The Horse Latitudes


Chris Holm briefly emerges from his writing bunker, pale and unshaven.


When the hell did it become summer?


More importantly, why aren’t you wearing any pants?

The life of a writer is strangely bifurcated. Half our time, the part most people see, is spent shilling our work. Tweeting, blogging, touring, signing, paneling. The other half, the important half, is spent writing. Without it, no amount of all that other stuff is worth a damn.

I’m in writing mode right now, trying to take advantage of the quiet before THE KILLING KIND comes out in September, and my life temporarily gets a whole lot crazier. (You should go preorder it; I hear it’s pretty good.) As of this writing, I’m about 46,000 words into the second Hendricks thriller. Those who’ve never written a novel-length work are probably thinking, “Wow! You’re more than halfway done!” Those who have, and know what a terrible slog the middle third invariably turns out to be, are shaking your heads and saying, “You poor bastard.”

I always think of the middle third as the book’s horse latitudes. Sails sag in the absence of a strong tailwind. Progress slows. Household projects begin to call my name. The shiny objects on the internet that clamor for my attention get a little shinier.

So, how do you combat it? (No, seriously: I’m asking.) In my case, with depression, alcohol, and bouts of crippling panic. (I kid. About the alcohol, at least. I’m getting too old to deal with hangovers.)

In truth, the way I deal is by carving out as much quiet time as I can for my subconscious to work the problem, and figure out the story. (Yes, I’m a pantser, but even when I outline, I find the story’s middle resists writing.) If I could meditate, I would, but every time I try I feel as if I should be doing other things. So instead, I go for a run. I take long walks through my neighborhood, sometimes hashing out plot points with my wife, sometimes not. I leave the radio off when I’m in the car. And most importantly, I step back from the internet a bit.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m as internet-addicted as they come, and I’m not advocating a total blackout. I tend to favor the Timothy Leary method: turn on, tune in, drop out. I still check my email. Still make my usual morning rounds (my Twitter feed, NPR, Portland Food Map, Boing Boing, Wired, Mental Floss… and Maine Crime Writers, of course.) But what I don’t do (or, at least, attempt to avoid) while I’m writing is engage. No Twitter conversations. No Facebook posts. No likes. No faves. No retweets. I find that, when my motivation and inspiration are low, the instant gratification of the internet is a dangerous thing. It scratches the creative itch, but leaves me nothing of any consequence to show for it. As Ben Gibbard, frontman for Death Cab for Cutie, put it in a terrific interview with the AV Club last year:

I just notice this trend among some musician friends of mine who are over-tweeters—they get writer’s block. “I haven’t written a record!” Because you’re burning all your creativity on witty observations about the Kardashians! Fuckin’ write a song! If you have any kind of narcissistic tendencies, and I think all creative people do to a certain extent—before these outlets, if you wanted to be in front of somebody, you had to go out into the world and share the thing you made and kind of get off on the adoration of a crowd. But now that crowd exists in your pocket. Whenever you’re feeling like you need that validation from people who already think you’re great, you can just go online and people are like, “You’re amazing!” It’s cut out the need for people to actually be out in the world sharing their creativity with a crowd, because the crowd is already there. If I can just go on my phone and make witty observations while I’m watching the Emmys, I don’t really need to finish that song that I was working on, because I already did some creative things today.

Gibbard’s observation hit a little closer to home for me than I would have liked, so I’ve tried to scale back on my social media interactions when I’m in writing mode. Instead, I watch. Listen. Absorb. And channel everything I want to say into my writing.

Or, as Robin Williams put it in The Birdcage…

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13 Responses to The Horse Latitudes

  1. Jewel Hanley says:

    Good advise.

  2. Jewel Hanley says:

    Good advise.

  3. Janet Reid says:

    My apartment is cleanest when I have some sort of horrid editing project staring at me. Oh yes, the shiny lure of Lysol to avoid work.

  4. Chris Holm says:

    Thanks, Jewel! And Janet, I have a good friend who flunked out of college because he had to tidy before he could get any studying done, and his roommate was a Tasmanian devil of mess and destruction. Thankfully, I’m not quite that bad… nor is Katrina that messy!

  5. Lea Wait says:

    I’m in a parallel bunker, Chris! Endurance to both of us. But — especially — love the clip you posted. The Birdcage is one of my favorites … but I’d forgotten that scene. Wonderful way to begin the morning!
    Write on!

  6. Chris Holm says:

    Thanks, Lea! Happy wording!

  7. The whole post was perfection…until I got to the Birdcage clip. Then it became priceless! 🙂

    Okay. Back to writing.


  8. Chris Holm says:

    Thanks, Linda! I’d like to think, deep down, we’re all secretly doing an eclectic celebration of the dance… but we keep it all inside.

  9. Thanks for the Birdcage clip, Chris. I also am deep in the world of my own words (revision, in my case), and allow myself to glance at just a few blogs a day (this one, and Janet Reid’s of course) because I am so easily distracted when I feel overwhelmed.

    I know it will pass, but not unless I stay off the ‘net. My mantra is going to be Twyla, and Twyla and Twyla until I’m on the other side.

  10. Chris Holm says:

    Who knew that Birdcage clip would strike such a nerve? I worried in this GIF era, no one would hang in long enough to find out how the heck it tied in with my post. Good luck with your revisions, Brenda!

  11. Great post, Chris. Been there. Will be there again, having forgotten how wretched creating the middle of the book can be. Right now I’m remembering how hard it is to write the beginning. Let’s face it, as much as we love it, writing is darned hard work whatever stage the book is at!! Reading a few select blogs with my coffee, especially those that make me smile, helps me make a good start on my day . . . as long as I manage to limit the reading to just a few and then shift all my focus to the WIP. Some days that’s harder than others.


  12. Bruce Robert Coffin says:

    Lol. You made my day with this. Bravo. Spot on and funny.

  13. Chris Holm says:

    Thanks, Bruce and Kathy! And Kathy: good luck with that new WIP!

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