The Dyslexic Novelist
I am dyslexic. I’ve blogged about it before and it is stated in my bio. I’m also a writer. To most people these two things don’t go together. How can someone be a writer if they can’t read or spell or do anyone of dozens of things people who know nothing about dyslexia assume? In the last few months I’ve found myself having repeated discussions about this with other writers, people who want to be writers, and several sets of parents worried about their kids. I figure it’s about time to put my advice in one place. Here is what I’ve learned over the years of being dyslexic and a writer. Much of it applies to anyone wanting to write and not all of it will apply to all dyslexics but hopefully some of it will help.
1. The ability to tell a story has nothing to do with the mechanics of writing. Let me repeat that. THE ABILITY TO TELL A STORY HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE MECHANICS OF WRITING! In the second Science of Discworld book Terry Pratchett put forward the idea that the scientific name for humans should be Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee. Stories are how we communicate and I’m not just talking about vast epics. What did you do today? I went to the grocery store and bought stuff for dinner then went to the bank to deposit my pay check. That is a story. It’s boring but the structure is there.
Stories are how we teach our children. When we’re explaining how plants grow we start at the beginning with a seed in the ground, the roots growing, then the leaves. We tell them about sun and rain and photosynthesis. When we don’t want children to do something we tell them stories about what could happen. They are short like, you could get burned and it will hurt. You will get lost and be scared but they are still stories.
Everyone can tell a story. We’ve been taught that spelling and where to put semicolons is essential to the ability to tell a story. It’s not. That’s the purview of friends and editors. To put it another way, storytelling is millions of years old. Reading and writing is maybe five thousand years old. The idea that everyone should be able to read and write is less than a century old.
No part of the human brain has evolved to read and write. In most people the left front lobe is coopted for this. In dyslexics, it’s the rest of the brain trying to do the job. I know this because I allowed researchers to shove me into an MRI machine and watch my brain not work like everyone else’s. They were very excited about this. They also pointed out to me the areas of my brain that are in charge of cross hemisphere communication. There is apparently a lot more talk going on between the two halves of the brain in dyslexics which is good for creativity.
2. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. This goes for everyone. Yes, there are writers who put out six books a year. It’s their job. They work at it 40+ hours a week and have for decades. They have practice. There are also amazingly successful writers who only manage a book every five years. Look how painfully behind schedule George R.R. Martin is with his next book. Stephen King went through a phase of putting out multiple books a year. He was also doing huge amounts of cocaine at the time. Don’t compare yourself to the seniors and the coke heads. You’ll write in your own way at your own pace.
3. Go tell your English teachers to go fuck themselves. Every teacher who made you doubt yourself, humiliated you in class, criticized your handwriting, told you you’d never be successful, tell them to go fuck themselves. Not literally, unless you really want to, but feel free to construct elaborate situations where you rub your literary success in their faces because you are going to write a novel and they can go fuck themselves.
4. Learn to touch type. This is one of those works for me but might not work for you. Every writer writes in their own way and many will argue that their way is the best. For dyslexics physically writing can be difficult and even painful. It can slow down the process and sap confidence. Hunting and pecking on a keyboard can equally take forever. I got through two writing heavy degrees by touch typing. On long nights I would close my eyes, tilt my head back and keep typing. It uses a completely different part of the brain from the one that moves a pencil in loops and lines. Common words can get right into muscle memory. I spell better when I’m typing than when I’m writing. Find a copy of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and go for it. It might take some time to get good but it’s worth the effort.
5. Speech to text. For some dyslexics, even hunt and peck on a keyboard isn’t an option. This is where speech to text programs come in. The most common and reasonably affordable one is Dragon Speak. When Terry Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s got to a point where he couldn’t type anymore he used a combination of Dragon Speak and assistants taking dictation. He said that once he got the hang of it it felt a very natural way to tell a story, after all that’s how we’ve been doing it for millennia. It does take practice however. You need to learn the program and the program needs to learn you. It will take hours of reading and talking to the thing before it flows smoothly. I never had the patience. There are also free programs out there like Google Keyboard that people are learning to use.
6. Have a skill you can bribe your friends with. you need someone to read and edit your work. Professional editors are expensive but even the kindest of agents and publishers are going to have a hard time accepting a work that is full of errors. This is where friends come in. And an ability to bake, knit, garden, clean or whatever it takes to get you some free editing and feedback.
7. Use Word Speak. As part of the editing process authors are often told to read their work out loud in order to find little errors or awkward wording. The problem is the human brain, even of the non-dyslexic variety, is good at seeing what should be there instead of what is there. Fifty thousand words into a story you’ve read over a hundred times already ‘on’ and ‘or’ start looking like the same word. Them’ vs ‘then’ is another easily missed one. Even more complicated words like barely and barley can be easily missed. However, I have found a way of getting around this problem and I recommend it for all writers.
There is a little tool in more recent versions of Microsoft Word called Speak. They’ve buried it deep. You have to go to File, Options, Customize Ribbon, then change the dropdown from Popular Commands to All Commands, scroll down to Speak then add it to your ribbon. After that you just need to highlight a section of text, click the icon, and a dull little computer voice reads your words back to you. Your mind might skip over the difference between ‘on’ and ‘or’ but “Jack gets on the bus” sounds much different than “Jack gets or the bus”. Be warned it will make your story into the most painfully boring work in human history. Your hottest sex scenes will become so dull you want to slam your head into a wall. After two or three full days of this you will want to cry but by god you will find heaps of typos, overused words, and hacky phrases even in drafts that have been looked over by a professional.
8. Be honest with your Publisher/Agent. You will of course be selling your awesome story which will be the start of an editorial and production process that can last up to a year. Be honest with the people you are going to be working with. It’s in their interest to get your story into the best possible shape. When I sold Empty Nests to Dreamspinner I wrote a long note to the editorial department explaining in detail the types of problems they were most likely to encounter. They thanked me. By giving them a heads up they were able to add technical edit cycles and inform the editors to keep an extra eye out for certain things.
9. Be honest with your Readers. There will always be some dickwad out there who posts shit like ‘This would have been five stars but I found two spelling mistakes so I’ll only give it three’. Fuck them. The vast majority of readers will respect a good story for what it is and respect you for having written it.
10. If you’re going to self-publish get a professional editor. Dyslexic or not. I know they cost a lot and this is a controversial statement but if you are putting something up for sale than it is a product, and a shoddy product reflects badly on your brand, and your brand is you.
11. Take a sticky note, or a piece of masking tape, or paper or something and write these words ‘You Are A Writer’. Put it someplace where you can see it every day because the second you put words onto paper or screen you are a writer. You just might need to remind yourself of that.