Chasing the Dragon (After a Fashion)

There’s a thing long distance runners experience, a euphoria that comes over when they are almost completely exhausted, when they push through “the wall.” It’s called a runner’s high. It’s something I’ve heard about but never experienced – long distance anything, much less running, isn’t really my thing. But I think writers go through something similar.

I first noticed this in my day job. Doing appellate work for criminal defendants takes a certain kind of mindset. You’re representing people who have already been convicted (in most cases pleaded guilty) and been sentenced. The entire criminal justice system is now designed to keep those results in place – only about three percent of criminal cases in my circuit are reversed in appeal in some fashion.

Sitting down to work on an appeal, then, comes with a lot of negative baggage. Sometimes you don’t have any good issues to raise, but the client wants the appeal and you have to do the best with what you have. Other times you have what you think are good issues, but in the back of your mind know that the chances of success are still between slim and none.

That means when you start writing, you’re mostly thinking “this is shit. It’s pointless and it’s not going to work.” But somewhere along the line, usually a few days out from the deadline when the brief is all you’ve been working on for a couple of days, something happens. You start to believe in what you’re arguing. That argument that seemed hopeless before now seems pretty damned clever. In the push to finish the damned thing you now figure you’ve got a shot at winning.

You don’t, not really, but you think you do. It’s a writer’s high. You get so deep into it that any trace of doubt you once had is gone. It’s a pretty good buzz (and it usually wears off by the time you drive home).

Writing fiction can work in the same way.

I’ve been working on the second draft of the second volume of The Water Road, trilogy, The Endless Hills. It can be a slog. A few paragraphs here, a couple of pages there. If I get an hour or so on a weekend or day off I can maybe make it through a chapter and it feels like real progress. But because I’m focusing on more mechanical things sometimes the actual story seems obscure. Throw in breaks to get Moore Hollow published and promoted and I wonder if I’m doing anything worthwhile.

A couple of weekends ago, a bunch of things coalesced to give me lots of time to write. For one thing I didn’t have any other functions that weekend. For another, it was grey and rainy most of the weekend, so there was hardly a desire to go out (or, even worse, a need to do yard work). So I cloistered myself away in my studio and got to work.

Over several hours, spread across two days, I cranked through more than fifty pages of manuscript, about 8000 words. It’s not a huge chunk of the book (the first draft was 127,000 words), but it was enough – it covered several chapters – to get me back into the story a bit. It helped that I was working through the climax of the book, a bloody engagement between two armies called the Battle of Tivol Market. The rubber, so to speak was meeting the road.

Around mid afternoon on Sunday I had about reached my limit. I had other things I wanted to do (the pull of the PS3 and a room full of synths can be strong), but I also knew I needed to keep going. But powered by interesting electronic burbles from Bandcamp, I pushed on. After too long, the writer’s high started to kick in.

Not only did the actual writing get easier, like I had crested a rise and started to run downhill, but it seemed better. Connections between characters, the flow of the action (spread across four different POVs), and the endgame all came into focus. Just like when I reach this point in a brief and I think I might win, I started to think this was pretty good!

Maybe it isn’t (more editing is needed, of course). But it feels good, regardless, to suddenly have something flowing from your fingers that seems to be working! It gives you confidence to keep going, to keep plugging away, word after word, even when it seems like drudgery.

That’s my dragon to chase. Gotta get back at it.

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