How I Wrote a Novel in 10 Months With Untreated ADHD, Part 3: The Notebook

Part 1, I talked about how I organize my schedule, or when I write. In Part 2, I talked about my workspace, or where I write.

Now let’s talk about how.

ADHD III

Part 3 is the story of the heart of this entire operation: The Notebook.

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“The Notebook” makes it sound portentous, like I spend hours searching for just the perfect vessel to hold my Great American Novel(TM) and I might die without it.

Not going to lie: I went through that phase, in my late teens. I still have the two Moleskines I filled back then. But it was only about eight months before I realized that putting The Notebook on that kind of shrine was actually making it harder for me to write.

These days, I use single-subject college-ruled notebooks I pick up during the back-to-school sale at my local big-box store for about $0.25 apiece. I buy at least a dozen every year, and I keep the unused ones within easy reach:

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Back in the days before I published the vast majority of my work on the Internets, I filled a notebook a month. These days, it takes 1-3 months for the same amount of handwriting.

The used ones occupy several different shelves. This photo is the central repository but by no means the only one:

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Once, in 2009, I went through all the notebooks I’d filled since 1998 and broke them down, discarded everything I thought wasn’t “useful,” and put the rest in a giant three-ring binder. I have regretted it ever since, which is why I will not be repeating the process anytime soon.

It took me quite a while to make the notebook work for me. I loved it from the start as a writing tool, but like a lot of folks with ADHD, I really didn’t grasp how to make it work as a planner and an extension of my memory. For years, I juggled The Notebook, notebooks for work, notebooks for school, a day planner, a to-do list, you name it.

I tried a Franklin planner. I tried OneNote. I tried bullet journaling. And it all made me even more confused.

Then, while browsing the Intertubes one day late in 2015, I stumbled across a system that was far simpler than keeping a bullet journal. The blogger I read this from claims to have learned it from a Japanese businessman he was sitting beside on a flight once.

I just know it works for me. Here’s how:

The very first thing I do with any new notebook is flip to the back side of the final page.

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Here, I write the major categories of stuff in the notebook, and make a little “tab” by blacking in the edge. I like to space my categories widely because it makes the tabs easier for me to find.

Often, I’ll start with the first thing going in that particular notebook. This one, for instance, has outlines for Nahara and The Ambassador on the first few pages, so the top tab is “novel.” The first not-novel page I used had a to-do list on it, so that went under “personal and journal.”

You can tab as many things as you like, or as many as you have lines for. In theory, you could also flip to the second to last page and tab again in different colors, too. I rarely have more than five tabs in any notebook, and these four are always on the list.

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Each page then gets a corresponding tab. Here are the first three pages in this notebook, all of which are outlines.

(I am sorry to report that the rumors are true: Nahara does not feature fully automated luxury gay space communism.)

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Every time I start a new page, it gets a new tab. This is the page I started for the outline for this blog post series.

I love this system for two ADHD-y reasons:

  1. It cut me down to one notebook. Much harder to lose, especially since it lives with my wallet and keys on my desk. (Not impossible to lose, though, which is why my name and email address are always on the inside of the front cover.)
  2. I don’t have to care what order the pages are in anymore. I used to juggle two notebooks because I cared about page order. A lot. I hated having a to-do list pop up halfway through a chapter I was drafting, for instance. I found it super distracting.

Now I don’t have to care, because every page has its tab:

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I also appreciate how the tabs help me see where my time went over the past month or two. This notebook, for instance, makes it obvious that I spent a huge chunk of time on marketing and “outside” writing smack in the middle of it, taking a pretty obvious hiatus from the novel to do so.

Those chunks, btw, include both the pieces I submitted to Spoon Knife 3: Incursions, which you’ll all get to see in a few months.

Here are two pages from the draft of Nantais:

 

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When I sit down to write, I date the margin, just because I like to see my own progress. I tab each page as I start it. Notes about things I need to go back and fix, scenes that are relevant to this scene, or character background I don’t want to dig into here but that I’ll need for consistency later on all goes in the margin as well.

My goal, in my nightly two hour writing slot, is 350 words. That’s it.

They don’t even have to be story. If I’m particularly stuck on the story, I’ll spend time sketching what could happen next, or working out character motivation, or detailing someone’s history or mythology. As long as it’s related to the novel and written with the intent of helping me get unstuck, it counts.

After the Notebook But Before Editing: The Typing Stage

Approximately every ten pages, every chapter, or just when I’m starting to get a little lost as to what the heck happened to get me to this point, I’ll take the handwritten draft and type it up. But the first draft of all my fiction is always written longhand.

 

The reasons are a mix of practical points and straight-up “I like doing it this way so there”:

  • I find the Intertubes distracting as heck. “I went to look up one thing and eight hours later I realized I had 422 Wikipedia tabs open and also it was Tuesday” isn’t a meme; it’s literally my life. If I drafted on the screen, nothing would ever get done.
  • I revise as I type. The first typed draft is always my second draft. Rewriting the entire draft this way allows me to address a lot of mistakes and clunky text. It also lets me do things like write “[nearby star with habitable zone]” in the draft, then Google that when I get to the typing phase, saving me from the Wikipedia hole.
  • I feel free to screw up. Since I know no one will ever see the handwritten draft, I can cross things out, rewrite entire sentences mid-draft, draw giant arrows to move pieces from one place to another, and write things like “FIGHT PIRATES, DO A SCIENCE” or “THIS BOOK DOESN’T EXIST WTF IS HE READING” in the margins (two comments that actually exist in the margins of the handwritten draft of Nantais).

…And, perhaps most selfishly but also most importantly, I just like the way it feels. I like the feel of writing and the look of my own handwriting covering pages and pages of notebooks.

Writing longhand greatly increases my joy in the process. It feels like making something. And that’s really the only reason I need to do it – and the reason I never insist other people do it the way I do.

The whole point of the entire system is to move the crap out of the way in order to find the joy in the work.

Ironic twist: While starting Ritalin has changed my life with regards to my work, my relationships, my ability to eat and sleep, and the general orderliness of my house, it has actually made fiction writing harder. I don’t write on Ritalin. I wait till it wears off first.

Why? I’m still trying to pinpoint the reasons, but the biggest one appears to be that having everything on the whiteboard of my brain at once, while a major challenge in ordinary life, is actually exactly what I need in order to keep track of all the moving parts of a story as it unfolds.

I wrote Nantais before I ever started Ritalin, and now that I have, I only write fiction after it wears off. Go brain!

Part 2: The Workspace
Part 1: The System


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How I Wrote a Novel in 10 Months With Untreated ADHD, Part 2: The Workspace

In Part 1, I talked about how I organized my time to ensure I had both the gap in my schedule and the mental wherewithal to write every day.

Here in Part 2, I’ll talk about how I organized my writing space.

ADHD II

This is where I write:

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I got lucky in our current house: this desk fits perfectly into this alcove in our spare bedroom. On the walls of the alcove are Chalkboard Left and Chalkboard Right, which I mentioned in Part 1.

You can see some of the paperwork hanging off the bottom of Chalkboard Left in this photo, next to the lamp.

Chalkboard Left contains my weekly schedule; Chalkboard Right contains the basics of whichever novel I’m working on at the moment. Right now, that’s Nahara, the sequel to the novel I just released.

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On the left is the outline for the novel in progress. On the right are some notes I need nearly every time I write, and above those are the list of works I want to write or that come after the novel in progress. (The list on the top right is a recent addition; I got tired of keeping that list in my head.)

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I use Blake Shelton’s “beats” system to outline each novel. It was designed for outlining screenplays, but since I tend to write off the movie screen in my head, the beats system was remarkably easy to adapt.

The outline helps me remember the central theme or idea of whatever point I’m at in the story, as well as how I got that far and what needs to be set up in order to move to the next scene or chapter.

In addition to this outline, I typically write an outline or synopsis of each chapter as I’m working on them. Since I only need those for as long as I’m working on that part of the draft, they live in my notebook (which I’ll cover in Part 3).

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These are photocopies out of my notebook, which I pinned to the board after I got frustrated flipping back and forth between pages and (later) with remembering where I had put this particular notebook. The top one is a bit of core mythology; the bottom is a general outline of all three novels in the trilogy. Behind it are a few more pages I refer to frequently, like main character bios/histories and a timeline.

The list above is works in progress. On the left are short story ideas; on the right, book-length ideas.

Because the desk sits so closely between these two walls, my peripheral vision is pretty well filled up by the chalkboards. But then there’s the view. Take another look at my desk:

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That view is many writers’ dream, but for me, it’s distracting as heck.

One of the main reasons I write from 9 to 11 p.m., aside from the fact that I can focus then, is because it’s dark out. About the only thing I can see is the neighbor’s yard light, which doesn’t light up much – and the neighbor is usually in bed well before dark anyway.

I keep a few fidget toys in the mug along with my pens. The Pygmy Puff to the left of the mug is also a cozy fidget, and the disapproving stare of Mr. McShade on the right keeps me motivated.

Apart from the writing space and the lamp, the desk is allowed to hold only certain items:

  • My wallet and keys. If they’re not here, I don’t know where they are.
  • Things that urgently need my attention. When I took this photo, those included returning a purchase (the small box), sorting out my business receipts (the paper pile), and giving my cat her nightly meds (the pill bottles and the other box).

Other stuff does end up on my desk from time to time, usually on its way to the trash, my backpack, or one of the drawers. The drawers are the nightmare clutter hiding beneath my otherwise sorted desktop.

I do nearly all my novel drafting here and 100% of my novel revision here. I also work from home as a freelance writer, but I do that writing downstairs, in our office/library. Other essential desk stuff, like my noise-canceling headphones, live in my backpack, since I need those out in public more often than I need them at home.

Part 1: The System
Part 3: The Notebook


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How I Wrote a Novel in 10 Months With Untreated ADHD, Part 1: The System

I was diagnosed with predominately-inattentive-type ADHD in October 2017.

I finished writing my first novel in October 2016.

During the ten months I spent writing Nantais, I knew I had significant executive function problems. I’d had them all my life. But I didn’t know I had ADHD. And since caffeine betrayed me by becoming a major migraine trigger in 2015 or so, I wrote the entire novel with no chemical assistance whatsoever.

I want to show y’all how I did it.

In this post, Part 1 of 3, I want to talk about systems. Focusing on systems is more productive for me (and not just me) than focusing on goals – so I put a lot of work into my daily system.

Here’s my system and how it keeps me on track.

ADHD I

1. The Challenges

Like a lot of folks with ADHD, I have terrible time perception.  My sense of time is basically “Now” and “Not Now” – and “Not Now” is a giant black hole from which no scheduled event will ever emerge. Basically, if it’s not in front of my face right now, it doesn’t exist to me.

Because of this, my approach to work has always been to do as much as I can while I can remember to do it. And my results have always been short bursts of productivity followed by long recovery periods.

But writing a novel is a marathon event. It takes slow, steady work over time. “Just write something every day” is great advice – if you are constitutionally capable of doing it. My system makes me constitutionally capable of doing it.

2. The Schedule

On each side of the alcove that houses my desk (more on that in Part 2) hangs a chalkboard. Chalkboard Left contains my monthly, weekly, and daily schedules. It looks like this:

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Chalkboard Right, which is not visible from my bed but which is closer to my chair when I’m at the desk, contains my writing stuff. I’ll talk about Chalkboard Right in Part 2.

Let’s take a closer look at Chalkboard Left’s components.

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This is a typical monthly calendar for me. I made the form in Excel. I usually have two months hanging up at any given time; here, January 2018 is hiding behind December 2017. Since December is almost over, I’ll be making February 2018 in a week or so.

Each of my days is sectioned into five components:

  • M: Morning project. A 3-hour slot from approximately 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
  • E: Exercise. I prefer to do this between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., but scheduled appointments sometimes require me to move it elsewhere in my day.
  • A: Afternoon project. A 2-hour slot from approximately 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
  • C: Chore. That’s “chore,” singular – one cleaning thing, fix, or errand per day.
  • D: Professional development. Working on the novel goes here almost always.

Although they’re not listed on the calendar, I typically eat breakfast before 8 a.m., lunch between 11 and 11:30, and tea around 4:30. Dinner is usually anywhere between 7 and 10 p.m., depending on when my husband gets home and how fancy we feel like being.

I sleep from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Every day. The wake-up time is less a choice than a duty imposed by the Hungry Cat Alarm.

Sleep, meals, and exercise are the three foundations on which the entire system rests. After that come the weekly slots, then the calendars themselves.

Every Sunday, I use the monthly calendar to move things to the board for the week ahead. Here’s what this week looks like:

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When I first starting using this system, I was suffering from chronic overwork. So I made a rule: In any given day, I would do only the five things on the list. If it wasn’t scheduled, I wasn’t doing it.

That one rule has changed my life.

That said, you can see here how some of the categories are flexible. For instance, Monday’s afternoon activity and chore are both “concert.” That’s because herding middle and high school students takes a lot of energy – enough for two ordinary daily activities.

Also, notice that the “exercise” slots don’t say “exercise.” Instead, they list specific things I can do, like “weights,” “rink,” “walk,” and so on. After a morning of work I don’t have the brainpower to pick an exercise. So Sunday Me schedules them ahead of time, freeing up Weekday Me to just go do the listed thing.

Other slots are flexible too. For instance, my “professional development” for Wednesday is “commute.”

Wednesdays are tough for me: I volunteer at the local Humane Society in the morning, then drive halfway across the state to see my therapist in the afternoon (anyone who has ever searched for years for a good therapist instantly understands why I make that drive).

I never have any brainpower left by the end of Wednesday, and I don’t try. Instead, I acknowledge that commuting takes effort by making the commute a separate Thing from the activities I’m commuting to.

3. On the Road

If you have ADHD, you’re probably thinking, “That’s great, but how do you remember this stuff when you’re not at your desk?”

I’m glad you asked.

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This is a Google Keep note that lives on my phone. Once my week is on the board every Sunday, I type it into the Keep note. The Keep note has an alarm attached, so it pops up on my phone screen every day at 8 a.m.

If stuff comes up while I’m away from my desk, I drop it into Keep to add to the schedule when I get home. Since I will definitely forget to add it when I get home, the 8 a.m. alarm reminds me to add it the next morning.

(PS: The initials are codes for various freelance clients. If a code comes up, I check my email for their latest project specs.)

4. How the System Helps the Writing

“Professional development” is a squishy category in terms of time (as is “chore”), but when its set task for the day is writing, it happens from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. It happens at my desk. And it goes in the notebook.

I’ll talk more about the time and place in Part 2 and the notebook itself in Part 3, because they’re also integral parts of the system. In fact, having dedicated places/tools/containers for particular projects is integral to me getting just about anything done.

Why It Works

The schedule keeps me from exhausting myself. It recognizes that writing takes effort (which is why it gets its own slot), and makes it a priority in my day (you had five jobs and this was one of them!).

The schedule ensures that I can write, making it much more likely that I will.

Part 2: The Workspace
Part 3: The Notebook

 


 

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7 Questions You Need to Ask About Plot

So you want to write a novel. Or a screenplay. Or a more different kind of play. Or a short story. Or a poem that is also a story but also it’s a poem.

You need a plot.

No good stories exist without plot. Our lives don’t exist without plot. Plot is the evolutionary byproduct of being three-dimensional beings capable of experiencing a four-dimensional universe. You’re plot. I’m plot. Everything you ever experienced is plot.

Unfortunately, not every plot we experience in the ordinary course of living makes a good story. You might love the memory of lying on a beach, drinking mai tais and caring about absolutely nothing, but nobody wants to read that book.

Here are seven questions you need to ask about your plot.

7 QuestionsYou Need To AskAbout PLOT

1. What does each character want?

Characters can want more than one thing. They can want conflicting things. They can even believe they want one thing, but act from an unconscious desire to really get another thing. But if a character wants nothing, strike them from the story. They don’t matter. They may as well not exist.

What your characters want is going to drive the plot. It’s going to be the thing that makes them react in certain ways to other characters and obstacles. And it’s going to matter at the climax. (More on this in a moment.)

So know what each character wants more than anything. Make a spreadsheet. Write it on your bedroom walls. But be clear on it.

2. How do I stop my main character from getting what they want?

Take a look at your protagonist. What do they want? Now, how can other elements in the story (outside events, other characters’ wants, etc.) stop them from getting it? How else can you stop them from getting it? How else can you stop them from getting it?

3. How will my main character overcome those obstacles?

Once you have the first two problems in place, start looking for ways the protagonist can address them. Include both positive, helpful options (making friends with another character! Learning a thing! Asking for directions!) and counterproductive ones (pretending not to feel a thing! Drinking too much! Punching someone!).

4. What problems do the character’s choice of “overcoming” tactic create?

A good rule of thumb is that each problem the protagonist solves should create two new problems. And the best problems are those that run right up against the protagonist’s desires, beliefs, or sense of self.

This is where maladaptive, jury-rigged, or “good enough” solutions to problems—the kind that depend on inaccurate information or assumptions from the protagonist—become very useful (and also very interesting). The solution is good enough for now, but sooner or later, it won’t be.

5. Does the story end with the protagonist getting what they want, or nah?

If it does, the story can broadly be classified (in the ancient Greek sense) as a “comedy.” If it doesn’t, it’s a “tragedy.”

a. If yes, what realization does the protagonist have that allows them to get what they want? This change needs to come from within the protagonist: that they are strong enough, that the ordinary-looking sword is actually the magical McGuffin Blade, or that the real treasure was the friends they made along the way.

b. If nah, what challenge proves too formidable for the protagonist to defeat or divert? Turns out that you die if you drink poison. Thanks for the heads-up, Romeo/Gertrude/Claudius/Hamlet.

6. What kind of person does the protagonist become as a result of #5?

Specifically, what kind of person does the protagonist become that they weren’t (or didn’t realize they were) when the story began? What changed?

If your character doesn’t seem to change much or you can’t figure out how they change, your character isn’t developed enough yet. Go back to question #1. Do not make us read Twilight again.

7. I get all this, but the real treasure is the friends we make along the way, right?

No.

Maybe?

I’m a writer. What do I know about humans?


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What Do You Keep In Your Writing Notebook?

Another Quora response that became a blog post.

Literally everything.

To be clear, I only keep one notebook. It’s a single subject, college ruled, spiral bound notebook. I buy a dozen or so during back to school season, when I can get them for about $0.25 apiece, and I go through about one a month.

This is last month’s:

To keep track of what’s on which page, I color in “tabs” on the page ends:

…and write an index on the back of the last page.

“Novel” is all work related to my novels.

“My work” ranges from blog post outlines to grocery lists.

“Journal” is my journal, “band work” is choreography, counts, etc, and “other people’s work” is stuff for my freelance clients or projects I agreed to take on for friends/family (in this particular notebook, it’s mostly notes on stuff for my best friend’s wedding).

The index varies depending on what’s in each notebook, but “novel” is always the top tab.

“Novel” is either written draft or notes.

Drafts get typed into Microsoft Word.

Notes I need for longer than it takes to type the draft, like worldbuilding stuff, get typed into my Microsoft OneNote file for worldbuilding. Right now, the sections in OneNote look like this:

“Bookshelf” has a complete draft of every in-world piece I have published so far, as well as copies of every piece from other authors’ canons that I have referenced or that references my work (like that page of Weird Luck that has a hidden reference to Interstellar Science in it).

As my current primary setting and most detailed alien species, respectively, “The Jemison” and “Niralans” each get their own tabs.

Everything else is pretty self-explanatory. “Languages” contains notes on plural conlangs; it’s actually the longest section, even though “Bookshelf” contains three full novels and a dozen short stories. (I started writing novels to have context for conlangs, because I am that kind of nerd.)

“Organizations” gives me the most trouble, because it’s so unwieldy. Six massive corporations cause most of the trouble in my novel universe, so keeping track of them, plus their departments, plus all the non-corporation political actors and their subdivisions, gets exponentially more difficult the more I write. This section is very likely to become three: “Corps,” “Minor Corps,” and “Governments.” “Planets” will likely hive off “Locations” at some point as well.

The paper notebook acts as an extension of my brain and prevents me from scrolling Twitter for six hours when I meant to write. The OneNote file saves me from digging through several years’ worth of paper notebooks every time I need to remember some detail. So far, it’s a workable system.

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Are We Doing STEM Teaching All Wrong?

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When I was in high school, 20-odd years ago, I remember hearing a family friend say that “our schools are preparing kids for the best jobs of thirty years ago.”

It was, of course, not a compliment.

It’s also not entirely untrue. The statistics in this article are sobering – less than a third of high school students nationwide graduate at grade level proficiency in reading and math, while just over a quarter manage to complete the 4-year degree that 93 percent of them say they’re after. Career and tech ed may not be providing actual job skills.

Preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet is a challenge. After all, 20 years ago when I was sitting in high school English classes, my current means of making money – writing tech content – didn’t exist.

In 2009, when I started writing content, the job was radically different than it is today. Back then, repeating “panda underwear” 500 times was the guaranteed way to show up first on a Google search for panda underwear. Today, the best way to do it would be to turn out consistently interesting 1500+ word articles on pandas, underwear, and the myriad connections between the two.

In response to the fact that it’s tough to prepare anyone for jobs that don’t exist, many schools have turned to simply shoving kids toward STEM classes and careers. “Go into STEM,” is the advice. “Learn to code. Get interested in tech.”

Okay, but why?

It reminds me of the dot-com bubble that hit just as I was leaving high school: if it had “.com” in its name, folks were lining up to throw money at it, certain that it would be the next huge thing. It had to be, right? It had “.com” right there in the name!

I see the schools I coach for treating STEM education much the same way. Don’t ask if it’s a viable business model; don’t ask if it’s at all interesting or relevant to their actual lives; just throw the kids in that general direction and everything will be fine.

Fast-forward to today, in which I just spent a few hours writing 1500+ well-researched, consistently interesting words on the use of technology to improve agility in the insurance industry.

My takeaway point after reading thirty or forty articles on insurtech and agility:

The tech itself won’t save you. The tech itself won’t do anything. The tech is a tool you use to get where you wanted to go in the first place.

And I’m wondering: What are we doing by pushing kids toward tech – and STEM in general – without showing them how to figure out where they want to go in the first place?

I had this problem myself as a teenager.

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As a kid, I owned an Apple IIGS. If you booted the IIGS without a floppy in the drive, it’d kick you directly to a blue screen of death with a warning message and a little flashing cursor.

The little flashing cursor would run anything you instructed it to, as long as you did so in BASIC.

For years I hated the blue screen of death and the little flashy cursor. Sure, I knew BASIC, but I didn’t know what I could do with BASIC. I’d been taught to use BASIC to program computers to solve math problems, which held less than no interest for me, since it was faster to solve the math problems on my own than it was to type a set of instructions to do it. Back then, I only knew I had to shut down the whole machine and restart it (a process that took approximately six geological ages) because I had forgotten to put the disk in the drive before I hit the on switch.

Then one day, when I was 13 or so, I realized: I could use BASIC to write text adventure games.

And I was hooked.

Throwing me in the general direction of the tech did not help; my IIGS was just a clunky gaming system to me. Throwing me in the general direction of coding classes did not help; BASIC was just a more elaborate way to do something I could do more easily in my head.

Nobody asked what I was interested in. Nobody ever thought to show me, the kid who regularly got yelled at for reading and writing fiction while she was supposed to be programming, that the technology could be used to do what I was clearly already into.

It wasn’t until I learned on my own that I could use these tools to do something I was already interested in that I even began to care about coding…and by then, I had so thoroughly associated coding with “useless tasks you are made to do by adults who don’t want you doing what you are interested in” that I never did pursue it any further.

So here’s my question: Why do we still throw kids at the tools?

Why aren’t we throwing the tools at the kids?

Why aren’t we encouraging kids to try everything they can during their teen years, so they can learn what they do and don’t like, and then showing them which tools can help them tackle both fun and not-fun tasks more efficiently?

I’m seeing a great many app developers take this approach. MIT’s Scratch assumes that kids like cartoons and shiny objects, then uses that as a way to encourage coding: here’s how to put the building blocks together to make the cute sprites do what you want. Soundation leverages an interest in music to teach basic theory in a similar way.

But I’m still seeing schools push “tech! STEM! coding!” with zero sense of application or purpose. It’s like watching teachers tell kids to “take a screwdriver class” or “get really into chainsaws.”

Sure, those tools are great – but very few people make chainsaws their life’s work. Most people are into chainsaws for what they can do. They’re into chainsaws because the chainsaw is, somehow, relevant to their interests or passions. It’s not “a thing you do,” it’s a way forward.

And if “showing kids the way forward” isn’t the definition of “teaching for the future,” it should be.

Image credit: jarmoluk at Pixabay; AppleIIHistory.org


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How to Write an Action or Thriller Novel

I want to write an action novel with a slight of thriller essence. Can someone give me an idea for a start?

This was a question request I got on Quora the other day, and the answer I started drafting really wanted to be a blog post. So here it is:  how to write an action novel that’s also a thriller.

action thriller image

1.  Choose your main character.

Main characters in action/thriller novels are pretty stock. You can, of course, differentiate your novel from the rest of the genre by deviating cleverly from the stock elements, but for the sake of this tutorial, let’s stick with a recognizable action protagonist.

Main character: Bud Steelabs, age 36, ruggedly good-looking.

2.  Decide where the story ends. 

Most action/thriller novels and films end with the main character prevailing over the bad guys, so let’s go with that.

The story ends when Bud Steelabs defeats the bad guys.

Okay, but who are the bad guys? Terrorists? Let’s go with terrorists.

The story ends when Bud Steelabs defeats the terrorists.

Once you know where the novel ends, you have a pretty good idea where it begins. Its start should be more or less the opposite of its end.

The story starts when Bud Steelabs learns that the terrorists are ____.

The terrorists are probably terrorizing someone in some place. Since most thriller plots are plausible enough to happen in the real world, it’s important to do enough research to understand the place in the world the primary action of the plot takes place, who is likely to be involved, and so on.

But what the terrorists are up to isn’t actually the most important part of the plot. How Bud Steelabs stops them isn’t the most important part, either. More important than either of these is question number 3:

3.  Decide where the main character ends.

Sure, Bud Steelabs stops the terrorists. But who is Bud Steelabs when he does this – and how is the Bud Steelabs at the end of the book different from the Bud Steelabs at the beginning?

Good novels differ from forgettable novels in one key way: in good novels, the main character, not the external events, is the one who undergoes the biggest change. This is even true of action stories and thrillers.

In order to decide how Bud Steelabs changes, ask yourself: Why is Bud Steelabs going after the terrorists in the first place? Sure, it’s his job, but no one is required to be the main character of an action novel; Bud could just as easily decide to retire and take a weekend job at Home Depot. Why does stopping these terrorists matter to Bud?

Maybe the terrorists have kidnapped his wife and child. (See: several Liam Neeson films.)

Maybe Bud is getting a little long in the tooth and needs to prove he’s still relevant in a rapidly-changing world. (See: Skyfall.)

Maybe the terrorists are his wife and child, or his best friend. (See: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

Bud needs a personal reason to go after the terrorists. A reason that’s going to gnaw at him. A reason that will trip him up a bunch of times, but that also keeps driving him forward.

Once you know what kind of person Bud Steelabs will be once he ends the plot….

4. Decide where the main character begins.

Do not start the book with a recount of The Glorious Birth of Bud Steelabs. Do not. No one cares how Bud Steelabs got born.

Instead, start with where Bud Steelabs is internally; the thing that’s going to change for him over the course of the story. If Bud Steelabs is feeling a little old and irrelevant, the story might start with him failing a physical, or failing to catch a pickpocket. If Bud Steelabs is about to learn his best friend is a terrorist, the story might start with a co-worker chiding Bud about how all he does is work and he has no real friends. If Bud Steelabs is about to learn his daughter was kidnapped by terrorists, the story might start with Bud missing a soccer game in which she scored the winning goal.

This is where the story starts: by setting up the main character for an important change in a way that also introduces the stakes of his inevitable fight with the terrorists.

5.  Then other stuff happens.

Generally speaking, every story gets worse before it gets better, and The Saga of Bud Steelabs is no exception.

One good rule of thumb for action and thriller-type plots is to introduce two problems for every one problem the protagonist solves. Eventually the main character will need to start wrapping these problems up, but for about 4/5 of the book, make things continually harder for him.

Jam his gun. Make him run out of ammo. Give him a serious, mobility-limiting injury. Kidnap more children. Hire more terrorists. Just generally make his life suck more and more. (Die Hard does an excellent job of this.)

Finally:

6. Make the action the least important part of the plot.

But wait! It’s an action story, right? Shouldn’t there be action?

Yes, there should. There should be action. There should be plenty of action.

But the action is actually the least important part of writing an action novel. The most important part, from the writer’s perspective, is to make the audience care about the main character.

Give readers a reason to root for the main character – not for just any generic “good guy” who might stop the “bad guys,” but for Bud Steelabs specifically. Why should we want Bud to succeed – so he can be reunited with his adorable daughter, save his best friend, prove his relevance, learn the meaning of Christmas?

A main character we care about is the difference between a good novel and a mediocre one. Bud Steelabs wouldn’t write a mediocre novel, and neither should you.


Like this post? Buy me a coffee. It’s what Bud Steelabs would do.

 

 

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