Writers And The Subconscious

Reading & Writing

You need the pieces on the board before you can capture enemies

I’m currently grappling with a slippery opponent; my new novel. So this is one of those articles in which I try to get at what happens inside the brain of any creative person when they’re trying to make something from nothing.

If there’s one key question that possesses everyone who sits down to write, it is this:

How much of what you have to say should be planned in advance, and how much comes from instinct? Are we ‘mappers’ or ‘gardeners’, ‘grid-makers’ or ‘dreamers’? What we do is both a craft and an art. Into the craft part falls the planning. Into the art part falls the instinct. How do you balance them?

The question surfaces whenever critics analyse what’s been written. Sometimes the critic reads far more into a piece of writing than the writer ever intended. But sometimes the writer is blind to what s/he has produced, especially when it comes to the cumulative effect.

My agent once said, ‘I knew that piece was by you because it had your style.’ As far as I can see I have no style, rather as I have no accent. To me my physical voice is RP, both on the page and in audio. Yet it’s clearly not. I sound a touch posher than I am – except when I’m out with mates, and the London voice comes out. My father had two voices, the one he used at home and the one he used with service personnel, when he suddenly became matey and salt-of-the-earth.

So it is on the page. I was shocked to read that Lee Child – a writer who deserves kudos for the crafty style tricks he pulls off in a thriller format – writes in one continuous draft, which is probably why his authorial voice is so distinct. How much does he unthinkingly bring to his story? There’s actually a book on the subject, ‘Reacher Said Nothing’ (this being one of Child’s most used phrases), so he clearly plans his effects carefully.

I’m not sure how anyone can plan that much in advance without keeping miles of notes and diagrams. To me, most writing is planned once there’s something already on the page. You need chess pieces all on the board before you can capture enemies. But there have been writers who have attempted to work in drug fugues and dream states, putting thoughts straight to paper. This doesn’t usually result in cohesive plots structure but I imagine it’s fine for capturing a certain atmosphere. Phillip K Dick, Ayn Rand and Sartre all wrote while high (along with the more obvious culprits).

In my case the subconscious kicks in after there’s a first draft to work with, and it’s between this raw clay and the finished object that all the brainwork takes place. A character walks through a park thinking about what has just happened. But wait, a child kicks a football and it hits him, making him remember his dead son. Often the biggest ideas, including the major plot twists, appear at this point. The concluding draft is merely polishing.

Instinct is crucial because it allows for organic ideas to take over. Forcing your characters into a grid that keeps our plotting on course is usually disastrous – for me, it’s far better to hand them control and make it up as you go along.

Making it up – isn’t that what creativity is all about?

6 comments on “Writers And The Subconscious”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    You do what works and you only find that out by doing.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    Perhaps it depends on the balance of mental abilities. Some are stronger with words, others with more abstract thought, visualisation or other areas. Though all are important, it seems likely that our strengths will determine the path of our individual creative process.

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    There was a nice piece on Tor about writing to weaknesses, as this strengthens them and brings out your strengths even more. Just not all the time.

    How do you spot and react to a critic reading things into a story that are not there?

    I guess critics have their own agenda and subconscious bias as well.


  4. Helen Martin says:

    There’s all that poetry analysis as examples of reading into writing what may or may not be there. “Knowing what happened in her childhood and what she must have felt, can anyone doubt that in this poem she refers symbolically to all of that?”

  5. Jo W says:

    I liked your first comment, at least I think I do. 😉

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Jo, how can you find out what makes your writing live if you don’t write anything? That’s all I meant. It is rather a circuitous statement, though.

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