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On the Subconscious

Anne Rie House selfie
Quick aside — me in front of Anne Rice’s house where she wrote The Witching Hour! October, 2016

Several months ago my mother and I were chatting about Anne Rice (whose series The Witching Hour we both adore), and she asked me this question: How, as a writer, do you possibly come up with such complicated worlds, characters, and plots?

I’m sure I gave some bland answer about working at it, or using character reference sheets, but I’ve been thinking more intensely lately about the creation process, especially as it comes to getting to know characters.

For context, at the time I started this blog post (the end of September) I was hard at work on Nameless drafting, after the last post’s announcement that I’d cut an unholy number of words from the manuscript. Many thousands of those words have made their way back in, so it’s not as drastic as I first thought, but the new chapters are filling me with all sorts of emotions. The over-arching one is wonder. I’m actually enjoying working on this book again, and creating new emotional plot beats that take this middle part to a new depth.

And yet I struggle. It’s an enjoyable struggle, and thus I’m fascinated by it. With each new chapter from the male character’s perspective, I end up outlining and ‘sketching’ about five different ways the scenes could go, trying to find the one plot line that feels the most exciting and true. I’ve found the abstract emotions; now I’m trying to translate them onto the page, and it’s just bloody difficult.

Why is that?

Why can one book, like The Cobworld, or Shotgun Girl, proceed at a lickety split pace, and if I need to tear it apart in edits afterward the pieces can mostly be reshuffled and re-stitched without significant damage to the overall emotional arc? But Nameless is definitely not a Team Shitty First Draft Novel. If I try to skip ahead, I lose the magic. Instead I have to build on what came before, molding emotions and editing scenes until they’re as right as I can make them for now. Then I can move on to the next thing.

It got me thinking about subconsciousness, and how it influences the building of a story.

We’ve all  heard some writers say they literally hear voices, or have a character show up and start speaking to them as if telepathically communicating. We all slip into this language, talking about our characters ‘complaining’ or saying how they want to go off in different directions than we planned.

How is this possible? How can what are entirely figments of our imagination get so far out of our control?

I think it comes down to this: Characters are a creation from our subconscious, but our conscious minds treat them like people we actually know. We know what they’d do or say about as well as we’d know the words or actions of a close friend or family member, in a given situation. You know what your best friend will find funny, what will make your significant other scrunch up their face, what gift will bring your parent the most joy. We don’t have telepathy, but we know them, by learning their patterns and habits over time. We can predict them.

Character creation works the same way. Our subconscious, trained to generate characters, plots, story emotions, etc., pushes forward someone for our conscious mind to meet. We get a sense of them, a vague sort of understanding of their energy, and we go from there. We pick names from baby books, we start fleshing out a family, and a mission, and a passion. We might try communing with our subconscious by filling out character interview questions. What’s your character’s favorite food? An automatic answer might pop up — blueberries!

Sometimes you can calculate a character, design them like building a house, and form them to the exact plot/theme you need. Perhaps some of the greats did that, but I don’t, and I think a lot of contemporary writers don’t either. We rely on our subconscious instead, teasing out details based on the mishmash stew of everything we’ve ever fed it, from real-life interactions, to the media we’ve consumed, to the thoughts we think.

When I struggle with a character’s actions, usually what I’m running up against is my conscious mind trying to make the character act in a way my subconscious says doesn’t ring true. This behavior doesn’t match the patterns I’ve been collecting and analyzing your whole life, is what my subconscious would say. So I’m gonna go ahead and make being creative really difficult for you until you figure out your mistake and listen to me.

So there you have it. Characters are amalgams of real people and their patterns of behavior, mixed up and repackaged. We both invented them and can increase our knowledge of them, conscious and subconscious minds passing information and instinct back and forth. Writers are both the creators and consumers of their media.

Now the only question remaining is where exactly ‘creativity’ comes from, but that’s a little out of my depth for now :-)

Since we last spoke I’ve switched back to working on Shotgun Girl, but it’s been slow going. I haven’t been feeling so great mentally here lately, probably due to the stress of working and going to school full time, plus writing, plus the other stresses and dramas of daily life. Today is the first day I feel like ‘myself’ in a few weeks, and I had a lovely session at the cafe this morning tearing apart and remaking the opening for Shotgun Girl. Wish me luck on continuing edits!

Here are some more pictures from when I took my sister to New Orleans at the end of October!

Miss Robicheaux's Academy where they filmed American Horror Story: Coven!
Miss Robicheaux’s Academy where they filmed American Horror Story: Coven!
Toms at Lafayette Cemetery. I highly recommend the Two Chicks Walking tour through the Garden District.
Toms at Lafayette Cemetery. I highly recommend the Two Chicks Walking tour through the Garden District.
Cemetery Wall
The inner wall of Lafayette Cemetery

PS: Got some cool media things happening in the next month or so that I can’t wait to share with you!

<3,

Savannah

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The Big Pause

Recently I read this article by Jaye Wells, and it cleared something up for me about writer’s block and how I write.

Usually when I’m working on a novel I encounter a point I call The Big Pause. It occurs 75% of the way through the story, when all the meat is out of the way and all that’s left is to write the big finale.

I stop.

I tell myself it’s because I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen next, and how can I write it if I don’t know what to write, but that’s not really the reason. I know how it all ends up. I don’t have a firm grasp on the details, but I never do for any scene. Somewhere in all the work it just magically comes together.

But the above-mentioned article pointed out what was really going on: The Big Pause is my moment of fear. It’s the point where the book is about to turn into a reality. Soon it’s going to be a finished product, not something I’m just working on for fun. I’m going to have to show it off. Be responsible for its perfection. And that’s scary.

But not the only thing that scares me. The biggest reason I have a Big Pause is that I’m afraid what I’m going to write is total crap.

I don’t have this problem in the first three quarters of the book. As a friend once put it, I write really clean first drafts. I’m not saying everything comes out sparkling, and there have definitely been some scenes I’ve had to cut or seriously modify. But to put it in perspective, for the sleeping beauty story there was only one scene I really struggled with. One that got completely rewritten out of a whole book.

So when I have to face the prospect of writing just to get it done, I freeze up. I love the idea of writing messy and cleaning it up, or maybe I love the idea of getting into that mental space where you know, as the creator, exactly what needs to go, what can stay, and what just needs to be fixed. But when the moment comes I really struggle with writing a sentence I’m not happy with the first time around.

(This is starting to sound like I’m not capable of editing, and let me say that’s definitely not true. After everything I’ve gone through with NAMELESS I feel confident in stating I absolutely know how to edit and mix things up ;-)

My Pause usually lasts a few weeks, and by that time I’ve gestated the issues in my mind well enough to know how to sprint towards the finish. But I don’t want that to turn into a habit. I want to learn to let go, and give myself permission to write the story clearly not perfect, because it can always be fixed later.

It can always be fixed later.

That’s what editing is for, after all. I now declare The Big Pause officially over!