How to Write
As you may know, I’m working on my second book right now. It’s called Learning to Fly, and it will be published by Touchstone/Simon and Schuster. My first book, High Infatuation, was kind of an experiment, in fact, I would call it a confidence builder. Obviously I had no idea how a person writes a book. Several years ago, I walked up to the folks at Mountaineers Press with a pile of photocopies of stories and articles I’d had published over the years (about climbing), and asked them if I could just stick them all together and have it be a book. My idea was that I’d already written lots of stuff, and if it could be a book just like that, then I would learn about the whole process of actually making a book. And then if I ever wanted to write a whole book, entirely from scratch, I’d at least know a little bit about how it all worked already.
The Mountaineers were very kind and generous to me, and gently led me to understand that I would need to write a little bit more about some things, and I would need to have some kind of transitions between the stories, but they were willing to go ahead and help me do it. In the end, I wrote a few new stories (the last ones of the book, mostly), and wrote some semi-connective things, and I got to experience the process of making a book. It was a great learning process and confidence builder, just as I had hoped. And it also led to having this website and blog, which has been the best thing ever.
Unfortunately when I started to think about REALLY writing a book….i.e., writing the whole thing in one cohesive narrative from start to finish, I realized I had no idea how people do that. I also had no idea how people get a book contract from a larger publisher in order to connect with a larger audience, which was another goal I had for Book #2. As far as I could discover, the idea is to get a book contract first and figure out how to actually write the book second. Getting a book contract requires writing a book proposal: another thing I had no idea how to do.
Fortunately for me, I had ACL surgery two winters ago which gave me a little more time to devote to non-climbing or base jumping related projects. In the end, I was extremely fortunate in my friend Greg Crouch. Greg is a successful writer and accomplished Patagonia climber (which is how we met years ago). Finally I had the bright idea of asking Greg what to do. I had been struggling along trying to write a book proposal and the first chapter of my alleged book, and I sent it all to Greg and said, “help?”
Greg thought the idea of my book was good, and he generously coached me through the proposal process. In the end I had a 60 page document with all sorts of things about this book-to-be, from a table of contents, to a synopsis, to chapter summaries, to a sample chapter. Greg then passed it on to a book agent he knows, and voila! I had a book proposal and a book agent, which in my opinion was nothing short of a miracle. Clearly it is all thanks to Greg.
Still, the next step was to work with my agent, Farley, to make the book proposal more marketable to editors at publishing companies. Luckily this is what Farley does for a living, so he knows how, and now that he was my book agent, he was willing to help me. He painstakingly edited and back-and-forthed with me on this eternal proposal (which I was quite frankly sick of, at this point) to make it better, i.e., more likely to magically turn into a book contract. When we finally got THAT done, he sent it off to all his editor contacts, and we sat on our hands and waited antsily to see what would happen. And we were all thrilled when Touchstone presented me with a contract. Learning to Fly would actually be a book! Clearly it is all thanks to Greg AND Farley. Unless it does not turn out well, in which case it is definitely all my fault.
It’s a funny thing though. You go from working on a proposal endlessly forever, carving out time to do all this work that will most likely result in nothing, wondering if you will ever actually write the book–then suddenly you are under contract to write this book and it is due by a certain date. And if it’s not done, you are in trouble. Many people warned me that getting a contract is when things get really hard, because now the pressure is on! Personally, I like things to be clear and settled, when possible. So I actually am much happier doing all this writing, knowing it has a real home at last. But I will admit, there is some pressure. I guess it would be one thing if I could lock myself in a fishing cabin in Nova Scotia and write until the book is done…but I can’t do that! I have climbs to climb and cliffs to jump off of and countries to visit and small animals to take care of and a house to clean and a car to fix and bills to pay and friends to do things with and sponsorship duties to fulfill and visitors to host and climbing festivals to speak at and parents to call and blogs to write and weeds to weed and laundry to do. And then there’s everything else. So last February when I looked at the thick contract I had just signed, promising to deliver a completed manuscript, 15 chapters of my memoir “Learning to Fly,” I felt slightly panicked. Writing isn’t the problem. Figuring out how to write when all this other stuff is constantly needing to be done too is a major crux.
What I discovered is that I write the way I’ve always written since I left college. In vehicles, preferably the back of my truck at the campground of a climbing area. When I’m at home, it is literally impossible for me to work on my book. Sitting in the passenger seat while Mario (thankfully a pilot who inexplicably loves driving long distances) drives seems to work well too.
A little bit like parents who stick the baby in the car seat and drive around the neighborhood to get it to sleep, as soon as the highway starts stretching along forever and the puppy has quit stomping all over my lap, I’m suddenly busily writing away like I’m supposed to be. What a relief.
But the very best place of all for me to write is in Rifle. I wake up early and have an hour or two between running my pup and eating breakfast and the normal 10:00 start time at the warmup walls. At night, after cooking dinner, I get drawn into writing until I realize it’s ridiculously late (10 pm), and fall asleep. What can I say? I’ve lived and moved in vehicles for so long, maybe it’s just the only way at this point. And it’s certainly a place where things get simple. There’s really nothing else to do, and maybe that’s why it works.
I’m in the home stretch of all this drafting (which is really the hardest part). Today in the car from Twin Falls, Idaho to Moab (7 hours, perfect writing stint), I got Chapter 12 done. I’m breathing a small sigh of relief, because I’m on my self-assigned schedule (which is maybe the biggest crux of this book writing business). I have October to finish Chapters 13 and 14, November to write the final chapter, and then in between all the holidays and related craziness, I can edit and try to make the whole thing good enough to send in by February 1.
I am constantly anxious that I’m not writing, fretting that I’m not writing, and desperately trying to slip away to Rifle so I can get writing done (or making Mario drive somewhere far away and not letting him talk to me the whole time), but I have a feeling I’m going to miss the constantly looming project when this book is finished. Make no mistake, it’s as much of an adventure writing about adventures between adventures, as it is having them to begin with. You know what I mean.