The human subconscious is an amazing thing. It can work on things for you while you’re sleeping or watching Gilligan’s Island1, it can plot solutions for you… studies have even shown that thinking about a physical activity has the same effect as actually practicing whatever it is you’re working on, physical conditioning notwithstanding.
For a writer, this can reap amazing benefits. As you’re working on a project, your subconscious can be thinking ahead for you. While you’re busy with that spicy love scene in chapter 13, it’s way ahead of you, making a list of bullet points for the shocking revelation in chapter 19. You may have even heard writers talk about this. When they do, they say things like, “It was so amazing! This character just sprang to life as if he had a life of his own! It was like I wasn’t controlling him at all!”
Well , of course they were. It was just a different part of the brain doing the heavy lifting at that particular moment. Or, more to the point, another part of the brain had already done the heavy lifting, and by the time the conscious part of you that controls your fingers on the keyboard caught up with it, it already knew what to do.
[spoilers: A Death of Honor]
Seriously. The first time it happened to me, I was flabbergasted. I was deep into writing A Death of Honor. It was a scene where Payne confronts the man who is running the drug racket in the night club that is the focal point of his investigation. Payne explains in no uncertain terms just what the man’s activities have loosed on the world, and he walks out of the room, leaving the man to stew in his own juices. I wrote his exit and my fingers paused above the keys of my Smith Corona2.
Then it happened. A little voice in the back of my head said, and then Payne hears a gunshot and he runs back into the room and this guy has put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
I said aloud, “No,” because according to the outline on my desk, this character was supposed to live for another 200 pages, tying up some very loose threads as he did.
But the story will be so much better if you do it this way, the voice said. You’re supposed to make it tough on your protagonist, and this will certainly do it. Don’t worry about your outline. Just pull the trigger. You can fix things later.
I thought about what the voice was saying, and by golly, it was right. So I pulled the metaphorical trigger, and the rest was history. I finished the scene, and the next day’s writing session was spent reworking the outline to plug the holes that the character’s death left. I had to kill off a character who was supposed to be alive at the book’s end on order to do it, but yeah, the book was certainly better for it. All because my subconscious blazed the trail for me.
Having worked with such an interesting creative partner for many more years, I have come to the conclusion that the subconscious operates not just on a plotting level, but on one that can effect the mechanics of the book itself.
I remember writing A Death of Honor and looking at the manuscript pages thinking, Hmmm, is it my imagination, or is this moving slowly? I thought about it a bit more and decided yes, the plot was where it needed to be. I began to picture the plot of Honor as a long tail in reverse, where the action was slow to build, and then suddenly reaches an exponential rate until things were happening so fast the reader wouldn’t have the time to catch breath until it was over. That was pretty much the way the book turned out, and it’s why I don’t get upset if that book gets a review saying that the book starts off slow and plodding. It’s supposed to be that way.
What is interesting is that I’ve realized this whole act of conceptualizing the structural parts of the book can be internalized, a kind of set-it-and-forget-it thing. After I had the chat with myself about the plot progression, I didn’t worry about it, and the book turned out just the way I wanted in that respect.
I also did this with the Pembroke Hall novels. I originally saw (and who am I kidding, I still do) the project as one long novel that would be a rise and fall story, and that it would take a dark turn at the halfway point of the plot. This is just how the book turned out, and it’s why I was hesitant when Bantam requested that it be split into two books. It meant one would be funny and satirical, and the other would be funny, satirical and unremittingly dark. A lot of the reviews of the second book, by readers of the first, bore this out, commenting on the shift in tone between the two. But hey, at the time I needed money more than I needed artistic integrity.
Currently, I have done set-and-forget on my latest project, the UFO Novel. As I was putting together the plot elements, I saw it playing out in four acts, and I knew it would take a lot of time to get the pieces in order. After much thought, I visualized the book as coming in between 250 – 300,000 words. The first part, which opens with a mysterious event and proceeds to introduce all of the main players, plays out over 45,000 words – the length of a novel3. The next two parts will be novels in themselves, 100k each, with the last act coming in at 10,000 or less. Yup, the book seems to be right on track. Nope, I’m not splitting it into two. Or three. (Self-publishing can give you the luxury of artistic integrity).
These are the kind of things that gave rise to tales of Muses in the days before reason, and it’s fascinating to me that so much of the process can be analyzed and then internalized, turned over to another part of the brain that is operating in silent mode until it’s time for it to pop up and take control of the fingers.
The big mystery is that I don’t know how I cultivated any of this, so I can’t tell you how to do it for yourself. But I know other writers do it, because I’ve heard them talk about the process. It’s just another reason why aspiring writers need to apply posteriors to chairs and commence with the writing. And continue writing. And writing and writing and writing…
Because if you start building, it will surely come.
And when it does, it will bring amazing surprises with it.
1 Not much difference there.
2 The brand name of an archaic device once used for speedily putting text down on paper.
3 For perspective, NaNoWriMo asks that your finished product be 50,000 words.