Dec 16, 2022 • 21M

The Corona Diaries

What happens to writing when we're sick

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Caroline Donahue
Ever wondered how to write a mystery novel? Peek over my shoulder as I share my audio diary of writing the first book in a new series. Along the way, I'll share conversations with published mystery authors and their advice on what it takes to write a mystery readers can't put down.
Episode details

Welcome to the second episode of the Oh! Murder podcast. I debated the merit of recording an episode after being sick for ten days and decided that the insights I’d had about writing when we’re sick were important enough to include. Please excuse the slightly tired voice.

Given that all of us have had interruptions to our writing schedule, because of our own illness, a loved one’s, or even a demanding stretch of work, I hope these tips to tolerate the interruption and come back from it effectively are useful to you.

Let’s get to it.

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Resources mentioned:

  • Intuitive Editing, Tiffany Yates Martin

  • How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, edited by Lee Child and Laurie R. King

  • StoryGraph: not explicitly mentioned, but the app that allows me to see what percentage of my reading is fiction vs. nonfiction as well as track other metrics.

  • V.E. Schwab on The Secret Library

  • Danny Ramadan on The Secret Library

Have a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year. I’ll be back with the next episode in 2023.

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Transcript of Episode Two:

Hey everyone. Welcome back to the Oh Murder Podcast. I'm calling this episode “the Corona Diaries” because I am finally coming out the other side of Covid D, which took me down last week. But as of today, recording, I'm on day 10 and feeling about 90—95%. My voice is still a bit scratchy, so excuse me if it [00:01:00] sounds a little crackly.

 That's about the best I've got at the moment and I debated recording this episode because I haven't written per. In the last week because of being sick, but ultimately decided this was every bit as important as episodes reporting on high productivity. And I think it's quite common that we think nothing happened or that we're somehow not doing valuable work when we're not sitting and typing.

And by extension that we. Real writers or not valid writers when we don't have additional output to show for it. So I ultimately felt it was really important to talk about what happens to writing when you're sick and what it can mean. [00:02:00] So obviously I did not sit at my desk and type additional scenes in the last week and the first few days of being sick, I wasn't even really reading.

I was just lying around, staring at the wall , and this is not fun, but it's what happens when you have various illnesses and all of us have been there. But what I found was that having a real forced break from working forward on this story allowed me to get some distance from it. So sometimes if you're sick, just accepting that.

There is going to be distance from the project and that you can choose to see it as helpful is enough to make it feel less crappy in the moment. And I was at a point where I felt like I had used up the initial ideas I had to lie out the story. So it was a good time for this to happen. [00:03:00] And yes, it slows the momentum down to be lying around and not working on the project but I found that the weird mental state of being in a fog, which was the case for the middle part of the time of having covid, that sort of weird, dreamy ideas drifted around and not dismissing them. pointless or not valuable because I'm not completely with it or don't feel as sharp as I normally do.

Let me think about, okay, how can this state of mind either inform an experience that a character has? Do you have characters in your book who are disoriented or out of it at varying points? If you're sick, you have a particularly good head space and [00:04:00] some quality sense memories to infuse that with. So since my story takes place on a boat and people will be hit with seasickness, I feel like this sense of, ugh, I feel woozy.

I don't feel great getting out of bed. I can remember that a lot more clearly now than I had before. So I'm going to call that a. , but also as I came through the worst of it, I started reading again. And interestingly, it was much easier for me to read nonfiction than fiction. Based on my tracking this year of what I've been reading and not particularly controlling what I'm reading, just reading what I want to read (other than books that I need to read for the podcast) I have naturally gravitated to about 75—80% fiction in 2022.[00:05:00] 

However, I had a couple of non-fiction writing books I had been slowly picking my way through during the year, and the concreteness of this felt really grounding and helpful. So if you find that when you're sick, your reading tastes change, I would lean into that. So I finished a book about mystery written by multiple mystery writers, giving general advice about the genre.

And I also read a book about revision called Intuitive Editing that I had enjoyed but just found dense. I read a chapter at a time over the fall, but it was really enjoyable to finish when feeling sick. I went through the rest of it and I found that changing this reading pattern gave me a lot of [00:06:00] insight and also multiple ideas of things I might want to try in the manuscript.

Shifting over to nonfiction was definitely a source of inspiration and excitement, and made me feel eager to get back to the book when I was feeling better. I encourage you to try that. Maybe you read lots of nonfiction and you want to try some fiction.

If you feel really exhausted, I also found rereading books helpful and instructive, both because I didn't have to be as sharp to follow all the twists and turns of the story because I already understood it, but also I felt like I noticed how things were happening. I talked about that last time, but I continued that practice and found it helpful.

So the other thing is what to do when you're [00:07:00] at the point where I am: I'm 10 days out from being sick, I'm feeling at 90%, and I'm ready to move back into actually writing. This is a really important point, and it comes up a lot with students and clients.

I see this repeatedly and I also feel the tendency in myself: a desire to continue as if no interruption happened. So let's say you were writing X number of words fairly easily before getting sick. There is a desire to just return to that same number and plow ahead or — I really hope this isn't an impulse that you'll give into, but to write even more hoping to make up the time that you've missed.

Please, please, please don't put the [00:08:00] pressure on yourself to make up for being sick. Everybody gets sick, things happen, everybody gets busy. Everybody has a rough week at work, et cetera, or even has a sick person in the family, a sick child or parent or other person who you need to take care of. These things happen.

Try not to put the pressure on yourself that you have to somehow rebalance the scales or erase what happened. There's no need to do that. And actually the most effective way for me to go back in is to cut down to at least half of what I was producing before, because when you've been sick, you already feel crummy.

You already feel like, okay, I feel weaker. I'm more tired. I get exhausted more easily, and we're disappointed by the interruption. So the most important thing is to have a quick win when coming back. [00:09:00] I try cutting the goal down in half, or even down cutting it down 75% if needed to say, okay, I can easily do that and feel good about it.

It's more important to feel good about what you accomplish when you're coming back from a break than it is to have really impressive results because when we feel good, then we want to continue writing. I am going to set myself a goal of probably, somewhere in the 300 word range in the initial days of being back and just play with small ideas that came up and bubbled to the surface while I was sick, and that's all I'm going to ask of myself.

I was getting pretty close to a thousand words a day in the days before getting sick, but there's no way I'm going to start with that because it will feel discouraging really quickly.

The [00:10:00] other thing, and this comes from an episode of the Secret Library from years ago that I still think about often with V.E. Schwab, when she very intelligently dclarified that we need to expand what we think of as writing.

We often think of sitting and typing as writing and everything else as ‘not writing’, and we need to really shift this, particularly when we've been sick, because there are plenty of things that have happened during that time that are writing-related activities. Reading a non-fiction book about writing is writing.

Daydreaming about the book is writing. Even having experiences that could give us more information about the [00:11:00] story itself. Like, oh, seasickness is a bit like being sick in bed. That's also writing. 

Defining activities as writing related is an enormous deal. If we can think about the time we've spent lying in bed, the time we've spent daydreaming, the time we've spent reading as writing as well. Then this is extremely helpful, and it's true — I'm not even making this up because if we don't do those things, writing doesn't happen.

Even watching films or looking at articles online, anything that we might do while lying in bed and sick can be part of the writing process. I'm not suggesting that we should be productive while sick, but just if that naturally happens, then [00:12:00] count it. But don't delay your recovery by forcing yourself to be productive or have something to show for the time when you were sick.

You don't have to have anything to show for it. But the nice thing is if you don't pressure yourself to have something to show for it, things happen. I noticed that as I read, and particularly as I reread, that there were little details inside of the books I was reading, where I thought, Hmm, there's something about that approach that could help my book.

And this could be many things. Some of it could be the way a scene is structured, huh? I like how they started at that point in the scene. I like how this lead-in happened, or I like the way this conversation was organized, [00:13:00] and these can almost become templates because your story is naturally going to be quite different from what you're reading.

I am never really afraid of reading books and then thinking about how I could run a successful approach through the lens of my book because I have completely different characters, a completely different setting, a completely different time period, and a completely different situation and crime.

So if I look at a historical mystery that has one small detail that I think, hmm, adding a clue in that manner could really help something in my story. It doesn't read as obvious to other people who are reading the book. We think things are really, really obvious when in reality they're not.

This past season of the Secret Library, I spoke to Danny Ramadan, who talked about consciously referencing Hamlet during a particular point in his novel. I have read Hamlet. Most of us know Hamlet, but only when he overtly referenced in the conversation this did I realize, “Oh yes, of course. I can see that happening clearly.”

Even a story that is universal and extremely well known, like Shakespeare, I didn't pick up on as a deliberate reference, but I enjoyed the impact and the meaning of that section of his book. It read completely differently because it was in another setting, in another time period, with completely original characters.

I bring that up [00:15:00] as a way to protect you from worrying about whether this will be really obvious to everyone else. We always think our tricks and tips and methods that we use will blare like neon to other people when they read them, but it's never that obvious. Just like when we have early ideas about a story and we change it through revision, our book is always going to look like Frankenstein to us.

I hacked this part off, and then I moved this scene over and then I sewed it back together and I put a new arm on and so on. But to everybody else, it looks like it was always that way. It doesn't look so patched together because we're the only ones that know how it happened. As you're reading, think about strategies that you're seeing that could work for your own story.

The other thing that I find really helpful [00:16:00] when I get stuck on something is that I don't allow the stuckness to stay in the form of a sentence. So, for example, I wouldn't let myself sit with, “ugh, I don't like the way this character is behaving in this scene, the way this character is behaving in this scene doesn't make sense to me.”

That’s stated like it's a fact and it's not flexible and there's no room for it to change. So one thing that I played with this week while sick was transforming any stuckness I had about the book into questions. And in particular, I prefer to think about any stuckness that comes up as “how” or “what” questions. With murder, you might have “who”, as in “Who else might have done this?” is helpful. But I find the ones that generate the most useful material are how or what questions. So if we go back to our, “I don't [00:17:00] like the way this character is behaving in this scene”, it's not helpful, so I could change it into “What could this character do in this scene that would further the story?” Or “how could this character behave that would feel more engaging?”

(or more satisfying or whatever adjective I want to put in there.) So instead of just stating a fact that feels frustrating and like a big roadblock, I have inserted a question. This is a practice I like to do with students called The Incubated Question. It activates our unconscious, the creative subconscious part of our mind.

So if I have in my head, “how could this character behave in a way that furthered the plot?” then that collects information. Then a little subconscious researcher pulls little options and answers to this question. So if I have this going, [00:18:00] then when I read and I see a potential solution, then I will notice it.

Instead of thinking, “Ugh, I hate this scene. This character is not working for me.” Instead, we say, “How could they behave in a way that furthers the plot? Hmm. I'm reading this story where this character did this. Would that work?”

And so we have little ideas and ahas bubbling up. Just doing that, just having questions in our mind for potential solutions to be drawn from our reading, is a hugely useful way to make use of time. I would say that this is just as important as actually writing scenes because we write the scenes to determine what the questions are, but we need to have these questions running in order to solve those issues and make [00:19:00] the story more successful.

This is what my process has been over the last week, and this accidental yet complete break from writing has given me plenty of time to incubate new ideas, and I feel like I have tons of new material to bring to the book when I come back to it, which feels great. Hopefully, this gives you some ideas and some options and some ways to approach your own book if you get sick or have an interruption.

I'd be very curious to hear what has been successful for you when you've been sick, or the particular frustrations you've had, because we could address them in future episodes. But thank you for being here. Particularly as everyone listening to this episode in 2022 is a paid subscriber. It means the world to me that you value this work and are contributing to keeping this podcast going and helping me [00:20:00] to spend more time on my writing, which is a huge gift.

I hope that your writing is going well. After this week's episode, we'll be taking a holiday break. Happy holidays, whichever holidays you're celebrating, and a very Happy New Year. I'll be back with our next episode, the first week of 2023.

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