Writing, illness and outlining

“It creeps up on you,” says my writer friend.


Like a live lobster being cooked… gosh can I smell seafood?

“Yes!” I swig from my third coffee. It’s the only way I can stay alert. “Like a live lobster being cooked… gosh can I smell seafood?”

We’re talking about the experience of getting ill, slowly, almost imperceptibly, and then one day sitting down to write and nothing happens… or nothing worthwhile. (I’m sure this experience is not unique to writers; I could have entitled this post “Brain work… etc”)

Over the second half of 2014, my sinuses gradually closed up. it was like having a continuous, worsening hangover leavened by periods of being a sleepy-drunk. The lost of mental acuity, putting it mildly, absolutely sandbagged my creative output after Storyteller Tools 

Like that lobster, I had no idea what was happening to me. Without thinking, I slowly upped my coffee until I was drinking two double shot lattes in the day just to function–that plus the one in the morning to wake up.

Then the cold damp weather hit, the caffeine stopped working and I just couldn’t finish the short story I was working on.

Cue rising sense of panic — writing like any vocation is an identity as well as a source of income. If I can’t write, I’m not me anymore.

And then you realise you’re an idiot and that we’re all vulnerable to bad health. (And dear God(s) I’m glad I’m not Terry Pratchett right now.)

But here’s the interesting thing.

The weather cleared for an afternoon, the curtain of fug lifted just long enough for me to re-outline the story. Then, despite the sinusy miasma, I wrote the draft to The End.

Now, I’ve compared notes with other writer friends. It seems it’s quite common for bad health and mild depression to knock out the more abstract structural faculties while leaving us able to lose ourselves on the details of the narrative. So, if we know what we’re writing we can write the prose and — perhaps — that prose is all the more vivid for the vivid day-dreamy state of our brains.  .

It explains why, back when, time off work with flu rarely resulted in wordcount , and why writing — though it makes a great leisure activity — is hard to fit into the late evening once you’re past that adolescent waking literary dream phase.

It also explains why I was nevertheless able to write my first novel in lunchtimes in the old Blind Beggar and on the train; I was working from outline.

For me, one of the powers of outlining is that it captures that first flush of sweeping creativity; we can paint with a broad brush without getting lost in the details.

I now realise that outlining also captures the output from moment when you can create at a structural level.

So, if you write in snatched and stolen time, or battle ill health, then my advice is outline — or at least plan — when you can so that you can lose yourself in the draft in those other darker times.


Try Storyteller Tools, my book on outlining and planning! In it I show you how to use Conflict Diagrams and other tools to create an effective outline.



Writer. Swordsman. CLICK TO SEE MY BOOKS !

Posted in Outlining, Writing Life, Writing Tips
3 comments on “Writing, illness and outlining
  1. Geoff Hart says:

    I feel your pain. Literally, since I have the sinuses from hell and every ENT doctor I’ve asked says their perfectly normal, at least structurally. I rely way to heavily on decongestants, and have resolved to look into this “neti pot” thing in the new year. It sounds absolutely disgusting, but people swear by them.

    For the past few years, I’ve been exhausted. Part of the problem turned out to be a combined B12 and iron deficiency, which is on the one hand, weird, because we eat an insanely healthy diet, and on the other hand, not surprising given that my sister also has this deficiency. So maybe there’s something genetic going on. Combined with long days editing ESL authors, it left precious little metnal energy for any other writing by the end of the day. I’ve got a huge backlog of ideas I want to work on.

    For me, the problem is that fiction is much harder and offers fewer rewards; nonfiction just flows more easily, and the payback is immediate and gratifying. Still, I’ve resolved to spend more time writing this coming year. It could actually happen.

    I agree with you about the value of outlines. I use them to capture the high points of an idea and record my enthusiasm. When I do finally have time to write, the outline gets me on track.

    • mharoldpage says:

      Neti pots are awesome and less gross than the alternative…

      I agree fiction *is* harder because of all those layers and connections. I certainly find it easier to blog than to fictionise when I am tired.

  2. Loyd Jenkins says:

    This may explain some of my problems finishing stories. My health and energy levels have been very up and down over the last few years. I will take your advice and go to a more outline based process.

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