Novel Writing with ADD

Having almost finished my third fanfic novel, I’m preparing to start my first original novel early next year. This is a project I’ve been planning for the past year, and I’m taking it very seriously as I consider the path my life will follow over the next few months.

I’m facing something of a problem, however.

I have ADD.

I’m making a (somewhat arbitrary) distinction between “ADD” and “ADHD” here, not in the least because I’m probably one of the most chill and least “hyperactive” people you could ever meet. If you talked to me for the first time, or even if you worked with me for years, you would probably never know that there’s anything “wrong” with me. To be honest, I don’t see ADD/ADHD as being in a different category of chronic condition than, say, diabetes. It’s genetic, and I handle it with a combination of medication, behavioral strategies, and social support structures. You know, as one does. It’s not a big deal.

Still, working with ADD can be difficult. The secondary conditions accompanying ADD, such as dyslexia and executive function disorder, can be difficult to work with as well. Although it’s only tangentially related, having anxiety is difficult too. All of this is difficult to begin with, and it’s made even more difficult by the fact that almost everyone born after 1980 – regardless of gender, race, or economic class – has been subject to intense neoliberal pressure to “optimize” their “performance” in order to succeed in absurdly competitive systems that only reward people with an abnormally high degree of preexisting advantages. It’s also unfortunate that these disorders are both poorly understood and ridiculously stigmatized, and that the American medical healthcare system is largely inefficient, ineffective, and intensely bigoted, even if you’re a straight white man (but most definitely going downhill from there).

In any case, having Attention Deficit Disorder is precisely that – my ability to concentrate and manage my attention is not neurotypical. I personally wouldn’t call it a “disorder,” necessarily, because it feels very normal to me, and I don’t think it’s actually a “deficit” compared to what other people experience. Rather, it’s a few steps closer to the end of a spectrum instead of being right smack in the middle. Sustaining focus and attention for long intervals with no physical movement or immediate reward is painfully difficult for me. That being said, I’d like to believe that I’m relatively skilled at lateral thinking, thinking quickly, processing multiple sources of input, and managing multiple tasks simultaneously in a way that many other people seem to find exhausting. To use an academic setting as an example, what this means is that I can finish a test quickly and with a perfect score but can’t for the life of me sit still and look at the desk while waiting for everyone else to finish (as opposed to drawing on the back of the test paper or checking my phone, for instance).

To give another example, although I can’t sit down and read one book for an entire hour, I can sit down for an hour and read ten books, and I can do this every day until all the books are read. As a result, I read more books than almost anyone else I know (I keep track of this on Goodreads, if you’re curious), usually with good retention and recall. A problem only arises if you give me a book and expect me to have read the whole thing by tomorrow – in which case I would say that’s your problem, not mine. In other words, the “problem” is often the arbitrary framework for a task, not my ability to handle it. To be blunt, the way I work only becomes a “disability” if someone deliberately goes out of their way to make it so by refusing to accommodate diversity.

This becomes tricky, however, when I have to set a task for myself.

Specifically, how am I supposed to maintain my attention and concentration for long enough to write the epic fantasy novel I’ve been outlining for the past year?

Based on my previous experiences with fanfiction and my academic monograph, I think that, in order to complete a significant writing project, I would need:

– the project to be of a manageable length,
– the project to occupy a manageable timeframe,
– the project to receive a manageable level of feedback,
– the project to have distinct and manageable milestones, and
– the project to have room for me to step away between milestones.

Instead of writing the story I’m envisioning in the form of a giant singular manuscript, perhaps it would make sense if:

– it were divided into a series of novellas
– of roughly 30k words each
– with roughly ten main chapters each
– and roughly 2,500 words per chapter.

I know this isn’t the traditional publishing model, but Tor recently started to put out novellas of approximately this length. (Silver in the Wood is a good example, I think.) Many of the Tor fantasy novellas I’ve read during the past year have been a lot of fun, and I’m given to understand, based on reviews and sales rankings, that a number of them are doing quite well in both digital and physical editions. What I’m envisioning might be possible, then.

In any case, I think it might be worth talking to an agent, but…

…I’m totally broke, I’m very shy, I only have a moderate following on social media, and I don’t have any useful connections in real life. If you combine my inexperience with the publishing world and the way my ADD workstyle functions best with external structure and feedback, I think it’s clear I would need a lot of guidance, and I don’t even know where to begin looking for help.

Maybe it’s still a bit early for all of that, though. For the time being, it would probably be best to start by cleaning up my outline and getting to work on a formal pitch. Once that’s taken care of, I can figure out where to go from there.

1,000 Words at a Time

How I turned an idea into an outline

Then I calculated how many scenes I need in which part of the story. My WIP is a YA or 12+ book, so I want it to contain about 75,000 words in total. I want my scenes to be around 1,000 words long to keep it snappy, so I need 75 scenes.

This is an interesting and useful post about how to plot a novel, and I appreciate that it succinctly cuts through the bullshit of so many mainstream writing guides that are often treated as one-size-fits-all industry standards. I tend to structure my plots a bit differently than the method suggested in this essay, but it’s still helpful to think of a huge project like writing a novel as “75 chunks of 1,000 words, give or take.” What this set of numbers means is that, if I can write a thousand words in a week, which is absolutely doable for me, then I can have the first draft of a novel finished in about a year and a half. Nice!

As an aside, I’m going to have to admit that I find the obsession with wordcounts a bit ridiculous. I understand that wordcounts help writers keep track of the progress they’re making, but it bothers me when it’s taken for granted that wordcount defines genre. What I love about literary fiction, as well as fiction published outside the United States, is that it defies the unwritten rule that something needs to be a certain number of words or pages in order to have market value. I actually really enjoy novellas and longer stories and essays that don’t fit into neat American categories! I resent the expectation that a manuscript needs to weigh in at 130,000 words in order to be taken seriously, but I can start evaluating the market once I have something to sell. Until then, I might as well enjoy myself without worrying too much.