Sideways Up The Slope by Shan Jeniah Burton

What do you do when you’re stymied, and it seems like nothing is getting you any closer to achieving your goals?

Sometimes, I find answers in the efficiency of nature.

Take the sidewinder rattlesnake. Here’s a video of her in action. A note for the squeamish – nature doesn’t offer grocery stores. Like all wild predators, Miss Sidewinder has to take other measures if she wants to eat.

You’ve been warned.


The sidewinder makes forward progress…by going sideways.

How does that relate to my trickiest writing issue – revision?

For many years, I had no real idea how to revise. I poked aand tweaked, but I was missing major pieces of the puzzle. They didn’t fall into place until I channeled my inner sidewinder.

Yup – I “went sideways” up the steep sandy slope.

Miss Sidewinder has venom, but she also has a problem: she lives in a climate where she stands out.

When I first tried to revise a novel, anyone who looked could see the tracks I made. Where revision should look seamless, mine was as obvious as a snake sidewinding her way up a sand dune.

Miss Sidewinder has to conceal herself to catch her dinner. She digs herself into the loose sand, where her coloring helps her blend in. The horned scales over her eyes keep sand and glare out.

I needed to learn how to immerse myself in word-sands, and wait for my prey. I hadn to observe carefully, so when the right prey came along, I’d be ready to strike. Instead of horned scales, I have an adaptable human brain. I can learn things that help me capture my quarry – revision that goes somewhere without being obvious about it.

Miss Sidewinder uses her lateral movement to scoop out the sand. Once she’s wiggled a hollow out, she curls into it, letting the sand slide back in to cover her. Then she waits for her moment.

I went sideways, too. I read a book called Rock Your Plot, and learned about key elements like story structure and the need to understand my character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts. That led me to Rock Your Revisions, and I wiggled out a hollow in my mind and settled in.

Eventually, seeing what needed to happen in revisions got a lot clearer – and the drafts I’m creating with my new plotting know-how are faster and cleaner right from the start. My prey is easier than ever to catch.

Miss Sidewinder also has an inborn imperative to perpetuate her scaly species. Once she gives birth, Mama Sidewinder stays at the little burrow, guarding her young.

Mama’s Little Sidewinders are cold-blooded babies. The desert outside the burrow is too hot for them to survive at first. Their underground home is too cold. Mama can’t share her body heat, the way warm-blooded critters can.

Caught between deadly extremes, the baby snakes do something amazing.

They work together, forming a net at the entrance to the burrow with their tiny, writhing bodies, and regulate their collective body heat to a very constant temperature . Each baby takes turns, always moving, and, together, they do what’s needed to survive.

There’s something to be said for banding together, networking to reach the collective good, with every member making contributions and reaping rewards as others do the same.

After NaNoWriMo 2015, three other local writers and I formed a critique group. Our goal is to each submit one piece weekly, and critique the works of the other members. I also do beta readings and reviews for other members of the writing community.

This might seem like a sideways approach. I have several WIPs of my own awaiting revision. Surely I could get through them faster if I weren’t spending hours each week offering input to other writers, right?

Maybe not.

I want a sustainable writing business that brings in a modest income. I need to learn how to revise as efficiently as Mama’s Little Sidewinders maintain their body temperature.

If I only revise my own writing, I’ll always know what I meant to write. I might see that rather than what’s actually there. I would always know the backstories, and the process of creation, and I’d cut myself slack whether I meant to or not.

Joining a group where I give three critiques for each piece I submit quadruples my workload. ButI want to become proficient at the principles that will help with all revisions. The distance and objectivity of critiquing and beta reading for others gives me lots of practice where I don’t know the “inner core” of the story – the vision only its creator can have.

In return, I get critiques from my three partners. Each has a unique way of reading and specific skills that mean that I get three distinct opinions on each piece I submit. I’m learning a lot from the comments and questions I’m getting, and from reading and critiquing their work.

We are all sidewinders in ROW80! By setting our own goals, being accountable, and by visiting one another to offer kudos, encouragement, or commiseration, we’re banding together like Mama’s Little Sidewinders, in a network aimed at collective success, but which relies upon each individual doing their part.

Let’s slither sideways up the slopes of our writing challenges, and band together for the common good as we move into the final weeks of Round Three, and beyond.

2 comments

  1. I like the ways the snake’s survival skills translate to writing discipline and creativity. Yes, I go sideways when revising, and, yes, I agree that working with a critique group can hone your own revision skills. Circle around, disguise yourself, study the terrain, dig deep, and then attack! Fascinating video. Your post reinforces the need for community — and study. I enjoyed reading this!

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