Writing a Book When You Have ADHD

Getting formally diagnosed with ADHD last year, as I was just about to turn thirty years old, was a bittersweet experience. Obviously, gaining a fundamental understanding of own my lived experience was validating, and finding out at least one of the conditions I live with could be treated with medication was very much validating, but that ADHD diagnosis also came bundled with a lot of introspection about the life I had lived up until that moment.

This isn’t unique to ADHD, the same is true for many mental health diagnosis moments. What made being diagnosed with ADHD unique, for me, was how it made me examine my career trajectory as an adult.

I have been a full time writer for the past seven years as my primary profession. Over those years, what that has meant has fluctuated a lot, as my ADHD soaked brain hopped around projects on the hunt for Dopamine. I’ve been a media critic, a news writer, a freelancer, a consultant, and for the past three years, increasingly often I have been a published author.

Since the summer of 2019, I have had three main books published, with two more on the near horizon, and contributions littered across other projects. Uncomfortable Labels is a 50,000 word memoir about living at the intersection of being trans and autistic. Things I Learned From Mario’s Butt is a silly and serious illustrated coffee table book of video game character butt reviews. Gender Euphoria is an anthology of trans, non binary, and intersex writers positive, joyous, real life lived experiences surrounding their transitions. Me and My Dysphoria Monster is an illustrated children’s book designed to discuss gender transition in child approachable language, and Who Hunts the Whale is a satirical novel set in a fictional video game development studio, following how the realities of the industry contrast with the ideallistic dream of a career in games.

All of these books were written in the past four years. Every one of them was written, at least in its first draft form, before I knew I was living with ADHD.

So, as a published author who has managed to put several books to paper, largely before recieving support or medication, I wanted to take some time today to talk about the process of writing each of these books, and how, unknowingly, I structured my workflow around the fact I was living with ADHD.

Uncomfortable Labels is, to put it plainly, a fairly short book. As my first attempt at writing anything longer than a 2,000 word video game review, I knew up front focusing on a single topic, even my own life, for more than a few thousand words at a time, was going to be a struggle.

So, I broke the book up into a large number of smaller and more managable sections, discreet enough to hop between out of order if I needed to.

I started by breaking the book down into chapters, then breaking each chapter down into subsections I would use to tell that larger story. 50,000 words feels like a lot to focus on at once, but if I can break that down to 10 or so chapters, each 5,000 words, each broken down into maybe three sub sections which were each 1,500 words or so, I could be fairly confident those small pieces of focus would add up to a full, if short, book. By thinking about each chapter as a few smaller topics, I could more easily take breaks mid chapter and not lose my place. They acted as checkpoints, places I could duck out and take dopamine seeking breaks, coming back confident I knew where to restart.

The book was still difficult to write at times, but by breaking it up into lots of novel and discreet segments, it was an achievable task.

Next up is Things I Learned From Mario’s Butt, the book that in hindsight I most deliberately formatted to work around my own ADHD. The book is made up of a series of small reviews of individual video game character butts, from different video games, different series, and different consoles. Each review was only 300-500 words, which meant that I could very confidently write the first draft of each character in a single sitting, whenever I had a very small amount of mental focus available. If a given character didn’t spark dopamine in my brain, I could jump onto something totally different that felt exciting and varied. It was a project very much defined by jumping back and forth trying to make myself smile by writing very small pieces of satire backed up with in game evidence, which required frequent short research and fact checking breaks, which kept the process from ever stagnating too much. I was constantly hopping around the project, which really suited me.

Following on from that, Gender Euphoria is an anthology project, and a big part of my going with that format was my experience on my first two books. Sure, there were other important reasons, such as wanting to ensure a diversity of experiences and backgrounds represented, but I had also learned from Uncomfortable Labels that a few thousand words at a time on a single topic was my comfort zone with focus, and that I enjoyed working on projects where I got to take on a more editorial role putting lots of separate pieces together to form a larger whole.

While I wrote around 1/3 of Gender Euphoria’s essays myself, the rest of my work on the project involved sifting through submissions, reaching out to potential contributors, editing essays written by other writers, and putting the finioshed book into a satisfying order. The ability to keep my contributions low in wordcount, and hop back and forth between writing and editing, allowed me to focus enough to complete the project.

Additionally, in order to get the book out in time for Pride Month of the following year, I was given a very short window of time to work on the book. As with many people with ADHD, I used to find an imminent looming deadline one of the few things that provided enough addrenaline to overcome my lack of executive function. Having basically no time to write the book made it a fair bit easier for me to not just procrastinate through the project’s deadlines.

Me and My Dysphoria Monster, releasing August 18th 2022, was my first time working on an illustrated children’s book, and as you might imagine, the short wordcount on the body of the story very much helped with focusing on it. The book features an adults guide at the back to explain words and ideas in more detail, but even those segments were each short and to the point.

If you have ADHD and writing a book seems daunting, I can certainly reccomend children’s book writing as an attention span friendly place to start.

And, lastly, Who Hunts the Whale, my upcoming novel co-written with my wife Jane. Now, a big part of me writing this project with my wife was the knowledge that, by myself, it would be beyond my personal limits. A full length narrative, where there is a single cohesive plot that has to be kept consistent, and gradually build, requires a LOT of focus I simply did not have access to alone.

By cowriting the book with my wife, I knew I had a sefety net. If I forgot a detail, or lost track of a plot thread, I knew there was a chance she would catch it when she read through. I had someone to talk through the book with, someone to push through drafts for so that I wouldn’t limit their ability to work, and someone who I could talk things through with.

We both have ADHD, and while alone we both might have struggled to draft the book, having each other to be accountable to really helped push forward.

Also, I finally got medicated right around the end of the first draft, and that sure did help haha.

When I look back over my career as a writer, both as an author of books as well as my work as a media critic, I think the main thing that stands out to me how chaotically I have spent the years hopping between ildly different projects. I’ve never stuck with a single project idea for more than a few years, I’ve never stayed writing in one place for too long, and every book I have written has ultimately been a one off before I hop onto a wildly different concept.

Getting diagnosed, medicated, and focused has really helped me to see a lot of my career in a different light. My lack of focus has allowed me to have a bunch of separate projects under my belt that I am incredibly proud of, but has made it hard to ever stick with one long enough to make it my defining focus as a writer.

While I may not have a cohesive brand as an author, I have written several published books in a fairly short amount of time. Those books may wildly vary in topic and tone, but reviews for every one have been better than the last, and I can proudly look at my bookshelf, and see the story of how, over the years, I made sure not to let my lack of focus stop me from creating the long form projects I wanted to create.

Categories: Disability