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….
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