Category: the writing process

How writing is like mountain climbing…

…but not the way you would think that it’s like mountain climbing.

The other day, I posted this on Twitter:

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Is that what happened? Yes. We did that. It was awesome.

Is that how it happened? Yes and no.

A few days before the mountain adventure, Josh and the boys and I were walking down by Medina Lake, throwing rocks and looking at the pretty water. Josh sees the mountain. Josh goes, “You see that mountain over there?” I go, “I can’t do this with you right now.” Undeterred Josh says, “One of these days, I’m gonna climb that mountainmountainountainountainountain…”

The next day, while it’s raining, we talk about how awesome it would be to kayak across the lake and climb the mountain. We could take a lunch! The boys would love it. Now if we just had some sunlight and less wind, that mountain would be ours. The forecast for Wednesday said it was going to be sunny and 75. We had our date with destiny.

Wednesday dawned even more beautiful than the weatherbots had claimed it would. We loaded up the boys and took the kayaks down to the water. Let me take a second here to explain something to you about kayaks: It’s nothing to get a kayak off a truck. You’re pumped. You’re ready to get in and paddle away. You just lift it down, throw your seat in, and pack it to the water with your kayak buddy, boom, done.

All life-vested and water-shoed up, we hopped in and paddled toward the face of that shining mount. Which at this point in the morning was in shadow, but you get the idea.

About fifteen minutes later, as often happens with distances over water, the adults in the expedition started to realize just how far away that shining mount was. Fifteen minutes paddling in low waves and we were still only about halfway there.

No problem! No problem! It’s always a little farther than it looks! We can do it and it’s totally going to be worth it. Just keep paddling! And so, to the sound of several more “You see that mountain over there?”s from Joshua and “Night Begins to Shine” singalongs with Bear, the intrepid family of gypsy pirates made their way across the last half of the lake. Whew! That was fun.

There were rocks and fallen trees washed up on the shore and all kinds of cool stuff to explore. We did that for a bit. Then it was time to start the climb to the top. Joshua grabbed the dry-bag full of lunch, Bear grabbed a spear he’d fashioned upon landing, Oak grabbed nothing, I grabbed the phone, and up we went.

Or up we started to go. From far away, the mountain looked like it had a pretty thick canopy of tree cover, but when you see it from a distance (and through the eyes of a Missourian or Arkansan), you think, “Trees? Hot dog! The more shade for the climb the merrier! It isn’t even a very big mountain!” But in Texas, trees on mountains are not trees like you and I think of trees. They are a nefarious mix of scrubby brush, brambles, squat little cedars, and fire ants. You don’t walk up the side of a mountain in Texas. You crawl up it.

To give you an idea what I’m talking about, a visual aid:

This was the biggest clearing all the way up the side of this mountain. I was almost able to stand up to take this picture.

We climbed and crawled and scratched and clawed our way through the underbrush (everyone in our luncheon party over three feet tall did, anyway). Thorns and cedar boughs snagged at our clothes and hair and skin. Ants attacked the boys. The warmth of the seventy-five degree day settled in. Josh picked a path through a cluster of trees and brambles I didn’t think I could squeeze through. I got hung up trying to get to the marginally-less-brushy other side. My clothes snagged. Thorns scratched me up. A bee roughly five times the size of a Missouri bee came at me, bro. I was being pushed and pulled and abraded and I did not like it.

I won’t lie to you, friend. I looked up the side of the mountain, completely unable to see the top or any other measure of progress and I considered telling Josh that we should either stop there and call it good enough or go back down and eat lunch on the shore. The shore was pretty nice. The brambles were not. The going got tough and the eden was like, “No way, dude. I quit.”

But then, as it often does when I’m caught in the middle of doing something I don’t care for, this other wheel started turning in my head. That wheel was thinking about stories and how they related to mountain climbing. Not from a reader’s perspective. Not your basic dramatic structure of rising action, climax, falling action. No, other-wheel was thinking about how much it sucked to be in the thick of it writing the rising action when you couldn’t even see the climax, let alone the resolution to the story you’re pouring your heart and soul into.

I feel like you’re going to think I’m making this up for the sake of a well-rounded blog post–Oh, adorable, a life lesson about never giving up that applies to writing, how quaint!–but I’m not. I wasn’t thinking about how you had to keep plugging away at the story so you could get to the climax where you would stand with your face in the sun, looking out over the gorgeous landscape of your creation, and for a second, just a moment in time, all that hardship would be worth it.

Nope, I was thinking about how I’ve spent almost four years writing about the people of Halo, and to be quite honest, I’m tired of it. Oh, I still love them. I still love their hometown. I always will. But some days I think, “I swear, Tough, if you screw one more thing up, I’m going to wring your scrawny neck!” I’m in the middle of the third book and some days–okay, a lot of the days–it’s a chore just to think about working on it. I’m tired of it. I want to work on something else, play something new, phone this one in and call that good enough. Where I’m at right now in Godkiller, I can’t see a climax or any sort of resolution. I can’t see any progress at all. The brush is too thick, I’m all tangled up, and something creepy-crawly is biting my leg.

If you’re a writer, or if you know any writers, you’ve probably heard that November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The object of this game is to write 50,000 words in one month (the equivalent of a short novel). I’ve been really intent on keeping up with NaNo this year for a lot of reasons. One is now that we’re living on the road, I want to make sure I keep writing every day. Always be hustling, do work, etc, etc. Another is that I really want to have Godkiller out by the end of this year (a goal that’s looking admittedly ridiculous at the moment), and 50k more words sure wouldn’t hurt.

But one benefit of NaNoWriMo that I didn’t see coming was this: It’s fun. I’ve made the target word count exactly 1 time out of the last 20, but every single day I put my butt in a seat and I write. I write in laundromats, passenger seats of trucks, on couches, in booths, on beds, on floors, on porches, inside, outside, with kittens sleeping on my tummy, with little and big boys playing Super Smash Bros next to me, while I’m making supper or waiting for my turn to teach home school. I pour words out without worrying what the next scene is going to be or where the story is going or how they’re going to survive this. I stretch out descriptions and conversations and sentences until it feels like I’m padding a college English essay and then I laugh because I remember that terrible essay I turned in once about Enkidu and Gilgamesh and this is that kind of fun. I know it’s not good, but it’s not about being good. It’s a race. It’s a video game. It’s make-believe. It’s FUN.

I’d forgotten that writing was just plain fun.

Sometimes I get so bogged down in worrying about what will come next and how the story will end and whether it’s even worth telling that I forget how great it is to just sit down and play make-believe for a while. I wrap myself in the brambles of trying to Write Good and Satisfy Readers and Stay True to My Characters until I forget that this is just a first draft. First drafts are for the writer. We can play to our heart’s content, entertain ourselves, and laugh like nutcases at stuff no one’s even going to see. Second and subsequent drafts are for worrying about the audience and Good Writing and such. Later will come the editing. Later will come fixing. Later will come agonizing over every sentence until I can recite whole scenes back to you verbatim. Oh, and I will do that. I’ll do it for about a month before I publish and about a month afterward, while I’m lying in bed and supposed to be asleep, to make sure I’m paranoid enough about every potential typo or misplaced comma.

Right now, though, I’m just having fun, playing make-believe, and finding out what my characters are going to do next.

This is the stuff I was thinking about while clawing my way up that mountainside after Joshua and our sons–occasionally interrupted by violent thoughts about short people whenever someone yelled back down, “Why’s it taking you so long, Mama? Just go faster!”

Then, suddenly, we were standing on a rocky outcropping looking out over the tops of scrubby trees and cacti at a brilliant blue sky above and a shining lake below.

“I think this is the only clearing up here,” Josh said.
“Yeah, looks like it,” I puffed.
“Let’s eat.”
So we did. We we sat on rocks and we took off our sweaty shoes and we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and gulped down lukewarm water.

We still had the trek down. We still had the much-longer-than-expected kayak ride back to the campsite. We still had to drain the kayaks and put them up on the truck’s racks–and let me take a minute to tell you about putting kayaks back. It’s no easy feat. You’re tired. You’re sunburned. Your arms feel like jelly. You’re ready to go back to the camper and lay on the couch without moving while your kids watch a cartoon until you convince your spouse that you should get Mexican for supper rather than cook.

We still had all that ahead of us. But right then we were just sitting on a mountain eating sandwiches. They were delicious.

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Coping Mechanisms as Story Generators

Finding a story to tell has never been a problem for me. I attribute this to a coping mechanism I developed as a child. When I’m too hurt, scared, or angry to deal with what I’m feeling, I let my imagination wander off for a while. I put myself in the shoes of someone who can take a lot more punishment than I can, then I give them a completely different set of problems. Ignoring the psychological implications, that kind of escapism makes for a lot of fun stories.

The actual process goes something like this: Wake up in the middle of the night, scared to death? Imagine you live in a world where you’re only awake at night and you’re not scared.

Why is the world like that? Because after the revolution, dichotomous political parties came to power and the country has been in a tense power struggle ever since. At present, things are so divided that they’ve literally become night and day for the people aligned with the opposing parties.

Why are you, specifically, awake (and not scared) in the middle of the night? Because I’m a former child soldier who still takes contracts from the general who was my commanding officer during the revolution. The whole country can feel another war coming, and right now this second, I’m helping smuggle kids out of the country before the outbreak under cover of darkness.

Does your former CO know? No, he would want the kids around because if they’re trained young enough, they become the most effective killers, like I did.

Then why are you doing it? Because the girl I love wants to protect as many kids as she can from turning out like we did.

This coping mechanism/method of calming myself down/story builder works for me because:
1. It has nothing I’m currently trying to avoid (monsters, nightmare stuff, etc.).
2. It pretends that one of my enemies (the dark in this case) is actually my friend.
3. It has all of the story elements I like (an unfamiliar world, danger, romance, and a main character who is a badass).

Is this a healthy way to deal? I don’t know. All I know is it helps me go back to sleep and it’s one of the reasons I never worry that I’ll run out of stories to tell. Heck, I have a 10,000-story backlog from childhood to now, all I have to do is pick one.

Whether or not I’ll be able to do those stories justice is a whole other post.