One commonality I’ve found among autistic people is that many of us love creating our own universes.
The real world often functions without autistic people in mind. To many of us, it seems that the non-autistic population seems to be entirely in control – often, even in control of our world and our futures. So it can help enormously for us to escape into a universe where we choose the rules, we can influence events, and nobody gets to cast our wishes aside.
This was me, when I wrote the Underdogs series. Way back in 2010 I wrote a series of novels about an almost mathematically unwinnable war, as a coping mechanism for my unemployment. Ten years on, two books out of four have been published via Unbound.
[All links in this article open in new tabs, by the way. I don’t like bookmarks falling out of my books, so I try not to let people lose their place online either.]
For context (as I’ll be mentioning it often to illustrate my points), Underdogs is a series of neurodiverse dystopia novels. Me being an autistic writer, I figured it was time for a novel series where autistic/neurodiverse characters got to be the actual heroes, and not just tokenised or stereotyped characters. Here’s the cover of book one, published in 2019:
Before we begin: although I’ve tailored this to be autism-specific in places, this advice doesn’t just apply to autistic people. I often get comments to the tune of “this is helpful to everyone, not just autistic people”, and I have no complaints about that. After all, autistic people have a lot more in common with the general population than we’re made to believe.
So, off we go. As someone who started his journey by writing Sonic the Hedgehog fan-fiction for his younger cousins, and ended up with two published novels and counting, here’s the best advice I can offer to you.
1. Find your own methods, your own schedule, your own routine, your own everything.
If you were expecting this article to be a point-by-point list of how stories must be written, it’s not. And don’t trust any article that says “all writers should use this specific method”. We’re too diverse for that.
As an advocate and an educator (I teach maths and creative writing in a special school too), people ask me a lot about “what works for autistic people” – whether with jobs, teaching methods, or in this case writing advice.
My answer is always the same: “which autistic person are we talking about?” Because, you know, we’re individual people.
During this article I’ll be telling you what helped me as an author. But remember that we’re two different people. Use my methods precisely if they help. Adapt them slightly if it helps. Totally ignore them if it helps. You’re the only person your methods need to make sense to.
In terms of scheduling, for example, some authors advise that you should write every single day. Stephen King even writes on Christmas Day. Others give specific daily word counts. Personally, that doesn’t work for me. When I’m writing a story I burn through it passionately in a month or two (albeit not every single day), and after the first draft is finished I edit it each day.
Because, after a lot of experimenting, I found that this works for me as a person.
2. There are many, many different ways to plan. Experiment around.
George R.R. Martin once said that some writers are “architects”, and others are “gardeners”. Architects plan every single point of their stories in fine detail. Gardeners are more open to just seeing where the story takes them.
GRRM himself is very much a gardener. The advantage in this is that his A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) novels feature spectacular world-building and hundreds of characters. The disadvantage is that his world is now so huge and convoluted that he’s struggling to draw it all together before his series ends.
The teenage me was an extreme architect. Very rigid and inflexible in my planning but I knew exactly where I was going with it, and that helped in my early years of writing. (These days I’m about 80% architect, 20% gardener. And that’s the best balance for me personally.)
But how do you plan, specifically? Well in my case, I’ve always had two MS Word documents per project: one for the actual story, and another for chapter-by-chapter planning.
3. Work out what motivates you, and keep it close.
If I had a dollar for everyone I knew who started writing a book, then lost motivation and stopped, I wouldn’t be a millionaire because I don’t have that many friends. But I could go out for a three-course meal.
There are lots of reasons why people give up on a story. Often it’s motivation, or being unsure of where their story’s going… or worst of all, a combination of both. There are ways to build motivation, and there are ways of planning your way out of a hole, but it’s bloody difficult to do both at once.
Often it’s good to ask yourself: why do you want to write this story? Re-familiarise yourself with what you loved about it enough to get as far as you did. Ask yourself whether you want to be looking back twenty years from now and wishing you’d finished your book. Realise that the one thing Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens and every other published author have in common is that they all finished their stories.
But there are more personalised ways of finding motivation too. Want to know my geeky autistic motivation?
I keep spreadsheets that chart my characters’ appearances. I assign points to them- 4 if they’re the point-of-view character, 3 for a major appearance, 2 for a minor appearance, and 1 for a mention but no appearance. It sounds silly, but during my worst moments of writer’s block, one of the things keeping me going was the joy of filling in another column of the spreadsheet at the end!
And who cares if it’s bizarre or nerdy as hell? Like I said, you are the only person your methods need to make sense to.
4. Characters are (almost) everything
I remember reading Firestarter by Stephen King, and being so bored halfway through that I nearly gave up. The reason I read on was a half-Cherokee assassin called John Rainbird. He had made some early appearances, scared the crap out of me, and vanished. I kept reading Firestarter because of the promise that, sooner or later, John Rainbird would return. (And return he did. I was very glad I kept reading.)
Because of Firestarter, I’ve told countless students that a book with awesome characters and a boring storyline is much better than the other way round. Why? Because the reader needs to connect with a book to keep reading, and people usually connect with characters more than anything else. You could have the most energising, exciting, explosive storyline in the world, but if the reader doesn’t value the characters going through it, why would they care what happens to them?
When the reviews for the first Underdogs book came out, everyone seemed to love the characters more than the storyline. I guess it was to be expected, given that so much of the cast – and the readership – were autistic or otherwise neurodiverse.
Book two ended up being roughly as successful, despite it relying on people having already read the first. And I can guarantee that most readers came back to see more of the characters, not just more storyline.
5. There are right ways and wrong ways to kill characters.
The two most shocking events in TV drama in recent years have been The Red Wedding in Game of Thrones, and Negan murdering a main character with a baseball bat in The Walking Dead. In both cases, the fans were so horrified that the scenes became infamous even to people who didn’t watch the shows.
After the Red Wedding, Game of Thrones became established as one of the greatest TV series ever made.
So why do shocking deaths work in Game of Thrones (or more specifically, A Song of Ice and Fire) but not in The Walking Dead? Because the Red Wedding drove the story forward. It had a purpose. Every major death in George R.R. Martin’s series has a direct consequence: starting a war, ending a war, condemning another character to death.
The Walking Dead’s equivalent scene was widely seen as existing for shock value and little else.
Sure, deaths should shock. Deaths should make the reader swear at you in horrible ways – and believe me, I’ve had people swearing at me as they read Underdogs (which I probably deserved, especially after swearing at Suzanne Collins repeatedly while reading the Hunger Games trilogy). But even the most shocking deaths are forgivable if they support the narrative.
6. Write for yourself, not for a judging audience.
As autistic people, we’re used to being on guard against the judgement of others. And it can massively affect our day to day performance. (My worst years were the ones when I tried to act as non-autistically as possible: not because I felt it would improve me, but in the hope that I’d be judged less.)
But your story is your universe, nobody else’s. You don’t need to sanitise your own creativity for fear of a theoretical reader. Just write the story you want to read.
This is also the case for books you actually intend to publish. Yes, at some point you’ll need to care about how your actual, real-life readers will react. But that’s what the editing stage is for. If you write your first draft with fear-tinted spectacles, distracted by responses you may or may not get from people who may or may not read it, your story will be disadvantaged from the very start.
7. Always ask yourself: “why should my reader care?”
I don’t mean this in a negative way, of course.
Reading is an emotional experience. The books you’ve loved most are the ones you felt an emotional investment in. The ones which you cared about. I’m not here to give a one-size-fits-all answer to the above question. But a few ideas include:
Establish your characters’ motivations. If your character is obviously driven to achieve something – succeeding in a mission, overcoming a personal obstacle, or whatever else – your reader is more likely to cheer them on.
Establish where your characters are vulnerable, and how it impacts them (physically, emotionally, in terms of personal identity). Readers love seeing vulnerable characters beating the odds. (Underdogs has more than its fair share of such people, and I don’t disguise their challenges or vulnerabilities at all.)
Establish what’s actually at stake. As in, “if the hero doesn’t ________, then _______”.
For example, let’s say the girl in your story wants to marry a guy. If failure just results in the girl staying single, then even in the worst case scenario she’s neither gained nor lost anything. But if failure means she gets deported to a country she fled from because she doesn’t qualify for citizenship unless she marries, then that meets all three points above. Something is at stake for her, which makes her vulnerable and motivated.
8. Infodumping ruins books
If you’re anything like me, your stories may have whole worlds behind them, if not universes.
This is especially the case for those of you who write sci-fi/fantasy. Your universe may have its own rules, its own technological advancements, its own magic, history, myths/legends and lore that you’ve painstakingly built up and feel proud of. (And leaving worldbuilding aside, your characters may have long backstories and humungous amounts of life experience.)
But as tempting as it is to spend the first chapter introducing absolutely everything, please don’t do it.
The reader doesn’t need to understand your universe in order to become invested in your story. Novels aren’t instruction manuals, and writing isn’t like playing a sport where you need to understand every rule before playing. The best way of teaching the reader about your universe is bit by bit, interspersed through the story, when each bit is relevant to the situation or characters.
The history of the Underdogs universe isn’t developed until chapter six. But the characters are, their immediate dilemmas are, and there are reasons for the reader to care about them and keep reading. And that’s enough. (It might even be more than enough. In The Hunger Games, there’s no explanation for how North America collapsed and became Panem. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, he writes a whole post-apocalyptic novel without saying what the post-apocalyptic event was!
9. You can use flashbacks, but they stop the action dead.
Flashbacks are great. But like prologues and rhyming poetry, they’re so rarely done right.
By their very nature, flashbacks put the story on pause. No matter how exciting the flashback is, the main story cannot move forward. So be selective about when you choose to use them. Don’t do what I once did in my younger days, when I mortally wounded a character, paused for an 8,000-word flashback chapter, and returned to the present just before he died. Poor Mike Ambrose was suspended in a state of almost-death for over 10% of my story, with no progress being made on his character arc.
Funnily enough, at this exact moment I’m watching American History X, and I’m in the middle of one of its many flashback scenes. The prison flashback is long, but it works for two reasons:
In the present, the main character and his brother are sat down and talking about it. There’s nothing in the present to interrupt.
More importantly, it adds to the present story. So many flashbacks (including my 8,000-word monster) could be removed and absolutely nothing would change about the story’s present timeline.
Years ago, I had a literary agent interested in my first serious novel. Sadly I hadn’t learned the flashback lesson yet, and the agent specifically said in her rejection email “I lost the moment when you gave us backstory”. Just like infodumping, the best place for backstory is spread across the story, where it’s relevant and where it doesn’t grind the action to a halt.
And more than that, it must actually add something to the story in its present timeline. If it doesn’t, leave it out and keep the action going.
10. Description is good. Sensory description is even better.
One of my favourite creative writing lessons is when I ask my students to describe a spooky house without using the words “spooky”, “scary”, “creepy” or anything that instructs the reader on how they’re meant to be feeling. It’s much more effective to describe the broken windows and whistling wind through the glass, the creak of the floorboards and the choking sensation of ageing dust.
You don’t need to say a house is spooky: just describe it spookily and let the reader feel spooked all by themselves.
We autistic folk often have a fair amount of experience in the sensory department too. So when you’re describing something, talk about how it looks, sounds, smells, feels or even tastes in the back of your character’s throat. Your reader will connect with it.
It goes back to that hugely important mantra when it comes to storytelling: “show, don’t tell”. Built a picture in the reader’s mind about what’s happening. Don’t just say what happens.
11. GIVE THE READER A REASON TO KEEP READING!
The primary objective of chapter 1 is to make your readers read chapter 2.
The primary objective of chapter 2 is to make your readers read chapter 3.
And so on.
This is one of the shorter but more important tips on this list. Whatever happens, there must be something the reader is waiting to find out.
The main character in Stephen King’s Misery is a writer (because, well, it’s a Stephen King novel) who gives the best writing advice I’d ever seen in fiction. He talks about “the gotta”: a technique that forces the reader to keep reading because “I gotta find out whether she survives” or “I gotta find out if he gets revenge”, and so on.
Find a “gotta” for your book, perhaps even several, and the reader will keep reading.
12. Fan-fiction is fine.
There are conflicting opinions about the ‘validity’ of fan fiction. But as someone who started off by writing Sonic the Hedgehog stories, I’m entirely in support of it. (Like most other writers though, I make an exception for people making money through fan-fiction. I don’t think that’s morally right.)
Writing fan-fiction taught me the basics of story structure, action scenes, writing emotional deaths, and the foundations of everything I now use when publishing novels.
A lot of those foundations are difficult to learn all at the same time. It was easier to learn some of them while using characters I already knew and loved, in a world which I was already familiar with. And when I was confident enough to move on to my own worlds, I did.
And finally… it was fun. And you know what? Even if you never aim to publish your own novel, even if you never invent your own characters and create your own universe, writing fan-fiction is still fun. So there.
But perfectionism can cost whole stories. If you’re stopping and editing all the time, you’ll never actually finish. The more chapters you write, the more imperfections you’ll see, and the less time you’ll spend writing more chapters. At some point you’ve got to finish your first draft.
(I’ve had a happy medium for most of my writing life. I write a chapter all the way through, read through it the next day and edit the obvious errors, then I move on to the next chapter and don’t look back until the draft is finished.)
Your first draft doesn’t need to be amazing. It just needs to exist.
In fact, I’d take it a step further. Your first draft needs to not be perfect. If you can’t accept an imperfect first draft, you’ll never reach a second draft. Finish your story, then go back and edit.
And speaking of editing…
14. The real story comes out in the edits anyway.
According to Michael Crichton, all of his beta readers hated Jurassic Park. Then he rewrote it, and now most of the planet knows its name.
And now I’ve finished American History X, I just did a bit of Googling and learned that the original ending had Edward Norton’s character reverting back to Nazism at the end. Thankfully, it was changed.
And as for Underdogs, I won’t even begin. I edited and rewrote for a decade… and 8,000-word flashbacks were the least of the changes.
As I say to my students: “What’s the first step to writing a great story? Writing a terrible story.”
15. Honest feedback helps, even if it’s emotionally difficult.
I didn’t let anyone read my stuff until I was 19 (except the cousins I was writing for), so I know how vulnerable we can feel about other people casting eyes on our stories. But if you want to improve as a writer, you need more than one person reading them.
And when listening to feedback, there’s no room for ego or pride. If someone gives you constructive feedback and your response is “well they’re wrong, my story’s already perfect”, then guess what? Your writing won’t improve. We need to approach our work with a level of humility, and willingness to recognise our own areas for improvement.
Now that’s all well and good, but who should you ask to give feedback? This is an important question, because somepeople are constructive, some are just critical, and some people are neither.
The worst feedback you can get is from people who actively discourage you from writing at all. Maybe they hate reading in general, or feel threatened by your ambition, or maybe they’re just dicks. The reason barely matters.
The second-worst feedback you can get is “I loved all of it! Everything! There’s nothing wrong and I have no suggestions for improvement!” Feedback like this doesn’t give you anything more than a stroked ego.
The best people to ask are other writers: those who like to read, and take the craft seriously. Your close family and friends may be people you trust personally, but that doesn’t mean they’ll give insightful feedback. If you’re able to join a writers’ group, online or offline, I suggest you do so.
And honestly, speaking from experience with Underdogs’ pre-publication days, 90% of your non-writer friends just “won’t get round to reading it”.
16. Writing a book and publishing a book are two entirely different skills.
Two novels into my own series, I’m fondly remembering the days when being a writer was just about storytelling.
I could write a whole article about how to get a book published, but here it is in a few bulletpoints:
Research literary agents in your country, and look at their submission guidelines. They’ll usually ask for a cover letter, a synopsis and your opening three chapters.
Follow their instructions to the letter. If you want them to represent your book, they’ll want to know you’ll actually listen to them.
Practise writing cover letters and synopses. Like I said, this requires an entirely different kind of talent, and I’ve never been that talented at it myself.
If an agent does represent you, they’ll send your story to publishers and hopefully one will say yes. Then the editing, proofreading, typesetting, cover art and everything else begins.
The worst part of this process is that it requires a lot of people saying “yes” to you. The quality of your writing may be entirely in your hands, but the final decision is not. Which sucks.
17. The odds are against you when approaching agents and publishers, but do it anyway.
Literary agents receive thousands of submissions per year. They’ll ask for the full manuscript about 1% of the time (yes, an agent with 3,000 submissions a year will ask for further details on 30ish). Out of those, they’ll say yes to representing three or four. And when they start submitting to publishers, two thirds of those stories will be accepted.
But like I said, do it anyway.
Also, there are multiple routes to success. I didn’t get picked up by agents because my cover letters were crap. Instead, I went to a Getting Published Day run by Jericho Writers (my full story being here, bearing in mind the story was called Guerrillas back then). Nobody realistically goes to these events expecting to get published – they’re basically a day full of useful workshops – but I met an editor who described my work as “by far the best thing I’ve read all day” and immediately passed it on to the then-CEO of Unbound, who said yes.
Oh, and self-publishing exists. You could easily go to Amazon CreateSpace and upload your novel there. A bunch of people are self-published writers for a living. But this route means doing everything yourself. The cover art, the marketing, the editing and proofreading – everything. This may be right for some people though: those who have the time and resources, or those who just like the idea of having a book out there with their name on it and don’t seek massive success.
18. Don’t write to be successful. Success is often a result of other factors.
As a new writer, the most difficult thing for me to stomach was that the most successful novels weren’t the best novels – they were just the most marketable. There are writers out there who are far better E.L. James, but the market for Fifty Shades of Grey existed so it became a worldwide phenomenon regardless of quality.
The tricky thing about the market is that it keeps changing. Loads of writers must have seen the success of Twilight and immediately jumped on the vampire romance bandwagon, only to find that once they’d finished their books the market had moved on to young adult dystopia (The Hunger Games, Divergent, TheMaze Runner, etc.). It takes a year or two for publishers to release books anyway, so chasing current trends is pointless.
So what do you do? Just write what you love writing. Write it as well as you can, enjoy it as much as you can, and write the best damned cover letter you can. And if the market goes your way too, that’s a bonus.
19. This takes time. Years, not months.
If you want your novel to be successful, you’ll need to play the long game. Honestly though, that’s fine for people who love writing enough to stick with it. I started writing fan-fiction when I was 13, wrote regular fiction when I was 15, started making a serious effort at publication at 26, and heard a publisher say yes at 32.
And you know what? That’s fine. I learned so much along the way. Besides, if the stuff I wrote when I was 18 got published, I may have reached my dream quickly but the quality would have been awful. My published work is so much better after several decades of learning.
Besides, even if every single publisher said no, a life spent writing would have been awesome anyway. Which leads to my final point…
20. Sometimes, creating your own universe is enough!
People equate successful writers with those who make money. Hell, they equate good writers with rich and successful ones. So I’d like to finish with this important point.
You don’t need to be published to be a “good” writer.
You don’t need a record label to be a “good” singer.
You don’t need to sell hundreds of paintings to be a “good” artist.
Just because you’re not making money doesn’t mean you’re not talented.
So to those who have no interest in getting published, know that you don’t have to feel ‘lesser’ because of it. In fact, not chasing publication means you’re automatically doing the most important thing a writer can: writing the stuff you love, and not just writing to be popular.
And besides, intentions change over time anyway. Like I said at the start, Underdogs’ first draft was written as a coping mechanism for unemployment. I had no intention of publishing it, because it was already doing what it needed to do.
So write for enjoyment. Maybe you’ll get published, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll want publication later, maybe you won’t. But write regardless – become a good writer regardless – even if for no reason other than it’s just awesome.
And an extra note for those who want tips 21-30…
Rather incredibly, I’m now a writer by trade. And this is all thanks to my Patreon supporters, who allow me to write for Autistic Not Weird as an actual job (and also fund my therapy, which is awesome of them). These supporters get bonus content as a thank you for enabling me to do what I do, including extensions to articles like this.
(And, because it would be a terrible idea for me to end this article without any Amazon links, here’s where book one of Underdogs can be found. To those who enjoy neurodiverse dystopia action with heroes from special education, I hope you like it.)
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook