Help For Climbing the Difficult Hills

What I Learned About Life & Writing From . . . Climbing Sand Dunes

Have you ever faced a situation that looked impossible? Too stressful, too much work, too big to handle? You may have stared at the problem or task and couldn't even figure out where to start. It was just too overwhelming.

I’ve felt that way often. Sometimes I think my wonderful writer's imagination gets the best of me and I blow the situation out of proportion—I see a mountain to climb, when really it’s only a hill. For example, recently, as I looked ahead to the fall schedule, the start of a new school year, and all that I have going on, I panicked. I thought to myself, “My days are going to be so busy, how am I going to get any writing time at all?”

I was seeing a mountain and my mom had to remind me that it was really just a hill. She said something like, “Yes, it looks impossible. But you’ve always managed every year. You’ll get into a routine, and you’ll find a way to make it work.”

Last week, my family and I went to Sleeping Bear Dunes in northwestern Michigan. We hiked on sandy trails through the dunes, viewed the majesty of the steep cliffs overlooking Lake Michigan, dipped into the crystal clear waters. And last but not least, we climbed the BIG dune (that's half  of the hill in the above picture).

From far away, the dune doesn’t look all that big or steep. It’s not much more than a really long hill. But up close, from the bottom, we couldn’t see the top, and it appeared much longer and harder to climb—more like a mountain.

There were several things that helped me in my efforts to climb the dune, things that can help all of us as we tackle the hills we face in our writing and life.

Put one foot in front of the other.

As I climbed the dune, my feet sank into the soft, hot sand. The more steps I took, the more my muscles burned and my lungs stung. But I didn’t look up and I didn’t look down. Instead I focused on making my feet move forward, one foot in front of the other.

I found the same principle to be true in finishing my rewrites on Book #2 this week. When I first got my rewrites back from my publisher over a month ago, they looked like a mountain. But once I started making the changes, I took it one scene at a time. I challenged myself to complete one chapter a day. I pushed myself through the burning pain and kept going until I finally reached the summit.

Whether it’s finishing a book, a project, or an obligation—whatever it is, we need the self-discipline, determination, and will-power to keep moving steadily upward.

Go at my own pace.

My older children practically ran up the dune. I could blame my much slower pace on my four year old whose hand I was holding. But . . . I admit, I just don’t have the exuberant energy of a teenager anymore. In fact, I was quite content to dilly-dally with my youngest.

It’s easy for us to get discouraged with where we’re at, especially in the writing journey. We see others bounding ahead of us and wonder why we can’t keep up. There may even be times when we look behind us and secretly pat ourselves on the back because we’ve made it further than others.

What I’m learning is that we can’t compare our position on the hill with others ahead or behind us. We’re all in different places, moving at different speeds. There are some who have more energy and time to devote to the climb. And others who truly enjoy a more leisurely pace.

Remember that reaching the top is NOT impossible.

There were plenty of others who made it to the top of the dunes, some who were much older than me, and even two and three year olds. I figured if they could do it, surely I could too. The important thing was believing in myself and reminding myself that I could reach the summit eventually--if I just kept moving forward. I didn’t have to be the best athlete or strongest climber to make it.

Likewise, with our writing journeys or the problems we’re facing, we need to remind ourselves that we don’t have to be the best or most brilliant to make it to the top. James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure says this: "The Truth is that craft can be taught and that you, with diligence and practice and patience, can improve your writing. . . The main difference between successful writers and unsuccessful writers is persistence."

Sure, genius and talent can possibly make the climb quicker. But with steady, determined steps, the rest of us can keep on moving toward the top too.

What about you? What kind of hills are you climbing lately in writing or life? Have you been tempted to give up? What helps you in your efforts to keep going?


  1. I like going at my own pace. It's so much less stressful. :-)
    Congrats on finishing the rewrites!

  2. Jody, so true! I've got a quote that I just read last night that is entirely relevant to your post:

    "The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."
    - Mark Twain

    Thanks for the inspiration! Have a wonderful weekend :)


  3. I just tackled rewriting an entire section of one of my WIPs. Felt overwhelming at first. But am so glad I put in the work. The results were worth the work. Thankful to get positive feedback on it, too.

    My husband always calls this kind of thinking running down the path. Since he has a name for it, you can guess I run down the path somewhat frequently. ;)
    ~ Wendy

  4. Jody, if it were only the day job, or the family or the writing (or pick your craft) then it might not be so difficult. But we have mountains in every area to climb and sometimes all at once.

    With that said, we CAN do it one step at a time. We need to remember to do this looking forward and not back--or we might fall.


  5. Like you and most of your commenters, I break things down into small pieces...while reciting to myself: "I CAN do this." Jody, I just sawt the picture of you kissing The Preacher's Bride in the sidebar. Hooray!

  6. Saw you mentioned on Melissa Getting Published (Well done on the award) and thought I'd stop by to say hello.

  7. I have always wanted to go to the dunes! I'll have to head up that way! :)

    LIFE itself has been a giant dune - nope, a giant MOUNTAIN lately. And I've climbed a good chunk of it, but right now I'm at the part where I just want to sit down and quit. I'm allowing myself a brief rest, but here in a few days I'm going to have to discipline myself to get up and get moving. No more sulking. :)

  8. I think just trudging along and putting one foot in front of the other is wonderful advice. Having a friend trudge next to you is helpful too, if possible. :O)

  9. Love, love, love this post! Within the next couple weeks, I should be getting back my MS from my critique group and in truth, as much as I'm looking forward to getting started on the revisions (hopefully the last set before I query) I'm scared. I'm so afraid that they won't think what I sent them in an improvement and I'll have to start all over again. I'm also getting ready to have my third child, which is causing a whole bunch of other stress! I'm going to bookmark this post for the future. Have a great weekend!

  10. Jody,
    First, love the picture of you kissing your book. Can't wait to post my own.
    Second, Thanks for a great post. Your timing couldn't have been better. This week has been an insane juggling act and it's always good for me to be reminded not to try to do everything at once, but to take life one step at a time!

  11. Love this post, Jody! I've been to Sleeping Bear Dunes!

    And it's true with the writing journey. We can only go at our own pace no matter what anyone else is doing. It's sort of a journey together but we each have to walk it on our own, even if someone is right next you, you still have to put your own feet on the ground and keep moving.

  12. I feel that way often... the mountains ahead of me seem insurmountable that I feel like I never had time to write or work on marketing or build an online presense. *sigh*. Thanks for the tips.

  13. We went to Sleeping Bear Dunes last beautiful.

    Have a great weekend, Jody!

  14. That James Scott Bell quote is one of my favorites!

    I like the idea of viewing these "mountains" as climbable hills. One step at a time and you'll reach the top! It reminds me of when I used to run cross country. Those huge, steep hills I had to run up! I always knew non-runners created those courses, haha. But I put one foot in front of the other and made it to the top, then it was the joy of the downhill. :)

  15. Your mom sounds like such a wise woman, Jody. Yes, if we look at all of the things we need to accomplish, it is overwhelming. I've learned to break things into manageable portions. Sometimes that means one minute at a time.

  16. GREAT illustration! Our dunes are filled with grains of wisdom.

    And sometimes, you may only be able to climb one toe-length at a time.

  17. Don't moms give great advice? My mom's was,"You can move a mountain with a wheel barrow, just put one foot in front of the other." Great words to remember no matter what the task.

  18. Great advice!!
    Oh, we've vacationed in that part of Michigan. Did you find Cherry Republic?
    We still order Christmas gifts from that delectable catalog!!!
    Funner place!!!

    Loved Sleeping Bear!

  19. "I life my eyes up to the hills-
    where does my help come from?
    My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth."
    Psalm 121:1

    I definitely have days where my writing hill seems impossible to climb. There are all these amazing dream clouds up there, and sometimes I feel like I've gone down a side-trail that's led me around the mountain in circles.
    Blogs like yours, prayers, and living a positive life with wonderful family are all things that keep me checking my path for the right sign-posts, and keep my stepping forward.

  20. Great advice! I like the one step in front of the other one and go at your own pace. It's also good to remember that our pace won't always be the same. It changes depending on our seasons of life. For example, my pace is a lot like your teenager's during the summer. But come school year, I have to sloooow down. Knowing that, and preparing myself for it, are so important for my mental health. :)

  21. First of all, nice picture, Jody. I'd LOVE to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes! My hubby and I were just talking about visiting Traverse City (we've never been!) and your picture just makes me want to go more!

    I definitely feel like a writer's life can be an uphill climb...especially when we are home school moms (and grammys). It's the great juggling act, and I struggle to balance it all and eek out uninterrupted time.

    What keeps me going is (1) prayer and (2) knowing that this was/is God's idea to begin with. I trust that my times are in His hands, and do my best to make good use of my time.

    Thanks for yet another encouraging, motivating post, Jody!

  22. My mountain is being on a home-school schedule, still trying to be a writer, cooking, cleaning, everything--all while getting about 4 hrs of sleep a night. I wish I could sleep more, but it's a physical impossibility, so I simply ask God to get me through another day w/o falling apart.

  23. Hi Jody -

    I think maintaining a forward motion is vital to success. A great motivator for me is knowing life can change in an instant. We can't count on tomorrow or the next day. We have this moment.

    Susan :)

  24. Great words here!! Bless you!

  25. I appreciated these insights. Especially "Go at your own pace."
    I'm always frustrated that I don't work faster than I do, but then the way the story wants to be told is what makes it take longer than I expect. It's good to be reminded not to be in a hurry. Great post.

  26. An encouraging post, Jody! Needed it today after getting my first rejection on a partial. Intellectually I knew it was coming, but it was still a disappointment. There may be many more ... but, as you've so eloquently reminded us, this is a journey and every step is progress. Thanks :)

  27. Love the comparison to climbing the dunes (not an easy task, we've done it before here in CA).

    Right now my hill is completing draft one of my wip. It seems like a huge mountain, but day by day I'm chipping away at it. I'm excited to finish it, but I know it takes time.

    As always, thanks for your encouraging words.

  28. Like always, I enjoyed your post. Can't wait for the book.

  29. Definitely!

    Here's one more-- Think about the big picture: Easy to get bogged down in each grain of sand.


  30. I'm going at my own pace and never allowing myself to give up! This post really encouraged me Jody, thank you.

    Thank God for Moms that cheer us on:)

  31. Great post Jody. One step at a time is very important for us writers. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter we come closer to the end of our story.
    Working at one's own pace is extremely important. Whenever I am close to frustration I just read over whatever I have written and feel better. If I were to give up then my earlier efforts would be wasted.

  32. Thank you for this inspirational post. Just what I needed to read today!

    Some days feel like mountains that I can't even see the top of never mind climb. Then I remind myself to take it one step at a time, not looking at the top, but enjoying all that is where I am and then taking the next step on the journey.

    Instead of big goals, I set a few small ones and when they are met I move on to a few more rather than racing, exhausted straight toward the mountain top goal.

    And when I reach the top of the mountain I know that I'll be able to celebrate that and the journey.

  33. I have been learning this week to pace myself and be flexible with my own self-imposed deadlines.
    I thought of you as I am working my way through the edits, and how you take on rewrites and can do it and get through it.
    I have been up and down that mountain all week!

  34. I can so relate to this! I applaud you on climbing not only the Big Dune but also your writing dune. Isn't Lake Michigan breath-taking?

    Also, I have to admit, I do look ahead and behind me on rough days. When I focus on that day's task, writing is a lot less stressful.

  35. I like how you alluded to adjusting your schedule to fit each season. That's always been a problem for me. I'll find a schedule that works, say during the school year, then summer rolls around and the kids are at home more and everything changes. The result is my writing suffers and frustration sets in.

    You just gave me a new approach--plan for adjusting with each season (and prepare for it in advance!). Thanks!

  36. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." I'm also fond of the saying that "the struggle is the glory." Life, like writing, is a journey. If we're so focused on reaching the destination, we'll miss a lot of scenery along the way.

  37. Love the Sleeping Bear Dunes, this post, and the metaphor.

    I'd started feeling overwhelmed about all of my volunteer commitments, shuttling the kids to and from activities, keeping up the home and hearth, not to mention a garden full to bursting with veggies that need to be frozen or canned, wondering how on earth I would ever find time to write this fall. My goal is to submit one of my picture book manuscripts to my top agent prospects this month.

    Well, it's like you said. You can only do what you can do in this moment, and the rest will unfold in the moments that come. Worrying and stressing only makes the journey less enjoyable.

    Or at least, that's what I tell myself today. ;-)

  38. Another great analogy for writing. One of my strengths is my ability to keep moving forward, however slowly, and not get daunted by how far away the top of the hill is. Yoga's helped with that tremendously. I'd make a great tortoise. :-)

  39. This is a beautiful post and a good one to remember when those self-criticisms hit, as they inevitably know, when you start measuring your success against others...not good enough, not fast enough, not 'there' yet etc.

    I get discouraged all the time. And yet somehow I always pick myself up and get writing. All of your advice that you listed relates to me as well!

    The only other thing I'd add to your fabulous list is probably 'a good sense of humor'! Sometimes I just get so darn serious about my writing life, I need to step back and remember the joy and the fun.

    Thanks for a great post!
    Julie Johnson

  40. I understand what you're saying. My schedule this fall, actually this month, is crazy busy and I need to write on the sequel of my romantic suspense. But, as I think about it, I'm enjoying every minute and maybe my mountain is only a hill after all. :)

  41. Every day I think about giving Your suggestions are great though.. especially the reminder that it's not impossible to reach my goals :) I just keep reminding myself how much I want a writing career.

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