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The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Working with your subconscious

As you’ve probably noticed by now, subconscious processes are a big part of the extreme pantser’s writing life. That can be… interesting, when you consider that by definition the subconscious isn’t really accessible to the conscious mind. It’s not surprising that pantsers are more likely to block than plotters, and more likely to block hard.

Pantsers also tend to be more likely to have all manner of weird rituals to get things working, with varying levels of effectiveness.

Here’s the key bit: the subconscious mind doesn’t have all those good/bad/correct/incorrect filters that we work with in our conscious mind. It takes in everything and integrates it all regardless of source. The good thing about that is the way the subconscious will end up somewhere we wouldn’t have ever considered consciously – which usually can be used with a bit of judicious filtering in our writing. The bad part is that whatever we do most in any particular domain is what our subconscious considers the ‘right’ way to do it.

Most of the time that’s not an issue. Where it becomes one is in two key facts: the subconscious is a damn sight faster than the conscious mind, and when circumstances change, the subconscious isn’t going to change without a lot of retraining. In other words, if what the subconscious is doing isn’t right, you’re going to need to spend anything from 2 months upwards retraining it – and you’ll still revert to the older, more established habits under stress.

Right now my bugbear is this particular issue. If I’m not overloaded I can write pretty easily by sneaking time in while stuff at work that takes time to do is running. A large installer gets me about a paragraph, opening certain applications is another paragraph apiece, and so forth. Dedicated writing time, on the other hand… I tend to pee it away doing nothing much of any value. Not vacuum-the-cat avoidance behavior, just the endless stream of “oh, I’ll just…” and the next thing it’s time for bed. Basically, I’ve done so much writing in between and around other things that that’s what my subconscious considers writing time. Yes, both ConVent and Impaler were mostly written this way. And no, neither one needed massive amounts of revision (which probably tells you I’m a scary woman who should be avoided – but then people tell me this anyway, so I’m not sure what the difference would be).

So. Your subconscious is being balky and not handing over the goods. What do you do?

Here’s a few suggestions (which is not by any means an exclusive list – I’d be surprised if it was possible to compile one):

  • Buy it a drink. No, seriously. Alcohol loosens conscious control. It’s possible with a few drinks that you could sit down and start writing and the solution to your problem will happen. I won’t say it’s happened to me, but since being overtired affects me the same way, and I’ve had exactly this happen when I’m overtired, the principle is sound. On the down side, you don’t want to do this too often, or you’ll end up with cirrhosis of the liver because you need to stay drunk to write.
  • Do something else. Again, this is one of those exercise caution things. When you hit vacuum-the-cat levels of something else, there’s a real problem going on. But doing something as completely divorced from butt in chair writing/typing as humanly possible can be enough of a jolt to shake things loose, as well as offering some much-needed exercise and mental recharge.
  • Do the stuff you know usually works. If the piece you’re working with insists on ABBA’s Greatest Hits (oh how I sympathize with you) as its soundtrack, play the wretched album as loud as you can stand it (this is where a good set of headphones works to help prevent unwanted domestic incidents), sit butt in chair and do whatever writing rituals you use, then start. The key here is to not futz around – you’re trying to fool your subconscious into ‘normal writing time’ mode.
  • Talk about your piece with your writing friends. You do have writing friends you can bat plot ideas around with, right? You don’t need many, just one or two who are willing to take instant messages at odd hours and won’t call the funny farm when you say “I’m at this part and I have no idea what’s supposed to happen next.” If they’re good at troubleshooting plot, so much the better. I’ve been told I’m pretty good at this, but not at all hours.
  • Explicitly give yourself permission to suck boulders through coffee stirrers. Seriously. Say out loud (it works better that way – when you say something it’s more significant to your subconscious than when you just think it), “It doesn’t matter if it sucks.” Repeat. At this point you’re writing first drafts, and first drafts are allowed to suck.
  • If it works for you, it’s good enough. Tell yourself this until you believe it. Trust me on this, whatever method you use, no matter how bizarre, if it works for you, it’s good enough. Yes this does include setting up an honest-to-dog saddle on a sawhorse in front of your computer and writing while rocking gently in your saddle (I’ve met someone who tells his brain it’s writing time by doing this – and yes, it’s as funny as all get-out, but it works so it’s not as dumb as all that).
  • Embrace your dreams, and listen to them. I may be a semi-unique case here, being narcoleptic, but I often dream plot, and frequently segue between internal narration (I’m effectively ‘writing’ the story in my head) and dreaming in a way that I can’t tell where one stopped and the other started. If the alarm doesn’t wake me up, that’s how I wake up. I emerge from whatever I was dreaming to narrating that dream.
  • Tell the internal editor to shove off. Loudly, and as often as possible. All writers have this one, writing being something of a bipolar and/or psychotic enterprise. When you’re writing it, you’ve got to love it and nurture it, and keep the internal editor’s claws out of it. When you’re editing it, you’ve got to turn writer-mindset off for long enough to find as much as you can that’s flawed and what needs to happen to fix it. Flipping between these two mindsets is one big reason writers are crappy judges of their own work – it’s difficult enough to flip into editor-mind to evaluate someone else’s stuff. The other big reason is that no matter what you do, or how you do it, when you’re rereading something you’re familiar with (and it’s difficult not to be familiar with the novel you just finished writing), you read what you expect to be there, not what’s actually there. Hell, we’re such pattern oriented creatures we do that with entirely unfamiliar text – and miss the most amazing typos.
  • Learn to type. Seriously. When you do connect with your subconscious, you’re going to have this wonderful stuff pouring out and you need to take the mechanics of getting it onto the page out of contention. That means touch typing. As an added bonus, while you’re learning, you’re teaching your subconscious that this is how stories happen.

One thing that it helps to remember is that once you get this right, and you hook into your subconscious for the current story, you get a state that’s called “the zone”. This is a kind of hyper-awareness of what you’re doing where your focus is entirely on your writing and the story simply pours from your fingers. This is where that learning to type item comes into its own. You don’t need to take a typing course for this, either. I personally have never taken one, and I’ve got a typing speed in the general vicinity of 50 words per minute with bursts of quite a bit more (as the saying goes, downhill and with favorable winds). Yes, I do touch type, although my technique is crappy and my typo count is rather higher than for most touch typists. The bit that matters is it’s fast enough to allow me to write at somewhere close to the speed of internal narrative, without having to concentrate on what my fingers are doing. Since I’ve been known to type while half asleep – and on occasion, dreaming – this is a good thing.

Feel free to share any suggestions for getting into the writing zone and convincing your subconscious to part with the goods – and remember that if something doesn’t work for you, try something else. The heart of our creativity is one of those strange places that has any number of ways through the maze, all of them right, but each person’s ‘right’ way is a personal thing and could very well be unique.


  1. I also learn to write with frequent interuptions. I still have no trouble holding the action frozen in my head while doing other things, then returning to the keyboard.

    For editing, on the other hand, I seem to need long stretches of uninterupted time, because I have to hold the whole thing in my head at once and see where the actions needs to move foreward and this encounter is better off back here and . . .

    And when I get stuck, the best thing to do is unplug the router. No drifting off to check if anyone has said anything interesting on Facebook or MGC.

    February 9, 2012
  2. Kate Paulk #

    Lucky you! I have to trick myself into thinking I’m in the middle of multidimensional multitasking. Going ‘dark’ isn’t an option. If I take all the distractions away I’ll just doze off. Narcolepsy is so much fun. Not.

    February 9, 2012
  3. Stephen Simmons #

    Sadly, I can’t learn to type. Not the way normal people do, anyway. The nerve damage in my left arm is subtle, and didn’t interfere with a Navy career, but it’s enough to make looking at my fingers essential when typing. OTOH, the typing-tutor software I bought the kids when the were little rated me at 60 wpm-plus, with 95%-plus accuracy, using my system of one hand covering 3/4 of the keyboard, and two fingers of the other handling the rest.

    But being forced to look down at my hands actually turns out to be helpful for me. If I’m not looking at the screen, I’m not editing the previous paragraph instead of writing the current one and composing the next. Although it does usually mean more typos to go back and find later.

    I’m trying to replace the trick I used to use, without much success so far. Any time I got stuck, or when I was starting a new scene, I used to go out back for a smoke and talk myself through the next bit. Since I quit smoking, that trick doesn’t seem to work any more.

    February 9, 2012
    • Stephen,

      The main thing with typing is being able to meet the speed of your thoughts, not “correct”. If you can do that while looking at the keyboard, great. We can’t all type at Sarah-speeds and melt keyboards (which is not to say I don’t treasure the “Shit” key on my work keyboard – on the right shift key, the t has completely worn off, an the top of the f is gone. Curiously enough, that’s one of the keys that gets used often…)

      What was it about the going out back and smoking that did it for you? If it was the psychoactive effect of the nicotine, you may need to substitute some other substance that has a similar effect. If it was the moving to a different environment and talking to yourself, you can do that part, possibly with drink in hand (alcoholic or not depends on your personal preferences). Watch for a post – on things that will shut down the flow. High stress levels is one of them.

      February 10, 2012
    • Steve,
      Yes, I know there are other drawbacks, though my son who did a study on them says it’s bokum, but have you considered no-nicotin electronic cigarettes (I use blu.) I find that what I crave is something to do with my hands and the flavor, while thinking. It’s enough to destress and no nicotin and — in my case — no tar which is the big problem, because of my substandard lungs. It disturbs my husband, particularly since my favorite flavor is chocolate… I sit there, in clouds of chocolate…

      Also, consider Dragon Naturally speaking. It doesn’t do well for me (accent. Stupid accent) but other professionals do very well with it. (I got it trained once. The problem is it takes me DAYS. Then the computer blew up. But in between, there were about six months when I dictated A Few Good Men, and the process was refreshing, particularly since I had a recorder, and dictated while walking.)

      For some reason people look funny at you when you walk around talking in rolling paragraphs in iambic pentameter.

      February 10, 2012
      • Kate Paulk #

        Gosh, Sarah, I don’t see why there’s anything at all wrong about wandering around talking in iambic pentameter. Some people are just SO intolerant!

        February 10, 2012
        • Yes. They discriminate against displaced Elizabethans. SNIFFLE.

          February 10, 2012
  4. Don’t think I’ll ever understand how a Pantser can get anything done. My mind just does not work that way 🙂

    I’ve tried. It ends up in a tangled mess that resembles a ravening spaghetti monster, not a book.


    February 10, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #


      That’s why this is a guide for Pantsers. For Plotters there’s plenty of material out there. Pantsers tend to get left wondering what’s wrong with them because their reaction to most “how to write” books is pretty much the same as yours to the Pantsers Guide.

      February 10, 2012
      • Curious thing is that while I can’t write that way, I do research that way. I have this strange feeling that the difference between Pantsing and Plotting is important for some reason. I don’t know why, and I don’t know how, and I may not for a year or so, but at some point I’ll end up writing something about it. Probably a short story 🙂


        February 11, 2012
      • And what’s wrong with me is that I can see both paths, and some books come out one way, some other. AFGM was pure pantsying.

        February 11, 2012
        • I don’t see anything wrong with working both ways. It just wouldn’t work for me. My mind doesn’t function that way.


          February 11, 2012
  5. I tend toward spagetti monsters, which may be why I hate to edit. Although I think I’m getting better.

    February 10, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      The goal is to weave all that spaghetti into something that looks like every strand was carefully place in that exact position. Which is why learning how plot works is essential. Pantsers have to teach their subconscious what intricate plotting feels like.

      February 10, 2012
      • Which brings a vision of someone with knitting needles sitting there trying to knit a plot out of spaghetti noodles, sauce all over the place…

        I really should go to bed.


        February 11, 2012

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