Tuesday, May 22, 2012

22. Novel writing: Trust your subconscious

The most important thing I have learned in forty-plus years as a professional writer is to trust my subconscious. Not only does it give me entire plots in dreams, it is apparently hard at work on my fiction even when I’m doing something else, like cooking or leading bird walks.


In a previous post I mentioned that some writers of seemingly-intricately plotted works maintain that they never use an outline. I believe them, because I am quite sure that their subconscious does the intricate plotting for them.In that same post I showed how instead of a formal outline I jot down notes as ideas for the novel occur. Those ideas come from my subconscious, which is always several steps ahead of my conscious mind.

For example, my subconscious often plants things I will need later in a story. When I was writing Going to See Grassy Ella, my YA novel, I had Peej, the heroine, get motion sickness in a very early scene. At the time, I thought it was just a character point, but it turned out to be a crucial plot point later on, when Peej and her sister are trying to escape from kidnappers.


As far as I knew when I was writing Pandora’s Genes, Zach was not directly based on anyone I knew. But my subconscious may have known better, because thirty years after I had last seen him, an old boyfriend turned up in my life to thank me for writing about him. He had read the book, read the description of Zach, and concluded that I had based the relationship between Zach and Evvy on him. At first all I could think was, “You’re so vain I’ll bet you think this book is about you,” but on further thought I realized that he was probably, in part, right.  

In the case of The Ptorrigan Lode, my gritty sf novella, I knew in a general way that the protagonist, Jay, would be okay in the end,  but wasn't quite sure how that would happen, until it happened. Jay’s literal transformation was as big a surprise to me as it has been to many of my readers. It was like a light going on in darkness when I realized that my subconscious had been leading me to this denouement from the beginning of the story.

Here are three proven ways to enlist your own subconscious in your novel-in-progress:

1. Write down your dreams--especially if they contain vivid imagery. Even if those images don’t seem at first to connect to your novel, just writing them down will help to open a channel to unconscious processes.

2. Carry a notebook everywhere--or use your cellphone’s memo feature--to record thoughts as they bubble up. I’ve noticed that the more I do this, the more ideas occur to me. I think the subconscious LIKES to be noticed.

3. Spend some time daily in a mindless, repetitive activity like jogging, or meditate regularly. These activities will help you get your conscious mind out of the way and allow your subconscious ideas to surface.

Tomorrow: How to insert background information unobtrusively


  1. I like tip #3. The mindless, repetitive activities help me through the rough spots. Looking forward to tomorrow's post!

  2. Thank you, Sara! And thanks for commenting.

  3. I love tip #3 too! I call that motion meditation - whenever I'm blocked on a project or life scenario, I start cleaning. Mopping the floor, or tackling the bathroom both allow me to shut off the conscious and it gives my subconscious mind a chance to work it all out.

  4. "Motion meditation"--I love it. And you're right about cleaning. Yard work does it for me too.

  5. Kathryn,
    Very interesting post. I, too, have been inspired to write after having vivid dreams. My mother-daughter anti-smoking memoir came about while grieving my mother...I remember dreaming about a close friend, who had lost a beloved aunt to smoking, and it planted a seed for me to chronicle these mother-daughter stories. Thanks for sharing! Anne

  6. Thanks, Anne. I think the closer to our heart the work is, the more the subconscious surfaces.