Writing 101: The Mountain as Metaphor

Not many of us wake in the morning and think: “I’m going to climb Mt. Everest.” Ascending a twenty-nine-thousand-foot peak requires a skillset hardened by years of dedication and training. The same holds true for writing a book. It’s not done on a whim. You don’t cast a glance at the Toni Morrison novels on your bookshelf and think, “A Nobel Prize in Literature? Sure, I can do that.”

Now, this metaphor might be a bit of a stretch, but I was thinking about it while climbing Mt. Lassen recently. So bear with me.

“Aim high” is great advice, yes, but it’s wise not to set the highest peak as your initial goal; those who do are doomed to failure. Instead, choose a mountain you can conquer. Study the peak. Plan your path. Prepare your gear, steady your mind, and proceed.

It seems obvious, right? But many novice writers believe that a sublime burst of inspiration will magically carry them from beginning to end.

That’s not how it works.

You must advance one step at a time, sentence after sentence. And it will get harder. Count on it. You will stumble and lose your way. You may even have to turn back and start again. But that’s part of the process. Don’t feel crushed just because you didn’t complete the book with your first attempt. Just as there are uncountable mountains summited, there are uncountable books completed every year. It can be done. So consider why you failed and rework your plan.

If you’re writing nonfiction, it makes sense to start with a Table of Contents. If you’re writing fiction, the beginning, middle, and end might seem foggy, but try to have a plan in mind. At the very least, have a firm grasp of your genre. From there, you can begin to envision the storyline.

Even if you have carefully plotted your course, you may find, as you trudge up the path, that your plan is flawed. Again, that’s part of the process. (Killing your main character in Act One, for instance, will put your story on a precipice that forces you to either backtrack or find a different route.)

Meanwhile, remember that it’s not a competition. There will always be those gifted individuals who write better and faster. Squelch your envy and see what you can learn.

Allow me to digress a moment and confess that climbing Mt. Lassen was a lot harder than I expected. I’d ‘trained’ in my gym at sea level. As I ascended closer to ten thousand feet and the air thinned, I panted and slowed. The peak seemed inaccessible and I feared I couldn’t make it.

To my amazement, a group of whippet-thin athletes actually sprinted past me. It was a ski team in training. They ran uphill, summited, and passed me again on their way down.

Besides being younger and fitter, what did they have that I did not? A team.

Just as athletes need special coaching, authors sometimes need help with the craft of writing, so consider joining a writers group or attending a conference. I hear you protesting, “But I’m introverted; I’m not a joiner.” That’s okay. You don’t have to be gregarious. Just sit in the back row, learn what you can, and plan your next ascent.

The view from Mt. Lassen.

The view from Mt. Lassen.

___ Carla Norton is an award-winning novelist and bestselling true crime writer. Her debut fiction, The Edge of Normal, is a Thriller Award finalist and Royal Palm Literary Award winner. What Doesn’t Kill Her, the sequel, is a 2016 Nancy Pearl Award winner. Carla also wrote Disturbed Ground, about a female serial killer, and Perfect Victim, which made the reading list for the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit and was a #1 New York Times bestseller. For more, visit CarlaNorton.com and find her on Goodreads, Facebook & Twitter.