Brain hacks for writers with executive dysfunction

Have you ever had sleep paralysis?
Waking up to find yourself unable to move and speak?

To me, that’s what executive dysfunction can feel like. But instead of not being able to move completely, you just can’t move in the right direction. You can’t force yourself to open the book, to pick up the toothbrush, to open that word processor. Instead, you’re pacing up and down the hallway, panicking.

ED is like a goodie bag that comes with ADHD, a disconnect between the brain and the body. It makes it difficult to initiate tasks, to switch between tasks, to control impulses, to focus and to not focus on the wrong thing. It’s not laziness or lack of motivation. It’s not anxiety or overwhelm (although it’s definitely anxiety or overwhelm-inducing).

Tips like “build a habit” or “start small” don’t always work for ED because you can feel paralysed by the tiniest things. What works then? Creativity! Coming up with hacks to outsmart your own brain and then switching it up before it catches on.

Here are 10 brain hacks that help me switch from mum/work mode into writer mode:

  1. Taking a power nap. Set the alarm clock for 10-15 minutes and have a snooze. If that doesn’t work just lying down with your eyes closed, doing breathing exercises, meditation or whatever helps to do a quick reset.
  1. Taking a shower. Running water helps to calm the mind and get the creative juices flowing.
  1. Taking a walk. Works on the same principle as the first two, but especially great for working through plot points you’re stuck on.
  1. Working on an unrelated writing task. E.g. I find Drabbles (100 word stories) extremely satisfying, because it’s a new, tiny, finished product. They only take a few minutes to draft, and you can ride the wave of satisfaction into a more difficult task (e.g. your WIP).
  1. Set time aside to do another important task like… cleaning or budgeting. And procrastinate by writing.
  1. Check in with your bodily needs. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Toileted? No, seriously. Those can be distracting. Plus if you happen to reach the nirvana of hyperfocus you may not get a chance to check in with your body for the next ten hours.
  1. Write on your phone (this is my favourite one). They say smaller tasks feel less overwhelming but so do smaller screens!
  1. Incorporate movement. When sitting still feels like torture, I pace back and forth while typing on my phone (but make sure you do it safely, not around moving cars and stuff).
  1. Cheat on your WIP… with your WIP. If you have a synchronised app like Google Docs or Office360, have your WIP open on multiple devices like your laptop and your phone. Switch between the two when feeling like you need distraction.
  1. Writing at odd times and locations. Creatures of habit thrive on doing things the same way. But monkey-brained creatures of chaos need novelty. Change things up often, accept that brain-hacks only work until they don’t, and be prepared to invent something new.

What are your favourite brain hacks?!

Your “easy” is someone’s “impossible”

Have you discovered the book-writing secret that will help everyone? We need to talk.

I often see privileged and/or ableist statements floating around the writing and creative communities.

E.g. “I’m a single mother with five jobs, and I wrote 50 books last year.” 

Okay, good for you. You should be proud. But somewhere there is a person with zero kids and zero jobs, and just one chronic illness. And that person has written zero books because on their good day they only managed to shower. And you have zero rights to judge them.

The fastest person in the world can run 45 kilometres per hour. Doesn’t mean the rest of us can. Not with all the self-discipline in the world. And just because you’re managing to do all the things, doesn’t mean others can keep up with your level of productivity.

“You need to prioritise your art.”

Fine. What do you suggest I de-prioritise? My kid? Or the job that keeps a roof over our heads? Because that’s literally all I have time and energy for. I barely watch TV. Sometimes I listen to audiobooks while driving her to school. I skimp on cooking and cleaning. And I’m STILL flat out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making excuses. I HAVE written a book. I AM getting short stories published. I’m doing it. Not as fast as I want, but I’m making it happen. And it’s through none of your “shoulds”. It’s NOT through having a routine, or writing every day, or setting a timer for fifteen minutes. It’s not through self-discipline or building a habit. It’s through constantly coming up with new hacks to trick my stubborn brain. It’s through seizing every unplanned downtime. It’s through radical opportunism. 

“But my advice is proven to work.” 

That, my dear, is called survivorship bias. I’m sure your approach worked for some people who have similar inner-workings to you, but there are many for whom it didn’t. Yet those people aren’t accounted for. It’s not the failed attempts that get the airtime.

Yet, your experience IS valuable. I’m absolutely not saying that you should stop sharing it. No, no, no. I’m just asking that you share it with compassion and kindness. Because you can’t shame anyone into improvement. You cannot invalidate people’s struggles and limitations because “you have struggled too,” or “you have struggled more.”  You can’t help anyone by making them feel less than when they don’t fit into your one-fits-all mould.

Trust me, I know. I’m good at school, at work, and at solving big problems. I’m useless at the little stuff, like remembering appointments or closing the fridge door. And if I had a penny for everytime someone said “you should just pay attention” or “you should just write it down,” I would’ve paid off my mortgage long ago. Instead, I’ve spent hours of my life crying over spilled milk, wishing I was “normal.”

But I’m not “normal.” Not in the neurotypical sense. And understanding this, I have accepted that certain things – things that don’t even cross most people’s minds, like how much eye contact you should be making with the supermarket checkout operator — are going to be really, really hard for me. And “just setting fifteen minutes aside for my art” isn’t going to cut it. Because my brain buffers. And it buffers a lot.

So, when I share tips or experience, I try to present it as personal and subjective, e.g. “This is what works for me.” “This is a hurdle I’ve faced and this is how I’ve overcome it.” “This is what I tried and it worked until it didn’t.”

And if you’re offering coaching services, you can similarly use examples from your work that don’t imply a one-fits-all solution. E.g. “Jane Blogs was going through such and such, I taught her to do X and Y, and this was the outcome. I can show you how.” And when somebody tells you they don’t have time, or energy, or can’t stick with a routine or a habit – believe them. Just because it’s not your experience, and perhaps not most people’s experience, doesn’t mean it’s not theirs. And maybe you aren’t the right person to help them, and that’s okay. The least you can do is make them feel seen and valid and not like a failure.

And for the odd-balls like me, who don’t fit the mould – don’t despair. Just because you haven’t found something that works, doesn’t mean you won’t. Keep searching, keep asking, keep speaking out. Share what works and what doesn’t, so we don’t feel so alone. Be radically opportunistic and make art. Once a week, once a year, or once a decade. I believe that you are doing your best.

Writing Grief

I’m convinced no two grief experiences are the same. And because there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is no right or wrong way to write about grief. As long as it’s honest and nuanced. And nuanced doesn’t mean melodramatic.

Sometimes, plot-driven stories present grief somewhat one-sidedly: a character loses someone, they hurt and miss them, then something reminds them of that person, they miss them again, then they avenge them/reconcile the loss, and move on. 

But I think in reality, missing the deceased person is only a small part of the grieving journey. If you lose someone important to you, especially if they’re gone before their time, it can alter how you relate to others, yourself, and the world.

Here are a few ways in which grief can affect your characters.

It redefines their relationships with others

Maybe the way somebody else is grieving is annoying your character(against their best judgement), maybe they’re resentful of those who haven’t experienced that kind of loss. Maybe they reevaluate who they want in their life and in what capacity. Maybe the deceased was the glue of their social group, and they have to relearn to interact with the others. And maybe they never do and now it’s compounded grief for the lost friendships/familial bonds. And sometimes things can get really ugly, where you least expect it.

It redefines the characters identity

Being a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, for example, can be a big part of your character’s identity and when they lose a key relationship, they can begin to question everything about themselves. They may realise they had relied on the deceased person for their support, advice or opinions and may feel lost. They’ll have to find substitutes for whatever need that person fulfilled or learn to do without.

It redefines the character’s view of the deceased

Sometimes, when you lose someone you were close with, it lets you see who they were more objectively. For better or worse. You may realise there were times they wronged you or you wronged them, and you can have bouts of anger or guilt. Sometimes at the same time. And it’s okay for your character to feel all those things, they’re not mutually exclusive, and they don’t mean they didn’t love whoever they lost or vice versa. Everyone’s just misguided in their own ways, and your character might start seeing it for what it is.

It redefines the character’s world view

Sure, it can make them reevaluate what’s important in life. Or not. But also, losing someone, especially before their time, can force your character to become keenly aware, not only of their own (potentially sudden) mortality, but also of the mortality of everyone they ever loved (especially if they’re younger and this is their first big loss).

And then, depending on the circumstances of the loss, they can experience anticipated grief, delayed grief, compounded grief (you’re going to have to research those yourself). And did I mention trauma? Often loss can be or can be accompanied by a traumatic experience, that will leave your jumping up in cold sweat every time the phone rings, or the door creaks, for example, if that’s how they found out about the death.

Furthermore, I’d suggest staying away from well-meaning but unhelpful platitudes like “time heals”. Maybe it does, but that healing isn’t uniform. Your character can be doing pretty well after the initial shock fades, and then two, four, ten years down the track, when they realise they haven’t seen that person in all that time, it can hit them with the force of a thousand trucks.

Hope that was helpful and gives you something to think about.

Anything else worth mentioning? Let me know about a time you had to write grief.

Defining Character Terms — Part 2

In part one, we established the meaning of and difference between the following terms: protagonist, hero, main character, point of view character and narrator.

Now, let’s look at other character terms.

Antagonist

Last time we established that a protagonist is the character that drives the story by pursuing a goal. Following this, the antagonist is someone who tries to prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal and creating conflict. Every story needs conflict, so every story needs an antagonist. A story can have several antagonists or a main antagonist and supporting antagonistic characters or forces. 

An antagonist is defined by their relationship to the protagonist and their goal, not their moral alignment. They don’t have to be the “bad guy.” They don’t even have to be a person.

Anti-hero

The terms “antagonist” and “anti-hero” are sometimes confused but mean different things. An anti-hero is basically a morally flawed hero, or a hero without the traditional heroic traits. They may act out of self-interest or revenge and do morally grey things, but usually still choose the greater good (e.g. Jack Sparrow). Anti-heros often play the part of protagonists or allies, but they can be antagonists allies too.

Types of antagonists

  1. Villains

The terms “villain” and “antagonist are sometimes used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. A villain is a type of character who is intentionally malicious or criminal, they aim to hurt others with their actions and the readers will generally agree that they’re the bad guy/girl. Villains often play the role of an antagonist, but not every villain is, and not every story needs a villain. Memorable villains are usually complex, can possess likeable traits and/or convictions that there are valid reasons for their actions. 

  1. Authority figures

Parents and guardians, teachers, bosses, law enforcers — authority figures often make effective antagonists because they can exercise real power over the protagonist, making the conflict difficult to overcome. They may not be evil or ill-intentioned, they may even think they’re acting in the protagonist’s interests, but they stand between the protagonist and their goal. E.g. The Capulet and Montague families don’t intend to harm Romeo and Juliette, but their feud prevents the lovers’ from being together. Javert, a police inspector in Les Mis, is obsessed with upholding the law at any cost.

  1. Rivals

Someone competing with the protagonist for the same goal. E.g. in Ender’s Game, Ender and Bonzo Madrid are on the same team, but they compete for leadership. Bonzo, threatened by Ender, tries to get rid of him, which makes Bonzo an antagonistic character. In in the Queen’s Gambit, Vasily ‘The Russian’ Borgov is not a bad person and has no ill feelings towards the protagonist Elizabeth Harmon. However, he is competing for the same world chess champion title as she is and can be seen as an antagonistic character when he repeatedly wins against her.

  1. Internal conflict 

This when the protagonist is also the antagonist. They don’t need to have a split personality like Tyler Durden in Fight Club (although this is a valid example), but their internal conflict prevents them from reaching their goal. I would argue that Beth Harmon, or rather her trauma, is the main antagonist of the aforementioned Queen’s Gambit. Her trauma fuels her addictions and self-sabotage. Once Beth is able to confront her traumatic memories, give up substance abuse, stop pushing people away and accept help from friends, she is able to reap the boon.

  1. Inanimate forces

As I mentioned, the antagonist doesn’t need to be a person, it can be a force of some kind. My favourite example is a short story by Jack London called  To Build a Fire.  In the story, a man travels alone through a Yukon forest in subzero temperatures. He is overconfident and assumes he can survive by building a fire. One by one things begin to go wrong and he is unable to build a fire and gradually freezes to death. Thus nature is the antagonist of this story. This example is also useful if you’re studying “setting as character.” 

Other examples of inanimate antagonistic forces are illness, poverty, war, aspects of society as a whole, isolation (e.g. Cast Away). 

Ally

Whereas an antagonist or antagonistc characters ally is somebody who helps the characters towards their goal. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good or bad

Have you figured out who’s who in your story?

Disney’s Moana as an example of a flat arc protagonist

While learning the writing craft I found that examples of flat-arc characters, especially protagonists, are pretty hard to come by. There tends to be a belief that a protagonist must undergo a big transformation as the story progresses. I like to question this premise.

Most writing advice suggests that a protagonist must start off either with a fatal flaw or believing in a big lie. A character on a positive arc, will overcome the flaw/unravel the lie and become a better version of themselves. A character on a negative arc will fall deeper into the flaw or the lie, which will lead to their demise or corruption. A character with a flat arc will end up believing the same truth they started off with. 

NB: A flat character arc is not to be confused with a cardboard character. A character on a flat arc can be nuanced and well-developed. They can have agency and learn new skills along the way. They just don’t undergo a drastic change, especially in terms of who they are and what they believe.

You may ask, is there even a story if the character doesn’t change? Good question! Yes, the story is in the conflict between the character and whatever tries to push them off their path, make them give up their truth or corrupt them. This can include their own doubt.

I believe Disney’s Moana is an example of a character with a flat arc. At the start of the film,  Moana is already brave, responsible, empathetic and has leadership qualities. She already believes the sea is her friend. But her father and her community try to change her. They are the ones with the fatal flaw/lie—the fear of the sea. 

Moana tries to conform, but when the villagers come to her saying there is no fish, she suggests going further out to sea (returning to her truth). The idea is shut down by her father. Moana still believes she is right and tries to cross the reef by herself, but is stopped by the big waves. Thus, her father and her environment are examples of antagonistic forces that create the conflict.

When Moana’s grandma (her ally) gives Moana new information (that her people used to be seafarers) and tools (a better boat and the heart of Te Fiti), Moana braves the reef again. Along the way she faces many obstacles that lead her to doubt and question her truth, path and identity, but she perseveres. 

Once she succeeds in her quest, she returns to her island, essentially proving she had been right all along and teaching her community the seafaring ways. The Motonui community is transformed as a result of Moana’s journey, not Moana herself. (Compare this with Anna from Frozen, whose understanding of love changes as a result of her journey, i.e. a positive arc). That’s why I believe Moana’s is a flat arc, and it works great for the story.

I hope you found this helpful and it will encourage you to experiment with different types of characters and arcs.

Can you come up with other examples of characters with flat arcs?

Crawling to your dreams

Lately, I’ve been missing appointments like crazy, even with reminders. I wondered if I have early-onset dementia, but more likely, it’s just my brain telling me I have too many tabs open.

I’ve been getting frustrated with my inability to establish a routine this year, to find a balance between work and parenting, and to write regularly. My nomadic youth has taught me how to pack a suitcase using up every bit of space, and I’ve been trying to apply it to life, assuming that if I organise things the right way, I’ll be able to fit it all in. But what if there’s just too much stuff? What if I’m at full capacity and it just won’t fit, no matter how much I try?

I found this hard to accept because a) I compare myself to others — other people are able to manage jobs, kids and side projects, so should I; and b) I compare myself to my former self who was a bit of an overachiever.

But I don’t know other people’s circumstances and my own circumstances have changed. I’m dealing with a demanding (and often unpredictable) day job, a sensitive kid who hates sleep, an invisible chronic illness, a freshly diagnosed neurodiversity with it’s sensory and executive function challenges, and cumulative stress that was bound to catch up with me at some point. I don’t have much in terms of a support network either.

So, maybe this IS my capacity. Maybe that’s why my brain has been sending me the “not enough working memory” error message every time I try to plan something.

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t follow my dreams and finish that damn book. But given I can’t take anything off my plate at the moment, I need to accept that it’s going to be messy. There won’t be regular writing sessions, balls will be dropped and appointments will be missed. There will be tears, and that’s okay.

Maybe one day my situation will change and I will be able to find consistency again (like I did last year for a few months). Until then, progress will be sporadic and opportunistic. 

In May, I took three weeks off work to edit. I might be able to do it again next year. Before then, there will be weekends where I get a few hours to myself, nights when I can afford to sacrifice more sleep to the writing gods, and bursts of focus and creativity. 

Of course, writing sporadically will take more time. And that too can feel frustrating. But once the book is finished, it won’t matter how many years it took to write. It will be mine, it will be done, and it will be tangible. And I’ll have the success of a kept promise to myself to surge me forward as I write the next book and the next.

So, if the burning elephants you’re juggling prevent you from writing every day or even every month, acknowledge your limitations. But don’t give up on your dreams. Be opportunistic, snatch your sporadic chances, and remember that every little bit of progress gets you closer.

If you can’t walk towards your dream, crawl, and if you can’t crawl, lie down in your dream’s direction.

Tips for writers who just can’t finish that first novel

So, you’ve always wanted to be a novelist but have never been able to knock out a novel? Do you hoard hundreds of first chapters for innumerable novel ideas that you’d given up on? Or have you been working on the same story for the past decade but aren’t nearing the finish line? Then these tips are for you!


  1. Write like no one’s watching

Thinking about readers this early in the process can be paralysing. Don’t do it. Your first draft is meant for your eyes only. Don’t show it to anyone and don’t worry about what your mum would say, or your friends, or your English teacher.Treat it like your private diary and spill all your dirty, little secrets and your crappy, little plot holes. You’ll edit them out later.

  1. If #1 fails

If writing for just yourself is not motivating enough, write for one other person. Someone you know will  “get you” and support you no matter what. Nabokov wrote for his wife, Vera. Stephen King initially wrote for his mother who paid him a quarter a piece. 

  1. Embrace the terrible

Your first draft will suck. There’s no way around it. Spending years perfecting the first chapters will get you nowhere. Reading every instructional book in the world won’t make you a better writer. Writing several crappy but complete drafts definitely will.

Be prepared that you will have to rewrite your WIP almost in its entirety. Maybe several times. But you’ll be in a better position to know how it all fits together and what you need to fix once you get to the end. It’s part of the process. You can’t make coffee without grinding the beans. 

  1. Stick to one story

Some writers work on two or more novels in parallel. But if you’ve never managed to finish one, that’s a bad idea. You probably already have more novel ideas and first chapters than you care to count, and they’ll just keep coming. You can jot the ideas down, if you want to, but don’t spend more than a few minutes. 

Digging into new projects is fun. Sticking with one is discipline. It’s hard. Treat “working on a new idea” as a reward you give yourself for finishing the first.

  1. Pick the low hanging fruit

Don’t try to write the next Game of Thrones on your first attempt. Pick a premise with one POV character. Maybe two. Not a dozen. Stick to one key theme. Don’t try to squeeze everything you have to say to the world into your first novel. Keep it simple. Treat it as a practice round. You can increase complexity with your later works.

  1. Stick to a tight outline

Discovery writing is great when it works. But if you find yourself hitting dead-ends on repeat, even a one-page outline can make a difference. 

Don’t overdo it either. Some people spend years on world-building, taking personality tests for their characters and drawing up massive genealogical trees. But they never actually write their story. As with tip #4, keep it simple. Layout the key plot points. Know what happens at the start, in the middle and how it ends. And stick to it.

If you’ve started writing and realised you need to change earlier plot points, make a note and keep writing as if you’ve already made the changes. You’ll fix the continuity issues in the second draft.


Do you have any tips to add? Let me know what’s keeps pushing you to the finish line.