The Prewriting Challenge

Creativity doesn’t flourish when forced

complaining beautiful young blond woman holding a clock

Most writers are too hard on their subconscious. They force it to perform day after day without much of a warm-up or many breaks. And then they wonder why they run out of steam after the first chapter or two drafted.

Your subconscious is the source of your creativity. You can’t force it to work on demand. (Why I think NaNoWriMo is more of a typing exercise than a writers retreat.) Your mind works on all sorts of problems in your dreams and other altered states automatically, slowly, systematically searching for a “yes.” With every “no,” it tries a variation on what it already came up with. This sort of repetitive, slow process means we have to be patient with it.

And it’s worth it to be patient with it. The trove of observations and unique connections available to your subconscious is quite different from the solutions your conscious mind develops. The conscious mind goes for the obvious; it’s much more likely to steal or draw heavily from something it remembers seeing or hearing recently. Your conscious mind says “How about a space mission that lands on a planet of giants?”

Concious versus subconscious output

Well, first, that’s the premise of a TV show from the late 1960s called “Land of the Giants,” so your mind immediately reached out for a trope. The conscious mind, if it recognizes the source, will try to keep to the trope, but do minor alterations to make it seem a tad more unique.

Your subconscious mind, by contrast, might remember a woman who had been sleeping on the streets so long, her neck had elongated to rest her cheek on her breast. It might be drawn to another homeless woman in a wheelchair with no legs. And through that process of delving into additional observations of humans with radically different bodies, you might find yourself imagining a future where bodily deformities were symptoms of a disease, or a temporary option for specific circumstances, or a characteristic of an alien race.


Slow cooking

To harness that creativity, there is a tradition in writing of prewriting. It is the equivalent of taking your unique inspiration, and placing it in a crock pot for a long time.

My process for writing novels means I might draft a chapter or two, or just some character profiles and a very short plot outline and then set it aside for months or years. When working with my subconscious, I give it the time it needs to come up with something truly unique and innovative. I don’t keep checking the crock pot. I wait until I’m pretty sure the writing idea is cooked, or I smell that it’s ready.

What other people call a writers block, I think of as my subconscious asking me to give it a break to catch up. If I get only four chapters into a story and then it stops, I turn my attention to another story that has moved forward while I was working on that one. I have short stories that need major revisions. I know I will get back to them when my subconscious has worked out the major flaws holding them back at present.

Fruits of taking your time

What sort of unique ideas has my subconscious gifted me? I credit prewriting for turning a boring, dichotomous space opera into a more complex piece by adding a third morally ambiguous character to the mix in the fifth chapter. It took two years to wrap up a novel told nonsequentially. After several months of prewriting, it dared to make the bad guys in a sci-fi story alien computer programs, and offset their very different point of view with alternating parallel chapters from antebellum Georgia.

Especially when the number of outlets for stories (magazines, books, movies, operas, television, vlogs, blogs, content sites, video games), the margin for innovation is likely to be much narrower, so consider using your subconscious more patiently to target that.

4 thoughts on “The Prewriting Challenge”

  1. Very nice article, Mark!

    On Sun, Jun 2, 2019 at 10:05 AM Mark Salzwedel, author & composer wrote:

    > specficguy posted: “Creativity doesn’t flourish when forced Most writers > are too hard on their subconscious. They force it to perform day after day > without much of a warm-up or many breaks. And then they wonder why they run > out of steam after the first chapter or two draft” >

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s