The Writing Benefits of ‘Flu Brain’

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While the flu had hold of me, I couldn’t remember the names of things. It was like my brain had just stopped dealing with minor details as it re-ordered itself. That frightened my daughter who began to ask for instructions on paying bills. I took naps.

When I began to want to write again I found myself looking at my story from a different perspective. I wasn’t entangled in little things and I suddenly had a bird’s eye view of my story. I have six main characters (is that too many? I don’t know. I’ve tried getting rid of one or another and encountered a full-scale rebellion from all of them, so they stay). In the week between Christmas and New Years I printed out everything I had, separated the scenes by character, clipped each one with a convenient cover sheet for notes and set about reading them. My goal was to be sure each character had a coherent story and then I would weave them together.

That strategy collapsed right away as I had already interwoven them in scenes more than I remembered, so I stalled out.

Next I unclipped everything and began interweaving the scenes in narrative order. That’s when the advantages of Flu Brain kicked in. No longer obsessing over details, I could see not just what was wrong with what I had, but why. The overall structure was, in fact, not what I thought I had mapped out and that was a problem, but I was no longer too close to the story to see what needed fixing.

When I first started writing fiction I would see a red flag if one character had tea with another. Maybe having tea works in certain situations—Jane Austin, for instance—but for me it was a sign that things were going too smoothly. So all references to having tea are gone, but not the lingering problem, which was that my characters were just too … well … perky. They are supposed to be in the depressed and neglected Ordinary World, the one that is going to change as everyone starts on their character arc and they were just doing a little too well.

The Ordinary World is supposed to be mundane, lacking in color and energy, a contrast to the world of the story to come. My Ordinary World also has to have a sense of paralysis, perhaps something like a fairy curse and not only was that absent, but there was no sense of a desire on anyone’s part for that to change.

Happily, Flu Brain also gave me immediate clues to the solution. At this point I may be on schedule and I may not, but I’ve got a better story.

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