Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Subconscious matters

So, we’re finally moving towards the end of the reposts of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide – we’ve covered a bunch of craft matters, and a few other bits. Today’s post is about ways to con… ahem… persuade the subconscious to play nice.

After which I will attempt not to swear at the bloody cat. For Reasons.

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.

12 thoughts on “Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Subconscious matters

  1. I’ve been blocking hard for the past week. Started four short stories, got about a thousand words or so into them and *erk* brakes hit. Backed off to recharge for a bit and nothing has been coming. Managed to think around the issues of one story and hope I have the science right for a bit. Now I have to sit butt in chair and force the subconscious to give up the damned story NOW!
    As to typing, I was smart when I was in high school by taking a typing class (one year before the name was changed to keyboarding). Has stood me in good stead ever since. Touch typist and I can copy off hard copy fairly decently.
    I will get things moving myself in a few days. Got to get things flowing faster and faster now.

  2. “Feel free to share any suggestions for getting into the writing zone and convincing your subconscious to part with the goods…”

    Staying off blogs is a big one with me. (d’oh!) I go in the interwebz, find that someone is WRONG!!! out there, and suddenly its dinner time.

    I’ll go write now. ~:D

  3. and once again i have painted myself into the corner where if i have time to write fiction i should be writing something else… sigh

  4. Interesting — just yesterday I had a post on my blog about the discovery that a piece wasn’t a short story, but the beginning of a novel. At least part of my struggle with it has been getting past the idea that it had to be a short story (probably because it was originally written back in the day when everybody was telling me I needed to get short stories published to “build a track record” before trying to sell a novel), and since making that breakthrough, I’ve been struggling to tease out what the rest of the novel is, and where it’s going.

    And yes, I’ve often found that setting something aside and doing something else is often the best way to get the subconscious to produce the next piece of the puzzle. It’s amazing how many ideas will come to me while I’m up at the storage unit, sorting merchandise or loading it into the van.

  5. My subconscious blocked on the China novel because it wanted an oracle bone. I kid you not. I was reading a textbook on early China and studying a section on oracle bones and what they can tell us about Shang Dynasty China, and bam! Block dissolved and the rest of the book got written in two weeks after two months of nothing.

    One thing about being in the zone – I can and have worked until I was physically ill due to eye strain. Don’t do that. I may type for ninety minutes non-stop. Don’t do that. As the song says, “Look away, Baby, look away.”

  6. I and only recommend this advice from Sidemeat, the old camp cook (and authentic Old West Gibberish speaker) of Riders In The Sky: (something to the effect of) When yer hung up on what to do next, do this: “He crashed thru the window, both six-guns a-blazin’!”

  7. One trick we used to use in improv is to take suggestions. ANY suggestions. And then you carry those suggestions to the logical conclusions. It may not be right, it may not be what you need, but it will often unblock the flow.

  8. When I feel blocked, it’s usually because something’s wrong with the story. Now that I know that, it’s easier to work beyond the blockage.

  9. When I get blocked, my usual trick is to look at what I thought happened next, and make the opposite happen. For instance, when I could not write the heroine discovering something useful at the fair she attended, I instead had a dragon fly overhead, scaring off everyone, including her.

    It did restart the story.

    Another useful tool is random generation. My favorite is Rory’s Story Cubes. Roll, look at the cubes, devise what happens next.

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