Writing about Social Interaction: Advice for Autistics and Nonautistics Alike

If you’re autistic like me, chances are social interaction doesn’t come naturally to you. After all, the autistic brain just isn’t wired for thinking about how the body expresses emotion or how the face and voice do the same thing.

There’s a very simple reason why you need to write about social interaction. It’s basically what drives your plot. Think about your favorite book. Chances are it’s some sort of thinking and feeling being that is interacting with the people and things around them. Even when people are writing about a robot or a table as their main character, the author tends to have them act like they’re human. And that includes everything about human interaction—from body language to starting conversations.

I’m pretty lucky that I got the social skills training that I did—because I do know that those subtle cues are there. But if you’re not as well trained in social skills and body language and social interaction, you have your work cut out for you. You will need to read some stuff on social interaction—which will be good for both yourself and for your writing. What’s a good example of a resource for you? The book Socially Curious and Curiously Social by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke is a good resource. So is the now well-known Hidden Curriculum. Go ahead and buy some of the calendars that are under that heading. Even Autism-Asperger’s and Sexuality by Jerry and Mary Newport is a good resource if your story involves romance. And if there are workbooks that go with them, they might help you out too.

Observing people is also key if you want to apply it yourself. If you want to do that, you’ll really need to pay attention to all aspects—what they say, how they say it, and how their bodies and faces are being held. Keep a body language book nearby so you can consult if you’re especially having difficulty. And go ahead and write it out in painstaking detail in your journal/s. Even if it ends up being extremely boring when you go back and read it.

I know—it does sound exhausting. And it is. Even for someone as high functioning as me. But here’s the good news. Even people without autism have to consult body language books sometimes. There are even books for writers about body language. One I have is called The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. So it’s not just you—it’s pretty much all of us.

So what are you waiting for, autistic writer? Go ahead and experiment and learn.

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Mary Sues in Fiction

Have you ever come across a character who just plain seems a little too perfect? You know the people—every time someone does something bad to them, that person suffers the exact same thing. The author gives them the same hair color, build, and eye color as them, the protagonist’s beliefs almost completely echo the author’s beliefs, and even have a similar sounding name.

If that sounds like you, chances are you’ll need to make the main character less like you and give him or her faults and flaws and not have everything be so rosy. Considering how popular stories like The Hunger Games and Divergent are, could you really imagine it being so bad ass if things weren’t as rosy for the characters? Come on—get real. It wouldn’t be so cool.

Of course, most writers are inevitably going to create a Mary Sue at some point or another. I’ve done it, and I bet even Stephen King has done it. That’s fine if you’re simply learning the process, or if you’re on your first draft of your story. But if you’re constantly having your protagonist be right about something, or has everyone think your narrator is hot or something along those lines, those are probably personal fantasies that you have. And seriously—who’s going to take someone like that seriously? That sort of person in real life would be a little too much to maintain emotionally. And considering that a lot of what goes on in fiction has as its source real life, should you really do something like that to your characters? That sure as hell doesn’t sound very fair to your main character or to your readers—I know that much.

Because of that, you’ll probably need to figure out what your protagonist’s flaws are. True—we don’t like to have our protagonists be flawed—just as much as we don’t like to admit our own. But that’s what people like to look for. They like to see people actively interacting with each other and the world they live in. And to do that, you have to make your characters flawed and make things difficult for them.

That doesn’t mean they should have the “poor me” attitude. Sometimes it’s appropriate if you’re trying to make it comical. But that should not be the entire story. Who wants to get to know someone like that? I would probably look at them with a look of boredom and then never call them to meet again for lunch if they kept telling me their sob stories.

That’s why you probably shouldn’t make your character a Mary Sue.

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Keep Information In the Story Relevant: the Passover Question

If you’re autistic, it can be difficult sometimes to know your boundaries, especially with keeping information in the story relevant. And that tends to be true even in writing. Seriously—with as many difficulties as we autistic people have with regards to social cues, it’s only logical that we have issues when depicting a person in a story.

But if you’re autistic and you’re a writer, there is a little advice you might find useful. And this applies both to autistic writers and non-autistic writers.

The key is that you must know your characters and how their minds work. Suppose your main character is a hit man or hit woman and it’s the first scene of the story. Now suppose their weapon is a new make of gun that uses nanoscience. Mentioning the nanoscience involved in that gun is a very relevant detail in that scene. Why? That goes to show how cold blooded a professional hit man or hit woman would be.

However, if you’re not building that sort of world and the scene is in the middle of the story and it’s a battered wife shooting her husband, what the hell does nanoscience have to do with anything in the story? Even if her abusive husband is a nanoscientist, that’s probably not what’s going through her head. Battered women tend not to think about that sort of thing unless the abusive husband has military or law enforcement background.

Because of this, you will need to know when the information is relevant and when the information isn’t. You will need to know what is going on in the minds of your characters—which can be difficult for autistic people. I’m not saying you should give up writing altogether—in fact, I still encourage it. All I’m doing is pointing out something you need to get around. Just as every driver has strengths and weaknesses, every writer also has strengths and weaknesses. And that’s just a common weakness among autistic people.

A question that you might find useful is this: What makes this night different from every other night? That’s a question I just got advised to ask myself from the leader of my writer’s group. What does my writer’s group founder mean by that? It means you need to make sure you know what makes this moment different from most other moments. It’s what we term the Passover question. If you’re Jewish, you know what I’m talking about. And if you ask that question of yourself, it might be helpful in terms of revision or what to keep in mind as you’re writing your short story or screenplay.

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When Do You Show and When Do You Tell?

We’ve all heard the cliché to show and not tell. But to be honest, it can be exhausting to show all the time. Should you really describe every single detail in every single scene?

If you ask me, probably not. I don’t bother showing how someone’s walking, talking, eating, or whatever else if I don’t need to. If you don’t need to, you can probably leave it to the reader’s imagination.

That said, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a story. You can still have plenty of plot without showing every single detail. The key is in places where things seem unusual. Suppose you have a murder mystery. Some things will most likely seem out of place, so those out-of-place things are definitely worth mentioning in your story to build the mystery. What do I mean by seeming out of place? Someone might seem unusually fidgety during an interview. Someone might seem too calm for the circumstances. The scene of the crime might be too clean.

The same thing applies to other genres. Even in science fiction, social interaction is definitely worth something. Most people have a usual look when they feel disgusted with something or someone, shocked with an event, and so on. And they usually spark inner monologue on the part of someone in the story—whether the narrator, the protagonist, or someone else. Even if the narrator is someone that is not the statistical norm, such as a sexual criminal or a serial killer, it’s worth writing these details. How you do that takes reading and writing—and a lot of practice.

But most of all, ask yourself why you’re including that detail. Everything requires a purpose—even that walk down the street. Why did you mention that detail about eyes? Do eyes have a particular meaning in the world of your story? Those are invariably going to add that much more to your story. If you don’t know why, you probably should just tell or leave it to the reader to imagine.

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Prompt Set 32

Write from the point-of-view of a starving woman.

Write a piece beginning with the words, “It took thirteen grown men to pull her off.”

Write a character sketch of someone with absolutely no fears at all.

In 300 words, write about the word “if”.

Begin a story with the words, “Have you ever…”

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Abstract Writing and Autism (and a few announcements)

First off, I’d like to apologize for the late post. It’s been crazy for me–between finals at law school, visiting my parents, and so on. If any of you are in law school or another form of graduate school, you’ll know that it can be tough. And I’m surprised at how tough law school can be.

Second off, I’ve decided to eliminate posting a piece of creative writing on Saturdays. I’ve actually noticed that they get very few responses, so there’s really no point in putting them up if there’s little critique. If you want to critique the ones that are already up, that’s fine with me, but I won’t be posting more pieces.

Now, here’s the post:

If you’re autistic like me, you probably find it difficult to think about abstract concepts. Come on. When someone says the word “love” to us and tries to have us describe it to them, we look at them like they’re crazy. It’s a similar story with terms such as justice or freedom.

Even the most high-functioning person on the spectrum has issues with that. Even someone like me. I’m pretty high functioning, so I’m actually pretty good at thinking more metaphorically than others on the spectrum. But even now, I sometimes have a hard time. That’s most obvious when I’m in my law school classes. I’m getting better, but if you want abstract thinking, it doesn’t get tougher than the law.

But when you’re autistic, and you like to write, you need to learn how to think abstractly. It’s tough, but it’s often the reality of what writing is like—so as far as your writing is concerned, it’s either learn to do it and do it well or stop writing. Who’s going to read your story if it doesn’t say something about such ideas as freedom, justice, or love?

There is some good news with regards to abstract writing, though. The plot is often going to determine what your story is going to be about. Yes, plot is the most important piece to a story. But this is where you need to consider theme. Theme is basically the same thing as an abstract concept, such as justice, freedom, and love.

Consider well-known movies and novels that many of us know, such as 1984 by George Orwell. If you’ve never read it, here’s basically what it’s about in terms of plot: A government worker yearns to defy his totalitarian government with the love of his life, but the government catches him trying to defy them. That’s the basic plot of the story. But if you look closely, you can actually start to pick out what such a plot might say about things that we deal with in reality. Totalitarian governments tend to be extremely brutal—the way North Korea is. And when you care about a person very much, which is what people commonly think of love as being, it also gets warped. So you can gather what the plot is going to say about government and the citizen.

How will you gather what your plot is going to make a comment about? Chances are you’ll have to write a good amount of the story to gather that. If you prefer to outline, you’ll probably gather what your story is making a comment about in your outline.

And if you’re autistic, the best thing I can do is recommend that you write out your own definitions of such terms as justice, love, or freedom. Don’t go with what your parents or classmates or teachers might say. Don’t go with what the dictionary says either. That’s not the point. When you write out how YOU define it, you’ll probably find it easier to make a comment about the concept.

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Kill Your Darlings

Such a lovely little phrase, isn’t it? You can thank William Faulkner for first saying it—and if you ask me it sounds a little cruel. And if you’re autistic and reading this post, or otherwise have issues with idioms like this one, no—we’re not talking about your actual darlings, such as friends, family, or children.

So what are we talking about then? We’re talking about the sentences in your writing that you just absolutely love. They’re the sentences that don’t really belong there, repeat something you said better elsewhere in the piece, but you just can’t seem to get rid of it because you love the sentence so damn much. And of course they end up slowing your writing down because you just can’t part with it.

I see why you might find it difficult to part with a sentence you just love. What kind of sane person would want to part with something they created and love? In one sense, it’s like killing the own adorable piece of mayhem that is your child (unless of course that child is now a teenager)! But at the same time part of you also knows that it just doesn’t belong. That’s why I hate the word “kill” in that sentence myself—it sounds like shooting a baby with a shotgun or something.

So what’s the solution? Well, aside from a dead guy named William Faulkner, who says you actually have to shoot it with a shotgun? One piece of advice I’ve read somewhere is the advice to not kill your darlings, but gently file them away instead. Have a place you record the lines you just love, such as a notebook or a computer file, so that you don’t have to rid them forever from your life. That way, you can go back to them to see if they fit in another piece or use them as inspiration for other pieces of writing.

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