Diary of a Mad Author
Author's Note: In keeping with policy prohibiting how-to articles, this will be a roman à clef in the form of some manic author's diary. Dramatic license will be used throughout; please read with that in mind.
To whomever is reading this,
If you are reading this, I will be…
I hate clichés. Actually, I love them, so long as they're not played straight. Invert them. Deconstruct them. Subvert them. Or, play them straight, but in some sort of fourth-wall nudge-nudge-wink-wink sort of context. However, if they're just left in the raw, that's just lazy writing. The point of fiction is to provide the reader with something unexpected. Even in a story where it's plainly stated that "Character A dies at the end," a well-written doomed-by-fate story will leave the reader guessing about something on the manuscript's inexorable journey to the character's unfortunate demise.
Ahem. Let's try that again. If you are reading this, you have my gratitude. I'm the usual frustrated author, looking to make my mark in the world, seeking acknowledgement, hungry for feedback, and dreading that my inevitable passing will leave no trace of my existence, no positive impact on anyone. I'm writing this in part to share what I've learned in my score-plus years of writing fiction, in hopes of providing you, dear reader, with possible shortcuts around common pitfalls.
No, that's not right either. Common is the wrong word, but there exists no sufficient other. See, I have a host of disabilities, including mental health challenges that leave me with rather particular and non-representative opinions about fiction, both production and consumption. I provide this so you know when some passage I write has no relevance to you because I'm talking from Mount Taerkitty, population: one.
Autism. I'm autistic. It seems to be "trending" these days, but I can look back and say, "No, I mean seriously autistic, like my-picture-should-be-in-the-textbook serious." In fact, I started writing to help with that. Let's back up and walk through a thought exercise that illustrates how the AS (autistic spectrum) mind thinks as compared to how an NT (neurotypical) mind thinks.
Jimmy brings a comic book to school. His teacher, Ms. Hatch, confiscates and puts it in her desk drawer, telling Jimmy that she'll give it back to him after school ends. The lunch bell sounds, and the kids go outside. Ms. Hatch is secretly a comic book fan herself, so she brings the contraband to the teacher's lounge where she will read it while she eats.
Meanwhile, Jimmy sneaks back into the school building because he wants his comic book back.
Where does he go?
NTs will say, "Duh, he goes back to his classroom because the last he saw of it was when Ms. Hatch put it in her desk."
AS will say, "Duh, the comic book is in the teacher's lounge, so he heads there."
NTs will then say, "Da-eff? There's no way he would know that." Bingo! That's called Theory of Mind. AS often think "everyone thinks like I do." The concept of self and other people is simply not there, or significantly less there than in the case of NTs. This is something "everybody" is born with, right? Well, if you think that, you need to work on your definition of "everybody."
How this applies to writing, and why I started writing as "occupational therapy" is pretty simple. In fiction there are at least three separate and distinct pools of knowledge. Even if it's a protagonist-versus-environment solo story, these three individual collections of thoughts always exist. Always.
First is the protagonist's knowledge. They know what the story says they know. The story might cheat a bit and have them suddenly reveal that they know some arcane-but-useful-in-this-situation tidbit, but the character knows only what they've experienced, both on-page and off-page.
Second is the reader's knowledge. Depending on the type of story, you might know more than the character, or less than the character. Many literary constructs exist to impart knowledge to the reader unavailable to the protagonist: narrative exposition, another character's words or actions, prologues, even mood and theme and other mechanics of writing. And, as the previous example illustrated, the character could pull something out of their rump that the reader didn't know they had.
Third is the author's knowledge. I know that the antagonist is setting an ambush. I know Character A dies at the end. I know the protagonist's plan is going to fail.
Keeping these three pools simultaneously in mind is excellent training to break the whole everybody-thinks-like-me mindset.
How does this affect my writing? To start with, when people change topics, they will usually leave some comprehensible breadcrumb trail. Topic A leads to Topic B, which leads to Topic C, and so on. With autism, I might jump from Topic A to Topic H for no discernable reason to you, the reader, because in my mind I already navigated across all the intermediate hops. And, lacking Theory of Mind, I know that you know all these transitions because everybody thinks like me.
The other critical way it applies to writing is thinking I have The One True Way. I like to read this sort of fiction, so that is the only correct way to write fiction. In this case, some NTs also have this problem; they're the ones you have to remind, "Yeah, it's great that it works for you, but it doesn't work for me." However, many AS have it much worse. I know I did. When I said that I knew the One True Way to right fiction, I acted like it. Wrote my stories confident in my craft. Reviewed and commented on others' works with haughty authority. Discussed writing with others confrontationally.
Sheesh. I'm glad I got better. These days, I constantly have to remind myself "different strokes for different blokes." And, I slip. Here, if I state unequivocally some Absolute Rule of Writing, please accept my apologies in advance and point it out to me.
Having said that, one of the previous Axioms of Writing I proselytized was to absolutely keep chapters under two thousand words, and ideally around one thousand, which looks to be about this point.