Resuming writing after hiatus depends on preparation

Preparation key to survivalWRITING IS FORWARD MOTION

Due to physical circumstances you do NOT want to hear about (I’m better now, thanks), I haven’t written a blog post since January 24th.

This is a long time for me. I usually manage to put up something or other once or twice a week, but it was literally impossible, even though I sat at the computer half the day, to put thoughts together. They would not coalesce for more than a few sentences in a row, and the fogged brain would not hold enough thought in mind for me to see anywhere to go with the following words.

Freaky. I’m used to having at least a short period every day in which I feel like myself. And I usually choose that period to spend writing.

And I usually block the internet off during that time so I don’t get distracted as much as usual (Look! A squirrel! Shiny!).

To show you how out of it I was, I could not bring myself to block anything. Write anything. Do more than click (where has all the CONTENT on the internet gone?) to try to find something I could read for a few minutes.

So none of that is important: coming back is

Yesterday, the brain came back! For a couple of hours! I blocked the internet!

And I faced the usual writer’s prospects: where the heck was I when I stopped writing?

And more importantly: what’s next?

And this is where I discovered that I have set up a number of good writerly habits which allowed me to almost pick up where I left off, automatically.

Seven choices a writer can make to prepare for the unexpected break

1. I date obsessively: Every time I have more than a few minutes’ break during writing, and to indicate there has been a break from the previous thoughts, I date the next entry. Scrivener makes this easy: OPT-CMD-SHFT-D automatically inserts the date and time at the cursor’s position. Sometimes this results in a single line, occasionally in a blank date entry, but it means I know where each time period started. And which pieces go together.

2. I think on the page: partly this is due to my CFS brain fog, but partly it is due to the fact that memory is unreliable, elusive, and the brilliant idea you have may disappear so completely if you don’t write it down that you don’t even remember having it! If you’re very lucky, similar circumstances may deliver that bit again – and then you’ll experience a shock of recognition. But don’t count on it! Record it.

3. I create a digital version: I have twenty notebooks filled with the ideas that have led to my books and stories. In a mostly-legible handwriting, though even I can find my own words illegible. But creating those notebooks took a lot of time, and so those ideas are often incomplete. Finding ideas, even with my brief list of contents on the front page of each notebook, is a nightmare. I’m a fast typist – and can store far more information when typing than when writing by hand in the same amount of time. The biggest benefit? DIGITAL is SEARCHABLE. It may take me a while, and going through every Scrivener project associated with the WIP, but if I can remember ANYTHING about an idea, I can find it.

4. I Journal obsessively: the amount of text in any one of my Scrivener projects reaches the tens of MBs. Pride’s Children: PURGATORY has at least three Scrivener projects with almost 100MB of text each. Within each project, each major subsection has a Journal, into which I dump anything not specific that runs through my head as I work.

5. I keep ideas in their own computer files: Scrivener makes this extremely easy. When I have a piece of an idea long enough to take up more than a line or two in the current Journal, I simply create a new file in the appropriate section, title it with the obvious, and dump a chunk of text into it. Later, I can search by title or contents, but a quick way for me, the human, to find the file in the list of files (the Binder) is convenient.

6. I save frequently: the thought of losing anything I’ve spent time creating – thoughts which fly from my head through my fingers and out onto the screen – and having to re-create them from scratch (I literally DUMP them out and scour the brain for all the bits and then FORGET them), terrifies me.

7. I back up conscientiously: my systems do a lot of automatic backing up, but, for example, when I have the internet blocked, I have disabled Dropbox – which means I have only my local external hard drive as a backup device (besides the software and Mac backups). Which means I have to turn it on, back up, and then turn it back off (it is very quiet, but has the tendency to come on when not asked to, and there IS a tiny high-pitched whine that drives me nuts). As soon as the internet is connected again, Dropbox provides another level of backup.

So how did preparation save my bacon?

I was out for ten days. Any trace of knowing where I was had vanished from the internal HD (the poor tortured brain) in the first couple of days.

As when I start a new project, it can take me days, weeks, months of pulling all the pieces together before I can start actually writing more than snippets. I had already done that, and was just at the point where ALL those pieces, loaded into the brain just right, were about to produce the final version of calendar/timeline/scenes that I need to write.

Yup, the bug picked the most vulnerable time possible to take me out: right before synthesis. Chalk one up for Murphy’s corollary: ‘Anything that can go wrong will, and at the worst possible time.’

Under the best of circumstances, synthesis is something I attempt only with my prime mind. I must be as rested and prepared as possible. It can’t be toward the end of a working day. Nor can it be before I feel a certain je ne sais quoi which tells me I’m in as good a state as I’ll ever be (a state sadly lacking since January 27th).

I start synthesis with a clean mind, and carefully load in every relevant piece, do the necessary thinking (!), and write everything down like crazy so the cross-connections don’t fail me. I live off that synthesis for the remainder of the time it takes me to revise the whole book.

I had everything loaded into the brain, and decided to tackle the synthesis clean the next morning. The Jan. 27 Journal entry reads: ‘The only thing left to do before I start the next phase is to make sure the dates on the scenes I have work okay.’

That night was hell.

Recovery was possible because EVERYTHING was there

Yesterday, when I finally felt human again, the first thing I did was to try to figure out where I was, before the Apocalypse hit.

I could not remember a word.

My desk was a pile of things which collected over ten days with no one at the helm, including detailed medical notes of what I took when what happened, and the results, naps and sleep and awake in the middle of the night time.

The disjointed ramblings (yes, I did write things down when I couldn’t think – that usually works; it didn’t this time) were duly recorded, but made no sense.

I did what the Time Machine does on a Mac: I went back to January 26th. I let Scrivener search for every file that had been changed on that day (about 20) and the 27th, as I was doing the last of my collecting.

I dumped everything since then out of my head, and RELOADED my brain.

I read for what seemed like hours.

And the past ten horrible days were as if they had never happened. Yesterday got me almost back to the final synthesis place when my good time ended, and today I hope to go the last steps I would have taken on the 28th.

And I could also blog again, so I did what I do – and recorded everything for my own benefit – for next time.

There is ALWAYS a next time.

I hope any of these choices are helpful. The brain is a wonderful thing, until it isn’t. I don’t trust mine any more – but I can live with that.

What say you?


Thanks to for a quick way to create visuals for blog posts.

26 thoughts on “Resuming writing after hiatus depends on preparation

  1. Catana

    This is getting scary. The more I read of your work, the more similarities I see between us. I don’t have CFS, thank goodness, but fibro fog and fatigue are nearly as bad. We’re both Mac and Scrivener users, and there’s Dune, of course, as I mentioned elsewhere.

    I always have a file of notes (originally wrote “folder” because I couldn’t think of “file”) in each Scrivener project, plus the Notes thingy, but I like your journal idea and dating. Organization is my nemesis, and while Scrivener has been my life saver, I see that I could still make better use of it. A great big thanks.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I’m sorry you have FM – it’s the one thing I don’t have, but friends have both, and neither is any fun to deal with.

      Yeah, I noticed the similarities, too. Except that you have chosen to write SF, and I started with mysteries and went to writing mainstream now.

      Scrivener has been such a blessing. The more I dumped into Word, the harder it got. Scrivener just takes a few more seconds when I do a backup. The amount of stuff I have in there is amazing – and I probably use every feature there is except Markdown. It was a long learning curve because there is so much functionality in there. I recommend Gwen Hernandez’ course to new people. She gets you up and running.

      Mac and Dune – says it all. Glad to meet you.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      It’s the only way for me to survive; I can’t count on myself, and I never know when something will come along and take my brain for five days – or two weeks, like just happened.

      Fortunately, I had a good day today, and it seems all those days were doing some work underground. A major chunk of the logjam broke today when I finally had the energy, and I should be ready to start revising/writing Book 2 in a couple of good sessions.

      What was holding me up was trying to find away around a plot point I’ve known I would have to do right – since I started this project. I faced that – decided there IS no other way to get this story from beginning to end – and bit the bullet: it WILL happen. Some people may not like it. But if you think hard enough when I’m finished with the trilogy, you will see I had no other choice. And I TRIED finding an alternate way.

      I didn’t develop some of those habits intentionally, but they are certainly there now.


      1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

        I faced that – decided there IS no other way to get this story from beginning to end – and bit the bullet: it WILL happen. Some people may not like it.

        Oooooh! I can’t wait! I bet it will be awesome. 😀


  2. denisebaer

    Glad you’re feeling better. It sounds like you are very organized and prepared for the worst. I hear lots of good things about Scrivener, and have considered it, but as much as I embrace change, I can’t seem to veer away from my own writing practices. Best of luck to you with the writings.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thanks, Denise. I seem to have a complex brain left from way back: I use Dramatica and Scrivener, and have set up Scrivener to create a one-click epub file. Word didn’t have the organizational capabilities that Scrivener has designed in. But all my software required a lot of learning time. I hope I write enough books to be worth it!


  3. Janna G. Noelle

    I’m glad you are feeling better and good for you for having systems that help you work efficiently through your condition. I use a lot of those similar systems as well. Although I had to laugh as I first started reading your list: I saw I date obsessively: Every time I have more than a few minutes’ break during writing…, and my mind went in a totally different direction (“You go girl!”) 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You’re funny – I am a long-time married woman (40 years)!

      I just get started, and life interferes: tomorrow the roofers will be here at 10 am to fix what they didn’t do before, and again forward progress is interrupted.

      I’ll get there, but I sometimes wonder how I managed to actually finish Book 1. And yet, there it is. I picked it up and read a bit tonight. It reassured me.

      Hope yours is going well.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Holly Jahangiri

    I’m so glad you’re feeling better – and that you have your systems in place to “reboot” your brain when needed. This is my biggest fear and my worst-planned-for fear, I think – that one day, I’ll just not be able to reconstruct all the cats I juggle in my head on a regular basis. Or one will slip out my ear when I’m not looking, and take its kitten-thoughts with it.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      If I’d had to reply on anything that required thought, I’d be dead in the water.

      The point was that, over time, I’ve acquired these habits deliberately, and keep them up fairly automatically, and I just reaped the benefit: easy re-up after crash. The bug felled me so quickly and majorly that I had no time for conscious thought, planning, taking notes. Nada.

      But I had it covered.

      My other point is that this is all so automatic that it costs me nothing when I do it – that date-stamping thing happens if I trot off somewhere else, write ten words into a different file, and come back. And it has saved me from many other losses.

      And I’m not exactly what you call an organized writer. Maybe I need this more because of that. Write it down – it’s be there when you figure out what to do with it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jessica M

    I’m sorry to hear of your trials, but very glad that you are now feeling a little better. I’m a strong proponent of writing things down, whether it’s on the computer notepad (I have a .txt file with many random “notes” on it) or any scrap of paper lying around near me. I even have email drafts if an idea comes to me while I’m at work. Technology can be invaluable, and it’s great that you’d created that habit long before you had this spell. All my files are automatically uploaded to “the cloud,” and I have made it a habit to hit that Ctrl-S anytime my hand pauses during writing. I don’t trust that autosave feature, any more than I trust my brain!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thanks – and I AM better, except I’m afraid to eat things, lest it set off waves of pain again – a bit skittish here.

      I think, because I’m usually in my comfy chair at the desktop, that it is possible for me to NOT save things on tiny scraps. They go straight into the computer, somewhere, onto the automated Scrivener backup within seconds, and the HD within the hour; the cloud within 3-5 hours. I do use paper when I absolutely have to, but I usually type them in quickly when I get back.

      Digitized and searchable it the key to finding things for me. I know it’s mostly drivel at that stage, but there are ideas I NEED – or the subconscious wouldn’t have given them to me. You turn down enough offerings, and the Muse is said to go away.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Circe

    I am not alone! But I must become more obsessive. And ready for tomorrow or whenever my brain can synthesize again. Taking typhoid pills is making me delirious. Only one left to go on Tuesday. Also deliriously happy not to have typhus. The yellow fever vaccination resukted in head and bidy aches. So what? Nothing new! But extra confusion from typhoid pills over a week makes me think I should have chosen the vaccination.
    If I ever blog again, I will try to explain why I have decided to take a trip to Brazil (back & there on red-eye flights.) This will involve a level of sophistry I am not quite up to today. I cannot yet quite rationalize this to myself.


  7. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Like you, I think on the page. Especially at the beginning of a project, when I’ve got thousands of elements that need to come together before the story starts to coalesce. Also when I encounter difficulties while writing, when the scene or a character doesn’t come clear in my mind. I have to see it and feel it strongly, as though it were real, in order to write the story. Thinking on the page (not the story page, but the notes and brainstorming page) brings me the clarity I need.

    I’m so glad you have found/created the tools you need, Alicia, so that your writerly life can proceed, even after illness and injury sideline you. Write on!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Me, too. Systems save you from having to rethink from scratch.

      The last time I had to reload after something like this, I was completely lost. I feel like a fussy old writer, but it is better when you don’t have to remember stuff that seems to have disappeared completely.

      Don’t forget: USE your tools. So regularly you wouldn’t think of not using them.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Circe

      My apologies for spelling errors above. No heat in house. I’m in a darkish room with a space heater and a smallish iPhone. How does one correct errors in comments?


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          It usually reminds me to proof more – I don’t bother unless they’re egregious – but I prefer not to be known as someone who can’t tell it’s from its. Pet peeve.

          The brain fails sometimes – and I’m horrified. Then I try to fix them. If not, well, this is blog stuff, not book stuff. I’ll reply with a mea culpa to my own comment, like you.

          Liked by 2 people

  8. juliabarrett

    When you finish something, there’s down time. It’s necessary for recovery and rebooting. I embrace it, never worry about it. :))



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