prairie Home Companion (really?). The first paragraph in each story ends in, “And then the murders began.” Enjoy!

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