Writing a novel can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. In the words of novelist Joyce Carol Oates, "Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor." But writing a novel can be an especially daunting task for authors whose daily lives are already impacted by neurodiversity. These authors often struggle with focusing, organizing their thoughts, structuring a plot, finding the time to write, and even reading works by other authors. Fantasy author Jennifer L. Jacobson lives with both dyslexia and ADHD, which has lead to some specific challenges, but hasn't stopped her from diving into writing and storytelling headfirst. Here are some insights into her inspirations, her challenges, and her process.
What first inspired you to be a storyteller?
Movies inspired me the most growing up because I loved stories and movies were the fastest way to access them. I think most writers read a lot of books when they were growing up and I'm sure they have a wealth of novels to point at and say, "this inspired me." But I can't say the same. Reading a book for more than a few minutes was difficult for me and required a significant amount of focus. While my reading comprehension was always exceptional, I took much longer to read than other kids my age. Because of this, I didn't read many books on my own when I was younger. It wasn't until I was twenty that I learned I was dyslexic and had ADHD.
I was a kid in the 80's during the golden resurgence of feature-length animation and was inspired by amazing stories; An American Tail, The Land Before Time (the original), The Little Mermaid, All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Brave Little Toaster, Dark Crystal, all the Muppet movies, and my all-time favorite; The Last Unicorn. I've since had the good fortune to meet and briefly even work with Peter S. Beagle the author of The Last Unicorn, and it is still one of my life's greatest honors.
As a young kid I loved it when teachers in grade school read stories out loud to the class after lunch. (Teachers everywhere; please keep doing this. It is so helpful to those of us who have difficulty reading). Black Beauty, The Boxcar Children, and Where the Red Fern Grows were among my early favorites. They inspired me to elevate my writing beyond short stories. At the age of 13 I read Jurassic Park cover-to-cover on my own and loved it. It was the first book I couldn't put down. It was the same in college when I read the Harry Potter series.
Now that the technology is readily available, I listen to audiobooks and I'm making up for lost time. When it comes to Young Adult novels, I enjoying books such as The Gilded Ones, When We Were Them, A Sorcery of Thorns, Shadowshaper, How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, Gregor the Overlander, The Hobbit, and of course The Hunger Games books.
Tell us about the evolution of your writing career and what you're currently working on?
When I was seven years old, I wrote my first short story about an owl who was separated from her friends and got lost in the woods. I was always imagining stories for my toys, and a stuffed owl named Owlie, was my first character. I wrote my first novella at ten, about a girl who tamed a wild horse. I remember taking my spiral bound notebook into the empty lot across the street and being inspired by the wind in the trees. I had no clue how to write a novella, but I figured it out. Early in college I wrote my first fantasy novel about the history of unicorns and a girl who rescued them. Later in college I began diversifying the content I created and made several student films, short stories, screenplays, songs, poems, and even found object gallery works that were featured in the Yo Donna Spanish fashion magazine. In 2008 my first published work came out, 42 Rules of Social Media for Small Business. I currently have a book about PR for emerging brands in the final stages of pre-publishing. I am also working on a collection of short bedtime stories that take unexpected twists and turns. As a PR professional I've written hundreds of stories for clients and some of my work has been published in national and international publications.
My biggest work and lifelong passion project is my 4-part young adult fantasy novel series about a teenager grappling with the loss of her sister while struggling to create found family and also save the world from chaotic elder gods that seek to overthrow mortals. This series has taken almost twenty years to write. I've drafted it through book three and I hope to have the first book finished and ready for publication by the end of this year.
When it comes to long-format writing, what have been your biggest challenges?
Remembering all the plot-points over time and tying them together has been difficult for me. It probably doesn't help that my 4-part series has multiple flashbacks to previous timelines. (Cloud Atlas reinforced my insistence on telling the story across multiple timelines). In my series I transport characters into flashbacks via physical objects, which hold a memory, a power that I always wished to have in real life. Writing flashbacks, of course, lead to several research rabbit holes where I spent days learning about California soldiers from World War One, and the ancient bone crushing dogs that roamed North America some 3.6 million odd years ago.
For me, inspiration is never the problem. I have a lot of ideas, but when my brain gets too full of ideas for a specific story, it is hard to connect the dots to make it work. Summarizing major plot points is something I don't automatically see. This, combined with being a slow reader, has led to months of writing inactivity and frustration.
What has helped you write through your ADHD issues?
Listening to the most recent parts of my book before I start writing really helps. Having my computer read my work aloud has been very helpful, (and the technology has come a long way since the early 2000's when I started writing longer format fantasy).
I also made a "what happens and why" spreadsheet that helps me get a quick overview of the story. I created this spreadsheet surprisingly recently, when I found myself becoming overwhelmed by the complexity of my series' story threads across four books. I had my computer read one chapter at a time while I mapped out what happens and why in the spreadsheet. It was like having another person there helping me edit. Listening to the book also helped me find plot holes and areas that I needed to fix or update. I marked these areas in the spreadsheet for later editing.
Quelling the urge to rewrite before I actually need to has also helped. I love editing and rewriting and making a page sing, but you have to have a written page before you can do that, and if you're working to finish a series, you have to keep going and map out the series before you can perfect book one (at least that's how I work). It took a long time for me to realize that constant revisiting and rewriting parts of my series was slowing me down and keeping me from finishing anything. Now I've made peace with the idea of letting the first draft or two be a messy work-in-progress.
Do you think there is an upside to ADHD and Dyslexia?
Absolutley. I think I'm more creative because of dyslexia, and I'm definitely more inspired because of my ADHD. Dyslexia keeps me on my toes and it humbles me at the same time. For example, I can never trust what I read to be what something actually says, unless I'm 100% focused and in a quiet, distraction-free environment. Sure, it can be embarrassing sometimes but I've learned to go with it, and it's lead to a lot of fanciful thinking that I incorporate into my work.
Once, while driving home, I saw a real estate sign that read Horse Prophecy, and I remember thinking, how cool that would be; if someone had a prophecy about a horse and the realtor used it as a selling point for the house. I'd want a house like that. Who wouldn't? After a while my logical brain stepped in and informed me that the sign must have said something different and finally concluded that Horse Property was the most likely text. But what a fun mistake! For a good thirty seconds, I imagined what kind of prophecy and what kind of horse this sign was about. It's a memory I cherish to this day.
I think ADHDers' have a superpower and that's immersive vertical learning. Give us a topic we're interested in and we'll become that topic in a matter of days. If I'm really interested in something I tend to hyperfixate on it until I KNOW it. For me this also means I have difficulty switching to less fascinating topics, or doing tasks that don't sustain my attention. That's something I'm getting professional help to work on because so much of modern life requires us to be able to do at least some mundane tasks like schedule appointments, or take out the trash.
Hyperfixation has also, I believe, lead me to greater empathy. When I like a character I tend to fixate on them, their world, and what it must be like to be in their skin. In this way, I feel like I've lived many more lives than I actually have. From imagining I was the unicorn in The Last Unicorn to hyper fixating on Wammawink from Centuarworld, my current character obsession (seriously it's on Netflix and I want you to watch at least one episode), I've learned how to get in my main character's head and heart. Knowing what drives my characters has helped me develop deeper plotlines with more character growth because I've learned how to plant uniquely challenging obstacles in their way that will develop them as characters.
What is your personal writing space like?
I write from a home office that's filled with things I love and also paperwork, which is my nemesis. Because my brain enjoys having fun things around me when I'm working I have an assortment of trinkets and fiddly things like Koosh balls, to stuffed animals, and rubber chickens. I always have something unusual nearby. There's a store in Seattle called Archie McPhee that makes lots of weird and amazing novelty items, like rubber chickens and librarian action figures. A lot of Archie McPhee items have found their way to my home over the years. I lovingly call this place my spiritual home because it's so whimsical and you never know what you're going to find in there; much like my brain.
I also have a comfortable office chair and a standing desk flanked by happy goldendoodles who remind me to take breaks and get up now and then to throw a ball. Having a dog in the room has always helped my stay calm and quiet the often racing thoughts in my mind.
What would you say to other authors who struggle with their neurodiversity?
I'm so proud of you! You're here. You show up, despite the struggles you face. You are learning about yourself in an effort to become and/or be a writer. That's huge! If no one has told you yet, I think you're doing amazing things and I see you!
Also, if you're struggling right now: "Don't stop here. This is bat country!" Seriously, if you're in a funk or can't seem to find your way out of yourself and your issues, it's ok to get professional help. It's ok to do therapy, join support groups, or even just read self-help books on what you struggle with. Therapy has been essential to my personal development and that has had the added benefit of enhancing my writing. I think everyone should consider therapy, especially when going through difficult times. Your brain is a wonderful, fascinating thing. Learning how it works and getting it the support it needs is important to living a full life.
My best advice to neurodiverse writers is to keep writing and don't be afraid to talk about your neurodiversity. You're not alone and your journey will be an inspiration to others.
About Jennifer L. Jacobson
Jennifer L. Jacobson is a Pacific Northwest writer who has been telling stories about magical creatures since she could hold a pencil. By the age of ten she wrote her first novella and by nineteen she created her first novel. Jennifer's latest young adult fantasy series is an adventure twenty years in the making. Her work spans an upcoming collection of bedtime stories as well as one of the first-ever books on social media for business, and an upcoming book about public relations for startups. By day Jennifer puts her Masters in Broadcast Communications to good use and runs a boutique public relations firm helping theme parks, entertainment brands, startups, and nonprofits tell their stories. Jennifer is also the founder of a youth art program called Nimbus Haus. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two goldendoodles.
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