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Things Neurodivergent Writers are Sick of Hearing #3: Write to The End

I sometimes fantasise about doing one thing at a time until it’s finished. Oh God, can you imagine? A streamlined, simple writing life?

I try heroically, but…..dopamine.

Dopamine is at play when you get that little burst of excited pleasure from knocking a pool ball in a pocket, from colouring in, from ticking off jobs, or from the ping of collected coins on Mario. That satisfying woop noise when you send a text? That’s dopamine.

Neurodivergent people tend to have dopamine issues - i.e. we don’t get enough of it, or our brains doesn’t use it well. If dopamine is the coal shovelled into the engine of motivation, this is not great news for those of us who are challenged in this area. It means that we will struggle to stay on any task that doesn’t give us that delicious aw-yiss-ness (if someone can give me a technical name for this I’d be very grateful) and seek out things that do, like spending hours on Animal Crossing or pumping coins into a fruit machine, or peeling skin from the sides of our fingers (ahem). Studies show that neurodivergent folk are more likely to develop addictions and eating disorders than our neurotypical siblings, and it has nothing to do with weak character or moral fibre. We are dopamine chasers, and we will scrape the bottom of the barrel to get it, which leads to shame, isolation and depression not to mention the consequential financial, health and employment problems. It also explains paralysis - those inexplicable times when you are very aware that you need the toilet or a drink but somehow you just…can’t…move? That’s thought to be a total dopamine wipe-out, as opposed to laziness. ND people are often exceptionally bright, talented people, but so many of us get left behind, unless we have a truckload of resources, support and understanding.

This is why we quickly lose interest and focus.

Which brings me to writing.

Writing a novel for example, requires prolonged interest and sustained effort. It's fair to say - according to my research and experience at least - that all writers struggle with that tricky middle to final third of the novel, ND or not. You know which part I mean. The part where the plot doesn’t quite seem to be hanging together and it's not clear what you are even trying to say anymore, and the characters suddenly seem a bit lame. That’s the crucial tipping point, the point at which thousands if not millions of novels in progress are abandoned in favour of the New Shiny Idea.

The advice is always to write to the end. Stay focused. Push through. Because you can bet your arse it's going to happen again two thirds of the way through the New Shiny Idea.

For ND writers, you can multiply this effect by a million. It will probably happen long before the tricky final third. It might even happen in chapter two. Or the first page. This is why - on top of impaired executive function making it impossible to think straight - we have fifty projects bubbling at once. Fundamentally, I think we’re trying to keep topside of our dopamine levels.

The novel slog carries very few rewards. There’s no opportunity for the pleasing click of something being finished. It explains why I love writing flash and short stories. I can imagine the end and I can see the whole, satisfying arc at a glance. It's a quick snog in the dark as opposed to the effort it takes to build a relationship.

We have to find ways to get rewards from the work, or we will sack it off and play Crash Bandicoot for five hours, or start knitting a sofa or something.

And I’m not talking about treating yourself to a cup of tea or an hour of eBay browsing when you’ve done writing for the day - let’s be honest we’re going to do that whether we do the work or not (and often instead of). The reward needs to be somehow built in, to give you the sent-text woop feeling.

I heard of a novelist who writes everything on his mobile phone and I wonder how much of that is about the nice clicky-clicky noise of smartphone typing. Changing the font or the colour can give you the woop, or ticking off paragraphs, or reaching an achievable word count, maybe with a nice chart to colour in when you hit your goal. You might want to try switching to writing by hand, or the venue. Whatever you can think of to make your brain clock the new-ness of it. The newness can just be enough to elevate your dopamine uptake and keep you on task.

Of course, sometimes it just can’t be done, and I think sometimes trying to push through can leave you worn out and demoralised and that’s not good either. It’s inevitable we’re going to have side projects and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There’s no way I can just write to the end of a novel and not stop to write a flash to reinvigorate my writing soul, otherwise I’d be giving up my pens and notepads and

planning a new life as a professional darts player.

I am a great believer in pushing it where it moves. Less frustrating, and less chance of pulling a muscle.

So keep writing, my friends, and remember: as long as we are writing anything at all…we have a chance of getting to the end.

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