A Productive Day

Posted: May 4th, 2012 under Contents, Craft, the writing life.
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A productive day is a day on which at least 2000 words pile up.    I’ve been dealing with 1000 word days, 850 word days, 1600 word days, even 1854 word days…but the clear-sailing ahead 2000 word days have been thin on the calendar.   Today was one of them, plus some.

As icing on that cake,  most of that was written in a chapter that is technically difficult.    Here’s the problem (and it’s one that happens repeatedly in long works.)   Characters sleep.    Characters fall off horses, walls, roofs…they are beset by enemies who give them a whack with a branch or a rock or a barrel stave.   They get drunk and pass out, or someone puts a little something in their drink.    Inevitably, in the kind of stories I write, people lose consciousness (one way or another) and then regain consciousness (one way or another.)   And inevitably, sometimes the circumstances of losing (or regaining) consciousness are plot-relevant.

And yet…because it happens often enough in enough books–there’s a conception that if a character wakes up not knowing where she/he is, especially if the character is surrounded by impenetrable fog, or in a plain white room, or in the dark, or bobbing on a raft in the middle of an ocean, the writer wrote that because the writer is stuck, facing a blank page or computer screen with no idea what to do next.  Er.  No.

But the trick then is to help the reader understand the plot-relevance and not yawn and think “Well, here it is, the old woke-up-not-knowing-where-she-was cliche again…stupid writer, why not solve your own problem and write something better?”

Even I, who have had a generally placid and unadventurous life, have had several instances of waking up confused about where I was, when I was, and what had happened.  Two involved concussions (one without apparent loss of consciousness, according to witnesses, though there’s almost an hour gone from my memory) and one I still don’t understand except as an effect of post-travel exhaustion.

So anyway–today’s task was to write a scene in which someone with a traumatic brain injury wakes up, is confused, passes out again, wakes up again–and so on–and over time re-acquires the concept of language but not the person’s memory of the past.    From an interior POV (and I could use my own experience of waking up in confusion) and without boring you-the-reader (I hope!) while keeping the reader oriented to person and time while the character isn’t, and then bring the character to the point where the character’s able to interact with someone else–who can inform the character of a few facts and transition the character into being self-aware enough to do what the character has to do next.

I’ve been thinking about this scene for a week or more, in the background of other writing.  It’s the kind  of  scene that needs to be written all in one day (one afternoon/evening, it’s been)….it’s over 2000 words, because there’s a lot in it the reader needs to know about this person–the reader needs to understand what has “come back” and what is “never coming back” in terms of function, in order to understand (if not anticipate) the choices the character will make later on.

And it’s done, and it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t totally suck large granite boulders, either.    Everything the reader needs to know at this point is in there.    Not much if anything the reader doesn’t need to know at this point is in there.     The character’s confusion (which could be lots longer) is as short as I can get it and not leave important things out.    I left it for a couple of hours to watch stupid TV shows and clear my head, and coming back to it a little while ago…yeah.  It’s OK.   Getting it done is my excuse for eating a whole bag of chocolate covered caramels, one by one, through the writing.

It will of course need revision.    I need to think more about the punctuation choices I made.  To me, the ellipsis (the dot-dot-dot thing, for those who don’t know, which most of you do) is a good choice for uncertainty and confusion, but too much of anything leaches the meaning out of it.  But that’s for another day.


  • Comment by Ginny W. — May 5, 2012 @ 7:40 am


    Wow. I never really thought about how scenes like that get written or imagined. Even less about the what such scenes allow information from the back story to be reprocessed or put in suspension. It is a new way of looking at some scenes and subplots (and thus a good reason to reread some previous books).

    I personally am not so adverse to waking-up-in-a-fog scenes as I am to characters who encounter severe physical trauma (bashed by rocks or trees or laser stun guns or whatever; drugged to insensibility)and go on to meet physical and mental challenges with extraordinary agility and mental acuity.

    I have very much appreciated the way that your characters have to recover from their adventures – Paks was vulnerable when she escaped from the banast taig, and the elves who met her took advantage of that (in a small way) by deflecting her from the Halveric steading. Even more she was really disabled on multiple levels by her experience in Kolobia, and the healing had to occur on multiple levels as well. And it might not have happened at all (it was VERY depressing to have Divided Allegiance end and have to find Oath of Gold). Garris tells of Kieri going over the pass above Dwarfwatch, when Aliam Halveric goes in and out of consciousness, and Kieri becomes delirious from loss of blood. These convey something of the danger associated with being injured, and the need to have other people around who can fill in and see it through. They seem much more plausible to me. Thank you!

    On the down side, I am now filled with trepidation imagining which of my favorite characters is undergoing such a change…

  • Comment by Vikki — May 5, 2012 @ 2:43 pm


    I love chocolate covered caramels, although I prefer mine with pecans, and chewy caramel, not that soft, almost runny, stuff I sometimes encounter. Glad you had a good excuse to indulge.

  • Comment by David — May 6, 2012 @ 1:53 am


    Considering what happened to Paks in a similar circumstance, I’m eager to read this sequence (whenever the book finally appears) – my own personal experience with such things was traumatic enough (lost chunks of events that aren’t back, even after mumble-mumble years. Short and long term memory scrambles.)

    btw – I find that dark-chocolate covered walnuts are also conducive for inspiration and getting chapters done.

  • Comment by Jenn — May 6, 2012 @ 10:24 am


    Chocolate covered almonds for me. Drooling over the key board again.

  • Comment by KarenH — May 6, 2012 @ 12:57 pm


    I agree with Ginny W. about the waking up in a fog thing. Getting severely injured without getting negative consequences is so not real.

    Chocolate cream cheese (yes, it is in the dairy section) on rice crackers is my chocolate fix. I am gluten-intolerant and have to read labels for everything.

  • Comment by Elizabeth D. — May 6, 2012 @ 8:18 pm


    I agree with Ginny too; it’s better that the characters are affected by circumstances than unaffected.

    Strange things that go with some illnesses or allergies: low oxygen (such as asthma) can cause a fog, and can also cause a quick temper, and disorientation. Anything that is a poison (even strep or staph toxins in an infection) or allergy, that gets past the liver, will cause delirium.

    When I get into a particularly bad fog (lowish oxygen, about 92 or 93), I tend to hit the dark chocolate mixed with orange. I buy the fair exchange kind; it makes me feel a little less guilty. Albuterol for asthma raises the heartbeat to the 90s, but only increases the oxygen a little for me; the chocolate only increases the heartbeat if I have way too much.

  • Comment by pjm — May 6, 2012 @ 8:56 pm


    Mmmm – chocolate. Bad stuff, but GOOD bad stuff. Chocolate-coated coffee beans are good too, but not before bed-time!

  • Comment by Patrick Doris — May 7, 2012 @ 2:22 pm


    I understand about the in and out effect. I had a stroke in 1999 and I remember coming to consciousness when the breathing tube was being removed 4 or 5 days after the stroke. My wife told me that I had been wake and talking since a couple of hours after the stroke but those days are totally gone from my memory. I also lost my medium and long term facial memory capacity so there may be functional losses that are not immediately apparent.

  • Comment by Ginny W. — May 7, 2012 @ 3:48 pm


    I am sorry about your loss of long term facial memory. It must have been difficult at times.

    Memory is such a tricky thing. Even sleep deprivation can affect it. It seems that if the experiences are ‘stored’ with the right connections they become irretrievable. My stepfather had a brain tumor that affected his ability to respond to people – suddenly a very tactful and thoughtful man started making really tactless, even hurtful remarks and comments. It was very disturbing until the tumor was diagnosed, especially since there were no really obvious physical signs (like partial paralysis or slurred speech).

  • Comment by Karen — May 7, 2012 @ 4:29 pm



    I’m sorry too for all that you’ve suffered from your stroke.

    I’ve had a series of strokes myself, but I suspect they were for the opposite reason you did. Whatever the reason, though, the losses of memory are terrifying, the consequences mysterious, and the fear that another may occur can be difficult — for you and your family.

    In my case, my strokes were caused by something called “extreme labile hypertension. In other words, my blood pressure frequently vascilates from the extreme basement (i.e., no palpable pulse, even when I’m talking while lying down) to “this patient MUST be on medication.” It was the latter dictate that caused the problems in my case — I would have moments of stress (particularly gastric) and be leaning over my work, sitting in a chair, when it would occur to me that time had passed without my having accomplished a thing.

    It actually took several years and almost every diagnostic machine known to man to explain the reason that so many aspects of my memory were not what they had always been, as well as the basis of numerous drastic changes in my personality: I had been passing out frequently, but, because I was physically stable, my body hadn’t been able to take its normal course to the ground, thus letting gravity return blood to my brain.

    The good news is that I have, through intense work with doctors and my family, been able to recover enough memory to be able to function, if not enough to remember much more about my “blackouts” than when they began. The better news is that everything you read about the plasticity of memory is true, in that I’ve been able to form new connections between old memory pathways, so that things that were difficult as recently as a year ago are not impossible now.

    The bad news (or the good news, depending on your religious views) is that I had to abandon blood pressure meds, which means that, when I go, I hope to go out in a blaze of glory!

  • Comment by Frida — May 8, 2012 @ 2:16 am


    I agree on everything Ginny W, said. Haha especially about the part where I am now slightly worried about what character will “get it”.

    When I read a book where someone suffers an injury and immediately recovers to full health within a very short amount of time and then save the world, I stop taking the book seriously.

    It’s actually one of the things that impressed me about your books the first time I read them.

    You are supposed to sit there with a a stomach ache as your favourite characters recover from a bad injury he or she has a hard time recovering from. You are more…with the character then, I think.

    (Excuse my english, I’m Norwegian 🙂

  • Comment by Ed Schoenfeld — May 8, 2012 @ 7:40 am


    Patrick and Karen,

    Thank you for talking about your experience with stroke. My grandfather had a somewhat different experience. When he finally went to the doctor after what turned out to have been his second stroke the docs found evidence of the earlier on, not a transient, but something that should have put him in the hospital at the time. Grandpa had never even noticed — he later supposed it might have been a time that he felt dizzy while washing up from yardwork before going in to the foundry for a night shift. (In my mind, while Stammell’s physical description is different, his voice is exactly the same as Grandpa’s 🙂

    Brain injuries are so idiosyncratic, and yet the common reaction (to any illness) is to treat immediately and aggressively. Sometimes I think our society has become congentially unable to think “First, do no harm.”

  • Comment by Moira — May 8, 2012 @ 12:12 pm


    Patrick & Karen – thank you for sharing your experiences, and I’m sending good thoughts your way.

    Ed – you bring up a very good point about modern medicine and its seeming disconnect from “Do no harm.” Doctors (aided and abetted, and no doubt instigated, by pharmaceutical companies) seem to want to solve problems rather than treat patients. A large part of this, of course, is the fact that they simply don’t have time to spend with each individual patient; another part is due to the advent of group practices, since it’s not unusual to see a different doctor each time you go for an appointment. There’s a prevalent attitude that smacks of “we think this is the problem, and we’re going to apply this solution to the problem” that shows relatively little consideration for the impact on the patient or their quality of life. Society may have progressed, but humanity is no closer to becoming truly civilized.

    This is another area where Paksworld speaks to us on the (possibly) subconscious level: people are treated as people, as valued individuals. Yes, recovery may take time – but the healers and carers will take that time and do what is needed, or whatever they can. And not only for the rich and famous!

    I’m intrigued to find out who got conked on the head, and how they cope with it.

  • Comment by Elizabeth D. — May 8, 2012 @ 1:23 pm


    I think that Paksworld people are very real; sometimes very cold hearted, sometimes very generous. Some kingdoms have institutionalized cold heartedness even while believing that they are doing the right thing all the time; take Tsaia. Yet, it is a well-ordered society that is relatively safe compared to many others, with many well-meaning people.

    I am sorry to hear about the strokes. My mother and grandmother had mini-strokes, and it led to infarcts in the brain, but eventually my mother had a return of some memories and speech. I hope that both of you stay well. I’ve heard good and bad about pacemakers, but if the heart doesn’t beat regularly enough, clots can form and travel around.

    Some people in my family have learning disabilities; the new term for anything from dyslexia to much worse. Memory problems are involved: my daughter flunked chemistry on her final exam, but six months later was found to be in the 96th percentile on a national achievement test. She found algebra and chemistry much easier than other subjects. If she went to a movie, she could recite all the dialog, but she couldn’t remember a word from her history textbook that she read over and over, trying to absorb enough to pass. Somehow she graduated (diploma, not equivalent) from high school. The trouble with memory is that it is tricky; often a person that forgets does not realize it.

  • Comment by Jenn — May 8, 2012 @ 5:37 pm



    I agree with you. I would word it that we try to cure and not heal. I once attended a conference by a doctor who spoke on this. There is much that we cannot cure but that does not mean we cannot heal. When the people in my care start the dying process it is my duty to ease their pain as much as possible; to heal their fears and anxieties; to know that they are loved. I cannot cure death but I can heal the darkness that surrounds it.

    The doctor also noted a change in studies. He said now doctors know more and more about less and less. He had met a doctor whose wholes expertise centered on one valve of the heart. Gone are the days when people had a one doctor who knew a little about a lot and cared for you for decades.

  • Comment by Linda — May 8, 2012 @ 6:13 pm


    And sometimes it’s not just about forgetting but about using what you do remember.

    I love reading about Paks, Dorrin, Stammel, and other characters because they are what I think of as conscious learners. Whether it’s weapons skills or magery or cooking they recognize what they need to know and they understand the need for theory, facts, and practice used together.

    I have a huge stock of facts floating around in my head … I read a huge amount. When taking a course on cognitive learning theory and reading how our memories can be likened to a net I began to consciously look for links between those facts.

    It is great for “trivia” type games to be able to pull up parts of the net which I think are connected to the “missing” facts. As I age I am having increasing difficulty finding the word connected to the concept, but patience helps. That is, not blaming myself for being slow sometimes. I let pictures form … sometimes metaphors … and the words eventually show up.

    What really fascinates me is how these facts seem to interact when I’m not consciously thinking about them to create new ways of understanding. For example, when I travel I may seen a bird I’ve never seen (in the flesh) before. Bits and pieces of the environment, habitat,
    ways of moving, and the elimination of things I know it isn’t may all fall together to come up with an instant ID. And it leaves me wondering how the heck did I know that it’s a snail kite when all I had was a quick glance. Why am I so sure? I never really studied the bird book that closely.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that for me it’s not just memory, it’s like putting different types of brush strokes of different colors together to make a painting of something recognizable … it’s a process.

    As a teacher I try to help students take what they know, what they can observe, and what they can find out/figure out for themselves to meet their information needs. Like realizing that the Kuakgan may be able to identify the poison.

    When working with a class of ten year olds I was talking about sources of food in the local environment which the Native Americans used (we were talking fishing and hunting) and one boy who was very dyslexic said ” of course there were plants, cattail roots, berries, nuts and things we learned about in science.” We talked afterwards and he told me how he had been thinking about where they were hunting and fishing and saw in his mind the cattails in the marsh where they launched canoes to fish, the butternut trees in the forest and recognized them as food sources. Knowing how to think made a huge difference for him.

  • Comment by Moira — May 8, 2012 @ 10:00 pm


    @Jenn – thanks for adding to the discussion – and for not taking offense! I was of course speaking in general, and should have stressed that the doctors who would actually spend the time with their patients, given the chance, are mostly prohibited from doing so (by schedules, expectations, procedures, etc.)
    You are so right when you say “gone are the days.” When I was very young, we still had a real, old-fashioned family doctor and my father still talks about Dr. Moss 40 years after his death. (One example of why: Dad told me about when they were moving to a new house and trying to decide where to move / whether to have my grandmother (who had really bad rheumatoid arthritis) live with them. They mentioned this to the doc, along with one possible location, and he told them “No, don’t have her (my grandmother) living there.” Why? Because it was geographically a hollow in the landscape that collected all the mist, fog, moisture and damp, and it would have been hell on her RA. Can you imagine being told something like that today? That sort of holistic approach has all but disappeared, and we are the poorer for it. It’s reassuring to hear a doctor express the same sort of thing.)

    @Linda – the human brain is fascinating, isn’t it? We think we’re doing amazing things with computers, but the day we manage to create something as fast and sophisticated as the human brain, we should all be very, very afraid!

    When I was a student, I found myself on a summer course in France. It had been about 10 years since my last French class, and I’d had no occasion to use any of what I’d learned in the intervening years. And yet, I found myself going into shops and saying things – and then afterwards, wondering “HUH? Where the heck did I pull that from?!” Phrases and words that I could not have consciously come up with if I tried, yet in context they just… came out. Absolutely amazing. (I take zero credit for it – that’s tens of thousands of years’ worth of evolution, right there. Now if only we could stop “instructing” and “training” kids and instead get back to educating and developing them to take full advantage of that evolutionary miracle…)

  • Comment by Karen — May 9, 2012 @ 12:05 am



    I praise God that your grandmother’s GP was so on the ball. I happen to have one of the last of the family doctors (he’s actually a 3rd generation MD.), and I can’t tell you how much it has made a difference in my prognosis.

    I am deeply saddened that he reports that he hopes neither of his sons will follow in his footsteps because of the changes in medical practice he has lived through (reams and reams of insurance paperwork being his chief complaint, but the diminution in the general status of doctors remains always unspoken).

    I would not have survived the pattern of changes that turned out to be strokes without the devotion and dedication of a doctor who knows me well enough to hospitalize me when I first recognized that something was desperately wrong. I cannot blame him for not making the connection earlier, since I tend to prefer to believe that everything is okay until proven otherwise.

    If I hadn’t had a doctor who believed me when I placed a weak finger on the panic button, I don’t believe I would have a life worth living today — and isn’t that the reason we read Ms. Moon’s books: the hope that life is worth living, no matter what?

    As for your students, long before I had my strokes, I did a stint as a writing instructor. One of my “standard” lectures (I worked mostly one-on-one with college students in the sciences) was to encourage students to write prose that engaged as many of the senses as possible. I used to say, “if your reader can see it, feel it, smell it, taste it….” they will never forget your point.

    It sounds like your student was using all of his/her senses to overcome a learning disability that only related, in another of my patent phrases, “to squiggles on paper.” I deeply believe that we are all built with DNA that makes every sensation relevant. I simply despair that our current educational establishment places most of its emphasis on the vagaries of visual memory (especially since my dad is color-blind, making him, and about 10% of the population, completely unable to recognize the chief “coding systems” by the big educational publishers).

    Meanwhile, I would like to thank our gracious hostess for creating a starting point for this fascinating discussion. I’ll admit that I still have trouble typing, but reading so many poignant accounts of the importance of memory has strengthened my resolve to do the work required to grow as much as possible (even if it requires a few runs through spell-check!)!

  • Comment by Mary E Cowart — May 9, 2012 @ 4:59 pm


    An interesting book which was written by a stroke patient who is also a brain scientist tells her experience when she had her stroke. The title is My Stroke of Insight. I would recommend this to everyone who either is a stroke victim or a caregiver.

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