I’ve just returned from the magical Galapagos Islands, where animals and birds like no others on Earth have no fear of humans.
I had trained for the experience by walking fifteen miles every week, working out with my trainer for balance, and some swimming. Still, it was the most physically taxing trip I’ve ever taken. Something happens to you when your body is stressed by unusual activity. You have to meet the challenge to gain your objective, even though you’ve pushed your muscles—and your mind-—to the limit. I realized this is true for writers, too. Here are the writing lessons that I learned in Darwin’s Laboratory.
1. If something is harder than you thought, re-evaluate how much you want it and decide what you’re willing to do to get it.
I had to step into a Panga (aka Zodiac) to get to our eighty-three-foot boat. I looked at the little rubber thing bobbing in the water, saw the giant step from the dock down to the little box in the bow and then another giant step to the hull. No seats, we had to sit on the side pontoons. I seriously considered staying on the dock.
For the unpublished writer trying to sign with an agent and get a contract with a traditional publisher, every query, every pitch is like stepping into that bobbing Panga. No amount of experience saves you from an ungraceful fall in rough currents. No wonder so many writers never take the step or quit after many attempts.
But I’m not willing to stand on the dock—not when a writing adventure and wondrous publishing scenery abounds. I get to choose my experience, and now I understand that fully. I am willing to do what it takes to get my stories in front of readers. Our own Laura Drake sent out over four hundred queries before she signed with an agent. That’s lot of Panga steps!
2. Train to get in the best shape you can.
For as much work as I did for six months before the trip, I have to admit I could have done more. My experience would probably have been easier if I’d made more effort in some areas. My mistake? I thought I was in “good enough” shape.
As a writer, that means writing. And editing. And reading. And classes. And more writing.
Everyone’s rate of development is different, so don’t judge your timeline with anyone else’s. (If you’ve ever gone on a diet with a friend, you already know this!) The important thing is to keep learning your craft. Keep expanding your skills. Finish your first book. Finish your second book—it will be better than your first.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking your writing is “good enough” before you’re really ready to publish. That heartache may disappoint you enough to give up your publishing dream. Get feedback from a critique group or a contest. Feel the joy of revising your words into something stronger, something better.
3. Observe the details in your life. Chronicle your own emotional challenges.
I took over a thousand pictures to help me remember details of birds, reptiles, sea creatures and plants. It was much more difficult to sit with my terror of the next “dry landing” of the Panga on a rocky shore or the feeling of failure at struggling to climb into the Zodiac after the first deep sea snorkel.
Details make a story. You can show the small changes in your characters with details. Instead of telling how your hero feels, you can show his
emotional challenges by the way he observes his surroundings and his reaction to the details you put in your descriptions.
Believe me, the exhilaration I experienced when I hopped out of the Panga onto slippery rocks from a rough sea without a misstep will appear in a book. My character probably won’t be getting out of a small rubber boat onto a deserted island, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to convey the feeling of successfully meeting a physical challenge despite almost crying when I saw what I was going to have to do.
4. Your life fuels your stories.
You don’t have to go to the end of the Earth to fill your tank. But you do need to fill your tank. New experiences or closer looks at your “regular” world provide the material necessary to craft your tales. Of course, putting yourself in an unusual setting or some place that stretches your current skills may provide ideas you never would have found otherwise.
During the first half of the trip, when I was dealing with my terror of falling into the Panga or out of the Panga, slipping going up or down the steep stairs on the boat, or losing my balance on the lava rock hikes. By the end of the trip the crewmen were complimenting me—”You really did a good job getting out of the panga today” and “You aren’t having any trouble with the rocks on the hikes anymore.”
I began to think about two characters in a “normal” setting that brought out feelings of terror and fear of not surviving. I write science fiction, so the severe environment of the volcano-born Galapagos Islands spurred my imagination. I have the major plot, solid starts on both protagonists and the villain, the character arcs, the beginning and several scenes of the new book worked out in my head. I felt the exhaustion of my new characters when I fell into bed at night. In the morning I had more of their story.
Even though I’ve been writing for awhile, I never thought I’d get the gift of a new book idea on this trip. I just wanted to swim with sea lions.
And I did so much more.
Have you ever received unexpected writing lessons on a vacation? Or in your daily life? Have you taken a trip to “fill your writing well”?
discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than horrors of algebra lessons gone wrong. She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.
A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now enjoys sharing her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told. Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.