Hello everybody, this is George Harvey (aka The Autistic Blogger). I’ve recently started work on my next big project, but it probably won’t be finished until after the New Year. This is because I’m currently rehearsing for my latest stage performance (A Christmas Carol) and December will be a hectic time for someone who works in retail. In the meantime, I’d like to share a couple of messages with you.
Over the years, I’ve been in contact with numerous people who’ve had a profound influence on my professional career. Whether it’s about something I’ve written or something I hope to do, their messages have inspired me to keep working towards my dreams – even when they seem a long way off. The first of these came just over five years ago.
Before I started working on this blog and raising awareness of Autism, my biggest ambition in life was to become a published author. And it still is to some extent. There are magazine articles and books out there with my name on them, but they’ve always been collaborations with other people. One day I hope to publish something that’s all my own, and that it can help raise awareness of disadvantaged people and their problems.
The most ambitious project I’ve had is a children’s book series. The idea first came to me during my first year of college, when we were asked to write a series of short stories to promote a fictional product called Chunky Monkey. I got so into the task that I wanted to use what I’d learnt to create my own series, which would teach readers about the joys and hardships of childhood. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted, but there was just one problem: I didn’t really know how to write a children’s book, let alone a series of them. Fortunately, I knew somebody who did.
Out of all the authors I’ve admired over the years, Jacqueline Wilson has been the most influential on me. Her stories not only address real-world issues, but they do so in a way that’s relatable to children. You could literally pick up any one of her books and believe it was inspired by a true story. I knew that if anyone could understand what I was trying to achieve with my writing, then it would be Jacqueline Wilson. So, on October 18th 2013, I sent her this email:
Dear Miss Jacqueline Wilson
My name is George Harvey. I am 19-years-old, and I am an inspiring writer. I work in an ASDA’s store in Swanley and whenever I see one of your books on our shelves I just know the story is spectacular, without even having to read it – especially your latest book Diamond. Your illustrator, Nick Sharratt does a wonderful job with his cover art, too.
I am writing because I recently read something you said in an interview once. You said: “I want to write to every age group, in a way that can prepare them for what happens in the real world, and raise the awareness levels of many life-changing situations. I want to be a friend, really.” These words captured my heart because this is almost precisely what I want to do with my own writing.
As an Asperger’s sufferer, I have experience of what life can be like for someone who has a personal life problem or condition. I also know that if these issues are misunderstood, they can cause troubles for those who suffer from them. This is why I want to use my writing skills to raise awareness of not only autism but other personal issues so that readers can understand them better and more people would be treated fairly in the future.
Also, while my intended audience is children, I want my stories and characters to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, so that readers, young and old, can understand my intentions. (Would this be commercial or literary fiction?)
Anyway, I have been taking a professional writing course at my college for two years now. And ever since my first year, I’ve had an idea for a children’s book series called ‘The Adventures of Nicky Dream‘. I won’t bore you with details as I know you’re very busy and you get a lot more fan-mail than mine. But the basic idea is that Nicky Dream is a 10-year-old girl who lives alone in a large house, and she has a large number of friends who she shares “adventures” with. The twist is that each of her friends has a personal issue about them (e.g. one friend is childish and represents immaturity, one has damaged vocal chords and is partially mute, one is a bully turned friend, etc.) and the adventures not only focus on their individual characteristics, but also advises readers on how such issues should be treated, and how those with similar problems can overcome them. (Sorry if that is too much detail.)
I am confident this is a good idea, but my trouble is making it work. Whilst ‘Adventure’ and ‘Slice of Life’ are two genres I would use to describe my vision for this series, I have a lot of story and character ideas that might crossover with their limitations, and I sometimes wonder whether or not even I, myself, know exactly how I want to write this series – I’ve often imagined it as a TV series in book form. (Did you ever have a story idea without knowing exactly what genre it was going to be?)
My question to you is when you write about such personal issues as abuse, grief, foster care, etc. how do you do it in a way that’s entertaining for all audiences to read, while keeping the focus on raising awareness, and avoiding anything that could be hurtful or insulting? Also, with your book series’, did you intend them to be series’ when you first started writing the original books or was it down to their popularity that you wrote sequels? Any other advice you could give me would be very helpful, too.
I have written to you because I think you are the one author who can truly understand my feelings and ambitions for writing. I hope I can hear from you soon.
George B. Harvey
(P.S. I’m very sorry that this is a long letter/email. I tend to over-write things a lot.)
Now, to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting a reply. As I mentioned in the message, I knew how busy Jacqueline Wilson was. And she probably received thousands of fan letters a day. It didn’t seem likely that mine would be one she’d personally respond to.
But then, twelve days later, I discovered this in my inbox:
Thank you so much for your long and interesting email. I’m so pleased you’ve enjoyed my books. It’s good to know that you give them a favourable glance when you’re at work! It’s great that you’ve studied writing and now want to create your own children’s book series. Your Asperger’s condition will give you a true understanding of Nicky Dream and her friends, and I think the series could have great potential, helping to raise awareness of young people’s problems.
I don’t think you necessarily need to fixate on whether your stories are going to be ‘adventure‘ or ‘slice of life‘. It’s possibly a bit overwhelming too, to think of a whole series of books at this stage.
If I were you, I’d concentrate hard on your characters first, thinking about them in detail until they become absolutely real to you. Then get started on your story and try to imagine it’s happening inside your head. Describe it as if it’s really happening with as much emotion and detail as you can manage. Think yourself down to a child level and write from their point of view, and that way you should naturally be able to avoid anything too hurtful or insulting.
Good luck. I really admire your determination and ambition.
Very best wishes,
I have treasured this email ever since. To think, the Jacqueline Wilson had taken the time to read my message and given me advice on my writing. Needless to say, I took her words to heart. Now, whenever I can, I plan my series to the smallest detail: mind-mapping locations; thinking of ways to develop it; and most importantly, writing character bibles which detail every aspect of the characters from their favourite colour to how they became the people they are. It’s an arduous process, but I know it will benefit me in the long-run. As Jacqueline Wilson said, the world I’ve created now feels real to me.
This second message was sent to me just a few months ago.
Since starting my blog, my pieces have lead to many professional opportunities for me. One of the earliest came from a lady who ran an after-school club for Autistic children. She read my ‘Diagnosis‘ post and asked if I could come in and present my life story to her members. She then offered me the chance to become a volunteer supervisor there, which I readily accepted. I, unfortunately, had to resign from the post after two years, due to work commitments, but the time I spent there was invaluable. Interacting with Autistic children, relating to their problems, and helping them make a difference in their lives, made me realise just how much I wanted to do for this for a living too. Hence I started to pursue a new ambition: becoming a teaching assistant.
While my current job makes it difficult to apply for anything permanent, I do occasionally take online courses in Special Educational Needs. I’ve also had the chance to present my life story in primary schools, and I spent the day as a teaching assistant in one of them. Sometimes people will even come to me for advice. Following one of my recent posts, a secondary school TA asked me how to help one of her students prepare for their GCSEs. For privacy reasons, I won’t reveal names. But this is what she had to say:
I wanted to ask you for some advice. I wondered if you completed your GCSE English exams or how you managed them. I am supporting someone with ASD and, after reading your story, I sensed some similarities. They are also a perfectionist which is causing great difficulty when practising for her GCSE’s next year. I wonder if you have any tips that may help us? Thanks for sharing your story and your work it really does make a difference.
After thinking long and hard about my answers, I sent her this response:
Thank you for your message. It’s not often I get comments on any of my posts, so it’s nice to speak to the people who read them. In regards to your question, I was able to pass my GCSE English exam, but I think it took me three tries to get the grade I wanted. The literature part was easy enough, but language has always been a challenge for me. I’m always second-guessing myself on whether I’ve used the right punctuation marks, or if my sentences are too long, etc. So it does take me a while to write the pieces you see. Even so, I try to learn from my experiences and I do have some tips that could help your student.
First of all, before anything else, make sure she spends 5-10mins planning what she’ll write. It’s very tempting to start straight away – especially if you’re conscious of the time. But if you go into anything without a clear plan, you’ll end up stopping, thinking and rethinking as you go – which will waste more time than if you lay everything out in the beginning. What I do is highlight everything I need/want to talk about in each of my paragraphs. I do this by making subheadings (e.g. Introduction, Dogs, Cats, Why Dogs Hate Cats, Conclusion/Summary) and then bullet-pointing two or more things I could say in each paragraph. By doing this, you’ll never be lost for what to write, and you might even work out a definite order for everything. For example:
Why do dogs hate cats? (attention-grabbing, opening sentence)
– If a dog sees a cat, it will give chase? Why?
– How the cat looks at them? The way they smell? Why would the dog want to get rid of the cat?
– Let’s look at both these animals and find out.
– Nature – friendly, cuddly, protective
– Confined to home, unless taken for a walk
– Territorial – bark at new things and mark their territory
– Nature – friendly, cuddly, adventurous
– Able to roam anywhere freely and still return home
– Not territorial, but will return to a place they like and defend themselves fiercely if provoked.
– Why dogs hate cats
– Are dogs protective of their territory when cats turn up?
– Are they scared to see something new?
– Are they annoyed when they keep returning?
– Easy to see why dogs would hate cats – protective of their territory, thinks cat is invading, constantly returning, could feel threatened.
– Maybe there just needs to be better trust between animals (concluding sentence)
– I also think about how to end and begin each of my paragraphs so they can lead into one another seamlessly.
The second tip is one I’m sure you already know. But it’s resisting perfection. Once your student has come up with a plan, make sure she sticks to it. It’s common to suddenly have an idea you think is better than what you’re writing. But it’s better to make a mental note of it and return to it later. If you try correcting things then and there, you could spend ages “fixing” it, and you probably won’t make it to the end of your piece. The quicker you finish it, the faster you can improve things at the end. This is helpful for two reasons. It prevents your student from going off-track and undoing all their planning work. And it stops them from making unnecessary changes. I’ve often found that the way I’ve written something the first time is better than what it ends up being after all the edits. Trust your initial thoughts and then you’ll have less fix at the end.
Finally, my last tip concerns reading work back. Sometimes you’ll want to check over your paragraphs to make sure they’re written well. But if you do this after every sentence or paragraph, your perfectionism will take over – you’ll keep spotting more and more things to “fix” and lose momentum for writing. Only read through the work once you’ve finished the final paragraph. If your student has made a good plan, she’ll be able to look back on it, and it should help her get moving again if she’s stuck. It’s better to trust your instincts than second-guessing yourself.
That’s all I have to say. I hope these tips have been helpful to you. And I hope your student does well in her GCSEs. If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Best of regards
George B. Harvey (aka the Autistic Blogger).
P.S. I’m sorry for not replying sooner. I wanted to make sure these tips were perfect for you.
Admittedly, my reply may have been a bit long. But I wanted to make sure that whatever I sent was the best advice possible. Plus, if it was shared with anyone else, then anyone could benefit from it just as much as the TA. It’s incredible to think that five years ago I was asking Jacqueline Wilson for advice, and now people are asking for mine on Autism. It makes me proud to know my blog is making a positive impact and helping others to do good in their community.
That’s all I have to say for now. I hope these messages have given you an idea of how far I’ve come, and where I hope to be in the future. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to anautismobserver.wordpress.com, who were generous enough to list my website (The Autistic Blogger) on their own, so more people could find and enjoy it. Be sure to check them out and some of the other Autistic bloggers they have listed.
If you have any questions, please leave me a comment – I’ll be more than happy to answer them. And, until the New Year, stay tuned.