Tag Archives: Mark Haddon

Getting fresh

Journalists are trained to get the story first or at least gather new facts that are exclusive to their reports. As an author, you should be striving for a different sort of exclusivity – original ideas, characters, voices, structure and plot. After all, why would any publisher want to invest in a story that has basically been done before – unless you have a truly unique spin on the material?

While writing Game as Ned I had a day when I questioned whether I had any original ideas in my head. I picked up the Saturday Age and stumbled across a double page spread on Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Not only did this oft-awarded book focus on a teenage narrator with an autism spectrum disorder but it was already so successful it had been added to the Victorian VCE reading list. Most Aussie authors would kill to have one of their titles make that list.

Given that I was writing a book narrated by a teen with an autism spectrum disorder, I feared nobody would be interested in a story so similar in subject matter to Haddon’s. Game over.

That night my wife and I scored a babysitter and had a night out. For want of other choices, we saw the Jack Nicholson movie Something’s Gotta Give. The plot, coincidentally, echoed that of a short story I’d just had short-listed in a writing competition. That realisation hit me like a bus. I became genuinely worried that I was just a big sponge for other people’s ideas. It was a dark day on the author odyssey.

On the up side, it inspired a major rewrite of the Game as Ned manuscript, a new co-narrator and, I believe, a stronger story.

My next book Five Parts Dead deals with death, dying, guilt and grief. It’s set at a lighthouse in South Australia. Not so long ago I stumbled across reviews of two new YA novels – one focusing on exactly the themes I’m tackling*, the other set at a remote West Australian lighthouse. Ouch.

Perhaps I’m older and wiser now. I’m certainly more philosophical. It’s impossible to prevent overlap between stories.

Death and grief are universal themes. People have been writing about them since… forever.

Lighthouses are evocative and iconic**. Umpteen books have been written about them.

What I have to work on is delivering a fresh way of looking at age-old subjects. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee once wrote a dedication for me in his book, Story. It read: “To Tim, Write the truth.” I see my task as an author as finding a new truth that’s worthy of a) publication and b) reading.

That’s my focus while I’m working towards an end of year deadline for my Five Parts Dead edits.

*I’m currently reading this book, Lia Hills’ The Beginner’s Guide to Living. I thoroughly recommend it – probably to readers 16 and up. Sure, Lia covers very similar issues to those I’m trying to tackle. Thankfully, she does so in very different ways – even if we reference some of the same materials.

**My Word of the Week is the noun for lighthouse lovers – “pharologists”. Would you believe there’s a Facebook group for lighthouse buffs entitled “Pharologists are light-headed”? Of course there is.

Tackling the hot topic of autism

My lovely wife recently stumbled across this School Library Journal article which looks at depictions of autism spectrum disorders in fiction. The catalyst for the well argued piece was the tagging of a book with “current cool disability” on the very handy LibraryThing site.

Now, for those with no clue as to what the previous convoluted sentence means, here’s the skinny. LibraryThing is a website for anyone who wants to keep a record of books in their collection or titles they’ve been reading. Whenever you add a book to your online collection you can tag it to help other site users looking for similar tomes. For instance, I tag books in my collection with ‘books for boys’ if I think they will work for reluctant male readers. That makes them easier for me to find – and anyone else who might be interested.

So, someone read a book which features an autistic character and tagged it as “current cool disability.” Hmmmmm, wonder what the previous trendy disability was…

It’s a cheap shot. The fact that there are growing numbers of novels that explore autism doesn’t mean that this disorder is cool. It might mean that with rising numbers of autism diagnoses there’s a market for stories that shed new light on what can be a very challenging condition. I doubt that many families directly affected by autism would consider it cool. Heart-breaking, perhaps. Testing, yes. Inspiring. Instructive. Many other adjectives could be used. But not cool.

In my first novel, Game as Ned, the title character has a form of autism. I didn’t have autism in mind when I began writing. Apart from Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome in Rain Man, I knew very little about it. But I could visualise my character acting in a particular way and needed to research why and how this behaviour might manifest. Many hours of research later, I found that autism could explain what I wanted to describe.

This was a start point, not an end to my research. I read books by authors with autism (especially Dr Temple Grandin and Donna Williams). I attended exhibitions by artists with autism. I spoke to families dealing with autism and interviewed disability professionals. All this work showed me autism spectrum disorders involve a vast range of behaviours, difficulties and abilities. It helped me understand a character in my story could express himself in a way that most of us would never consider. It was liberating and intimidating.

When I heard about Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time I was devastated. I didn’t think anyone else would want to read about an autistic teenager, given that CI had been so successful. A publisher assured me that yes, there was a market for novels relating to autism. Game as Ned was eventually launched by a very generous lady with extensive and personal experience of autism.

My book is now one of several novels that explore this condition. I believe this is a good thing. We all see the world in unique ways and if more of us understand this, fewer might judge, dismiss or belittle folk because they’re different. Sure, we could argue that a rash of books on vampires renders bloodsuckers hip. That doesn’t mean a handful of novels tackling autism makes for a groovy disability.

For references on autism spectrum disorders, scroll down my Teachers’ Notes page.