By Lawrey Goodrick
‘Lawrey, why didn’t you put your best story first?’ asked Carolyn Martinez over the phone.
Oh Lawd, I’ve done it again. Me and my overthinking, but this time to the Director of Hawkeye Publishing. Will I ever get this right?
‘I wanted to go out with a bang!’ I said.
‘Let’s meet and bring the first 5-pages of a publishable manuscript for a 5-minute pitch. Can you do that?’
‘Yes,’ I agreed, instantly. I’d be stupid not to. This was a call I wasn’t expecting, and a lifeline I didn’t think I deserved.
The odd one out finds a way in
It was early 2021 and I resolved to improve my writing skills, not having made the short-list for the Hawkeye Publishing Manuscript Development Prize in 2020. I’d written a collection of short stories, and even though in the publishing world short story collections aren’t the most profitable, I’d spent enough time weaving significant themes through them to create a united piece. The collection was appropriately called Odd One Out and reflected middle-grade characters that were social outcasts. A perspective I’d identified with my whole life.
Throughout my life I had wondered why I was different, why I was plagued with overwhelming sensations of isolation and alienation, even amongst my biological family. Little did I know that I had High Functioning Autism (HFA) and that it wouldn’t be till I was half-way through my 30’s before I was diagnosed.
Why a diagnosis matters
Living undiagnosed left me with questioning doubt of my existence as early as I can remember, and it was debilitating to my mental health. Creative writing essentially saved me and was as an outlet that helped me and those around me better understand my complexities and my condition.
I’ve always had a strong imagination, and not every idea I’ve written has been received with warmth, but everything I offer, however random or bizarre, did pique people’s interest. It’s how I knew I had something that others lacked. But it wasn’t until I penned the story Cans for Change that I figured out why.
Being an autistic author is no easy feat. Having to convey the massive jumble of information, zipping around my non-neurotypical mind into a resourceful, educational, and entertaining middle grade publication was challenging but extremely worthwhile. And it’s no surprise that during plot development, character arcs, and multiple drafts, that my stories represented autism and the mental health issues associated with it. And what a unique and fulfilling, energised emotional rollercoaster it has been!
Here are some HFA traits that personalised my writing and helped capture a publisher’s eye, securing a debut middle grade fiction book deal.
1. Unique language
HFA, when I didn’t understand it, was a mental minefield. Sometimes I’d struggle to find the correct words to convey my thoughts and emotions, substituting ‘like’ words that didn’t accurately reflect the definition I was chasing. It was frustrating and undermined my confidence and self-esteem. Despite the debilitating effects, this trait resulted in successes as much as failures. Failures usually occur in social oral situations, a trait that defeats most autistics socially. The success of my HFA vernacular is that I’d developed a unique language style that others would fail to replicate. It is random but original. This HFA language trait has helped imbibe my stories with refreshing changes to cliches and overused everyday words, in particular the car-based similes and metaphors in Cans for Change.
A constant struggle in writing however is my inability to successfully apply correct syntax in sentences. Fortunately, I can overcome this through the successive re-drafts of a story. It’s funny that my mind recognises that the flow in a sentence is incorrect, and I can shift words, or parts of sentences around until the flow sounds correct. It’s also funny that although I’m a published author, I can’t keep track of the literacy language definitions and devices, bar the basics. It’s only from reading and watching movies I’ve been able to understand what is required in a story to make it effective and entertaining.
Obedience is a particular trait of autism that I appreciate on multiple levels.
Although my focus can be rigid (see fixation), when I do find something I’m particularly keen on, I can strategise and dedicate time (lots of time for writing and reading) to that goal.
After following the ‘practice makes perfect’ rule to establish myself as a writer, my obedience helped improve the quality of my craft which then rolled over into my future stories. But to establish a disciplined obedience, it is vitally important at first for an autistic individual, or anybody really, to find an appropriate role model to guide and improve their social capabilities. If this doesn’t happen, social interaction can become a struggle, that can dictate a hermit-like relationship with the world. This is where I am so grateful for Early Intervention Programs that help navigate young autistic minds through the day-to-day rituals that most neurotypicals take for granted.
Learning to mimic
A lot of my ability to socialise has been learnt from mimicry. I am deficient in that area, with a body that is borrowed, and a mind that is constantly analysing the environment, forever like the clichéd ‘brain sponge’ in its absorption of data. I often stare innocently and observe ‘normal’ behaviour in hope of working the social constructs into myself, digesting them to build a more socially cohesive version of me. It doesn’t work out that way though. What often happens, with great satisfaction, is that the social constructs are worked into my stories and redrafted until I am satisfied that they are interesting and fluent in what I imagine to be a natural quick-witted social exchange.
The same obedience trait to not only improve oneself but to maintain the individual’s rigid focus, is something I worked into the characters of Cans for Change. The characters are obedient and disciplined in their goals, and they are not permitted to stray from their individual focus, even if a father driving like a maniac would cause concern from Censorship authorities. Thank the Lawd it’s fiction!
This obedience helps create the story and character tension, building it up until the climax when character obedience to goals cannot continue and needs to be resolved. As a writer, it is necessary that these goals or objectives are obeyed so the readers’ focus is not lost or does not deviate. A reader can quickly become distracted if a stray word, even a typo, is detected. And it may only be minimal, but the error distracts the reader’s attention, taking them out of the story’s momentum. I want the reader to be obedient in following my story so I must be obedient in writing it. The characters can’t slip up, they have to be rigid until a resolution has been achieved, so the reader can do what they do best and read and learn from the fictional experience.
3. Use of exclamation marks
Some authors suggest using exclamation marks minimally, or to paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘Don’t use them, it’s like laughing at your own joke.’ I, however, found that writing comedy and action required a fair few of these literary devices. But not just for appearance’s sake. No, for reflection of my spectrum. For me, sound has been both a beautiful and offensive thing. When people speak they tend to sound like they are shouting or using a raised voice.
During my re-drafts for Cans for Change and the knowledge instilled in me by my editor Lauren Daniels, I strategically edited down the amount of exclamation marks so as not to exhaust their use, even though they are an integral part of HFA day-to-day life, and apply to an autistic’s struggle with sound sensitivity. For future conversation, ask me about the trials of adjusting to peoples’ excessive and varying use of explicit words — it’s like experiencing shellshock from word bombs.
4. Active, fast-paced storyline
Racing thought processes, interpreting and analysing additional stimulation is a common trait of HFA, and of autism in general, something autistics are plagued with on varying levels. Growing up undiagnosed was a battle through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, constantly unable to quieten the voices and information that never switched off. It’s a trait I knew neurotypical people would fail to understand, so when I learnt in creative writing that I needed to keep a reader engaged by using an active voice, the racing thoughts that plagued me helped form the structured and uninterrupted fast-paced storyline that is as much a trait in me, as it is in my stories.
It is no secret that in Cans for Change the father, Lawrence Jeffries, is obsessed with recycling, and from an HFA perspective, this is a dead-set fixation.
When recycling culture came to Queensland, I was hooked with the incentives it offered to young and old alike. It saw me collecting cans, sometimes bin diving, embarrassing my kids, always chasing the thrill, as well as helping the environment and my pocket.
My fixation did take over, and it’s not the first time. (Ask me about a childhood fixation with golf balls or hunting down species of frangipanni variants for the visual pleasure they offered. You’ll be as amused and as captivated as I was.) A fixation can help HFA individuals focus on their interests and tasks, but it can also derail them, and there’s sometimes never a concrete answer why the fixation occurs, but it does offer a humorous advantage for storytelling. My current fixation is coffee and finding alternate flavours. Expensive but satisfying. And chocolate honeycomb.
6. No filter
There’s no doubt that you’ve come across autism in your lifetime, and one of the most prominent features you may have witnessed is the ‘no filter’ dialogue characteristic in autistic individuals.
The no-filter trait has put me in a lot of uncomfortable situations, where I end up stuttering and spluttering to dig myself out of a vocal exchange. I’ve applied this trait to all the characters in Cans for Change, which adds varying levels of hilarity, encouraging outrageous actions to propel the story along. It also helps inform readers of the uncomfortable reality that autistics experience.
They’re already overwhelmed with the objective of social integration, but slip-ups bring attention to their lack of social prowess, creating overthinking anxious characters and outrageous antics to try to compensate for a lack of skills and to prove themselves socially viable.
Embracing that unique wiring
Despite the personal struggles I’ve been through, the debilitating effects of living life with undiagnosed HFA and its effects on my mental health, I wouldn’t change who I am or how my brain is wired.
It has bought me to this point, separating me from the socially conforming pack, and sat me across the table from a successful publisher who is promoting many new and unique Australian voices.
‘Lawrey, your writing is witty and fast-paced,’ said Carolyn Martinez, Director of Hawkeye Publishing in a face-to-face meeting. ‘Your similes and metaphors are original, your characters well developed. I want to sign you as a Hawkeye author.’
‘Really?’ I said in disbelief, ‘Cool—That’s awesome!’
Who would’ve thought a kid who struggled through English lessons and struggled to read would be a published middle-grade fiction author? Things couldn’t get any better, right?’
‘You draw, don’t you?’ asked Carolyn.
‘Yeah, just got back into it,’ I said, after a decade’s drift.
‘Do you want to do the book’s illustrations?’
It was hard to not stutter from disbelief in that social exchange, because in early 2021 I had become not only an author but an illustrator too. It was a humbling taste of the opportunity that is on offer with small publishing houses like Hawkeye Publishing. I really value the warm and generous support I received to help find and promote my unique voice of this High Functioning Author.
‘Absolutely!’ I said. I’d be stupid to say ‘no’ to that!