Last week, I hiked up to Ruby Jewel Lake with my husband. The three-mile trail was steep and rocky, with patches of ice and snow, and the air was thin (we were over 11,000 feet). To add to the fun, we lost our way and wound up making an exhausting climb off-trail to get to the top. As I was hiking, I kept thinking two things. The first was my Difficult-Hike Mantra (which is a similar to my This-Workout-Is-Kicking-My-Ass Mantra; more on this later). The other was that all the tricks and tools I was using to get me up that mountain were the same tricks and tools that get me through daunting creative challenges, like writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days with the other NaNoWriMo* fans.
(ASIDE: For those who were wondering, yes, I’m taking on NaNoWriMo again. This will be my ninth consecutive year of participation and I hope I’ll write my best first draft ever. I just have to decide what the heck I’m going to write about. I’m not too worried just yet. I usually get a great idea sometime before November, usually on October 31st.)
Here are my hiking rules that also apply to writing a novel:
1) Wear layers, eat right, and drink your water. To perform at all, I need to take care of myself. The better care I can give myself, the better my performance can be. Eating healthy food, getting exercise and plenty of sleep, and even dressing warmly on a cold day can help me to get my novel written. (Many NaNo veterans swear by caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants. As someone with food sensitivities, I stick with fresh, whole foods, but you know what you need to survive. Sometimes a tasty bribe can give you the little kick of motivation you need to get to the next ridge.)
2) Take a map, a GPS, or both. After we lost the trail under the snow and had wandered a bit, the GPS helped us find our way again. Story maps or outlines can be essential to staying on track with your novel, although sometimes it’s the detours that lead you to the true heart of your story. I work with guideposts more than outlines, but some sort of map, no matter how sketchy, can make all the difference.
3) Use all the support you can find. While hiking, trekking poles propped me up when I was exhausted and shaking, in danger of losing my balance on the rocks. My biggest NaNoWriMo prop is my supportive husband, who will cook dinner and otherwise inconvenience himself so I have time to write. Other key props are my battered copy of Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem, the NaNoWriMo forums and pep talks, and the buddies I keep in touch with while we are all struggling with our rocky novels. (In case you didn’t know, you’re allowed to get some help with achieving your goals.)
4) Focus on what you want, not what you fear. This is where my mantras come in. When the hike was the hardest, I found myself thinking “I’m not going to cry” and feeling the tears well up. Focusing on what I didn’t want was making it come true. When I switched to thinking “I can do this; I am strong,” the tears went away and I actually felt better. It was still a hard hike, but I was right. I did make it to the top, and I’m sure focusing on what I wanted — to finish the climb — made it possible. I think the same way when I need to get my word count in for the day: “I can do this.” And so can you.
5) No multi-tasking. I have to follow this rule whenever I get tired or the air is thin. I get fumble-fingered and clumsy. If I try to put my coat on while I’m walking up the trail, I’m sure to stumble, possibly even twist an ankle. Instead, I stop, put on my coat, then start walking again. Otherwise, I risk an accident to myself or my equipment. I have only so much time and energy to devote to my hike and I don’t want to do anything that could cause a delay or keep me from the top. I find the same rule helps with my NaNoWriMo writing sessions. I turn everything else off and focus on writing until I hit my goal for the day. I also focus on the one thing that needs to happen next in the story as I write. I don’t worry about poetic descriptions, clever metaphors, or award-winning symbolism. I just get down the key information for the scene and move on. I can add layers when I re-write.
6) Pace yourself and take breaks. My most important rule, whether I am climbing a mountain or writing a novel. If I go too fast, I’m sure to burn myself out and never make it to my goal at all. If I don’t take breaks and rest, I am in danger of getting overly tired and hating what I’m doing. Having to push extra hard when I’m already feeling beat-up is a sure way to turn me into a cranky kid who just wants to go home now, please, when what I really want to do is finish my hike. Or my novel.
Do you have hiking rules that apply to the creative process? Or tips for those taking on NaNoWriMo? What have I missed?
*NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and if you want to know more, check out their great website.