Using Your Subconscious as a Ghostwriter

As I’ve discussed my return to creative writing with others, I’m frequently asked if it’s hard to get back into the groove. No, I respond, because I have a ghostwriter who does the hard work of plotting, scene construction, character development, and revision. I simply take dictation.

psychology-1580252_640The process I’m referring to is tapping into my subconscious, which more than thirty years ago became my creative partner in crime. In short, as I go to sleep I clear my head and think about the writing challenge I wish to solve, and when I wake up I rush to the computer and write down the solution.

One of my more popular posts walked my readers through the process. Feel free to read “5 Steps to Subconscious-Driven Creativity,” which offers advice on how best to make use of this power we all possess, and use even without awareness. I’ll take a moment below to cite four recent examples of my subconscious assisting with my urban fantasy novel work-in-progress, which about three months in stands at around 55,000 words.

Plotting

Anyone who has written a novel or a short story knows your mind is always working out plot details, even when you’re not asking it to, and often the best insights come when you’re in the shower (no Words-with-Friends or Twitter rants to distract you, at least not while smartphones are still somewhat sensitive to water). The subconscious works like that, but you don’t have to be awake.

I’ve been concerned the last week because I felt that I was not conveying sufficient suspense with some of my main characters’ current activity, a search for a missing character. I asked my subconscious how to fix it with more prose, and it answered by proposing a deletion. It informed me that two scenes early in the book gave away too much of the action. By rewriting one scene and striking the other, the readers are now more truly in the characters’ shoes, and thus experiencing their relative ignorance. A simple fix, but one that hadn’t come to me when I simply stared in frustration at the screen.

Scene Construction

I create a rough outline of my book as I’m writing, so I have some idea of the next scene I’m going to write before I write it. This helps in giving direction to my subconscious, because I’m narrowing my inquiry to a single scene. But the outline entry is usually only a few words, like “Wendell calls Maricela at her office.” That gives my subconscious plenty to work with when I ask, simply, “write this scene.” That is, it works if I already have a strong sense of setting and characters.

The note about Wendell calling Maricela was a scene my subconscious wrote, as well as one of my favorite scenes so far, a meeting in person of the two later that day. In both cases the writing process truly did feel like dictation. I saw the scenes in my head like a dream, and I just wrote down what I saw. Now as I wrote, my creative energy occasionally saw opportunities for improvement or variations, and I followed those. My conscious mind is a permitted co-conspirator. But as any writer knows, it’s easier to edit than to generate.

Character Development

I noted above that it’s easier to ask your subconscious to write an entire scene when you have a good sense of who the characters are and how they are likely to act. But what if you’re still developing a character? In this case, it’s better to let your subconscious work out who the individual before placing that person be in a scene.

head-580892_640I have a minor character named Dutch who the reader will only see a handful of times, but I love him. I’m also hoping my readers love him, and that they will wish to see more of him in the second and third volumes of this urban fantasy trilogy. When I first outlined the book, however, all I knew of Dutch was “he was hiking in the Superstition Mountains and had an accident.” That was the detail necessary for his inclusion, but I wanted to give the reader more. Over a series of nights, I told my subconscious to hang out with Dutch and get to know him better. Those virtual encoungers have proven fruitful. Now I know him as well as any of my major characters, and it’s adding some crack and sparkle to his scenes. He’s also funny, which I’m doing my best to captuer. Including humor in urban fantasy novels has worked extremely well for one of my idols, Neil Gaiman.

Revisions

Everyone has their own approach to creating a full-length novel. Some write raw every day, producing first-draft scene after first-draft scene. Some shine and polish each scene to a sparkly near-final before moving on. My creative approach is a hybrid. My preference is to push forward and avoid looking back. I like seeing the word count rise. But as I’m writing the novel, the plot and characters are evolving. Sometimes it’s hard to move forward when I know there’s a rock behind me that is begging to be polished.

I wrote a real dud of a scene the other day. It accomplished the mission of the scene as instructed in my brief outline, but it was flat and uninteresting. I attributed that to an uninspiring writing session and figured I’d move on the next day. But it was still bugging me that night, so I basically asked my subconscious to fix it. And it did. The problem was two-fold. 1) The POV character wasn’t allowing the reader sufficient insight into his thoughts and fears. 2) The other character in the scene wasn’t really “in” the scene. She was like one of those actors you see in a poorly produced community theater production, essentially disengaged except when she had a line to deliver. I’ve since rewritten the scene, and not only does it now shine, but the revised version is now helping to inspire dialogue and action in follow-up scenes.

Conclusion

I hope this rather lengthy post spells out the dynamic range of possibilities our subconscious holds for us. I tap into it while I sleep, but perhaps you have other ways of communicating with it. And maybe you have other asks that it answers for you. The commenters in my first post on this talked about examples they had used beyond creative pursuits, including finding a missing passport.

I’d love hearing from you on your own experiences with using a part of yourself as a creative partner!

7 thoughts on “Using Your Subconscious as a Ghostwriter

  1. Let’s hear it for the subconscious! I don’t dare head for bed without setting my notebook on my bedside table. Now the question arises — how long will the subconscious work on a story? Years! I’m still working on a novel I started an embarrassingly long time ago, and my subconscious is still sorting out loose ends. Patrick, it never ends! Perhaps this is why Hemingway said something like, “No one ever masters the art of writing.” There’s just too much to sort out, ever more depths to plumb. Oy! What a life. I love it.

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    1. Hi PJ! I believe it was actually Hemingway–although he may not have been the only one–who kept a notebook under his pillow for middle-of-the-night insights. Fortunately my subconscious allows me to sleep through the night.

      Fascinating to hear how long it can keep working on a single novel. I guess there’s no reason for it to stand down if there’s still work to be done.

      As to the idea of never mastering writing, that is why I turned from music to writing in my twenties. I could feel myself hitting an upper limit as a musician; I hardly was a maestro, but my growth seemed slowed to almost nonexistence. But after 30 years of writing I feel I get better with every new writing session. That is something to love!

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    1. Thanks, Ruth! You bring a lot of credibility to my process! 🙂

      I liked the March post, in particular the suggestions on how to refresh one’s muse. Getting in a rut in your life can lead to getting in a rut in your writing. Fortunately, we’ve only lived here in San Diego a little over a year, so every weekend is a chance for new things. That may be helping my muse, all sorts of reboots!

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  2. This is pretty cool, Patrick. I use my subconscious too, of course, but I’m sad to say it doesn’t work quite as efficiently as yours does overnight. I find that if I think about writing right before bed I have trouble falling asleep. My mind runs away with me and I end up feeling restless and wound up. So I can’t plug in my request quite like you can, but of course sometimes my sleeping brain does some work anyway. For me the subconscious work happens most effectively during long drives or walks, where I have something else to focus on but nothing to truly distract me. Walks are magic. 🙂

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    1. Hi Annie,

      Thanks for sharing your process! Walks can indeed be magic. I’ve been doing some on the beach since moving to San Diego, which is of course awesome (and sounds like a cliche from a dating profile). It’s critical I leave my phone back in the beach bag, however; even knowing it’s there causes me to not completely detach from the moment. Drives don’t work for me, because I’m always listening to audiobooks, but lately I’ve been listening to sci fi and fantasy novels, so in that sense it’s productive because I’m analyzing the author’s techniques.

      I hear you on the sleep issue. I certainly have that problem if it’s an issue with my day job, or something involving the household budget or personal chores. Somehow when it’s a creative pursuit I’m excited about, however, I don’t have that problem. In a way, focusing on the writing makes sure my mind doesn’t go to those less pleasant topics!

      Patrick

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  3. Pingback: What is Your Writing Process? First Drafts – The Artist's Road

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