Brain Fog Is Most Likely A Real Thing

Sandra Neily here:

Yes. I wore a mask the whole time. This is my PA daughter telling us, with her eyes, to do just that.

I can’t believe I left my novel’s plot map in the Maine Medical Center. But there it is. Or was.

I have a distinct memory of sticking my notes and plot map into my bag. I knew I wouldn’t be alert for a while (understatement for open-heart surgery), but I thought after a few days I could reread the notes and refresh my brain. I’d done some good imaginary work about how to grow chapters I’d written into the rest of the mystery. I took notes on my ideas. I made a map of the up and down rhythms I hoped to create on the way to the story’s climax.

I thought I could outwit the legendary brain fog that hangs around for a few months after major surgery.

Silly me. Clearly, I was not alert enough to make sure my notes didn’t get cleared away with the day’s buildup of food trays on my window sill. (That’s just a guess, but it makes sense.)

Raven is modeling how once the stuffing has been kicked out of you … you deserve a fresh start. (After a nap.)

Maybe the loss is an exacting muse telling me I should reimagine lots of the book anyway. Kind of a fresh start.

I took inventory. I had six chapters I liked. I had a short summary I liked. (Unfinished … but it was a start.) I had old chapter notes with margins full of details that I’d saved for later use: floating details that I trusted to find a home as I typed. Details like a freezer full of beef bones my narrator begged for her dog but intended for soup during unemployment.

I already knew I was a blend of both pantser and plotter: a writer who plans out plot directions but who also just lets the story and characters careen away into unexpected directions that feel so good, my fingers aren’t fast enough on the keys. I figure the pantser part of me will come in handy going forward.

Here’s a good way to think about these two strategies. J.K.Rowling is a plotter; Stephen King is a pantser.

In the spirit of the struggle to give birth to our books, I’m sharing other authors’ strategies as well as the ones I am recreating … now that my brain is feeling great again.


I wrote it a few days before surgery, after a fall walk with someone who’d still be squirrel-staring if I didn’t have biscuits.

Here’s my draft plot summary for the next “Deadly” story.

Cassandra Patton Conover, weak from a six-month recuperation in Portland, arrives home at her woods cabin only to fall through melting spring ice with her dog Pock. Life gets complicated when her snowshoes snag a body under the water, she finds her backyard woods littered with No Trespassing signs and surveillance cameras, and bewildered wildlife seeks safety near her camp. Squinting in disgust, she realizes her neighbor’s billboard advertising sprawling lot development actually resembles the spidery X-rays that mapped her out-of-control cancer cells. She plots a woods cure against impossible odds. With the help of her dog, wild creatures of all sizes, and a game warden who cannot turn away from Patton or the looming loss of his ancestral lands, she … (well, I haven’t written the end yet …)


I recently mapped the story’s geography; what people want rubs up against each other.


J. K. Rowling organizes a “Harry Potter” story

William Faulker used his wall.

Norman Mailer was a Plotter? Unexpected….









I found lots of ideas in my notes from completed chapters.

And now that the fog’s outside my brain and the lake is skiable …. onward!

(I am so grateful to the amazing Maine Medical team who, despite the pandemic, offered so many of us stunning and generous care.)

Sandy’s debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” was published in 2021. Her third “Deadly” is due out in 2022. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.

About Sandra Neily

Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass” received a Mystery Writers of America award, was named a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, a finalist in the Mslexia international novel competition, a runner- up in Maine’s Joy of the Pen competition, and recently, an international SPR fiction finalist. Sandy lives in the woods of Maine and says she’d rather be “fly fishing cold streams, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there—unless I’m sharing vanishing worlds with my readers. "
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12 Responses to Brain Fog Is Most Likely A Real Thing

  1. kaitcarson says:

    Brain fog! Remember it well post chemo. Glad you are up and about and back to writing. Keep on improving. So sorry about the loss of the plot map, but grateful that you had so many notes. Looking forward to the next Deadly.

    • Sandra Neily says:

      Much appreciated, Kait and appreciating your “looking forward” to what comes. Thanks for being a part of our Maine Crime Writers community. Hoping all is well is the tough tap dancing time.

  2. L.C. Rooney says:

    As often as we hear the term “brain fog,” it seems to surprise many of us when it hits. Whether caused by major surgery, medication, stress, or loss, brain fog is, indeed, real. I’m glad you’re free of it, Sandra. Hope mine is soon nothing more than a memory, as well. Writing through brain fog has been an exercise in futility for weeks now, and it is so disheartening.

    • Sandra Neily says:

      Hello L. C. Rooney. I hear you about the “futility” feeling and the discouragement. Some of it has been subtle (and I figured it out after the fact) and some hit me over the head. Wishing you a good wind to blow it away.

  3. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    Wow! So glad you’re on the mend, and impressed with your plotting skills. I sometimes have scraps of paper on my desk with a word or two that I cannot read, LOL. Boo to brain fog, and happy writing!

  4. I’m so glad you’re back to writing and feeling inspired, Sandy. A fresh start can be just the thing, and I’m guessing your margin notes will stimulate your no-longer-foggy brain to remember the best parts of what was lost in the hospital shuffle.

    • Sandra Neily says:

      Thanks, Brenda! And I went X skiing last night and for the first time felt how different I feel with a new heart value. Exhilarating! Appreciate the vote of confidence. Best to you….

  5. Julianne Spreng says:

    Yikes! Open heart surgery. Wow! It’s true. We always believe we can do more sooner than we actually can. So glad you’re home. The new story is already intriguing.

    Brain fog is sort of like when you try to push through and finish a story when you’re falling asleep. Keep reading, realize you don’t remember what’s going on, reread, are still clueless, and finally, finally give up and go to bed. Unfortunately, brain fog isn’t cured by a night’s sleep, but it will help.

    • Sandra Neily says:

      Much Appreciated, Julianne. Your “push through” point while sleep beckons is right on. i went Xskiing last night and it was a whole new world of feeling strong with my new value. My best to yo u.

  6. kaitlynkathy says:

    So glad you’re doing better and are safely back home.

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