How to write a novel when OOH SHINY
I have ADD. You can read a little more about that here. It makes simple things complicated, ordinary tasks into severe roadblocks, and generally provides me with a constant source of nuisance. I can’t tell you how many times I have missed an important meeting, or left the house without some vital object, or just plain old let someone down because I could not keep my brain organized.
Oh, and I have also written five published novels. So far.
Wait, what? Yeah, no lie. Five books. Some people even like them. But that’s crazy, right? I can’t find my glasses, but I can keep track of a cast of hundreds of characters, dozens of settings, and countless subplots across a trilogy? “There must be a trick!” you say. Of course there’s a trick. Lots of tricks. High functioning people with ADD spend our entire lives contriving tricks. It’s how we can take on huge projects without setting ourselves up for failure. Presented below are a few of my own, for the benefit of any aspiring writers who feel frustrated by their own flakiness. Trust me, I’m flakier than you. These things work for me. As always, your mileage may vary. Try them on for size. Adapt as you see fit. Add your own!
For starters, I can’t write in my own house. My wife thinks that’s nuts, because she works best in her comfort zone. My problem is that my house is where all my STUFF is. And it’s all cool stuff, or I wouldn’t keep it around, right? For a person as distractible as I am (here’s a fun game: see if you can guess how many times I have checked my e-mail since starting to write this piece), being surrounded by cool stuff is a deathtrap for productivity. I’m not home right now. I’m sitting alone in a classroom, half an hour after all my students have left. I have some stuff here, but it’s all mathy, schooly stuff, and much easier to ignore than that Lego castle in my office at home.
So, where do I go? Starbucks, mostly. And no, Seth MacFarlane, I’m not doing it for the attention. Honestly, I kind of hope the people there think I’m just playing on the Internet. I love to talk about my writing, but not when I’m actually doing it. For anyone wondering “which Starbucks?” the answer is all of them. I can’t stick to the same place too often, or I run the same risk I do at home. Familiarity breeds distraction. Changing up my environment is actually much more grounding for me. The thing about ADD is that it’s linked to an underactive frontal lobe, the command and control of the brain. The rest of my gray matter is looking for directions, and my frontal lobe won’t step up and do the job with the authority it deserves. So the brain looks for direction elsewhere, and any kind of stimulation to fill that void. Hence distractible. But if I keep moving, I think my brain’s need for stimulation is satisfied by the change of environment, so it settles down and I can actually concentrate. Or something. I’m no psychologist; I just know it works. There’s a Starbucks about ten miles from my house with a window that faces toward the landscaping at the side of the strip mall instead of the parking lot. That one is great. Pretty view translates into low distraction. There is one in Exton with a gigantic triangular window taking up an entire wall. It’s beautiful architecture for a coffee shop (I think it’s a repurposed bank), and working in it is remarkably easy. And so on. I have taken writing retreats in the Poconos. Once, I stayed in an Airbnb for three days, a few towns over from where I live. I got so much done.
Regarding the writing itself, I have to work from an outline. Lots of writers do that, but I’m not sure anyone who saw one of my outlines would identify it as such. Sometimes it is a list of sentence fragments, describing plot points in vague terms. Sometimes it is just a list of chapter titles and nothing else. Keyword: list. I am extremely reliable with a list in my hands. ADD responds exceedingly well to externally imposed structure. So I force myself to write a list. Any list. As long as it provides some measure of reference to the plot, it barely matters what I write on this list. Just having the nod to organization makes the entire process less intimidating by giving me short-term, easy to meet goals. When I sit down to write, all I need to do is get from one list item to the next. Do that enough times, and I end up with a novel.
Page goals provide another means of keeping me on task. When I wrote the original version of Static Mayhem (parts of which evolved into Prelude to Mayhem, just released), it was, for reasons I now cannot recall, extremely important to me that my chapters each be fifteen typewritten pages. Knowing that my goal was always and only to make it to page fifteen freed me up from the worry of how much detail I should include. The answer was always “exactly enough detail to fill fifteen pages.” I don’t think I would recommend that method to beginners, as it resulted in the need for many revisions, trimming out chaff and developing anything I rushed through. But, if I had never made it to the end, there would have been nothing to revise.
When I wrote Unhappenings, I broke my outline (list) into more than a hundred and twenty chapters, each covering one tiny idea. The choice was deliberate and artistic, as my protagonist’s life kept changing, and I wanted the reader to pick up some sense of the perpetual starts and stops he experienced every day. It turned out that was the smartest thing I could have done to keep me moving through the first draft, because once my goal was simply to hit each idea and end the chapter, I could knock out many chapters per day. Most were two to three pages. Some were less than one. On my last day of writing that draft, I wrote 16,000 words over twelve hours, and at no time did it feel like work. I would love to write all my novels like that, but it’s a gimmick, and it would get old for readers.
The most important thing for me is to keep moving, and to do that, I have to find ways to trick my brain into thinking it’s working on a tiny task, not a gargantuan one. My brain has proved conveniently gullible in this respect. Working on novel number six now, and with at least seven more in the planning stages, I hope to exploit that gullibility for a long, long time.
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Young Adult, New Adult
Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press
Date of Release: November 28, 2016
Description: On May 30, 2004, the world transformed. Nearly all signs of civilization vanished, leaving in their wake a bizarre landscape of wilderness, advanced technology and magic, and leaving Harrison Cody very much alone. After weeks of surviving in solitude, he hears a voice on the radio, beckoning him to cross a thousand miles of terrifyingly random terrain to meet her, and other survivors, in Chicago. Eager to find any remnants of humanity, he sets forth, joined by an unexpected—and inhuman—companion.
For Dorothy O’Neill, the end of the world means she will never finish ninth grade. On her own, she builds a home in the ruins of a strip mall, relying on her ingenuity and hard work to maintain some semblance of creature comforts. When another survivor arrives, he brings futuristic technology and stories of monsters he has encountered. Armed with this information, she takes a new interest in exploring her world, but she is not prepared for what awaits her, and the new arrival has brought his own set of problems.
On their separate journeys, Harrison and Dorothy begin to piece together what has happened to their world. Their questions have answers to be found in what remains of Chicago, and from the mysterious voice on the radio offering the hope that civilization can be rebuilt.