Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Whatever Works

In March of 1999 I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. I was working on a novel at the time, but set it aside to focus on getting well, even though an editor at a major CBA publishing house had called me on the basis of a proposal and was interested in seeing more.

Fast forward to the end of that year. My treatment had ended and I was ready to get back to writing. While I'd come through chemotherapy and radiation treatment suffering few side effects (lost my hair and had a bit of mouth pain), it wasn't until I was through it all that I encountered what would prove to be the most difficult struggle. Chemo fog.

It's a common side effect, but one I wasn't warned about, and therefore unprepared for. For many months I struggled to write again, thinking I had simply lost my discipline. Concentration was difficult. Short term memory was shot. I would spend time developing story threads in the current chapter only to read back over earlier work and find I had already done so, weeks prior. What direction the story should go was suddenly foggy. The story ground seemed to shift under my feet. After several months of spinning my wheels in the mess I was making, I gave up.

It would be five years and several false starts later before I began writing the type of novel that is my passion, sprawling epic historical fiction. I believe God healed me in April of 2004, when I embarked on the journey of writing KINDRED (with encouragement from the same editor who had been interested in my previous novel, who had by then become my friend). It truly felt like a switch had been flipped in my brain, and what for five years had been stuck on OFF, was suddenly ON. But with some differences.

I could not for the life of me write the story in a linear form. From 1991 -- 1999, my writing years before chemo (BC), I had written every story from Chapter 1 through to the end. My post-chemo brain didn't want to work that way. I could see vividly several key scenes and knew they belonged in the story, but they felt like scenes from the middle of a book, not the beginning.

Instead of worrying about it, I decided to embrace the thrill of seeing and hearing characters talking in my head again and went ahead and wrote those scenes. Then I wrote a few more. Eventually the scenes began hooking up. Bits of outline filled in the blank spots. Maybe a year into the process I knew where the story started. I showed up for work each day and the outline kept building. Scenes got written. I found The End and a sprawling 325,000 word novel was finished (which needed to be severely edited, but that's another story told in other posts!).

My goal during this process, which took a little over five years, was to do on any given day whatever it took to keep me writing, to keep myself enthusiastic about the story so that I wanted to show up again the next day, and the next. If that meant abandoning a scene half finished to write another that was speaking with a louder voice, so be it. If that meant leaving the beginning of the novel a blank for a year or longer, so be it.

It worked for me. I'm still writing. But doing whatever it took made the writing of KINDRED a longer process than I would have liked. Hoping for a shortcut with the next book, WILLA, I tried to go about some plotting beforehand. Not that I hadn't done any plotting with KINDRED. Just not nearly so much as I'd have done BC. With WILLA, I tried several different story plotting methods that authors I respect have praised. They either left me frustrated, or worked to a point and then... didn't.

Each writer is unique. Not every story plotting method is going to work for everyone. For some (like me, apparently), no method is going to work but the one you piece together over time. By all means try another writer's method for plotting a novel, or building a character, if this is something you feel you need. If it helps you corral those story people in your head and get them headed in the right direction, great. If it doesn't, don't despair, and don't entertain thoughts of failure.

I'm writing WILLA linear. It's working well so far, I think in large part because I've been writing regularly now since 2004, and it's become habit again. I'm no longer desperate to keep myself writing. It's what I get up in the mornings to do. What I think about doing when I go to sleep at night.

So what's the plotting/writing process look like for me? I'll write about it in my next post. This one's long enough and I hear some story people calling....


  1. Anonymous6:46 PM

    Sweet and relatable Lori. I didn't have cancer, but I do have a large family and a special child to care for :-).

    Not the same I know, but distracting nonetheless. I bought the book The War of Art and...Cowboy Slang :), to get my ranch juices flowing again. I must, as you say, get myself into the mode of writing everyday and not just emails and Facebook....I need to finish my MS!

    God bless your fingers and your brain,

  2. Karen, I haven't finished The Art of War for Writers yet, but so far it's been good. I got sidetracked with a stack of research from the library. I've been a sponge the past few weeks. It's great, but I think my brain may burst!

    I want you to finish that book too, and there's nothing like finding a source for just the right lingo to help get you back into the proper head-space. May God increase your focus in the time that you have and provide you reliable respite.

  3. Lori and Karen, you're both such a blessing to me. :-)

    Lori, I'm so blessed that you found your 'new' method of writing, and that you've kept on writing, even though it hasn't been easy.

  4. Maisey, I think we all have our challenges, eh? I stand amazed at YOU, for all you do with three little ones now. There is such peace in knowing God's plan is working out for each of us, and that He will withhold NO good thing from those who are walking this life road with Him. One of these days we're going to run into each other off line, at Target or someplace, and I'm going to give you a huge hug. Watch for it!

  5. Hey Lori,
    I haven't visited in a while and enjoyed this post. I like how you said you hear characters' voices in your head. I don't. Instead, I hear a lecture, like someone teaching. Often it is me, other times a teacher/speaker/preacher I admire and respect. I don't hear a story (except on ocassion), I hear something didactic or expository. That different voice produces different styles of writing. My latest - article "Married to the Wrong Person" on Family Fountain (Please visit if you get a chance).

    I'd never heard of the chemo fog. I'm glad God healed you of it. And it was interesting to read how you wrote different parts of the story as they came to you, even if they were out of order.

    Good post. Keep writing!

  6. Hi Warren! Good to see you here. :-) I'm glad you commented because you touched on something I'd never thought about before... what sort of voices do nonfiction writers hear? Now I know!

    I eventually learned that many writers have suffered through chemo fog, post cancer treatment. Whenever I run across one who is in the midst of that, I'm so happy to tell them that it WILL get better, and not to give up. I've found that most writers don't take as long as I did for the fog to clear (and some never experience it). I do wonder at times if I might have gotten through it sooner if I'd known this is what I was struggling with. I gave up quite a few times, and spent many months involved in other creative pursuits, thinking I'd never write again. If I had kept plugging away, no matter how futile it felt, would I have reached that place of healing sooner? Maybe. But I might have missed out on KINDRED... and that doesn't bear thinking about, from my POV. :-)

  7. I admire your courage for continuing to write, many would have given up. I look forward to reading your method of writing.

  8. Glynis, Oh, I did give up, several times, and had to come to terms with the fact I might never again write the kind of stories I longed to write. But in 2004 I decided to give it one... more... try. In so many ways KINDRED was a gift of grace.

  9. Dearest Lori, I catching up on my blog reading from my little hiatus. You just amaze me! God amazes me more! He is so faithful and I'm so thrilled that he has brought you through such a difficult season. Although I've never had cancer, I've walked with some loved ones down that road so I know it is not easy. What I can relate to is some of the brain fog. I have had many health issues through the years (11 surgeries - anthesthesia brain), and I suffer from fibromyalgia and chronic migraines. I also have ADHD. So as you see, my head is a bit fuzzy. I always feel like it takes me the long way around to get any clarity of thought or organization. And when I do it is always with an extreme attention to detail to make sure it is correct. It's a challenge to say the least. So if the Lord ever allows me to be published it will be such a huge accomplishment for me and a testimony to his faithfulness and grace in my life. If I don't get published, I still am grateful because every day is a true miracle.

    Be blessed, sister, you are so precious in His sight! Thank you for sharing this with us.

    Love & Blessings,

  10. Carla,

    "I always feel like it takes me the long way around to get any clarity of thought or organization. And when I do it is always with an extreme attention to detail to make sure it is correct."

    You could be describing me, too, there. And I'd be embarrassed to say how often I've had to reresearch something because the information has gone into hiding somewhere in my brain. Happens all the time. It certainly is a challenge, but as you say, every day that some writing is accomplished is a gift from the Lord, and a miracle. That's how I see it now, too. I'm blessed to know He's brought you through and continues to sustain you in your writing.

    "So if the Lord ever allows me to be published it will be such a huge accomplishment for me and a testimony to his faithfulness and grace in my life. If I don't get published, I still am grateful because every day is a true miracle."

    Yes, and amen! Nothing like having something taken away for a season and then restored to make you truly appreciate it for the gift that it is, for itself, and not necessarily where it might take you, or what it might gain you.

    Thanks for sharing more of your journey, Carla, and may He bless us both with strength and diligence and an ever clearer memory!