Good luck to my NaNoWriMo friends – here are 6 ideas to help out!

Today (November 1st) kicks off the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! My friends are collecting their notes, changing their Facebook profile pictures and getting ready to commit 50,000 words to a story in the next thirty days.

I love the idea of people focusing on a creative pursuit like this. It gives you a chance to examine your own beliefs and ideas about life through storytelling, and it challenges you to have fun. Because if you can’t have fun you’ll never come up with 50,000 words.

Here are some ideas you might find useful:

  1. Create a character you like. It amazes me how many books are published featuring unlikable protagonists. It’s hard enough to read 300 pages about an unlikeable character – I can’t imagine what it’s like to spend so much time creating, editing, and working with that unlikeable character! Yes, your character should have flaws, but I want to root for them to succeed in whatever it is they want to do.
  2. Take your likeable character and make him/her miserable! You ever have one of those days where everything goes wrong? That happens to your character today and every day. Two steps forward, one step back (we are still rooting for him/her to succeed, so some forward progress is nice, but not a lot).
  3. Set your story someplace where you’ve been, or where you can imagine being. Tell me about it in vivid detail, because I probably haven’t been there! If I have been there, tell me about it so I can feel special when I think, “I know where that is!” In mystery novels, the advice is to make your setting so strong it’s almost a character. I think that can be applied to any genre.
  4. Give every character a secret. Reveal them, one by one. This gives depth to your characters and adds texture to your story when you’re not in the main flow of your plot.
  5. Keep your reader asking questions – but answer some of them as you go. A novel is like a scavenger hunt. There’s a primary goal, but a lot of little components are needed to complete it. Reward your reader with small answers from time to time as you work your way toward the big finish.
  6. Be brave! Let your characters sit in your head and play. Your brain works best when it is starting to get bored. If the characters are already primed and in your imagination then you will get ideas in the shower. On your daily commute. While doing laundry. Be ready for them and write them down!

NaNoWriMo is a great challenge and a lot of fun. My mystery novel, Asperger Sunset, started out as a NaNoWriMo. Well, several of the characters did. And I went through six years of editing and rewriting afterward. But the book never would have happened if I didn’t sit down to write a novel in the first place!

Best of luck to everyone and I hope to see the results from some of you in about thirty days!

Asperger’s and the Social Benefits of Creativity – But Where are the Aspie Writers?

Asperger’s Syndrome and creativity – the two are certainly not mutually exclusive. People with autism see the world differently and should be encouraged to develop their creative interests.

Everyone has a natural desire to express themselves, and creativity provides a golden opportunity for socialization. I’ve always been uncomfortable at large family gatherings and I have a driving desire to document things. Throw a camera into the mix and a few basic scrapbooking supplies and something happens…

I started scrapbooking before scrapbooking was “cool.” I’m not fancy. I do fairly simple layouts on various colors of paper with a few sticker embellishments and lots of descriptive captions, especially names and dates. I put together a photo album each year and I always bring one or two of them along to family gatherings. People love to look at the books, we talk about the people in the pictures and my comfort level in a crazy, overstimulating environment improves immensely.

Kids with autism who paint or draw or play music can be encouraged to share their talents, and they often do. This creates healthy social interaction and builds confidence. But where are the writers?

Many people with Asperger’s write non-fiction, and that makes sense. Who better to describe what it’s like to have Asperger’s than someone with the condition? But finding fiction written by people with Asperger’s is extremely difficult, and I’m not entirely sure why.

People with Asperger’s have a keen sense of detail – something valuable for a novelist. Aspies are known for having sharp memory skills, handy for creating and maintaining a storyline. Since Aspies need to actively learn social behaviors, they have a strong understanding of what’s needed to motivate and develop characters. Aspies are all about rules, so reading a few books about the writing craft sets up a terrific structure to build upon.

There may be Aspie authors out there, just not writing about Aspie characters. I wonder about Jeff Lindsay, the author of the Dexter novels. While Dexter is a psychopath, his observations and confusion about human behavior are delightfully Aspie-like, and I’d like to think that’s an extension of the author’s world-view.

Jodi Picoult wrote a novel, House Rules, about a teenager with Asperger’s, but honestly, I never felt she got very far inside his head. She did a lot of hard work and research, but that neurotypical essence still crept through.

One of the reasons I wrote Asperger Sunset, my mystery novel, is because I couldn’t find anything else like it out there. But I’m looking for more. If you know of any books featuring characters with Asperger’s or works of fiction written by authors with Asperger’s, please share them with me. Did the writers do well? Why or why not? Celebrate creativity!

Non-Verbal Communication and the Expression of Theater

Words mean a lot to me. Especially dialog. When I’m working on a novel, just plowing forward to get the story down “on paper,” my scenes are often little more than dialog between characters, to be fleshed out later.

Why? As a novelist, you’d think I’d be more hung up on description and detail. Then I realized a lot of my training as writer actually came from exposure to the theater.

Dialog is an important part of a novel, but only a part. The novelist has many different tools for telling a story, and should use all of them to the best of their ability.

In the theater, though, dialog is almost everything. I live near the world-class American Player’s Theatre, and have been a volunteer usher and a loyal patron for many years. I’ve seen dozens of different productions, experienced the brilliance of playwrights from Shakespeare to Shaw, and gradually got to the point where I hear my characters telling their stories when I write.

So how does non-verbal communication figure into it? While APT has expanded their repertoire to include more modern plays each year, they still focus on Shakespeare, and few do it as well as they do. I’ve often said Shakespeare needs to be seen, not read, to be understood, but I didn’t realize why until recently.

When you perform Shakespeare, especially to a group of middle school students exposed to it for the first time, it’s a lot like communicating with people who have Asperger’s Syndrome or high functioning autism!

Autism is a communication disorder, and people with high functioning autism often miss out on non-verbal cues. A group of school kids going to see a Shakespeare play are going to be similar, yet opposite. They will be blind to the language – part of the communication process is going to be missing. And yet, APT successfully performs for hundreds of students every year, and the kids not only understand the shows, they have a great time as well!

How do they do it? With a combination of actors who truly understand the words and know how to use strong non-verbal communication. The actors at APT are masters at accentuating the significant words, and also using tone of voice and body language to convey the meaning of those words with power, all the way to the back row.

This past summer they did “Hamlet,” a play everyone – except 12 year olds – is familiar with. So how do you handle the famous “To be or not to be” speech?

The actor playing Hamlet steps forward to a quiet corner of the stage. Most of the other lights go down, tuning out distractions. Good for autistic folk as well as distractible pre-teens: focus here. “To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” he speaks in a low, melancholy voice. He has his dagger in his hand, playing with it, drawing the blade gently up and down his wrist… “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing” – his hand stiffens the blade, as if to slash his wrist, “end them.”

For a kid who has no idea what suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune means, he can read the language of the dagger, the sound of Hamlet’s voice, and gain his or her first understanding of one of the greatest speeches in English literature. He’s sad. He could kill himself. Should he?

I realized, looking back, that I learned a lot of non-verbal communication from these shows. I’d go the first time to figure out the characters and basic plot, then, the second time to understand the whole thing a little better. Actors have to project their characters to the entire audience so their actions are very clear and obvious. When you become familiar with the obvious actions, the more subtle day-to-day gestures between ordinary people become clearer, too.

With modern movie fare becoming little more than loud, flashy assaults on the senses, it’s worth taking the time to pursue the art of theater, and the combination of verbal and exaggerated non-verbal language can be especially helpful to someone with an autistic spectrum condition trying to learn how to understand others better.