When I moved to Colorado thirteen years ago, I set up a writing office that looked out at the spectacular Rocky Mountains. The scenery, the fresh air, the lower cost of living, all were undeniable advantages. Then my brother-in-law gave me a book about the 54 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet high, along with maps and instructions on how to climb them all.
Nothing thrills a goal-oriented person more than a List. I was hooked and immediately took up the hobby. Over the next five years, I did indeed summit all those peaks. I learned a lot about mountain climbing . . . and its relationship to writing.
Atop San Luis Pass with San Luis Peak (14,014 ft) in the background
I grew up in the Midwest, a place not known for many lofty peaks. Without first-hand experience, I had the rather distorted impression that “mountains” were pointy gray triangles with a zigzag of snow on the top, as depicted in Bugs Bunny cartoons. Since then, though, I’ve become an expert of the ins and outs (and ups and downs) of mountains, and I’ve realized that climbing these complicated and often difficult summits has many parallels to a writing career.
Caution: Metaphor Ahead. As anyone starting out knows, a writing career is a very steep path to follow. The terrain is complicated, the trails not clear, and often forests block your view until you actually get to the top. While struggling up a tough grade, you keep your eyes only on the summit immediately ahead, forcing yourself to push on just to reach the top of that ridge.
First personal rejection
First publication in a small press magazine
First professional publication
It wasn’t until I began mountain climbing in earnest that I understood the frustrating and heartbreaking frequency of what are called “false summits.” You can glimpse the apparent high point of the trail, barely seen through the trees, and expend all your energy focused on the goal. The top is there, getting closer—
And when you finally arrive, you see that what you thought was the top of the mountain, your hard-earned destination at last, is only a small subpeak. Beyond that ridge, what you previously saw as the high point, the trail continues farther and steeper toward a much taller and tougher point. You just couldn’t see it because the false summit in front of you got in the way.
For many writers starting out, that first hard-to-obtain summit may be getting published, even in a fanzine, or receiving a personal rejection note from a professional market. But once you’ve achieved that, you have to catch your breath, take in the view . . . and see that you’ve merely managed to reach a crest of the surrounding heavily forested foothills. The majestic snow-covered mountain peaks are much farther away.
First novel sale
Qualification for Professional Society membership
First photo or review in a science fiction news magazine
Many writers at this point simply turn around, enjoy their pleasant day hike, and go home. Others push on to the next ridge, closer to the treeline. From your new vantage atop the foothills, that tree-line peak certainly looks like the summit.
From then on, you struggle to reach that next point, and once you’ve succeeded—your first professional sale, qualification for membership in a professional writers’ organization, a novel sold to a publisher—you’ll have a better view. You can see more of the surrounding terrain. But you also realize that this still isn’t the actual summit. There’s an even higher ridge ahead, up in the rocky tundra with a few patches of snow.
Again, some writers stop here. The true mountain climbers, though, eat their beef jerky, drink some Red Bull, and keep going.
First multiple book contract
Quit your day job and become a full-time writer
First major award or nomination
Anyone with experience in the mountains knows there are plenty of pitfalls and dangers. I’ve sat on the top of 14,014-foot San Luis Peak watching the approach of angry thunderclouds, but when I took my hat off to drink from my water bottle, every strand of hair on my head and arms stood straight upright and the air crackled with static electricity. Needless to say, I beat a hasty retreat as the lightning moved in.
I’ve been caught a quarter mile from the top of Columbia Peak in a white-out blizzard in early September, where I huddled shivering for an hour until finally, experiencing the first stages of hypothermia, I trudged out into the snow and stumbled down the slope to lower and warmer altitudes.
I’ve crawled across cliff ledges that would have made Indiana Jones proud, and rapelled down a sheer 600-ft dry waterfall, the only way down from the top of Little Bear Peak, Colorado’s most difficult Fourteener. I’ve even encountered a black bear on the summit of rarely climbed Culebra Peak.
Similarly, in your “career climb” as a writer, there are plenty of pitfalls—some that you can control and others that are simply forces of nature. Editors quit, publishing houses fold, you miss a deadline. A psycho serial killer announces that he drew all of his inspiration from your novel.
Proceed with caution so you don’t slip and fall.
First movie deal
Friends and acquaintances want to borrow money all the time
Other writers begin sniping at you for your “undeserved” success
Critics blast you because you’re “too popular”
I have found that each time I reach a peak in my career, there’s a higher mountain visible in the distance. Once you set goals for yourself and reach them, you can either rest on your laurels, or try to climb higher. Are James Patterson, John Grisham, and Dean Koontz comfortably perched and satisfied on lofty Mount Everest? Or do even they see more challenging summits in the distance?
Even though I’ve climbed all the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, Denali in Alaska is 20,320 ft, the highest peak in the US. Kilimanjaro in Africa is 19,340 ft, and Everest is 29,028 ft.
I may seen a lot of summits, but there are still plenty of higher ones left to dream about….
Don’t miss the next Superstars Writing Seminar, Jan 13-15 in Salt Lake City: no-nonsense business and career advice for the serious writer, taught by six bestselling writers, Kevin J. Anderson, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Brandon Sanderson, Dave Wolverton, Eric Flint, and Rebecca Moesta.