I remember as a child, growing up in Britain, that each year when it came around my family watched the London Marathon. I’m not sure why we were so keen on it as none of us were that sporty, not at all in fact, but without fail we watched and cheered as people set off, and then again as they crossed the finishing line. I remember, without any real concept of what a marathon was, feeling a sense of wonderment over these people who had been running through the capital, decked out in costumes, looking absolutely shattered as they crossed the finishing line with their arms raised triumphantly in the air. And with the absolute naivety of childhood ambition, and without any clue as to what it might take, I said to myself that one day I would be one of those people.
While I am still to run any kind of marathon, or indeed be anywhere close to being capable of doing so, running has been a part of my life for well over a decade now. From the time I first joined a gym and had my session with the personal trainer I knew that there was only one machine for me. Running, whether it’s outside on the road, or on a treadmill in the gym, is always my exercise of choice. There is something about the structure of a run that lends itself well to my personality, a person who loves competition and yet simultaneously hates to lose. Because with a run, while there is no winning as such, there is also no losing. The battle for the run is fought against oneself, from the moment the alarm goes off at 5:30 am, to the relief of crossing the finish line, whether that’s on The Mall, in Central Park, or through my own front gate. Any competition is found within the mentality I bring to each time I decide to lace up my trainers and head outside. Each corner I turn, each kilometre I track, is a decision in the direction of success. But when it came to hills, that was always a different story.
For years I avoided the hills. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to improve, but because simply I found it really, really hard. After running my set distance only to be faced with a massive incline before the finish was always my worst nightmare. I always needed to prepare myself for it, and if ever I tried a new route and found an unexpected hill, I would often divert for the easier path. But when I moved to my current house, located in a valley and surrounded by hills, in order to run I had little option but to face a hill both at the beginning and at the end of my run.
For a long time I struggled. It was a problem of both mental and physical fitness. Before that I’d schedule my runs along an easy coastline, so I wasn’t conditioned for the challenge. It took weeks before I could ascend the hill that left my house without having to stop. I hated every one of those runs. Surely there had to be a way to make it easier?
Just like anything, running doesn’t become easier by taking a magic pill or by wishing for it before you go to sleep. I only noticed my abilities improving when I committed to getting out at least every other day. But the physical commitment was only one component. My mental state also needed to change.
At first, I faced every run with a sort of resignation. Kind of, here we go again, almost as if somebody was forcing me into it. I looked at the hill as if it was my enemy, and I was setting myself up to fail each and every time. But halfway through a run a few months ago, when faced with an unexpected hill after deciding to push my distance on a new route, I changed my mentality. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and very much happened organically, as if mentally I’d had enough of being beaten before I’d started. A thought rose within me, and it totally changed the game.
There is no hill.
Now, of course, there was a hill, and I wasn’t suddenly in The Matrix. And the hill in question was a beast. But I told myself it wasn’t there, and I nailed it. I was exhausted, felt sick until I got home, but I did it. And the next time I left my house I told myself the same thing, there is no hill, and no lie that run was easier still.
I was thinking about this today because I am facing a challenge like this in my writing. I have 40,000 words of a new manuscript written, and 17,000 of another story that I’d started before that, which I shelved when I wasn’t sure it was right. And now, after another challenging day writing/editing, I feel like this second, 40,000 word manuscript isn’t right either. I feel like I’m writing for the sake of it, not sure whether I believe in the characters or the story. And yet that 17,000 word manuscript that I shelved keeps calling to me. I just read its prologue, and know that ultimately, it’s better. It tells a story that I care about in a way my newer manuscript does not. Yet is it the right genre? Perhaps not. Could it become the story I want to tell? I think perhaps it could.
Right now I feel like I have a huge hill in front of me, and none of my previous experience feels as if it has conditioned me appropriately to tackle it. I know that somewhere in the words I’ve already written there is the story I want to tell, but perhaps right now, neither of those manuscripts are doing just that. But just like when I was training myself for my running, I have to find a way to where it becomes easier. I guess I’ll just have to keep telling myself the same mantra in order to get the job done; this might go on to become my first marathon, but there is absolutely, definitely, no hill.
**SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES BELOW**
A long time ago, back before I had a publisher and without the benefit of a proper editor, I wrote a book which I self-published. It was an experimental book, and had an unpopular ending. When I wrote the end to that novel I was certain that it was the right one, and couldn’t imagine it any other way. I also wrote that book during a fairly crazy three month period after suffering a seizure which landed me in ITU. My protagonist was experiencing a hard time with her mental health, and I discovered that an unexpected seizure had the ability to shake the sturdiest of foundations. I struggled to get back to normality after that, and writing that book really helped. I was satisfied with how it turned out, but when the reviews started coming in I realised that a lot of people were not.
That’s the thing as a reader or viewer of fiction; we get invested. We start to have expectations and hopes for our characters. I was late to the Game of Thrones party, picking up season one when season two was just wrapping up. I devoured the first two seasons in one weekend (little shout out there to Life Before Kids) and have spent the last eight years waiting for the seasons to air. To say I’m into it, or that I’m a fan, is kind of an understatement. I’ve read all the books, listened to the audio, and I even have a selection of the T-shirts. There is a video of me watching Battle of the Bastards that I pray my husband never shows to anybody. As a lover of fantasy, I was amazed by the spectacle of the show, the intricate world created, and the mega-complex order of things. As a writer I was in awe of the way both books and show were written, the complexities of the dialogues, and the characters interactions. The foreshadowing and prophecies were inspired. But then this week’s episode left me feeling totally bereft. I was never a champion for Cersei, but her death left me feeling empty and disappointed. Not because she was dead; Cersei was always going to die. But I just didn’t expect her to die like that.
As I plot and write books, creating the character arc is massively important. Who are they, and what journey do they go on? What do they want, and what drives them? Questions such as these were the reason why Theon was and will forever be my favourite Thrones character, because his narrative is the best redemption story I have ever seen play out. It felt fitting, and right, that he should die for the family who raised him, the family for whom he had much to atone.
But poor Cersei.
She was the master of the game, wasn’t she? She was the most conniving and scheming of all the characters. She outsmarted them all, even Littlefinger. She was perhaps the one to fear the most. Never once did I cheer for Cersei throughout the whole time I’ve been watching Thrones, not even when she was locked in a cell for a whole season. I did feel for her when she was paraded through the streets during her walk of shame, but still I couldn’t bring myself to hope for retribution on her behalf. But her ending left me feeling that some how she had been let down, that to survive seven seasons in one of the deadliest worlds ever created, only to die under a pile of rubble was less than she deserved. I wanted her to go down with a fight, not a whimper. I also wanted some prophecies to be fulfilled, but it seems that was not meant to be either.
So, if this didn’t cut it for me, what would have made a good ending? What makes for a great character arc or story overall? I always think the best fiction reflects real life, even that which is set in a fantasy world. In Thrones we might be dealing with dragons and zombies, but the struggles of the characters, their feelings and hopes, the things that drive them on, are all real human emotions. They feel like real people. Their lives feel tangible, and thus we feel invested. We want our characters, whether we root for them or not, to fulfil their destiny. Just as we are told to live our lives well, to enjoy the years we have and reach old age without regret, we want our characters to do the same.
There will always be people who disagree on the endings of some of our favourite fiction. Fans like me will always be disappointed at some point, especially when we care so much. Where many people hated the ending of one of my earlier works, other people loved it. One person I remember even now took the time to write to me after she finished the controversial book. She told me that it made her feel less alone at a time when she was experiencing depression. She told me that the story was like reading her own thoughts, and thanked me for making her aware that she wasn’t the only one to experience such things. Where some people hated the end, the fact that it touched people enough to care about it is the best I can ever hope for as a writer. My job is to take people on a journey, and it’s impossible for everybody to experience or enjoy that journey equally.
I have talked about Thrones with as many people as I can find this week, mulling over the good the bad, the successes and the tears. The regrets, both for character and me as a viewer. Perhaps Cersei’s character arc was completed exactly as it was supposed to be. Perhaps dying with the one she loved was the only thing that she truly hoped for. Perhaps at the end she had no regrets. I hope the writers of Thrones don’t either, just as I don’t over the book I wrote that was badly received. I still feel the ending was right. Just like my characters, I only wish to reach the end of my story and feel like it played out exactly as it should. So far, I think I’m doing OK.