This weekend, I got to do one of my favorite things. Camp. I got to thinking how similar camping and writing are, and what camping can teach about writing. My guess is, camping may just have some lessons for other endeavors you may pursue as well. Read on through and then let me know how you can apply these to whatever you’re working on.
This one might be the most obvious. Proper preparation is essential for a successful camping trip and for a successful writing project. So, how do we prepare?
You’ve gotta have a plan.
Would you walk out your front door without supplies or a map or a destination in mind and declare yourself “going camping”?
I certainly hope not! Planning for this past weekend’s campout began back in the summer when I booked the location. Since my daughter and I were planning this event for her AHG Troop, we had a lot more planning to do than we would for a simple family trip. We’ve been gathering information—attendees, weather, activities and the supplies they would require. We determined what food we would have, how we would prepare it and what ingredients we would have to purchase. We prepared a schedule and a packing list for our friends. We requested supplies that we needed. We purchased the rest. We cooked what we could ahead of time. We loaded the car, unloaded it and set up.
Now, amongst writers, we have a mixture of planners, pantsers and in-betweeners. Every writer takes a different approach to the writing process. This is why there are so many how-to books on writing—and why so many of them should be read with a giant salt block. A committed writer will discover—usually by trial and error—what works best for him or her.
Since I’m me and no one else, I can only tell you what this step looks like for me. I have to know the start and the finish and at least a rough outline of how we’re getting there. I need to know some things about my characters—who they are, what they need or want, what has to happen to get them to their goal and some of the whys. I have to gather information, too, just like we did for our campout. Brainstorming the story and character info is part of that, of course.
I also have to research.
When I’m writing fantasy, my research time is spent reading folk tales, myths, legends, faerie tales and much more from different parts of the world. I also pour over languages and work on my own language constructions. And, of course, I dig around for interesting weaponry that might fit within my worlds.
For my literary fiction novel, I read or asked questions about or watched videos of everything from Marine Corps history to sniper terminology to detailed medical descriptions of what happens to human bodies in various types of horrible accidents to withdrawals from alcohol to gunshot wounds that can permanently limit one arm to within a very specific range of motion.
I couldn’t function as a pantser. It’s just not my nature, so it’s hard for me to imagine writing that way; but I guarantee you they have some sort of plan or method going in. It may not be written down or jotted out in outline form or anything, but it’s there. They have to do the research, too. Now, some writers prefer to do their research on the back end, but I think most of us end up with a combination of before, during and after.
I have hopped in somewhere in between, but it didn’t go so well for me. The experience was a good one, and I produced a so-so first draft; but I also learned the important lesson that I just have to plan with a fair amount of detail.
This is a step that I think requires a “Goldilocks” approach.
The best camping example of this would be backpackers. They have to be super prepared for whatever they might encounter on the trail. They must wear the appropriate clothing and footwear for both the terrain and the temperature. They must pack not only the right items and the right amount of those items, but they also have to pack them strategically. Each item needs to be in its own easy-to-access spot that also equally distributes the weight across the hikers’ shoulders.
Pack too little and you’re going to freeze or starve or not be able to treat that snake bite. Pack too much and you’ll soon find yourself limping under the burden. Pack incorrectly and you’ll topple over or not be able to find the rain gear quickly when that storm pops up. Dress incorrectly and you’ll deal with blisters or poison ivy or countless other discomforts.
Planning to write is similar.
Over-planning a story can actually stifle the creative process. It’s easy to get lost in developing deeply detailed outlines that map out every scene with each character’s thoughts and motivations and intentions and discoveries. While those sound great, it’s easy to get so dependent or committed to those time-consuming creations, that a writer turns a deaf ear to the whispers of his characters that a different order would be better or that their motivations have changed or that a secondary character may just need to die for the good of the protagonist.
Research is a tricky beast as well. Good writers do all they can to really know whatever it is they’re writing about; however, they also know that research can be a slippery slope with rabbit trails branching out all over the place. I have found myself stuck in a never-ending labyrinth of research. When that happens, the actual writing keeps getting pushed off longer and longer.
Finally, we arrive at our campsite—or our blank document. It’s time to properly pitch our tent. It needs to be sturdy enough to withstand the duration of our stay as well as our surrounding environment.
I’ve written before about how deadlines are invaluable to me and how goal-setting can make you more likely to succeed. Also, unless you’re one of the lucky authors who get to do nothing but write for a living, you’re going to have to carefully schedule out time to write.
With NaNoWriMo just a few weeks away, writing blogs are full of answers to the question, Should you write a whole novel in a month or not? Honestly, the answer will be different for every person and often different for the same person at different times. If you’re pitching your writing tent for one month only, you better get ready to put some other things on the back burner and pack some extra fuel for the late nights around the campfire. If you’re spreading it out further, you may want to consider mini-deadlines to keep you motivated along the way.
Either way, you have to have a schedule. Now, some writers have the luxury—I call it that because I don’t have it and may be a little jealous—of having regularly scheduled blocks of time specifically for writing that remain mostly consistent. Susie Q may get to write from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every weekday while her kids are in school. Bobby X might get 10 p.m. to midnight every night of the week. Mary Z knows she’ll have 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. every day. John D has his hour lunch break on weekdays, Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7 to 9 and Saturday mornings from 8 to 10.
Or, you could be like me. My family’s schedule always changes monthly, frequently changes weekly and, more often than you’d think, daily. So, to give you a current example, I am in the midst of further revisions on my novel. I want to put in two hours each day. I’d love to write in my planner Revisions: 1-3 p.m. for every day of every week this month. What I write instead is Revisions. I know I need two hours somewhere in that crowded list of things to accomplish. So, the night before or the morning of, I get a plan in my mind.
Okay, we’ve got to do school. I’ve learned by now that this year isn’t going to wrap up by lunch, no matter how hard I try. I’m aiming for 1 to be able to focus on something else. Now, let’s see, my hubby’s closing today which means I can work tonight after the kids go to bed; but he’s opening tomorrow and we have activities from 4 on. I have X, Y and Z that have to get done today for the blog and P, Q and J tomorrow for AHG. So, I’ll block off 4 to 6 this afternoon for revisions and 6 to 8 tomorrow morning right before school to fit it all in … I hope.
Regardless of the amount of mental gymnastics you have to do to come up with a schedule, you have to have one. Otherwise, the million distractions that pop up during the day will knock you off course and take away whatever isn’t firmly tied down. So, you’ll fulfill the commitments you made to all the dozen people vying for your attention and you’ll turn in the client’s work that you took on and you’ll attend all the events and meetings you checked “going” for. And, all those distractions that come—texts, emails, notifications, phone calls—will fill in the rest of your day until you come to the sudden realization that you don’t have another two hours left. (Or the energy to revise during them even if you did.)
So, pitch that tent firmly and securely and fill it with whatever you need to stick to your plan.
After all the planning, we’re finally ready for the process.
For campers, this means enjoying the great outdoors with its slower pace, inspirational views and intentional time with either family or for personal reflection or both.
For writers, this means fingertips to keyboard or pen whipping across paper.
This is what we’ve looked forward to and dreamed about. Most of the time, it makes all the hard planning work totally worth it. But, we have to remember … it’s not without its bumps.
This past weekend definitely had its rough patches. When you’re juggling all the responsibilities and activities for, along with multiple preferences and desires of, several other people, the peace and quiet of nature gets easily lost. Writing falls right in line with this comparison because children get sick, friends have emergencies, work projects change and schedules get tossed like a garden salad.
So, do what I should have done many times this past weekend.
Stop. Breathe. Observe. Reflect. Appreciate.
And keep on going.
I’ll be honest, this is my least favorite part of any kind of trip. I hate to unpack. Packing is a blast. Finding ways to fit as much as I possibly can into the suitcase and still get it closed? That’s fun for me. But, unpacking? Blech!
The trip is over; all the fun has been had. It’s back to reality and the routine. What’s exciting about unpacking? If anything, it’s just the admission that the adventure is over.
Of course, we have to unpack. Otherwise, the clutter would take over our homes, the still-damp tent would mildew and the seeds we picked up on our pants legs while hiking would sprout a tree in our dirty clothes bag.
For the writer, unpacking comes when we begin to read what we’ve written, revise it, pick it apart, share it for others to pick apart, revise some more and some more and some more until we can begin to edit and edit and edit some more until we think we may see a nearly ready product somewhere in the distance.
I rather like the term “unpacking” for these steps because that’s really what we’re doing. We’re taking this package that we’ve carefully filled with all these special items and necessities and favorite things and unpacking this to leave at home and that to move over here in order to give room for something else we almost forgot and then shifting three more things around to make the whole thing fit together better.
So, as hard as revisions are, I sure do love the results that come from sticking to the unpacking process.
Now, you’re probably scratching your head a bit at this one in relation to camping. I promise it makes sense!
After the trip is done and the sleeping bags are washed and put back up in the closet and the tents have been refolded and stored away again, all you’re left with are your memories of the camping trip. We’ve already established that no camping trip is without at least a few hiccups or rough patches, so when we hold these memories in our hand, it’s up to us to learn from the bad ones and hold on to the good ones. To polish them until they shine as a special gem we can pull out and look at on a gloomy day when we’re trapped indoors with a mile-long list of things to do.
With writing, the final polishing comes after all the deep revisions and the many phases of edits. It comes in the finishing touches and it comes in the reflection on the entire process when we hold that bound book or that final story draft in our hands and say, “I planned this and made this and remade this and now I have this treasure to cherish forever and share with others.”
So, Dear Reader, what do you think? What can camping teach you about whatever process you’re currently working on? Writer Friend, do you see the similarities? Have you ever thought of this before?
Just for fun … do you like to camp? If so, tent or camper or cabin? Where’s your favorite spot to go? If you could camp anywhere, where would it be? If you’d like to see behind-the-scenes photos of my life as a writer, reader and occasional camper or read more about my writing process and works in progress, please subscribe to my weekly newsletter!