How to write a novel with ADHD

How to write a novel with ADHD

I’ve seen this question pop up a few times, as well as some answers I don’t agree with.

The main presumption seems to be this: that people with ADD can’t sit still and focus on ONE BIG PROJECT, which puts us at a disadvantage. I’ve seen some authors say this is why they can’t plan or plot, they just have to follow their joy and passion.

I’m actually the opposite (I need to have a plan). Which is why I believe ADHD won’t make you a plotter or a panster by default. I plot heavily; which is mostly getting all the brainstorming down and fitting it into a story so I know where everything goes and what happens (this always changes, but it’s important to have something to start with).

I acknowledge that it feels better, more fun, more satisfying and more magical – and also that my *writing is actually better* when I’m pantsing (discovering details mid-scene as I’m writing, not fully aware of surprises or character choices until they pop into my head).

But I’m also pretty convinced that most people get stuck because they don’t know what happens next; and what happens next is something you only figure out after finishing the previous section – and also that writing without a plan leaves you with a great bundle of scenes without any powerful reason for existing (lacking motivation, purpose, drama and resolution).

I would guess that *some* adhd people love writing and can spit out tens of thousands of words, but then get bored, distracted, unamused, and avoid the work and self-education and persistent effort it would take to wrangle all that junk into an actual book.

This is normal for everyone, but more dangerous for some than others.

You see, normal (neurotypical) people could probably just figure it out, study, polish and improve their book until it’s done. But people with adhd have a superpower when it comes to procrastination: we will NOT do the thing, the more we MUST do the thing (resistance and avoidance becomes almost comically absurd).

We don’t need more energy or focus. So caffeine isn’t going to be enough.

That’s not our problem, it’s the resistance.

Maybe because we’re sensitive. Partially, I think adhd is because life goes too slowly for our minds; so halfway through one urgent task, we’ve already skipped ten thoughts ahead and are so distracted we completely forget about the first thing – leaving projects unfinished.

But it’s also emotional.
We will be pulled to the work or pushed away.

The black hole of avoidance

For most people, resistance is a calm patch of shallow water. A puddle. Barely noticeable, an inconvenience at best.

You choose, you go. It costs little to pass.

For others, it’s a deep lake. You start out in one direction but become swallowed up in darkness.

And there’s probably a current.

Anything that doesn’t attract us, repulses us actively – like a magnetic field.

We face heavy, heavy resistance and it’s like swimming upstream.

You know the right direction, you want to do it, but that 10 feet or ten seconds before starting is exhausting. You’re fighting against a force of nature that drains your energy.

This isn’t isn’t just a metaphor; willpower is a scarce resource that can be drained. The more decisions you need to make, the less energy you have. And it’s not the big things, it’s the emotional cost. That’s why we constantly procrastinate or scroll or binge snack, we’re constantly trying to fill our empty gas tank with dopamine and serotonin because we’re burning through it so fast, because we’re not spending it on the work itself, but only the process of trying to get started. It’s not writer’s block; we are wrestling with our demons as a distraction from the blank page.

The decision for some people has no cost. You just decide and do the work. For us, that decision is a constant fight, going on every second for hours, until we finally put our butt in the chair and even after that.

Each second we need to decide to continue doing the task we emotionally do not want to.

Like a baby being put to bed and screaming and kicking NO!

So while you’re writing alone in a nice quiet office, someone with adhd is writing with a screaming kicking baby.

Rewards and punishments

You can try to trick yourself with sticks and carrots, but you’re a smart adult and you’ll see right through that. People with ADHD have executive dysfunction: irrational resistance to responsible behavior. For me, my creative process (always has been) this: I KNOW I can easily get the thing done, so I procrastinate until the deadline. And then when it’s due, I SUPER procrastinate with stress-eating allnighters and rage-caffeine productivity, and when I get it done it’s sloppy, and then I pass out for a week.

Healthy, not quite.

Often better than what *normal* people do cautiously and carefully? I like to think so, but that’s my bias. This is why many “gifted” kids struggle in life, because they’ve gotten away with or even been rewarded by bad behavior (doing things well, without much work or effort, trains you poorly, in terms of things that actually require significant long-term effort).

First of all, it’s worth being said, this is a cognitive disability (or superpower) and it doesn’t mean you’re lazy. There’s nothing at all wrong with seeking help or getting on medication. I don’t love the romanticization of creative genius as necessarily disaster-prone individuals who can’t handle normal responsibilities and suffer for their art. (My point here, is that medication is usually the only and best reliable fix to adhd; and you shouldn’t waste time feeling guilty for not being able to control your behavior when it isn’t your fault at all).

But rewards and punishments can still be motivating.

My kindergarten teacher bribed me with a transformer for the huge effort of not sucking my thumb in class for several months. My dad had to pay me to do chores. And even then, I’d refuse; a 15-minute task would instead become a full day of hiding out and reading books until my dad found me again.

It’s also true that real creativity is always a stepping-out of comfort zones, and it can be scary and stressful, and that avoidance of pain and discomfort is a biological condition of self-preservation. And the more experience you get, the more often you publish, the less scary everything is going to be… which is going to lessen your motivation, because avoidance of pain is the greatest motivator.

People think publishing will get easier, but it does not. The first time you publish, with no experience, you’ll probably be coasting on unearned, naïve enthusiasm. It’s a beautiful, powerful thing, but it will make you reckless. But if you’re writing a book for yourself, there won’t actually be a deadline or accountability.

Most authors protect themselves with bandaids like “I’m not in it for the money” as if they don’t care whether people like their work, or “if only one person reads it I’ll be happy.” This is an emotional comfort, but not great for dealing with procrastination issues. It’s protective at the beginning to write and finish your first book, if you do it for fun or practice, but will encourage you to write the wrong kind of book (one that nobody else enjoys) which is why “the war of art” is popular and also grossly misleading.

Most successful, experienced writers still struggle with this stuff. For me, setting hard external deadlines is one of the only foolproof drivers of productivity – it’s why I still set up preorders even though I’ve failed at them enough to get reprimanded by Amazon multiple times; and why I have 58 days left to write and edit the novel I’m working on, which means 2 months of stress, self-doubt and euphoria whenever I manage to conclude another chapter.

So let me ask you this: what’s on the line for you? How much do you have to lose? How much are you risking? How much will it hurt when you fail? If you aren’t investing much emotional energy into your book, or creating a hard external deadline, or identifying the most likely audience that might not hate it, it’s *possible* you’re making things too easy for yourself, and that’s the reason why you can’t seem to make any meaningful progress.

Exotic historical cures

In the Ink of Melancholy the author describes how ‘cat organs’ were once used on depressed patients – basically, this involved horrific cat torture to force people out of their ennui or boredom. A similar cure was leeches to the anus. Until Sigmeund Freud discovered cocaine in the 1880s, which is similar in effect to ritalin. Rather than getting into a controversial discussion on drug use, I’ll just point out how coffee, sugar and tea were also scandalous when first introduced, as dangerous, mind-altering substances.

But I’ve gotten way off topic, so I’ll sum up here: I don’t believe in sticks or carrots. Those are bribes and punishments to get you to do things you don’t want to do, which will always have limited effect. People with adhd hate using their time to do things they must force themselves to do.

Ritalin works much better, because rather than speeding me up or making me more clever or focused (it does not), it removes that absolute brick wall of avoidance and refusal so I can start doing the work.

Social accountability: I mentioned this softly before, but some authors try to make it easier for themselves to write, by removing any rules or shoulds and trying *just* to have fun with it. This isn’t the worst idea in the world, except that it’s *so much harder* to try and make everything up and guess how to write an engaging novel, without any feedback or system or outline.

It’s a little like taking the ball and going home, playing by yourself, with imaginary friends… you’ll always be the winner. You’ll always have fun. But it isn’t a real game. And a book, or all art in general, can only matter if it is shared and appreciated.

So how does someone with ADHD write a book?

If you’ve read this far, you might be annoyed I haven’t given you a simple checklist to follow, but that’s because the individual steps or details, in my opinion, can differ between authors with adhd: we share the same affliction, but there are multiple processes that can work for individuals. But mostly, we can write books because we’re not emotionally repulsed by the work.

In fact we can focus for hours, going at our own speed and pace, living in our heads and making things up, and it can be amazing. Some parts are harder for sure. But sometimes, when we can focus on what we want (there’s choosing and choosing) block out the noise or keep our inner child happy (with music, snacks, or breaks between sprints) we can find ourselves getting into the zone, and this is where we truly shine.

I can feel guilty for procrastinating all day and then when I force myself to get started, work for four hours straight; some of my best writing comes at the end of long, sleep-deprived avoidance.

And not all work is the same: I have trouble drafting, and am much more comfortable editing or revising, even though it can be much harder and more time-consuming. Forcing yourself to do some of the work when you don’t feel like it, will always be part of writing a book, even if you don’t have adhd.

Some authors feel like something must have gone wrong.

It isn’t supposed to be like this.

It isn’t supposed to be this hard.

Yes, it is.

It’s always been this hard.

So recognize, first, that writing a book is going to be the hardest (and most satisfying) thing you’ve ever done, and be OK with feeling awful about yourself and your abilities most of the time. But THEN:

Have a clear plan and purpose.

Simple tips to boost productivity

I have lots of guides and resources on how to write a book, but here’s a very simple checklist or step-by-step process for hopeful authors.

  1. Start with an outline. I recommend my 24-chapter plotting template.
  2. Remove the fear. There are two types of creative fear. It’s good to be aware of them, so you can acknowledge and dismiss them.
  3. Consistent effort. Habits take time to form; practice adding 500 day for as many days in a row as you can. It will probably take months, and it might all be bad.
  4. Timed sprints. Set a 20 minute timer. I use the iawriter app on an iphone for word count sprints and then move it into my Word document/outline. Do this with author friends if you can; and possible in a unique space that isn’t your main desktop.
  5. Reward yourself. I don’t have the self-control to do this yet, but I like the idea of saving pleasurable things you’d do anyway until after you’ve done your words (like only eating sugar while you’re writing).
  6. Stimulants are great. But they differ. Coffee and tea can work but also cause side effects. Nicotine for example stimulates your nervous system but also has a relaxing vibe that can make you less clear-minded. If you have adhd, getting on the right medication can significantly help (personally I don’t love ritalin as a solution; modafinil feels so much better – but ritalin is common and in low-doses can allow me to do some work instead of none at all). But for many people, this could also mean eating right, exercise, more water, more sleep, maintaining a consistent schedule, or anything that gives you more energy and staying power.
  7. Revision plan. Most people get stuck after the first draft, because they didn’t have a plan or use a template. You can fix a manuscript with my outlining template, or use my list of common writing mistakes to self-edit your own book.
  8. Shorten the feedback loop. It’s very difficult to get real feedback on your writing, but the quickest way is to put it out there and see how it goes. You want responses from actual readers who don’t know you and aren’t afraid to be honest. Most likely, you’ll mostly get silence, but lack of sales will probably spur you to invest in improving your writing with study and practice.
  9. Social accountability. I’ve noticed, the last few years have been particularly hard, because I haven’t been going to events. Usually, I’ll want to finish a new project to talk about before meeting all my writer friends. I just now am considering (finally!) going to some events in Spain and Italy this summer, after 2 years of no travel. Immediately, I’m feeling a huge productivity boost, because now I have a timeline and a deadline. I need to get more done, to deserve/enjoy/make use of this opportunity. It also helps to give me something tangible and positive to look forward to (without any positive benefits of your work, it’s hard to stay motivated. Of course – higher profit can be a goal, but is difficult to achieve in reality, with your first few books.

So that’s it!

Not only is it very possible, I might even argue it can be easier for people with adhd to write novels; we’re pretty good at living in our imagination and creativity. Or maybe, I should add, it’s easier for us to write *better* novels even if it feels like much more work for us. Or possibly that this turmoil and struggle of the creative process is normal for nearly all people (although, I think adhd is a real thing and not as rampant and common as it seems to be right now).

At any rate, concentration and focus for an ambitious, long-term, personal project that has no tangible rewards, costs a lot of time, energy and focus, and has no deadlines or external consequences attached to it… it’s no wonder people struggle with motivation and procrastination here.

But it’s important to recognize that this doesn’t need to be quelled or fixed, only tamed. It doesn’t go away, and it will always be present as part of the natural creative process. You can and should use any and all tools at your disposal to make the resistance more manageable, just don’t feel guilty you can’t always be at the top of your game (being at the top of your game REQUIRES equal periods of rest and sloth to recharge – make sure you schedule them).