My last blog entry really got me thinking. A lot of things came together, and I am still sorting through the wild knots. But what is becoming clear that I cannot just write my experiences and expect to be understood.
If I tell my story in the traditional way by showing, the neurotypical reader doesn’t see me. Accordingly, how can a neurotypical agent or editor? If I just tell my story without explanations, the NTs won’t get it. This is where the dreaded “cannot relate” comes into play.
This experience of having to explain myself in order to be understood correctly, also informs my reading habits. (And how I consume media in general.) If you show me a thing without explanation, I assume my initial reading will be off. And I have to manually calibrate to an NT reading. For me, the creator chose a way of displaying things that leaves unquestionable openings to change the reading later on.
I can never believe you are telling me the truth about a character or a situation if you only show it to me. Hence, every piece of media is chock full of subtext and possibilities. What is going on behind the layers of masking I am shown? How do the actions relate in a system of reference that is not neurotypical?
To apply that to Heater Girl – if the book only shows the events (girl under heater, doesn’t come out until left alone), NTs will assume a need for attention. NDs may also assume a need for attention because we are very good at learning what the “correct” reading of a situation is from NTs. (If we don’t, we die.)
Without the explanation form inside the girl under the heater, this reading will stand. Other actors my bring up the ND reading as an option, but our NT habits are either hard to break, or dangerous to break. Usually, we just don’t.
This is why I have to tell readers what is going on. For those who don’t know and for those who don’t believe it. Only by saying “this is what is happening here” can I be sure the events aren’t misread in a NT way. This is how I make sure you get to see what happens behind the layers of masking. And to do that, I have to break the accepted form of writing which says: “show, don’t tell” what’s going on.
Right now, it feels like a vicious cycle. I can write to expectation and won’t be seen. My being and existence is overwritten by NT readings and interpretations. Or I can write against expectation and not ben seen either because the manuscript goes nowhere. Because it is not written correctly. Because my characters are not relatable, make no sense.
I have no solution or even conclusion. This is how things are right now. I am invisible even in my own words.
My mum kept telling a story about me in kindergarten. You see, I was a quiet child and usually unproblematic to handle, invisible. But in kindergarten, oh in kindergarten I was an attention whore.
As soon as I was dropped off, I’d crawl under the heater and wouldn’t come out. No amount of coaxing or bribing would work. I would stay put. Only when left alone I would finally get bored and leave my hiding place in search for more attention.
I believed that story.
And why not. I don’t remember this. I remember nothing from kindergarten. And what sane person would crawl under a heater anyway? What reason could there be, if not having the kindergarten teachers give you their undivided attention in the attempt to lure you out?
Today I look at the poor little critter trying to find some peace and quite under a heater, trying to process too many things going on at once. She’s overwhelmed and nothing will change that – except leaving her alone. Once little!Mel has calmed down, she can face the world again.
Who gets to tell my story?
For the longest time, my mum did. And I echoed the story, trying to find the charm in it. Because it had to be charming, didn’t it?, to bear repeating? I understand the desire to have one-on-one interactions. Crowds are noisy and complicated. And while I crave attention, I also want to be safe when receiving it.
Today I have accepted that there is only so much interaction I can stomach. (Masking is exhausting.) I worked on a fair for six hours this Saturday and slept off the exhaustion for most of the remaining weekend. People are too much. Even when I love them and love being around them, they are A Lot. I need a break.
I didn’t intend this to be be about writing. But I’m a writer; it’s what I do. And these days I am writing my own story. The story where I am lying under the heater overwhelmed. My characters are allowed to be like me. They act like me, think like me, perceive like me. They most definitely express themselves like me.
I didn’t always put it into my stories on purpose. But I think all my protagonists have it because I wrote them to be normal like me. (gigglesnort) When I write today, I know my protagonist will be neurodivergent. (On top of being an enby, bitches love enbies! It’s me I’m bitches). And I lean into it. On the page, I can be perceived safely – ticks, tells, and stims.
I hear that this is wanted, that my voice is important and needs to be heard. People like me want to see themselves, people not like me need to see us to understand us. And yet, I so often get the feeling that it’s not not what publishing wants at all. They want the little attention whore, the motives they understand.
As soon as I stop explaining myself, I am automatically read like the attention seeking version of my story. If I show you who I am, you see something else. (This ties in closely with my problems of Show Don’t Tell As described in Lies, lies everywhere and my I Don’t Believe You blog posts.)
I cannot exist as myself and not be misread. I cannot write myself and not be misread. As soon as I stop explaining myself, I am no longer playing the game correctly. A little girl huddling up under the heater is not an active protagonist. She has no agency. Unlike her little twin that is making others do her bidding, who has an effect on the outside world instead of the other way round.
The world has an effect on me more often than I can affect it. Being left alone when overwhelmed is a comfort-fantasy. Being helped through the pain is a power-fantasy and one I am only now learning to write. Stars know if I ever get to a place where I can live it.
Does this bode well for my books?
What can I say…
…my mum tells this little story about me – about her little attention whore that was otherwise so perfectly invisible.
I’m not sure this has anything to do with my being a frothing mass of angry nd. Maybe it does. I cannot say because I have no framework of reference. Guess I am not (yet) moving in all the right circles for me.
Of course, this was once more sparked by Craft in the Real World my Mathew Salesses. There is a part where he speaks about Chinese traditions in storytelling. That has nothing to do with my own storytelling. Some things stood out for me simply because I want them in my stories. The ones I write as much as the ones I read.
Explicit emotions, wanting to make the reader feel something. Purposeful lack of interiority. Romantic irony. Directly addressing the audience or at all times an awareness of the audience and the structure surrounding story telling with all its participants.
I have never put names on these things except for myself and always as ways I deviate from correct writing. It is on me that I don’t understand why a protag’s head can’t just be empty, its last brain cell being squizzly squiggly fucking bendy and gallivanting around on a perpetual 404-error.
That the protag shouldn’t be addressing the audience (in)directly. Like, am I the only one who does this? Talk to my imagined audience in my head, performing on a stage of my own making as if I’m in a live feed?
That direct and unabashed emotions are the food for the soul my heart hungers for. Why would a metaphor transport the point better? Emotions are raw and leave you vulnerable. Why should I put up walls around that again when I just chipped them away carefully?
These are things I like. (along with free-floating dialogue, no descriptions, and info dumps). But they are branded as Bad Writing. When truly, they may all just be part of a different tradition. Maybe I just don’t know because all I get is western style stuff.
I grew up not questioning it. Writing craft advice was The Gospel. It was me that didn’t get it. Somehow I managed to not get the basics of writing, my fave pastime of all time. But try as I might, I could not like what that advice produced in my hands. It was obvious, that I was the problem.
Tell you what? I will be a fucking problem.
I was taught there is a right way to write, and now I begin to understand it is just one tradition. A dominant tradition people are loth to let go. Hell if I know why. Maybe it is easier to judge stories following a pattern. If it strays, it is a bad story. Easy.
If you have different right ways to tell a story, this becomes increasingly difficult. Not only are you expected to understand the different ways (but do you have to? Can’t you just enjoy?) The possibility to be “wrong” increases. You are prone to make mistakes.
I can see where this is making a lot of people very uncomfortable. Can’t say I care, though. I have been made very uncomfortable approaching the subject from the other side for a long time. How about we meet in the middle?
Or better yet, yeet those preconceptions into the sun where they belong. Embrace the multitude of traditions and writing styles. Celebrate them merging into a kaleidoscopic flux of self-renewing creativity.
Not everything that can come from this will be gold. But let’s be honest. How much is getting published these days that isn’t gold either?
The one thing I know now is that traditional western story telling can never meet all my narrative needs. It was not made to. It does not have to.
Writing and publishing will be all rolled into one for this one and I am not taking criticism. 😙 I will freely admit that writing is doing a much better job of being diverse than tradpub which is part of the problem because producing all those amazing things means nothing if tradpub ignores them wholesale. 🤷♂️
Writing and books are advertised as being a choice, wide range, a free-for all. Anything goes! You just have to do it well. (And with enough practice that is a given, right?!?) (Who decides what well even is?!? 🤨)
Well, here I go. I have written a thing and also, I like reading a thing or maybe even two thing if spoons. I am very picky where my reading is concerned. This may tie into the overall issue depicted here. (I say “may” but really, I am certain it does.)
But that’s fine. I finally found my people – writers, some of them even published. And I finally get access to The Writing. And it’s like, let’s go to the fruit market!
We go. We arrive. And every stall I see sells apples. Like, different kinds, sour, sweet, crunchy, gnarly. There’s absolutely every kind of apple you can imagine. Some are suspiciously close to pears and one looks like it’d rather be a peach.
So I wonder, where are the other fruits? Mangoes anyone? Blueberries, please? And I get those looks of incomprehension.
– Like, we’re at a fruit market.
– Yes, yes, we are, so where are the fruits?
– Look around. It’s all fruit.
– Yes, but it is all the same kind of fruit.
– It is all fruit!
And then there is this horrible dawning of maybe the “all” doesn’t mean everything in this place is fruit, but these are all the different fruits there are. This is it. You want fruit? You better like apple.
And so I stand there, clutching my raspberries to my heart until they squish because I will never have apples.
Also, I would like some non-apples to read please.
When I got Craft in the Real World (CitRW) by Matthew Salesses, I did with reservations. I have received a lot of craft advice in my life and have developed a raging rage against most of it. I have shown my whole ass ripping advice from Stephen King to shreds because, how dare?
I never found the words to express why craft advice was making me so angry. I pinned a part on it being prescriptive. One shoe doesn’t fit all, that much I knew. I just didn’t know how to argue for more diverse shoes because everybody was so set on having white sneakers.
I settled on “everything does something, you just have to decide if it is a something you want.”
A valiant attempt but falling short in so many ways. And I didn’t know how to catch the pieces and make them make sense. It was obvious to me. Why could others not see it?
Reading CitRW is like trying to chip a lion out your block of marble for years only to learn that the advice on how to do this was geared at people working clay.
The Surprise – I though I was just too stupid/bad at it/ incapable.
The Relief – I can still do this! There is a way and I am not all lost/wrong.
The Pain – Why did I try to apply the wrong approach for so long?
The ANGER – Why did nobody tell me this was wrong for me? Why did everybody insist on it being helpful and THE ONLY RIGHT WAY when it is clearly NOT? Why did I suffer through so much perceived failure and the inability to streamline my words and still keep them meaningful?
The realisation that, surrounded by white, mostly allo cishet people – who is there to notice we’re trapped in an ideology of our almost-peers making? White male supremacy is so insidious, we don’t see all its tentacles groping through our lives.
Craft advice with a clear ideology and target audience took a life of its own, pretended that it had no ideology, and was falsely accepted as a neutral thing. Just like not using Deus Ex Machina prevails in western literature because Aristotle didn’t like it and we just took his word for it being bad.
So I just took the word of other white people. I did not reflect on where they got those ideas from. I did not reflect on what the written said about who it was from and who it was for. After all, isn’t SFF a free for all? Shouldn’t the place of magic and spaceships be free from preconceptions?
I guess it should.
Doesn’t mean the readers are free of those. Readers have expectations. And those are learnt as much as writing to meet them is. And the small number of women heroines in SFF only mirrored it’s predominantly male audience, right?
The first five pages of CitRW taught me more about craft then everything else up to that point. The whole book has changed my world. Not the way I write, but how I think about it, how I judge the framework it comes from and the framework I want it to go into.
CitRW also changed the way I beta and CP. I now understand why things work for me better. I can rattle at my perception to better see where the work comes from and how that influences the way it was written. I can start to see your craft and with it your privilege – or lack thereof.
I don’t think my writing has become more palatable to an implied “general audience”. But now I know why and I can consciously think on whether I do want to change things up for them or if I want to stick with a craft that speaks to my desired audience. (My desired audience, quite shockingly, is not middle aged, able bodies allo chishet white men of fair income.)
Also, I am petty and angry. If I had to read stories for them for most of my life, it’s time for payback and for them to read stories for me for a change. If I find enough to identify with an identity so far from mine, so can you.
And, just so you know, I will judge you on your PERCEPTION of craft.
Beginnings are the bane of authors, it seems. They have to be Just Right™ or they will get your manuscript rejected. Or so the story goes.
Ngl, I hate it here. There’s few things I love writing as much as beginnings. It’s an enchanted moment, sacred, when I get to dip a new reader into my worlds. Yes, sometimes it is fun to dunk them head-first into the sea of sparkle but usually I want them to feel the same sense of wonder I did when I found/created/explored this world.
For me, starting a book is like opening a door. And there are few times when I want to topple and drown immediately after. Or duck out of the line of fire. I want a sense of my surroundings first. And yes, sometimes diving into the sea of glitter is great. Also, it gets boring after a while.
By now I know beginnings, how they are supposed to look and work and I hate it. Like actively NOPE. It is customary to start with some small action, something to set the scene while drawing the reader right in and also, get the plot rolling.
The number of books I start where I know that whatever the protag is about to embark on will fail is atrocious. I do not want to see my protgas fail. Truth be told, I absolutely LOVE it when the first thing goes right and that is the reason the rest of the book goes down. Chef’s kiss.
There are lists of ways how you do NOT start a book. I read them and I shake my head because, nope, I see nothing wrong there. I like beginnings that start with somebody coming to or running away. It complements my feeling of stepping into a new world. I can slip into it slowly and get to know its wonders.
I also like people running, because usually they run away from something which can tell you so much. 🥺
So, what am I supposed to do? Action.
And yes, many people interpret that as ACTION!action. Like, shooting, fighting, explosions. I find that dull and distracting. I don’t care about any of this yet. Yes, you can signal clearly who the correct side to root for is. No, it won’t work because I’m naturally suspicious about it.
What do I consider successful beginnings? (Not considering prologues here)
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. Two people ride into a city. Impending doom has not happened yet.
The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah. A magic merchant and her companion complete a deal and everything goes well.
Cambion’s Law by Erin Fulmer – The protag outs herself as half-demon getting coffee and goes for a jog where she stumbles over the plot.
Finna by Nino Cipri – The protag arrives at work to cover a shift and hates every second of it.
The prologue of Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is the kind of beginning I mean. It starts, there’s fighting. Do I care? Nope. To this day I am very sorry for the poor Hunduns. 🤷♂️
I think what is important for me in a beginning is to get a feeling of my new friends, their world and the story I can expect ahead. If you start with fighting, that’s what I will expect: fighting. If you start with characters, I will expect character development on the grounds of things happening. If you have a lot of descriptions (side-eyeing you, Gideon the Ninth) I expect many more descriptions.
Personally, I want to go gently into my new world. I want to get invested. And if I am getting dunked in a sea of glitter, I at least want to know that the details of this romp are irrelevant for what is coming.
So, what does a pantser like me do once they finished their first draft?
Well, after typing “The End” I bundle it up an yeet it at agents, naturally. Joking. I only yeet it at agents I have beef with. OK, still joking.
How does post-production look like?
Well, my first draft usually is the first version of the finished book. Sava had 70k in her first draft and got beefed to 96k in post because descriptions are just not a thing I do.
Horny WIP finished at 77k. It’s contemporary, so I hope I don’t have to add that much description.
Anyway, step one: letting the manuscript sleep. (I am SO bad at this and may skip it even.) At least 4 weeks of not touching it. I hope to forget a few things that I just know during that time and realise I forgot to put them on paper when I re-read.
The next step is soft edits. I already wrote the best version of the book I know how to. So at this point I just tweak small things. Put in some foreshadowing or weaving in things and characters that I came up with later.
I try to make notes about what needs to be done later while I write instead of going back and doing it right then. That way, I will remember later and it’s not disturbing my flow.
For Salma, this will be pointing out her autistic traits. I’m not going to make a big issue of it, but she’ll get her stimming and stuff. Not to mention that her LI gets her at first sight and helps her cope however he can.
Salma also needs some nice trauma. Not sure where to go with that except maybe undiagnosed autism in the real world. But CPs are part of post production and they do amazing work. (ILYSM 😭) This is where my manuscript goes after I edited out all mistakes I could find and put in all things I have to retroactively.
Then I sit on my hands and chew on my nails until the feedback rolls in.
Honestly, CPs are the best thing that can happen to a writer. I love mine with the ferocity of a million suns. They are willing to put in some work for quid in return and I am just so happy and grateful to know them. 🥺
Then I read the feedback, throw a few hissy fits and take some time to cool down again. I need time to digest feedback and hammer home the point that it is meant to help me and not an insult. (Note to self: feedback is really, really I helpful and in no way an insult.)
At this point a skill authors are not always told about becomes relevant: parsing the feedback. It is on ME to know who my target audience is and what my vision for the story is. On those grounds I have to decide whether feedback I get is helpful or not.
Ngl, it’s difficult in the beginning. What do I want?!? It’s also difficult when it comes form people you perceive to be further along/better with authoring than you are. Soul-searching commences and the horrible question of who I want to be as an author.
The realisation that who I want to be may not be (at all) what is sellable, doesn’t help. I cried so many times thinking about how my ideas and style and pace and voice are not, in combination, a thing that is likely to sell. 😭
Back to post-production. After realising what the vision of the manuscript is, I apply the feedback. I will always apply “descriptions needed here” feedback, because I know I don’t do descriptions. The rest I will compare with my vision for the character arc, the setting, the emotional oomph I want and apply accordingly.
Note: I take into account hints that things don’t work more than offered solutions. Things not working is usually on me. But then, so are the solution because it is my vision. If the suggestions align with my vision? All the better.
When all that is done, it is time for another editing pass. This is where I read my manuscript aloud to myself, even if I did that already for the soft edits. Reading out loud was The Horror™. I don’t like my voice. I really do not. But reading out loud makes me catch all the spelling mistakes and the bits where the prose doesn’t flow. Mind you, this is from my little nd perspective. My flow might be way off your flow. I LOVE my filler words because of the ensuing cadence. Priorities may differ.
After this I write my synopsis. Yes, this late. Maybe the synopsis-writing-demons possessed me before this, but usually they do not. So this is when I sit down and write the synopsis. I start by telling the plot as if I was telling it to another person. Then I condense and clarify. I aim for a synopsis of 2 pages double-spaced. That is also 1 page single-spaced. I just pray I don’t wanna sub to a place with 1 page double-spaced again. 🤷♀️
I also write my query. It is pain. It is crying on the floor. It is bad when it is finished. But at least I have a thing to throw at my writing community. And this, I cannot stress it enough, is where you you will find all the help and support you need. (Note: you also have to give back whenever you can however much you can.)
When all this is done, I try to give the manuscript another sleep (difficult because I am IMPATIENT bint) and polish everything once more. Maybe ask for help once more. (ngl 100% the hardest part of writing for me is asking for help.)
And that’s it. Now I yeet at agents for real.
The inevitable tweaks that accumulate during querying because you have the nagging feeling there is something fundamentally wrong with your manuscript. 🤷♂️
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. But I can’t program so it’s just like a thought experiment. A little something to make the nd experience, or at least my flavour of it, experienceable for everybody.
It’s just a little interaction game, where you explore and interact. The interface would look something like this:
At the bottom are the buttons for actions: play, angry, cuddle, hungry. At the top you have the exact same buttons again framed by a circle and a square button. There are no instructions. Except what the buttons mean though the icons are very on point (for me).
The game starts with a line of text:
First level is intro and easy. You walk around and can interact with things, play, eat, stuff. Just so you figure out the buttons. There’s a big teddy for cuddles.
From level two on things get more complicated. There are not only items, but also other dogs and humans. To finish the level, you have to do some tasks, like play with a human, get somebody to feed you, nap. Nothing difficult. But now the top row of buttons comes into play. Because few people you meet react to the buttons the way you want.
Like, most fellow dogs reply to Angry with Play. Humans, too. And when somebody signals leave me alone and you do, they get angry.
The solutions are the square – translate your signal – and the circle – translate the signals from outside. You can use them to translate an action you want to do to the outside, or let it run over a signal you get.
Surprise, surprise – most bottom row buttons need translation to the outside most of the time and vice versa. Though, once in a while, you will get lucky not having to do that.
The game gets more complicated as you have to translate both ways almost always. There are no keyboard short-cuts. You have to use the mouse. It is time consuming and the time allotted for the level runs out faster and faster.
When you failed a level three times, another line of text appears on the screen:
You get to choose and if you choose ‘yes’ all the lower row buttons suddenly mean exactly what they say to everybody you meet. No more clicking wildly to translate anything. It is easy to finish the level way below time-out.
Next level, you are a dog again. And each time you fail, you are asked again: Do you want to play as a cat? And the levels don’t get easier. You just can’t finish on time as a dog. You play as a cat. After a while, the game stops. There is one last line:
I don’t know if people would get it. But that’s what it feels like so often. The whole world is geared towards something I am not but everybody insist I must be. Because, what is the alternative? There is none, right?
Why don’t I want to play, aka live my life, as a dog? Everything is geared towards dog. Dog is easy.
But if you take into consideration the consistent translations I am doing all day everyday – I have learnt to emulate the world around me and I can “pass” for a dog well enough. So well, that people assume this is my normal and that it doesn’t cost me. But it’s not and it does.
I think we have all come across it. I think we have all written it. There’s exercises in writing only dialogue to make it stronger. There’s also plays but those are a different bunny entirely. I am not talking about plays here.
I must admit that I didn’t always notice free floating dialogue (FFD). My background is in fanfic where you can write as you please and it pleases a surprising (?) number of people to have FFD. I never thought to take note because as long as I am not losing sight of who says what, I’m good.
In a recent workshop, I commented on the phenomenon.
Because I have now been trained to notice and avoid it. (It doesn’t always work, ok?) And while I typed out my comment that the dialogue was rather free floating I started wondering why commented on that? Why did I take the time to comment? Because I don’t care. I only noticed because I trained to notice.
In the workshop the subject came up with my dialogue as well. (What did I say above? 😭?) The explanation was also a good one. It is like a camera in a stationary close up. Nothing moves, nothing happens! Just talking faces!!!
Have you seen the music video for Proof by I am Kloot? Because it is just that (with the extremely ogleable face of Christopher Eccleston, too!). You get to see his face for three minutes straight. Nothing happens. Well, almost. In the end, he smiles. And boy, does that have an impact.
FFD is similar for me. The scope is a little bigger – face and shoulders (for the Shrugging™). And that is all I need really. People have expressions. And there is nothing to distract from this intense and intimate observation of two (or more) people lost in conversation. The smallest gestures carry weight and meaning. (Think of the hand-brushing in period dramas).
To you this may be heads floating in space. To me this is the experience of pure conversation, undistracted and served on the silver platter of (hyper)focus.
I don’t want to be grounded in the bloody world. I want to be grounded in the dialogue!
I do not want to hear about sunshine reflecting somewhere or the sound of feet going by or the scent of lost love wafting on a gentle breeze. Those are all intruders on a perfect conversation. Take those distractions away and let me focus on what is important here.
But Mel, what if I need the surrounds for the dialogue to work for me? That, my friend, sounds like a you-problem. And one you don’t have to worry about because we’re currently all being trained to write like that.
I keep getting comments on my stories that people say things that don’t make sense or just things that are not true.
And I’m like, yes, yes they do. My characters lie! They lie to your face, they lie behind your back, and they certainly won’t announce they are lying. They are here to fool you. That you think something is not right is just you seeing the edges of the lies shining through. Good work. I am proud of you.
Truth is, I want you to see the lies. And if not that, at least note there is something off.
Take Peter for example. He tells lies every day all day. He feeds different information to different people. Of course he won’t be going around announcing he’s manipulating everybody for his own gain.
And for one book, you will walk in my shoes. You will have to figure things out on your own from context clues that make absolutely no sense to you. You get my squirrely mind that can’t stop for long enough to dissect what’s going on. You get my issues that keep me from trusting my own gut and assessment.
Welcome to my world!
Of course, Peter is still a lying liar who lies. And you figure it out eventually. But until you do, he may not make sense. He lies and neither he nor I will tell you outright that he does so.
It’s quite possible this loops back into my neurodiversity. I had to learn context clues the hard way. And if you do it like that, you also learn not to trust them. People are also lying liars who lie. If you learn to reproduce the clues not because it makes sense, but because it is expected, you also learn that anything can be manufactured.
Everything could be a lie! There is no guarantee!
So maybe because I read people and stories differently, because the back of my mind is always open for what I am presented with being a lie, the way I express lying in what feels natural for me, is not natural to others. It makes sense.