AspieLife: Special Interests and your Writing

One of the fun aspects of having Asperger Syndrome is having obsessive ‘Special Interests.’ These interests are often described as being ‘narrow’— which I suspect means ‘focussed’ and ‘specialized.’ Which is the way of the world. We don’t have PhD ‘generic’ scientists, we have nuclear physicists or geneticists.

What Special Interests really means is that we may be obsessed with ancient Roman history or Star Trek or The Walking Dead or collecting those glass insulators they used to have on power poles….

Herman Melville, an author who is suspected of having Asperger Syndrome (even though the diagnosis wasn’t invented during his lifetime), gives us more information on whaling and sailing ships in the novel Moby Dick than many readers even care for. We might guess that these topics were his obsessive ‘Special Interests.’ And I found the book interesting enough to read voluntarily as a teenager.

Modern Aspie writers have a problem, though. There is more competition for writers, and the modern reader expects us to get quickly to the ‘meat’ of a story. No ten paragraphs of Special Interest generated meandering.

Other people often find our Special Interests peculiar. They may regard us as boring people if we talk about them. Actually, I believe that the real reason we may be boring is not that we talk about our Special Interests, but that since we lack some social skills we may not catch the non-verbal clues that our listeners are bored with what we are saying. Or we may ignore those signs because WE were bored when it was their turn to talk and they talked about their hernia surgery and their diarrhea problem, and now it’s OUR turn. But this isn’t good. We don’t want to bore people when the consequences may be they just don’t want us around.

SOLUTION: The way to make other people think you are a brilliant conversationalist it to talk about those other people, their interests, their lives…. Showing interest is a sign that we care. Or wish we cared. Or something.

SECOND SOLUTION: Join a MeWe group (or Facebook) dedicated to your Special Interest topic, so you have an outlet to ‘talk’ about your Special Interest that isn’t boring other people, or adding boring amounts of Special Interest content to your novel.

Do we have to make all our writing Special Interest free? And just write in a bland, ordinary way to please other people? No, readers don’t like bland either. You want to include the things you are passionate about. You just don’t want to bog down the story with too much Special Interest content. Keep the story action coming. Breaks in which you insert Special Interest content should be few— and connected to the overall story, if possible. Think of them as dazzling little gems that spice up your story— but adding a hundred more such moments would not be dazzling but blinding and scary.

Having Asperger Syndrome and/or Special Interests doesn’t spell doom to a writer— Herman Melville did pretty well for himself after all— but we must be sure that WE are in charge of our stories, not our Special Interests. We want our writing to be interesting, brilliant and different in a cool way— and attractive to readers.

QUESTION: I wonder if it is possible for us to develop a Special Interest on purpose? I mean, if you had to take a class in college in order to graduate, could you make American history or mathematics or Spanish your new Special Interest? Because you have to take the course anyway and you might as well be interested in the subject, and having an obsessive interest in it might help you get better grades. What do you think?

Asperger Syndrome and The Writing Game

I once looked at a book which had a section on careers for adults with Asperger Syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and one of the possible careers is ‘writer.’ And of course I hope it is true. Even though my writing has been confined to blog posts, poems, and unfinished novels up to this point.

When I was applying for Social Security disability based on my late father’s income, an ‘expert’ testified that persons with Asperger Syndrome don’t have any ability to be creative in any way. (He was an ‘expert’ because he had worked with institutionalized persons with autism.) This was kind of breathtaking to me. I had met loads of other Aspies online and nearly all were creative in some way. Most were writers or aspiring writers.

So that gave me a whole new arena for self-doubt. Maybe my creative ideas weren’t REALLY creative since I’m not capable of real creative thought…. But by now I’ve concluded, so what? You don’t have to be totally original and creative to be a working writer. You can have a career of rewriting Romeo and Juliet in the wild West or Hamlet in outer space. As long as you learn the basic writing and storytelling skills, you can do it even if you are not REALLY creative.

The social skills thing is one area in which people with Asperger Syndrome can really be held back. We feel like failures in social situations, and so we fail to do writer networking to meet other writers, even the online version of networking. I’ve seen some Aspies who say they don’t want to interact with ‘neurotypical’ (non-Aspie) people and so stick to a writing group for Aspies-only. Most of whom will NOT succeed as writers, ever, and who may give very wrong writing advice. (If you want a writing career, you need to network with writers who have some success, not just a group of wannabe writers.)

People with Asperger Syndrome can learn to develop more social skills, especially in an online context. It helps if you are a Christian and trained in the ‘do unto others’ idea of treating other people right instead of just wanting to use them for what we want. (You can learn the ‘do unto others’ thing regardless of your faith, however.)

Finally, one thing that can hinder many Aspies from becoming real writers is the ‘eternal child’ thing. Once you have a diagnosis, some people think of you as an eternal child who will never mature, always depend on parents or disability programs. I remember one time, when applying for a Michigan state food benefits program, I mentioned that I had an autism spectrum disorder. The lady then presumed that I was mentally retarded and could not sign my name, so she assured me I could make an X instead. Since I am not retarded but have a high IQ, this was troubling.

When people view you as an eternal child, they look at your writing the way most people look at a small child’s drawing. We praise children’s drawings even when they are dreadful. And people who see you as a child will praise even your most defective writing attempts, leaving you without useful feedback.

I used to have problems with people treating me as a child well into my middle age. Now I’m more likely to just be treated like a pariah. But luckily I have online peer groups I can go to when I need real feedback. I have also developed discernment through lots and lots of reading— I can often sense for myself what works and what doesn’t.

I think that even people with Asperger Syndrome can write books, publish them or get a publisher, and learn to market their books (even trad-published authors need to know book marketing these days.) It can be difficult, but we can learn the skills we need. After all, famous writers like Emily Dickenson and Herman Melville are suspected of having had Asperger Syndrome. If they could do it, why not you?

‘Unprofessional’ for a writer to use a free blog or website?

Here is where I have to disagree with the ‘experts’, specifically Joanna Penn. She says that using free blogging services— wordpress.com and Blogger in my case, is ‘unprofessional’ and that discerning viewers can tell a free website and, evidently, look down on you for it.

Even people who have plenty of money might choose to not spend more of it on paid blog services and domain names and such. And also, it might be a sign of solidarity with poor, disabled, and other disadvantaged writers and aspiring writers who haven’t made it big yet.

If you are a writer or aspiring writer with Asperger Syndrome [autism spectrum disorder], you have according to some statistics an 80% chance of being unemployed— even though the Asperger Syndrome diagnosis (when they still had it) rules out retardation and extreme low-functioning. It’s hard to get even the most menial job when employers take one look at you and see you as ‘odd’ and ‘shifty’ because you can’t make eye contact correctly!

Writing was one of the recommended careers for Aspies according to one book I read, and the prospect gives a lot of us hope. But being told you have to spend money on just starting a blog….. There are better things to save our limited funds for.

There is also the case of homeless aspiring writers who are bloggers. I’ve read of a case where a homeless girl wrote a popular blog about her homeless life and eventually got a book deal. She wrote her blog, I assume, with a free blogging service, and used the computers in public libraries.

I reject the notion that you need to pay for your blog and for a domain name to be serious about being a ‘professional’ writer. I have seen writers who have tried to save money on a domain name and turned their free blog into something less functional. If your words are good, people won’t notice your blog isn’t a paid one. If your words are not yet good because you are still learning, people won’t notice your blog’s free status either because they will either criticize you (a good thing) or just look down on you.

What true crime stories can teach us about fictional characters

I like to read true crime books, if they are well-written or if the case is interesting to me. And one thing I’ve learned about true crime stories— it’s all about the characters. There are some true crime books published every year because the murder cases garnered a few headlines and people want to read more. But the books soon drop out of sight, because most people don’t find the cases all that interesting.

Other cases— like those of Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Albert Fish, Ed Gein, and O.J. Simpson— remain of interest, no matter how much time goes by. Why is this? The difference is about the characters.

Some murders are almost routine. Armed robber kills victim. Pimp kills prostitute. Violent husband kills wife. Wife poisons husband— or a series of them— for the insurance money. These cases make headlines at the time, but most of them are quickly forgotten once the trial is over.

But the interesting cases are those with something special. A murderer that is notable and interesting— like O. J. Simpson, once the nation’s hero during his football career. Or perhaps an accused murderer that many believe is innocent, like Lizzie Borden. Or a sympathetic victim, like little Grace Budd who was lured away by Albert Fish and cruelly murdered.

Murderers aren’t normally the kind of people we want to spend time with, but the good true crime author presents the case as if it were a fictional tale with heroes and villains, and an ending that often brings a degree of closure.

Fictional stories are like that. It’s all about the characters. If the characters are dull and prosaic and walking stereotypes, the book is dull and you may not be able to finish it.

I knew an author that had a longish book out on Kindle. I read a lot of the beginning but I couldn’t find characters I much cared about or plotlines where I just had to know the outcome— perhaps because they involved characters that hadn’t caught my interest. But then the author wrote a novella about one of his more minor characters. He did a great job on the novella and on the Lead character. It still didn’t give me the inspiration to finish the longer book, though I did try. But my experience makes the point— the characters are the thing.

Many writers, like those with Asperger Syndrome or autism, lack the social skills and insight to learn enough about the real people around them to create book characters based on these real people’s traits. But reading books, both fiction books and nonfiction like true crime, allow you to benefit from some other person’s social insights. Of course, a true crime writer might be inaccurate about the details of some of the characters. Some writers repeat local gossip about a murderer to blacken that murderer’s name. I read a book about a woman who killed all of her own children, perhaps because of the mental disorder Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy. The local gossips accused the woman of being part of a rumored witchcraft coven in the area. But the evidence seems to point to the idea that this woman was quite conventional and attended Christian churches.

Now, fictional characters are not exactly like real people. Each fictional character has a function in the overall plot of the story. Real life isn’t that neat. But learning more about real people, even through a habit of true crime fandom, can help you create more compelling fictional people.

New Writers must develop discernment

What do you need as a writer? Loads of original ideas? Loads of knowledge from hundreds of how-to-write books and blog posts? No, what you really need is discernment. Discernment to help you tell which ideas— your own or other people’s— are good enough to work with.

I have seen a number of new writers who consider themselves Christian writers. They develop a novel idea which is a fantasy idea set in Old Testament times and they write it. And self-publish it. And wonder why after 5 years they have not one review on Amazon that wasn’t written by their mother.

They lack discernment about what the average Christian novel buyer wants. Go into a Christian bookstore and see what fiction is being published by the Christian publishing houses. How many are retold Old Testament tales? None? Maybe that should tell new writers something, but some still churn out tales about the Nephilim and such that may not sell.

How-to-write books have a lot of advice, but the advice may not apply to YOU. If the how-to-write book author makes a load of money at self-publishing, but he worked as a salesman for years and had a very popular blog, you shouldn’t expect his success to come to you unless YOU have salesmanship skills and have a popular blog— which is harder to do now than in the heyday of blogging.

If you read some book promoting advice which requires you to have 50 friends, it probably won’t work for you if you have .5 friend(s). If someone says you should write what you are enthusiastic about, it probably won’t help if you are an enthusiast for Victorian doorknobs and your novel is filled with specialized doorknob content at the expense of plot.

Suppose you have a lot of ‘weird’ writing ideas. Do you have the ability to tell which one can be made into a story other people can relate to?

One way to tell if your writing ideas have appeal is if you have a few author-friends you can communicate your ideas with. In the online age, even hopeless people like me— I have Asperger Syndrome and a long history of having no real-world friends— can interact with other writers online. (You have to do things like read and review your friends’ books’ in order to make this work for you.)

In time if you read enough and interact with other writers (and readers) enough, discernment happens. And it will be one of the best tools in your writing toolkit.

Asperger Syndrome writers: how to write social interaction

If you go to an online group for writers and creative people with Asperger Syndrome, one common topic is whether an Aspie writer can write scenes of social interaction well enough to pass muster. After all, we have a deficit in social interaction skills in real life. We commonly miss nonverbal cues and that can make a social interaction go wrong. So how can we write social interaction?
One factor is the fact that we actually have social interactions all our lives. We may not fully understand them, but neurotypical people also have social interactions they don’t fully understand. Every time we interact with another person, they have things in their head that affect the interaction— and they may not reveal even important things either verbally or through nonverbal cues.
But the most important reason we Aspies can write good fiction, including social interaction scenes, is that it is FICTION. And social interaction in fiction is governed by rules.
Social interaction in fiction takes place in the form of scenes. Each scene in a work of fiction has a purpose— it advances the overall plot in some way. And each character that acts in a scene has a purpose in that scene. He brings an agenda to the encounter.
For example, take the first scene in the novel ‘Gone With the Wind.’ In the first scene there are three interacting characters— Scarlett O’Hara, a sixteen-year-old Southern belle, and two of her many beaus, Brent and Stuart Tarleton.
It seems like an ordinary social call, but all the characters start off with agendas. Scarlett prides herself in being a popular girl with lots of beaus, and she doesn’t want to lose any one of the beaus to the other girls. She flirts with the Tarleton twins even though she has no intention of marrying either one, since her heart is set on her neighbor, Ashley Wilkes.
Brent and Stuart want to rise in Scarlett’s estimation and become the chief members of Scarlett’s string of beaus. They probably have a vague idea that in time one or the other of them will propose marriage to Scarlett and she will accept. But the boys haven’t thought far enough ahead to even figure out that they can’t BOTH marry her and that this fact is likely to lead to a future conflict between the brothers.
Brent and Stuart have an immediate goal in the scene. A barbecue at the Wilkes plantation will be held the next day. There will be dancing, and the boys want Scarlett to promise them as many dances as socially possible.
Scarlett doesn’t want to give the boys the encouragement of too many dances. She has lots of other beaus she wants to dance with. And she wants to spend time with Ashley, the man she believes is her One True Love.
The Tarleton boys have a secret, though. They’ve previously visited the Wilkes plantation and were told a secret: Ashley’s cousin Melanie Hamilton will be at the barbecue, and the Wilkes family intends to announce the engagement of Ashley to his cousin Melanie.
Brent and Stuart think that revealing this will get them what they want— Scarlett’s attention. Girls like to know secrets, and they love hearing gossip about who is getting engaged, especially when they hear it before it becomes common knowledge. Surely this will win them lots of dances and attention from Scarlett at the barbecue!
But because Scarlett loves Ashley, she is distraught. It can’t possibly be true! Her attention has turned firmly away from the Tarleton boys. She absently promises them dances and other attention at the barbecue, but then she leaves without inviting them to dinner, which would have been common good manners.

You can see that it would not require lots of knowledge of real world social interactions in order to write a scene like this. Only a knowledge of what each character in the scene wants— and you, the author, gets to decide that.
Now, you will note that not everything in the scene is normal and typical of social interactions of the period. It is odd for the Tarletons to be chasing the same girl, and it’s odd of Scarlett to accept the brothers both into her circle of beaus. It’s also odd for Scarlett to forget her manners and not invite the boys to stay for dinner. But readers accept that. People don’t always live their lives according to the etiquette books. Because the characters have goals, and they act to further those goals in the scene, their behavior is accepted.

The scene, the first in the book, serves the purpose of introducing the main character, Scarlett, and the major threat to her happiness— her love is apparently about to marry another. This situation is central to the major conflicts of the novel right until the end.

So for writing effective scenes of social interaction, it is more important to know writing rules than the rules of real-world social interaction. And most Aspies with an interest in writing will be able to learn those rules by reading books like James Scott Bell’s book ‘Plot and Structure’ which will help you learn to create plots which follow the three-act structure, which in turn will help you to write valid scenes.


Blogs I’m reading:

Dawn Witzke: Review: A Pius Man by Declan Finn   –  I just finished reading Dawn Witzke’s book last night. An intense dystopian novel with a Catholic touch. And here she’s reviewing Declan Finn’s thriller A Pius Man (Pius like the popes of that name) which basically shoots up the Vatican but in a Catholic-friendly way.

Josephine Corcoran: Ignoring blog commentsJosephine tackles the topic of how the blogger should respond to certain types of blog comments, particularly those on very old posts.

Riding your obsessive interests

Captain_KirkAs a person with Asperger Syndrome, I have Special Interests— obsessive/intense interests in a number of topics. My Special Interests include languages, ancient Roman history, The Walking Dead, and Star Trek.

Right now, especially Star Trek. At an intensity that’s a distraction from my writing work. Which is an on-going problem— it’s hard to plot and write the story I’m supposed to be working on when my mind is buzzing away at a Special Interest.

When I am feeling a Special Interest very intensely, it takes up more of my time. Because my Star Trek interest has been at the top of my mind lately, I’ve been rereading some of the Star Trek novels from my collection. I have a whole bookshelf that is nearly all Star Trek books. This takes up time I should be spending on writing, blogging and housework.

I’ve also been highly tempted to buy new Star Trek novels. I haven’t bought new ones in years. In part because since my father’s death in 2004 there has been no one to go to the bookstore with.  And of the two most recent Trek novels I’ve bought, one was dreadful and the other was so-so. But still, I keep looking on Amazon and sooner or later I may buy.

Special Interests can cost an Aspie a good deal of money— money we mostly don’t have since Aspies have an 80% unemployment rate. One of the tough parts of riding a Special Interest is to say ‘no’ to buying special-interest-related items when the interest is very intense. When this happens I may feel intensely like I ‘need’ certain items— and have less sales resistance to buying them even when they cost too much and I don’t have money to spare.

One thing that helps me is to rate the Special Interest that triggers the desires. A brand-new Special Interest does not warrant purchases, because the interest may fade quickly and may not recur for years. With a lifelong Special Interest such as Star Trek, a few modest purchases may be justified.

Others are harder to figure. With my interest in languages the problem is that I like to try new languages, but don’t know how interested I will be in them in the future. So I go for free audio language lessons from Book2 with a new language and tell myself when I’ve completed the lessons then I can buy something related to that language.

As a writer there is one way to keep a Special Interest from becoming a distraction— use the Special Interest that is obsessing you in the story. Herman Melville did that when he wrote Moby Dick— he gave us a lot of information about whaling and the life at sea in the book.

Of course if you are writing an Amish romance, it may be difficult to work a science fictional Special Interest into the story. Your current interest may not be something you can incorporate into the story. But you might be able to use your Special Interest as a reward when you have completed your writing quotas for the day.

Another trick might be to try to reactivate a previous Special Interest which DOES fit your story. How might you do this? Well, here’s an example: I currently have one writing project which is set in Russia. The Russian language has been one of my Special Interests, on and off, since my late teens. Doing a little work with Russian language tapes or listening to online radio from Russia might ramp up that particular Special Interest, and that might keep my interest on the story a bit more.

The worst temptation for an Aspie Writer when the Special Interest bug bites is to drop the current writing project for a new, more compatible one. I almost did that a couple of days last month, when instead of working on my current project I did some planning/outlining for a starship-based science fiction story which was compatible with my Star Trek obsession. But today my plans are to be a good girl and work on my proper project— mainly doing planning/outlining since I didn’t do quite enough of that before beginning.

Question: do you have Special Interests or other obsessions which can be a distraction from your writing/blogging? How do you cope?