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Cuddesdon road, early morning mist by Christian Guthier

“…And sometimes you come out of the fog into clarity, and you can see just what you’re doing and where you’re going, and you couldn’t see or know any of that five minutes before.

And that’s magic.”

― Neil Gaiman

Do you know what you are doing when you’re writing?

I’m not talking about plotting versus pantsing. I’m talking about the deep, core knowledge that speaks to what your book is truly about.

Because I’ll tell you, most times I have no clue. My first book was for all intents and purposes a ghostly love story, but after the first draft was completed I realized (thanks to an astute friend’s comment) that it was REALLY a love letter to a place I was wrestling with leaving. I wrote my whole second book thinking it was about Peter Pan, when in actuality (as another friend pointed out) it was really about motherhood and the feelings I was experiencing as my kids left for college.

Yet at the same time clearly some part of my brain — my subconscious, my muse, my higher being, call it what you will — knew EXACTLY what I was grappling with, because it sprinkled enough clues throughout my writing that these deeper themes — leaving a beloved place, motherhood — are evident. And once I was aware of them, I could refine them and make them deeper, which made my overall story so much richer.

As I’ve gotten further along on my writing journey, I’ve tried to deliberately tap into this “hidden” part of my brain, rather than wait for it to work on its own.  Occasionally what I come up with makes no sense in the moment, but later will prove to be an invaluable plot twist or character development that surprises even me. And the ideas that don’t work are still helpful because they compel me to look at my story from a different angle.

So how can you harness this “smarter” part of your mind? There are a couple of tricks I’ve found over the years that help:

Create blank space. Did you ever write a secret message with lemon juice? Remember the excitement you felt as you held a seemingly empty piece of white paper up to a heat source and the letters swam to the surface as if by magic? With all the noise in my day-to-day life, my subconscious can have difficulty making itself heard. But if I can create a blank space, the thoughts and words can swim to the surface where I can catch them.

For me, creating this blank space usually involves challenging exercise, preferably outside. After a tough run or hike the endorphins created help my thoughts become peaceful, and whatever my subconscious is working on can rise to the surface. Almost as good are long walks somewhere soothing, such as an uncrowded beach, where I am completely unplugged. The repetition of the scenery combined with the gentle motion of walking jars deeper thoughts loose. Some of my friends find the same results with a long shower, a bath by candlelight, or meditating in a serene environment.

Use background noise when you write. I”ll put a single song on repeat and play it over and over, so that the words lose meaning, or I’ll use a playlist of classical music or ambient sounds the same way. It blocks out the daily thoughts that prevent me from getting in touch with my deeper writing brain.

Work while you sleep. I use this approach when I’m stuck on something — a plot twist, a character development issue, etc..  Right before I go to bed I will read over my latest draft, and then as I’m lying in the dark  trying to sleep I’ll go over it in my head, telling it to myself as if it is a bedtime story, leaving off just at the point where I’m stuck. I’ll do this for several nights in a row. Sometimes I’ll actually dream about the book, and recording that dream gives me insight on where to go next. Other times, I’ll get a flash of inspiration as I’m settling down to write that I swear is due to the work my subconscious has been putting in at night.

Don’t stare at the sun. Finally, when all else fails, I try ignoring whatever plot hole or character flaw is bothering me. Instead I let it percolate somewhere just out of my conscious mind’s reach. By allowing it space, a fresh take or answer often seems to spontaneously pop into view.

Now it’s your turn — how do you tap into your subconscious when writing?

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