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 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. 

So She Comes Out Laughing

There’s a man in London, an advertising exec, who talks in his sleep. His wife got a voice activated digital recorder so she could record what he says. Then she started putting those words on a blog that has well over a million hits now. You can read the story here.
He says things like, “Elephants in thongs are not something you see every day. Enjoy it.” Much of what he says is laced with profanity. He admits to being “pent up.” I’d say so.
There’s also a “sleep talkin’ theologian,” Dr. Fred Sanders of Biola University, who talks in his sleep. His wife jotted down many things he said during graduate school, mostly as he was in that phase of just waking up. Sometimes she would prod him with questions and, half asleep, he’d answer. Here are some of the transcripts:
Coming after me
Walking on their hindquarters.
Taking a picture
Of those two foreigners,
And two others.
And mostly it’s us loading our camping equipment into the car
It’s like walking through the woods.
He tossed a coin, and I have to get the rest of the stick
I was in Esau’s soup.
He was going to eat me up.
[WIFE: how did you get out?]
You got me out.
Cut up into little pieces.
More of the same.
A bunch of dull people.
There was a roller coaster right in the middle.
So what does any of this have to do with writing? A lot, if you’re attentive to it.

Dorothea Brande, in her well known book Becoming a Writer, advocates getting up in the morning and, first thing, jotting down what’s in the mind. It is here that rough gems are buried. The trick is to get them out, then choose the ones that are worth polishing.

Stephen King calls this phenomenon “the boys in the basement,” the writer’s mind and imagination working in the background.

It’s something to be nurtured.

Often when I’m in the middle of a novel, working out scenes to come, I’ll go to bed with a pad and pen on the table nearby and drift to sleep asking myself questions. Or I’ll create a scene in my mind and try to “fade out” with it playing.

Then, first thing in the morning, I’ll either jot something on the pad, or get my coffee and start typing the things that come to me.

Not everything is great. In fact, most of it isn’t. But quite often, stuck somewhere in the middle or down at the bottom, there’s gold. I try to find it and refine it and see what it’s telling me about my story.

There’s a great line in the classic movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The old prospector, played by Walter Huston, is schooling two fortune hunters (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) on the fine art of panning for gold. He puts some sand in a pan and pours water over it, then lazily manipulates the pan. Slowly, some flecks start to shine in the sun. He says that finding the gold takes patience. “You got to know how to tickle it so she comes out laughing.”

So here’s what to do, writer:

1. Tickle it. Be purposeful in the use of “the boys in the basement.” Ask yourself questions at night, or watch a scene as you drift off to sleep. Be ready to get to your keyboard or pad as early as possible the next day.

2. So she comes out laughing. Write for at least ten minutes, without stopping, letting the words and thoughts flow. Don’t try to be coherent. Go fast, putting down whatever comes to mind. If you get on an interesting tangent, follow it. See where it leads.

3. Refine it. Later in the day, go back to your notes and start culling for the good stuff. Highlight what you like. Keep these pages in a journal or e-file. At the very least you’re going to end up with an interesting diary of your imagination.

So what tricks or techniques do you use to tickle the gold, come up with ideas and get inspired by the muse?