I had a wonderful, long overdue chat with an old friend of mine tonight. I’ve known Mitchell since Grade 7. Growing up, we were into all the same stuff: wrestling, comics, tabletop RPGs, video games. We used to talk more often, but you know how it happens when adult crap gets in the way. He’s doing well for himself now: living in the U.K., working for a mobile game designer, has a daughter. All good stuff. Between work (for both of us), a kid, the time difference, and life in general, it’s hard to chat with him like we used to. But I’m grateful for any time we can.
I’ve sometimes considered Mitchell my muse. We have different ways in our creative style and approach, but I think because of that, he’s also a great person to bounce ideas off with. He rarely shoots anything down, but as someone who studied improv comedy, he takes any ideas, accepts it, and rolls with it. He asks me questions on the hows and whys of idea. He never offers huge ideas for me to “steal,” but coaxes ideas out of me like a bourbon-fueled Socrates.
Tonight, we shared our mutual struggles with ADHD. We talked about how ADHD is both a gift and a curse for creative people. With some forms of ADHD, there’s the concept of hyper-focus, where you can shut off everything else around you and narrowly focus on what’s in front of you.
Which is great during that creative process, but the moment you step away, it’s incredibly difficult to get back into that hyper-focus groove. I find that hyper-focus creeps into every aspect of my life. I’ll lose myself in hours playing a video game or reading a comic book series. I even do it with personal relationships. I’ll admit I’ve done it in romantic relationships, as well, especially the beginning of a potentially new dating partner.
For Mitchell and his creativity, he has a difficult time getting any further than the first third of a project. Then he thinks of a new idea and puts all his energy on the next, never finishing it. He told me that he’s jealous that I was able to complete and publish two novels. I’ve written four in total, but only two have seen the light of day. It got us discussing my ongoing inability to get back into writing, and I think some of it has to do with my inability to hyper-focus on a something: plotting and structuring. Let me explain.
When I was working on my first two novels, The City of Smoke & Mirrors and The Dame was a Tad Polish, I didn’t do a lot of planning. City was especially poorly planned. To put it into perspective, the star of the books, Dilbert Pinkerton, didn’t even have a name until I’d already written at least half a dozen chapters. At first, he was going to just be “The Armadillo,” hearkening back to a character like The Question. But I got tired of calling him that, so his friends called him “Dill.” Then I decided to give him a full name: Dilbert Pinkerton. To reiterate: I didn’t name my novel’s main protagonist until I was almost a third into writing the book. The second book required more planning because it was a murder mystery. I still don’t like how the antagonist turned out and think they’re poorly developed, but I feel like the second book is much better in a lot of ways, partly because some of it was sloppily planned.
The blessing and curse of writing Dill is that he writes himself. Other writers have talked about characters “taking over” or “taking on a life of their own” and that’s Dill. From the first sentence of City, he was in the driver’s seat. Which led to some hilarious moments when I would put an obstacle in his way just to see how he’d worm his way out of it. The blessing of that is it made writing Dill’s adventures easy. Even if I had very, very rough plans, I made most of it up along the way, comforted in the fact that Dill would be there to have my back. Combine that with my ability to hyper-focus, writing Dill rarely felt like work (unless I hit a block, which still happened at times).
The curse was when I tried writing anything else other than Dill.
Of the two other novel I’ve written that have gone unpublished, one is a new Dill adventure (it needs work). The other was my attempt at a young adult novel. Except now, I hate the first draft with a passion. It needs a complete overhaul, the world building needs work, the characters need to be filled out, and there’s very little about the first draft that I like to the point that it needs a complete rewrite.
I’ve also made several attempts at writing a memoir of my ongoing battles with depression and overall mental health. I’ve had several starts and stops over the years, with varying success. There are things about it I like about it and things I don’t like about it.
But I realized Untitled Memoir and Untitled YA Novel had something in common: I was trying to write them like Dill. I was trying to write them without little plotting or breakdowns. I had a rough idea for an ending for Untitled YA Novel, some rough ideas on where to take Untitled Memoir, but my notes on either were only a couple of pages long. There weren’t any character bios, chapter breakdowns, notes about themes, nothing. It was just rough stuff about “Here’s a line or two about this character, here’s some stuff that happens, etc.” I never took the time to breakdown “Okay, this is what happens in Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. This is what this character’s motivation is. This is how tall they are. This is what color their eyes are.” None of that. I’ve known for a long time that, as a writer, my major weakness is plotting and breakdowns (Except mental breakdowns, am I right guys? Up top!) While talking with Mitchell tonight, though, I think I’ve started to crack what part of the problem is: a lack of hyper-focusing.
I realized that I get easily bored with plotting and structuring. Most of my plotting is done on the sidelines, when I’m doing other things. A lot of my rough planning for Dill was during classes in my last year of university. Most of my rough notes were taken while I was doing something else. They’re the equivalent of an artist doodling. My rough notes are messy, unorganized, and usually just there as a sticky-note reminder to check on when I’m writing something substantial. I’ve never been able to sit down, hyper-focus, and say, “Okay, let’s plot out this sunovabitch.” Almost every book on writing or suggestions from writers starts with that, and it’s a skill I’ve never been able to learn. I’ve never had the patience for it. I’ve never been able to hyper focus on it. Couple that with crippling insecurities, depression, and a feeling of complete hopelessness, it’s no wonder I’ve never been able to get back to writing. I need to basically learn a whole new skill, not just a writing skill but also the skill of harnessing a positive aspect of my own mental illness. It’s probably also why I never got into writing comics, because writing scripts and planning out panels, page flow, and also making it make sense for an artist, all require a modicum of structure.
Mitchell said he thinks if I can work on this, that it’s the next step I need to evolve as a writer. Maybe he’s right. But I sure as hell don’t know where to start with that. Or even if I want to? Because I’m afraid of getting my hopes up again that I can return to writing.
In case you’re curious about my process, I did throw together some rough notes before writing this blog post. This is exactly, copy/pasted, what I wrote in Notepad while surfing the internet after talking with Mitchel:
-ADHD, which means when I get into a writing grove, I hyper-focus. When I return to something I’m working on, I can focus again.
-Struggle heavily with plotting, structure, and breakdowns. Most of my writing is done on the seat of my pants, with little planning. (mention Dill not getting a name until Chapter 6 or 7).
-The problem with that plotting and structuring is that I’ve never developed the ability to hyper-focus on it. Couple that with crippling insecurities, depression, and lack of motivation, and my writing has taken a huge hit.
-Talk about Mitchell suggesting I write comics, but the barrier is both structuring and communication with an artist.
-Struggling to write books other than Dill because they require more attention and structure, not just letting Dill make it up along the way.