Organized Chaos – Writing with Mild ADHD

“Oh, you’re a writer!  What are you working on?  Can I read it?”  Said every person ever when I told them I was a writer.

My response is always, “No, you can’t read my work – because none of it is in order.”

I have a very mild form of ADHD.  When I was a child, I used to do my homework in spurts.  15 minutes devoted to Subject A.  15 minutes devoted to Subject B.  And on down the line.  It worked for me from my younger years all the way through college.  The reason for my odd division of time was that, if I worked on anything longer than that, I stopped paying attention to it.  Which meant I stopped caring about it, which meant I lost the ability to retain anything.  Dividing things up in the way I did kept me interested, which kept me in A’s and, later, a 3.95 GPA.  Had I not done this (and, I can’t for the life of me remember how I figured out this little method of mine), I probably wouldn’t have nearly as good grades.

I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until adulthood and this strange pattern has followed me there.  If you ask my husband what it’s like to clean our apartment with me, he will laugh.  The reason for his laughter is to hide how infuriating the process can be. Because he’s a nice guy like that. I clean each room in the same way I worked on each homework assignment.  Everything gets done, but the order is confusing and my pattern is not something that can be pursued in pairs.  My husband can never follow what I’m up to, so he cleans on his own, ignoring my weirdness in favor of a more organized tract.  In an hour, he cleans the living room.  I have touched upon every room in the house, but with only one task per room.  This means that when I inevitably run into something I need his help with, I will pull him from his work to help me with mine.  By the end, I’m sure he is plotting my demise.  But most times, the house gets clean.  Even my work life gets the same treatment.  Only a hard and fast deadline that I am attempting to meet can somehow give me all of the focus that I need.

When I ended up with three ideas for my first novel, I didn’t even blink.  I’d just work on them all at once.  When I had trouble working on the first scene – no problem!  I’d do that scene in the end that interested me.  Couldn’t think to write?  I’d refine my outline. What I now have is a collection of three outlines that are approximately 200 pages apiece.  I am well aware that these are not outlines.  These are more like bibles for my books. Writing three books at once requires an intense grasp on the voice of each of my characters, built and perfected so I wouldn’t lose one and go sailing off into another depending on what I was writing.  Writing my stories according to what scene strikes at what time requires a detailed knowledge of the path of my story, so I don’t mention things in scenes that haven’t yet occurred in the story or change something and cause a plot hole.  When things are changed, I spend my time refining my outline to make sure things flow smoothly again and that no statement made in a scene belies another. There’s a lot of mental hurdles being jumped over in my head, which explains that far away look in my eyes whenever I’m walking somewhere and I didn’t expect to see you – and it takes a few slow moments for me to go, “Oh hi!”  Because I’m not here.  I’m in my books.

In the end, while it sounds like a crazy way to write, it has a lot of positive sides to it. Because I am choosing what scenes I want to write and when, writer’s block seems to be a much more rare occurrence.  When I get stuck, I work on it, but I try to choose the scenes that I am currently eager to portray, so it makes it easier to get into the right frame of mind.  When I finish a scene I just plug it into my outline, in the place it belongs in my story, replacing the outline text that had portended it.  Outline text is in bold. Scenes are in plain font.  So the less bold I see in a certain section, the closer I know I am to being done, and this can be done at a glance.  This is inspiring when I am trudging through a scene or when I am trying to select a new one.  It keeps my goals in check and it helps me to see the story’s potential.  And that helps keep me writing.

The big downside to it is that I have Chapters 1-3 of one of my stories done.  Then, I have the back 25% of the story done.  I have scraps in the middle.  I will have to fill those in.  On another one of my stories, I have none of the beginning done most of the middle and some of the end.  Another one has a full beginning and chunks of the middle and end, but that beginning is starting to feel like it’s going to need a pretty decent edit. All in all, it becomes impossible to hand a person something to read, because it’s all over the damn place.  It’s becoming easier, but as a girl who manages organized chaos as a constant, I can very clearly tell that it will be awhile before anybody has much of my work to read.

That’s okay though.  I don’t really like to perform on demand.  But that is another blog for another time.

I Write Weird Stuff

Man makes magic with his fountain pen.

I’m working my way through filing a sheaf of papers when my office phone rings.  It’s Ismael, my husband, on the other end.  After the usual hellos, he launches into a conversation the likes of which has become utterly commonplace for us.

Ismael:  So I’m having trouble with the hierarchy of my gods.  I can’t figure out which ones would answer to which.  

Me: You think that’s bad.  I think I’ve discovered a plot hole in LK.  If Jacklyn has enhanced hearing, wouldn’t she have heard that inter-dimensional coming when he attacks her in the cave scene?

And all of the people walking by my desk get the “What the hell did she just say?” look on their faces. 

It’s something that comes up a lot for me. You see, genre comes with a stigma.  Literary journals are largely against it’s publication within their pages.  Most writing teachers try to twist them into literary fiction when you submit them for a workshop.  Those who read books or watch movies with the kinds of themes my husband and I often employ are relegated to the levels of geekdom.  

I once ate lunch with a group of women who sat in the cafeteria and discussed their book, movie and television choices.  They rarely matched with mine.  I’m sure what they were reading was incredibly well-written.  I wouldn’t know.  I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.  It may have had something to do with the ringing endorsement the work received from one of my co-workers.  “You wouldn’t like it.  You only like to read that weird stuff.”  At first I was taken aback.  And a little offended.  Which, with some distance, I’ve realized is ridiculous.  She was partially correct.  While she was wrong to assume I wouldn’t like it (I have read many books that aren’t genre that I have loved), she was correct that it didn’t fit in line with my normal tastes.  I may have read it and enjoyed it, but it would likely never become one of my favorite books.  And that’s because all of my favorite books are filled to the brim with weird stuff. Which is something I am totally cool with.

Being asked by a friend who only reads true literary fiction what I am writing used to feel like I was introducing myself at an AA meeting.  “Hi, my name is Justine and my current works in progress contain a computer virus alien race, a divorcee with an imaginary friend, and dimensional portals.  Please do not throw tomatoes or insults at me.”  And I would say it with the same level of shyness, of shame, as though what I was writing was any less valid than your normal everyday literary work.  There’s literary fiction and there’s commercial fiction, and my muse just happens to like characters who are possessed by an alien computer virus.  So sue me.

My favorite author, Urban Fantasy extraordinaire Kelley Armstrong’s website bio boasts the following: “If asked for a story about girls and dolls, mine would invariably feature undead girls and evil dolls, much to my teachers’ dismay. All efforts to make me produce “normal” stories failed. Today, I continue to spin tales of ghosts and demons and werewolves, while safely locked away in my basement writing dungeon.”  

The more I started to read things like that, the better I started to feel about my writing identity.  For one thing, I found myself in rather illustrious company.  For another, I seemed, like Armstrong, to be incapable of doing anything other than that which I was embarrassed to admit.  One of my works in progress began as the comedic story of a divorcee struggling to get her life on track and become a more adventurous person in the process.  I worked on it as such for awhile.  But the idea just didn’t have enough spirit to get me going until I decided that she should be getting her adventurous ideas from an imaginary friend, who happens to be the main character from her favorite television show.  The story didn’t come together until I added that wackadoo element to it.  And then, it all gelled.  Scenes became better with Imaginary Guy shouting directions at my lead from the background.  

It was when that puzzle piece fell into place that I figured it out – as it stands right now, my muse doesn’t want me to write normal stuff.  It wants me to write strange, convoluted stories with science fiction and fantasy and unfamiliar elements.  When it wants me to write coming-of-age stories about a boy coming to terms with the death of his sister by rebuilding the car she crashed in (an idea I’ve been kicking around for awhile but have never been able to make work – maybe it will work if the car is POSSESSED by his sister!  Now that’s a winner!), it will tell me and that will be what I write.  But for now, it seems I better get used to announcing it.

Hi, my name is Justine Manzano.  And I write weird stuff.