Part 137: Why I Do It

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re doing as well as you can. It’s been a tricky week for me, as side-effects from the meds I’m on for the health issue I mentioned a couple of weeks ago have started to bite. I’ve had a few instances of light-headedness and so on. Nothing serious, but it’s tricky when you feel faint on your way to work in a morning. Anyway, I’m coping with it, but I’ll be careful.

A major positive this week has been the progress I’m making on my next novel. Yes, I’m back in the swing of writing fiction. It’s remarkable the change that having a set space for my writing has made. I guess you could say writing fiction is my autistic special interest. I know that term, special interest, is a little controversial in autistic circles, and not everyone likes it. For the time being, it’s a useful shortcut for me to use that term – even if you don’t like it, at least you know what I mean when I say it. I want to say a little bit about special interests, this week…

Like many autistic people, I’ve had a series of special interests through my life. Some of these things I have been passionate about for a while, whereas others have stopped with me all the way. My love of 1960s. 70s and early 80s superhero comics remains strong, although I’m less enamoured with more recent offerings. In my early teens, I developed a really intense interest in 1950s rock n roll, and the British Teddy Boy culture that arose from it. This interest passed away long ago, but it enabled me to adopt a mask that helped me fit in with other rebellious youths for a while. Later, I met a new friend as nerdy as myself, and he introduced me to the music of Gary Numan, John Foxx, Ultravox, OMD, Japan, and others, and that music culture provided me with another social mask that stayed with me for a few years.

Role-playing games gave me yet another nerdy interest, and another social mask that lasted more than 20 years, and I have many bittersweet memories of playing Dungeons and Dragons, Rolemaster, MERP, Call of Cthulhu, Champions, Golden Heroes, Marvel Super-Heroes, DC Heroes, GURPS, and Warhammer Role-Play to name a few. I was rarely a player in RPGs; I was usually the Dungeon Master or Games Master, in control and responsible for organising the gaming world. I was pretty good at it, too. I enjoyed that in control aspect. Towards the end of my gaming days, I discovered Magic The Gathering, and spent way too much money on cards. Some of those were stolen, which still burns me.

The memories of my gaming days are bittersweet because, although I had many good times, ultimately I found myself as something of an outcast from those gaming circles. People who I had thought of as friends turned out to be anything but. This was back in the time before I knew I was autistic, of course. These days, I understand my experience of misjudging social situations, and feeling betrayed or manipulated by people I had thought were my friends, is a far from unique autistic experience.

Another of my really passionate interests was a series of computer games based on football management. Starting from the 1997/98 iteration, I played every version of the Championship Manager/Football Manager franchise for a colossal number of hours. Over the last couple of years, I’ve kind of fallen out with the company behind the franchise, as they literally don’t give a crap about their autistic customers. But I still play one of the older versions of the game, occasionally.

For a time, in the years before I found out I was autistic, I began to wonder if I was genuinely addicted to Football Manager. At times, it was an all-consuming interest. But since finding out I’m autistic, I can see how I used that game to help me cope with life. Starting a new save on FM, and setting up a team, going into minute details arranging my backroom staff, tactics, and transfer market activity gave me a sense of control. As an autistic person, it’s common to struggle with anxiety when control in life seems to be slipping away due to not fitting in with the neurotypical world. Football Manager provided me with a fantasy world in which I was the boss, and in which my success or failure depended largely on my own ability. Although behind the interface, the game was, like all computer games, just a bunch of interacting numbers, in my head, there was a world in which all the digital footballers had personalities, and could be heroes or villains for me. But I was in overall control. The sense of control had a soothing effect on me. There are other activities that have had that soothing effect on me, of course.

When I was a small child, I remember having a set of dominoes, but rarely would I play the game of dominoes with them. Instead, I would build rectangular shapes from them, and I enjoyed the regularity of those shapes. Similarly, when I was a kid, I always seemed to have a pack of playing cards close to hand, but for a long time, any card game more complicated than snap baffled me. I couldn’t understand the jargon of hands and flushes, and so on. Instead, I would build a house of cards out of my deck, seeing how complex I could make it without it collapsing. One card game I could play, and did for hours, was solitaire, or patience, as I knew it back then. With solitaire, I didn’t have to deal with the randomness of other people, which was hard enough at all other times; I was in control.

The one over-arching special interest in my life, though, has been the desire to tell stories. For as long as I could remember, I’ve wanted to write fiction. It took me a long time to really get into it. This was partly because as a kid, I had talked about wanting to have a career as a professional writer-artist in comics, and a novelist, but I received almost no encouragement in that direction. Instead, I was led to believe it was an unrealistic ambition. When I did get a little encouragement, it was vague and ultimately unhelpful, and by that time my self-esteem was already in the gutter. Eventually, I convinced myself it was something I could never achieve, and a long career in retail management followed. I was pretty late in adulthood, when I decided that if I didn’t finally have a go at writing a novel, I would regret it all my life. I quickly discovered there is a huge gap between wanting to write a novel and actually being able to do it, though…

What I found was that I could identify good writing and bad writing in others, but I didn’t have the analytical skills to understand or explain why some writing was good, some bad. I’d missed a lot of school as a kid (I’ve covered that elsewhere), and as an adult, I was very insecure about my lack of education. But, I set about putting that right with a few college courses, and a degree in Literature, not to mention voracious reading on all subjects. One of the outcomes of this process was my first novel, Blood Brothers. By the time I’d finished writing Blood Brothers, I had already decided that the game of submitting stories to publishers and agents was something of a lottery, and wasted valuable time, so self-publishing was the route for me. Probably not a great financial decision, but I don’t write for money; I write because I love it.

When writing Blood Brothers, I developed a process for novel writing, which I refined with my second novel, Abominations. I used the same, highly-organised process on my third novel, Aberrations, and now here I am using it on my current work-in-progress. There’s something remarkable, I now see, about my process of putting together a novel, that has a lot in common with my other interests.

The amount of forensic detail I go into when planning a novel is all about being in control. This is tricky for a writer, because it makes for very bad fiction if your characters seem like puppets rather than real people. But as I’ve discussed on here recently, my readers regularly comment on how realistic my characters are. I believe writing good quality fiction is partly Art (the capital A is deliberate), and partly craft. Art, (capital A Art) I believe, has a lot to do with natural talent; some of us have more of this, some of us have less. Art is about creativity. With a capital A, Art is something that cannot be explained purely by manufacturing methods. Craft, meanwhile, is something that can be learned and mastered by anyone regardless of natural talent. To write really good fiction, I believe you need a high level of craft, and at least a smidgen of Artistic talent.

Working with these two aspects of fiction writing – the Art and the craft – is, I find, both incredibly satisfying, and really, really difficult. I’ve often described writing a story as feeling like I’m circling a dragon, trying to get closer to it without getting hurt. An unfinished story is dangerous, and can leave you feeling wounded. But the tighter and more controlled the process, the less dangerous writing becomes.

My novel writing process gives me immense satisfaction because of the sense of being in control that it provides. What follows below is a modest info-dump that might explain why the process is so satisfying for my autistic mind. Come with me, and find out…

Step 1: Idea. The whole thing starts with an idea. This might be an idea for a character, or an event, or a setting – whatever. When the idea first comes to me, I get excited thinking I’ve got a new story, but inevitably, I realise I haven’t got a story yet… there’s something missing. At some point later, there will be other ideas, and two of these ideas will bounce off each other in a way that is like alchemy. The ideas combine into something that will be a story. Sometimes, at this point, the whole story arc will appear to me fully formed. Other times, it emerges slowly, with work. But eventually, I know I have a story that is demanding to be told.

Step 2: Premise. Once I know I’ve got a story to be told, I try to break it down into its simplest form. This usually means one or two sentences that contain the core of the story. Thanks to James N. Frey, I now call this my premise. This premise works as a guiding force when developing the story. Usually, there are several different ways of couching the premise that I could use, but I’ll choose one that I think most represents what I want to do with the story, and that sentence or two will stay with me, written down in front of me, as I work. It’s a conceptual compass that keeps me on course. To give you an idea of how this works, take a famous old story like Romeo and Juliet. A premise for this could be… two young people from rival clans fall in love and die for their love. Over-simplified? Maybe. Other premises for the story are possible. If you were going to write a novel based on Romeo and Juliet, my premise would give you one particular kind of interpretation, but not necessarily the only one.

Step 3: The synopsis. This is where I write out a few paragraphs, just a few hundred words, outlining the general flow of the major events of the story from start to finish. It’s vague, at this point. The key is that the synopsis has to accurately represent the premise. The synopsis is written with the premise in mind. But it can change. There can be some to-and-fro at this stage. Ideas that emerge while writing the synopsis might prompt me to go back and change the premise. But eventually, what I have is a synopsis that matches the premise.

Step 4: The Filing Cabinet. Now, I start setting up documents on the writing software I use – Scrivener. I’m a big fan of Scrivener because it makes organising a big project very easy. In my Scrivener file, I’ll set up a document for the premise, a separate document for the synopsis, and then create notes for things like the recurrent themes I intend to deploy, and the recurrent images I intend to deploy. So, for example, in Blood Brothers, the image of blood appears time and time again at key moments in the narrative.

Having recurrent themes and images brings cohesion to the text, but they have to be there for a purpose. I don’t just pull something out of thin air, like saying, I’m going to keep using the image of fire in a story because I like fire. The image has to have a purpose that aligns with, or works as a counterpoint to, the premise.

I’ll also set up documents for each character, each significant location, each significant background event or concept, and one for backstory.

The detail I initially put into the character documents varies. I subscribe to the view that characters are the story. Characters are not, I believe, entities that populate a story; a story is what the characters are and do. So, I’m not the type of writer who will just drum up a “character sheet” for each character, coming up with facts and figures for every aspect of them, from shoe size to breakfast preferences, just for the sake of it. All aspects of a character form part of the story, so if I’m going to say in a story that George is six-foot-three, there has to be a story reason for him to be six-foot-three, not just that I like my protagonists tall. Everything goes in for a reason, and that reason serves the story, and the story depends from the premise.

So, as I’ve started with a story idea, some of the characteristics of the characters will be immediately obvious to me. For example, in Blood Brothers, the contrasting physical differences of the two main characters, Seth and Wayne, were massively important. Wayne was tall and blond, Seth small and dark, and both of them had appearances that contrasted with their personalities. This was part of the story. For some characters, particularly minor ones, their document might start off containing only their name. Others might have a sentence or two of description. To begin with, I only put in what I know will serve the story in the detail I have so far. I’m not going to decide, for example, what a character’s eye colour is just for the sake of it, if I might need to make a creative decision further down the line about that character’s eye colour. At this stage of the project, it feels less like creating characters, and more like uncovering characters that are pre-existing in the story that I am simultaneously uncovering.

Step 5: Scenes. This is where I think my process seriously diverges from the process of many other novelists. I set up a separate virtual file card for each chapter of my story. But here is the thing: Each chapter in my novel will contain exactly one scene. Rarely do I divert from this course. In this way, my process has more in common with screenplays than most novels. While some writers will include rambling chapters that skim over long periods of time – like the “safe lull” Stephen King often gives his protagonists – pretty much every single chapter I write gives you one punchy scene with a clear beginning, middle and end. The end of each scene leaves you with a question about what will happen next. This doesn’t have to be a cliffhanger – having a cliffhanger at the end of every scene would soon get tedious and unintentionally funny. But each scene has a particular conflict, and an event that has been triggered by something that came before, and which will trigger something that happens further down the line. Each scene has consequences. The story becomes like one of those lines of toppling dominoes. I plot the story so tightly that it makes it impossible to remove one scene and the story still makes sense. Everything matters, everything has a purpose.

On each file card for each scene, I list when and where the event will take place, which characters are involved, what point of view will be used, what the conflict is, what previous events triggered it, what the consequences will be, what recurrent themes or images are to be included, etc.

As I’m putting together the file cards for each chapter, I’m looking at my premise, my synopsis, and my project notes. There is more to-and-fro, as when I’m working through each scene, I might realise I’m moving away from the synopsis. This is okay; the synopsis is a framework, not a prison. But when this happens, I have to have a good think through the synopsis to make sure the story is still hanging together coherently. When all the file cards for all chapters are complete, they effectively combine to create a new, more detailed synopsis. As I prepare each file card, new facets about the characters and places emerge, so these documents get filled out as I go along. I will have had to do lots of research as I go along, for things like real-life locations, concepts, etc.

By the end of this step, then, I have a highly detailed synopsis, and detailed documents describing the characters, places, objects, concepts, etc, that make up the story world.

Step 6: Writing. Finally, I start writing actual fiction prose. Usually, I will write one chapter (scene) in one writing session, regardless of how long that session takes. Sometimes I might write for an hour or so. Sometimes it might be for four hours straight. I go into intense autistic hyperfocus when in this stage. Before starting a chapter, I review all the project notes, the premise, and the file card for the chapter, especially POV.

Point of view, or POV is important. I use a style of narrative which has been called free indirect discourse, which is a fancy way of saying I write in the third person, but tightly focused on the point of view of a particular character. So if I’m writing a chapter from the POV of Jane, I will only include what Jane experiences – that chapter will not reference something about which Jane could not know. This restriction I place on myself isn’t the only way to write – it’s my stylistic choice. And it’s one of the things that makes my characters seem very real. Before I start typing words for the chapter, I’ll have a few minutes thinking through the POV character’s mindset; what they are feeling in the scene, what their desires are, and so on. When I feel I’m “in” that character, and I’m also steeped in the project notes of the themes and images, I will write that chapter as quickly as I possibly can. I’ll be hitting the keys hard and fast, in what some people have called angry typing, but there’s nothing remotely angry about it. I am in the zone, baby. That first draft of the chapter, because I’ve typed so quickly, will be all over the place with typos and grammar problems. The reason I type so quick in the first draft is to keep the craft aspect submerged, and to let my creativity run riot. I’ll continue writing each chapter this way until I have a complete, if somewhat unruly, first draft of the novel.

Step 7: Amnesia. I’ll put that first draft away, and spend a few weeks trying to forget everything about it. I will under no circumstances do any further work on it until I feel I’ve got some mental and emotional distance from it. This usually takes at least six weeks, but probably longer.

Step 8: Second draft. For this stage, I work methodically through each chapter, straightening them out. This isn’t only about correcting the typos and grammar. I might find that some of the imagery isn’t right, or that I’ve stayed from the premise, or there’s a continuity cock-up, or whatever. In this stage, I’m using the analytical, craft part of my brain. I’m crafting every element, polishing and refining. I’m also deleting a considerable amount of text if it doesn’t serve the premise. Less is often more. This stage feels a little like tuning an instrument to such a fine degree that even the least musical person in the world would create a beautiful noise when strumming it. When I’ve done this for every chapter, I put the novel away again.

Step 9: Amnesia again. I try to forget all about the story again, and when I’ve got that distance, out it comes again…

Step 10: Final draft. I go over the whole story again, trying to root out any further errors or inconsistencies. As I self-publish, this stage also involves a lot of formatting work. The first attempt at uploading to the publishing platform rarely looks good. Page breaks, section breaks, font, page numbering, front matter, back matter, cover blurb, cover image… all this happens in the final step. Only when I’m sure it looks the part will I push the button to publish.

I suspect that any autistic person reading this explanation of my process, regardless of whether they are into writing or not, will understand the satisfaction that comes from the control and getting right into the forensic detail of the story. If you’re autistic and you have your own special interest that you get right into the detail of, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to infodump in the comments section.

I will never put this blog behind a paywall. I want anyone, anywhere, to be able to access this content at any time. There are costs incurred running this website, however. So if you like what I’m trying to do here, please feel free to show your support with a small contribution via

That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.


You can find The Autistic Writer on all your favourite social media channels

Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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