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


Questions: Drop a comment below!
Kudos: Share this post or support my coffee fund.

 

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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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Five Reasons I Hate Les Miserables (The Show, Not the Book)

No, the movie was no better.

A helpful local billboard has informed me that Les Miserables, the touring stage production, will be in town soon (or has already been in town – I forget).

My first thought: “Ugh, didn’t I just see that?”

I did.  And whatever hopes I had that the new movie version would salvage the stage production for me were curiously moot, because the things I hate most about Boublil and Natel’s adaptation of Les Miserables are endemic to their adaptation.  (Some, but not all, are mitigated in the novel, or at least in its English translation.)

The Top Five Things I Hate About the “Musical Phenomenon” Les Miserables: Continue reading “Five Reasons I Hate Les Miserables (The Show, Not the Book)”

6 Lies (and 6 Truths) About Writing

As I probably mention every time I forget I’ve already mentioned it before, I write for a living.  I write book reviews.  I ghostwrite blogs.  My web page content brings all the personal injury clients to the firm (and they’re like, “your firm’s better than theirs.”  Damn right, it’s better than theirs).  Etc.

I didn’t start out as a writer, per se.  I did get an undergraduate degree in English, but then I went to law school.  I got a J.D., and then I practiced law for a while.  And then I said “screw this, I want to be a writer,” and started my own freelance writing business.  And, in doing so, I learned that a lot of the things I was told as a kid about being a professional writer are total crap – and some of them are actually true.

So: here are Six Things That Are False About Writing for a Living (and Six Things That Are True).  

1.  You can’t make a living as a writer.

False, but with a catch, which is this: you probably can’t make a living writing nothing but novels, unless you are lucky enough to be Stephen King – and even Stephen King was not lucky enough to be Stephen King at first.  Same with J.K. Rowling – she was living in a garret with no heat and an infant when she wrote the first Harry Potter novel.   It’s not impossible to make novel-writing a significant part of your life, if that’s what you want; just don’t expect it to be your only day job. Continue reading “6 Lies (and 6 Truths) About Writing”