It's Archaeology, My Dear
How I've learned what my autistic brain needs in order to crank out a story
I did it. I made it through January. The crash of multiple projects and tight timelines wasn’t too much for me.
The biggest project was “CRUMBS FOR A MEAL,” the 6,000-word story that I submitted this past weekend. I had a week to write, edit, and finalize it before the deadline, and, I admit, I didn’t know if I could turn it around that quickly, given how I know my autistic brain works.
Not only did I get it done in time, but I feel really confident about what I produced. I feel like I really put my best foot forward.
Part of me is validated by that experience—I keep pinching myself, saying “I really did that in a week”—but another part of me is a bit shocked. How was I able to pull that off?
If you spend any time reading writing blogs and resources online, you’ve seen the two different types of writers out there: planners and “pantsers.”
Planners like to diligently research, outline, and structure their stories before sitting down and putting words to the page, while “pantsers” just run with an idea and see where it takes them as they write.
Without a doubt, I am in the former camp. And I’ve realized that that’s how my autistic brain normally works.
It will hyperfixate on a specific idea and jump right into researching its many aspects, making connections with other themes or topics that could enrich and deepen a story.
It needs to visually chart out and see the progression of the story.
And it needs to develop the characters so deeply that they become real, emerge with their own voice and personalities.
All of this happened for “CRUMBS FOR A MEAL.” I initially got the idea back in December, and the ball started rolling.
I did what I do for literally everything in my life: I turned to Trello.
Over the past year or so, I’ve built a Trello board template for story development that I can just copy and adapt for each new project. It captures the way that my brain normally works, and it also provides the support and structure that it needs to feel comfortable enough to sit down and writing.
This is the Trello board for “CRUMBS FOR A MEAL.” The lists—Draft, Character Profiles—Main, Character Profiles—Secondary, and Resources—are the core of each board. For my longer creative projects, like ON DISPLAY: An American Novel and the MONOLITH chapbook and podcast series, I also add narrative structure analysis cards to make sure that the overall arc of the story is coherent and effective.
I’ll have an idea or dramatic question, and I put it on the beat sheet card to remind myself of it as I’m crafting the structure and characters to stay true to the original motivation and vision for the story. For “CRUMBS FOR A MEAL,” the dramatic question was: Is it worth risking everything for love? That dramatic question will spark some themes/topics that I’ll want to learn a little bit more about to help reveal and clarify the story, and I put those in the Resources list on the right.
I think of this process as archaeology, where there’s a fossil fully formed underneath the sand, and I need to just keep slowly dusting it off and cleaning it until, finally, bam, there it is. I like to leave this process open-ended, letting my curiosity take the lead, and without pressuring myself to finish it by a certain point. Sometimes, this process reveals that the story is a better fit as a short story, while other times it turns out to be bigger, more complicated, nuanced, and so it reveals itself more as a novel, novella, or other longform piece.
Throughout this archaeology process, of researching and following my curiosity, characters normally begin to introduce themselves, and I add them to the Character Profiles list. Once I have a general idea of a character, I like to have a picture to reference and keep in my mind while I’m writing. I keep a running Pinterest board of character ideas—anything that catches my eye and that sparks ideas in my head for a backstory or emotion or personality—that I comb through to find a picture that matches the character I’m working on.
Every character profile card gets a “Character Information” note: What’s their age? What’s their gender? How are they related to other characters, and what’s their relationship like with other characters? What’s their backstory? What’s their personality like? What do they sound like?
Main characters have two additional notes: first, what’s the internal and external conflict? and second, how does the conflict move the plot forward?
During the process of developing the character profiles, the different scenes and narrative arc begin to reveal themselves. I start fleshing out the beat sheet to chart out the progression of the story—what’s the first scene? How does the story progress to the different big moments that I’ve already uncovered? How does it end?
For a short story like “CRUMBS FOR A MEAL,” this is pretty straightforward, since it’s only a 6,000-word story. For ON DISPLAY: An American Novel, with many different characters and narrative arcs spread out over 90,000+ words, I’ll create separate beat sheets for each arc—what journey does the protagonist take over the course of the story? What about the antagonist? Then, once I feel like each of those individual strands are strong and coherent on their own, I’ll thread them together in the topline beat sheet card, looking for opportunities to have meaningful transitions between the two arcs as they progress in order to emphasize the differences and/or similarities between the characters and arcs.
After revisiting and tweaking, stress testing and rebuilding this structure, it eventually reaches a point of resonance, where it feels like it’s ready, it’s clear in my head, where it feels alive.
That’s when I’ll sit down and start writing. And, I’ve found, the words flow out pretty easily, certainly easier than they would if I was a “pantser” and just sat down and started, no plan, no Trello board. I’d run into roadblocks right away. It’d be harder to get the words out. I wouldn’t feel confident about what I was writing. My mind would start to wander. Eventually, I’d probably give up and stop writing.
I realized, now looking back at this process in hindsight, that I was able to sit down and write that story cover-to-cover in a week because of all of the work that I had done beforehand.
My brain needed that structure and support, to the point where I could already envision what I wanted the story to look like and all I had to do was just get it out of my head and onto the page.
And then it needed the strict routine and support of the Pomodoro technique that I’ve incorporated in the past year in order to get the draft down without hyperfixating and burning myself out before being able to finish the story.
I don’t share this only as a how-I-write-a-short-story article, but as an insight into how, throughout the past two years of my personal growth journey, I’ve learned to work with my autistic brain to tap my creative power and potential and actually get it on paper.
Like I’ve written about before, I wouldn’t be able to be where I am now without everything that came before it.
Had I not started my personal growth journey, I wouldn’t have had my autism diagnosed.
Without my autism diagnosis, I wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to take these creative ideas I have and actually make them a reality.
And without that, I wouldn’t be able to live the life—the authentic life, the creative life—that I want to, that makes me happy and fulfilled.
It all starts with that first decision to jump. It all compounds, brick by brick, into a beautiful fossil, a life authentically lived.
If you want to read “CRUMBS FOR A MEAL,” let me know and I can share the PDF with you.
And, if the Trello templates I mentioned would be something that would be helpful for you, give me a shout and I’m happy to share those, too.