Friday, November 13, 2009

Trusting the Unconscious

I've been thinking about Chris's post below, about Eric Brown's Ten Tips for writers. In some of the other tips, Brown talks even more about the unconscious and how important it is to the writing process. So in coming up with a response, I started out thinking about how instinct and intentionality play into my own work.

I used to outline everything ferociously. Especially with my comics work, what with it being such a structured medium, I would panic if I didn't know exactly what was going to happen every step of the way. I understand the fear that Brown talks about: you worry that you're going to make a misstep, go off in the wrong direction, write yourself into a corner. These are all symptoms, though, of an underlying fear which is the fear that you don't have anything to say.

I find that as I spend more time writing, I spend less time staring at a blank screen. In fact, it almost never happens to me anymore. Part of this is planning, and the other part is overcoming that fear. The mistake that I made as a beginning writer was that I'd sit down in front of the computer having no idea what it was that I planned to write about. Just staring, waiting, praying for some inspiration to leap up and grab me. Or if I did have an idea, being afraid to leap into the fray and start writing it. I wrote as though every word was sacred, every press of the delete key an affront.

At some point in the process, you start to realize that stories are expensive, but words are cheap. What I mean by that is that you need to have some idea of what it is that you're doing before you sit down and start typing. But you don't need to know exactly what you're going to say. I'd think, "How do I start? How do I come up with the perfect opening sentence?" I don't think that anymore. Now I just plow on in. Grab the first sentence that comes to mind and go with it. If it doesn't work, so what? I can always start over, and I'll probably learn something in the process.

Nowadays, I work out the general layout for a story long before I sit down to write it. I ponder stories while I'm lying in bed waiting to go to sleep (which often takes me hours to do, insomniac that I am), in the car, in the shower, watching TV. I don't start typing until I know where I'm going. But--and this is an important but--I don't wait for every little piece of the puzzle to fall in place. You can spend your entire life doing research and plotting and planning and never write a single word: that's the fear working its magic.

So once I sit down, I've already spent a good deal of time working out where I'm going. But then I start typing, and often whatever it is I've planned goes out the window. Sometimes just a little, sometimes utterly. There's a kind of magic that happens when you have a direction and just start typing toward it. All sorts of little things start popping into place as your unconscious mind gets a hold on things. The more you put down on paper, the more it has to chew on. Things start to happen.

You'll often hear writers give that old chestnut that "the characters just took on a life of their own." It is, of course, nonsense. Characters are just ideas in your head, and they have no life of their own. What does happen, however, is that your unconscious mind is always back there making connections. And it's very good at emotions and personal relationships. Sometimes you'll have a scene in mind where character X wants something and character Y wants something else, and as you're writing it, you'll realize that what character X really wants is something completely different, and that character Y's reaction ought to be something else entirely. As the chain of cause and effect from writing to thinking to un-thinking goes around, all that new information stirs up new ideas. That, I think, is the magic of writing.

Sometimes I'll read something I've written and think, "That's just wrong." Something doesn't click; it doesn't feel right, and you can't put your finger on what it is. I think often these jarring disconnects come when your conscious mind has forced a story into a situation where it doesn't belong, and your unconscious mind, your instinct, is back there bleating wordlessly at you, telling you that it doesn't belong there. To me, the unconscious is a big mess of images and words and phrases and emotions that can't speak clearly; it can't speak up for itself. So when you sense that wrongness (or rightness, which happens sometimes, too) you have to really listen to it. Go back and examine what you've done, line by line. When does the screaming become the loudest? Is there some key sentence or bit of dialog that really gets it going?

Often you already know the answer, and you're afraid to admit it because fixing it would take so much effort. I recently had a situation in the novel where the character that I wanted to have in the book just didn't belong in it. I was trying to shoehorn her in because I liked the idea of her. But she created more problems than she solved. She was, ultimately, unnecessary. Every time I read a scene with her, I started to get bored. At the same time, there was another character who really needed to be there, but seemed kind of one-note and uninteresting. At one point, I found myself writing a scene for the unnecessary character, and when I went back to look at what I'd written, I realized that in two places, I'd typed the other character's name unintentionally. And there was the answer. I went back and excised the unnecessary character, blending her in with the character that needed to be there, and that feeling of wrongness completely vanished. I got rid of someone who didn't belong, and I fixed a character who was broken, all in one fell swoop. But I had to own up to the fact that what I was doing wasn't working, and I spent an entire day correcting that misstep. But boy was it worth it.

So, to put this in geek terms: plan carefully for your assault on the Death Star. But when you get there, don't be afraid to turn off your targeting computer and rely on the force.

And if your unconscious talks like Alec Guiness? Boy are you lucky.


  1. This is great advice. "The first sentence" is an easy thing to become obsessed with and ultimately defeated by. I find that I have a better "first sentence" when it's the one that I write last.

  2. I often find that a good first sentence helps propel me through the first few paragraphs, which propels me through the first few pages, and so on. Unfortunately, the first sentence fuel always runs out :) And it isn't necessary; just nice.

    There is one "first sentence" which haunts me as a writer, more fearfully than probably any formal writing advice I've ever seen. If you've read the book, you'll know why:

    "One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne."

    If you don't recognize it, then read (or re-read) The Plague. The character of Rieux is the most tragic warning parable to beginning writers that I've ever read.

  3. Sometimes a great first sentence can actually rob you of the ability to continue on with the story.

    YHWH, Lord of Hosts, was walking down the street, snapping his fingers and looking for trouble.

    Now, how easy would it be to write the next sentence, and the story that follows, to that?

  4. Bill, that sentence is just full of potential. After all, if He is omnipotent, no scenario can be forbidden Him.

    Next sentence: "Lucifer cringed and slowly turned down the window blinds. He couldn't step out now or there'd be a fight, and the great Jehovah won every time."

    Or: "The devil had gotten into him and his mother had told him not to come home until he could turn the other cheek."

    Or: "He'd been playing the new Grand Theft Auto game for days now and couldn't put it down."

    Award-winners they're not, but it sure could be fun.

  5. I actually hop right through the first sentence without noticing it, and sometimes come back to it after I've sorted out the rest of the piece. I think if I started worrying about it, I'd never get going.

  6. Its a bit easier with writing comics because they all start the same way...

    Page One

    Panel One