Lighting the Tree on Fire

I once heard a breakdown of plotting. In the first act, you run your characters up a tree. Second act, you light the tree on fire. The third act, you get what’s left of them out of the tree.

Today I’ve been writing a hard chapter on a character that I really have been cheering for, but as the story demands, I need to put them in the tree, and…you get the idea. I don’t like doing it, even though they are a fictional character. I like this character. But for the sakes of the story, I need to show how far they have come in their development. It isn’t pretty. Writing isn’t always nice. Sometimes it is waking up in the forest, half-buried in rotting leaves with blood and strips of flesh under your finger nails. It is putting your characters through hell. It is letting your imagination take you to places nobody should have to go.

It is sometimes failure and disappointment and struggling. It is an infusion of real life, sometimes a greater concentration. An exaggeration. Though personal.

It’s a little like playing God. You have your character arc figured out. You know where they are going to be at the end of it. Redemption. Happiness. They’ve learned from hard lessons and impossible odds. But it’s going to hurt like a mother to get them there.

A few weeks ago, I was telling my therapist about a chapter I had been working on. The lines from Game of Thrones popped into my head as I watched her face fall. “Oh my sweet summer child–“

Where I was talking about the progress I had made on the book and explaining some of the things I was writing about, she looked at me with genuine concern and said, “You can write a whole chapter in a day?”

“Yes,” I said. I was very proud of that.

“But the things your are writing about are so…traumatic! How do you sit for hours and write about something like that? What do you do to recover from something so intense?” She suggested I take breaks between chapters. For maybe a few days at a time. Naw. I’m good.

Just to let you know, I’m not writing a horror story. It’s a story that I think just about anyone could relate to. It features plausible (if not traumatic) instances that could have happened in real life. The thing is that writing about a lot of these things is actually therapeudic. I get to ruminate these stories and ideas and even when they are unpleasant, even when they are intense of dour, I know there is a plan.

Life isn’t like that. At least not at a level any of us can really understand. My more Christiany friends would look at the world we live in with doe-eyed optimism and say “It’s all part of the Lord’s plan!” Depending on your persuasion, that may or not be the case. I tend to agree with the former, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about any of it. Life is tragic at times, unpredictable, disappointing, joyful for incredibly short moments, and I think at the end of it, it’s the stress of living that kills us. We all wind up in the same place.

At least with my characters I know that I might be running them through the wringer, but I plan to give them the ending they deserve. I don’t know if the Author of my story has the same in mind for me, and if that doesn’t give you a sense of existential dread, I don’t know what will. What I do know is I am deep into the second act of my life. The flames are licking at my feet, the tree is really high off the ground and riddled with rabid raccoons. Those ringtailed bandits are not happy to be in this tree. They might even blame me a little bit for it. I can hear their chittering and I suspect in their varmint language they are plotting against me. I suspect they are intelligent enough to figure that my blood could be used as a flame retardant.

Boy, that got dark in a hurry.

Nobody is coming to get me out of the tree. That’s up to me. I hope there’s a happy ending for me. The squirrels are pretty restless too. So many squirrels.


Today has been a productive day on the book. My resistance for a few days has been the avoidance of some of the topics of the story. Today, I have been focussing on a lot of the hard elements. I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that not everyone will like this protagonist. And there are many reasons he often hates himself in spite of enough external challenges out there he faces.

Some of the topics are pulled from my own life, and at the advice of a few of my friends, some truly supportive and awesome brothers of the writing craft, I am taking their advice to heart and truly cutting down to the marrow.

It’s not a very nice mirror to hold up, but the story rings truer than any other way.

I don’t know how many words I have gotten down today, but I will say that I have transcribed several notes and scenes and written three or four large scenes today. I’m starting to get tired and so I will attempt to let the brain wind down so this isn’t all I am doing all night long.

When people ask me how the book is going, I am surprised to say lately that it is going very well. There are days it feels like it is writing itself. It’s a story that is demanding to be written, often at the expense of a normal sleep schedule, or reminding me of awful bits of my past I wish I could have forgotten long ago.

Lately I have been re-reading Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and am finding that the first read through was a personal story, but now I am reading it from a writer’s perspective. There are moments I stop and open up the notes on my phone and I have to write a scene or a chunk of dialog, because her fearlessness in the narrative has been giving me permission to explore a lot of things that I would have otherwise left buried.

I’m taking the advice of Joe Lansdale to heart when he says “Write like everyone you know is dead.”

I’m not writing a story to make people happy or feel better about the world. I’m writing to break their fucking hearts. Whether or not reading about this heartbreak gives the reader some kind of catharsis is up to them. That is what it has been doing for me at least.

Right now, some decent sleep would be nice.

So, yes, the writing is going well.

Starting is the hard part, because it’s like that wince you get when you expect something to sting. Touching a hot stove.