How to Put The Boys in the Basement to Work


Wow, it’s already time to look back on this year’s NaNoWriMo frenzy. I finished my novel, which of course means it’s due for a heavy edit and re-writes. But the process worked its magic. Even though I had a rough outline, things happened in the story that were a complete surprise to me.  Good surprises. A couple of great ones.
Where did they come from, these wonderful ideas, these twists? From the basement, of course.
I believe in the writer’s subconscious mind. Stephen King calls it “The Boys in the Basement.” There they are, down below, unseen and unheard but hard at work.
You have to treat them with respect, and also find ways to encourage their creativity.
I’ve come up with a system that I tried out during NaNoWriMo. It was inspired by something my agent and teaching colleague, Donald Maass, did at the Story Masters conference this year. Before the students wrote anything, Don had them do some deep breathing and relaxation, wanting them just to be in the moment, feel what they felt, not force anything. Only after several minutes of this did he go into his famous prompts. Cool things started bubbling up.
Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, had a similar notion. For her it happened during sleep, and the first thing she would do upon waking is write, write, write without thinking, letting whatever was beneath the surface come to the top. That would be the material she’d work with.
Ray Bradbury did the same thing. He used to say he’d wake up and step on a land mine, words exploding, then he’d spend the rest of the day picking up the pieces–meaning, finding the story trying to get out.
That’s what NaNoWriMo feels like for most people. And even though I’d done my planning, I still wanted to take full advantage of the boys. So I started doing the following, and it saw me through the completion of my novel in a fresh and pleasing way.
1. Start with that breathing
I get comfortable, close my eyes, and breathe in and out, counting down from 20 to 0. I see the numbers as if on a lighted scoreboard. 20 – 19 – 18 and so on. If my thoughts start to wander to other things, I stop and start over from 20. The key is to get to 0  with a quiet mind
2. Keep your eyes closed and step into your story
Pretend you are magically able to walk into a movie screen and be in the movie of your novel. What do you see? What is your Lead character doing? Watch for awhile. Let the images happen without controlling them.
3. Take notes with pen and paper
For me, there’s something freer about using paper and pen to record what I’ve seen. Don’t write in complete sentences. Make a “mind map” of connections. Below are some notes I made on my WIP after doing this “movie in the mind” exercise. They won’t make any sense to you, and you can’t read my scrawl, but you’ll get the idea.


4. Think about the next scene you’re going to write
Now you can be a little more directed. What scene are you working on? I have a structure for scenes I call the “3 Os”–Objective, Obstacles, Outcome.
What is your POV character’s objective in the scene? If there isn’t one, you’re not ready to write. What obstacles will get in the way (conflict!)? What will be the outcome? (It should usually be a setback of some kind).
Then I like to use SUES: Something Unexpected in Every Scene. Let your boys send up some suggestions, write them down, even the strangest ones (these often turn out to be the best).
Do this until you get so excited about the scene you simply have to start writing.
5. Overtime
I want the boys working at night. So just before I nod off, I think about the story. I see the last scene I wrote. I ask, “What should happen next?”
In the morning, as fast as I can get to it, I jot some notes in my journal (this is an e-document I keep in Scrivener). I just write down what I’m thinking, maybe ask myself a question or two. Then I’m ready to dive in for the day.
And that’s my gamset system. So far not one of the boys has complained. I’m betting they never will.

Does this sound like something you want to try? Drive it around the block a few times. I think you’ll be pleased with the results. Just be sure to send down some donuts from time to time. 

18 thoughts on “How to Put The Boys in the Basement to Work

  1. Great post! I can’t believe November is over. This is my first NaNo to finish a story. I planned the whole story out, had a detailed synopsis, and still experienced exactly like what you described: a lot of surprises. They don’t all work but those that do really make me redefine my character’s GMC and make the story so much stronger. (Heavy rewrite ahead!)
    One tool that helps me tremendously is word-sprinting. I find friends to sprint with. If I can’t find anyone I use WriteOrDie, a program that forces me to keep typing or bad things happen. Fingers flying, no time to think, that’s the only time I can turn off my inner critic and welcome the “boys in the basement”. I first visualize the scene, the goal and conflict, and then I let the boys loose. They have never failed to surprise me.

  2. You know, I was doing exactly this Friday night with my WIP. I’m within the last couple chapters of the final draft (no…didn’t write it all during NaNo…unless you use the Barsoomian calendar where November runs from March through mid-December.) and my outline simply says, “big battle scene, bad guys attack in force to capture or kill MC and his mates, MC & most mates escape…barely.”

    Got the bad guys almost within sight, good guys frantically prepare, and….nothing. I suddenly realized I had a big tactical hole that would be completely impossible to escape from in real life.

    I stopped.

    Unable to realistically get past the obstacle, I put the laptop down, got a notepad out and drew a map of the house, the lake and the surrounding woods and trails. Then tried all kinds of defensive configurations, none of which seemed plausible. At 2AM I went to bed and the basement dudes went to work.

    Every two hours all night my eyes popped open and I could see a piece of the story click into place. By late Saturday morning, the scene was sketched out.

    Now to fatten it up.

  3. I like to write first thing after I wake up in the morning, before I am distracted by the business of life. The early hours are my most productive time. Either I visualize a scene before I write it, or I let the writing flow and see where it takes me. I still follow my general synopsis but the detours are where story magic comes in. Have faith in yourself that this will happen. If you have blanks in your plot, very often your subconscious will fill them in along the way, assuming you’ve laid the proper groundwork.

    • Yes, it works for me, as long as I know my character is going from Point A to Point B, according to my synopsis. How he gets there is where the story magic enters. It’s wonderful when you surprise yourself with an unexpected plot twist or character.

  4. I have two NaNoWriMo winner banners now, (2 out of 2, four years apart) and I’m very proud of them both. This latest one was especially fun. Tiring, but fun. I’m a morning person, but to get the time to write before the day job, meant setting the alarm for 6 a.m.

    It was worth it. I’d lie in bed, going over my prompt for that day, and the words would come so quickly I had to get up. Not every day, but the days it worked this way were so much fun.

    It’s a mess. I’m going to need a map. And I will definitely try the O’s and SUE’s.

    But the best thing I get out of NaNoWriMo is the feeling of anticipation. I can’t wait to shape my book, and that is always a good state of mind.

    • Right, Amanda. There are internal benefits to participating, even beyond the book itself. It’s in being a writer, with so many others, and just getting it done. Congrats.

  5. I love this approach!

    I’m a big believer in the Boys in the Basement. In fact, I can still vividly remember reading that section in “On Writing” and thinking “My God, that’s the perfect analogy!”

    I like the idea of getting up in the morning, but currently I have a toddler who is a challenge for that. I usually have to work in my writing around his nap time, and then when he goes to bed, so I’ve really had to figure out how to be creative on command. I also struggled with having a shorter amount of writing time. I’m one of those people that prefers to write in one large block of time, with the middle period being the most productive in terms of word count and being in the zone.

    Of course, just when I’m getting into the groove of things is when the kid wakes up from his nap. I am definitely going to try this approach today.

    I also love the idea of SUES. I struggle with scenes sometimes, because I know what’s supposed to happen, and often times, they HAVE to happen because they’re imparting important information or set up. Trying to make that interesting is always a challenge.

    Thanks for the great post!

  6. Great suggestions! I’m going to give them a try first thing in the morning.

    Is there a more schizophrenic profession than writing? Maybe acting, but that’s it. It’s like your subconscious is telling your rational mind a story. The rational thinks it knows what’s going to happen, but the subconscious keeps surprising it. What a crazy business. I love it.

  7. May I suggest a new program called Scapple, made to work with Scrivener, but can also work stand-alone. It is like your notes, except you do it on screen. I was resistant to anything new at first, but I LOVE this program! I type notes all over it and then connect them in new and interesting ways. It really helps me see where the flow is off and how many ways my characters can relate to each other.

  8. Another excellent post cram-full of great ideas for writers! And I love your acronyms to help remember each process. Thanks so much for this, James. I’ll definitely be sending my clients here today.

    I often think of things just as I’m falling asleep or waking up, and I also get ideas in the shower and on walks… As you say, when we’re not concentrating or trying, when our minds are free to wander…

  9. Right now The Boys are helping me construct my WordPress site on GoDaddy. They’ve been at it all night. So I’ve been pushing buttons and waiting…for things to come together. And that little wheel is still whirling away. Talk about suspense.

  10. I’m planning on doing my own version of NaNoWriMo in December:) Luckily my girls in the basement are always helping me out creatively – just have to corral them into getting it all down on in the novel rather than just in my head. I have notebooks and post it notes all over the place but time to knuckle down and make sure it all gets in the new WIP! Off I go!

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