The following article, concerning writing with aphantasia, was written by JD Kirk and originally published in the Scotsman Magazine on Sunday 19th February 2023.
“How come you write so fast?”
It was the final question after my hour-long talk to a group of ten-year-olds about my latest children’s book, and followed hot on the heels of, “Where do you get your ideas from?” and, “Can we leave now?”
It was a question that, until that point, had never really occurred to me.
I did maintain a steady output, I had to admit. At that point, I’d written over a hundred novels for children, both ghostwritten and with my name on the front. I’d even co-written a non-fiction book with Roald Dahl, decades after his death.
It’s a long story.
On top of that, I’d written over two hundred strips for The Beano, countless other comics, an animated series for Dreamworks TV, and thirty-two-and-a-half episodes of the CITV series, Bottom Knocker Street, starring Phill Jupitus.
Still, it wasn’t like I was writing that fast. All that output had taken me almost six whole years.
I brought all the above up with some other authors in the yurt at the Edinburgh International Book Festival one year, and they all looked at me like they were wishing me dead.
Then again, I had just spilled orange juice on Yvette Fielding, so it might have been that.
To my surprise, it seemed that I was putting out books faster than many other authors. A lot faster. It turned out that very few of them were writing three books at once while bashing out a Bash Street Kids script, and writing absurdist situational comedy for a then team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
It soon became a regular conversation whenever I bumped into another author at a festival.
“How many books have you written this year?” they’d ask across the buffet table.
“Fifteen,” I’d say.
That was a lie. It was usually about twenty, but I played it down out of a sort of embarrassment, or for fear they’d stab me with breadsticks.
“How do you do it?” they’d ask, the smiles on their faces not quite reaching their eyes.
“Quantity over quality, that’s my motto,” I’d say. We’d laugh, and move on.
I had no idea how I did it. I’d always assumed everyone just wrote that quickly.
It was years later, in a hotel room in Florida, that I’d finally figure it out.
But, I’ll come back to that.
By 2016, I was writing too quickly for publishers to keep up. I had books ‘in the bank’ waiting to be published, but though I was working with maybe half a dozen publishers by that point, their schedules were packed out. They might release one or two books of mine a year, but not five. Certainly not ten.
As luck would have it, around August that year, I was asked by a high school to deliver some workshops on how pupils could publish their own work.
Unfortunately, I had no idea how pupils could publish their own work. But, the school was offering to pay me actual real money, so I set out to learn what I needed to know.
I wrote a comedy sci-fi novel for adults called Space Team, edited it, designed a cover, and then published it on Amazon Kindle.
That took three weeks.
On the fourth week, something amazing happened. People started buying it. I had not been expecting that. It had been a learning exercise for me, and it hadn’t occurred to me that people might read it.
But they did. And, going by the reviews, they seemed to be enjoying it.
Firstly, I had an idea for a crime novel. It was going to be a one-off, I thought. I’d just rattle it off and publish it under a pen name – JD Kirk – so I could deny all knowledge of it when it inevitably sank without a trace
So, in November, I wrote a sequel – Space Team: The Wrath of Vajazzle – and I published it right away. No waiting six months for editors to give their feedback, or two years for the book to be slotted into schedules. I wrote it, I edited it, and I published it, all in one month.
By the time the third book was published the following February, I was earning more from my self-published books in one day than I was making from six months of traditional publishing royalties.
So, I threw myself into it. Over the next two years, I wrote twelve books in that series, a collection of short stories, and a spin-off trilogy. It was life-changing, both creatively and financially. Finally, I could get books published at the same speed as I was writing them. No more holding back. No more fighting the urge to run to the keyboard and exorcise whatever nonsense was filling my head that morning.
In 2019 my life changed further in two major ways.
Firstly, I had an idea for a crime novel. It was going to be a one-off, I thought. I’d just rattle it off and publish it under a pen name – JD Kirk – so I could deny all knowledge of it when it inevitably sank without a trace.
That book, A Litter of Bones, outsold the entire Space Team series within about a month of publication, and became the first in the ongoing DCI Jack Logan series.
Today, in February 2023, I’ve written and published sixteen books in that series, plus a four-book spin-off series, and have sold almost three million copies.
The second life-changing moment came in that hotel room in Florida. I can’t remember the exact conversation – I don’t remember a lot of things, really – but it involved the concept of mental pictures.
I’d heard the phrase before, of course, but had always assumed it was a figure of speech. That day, sheltering from the heat and chatting to my wife and two children, though, I realised that when they said ‘mental pictures’ they were being literal.
They could see things. In their heads.
They could close their eyes and picture people, places, and objects using just their imaginations.
I laughed it off at first. I assumed they were winding me up.
But, no. It turns out that most people can see things in their ‘Mind’s Eye.’ I don’t possess a Mind’s Eye. Or, if I do, it’s welded shut.
I was reeling, but suddenly, a lot of things I had not previously understood made sense.
My dad telling me to count sheep to get to sleep, and me looking at him like he’d lost his mind.
The teachers in primary school telling me I’ve got three apples in one hand and two in the other, and asking me to count them, and me explaining that I didn’t have any apples, Miss, and hadn’t seen any kicking around.
I began reading up, and discovered that I have something called Aphantasia. It’s not a disability, just a different way of thinking – a way of thinking that’s forever couched in an empty void of darkness inside my head.
I also finally had an answer to give that kid sitting at the back of the class all those years before.
The reason I write so quickly, I believe, is because I think exclusively in words. There is no translation delay in my head between the pictures I see and what I want to write on the page, because there are no pictures. None. Zip. Zilch.
I don’t have to imagine a beach to write about it, my entire concept of a beach is stored in my head in letters and syllables, ready to be called upon at a moment’s notice.
That’s how I’ve been able to write over 200 books in a little over ten years.
Well, it’s either that, or the fact that I’m dead good at typing. But that probably wouldn’t have made for a very interesting article.