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By Brad Wetzler
I’ll never forget the sound—the buzzing and beeping of the fax machine as it started to spit out Jon Krakauer’s first draft of “Into Thin Air.”
It was early June 1996, just a few weeks after the infamous storm on Mount Everest that killed eight climbers. As an editor at Outside magazine, I’d spent the morning drinking coffee, waiting impatiently by that clunky machine, anxious to read what I knew would be a groundbreaking piece of nonfiction. I grabbed the first pages and began to read.
I discovered quickly that the storm on Everest wasn’t the only disaster. Krakauer’s first draft was a total bore. I read the piece a second time and immediately called him to discuss. The story needed major reworking.
“The problem isn’t the line-by-line writing,” I told him. “It’s the story. I think you’re missing it.”
The Everest story was huge for Krakauer’s career, and it was a pretty big deal for me, too. It had been my idea to send him to Everest to report on the increasing commercialization of the mountain. I made all the arrangements, kept close tabs on him while he was on the mountain, and did the major developmental and line editing of the piece—of course, all from the very safe confines of the Outside headquarters in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Though I joke about the first draft being a disaster, thinking back to that day, I remember that I wasn’t concerned. I had little doubt that “Into Thin Air” would be a brilliant piece for three reasons: First, I knew that, in general, first drafts, even by great writers, can be way off-base. The most skilled writers can get blinded by their experiences in the field. It’s one of the hazards of reporting nonfiction—you get so filled with facts and experiences that you can’t see the forest for the trees.
Second, I knew that Krakauer was a pro and would ultimately come through with a great story.
Third, I immediately saw how to fix the problem.
The trouble was that Krakauer had started the piece without an ounce of tension. It began with a long description of base camp and an introduction to some of the climbers followed by a tedious account of the climb up the mountain.
Not very scintillating. None of that stuff was important. The climb up was uneventful. The story begins those ten minutes he was on the summit, when the storm was little more than a bank of dark clouds in the distance. Or the second he starts down the mountain. Getting to the top of any big mountain is the easy part, getting home alive is the hard part.
All I had to say to Jon was, “Start at the summit. You’ll know what to do next.”
The moral of my role in the story is simple: Even great writers need somebody else to help them find the story and keep their eye on it. All great writers need good editors. They need mentors—during the writing process as well as once the story is on the page.
Though Jon was ten years my senior, I was Jon’s mentor for “Into Thin Air,” the article that would be expanded into the best-selling book. Since then, I’ve mentored many great writers. It’s what I love to do. And it’s why I’m the nonfiction mentor for Lighthouse’s Book Project.
This month we’re taking applications for this distinguished two-year program.
I look forward to helping the new Book Projecteers figure out what the real story is—and to help them keep their eye on the summit during the writing and rewriting process.