And for some reason, it made me want to watch The Princess Bride. So I did--and I realized something pretty awesome: writing a book is just like treading through the Fire Swamp. (If you're not a writer, I also think this applies to life.)
The Fire Swamp is filled with three terrors, which Buttercup and Westley must face in order to make it to safety of Westley's ship. What are the three terrors? Flame spurts, lightning quicksand (also called Snow Sand) and the Rodents of Unusual Size. All three of these are something you will face in life and/or in writing.
Flame Spurts: Unexpected Pain
At first, you don’t know what to expect when you hear the popping sound. Then fire spurts up from the ground. And bam—Buttercup's dress is on fire and she and Westley are trying to put it out. The first thing Westley asks Buttercup in this scene is if she’s hurt. She’s not. But now there’s the realization that this place they fled to for safety has the potential to be very painful.
Sometimes things hurt when you’re writing. Scenes are tough and emotional. You have to kill a character. Your MC makes a dumb decision. You have to cut the scene you really, really love because it doesn’t work. The fire spurt in writing can be anything; whatever that thing is for you, it is hard for a reason. Writing has the potential to be very painful.
A quote from the movie (my favorite ever) is from Westley before all this happens. He says "Life is pain. Anyone who says different is selling something."
Things will happen that you don't expect. You'll be burnt by someone or something at some point. You'll be tired and scared, but I think that's good. The heroines know when they see the flames, that this is not going to be as easy as they believed, that they have to be on guard. And the potential for pain, the prospect of being hurt, “keeps you on your toes” as Westley says in that scene.
The fire spurts are necessary so you can prepare yourself for those things that will hurt. Because writing is hard. Living is hard. You need to know that going in so you can be ready. It will not be an easy journey.
Lightning Sand: Unexpected Sinkholes
Great! Westley and Buttercup survived the pain. Awesome. He told her all about where he's been and life’s all good—that is until Buttercup is sucked under into some hole that she didn’t see.
This is the Lightning Sand. Sometimes in writing you get stuck—and you don’t see it coming. In fact, you NEVER see it coming or you would fix it before it happened. You get to this place in a story where you realize it's not moving. The things that were happening aren't anymore. The direction is confused; motivations are off; there's this whole scene you didn't think of and now there's a hole. And "Crap, how do I fix this?"
When Buttercup falls into the sand, Westley fixes the problem immediately. He grabs on to a vine and jumps in. He saves Buttercup and pulls her out. But there’s this moment in the movie right after he jumps in, when you’re waiting and it’s silent. You’re waiting to see what will happen—and when you’re feeling the pressure Westley and Buttercup return to view! They are out of breath but safe!
In writing—there are two options: jump in and move things around so you make it good again OR wait. I can’t tell you what you should do, but I know what I do: I wait. Waiting sucks. I am completely impatient; I hate silence, problems that linger, and no ideas. Those things make me nervous. I've learned is that it’s better if you take a moment to connect with your story, to talk about it with someone else, to see what happens if…and maybe you’ll find a way out of the hole. The worst part about that is waiting, but sometimes YOU HAVE TO WAIT. Especially when it's for a good thing.
There are other kinds of sinkholes. Ah-ha! Thought you escaped that one because you're not stuck in your story? Well, sorry. Let's say it's something else. What about querying? Submissions? Revisions? You have to wait for those things too. There's always something that will put you in a position where you have to wait. At the very least, it's a red light or the next train--and the same rules apply. Waiting will always, most undoubtedly suck. But you have to be brave and believe.
My favorite thing about this scene with the lightning sand is the very next moment.
Buttercup: We’ll never succeed. We may as well die here.
Westley: No. We have already succeeded. What are the three terrors of the Fire Swamp? One: the flame spurts—but we know there’s popping sound before each one comes. Two: The lightning sand—and you just discovered what it looks like so we can avoid it next time.
Buttercup: What about the ROUSes?
Westley: Rodents of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist.
Rodents of Unusual Size: Unexpected Struggles
Westley doesn't think they exist--and that's when one attacks him. Now, he has to fight it. It's survival. Westley or the ROUS.
This is the clincher. This is the part you never see coming. It’s the struggle, the stuff that comes AFTER you’ve fought all these other terrors. You get attacked from the outside. And you have to fight.
What do I mean by this? What are the ROUSes of writing? Everything.
Life is full of distractions. It's busy and you have to carve out time to write. You have to stay focused when there are thirteen things you need to do in the next hour. Distractions are a ROUS. But there are other things. A friend gets an opportunity that you don't. There's nothing happening in your inbox. You can't beat this scene. Someone else just signed a book exactly like yours. You have Shiny New ideas clawing away at your head.
All of these things are ROUSes. The ROUSes don’t want you to succeed; they want to consume. You must never let them. They are fighting for you. You can't stop fighting or you will lose. It's you or the ROUS. The hardest part of dealing with the ROUSes? Keeping up strength. Having hope. Staying sharp. Being patient. Believing. Believe in what Westley says—you’ve already succeeded if you’re this far because you’ve made it past all the other things.
Say you defeat the ROUS. Woo-hoo. Awesome. But don’t be fooled. There are many, many, many more things that you have to face. Just because the three terrors are past you doesn’t mean there aren’t more in front of you. Look at the movie. There are still kidnappers, an evil prince, a six-fingered man, torture, paralysis and a dual. It’s a constant battle. You can’t let your guard down for a second.
BUT in the end of the movie there’s happily ever after.
And when you're finished writing there's a book.
There's always something to show for all the pain, sinkholes and battle against ROUSes.
In fact, I saw this behind the scenes commentary piece about the Fire Swamp and someone said, “When you go in you don’t come out the same person.”
When you’re writing a book, it is going to change you. It will make you braver, make you stronger, give you hope, teach you more than you could ever imagine. Life will do the same thing.
The Princess Bride would be pretty boring without all the challenges, and if the characters didn’t have to fight for what they wanted. But they did. And so will you. In writing AND in life. Because this applies to both.
Be on guard.
Don't be afraid of the Fire Swamp.