It’s the classic writing advice: write every day. But what about when that’s just not an option? For many people, writing advice like this can add stress and strain, rather than fostering creativity and motivation.
Today’s post is for every writer who’s wondered if they’ll ever make it, especially those struggling with their health right now. It’s our hope that this post will offer insight (yes, it is possible, though undeniably challenging at times) into publishing when living with chronic illness.
I recently had the opportunity to interview debut author Jess McFarlane about her book Widow’s Flame and how her chronic illnesses have impacted her publication journey.
But first… let’s talk about this gorgeous book.
Three years ago, her husband, Thomas, was murdered by an outlaw gang in America. Since then, she’s become resentful of life in general and a drunk with no purpose.
The sheriff has done nothing to find Thomas’ murderer and Blair wants them to pay. When she gets news of a fighter dubbed “The American Outlaw” in a nearby town, she enlists his help in her campaign of revenge.
Together, they go to America to track down the men that murdered her husband.
Blair doesn’t trust her companion, Colin McCarthy, but she needs him and this outweighs her concern.
There’s a rage inside Blair and killing these men may mean sacrificing her own humanity.
Can Blair get justice for her husband’s murder?
Will her sanity be the price to pay?
Is she capable of forgiveness?
Thanks, Jess for joining me on the blog!
What led you to write your debut book, Widow’s Flame?
I wrote Widow’s Flame in 2018, after a major life event that left me grieving for things I’d lost, but also, strangely, things I’d gained. I was also dealing with debilitating chronic pain from my Endometriosis, as I was a year away from surgery that, luckily now, has helped a lot. But at the time, I was struggling with everyday tasks and there was a lot going on in my head.
The character of Blair Ryan evolved, I think, from the anger and righteousness within me, after what I’d gone through, and was going through. She was so angry, scared and stubborn, especially against the emotions within her that were pleading with her to be acknowledged and processed.
The whole story itself was sort of inspired by one of my favourite genres – Westerns. I’ve been a horse girl all my life, so I think the love for the genre started there, but I also appreciate the themes that most Westerns explore, one of them being revenge. And then I guess it just evolved into what it is. Widow’s Flame is a Western, yes, it’s an adventure story, but it’s also just a story about hurt, about loss, grief in all of its aspects, and coming to terms with our demons. I hope it’s perceived that way, too.
How would you describe Widow’s Flame to potential readers?
I don’t know why, but I like starting off by describing it as “a revenge story with an emotional twist”. I think that’s the easiest way to summarise what Widow’s Flame is truly about without spoiling too much.
It’s historical fiction, set in 1898 with Western genre elements. It’s an insight into the mind of a woman who is struggling mentally with emotions that she’s never faced before. It’s also a look into the human condition and what exactly gives someone the right to take another life. And questions whether revenge is just “the easy way out”.
I don’t know, you see in media — especially movies — where a character will try and get revenge against the bad guy for something the bad guy did to them and a lot of the times they do things that are almost as evil as the villain, but you don’t see any character arch that shows them realising that. I wanted this redemption story to be realistic in the sense that Blair trying to get revenge for her husband’s murder is most likely going to cost her a part of her humanity, that she’ll never be able to get back.
But also, along the way, we see Blair connect with Colin, the ex-outlaw who escaped to Ireland and who is now helping her track down the Gaitwood gang, and how that connection gives her not only strength to continue, but the perspective that will be extremely helpful by the end of things.
How did you decide on the publication model you wanted to pursue?
I think since I’d been writing since I was so young, the times when I did try and pitch my work to a traditional publishing house, I was extremely naive to the industry and how things worked.
When I pitched Widow’s Flame to Shawline, it was very much like throwing a knife in the dark to see if I’d hit a target. I was curious about their hybrid model, and how it seemed to be a lot more accessible for independent authors that don’t have the luxury of industry connections. Self-publishing was a route I had considered but had been too overwhelmed to delve into, whereas hybrid publishing appealed to me because of how it appeared to be a lot more “intimate” and author-involved.
I was confident I wasn’t going to be lost in the crowd and have a number of people take over my work, completely ignoring my input. And I was right – Shawline has continued to try and meet any needs I may have and have taken care of my work as if it were their own.
What’s been the biggest challenge or highlight of the publication journey?
The biggest challenge to this journey has been letting go and having faith. Seeing as this is my debut, I was very much ignorant about what it takes to publish a book and how much work goes into the production process.
I don’t know about other authors, but I see my work as my “baby” and so handing it over to someone else was terrifying. Thrilling, but terrifying. A highlight has been the connections I’ve made with other authors and writers. This community is wonderful and everyone is so supportive of one another.
You’ve been fairly open with your readers that you struggle with chronic illness; how has that affected your writing and publication journey?
Not only do I have Endometriosis, but I have a neurological disorder called Functional Neurological Disorder. To sum it up, I basically have a nervous system that doesn’t communicate with itself properly and where other people are running on Windows 10, I’m running on Vista.
My pain has always made writing a little difficult, because of obvious reasons, but not to the point where I couldn’t write at all. Because I use distraction techniques for my chronic pain, I found writing an easy escape some days. However, with this new diagnosis of severe neurological issues, it’s been a lot harder to find times when my brain is functioning well enough in order to write. That in itself has been a huge hurdle and has been something I’ve struggled to come to accept.
I’m very much in the frame of mind that these illnesses are not what makes Jess McFarlane Jess McFarlane. They’re a part of me and they make my life what it is, absolutely, but they’re not me.
I openly talk about them because they’re simply a part of my life and they do interrupt my writing process at times. But I like to tell people, possibly people who are struggling with their own illness, that this doesn’t have to mean that we can no longer do what we love. We find ways around it, because there are always different ways to do things.
I don’t know if this sounds too “woe is me” but my publication journey has been quite difficult, simply because stress exacerbates my symptoms. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, and has been this past year, of trying not to stress out too much or become overwhelmed. However, the utter joy I’ve gotten from publishing my debut book has overridden any kind of negative experience. Because nothing about achieving my dream has been negative.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors who might be struggling with chronic illness?
I think, if you’re a writer and you have a chronic illness, you most likely already have your own schedule that is suited to your own needs and limitations. However, if you believe you may need help with that, the best advice I can give is to not follow any rules.
Write where you want, when you want, when you’re feeling well enough.
Personally, I write in bed a lot of the time, and it’s only been lately that I’ve moved it to my desk because I’ve succumbed to the idea that I’m an author and this is my job. However, I don’t write every day. A lot of the time, I’m too overwhelmed to write, in too much pain, too tired or too wonky-brained. If I don’t feel the inspiration start flowing, I don’t bother. If I feel somedays I need a push, because it’s been a while since I’ve written something, I’ll put on music that suits the mood of my story and see if I can conjure up a few words.
I’ve always written at my best when I’ve felt in the mood to write — when I’ve felt inspired. Every time I’ve written to meet some form of deadline, I’ve never really felt like it was my best work. And that’s because my brain can’t handle deadlines and it can’t handle being forced to create something that generally just comes as natural as breathing to me.
Never base your (I’m currently struggling to find the word because of brain fog and FND stealing words from my brain, bear with me!) worth (got it!) as a writer on the amount of words you can put into Microsoft Word or the amount of books you have or have not completed. What matters is your passion for it. With chronic illness, you have limitations and your health holds you back, there’s no hiding from that fact. But that does not mean you can’t do it altogether.
It’s about finding a happy medium — working up to a point that’s comfortable for you and your body and that isn’t a detriment to your health. If you have to ask your doctor about it, go ahead!
Once you find what you’re comfortable with, whether that’s writing a few times a week or once a week, even fortnight, stick to it and even see if it’s something you can build up to, the more your body gets used to the work. Write where you’re comfortable.
If your illness is flaring and you can’t write, don’t feel bad about it. If you can and feel you need to, jot down notes in your notes app on your phone to at least get an outline of whatever is coming to mind. If you can’t do that, maybe use the voice recording app instead and tell your future, less-flarey self whatever your idea is.
Last, but not least, continue to love what you do. Continue to have drive and passion. Continue to want to get lost in the universes that you create. They’re meant to be out in the world, for others to enjoy, and they will be.
Your stories and your experiences are important.
What’s next for you and your readers?
Seeing as Widow’s Flame has just been released, I’m having a book launch at the end of the month to celebrate and have a signing and author talk. After that, I’ll be at a book fair in November to sign copies and speak with readers. And then after that, I’ll most likely take time to debrief and settle a bit for the holidays.
Next year, I’ll plan to get another one of my books published, which if it’s the one I’m thinking of publishing next, is completely different to Widow’s Flame. The plan is to keep publishing books and connecting with readers.
Where can readers find you (and your books)?
You can find me on Instagram and Facebook @jessmcfarlaneauthor. In Australia and New Zealand, Widow’s Flame is available to buy on my publisher’s website. Globally, you can buy it here. In saying that, a quick Google search will show it’s also available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Dymocks, etc.
Thanks again Jess for sharing your insight into chronic health, your writing and publication journey!
If you enjoyed this post, feel free to drop a comment below, or support Jess and pick up a copy of Widow’s Flame.
This does open my eyes up to the various lives people have in writing, and the challenges they have to face. I’m in the ‘write every day’ camp, but thanks to this interview, I’m now able to see things in a new light. Thanks for sharing!
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Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you found this post useful. 🙂
I like the idea of having a book about the emotional and psychological consequences of revenge. Thanks for sharing about chronic illness.
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Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you found this post engaging.