Patience. Calm. Stillness. These are all virtues.
Unfortunately, they’re also boring as s***.
No matter how boring they might seem, though, those virtues embodied the scene I found myself in one Friday just a few weeks ago up in the Rocky Mountains:
In early May I flew across the country with a few guys to stay at an Airbnb in Fort Collins, Colorado, for my sister’s fiance’s bachelor party (they just got married this past weekend – congrats guys!). It was a pretty amazing trip – drinking beers, going fishing, playing poker, eating steak dinner, hitting the bars, etc.
It was also the last place in the world that I expected to learn anything about writing fiction.
But learn I did (as Yoda would say).
On the first full day that we were in Colorado, the eight of us drove up a little ways into the mountains to try our hands at fly-fishing. We set out with three guides and made a day of it. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the weather was a beautiful 75 degrees (which my horrible farmer’s tan can attest to – I still have it a month later). Wading into the rushing cold river I was amazed by the beautiful mountains all around us, by the freshness of the breeze along the water, by the huge, mammoth, all-consuming quiet that smothered me like a wonderfully heavy blanket.
We began to fish.
Ten minutes passed. Our guide had taken care of my fishing rig and taught me how to cast, given me great tips and suggestions based on my first few attempts, and pointed out the spots he thought the fish would be hiding in.
But after an hour of fishing, I hadn’t caught a single fish. Frustrating, right? How dare these fish not want to get caught by me!
Our guide walked over, we chatted a bit, and twenty minutes later I caught a brown trout. Fast forward another five hours and I walked away having caught a total of four fish – two brown trout and two rainbow trout – which was the most out of our entire group (take that, losers!).
And I also walked away having learned two very valuable lessons from the experience.
The first lesson was about patience and consistency. When you’re fly fishing there is no possible way to rush the process: you cast your line, you follow it as the river’s current takes it downstream, and you make sure to watch for that slight tug that means a fish has hit on the hook. You can’t pull the line or it’ll scare the fish. This means you’re completely at the mercy of how fast that section of the river is running. Cast, follow, pull, repeat. Cast, follow, pull, repeat. Patience, calm, and stillness are your best bets.
This experience reminded me a lot of writing.
You can’t pound on the keyboard with lightning-strike fingers hoping to write 100 words a minute and expect good results. You have to go with the flow, be consistent, catch the ideas (i.e. fish) when they present themselves, and let the numbers slowly build until you find yourself with a finished product you can be proud of (i.e. four fish).
Frustration at the beginning can ruin your whole day. In fly fishing, if you get frustrated and start yanking on your line, you’re only going to decrease your chances of catching anything. If you get frustrated at the start of a writing project and rush it – or worse, abandon it – you’re never going to get to where you want.
Cast, follow, pull, repeat. Sit, write, revise, repeat.
The second lesson came from our guide – a lifelong angler with a love for packing chewing tobacco in his lips – who said, “You have to be patient and smart. These fish have lived in this part of the river for their entire lives. They can tell when something is unnatural.” (In unrelated news, he also doesn’t believe in the moon landings and thinks microwaves change the fundamental matter that makes up your food – but I’ll have to save those stories for another time).
When he said the word ‘unnatural’, he was referring to poorly tied lures, to too much splashing or movement, and to the fact that fish will never bite if you rush your line down the river, because they know that their food doesn’t usually move that fast.
What I took from it was that readers are smarter than we give them credit for; most of them have spent countless years reading dozens upon dozens of books in the genre in which we are writing our first, second, fifth, tenth, or twentieth novel. We have to understand that they will recognize if we’re trying to pull one over on them; they know when something looks clumsy or rushed.
Study the genre in which you’re writing and understand what works and what readers want – don’t be afraid to be different and innovate, sure, but don’t do it in a way that will drive your readers away in contempt. Give readers the credit that they are due, then try to be smart about the way you hook them.
On the plane ride home I wrote down a few of these pieces of advice, and I have them printed out on my desk today. They’ve inspired me and helped me come back from the trip more determined than ever to continue working hard – both consistently and with great patience.
Now, who wants to go fly fishing?