Canyon Tales
On Writing Books
by Dave Black

Anyone who has done extensive ice climbing in Utah and who has used the book Ice Climbing Utah has probably wondered about the non–existent trail on the left side of the Maple Canyon Map, the bogus route line on the White Nightmare photo, the occasional chopped up route description, or the phantom 385 area code in the appendices. These were all non–author errors that ended up in the book despite the overwhelming efforts by the author (me) to make the book 100% error–free. Of course, there were some of my own errors that somehow made it past myself or the editors at Falcon, and it taught me a few lessons: don’t trust your editor, don’t trust the telephone company, insist on seeing every single re–edit as well as the finished art work, and, most of all, never be a writer.

In the case of Ice Climbing Utah, the bogus trail and ice route were probably the result of an artist forgetting to delete extraneous lines. The choppy text and some of the failures to apply edits that I had requested could be attributed to computer glitches. For instance, back in 1999 when the penultimate manuscript edit arrived for my review, enormous chunks of text had entirely gone missing and had been replaced with unidentifiable garble. My editor didn’t have much of an explanation for any of this except to indicate that the company was in the process of moving their offices from Montana to New England and that the distractions of the move were likely to blame. I was somewhat stunned that it was taken so lightly by Falcon, and, as the final edits went in, a growing feeling of nervous anxiousness set in.

Seeing your book for the first time is a unique, unforgettable experience. Authors usually get a couple of dozen free copies, which are sent out with the first shipments to book stores. Opening that box of books is like opening presents Christmas morning. There’s the excitement of seeing what you got after a long wait. There’s the fear that when you open it, you will not get what you had hoped for. With Christmas presents and with books, there’s only one chance, and if there’s a screw–up, it really can ruin your day.

So there I was in November 1999, tearing open my box of books like a greedy kid on Christmas morning. And there it was, MY name in print on the cover of a beautiful book, and my photos and words in print on the inside. I immediately brushed these thoughts aside and fanned through the book to two of the most important sections, sections where I could see if my edits had made it through and if everything was in shape. Reputation and reliability were at stake here, and I dreaded the thought of anything ruining them.

As sure as death and taxes, there on the Maple Canyon map was the bogus trail, and on the White Nightmare photo a bogus route. The pride and ego boost of actually making it to professional writer status wore off in about 5 minutes, succumbing to the awful realization that somewhere, somehow, somebody had screwed up. Close examination over the next couple of days revealed more errors. It’s at this point, as I have learned again since then, that writers want to become anti–social hermits.

So what happens when things in a book are screwed up? First, especially in the case of books that espouse information on dangerous sports, there’s a horrible, gnawing fear that the screw–ups will contribute to somebody’s gruesome demise. To counter this, every book of this nature includes warnings that information can change or be incorrect, and that caution and common sense are needed, and that the reader, not the author or the publisher, is responsible when the reader gets in trouble. These notices are displayed prominently in the front of the book as part of what publishers refer to as ‘front matter.’ They do not do much for the author, though, who loses sleep over it just because he knows that people can be stupid or hasty, and because Murphy’s Law is, after all, undeniably in control.

As any rational person would assume, there are mistakes in any and every book. To the outsider they may be minor, and most of the time they won’t even be noticed. But the author knows, and to him the mistakes are blaring and unforgivable. The mistakes prey on the writer, and there’s a natural tendency for the writer to lose faith in himself. “How could I let this happen.” “Am I an idiot?” “Why did I do this?”

The feeling is overwhelming.

When a writer reaches this point, other questions start to haunt him. If the writer has a family that he essentially ignored for a year of book research, there’s that guilt. Lost personal time with one’s children and slaughtered relationships can not be regained. That sacrifice doesn’t show in the fine print of the publisher’s contract. The number of hours and days spent researching and writing and re–writing is never compensated by the advance, and, years later, when the writer sees his books still being sold, there’s the confusion about why the royalties don’t seem to be making it to the mailbox.

At some point in this process, most writers tell themselves they would never do it again, that it wasn’t worth it. That’s exactly what I told myself immediately after Ice Climbing Utah came out. I would never do it again. It was a horrible experience. It was too much work. I sacrificed too much only to find that somebody botched it up.

It was less than a year later that I was contacted by Greg (not his real name), an editor from a prominent publisher that wanted me to write a book on canyoneering techniques. Of course I was flattered, and the prospect of being the author of the first real book in English on technical canyoneering was tempting. I gave it some serious thought and, after speaking to my family about it, I signed a contract. A few months later I began to realize that writing was again taking me from my family, and there was also a new glitch. It seemed that the publisher had originally tried to sign Rich Carlson, who at the time was eminently more qualified than I was to write the canyoneering book. When I learned this, I contacted the publisher and within a few weeks the contract was canceled on my request.

For the next 5 years the writer’s world left me blissfully alone.

Time does strange things to people. For one thing, it dulls the memories of what was bad about something, and shines up the memories of what was good about it. Suffering and hard work is forgotten, and the ego takes over.

In winter of 2005, I was again contacted by Greg. He had left his old publishing company and had signed on with a brand new publishing company back East. They wanted me to propose ten titles and would pay me a $3000 advance for each one they decided to print.

At the time I was headed to Maui as a guide trainer for a canyoneering company, and I had just quit my job as an emergency planner for the health department in Utah. Emergency response and management was something that I had always been involved in and it was a topic that I could easily write about. Greg’s company jumped on it. They proposed the title, What to Do When the Shit Hits the Fan, which I agreed to, and they wanted it ASAP. I figured I had some time to kill while I was on Maui and I was away from my family anyway, so we signed the contract.

Shit, as I learned to refer to this book, was easier to write. Although it consumed more time than I expected, the absence from family was minimal and the fear of screw ups had subsided since the Ice book, and I really had a passion about what I was writing. Greg’s company was easier (though not angelic) about coordinating the edits than Falcon had been, and the manuscript was relatively easy to produce. It went to press in Fall of 2006.

To repeat myself ... opening that box of books is like opening presents Christmas morning. It had taken a handful of irate e–mails to get the company to send my books, and they sent them to my Utah address instead of my Maui address. It was some weeks later that I returned to Utah and got the box. This time the surprise and thrill of seeing my name on a fancy book was absent, but the fear about screw–ups was definitely there and even more intense than it had been with my first book.

It took me about 5 minutes to find the first screw–up—the first of several. The worst of them was located in a brief first aid summary. The signs and symptoms section for seizures had somehow been replaced with the signs and symptoms section on heat emergencies. How this could happen was unfathomable. The possible consequences were played over and over in my head, exaggerated beyond any realism. And there were more mistakes, mostly minor typos, which added to the feeling of dread.

It was only a month or so later when a guide friend called. He said he had been talking to the Falcon rep at the Outdoor Retailers show in Salt Lake that week, and that they wanted me to call about doing a canyoneering book. Out of curiosity, I called.

The Shit book hadn’t been quite the nightmare that the Ice book had been. Even with the screw–ups, the bad taste about writing was gone. The advance offer was generous. The contract was signed.

Writing Canyoneering: A Guide to Techniques to Wet and Dry Canyons took almost a full year, even though the original agreement had been to pump it out much faster. The problem with a book of this nature is the huge variety of equipment and technique that is being used, coupled with constant trends and changes. Accuracy is a key element, conjecture has no place. Everything must be researched, written in a style that is easy to read and understand, then checked and re–checked for accuracy. Text, photos, and diagrams must be clear, even more so than for guidebooks like Ice. There’s also a mandatory consideration of how much space there is and how much material you can cram into it. Some things just get left out, and, in the process of doing so, the writer has to make some uncomfortable decisions about it.

Writing Canyoneering was incredibly time–consuming. At the time, I was traveling frequently between Utah and Maui, and every minute of writing was stuffed into the few cracks of time between work, sleep, and travel. There was no time for family again. Deadlines loomed like a gallows on execution day. It got ugly.

In the mean time, Greg contacted me again to contract for another title. This time he wanted a book about how to live off the grid. Of all my books, this is the one I felt least qualified to write. Although I had certainly lived off grid at times in my life, the technology for off–grid living was piling up at an enormous rate and I knew there would be a huge amount of research. I needed the money and, in a fit of what can only be called stupidity, a contract was signed and advances were cashed.

Like my two earlier books, when I opened the box of Canyoneering freebies I immediately found errors and screw–ups. Most were minor typos or computer editing errors. Some were realizations that I should have included more or less information. For instance, I should really have said more about rebelays and redirects. But the format of the book was beautiful, and the color pictures made it fantastic.

The beauty of the book was a nice bandage on an anxiety wound that was starting to keep me awake at night. There was a stark reality that sooner or later, someone would screw up in a big way and misuse or incorrectly use techniques they had read about in the book. Eventually somebody could be killed. Knowing that has to be the biggest drawback of writing a book of this type. Inevitably, somebody will get hurt. Even though personal responsibility is squarely laid out in the notice in the front matter, there will always be that uncomfortable feeling about having shared certain knowledge. It’s impossible to control who buys the book, and equally impossible to control how they understand or use the information they get from it. Of course it didn’t help that one of my friends died in a canyoneering accident in Zion a few months earlier as I was finishing the manuscript. But then that’s the nature of the sports of canyoneering and climbing. People die. I’ve lost almost a dozen friends to those sports since I started climbing in 1966. It’s never easy, and it always makes me feel guilty in some way for having survived this long or, worse, for having shared my passion with them.

It’s interesting how people react to books of this type. Some don’t like the author. Some have pet techniques they are angry weren’t included. Some are angry they didn’t get mentioned. Some are resentful that they didn’t get to write it. This sort of resentment was very clearly illustrated when my editor at Falcon e–mailed me to tell me the Park Service had decided to not carry the book in its book stores. The reasons? Their ‘expert’ had closely examined the book and was not happy with the fact that some of the canyoneers pictured in the book weren’t wearing helmets. Some were wearing Jeans. Worse, there were techniques in the book that the expert had never heard of, like the macramé knot. Other complaints were about the female subjects in the book, including that they were too good looking and unrealistic (perfect nails, lipstick, etc). Let’s look at these complaints...

Some subjects weren’t wearing helmets: No shit. Some canyoneers DON’T wear helmets. The book went out of its way to explain why helmets should be used. Some subjects were wearing jeans: Oh pu–leez! That’s the old evil cotton thing. Yes, jeans are made of cotton. Yes, so are Carhart’s and Dickies, which a lot of canyoneers wear. So are those Gramicci’s climbers pay so much for. Half the canyoneers on the Plateau are wearing cotton. My advice to anyone who has a cotton problem: grow up and get real. Stay in context. Next complaint ... Unknown techniques. Could someone tell the Park Service that they need to find a new subject–matter ‘expert?’ Anyone who doesn’t know what a macramé is can’t be considered an expert canyoneer. Good looking women: OK. Mia culpa. I totally forgot about the chauvinist rule that only ugly women can canyoneer. Perfect nails and lipstick: Ditto. Can’t have anyone looking good in the canyons, can we? If anyone’s interested, the woman in the picture actually DOES show up to do canyons looking perfect. I certainly don’t mind as long as she can do the canyon. And she can. She’s a guide.

By the time the Grid book went to print in early 2009, my marriage was on its last breath and I had missed my daughter’s first two years of high school. The 11 years since I signed my first book contract had slipped by in a flash as though they had never happened. My boys by then had been gone for years, and one of them had gone to Iraq and fought a war. I felt like writing had made me miss it all. As I wrote earlier, lost time can’t be recovered.

Grid and Shit seemed to do well. Grid was mentioned in The New York Times and Time Magazine, and both were used as the basis for parts of a Hollywood documentary film. I had radio and newspaper interviews, and was invited to write for a number of online magazines. Oddly, though, other than the advances, I haven’t seen a dime. Well...that’s not exactly true. I recently got paid $2.74. No, I’m not kidding.

For the first time this year I took an interest in actually seeing how the books were selling. On several occasions this winter all four were on various Amazon best seller lists. Three were on for months in a row, and there has been at least one book on a best seller list every day of this year. One would think that there’s some money in all of this for the writer.

A writer gets an advance. Once the book is published, the writer gets 5–20% of the profits from sales. In other words, if the book sells for $20, the profit might be $8 over the wholesale price, and maybe the writer gets a dollar, but that doesn’t happen until sales catch up to the advance. So it might take a couple of thousand books to catch up to the advance. That doesn’t really explain why I’m getting no royalties from two different publishers for four different books, but for now that’s how it is.

If your dream is to become a writer, especially a writer of books on adventure sports or other non–fiction, don’t fool yourself. It’s no bed of roses. It gets tough and it can get ugly. There’s no pot of gold. There’s a buffet of unpleasant anxieties associated with writing. It won’t make you an expert. It won’t get you laid. My advice would be to seriously reconsider your career choice.

Dave Black

Articles by Dave Black:
  First Descent? • Dave Black
  Mae West Slot • Dave Black
  A Sh***y Trip in Heaps • Dave Black
  Fixed Ropes in the Black Hole • Dave Black
  For Pothole Puzzle Solvers • Dave Black
  On Writing Books • Dave Black

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© 2009 Dave Black