Welcome to My Subconscious

As some of you may have noticed, last week’s Wednesday Wandering was illustrated with a picture of Alan Robson’s book Trimmings from the Triffid’s Beard.   Alan is, of course, my partner in crime on the Thursday Tangents, so I guess the use of his book to illustrate a Wednesday Wandering qualifies as artistic meta-fiction or something like that.  <grin>

Quail in an Apple Tree

Quail in an Apple Tree

I am absolutely unable to take a book off the shelf, even if it is one I have already read, and not start skimming.  Alan’s book grabbed hold and ate a couple hours of my time.  (If you’re interested, you can get a free download of Trimmings and its sequel at http://tyke.net.nz//books).  In one essay, Alan gave a transcription of the talk he gave when he was Fan Guest of Honor at Windycon in 1987.  The essay is fun (and funny) in and of itself, but it also reminded me of the first time I was a Guest of Honor and realized I had to give a Talk.

This was some fifteen years ago, for Bubonicon 30.  I had no idea what to talk about.  I wasn’t a Big Name, and  the con was my hometown convention, so the attendees could talk to me just about any old year.  Nonetheless, I was really honored and wanted to do the home team proud.

Right about the time I was getting nervous, Jim and I were having dinner with Steve (S.M.) Stirling and his wife, Jan.  I asked Steve what I should talk about.  “Talk about where you get your ideas,” he said.  “That’s always fun for everyone.”

I liked Steve’s suggestion, but I was uncertain about how to go about approaching the topic.  For one, in 1998, I had a lot fewer books published.  My most recent solo was Changer.  The sequel Legends Walking (now re-released as Changer’s Daughter) was pending but wouldn’t be released for a bit.  My other more recent projects were the two novels I finished for Roger Zelazny: Donnerjack and Lord Demon.   Sure, I’d had six other novels published, so I wasn’t exactly a tyro but, as I thought over where I came up with the ideas for these novels, I realized they didn’t follow any particular pattern.

When someone asks me, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’m handicapped, because I’m a subconscious plotter.  I can talk about my lifelong love of mythology or of wolves (and have done so, see WW 3-3-10 “Why Wolves?” and 3-09-13 “Lifelong Fascination,” if you’re interested), but I can’t usually trace precisely where a book originated.

Some writers can do this and I admire them.  For example, this last Bubonicon, during the Q&A following Tim Powers’ talk, I had the chance to ask about why Tim wrote, some twenty years later, a sequel to his novel The Stress of Her Regard.  Tim had a neat, tidy, and humorous explanation for the circumstances that led to the writing of Hide Me Among the Graves.  I only wish I could be so lucid.

As the day for my talk approached, I decided that since I couldn’t seem clear, scholarly, or even particularly sane, I might as well admit to my particular form of insanity.  To illustrate the point, I came up with a great example, taken not from my life as a writer, but from my life as a gamer.

Back in the mid-nineties, Jim and I were involved in a role-playing game in which the players were all members of an FBI serial killer detection unit.  (Yeah…  Get a bunch of SF/F writers together – in addition to me, Walter Jon Williams, Pati Nagle, and Melinda Snodgrass were all involved – and the impulse arises to play cops and robbers.)  Anyhow, our team was assigned to find a suspected serial killer.  There were a lot of murders, but no one could figure out what – if any – pattern the killings followed.  Making matters worse, we couldn’t be sure which of the many unsolved case files that were handed over to us applied to our problem and which might be unrelated.

I mean, how might the murders of four prostitutes be related to the hanging in a public park of actor Danny Bonaduce (of Partridge Family fame)?  Did the murder of five people and the removal of their wedding rings have anything to do with our serial killer or was the source of those killings related to some aspect in the lives of the people involved?  That night after the game ended, Jim and I went home more puzzled than ever.  By the time we’d settled the animals and gone to bed, it was very late indeed.  Then, about four a.m., nature awoke me.

As I was pulling my weary carcass out of bed, I realized my sleeping brain had been working through the elements of the various crimes, shifting and sorting, weighing and discarding.  All these years later, I can’t remember the details of all the crimes (especially the red herrings), but I do remember most of the key ones.

Danny Partridge found dead in a park, an apparent suicide, hanging from a tree.  Three French priests.  Five wedding rings.  Gold rings.  Four prostitutes.  Call girls.  Calling Birds.  Four calling birds.

My body wanted to go to sleep.  My brain kept swirling odd bits and pieces around.  Finally, I had it!  The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  The serial killer was working his way through The Twelve Days of Christmas!  What was six?  Six Geese a’laying.

We should check to see if there were any killings related to six geese a’laying.  If there hadn’t been, maybe we could figure out a likely target and set a trap of some sort for the killer!  Suddenly, I was wide awake and wildly excited.  I poked my drowsing spouse.

“Jim!  Jim!  I’ve got it!  He’s doing The Twelve Days of Christmas!”

Inarticulate mutterings into a pillow resolved into intelligent speech.  “What?  Who?  He is?  What?”

Feverishly, I explained, showing how with a little allowing for bad puns, the pattern was there.  A partridge in a pear tree.  Three French men, rather than three French hens.  Four calling girls.  Five golden rings.  Jim agreed.  He started settling back to sleep.

“I’ve got to call Melinda!”

“It’s 4:30 in the morning.  We didn’t leave her house until after midnight.”

“But I’ve got the answer.  I’ve got to call Richard.  He’s the boss.  He’ll know what we should do next.”

“No.  You are not calling Melinda at four a.m.”

“She gets up early to feed the horses…”

“Fine.  Call then.  Not at four a.m….”

So I tossed and turned, at last getting up and making the phone call rather earlier than was strictly polite.  Melinda responded with enthusiasm.  Later, the game master would ask me, “What gave it away?  I thought it would take at least to seven, even eight, before you all saw the pattern.”  I had to reply, “I don’t know.  I solved it in my sleep.”

And that’s how I write, too.  Not necessarily in my sleep, but by trusting that the story is there, buried in my subconscious mind.  Writing from the subconscious makes my characters very real to me.  I can feel when a situation is right or wrong for them.  It also means I’m not very good at workshopping because, often until a book is nearly done, I don’t have the faintest idea where it’s going.

Still…  That’s how it works for me…  I do a lot of research, a lot of thinking, but ultimately the stories come out of the borderland between the land of waking and that of dreams.


8 Responses to “Welcome to My Subconscious”

  1. paulgenesse Says:

    I love it. I love how our subconscious makes the connections while we sleep.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Lucky you! Some of us only dream of sleeping so productively!

  3. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Glad it’s not just me. I’ll run into a wall in my work, be unable to find the fix. Then just out of the blue, it comes. Most of my ideas come that way. Shoot, the design of a ship in my sci-fi came when I was in that limbo state between sleep and awake where dreams sometimes sneak in anyway. I saw it flying over Earth and thought, “There’s my carrier!”

  4. Paul Says:

    The late Nelson Bond once quoted Kipling’s “In the Neolithic Age” to me pertaining to various approaches to writing, subconscious and otherwise: “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!”
    I assume he meant: “Whatever works.” Jane’s approach certainly works well for her.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    The trick is learning what works for you and then cultivating it.

    Just because I can dream up solutions to my problems doesn’t mean that I don’t research and do more awake forms of brainstorming.

    However, I’ve become increasingly aware that for me dreamtime is needed — as are things like craft work that occupy the front brain so the subconscious can function.

    For someone like me, with a strong work ethic and awareness of deadlines, it’s hard to “loosen up.” I guess I worry that this will be the one time it doesn’t work.

  6. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    I often find solutions during sleep. Sometimes I’m so befuddled that I think that’s the only way I *will* find a solution! Those times, I usually think hard about the problem as I’m going to sleep, and hope that works. (Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.)
    And Nicholas, was that a pun there, “at the end of the day”… for dreams? 🙂

  7. CBI Says:

    Wonderful story. You’re not the only one.

    My problem, like Coleridge’s and Kekule’s (the latter according to chemistry mythology, anyway) is that I forget what I solve during the night. If I don’t write it down immediately in the dark of night, then more sleep and the rising sun bring forgetfulness — not of the fact that I *had* a solution, but what the solution actually *was*.

    At work, if I keep attacking a problem over and over, I might make some headway — but a short, 15-minute sidetrip into something completely different can clarify the problem.

    As long as I *immediately* write it down! :-/

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