Eight Tricks to Tap Your Subconscious for Better Writing

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

The subconscious is the writer’s superpower. Ideas, imagination, and inspiration live in that vast reservoir.

The goal is to open a channel between the conscious mind and the subconscious to allow free flow between them.

Like a physical muscle, the subconscious is a mental muscle that can be made stronger with exercise. Many writers don’t use it enough because they don’t understand its value or don’t know how to tap into its depths.

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The mind is often compared to an iceberg—only a small part shows as “conscious” while the unseen majority is “subconscious.”

What is the subconscious? Novelist/writing instructor Dennis Foley reduces the definition to a simple, beautiful simile:

The subconscious is like a little seven-year-old girl who brings you gifts.

Unfortunately, our conscious mind is usually too busy to figure out the value of these odd thoughts and dismisses them as inconsequential, even nonsensical.

The risk is, if you ignore the little girl’s gifts, pretty soon she stops bringing them and you lose touch with a vital link to your writer’s imagination. But if you encourage her to bring more gifts, she’s happy to oblige.

Sometimes the little girl delivers the elusive perfect phrase you’ve been searching for or that exhilarating plot twist that turns your story on its head.

At those times, she’s often dubbed “the muse.”

The trick is how to consistently turn random thoughts into gifts from a muse. Here are eight tips:

#1 – Be patient and keep trying.

Training the subconscious to produce inspiration on demand is like housetraining a puppy.

At first, it pees at unpredictable times and places. You grab it and rush outside. When it does its business on the grass instead of expensive carpet, you offer lots of praise. Soon it learns there is a better time and place to let loose.

Keep reinforcing that lesson and your subconscious will scratch at the back door when it wants to get out.

#2 – Pay attention to daydreams, wild hare ideas, and jolts of intuition. Chances are your subconscious shot them out for a reason, even if that reason isn’t immediately obvious.

Say you’re struggling over how to write a surprise revelation in a scene. Two days ago, you remembered crazy Aunt Gretchen, whom you hadn’t thought about in years. Then you realize if a character like her walks into the scene, she’s the perfect vehicle to deliver the surprise.

#3 – Expect the subconscious to have lousy timing.

That brilliant flash of inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient moment. In the middle of a job interview. In the shower. Or while your toddler is having a meltdown at Winn-Dixie.

Finish the task at hand but ask your subconscious to send you a reminder later. As soon as possible, write down that brilliant flash before you forget it.

#4 – Keep requests small.

Some authors claim to have dreamed multi-book sagas covering five generations of characters. Lucky them. My subconscious doesn’t work that hard.

Start by asking it to solve little problems.

As you’re going to bed, think about a character you’re having trouble bringing to life. Miriam seems flat and hollow but, for some reason you can’t explain, she hates the mustache on her new lover, Jack. Ask your subconscious: “Why?”

When you wake up, you realize Jack’s mustache looks just like her uncle’s did…when he molested Miriam at age five.

Until that moment, you didn’t even know Miriam had survived abuse…but your subconscious knew. That’s why it dropped the hint about her dislike for the mustache. She becomes a deeper character with secrets and hidden motives you can use to complicate her relationship with Jack.

#5 – Recognize obscure clues.

This tip takes practice because suggestions from the subconscious are often oblique and challenging to interpret.

You want to write a scene where a detective questions a suspect to pin down his whereabouts at the time of a crime. You ponder that as you drift off to sleep. The next morning, “lemon chicken” comes to mind.

What the…?

But you start typing and pretty soon the scene flows out like this:

“Hey, Fred, you like Chinese food?”

“Sure, Detective.”

“Ever try Wang’s all-you-can-eat buffet?”

“That’s my favorite place. Their lemon chicken is to die for.”

“Yeah, it’s the best.”

[Fred relaxes] “But not when it gets soggy. I only like it when the coating is still crispy.”

“Right you are. I don’t like soggy either.”

“Detective, would you believe last night I waited forty-five minutes for the kitchen to bring out a fresh batch?”

“Wow, Fred, you’re a patient man. About what time was that?”

“Quarter to eight.”

“So you must have been there when that dude got killed out in the alley.”

[Fred fidgets and licks his lips] “Um, yeah, but I didn’t see anything. I had nothing to do with him getting stabbed.”

“Oh really? Funny thing is, nobody knows he got stabbed…except the killer.”

Lemon chicken directed you to an effective line of questioning to solve the crime.

#6 – Tiny details pay big dividends.

You’re writing a story about a woman, Susan, searching for her dead grandmother’s missing diamond. In the description of Granny’s garden, an empty snail shell appears. Seems kind of silly but it’s first draft so you leave in the detail. You can always cut it later.

In the second draft, you realize, when Susan was little, she and Granny used to collect snail shells.

Now Susan goes outside and picks up that empty shell you’d left earlier in the garden. The diamond falls out.

Before she died, Granny hid the diamond where only her beloved granddaughter would think to search because of her long-ago interest in snail shells.

Like the mustache mentioned earlier, you didn’t know the story needed that detail but your subconscious did. It planted the seed, sat back, and waited for you to recognize it.

#7 – Bigger problems need more time.

In my WIP (working title: Eyes in the Sky), an unseen mastermind is pulling strings to cause harm to the main characters. At page 100, that antagonist is revealed to the reader but remains unknown to the protagonists.

A beta reader suggested keeping his identity secret until even later to increase suspense. It was a great point but would require major rewriting.

For several weeks, I pondered the problem both consciously and subconsciously.

At last, my muse offered a different solution. The mastermind is still identified at page 100. But now suspicion additionally falls on a minor player. That secondary character has an even more compelling motive to harm the protagonists. I simply hadn’t recognized it until my subconscious brought it to my attention.

Rather than withholding the identity longer, instead I beefed up the additional suspect to make the reader wonder which antagonist is the ultimate villain.

Tip #8 – Practice trigger activities.

Whenever a story gets caught in a corner, I go for a walk. I stretch out stiff muscles, breathe fresh air, and let my mind wander.

Before long, the solution pops up from my subconscious and I rush back to the keyboard.

Walking is my trigger activity. It works. Every. Single. Time.

That’s because, for years, I’ve conditioned my subconscious. Like a bell at a factory that signals the start of the shift, a walk signals my subconscious that it’s time to go to work.

Through experimentation, you can find a trigger activity that opens the channel between your conscious and your subconscious. It might be listening to music, reading, playing basketball, meditation, skydiving—what you do doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.

Once you find your best trigger, use it whenever you need your subconscious to produce. The more often you use it, the stronger the reinforcement between the activity and the results.

Photo credit: Pixabay

 

That little seven-year-old girl wants to please you. She is happy to bring gifts as long as you keep encouraging her.

When the channel between the conscious and subconscious flows freely, the deep well of imagination bubbles up.

 

Your writing will show the difference.

 

TKZers, do you have favorite tips to access your subconscious?

 

Post script: recently Joe Hartlaub blogged about improving creativity by writing with a font called “Comic Sans.” Sounded pretty woo-woo but I always trust Joe’s advice so I tried it while drafting this post. It works. Thanks, Joe!

 

Debbie Burke is still trying to figure out the hidden meaning in the latest five-star review for her thriller Instrument of the Devil :

“Very easy to apply. Great instructions…Product works great just like the expensive ones you buy at the store.”

Whatever.

It’s available on Amazon here.

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Our Brain and Creativity

By Sue Coletta

Creativity and the brainFirst, let’s define the word “muse.”

A muse is a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist. How amazing that we’re able to tap into her energy and translate our story to the page.

An alternate definition of “muse” is an ancient Greek word that means to be absorbed in thought or inspired. Amusement is the absence of thought or inspiration. Hence why social media can destroy our creative time. Over saturating ourselves with anything, including thoughts, outside and inner pressure, too many ideas, etc., can wound our muse. Ever notice that some of our best ideas come when we’re falling asleep or taking a shower or walk? That’s because our mind is relaxed.

What happens inside the brain?

Dr. Lotze from the University of Greifswald had always been fascinated by the creativity of writers, so he wondered how the brain reacted when they crafted stories. In a scientific study, he took novice writers who’d never completed a story and professional writers who’d authored published books. The results amazed him.

Did you know our brains react differently, depending on whether an author writes professionally or if they’re just beginning their writing journey?

First, Dr. Lotze built a custom-made writing desk. While lying supine, their head cocooned inside the scanner, the subject rested their arm on a wedged block. He positioned several mirrors which allowed the writers to see what they were writing.

Novice Writers 

Dr. Lotze asked 28 volunteers to first only copy a block of text. This gave him a baseline of brain activity. Next, he gave them the first few lines of a short story and told them to continue on. Thus, triggering their muse. They were allowed to brainstorm for one minute, write for two.

Hippocampus in red.

The research showed certain parts of the brain became active during the creative process but not while copying text. During brainstorming, some vision-processing regions also came alive in some of the writers, as if they were seeing the scene unfold in their mind’s eye.

During the writing process, other regions activated, as well. Dr. Lotze theorized that the hippocampus was retrieving factual information for the subjects to use in their stories. Who says research isn’t important?

Another region of the brain, near the front — left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for storing several pieces of information at once — also activated. When writers juggle characters and plot lines we put special demands on that part of the brain.

The problem with this study was that he’d chosen all novice writers.

What happens inside the mind of a seasoned writer? 

Twenty authors volunteered this time. In the same position as the novice writers, Dr. Lotze gave seasoned writers the exact same instructions. Brainstorm for one minute, write for two. Like before, the first few lines had been written for them.

Dr. Lotze’s findings are as follows …

During creative writing, cerebral activation occurred in a predominantly left-hemispheric fronto-parieto-temporal network. When compared to inexperienced writers, researched proved increased left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex activation. In contrast, less experienced participants recruited increasingly bilateral visual areas. During creative writing, activation in the right cuneus showed positive association with the creativity index in expert writers.

High experience in creative writing seems to be associated with a network of prefrontal and basal ganglia (caudate) activation. In addition, the findings suggested that high verbal creativity specific to literary writing increased activation in the right cuneus associated with increased resources obtained for reading.

You can read the full report here.

Let’s break it down in easier terms.

The brains of seasoned writers worked differently than novice writers, even before they began to write. During the brainstorming, the novice writers showed more activity in the brain’s regions responsible for speech.

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” said Lotze. “It’s possible that the novice writers are watching their stories like a film inside their head while the professional authors are narrating it with an inner voice.”

He discovered more differences.

Deep inside the brain of seasoned writers, a region called the caudate nucleus, responsible for skills that require a lot of training and practice, also became active. In the novice writer, it didn’t. The caudate remained quiet. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that when we start learning a skill we’re more consciously trying to master it. With practice, those actions become largely automatic, and it’s inside the caudate nucleus where the shift occurs.

Skeptics like Dr. Pinker, another scientist, said the test wasn’t involved enough to make comparisons. He’d rather see tests between writing fiction vs. nonfiction or other factual information. Creativity might also cause differences from writer to writer. For example, some writers may activate the taste-perceiving regions in the brain when they write about food. Another writer might rely more on sound. Paul Dale Anderson wrote a fascinating post that touched on this difference in more depth.

What’s the best way to summon creativity?

Read a book, listen to music or audiobooks — any exercise that forces us to envision someone else’s story world. A passionate and focused writer can accomplish more in a few hours than an unfocused writer can in a full day.

Over to you TKZers. What do you think of this study? Are you an auditory or visual writer? While writing, can you taste the food?

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Betting On The Muse

 

A couple of weeks ago I started writing my post for today, and said, I need to think more on this before I put it out there. So I put it aside, and didn’t get back to it right away because I’m an all-or-nothing kind of gal. As in, I can only focus well on one thing at a time and I had a pretty big thing to focus on: I finished my ninth novel on Monday morning. May I qualify that? I finished my ninth novel, but the first two were practice novels, and I never sent them out. (But now that I’ve typed that out loud, I wonder why I so easily discount those two just because they haven’t been published.)

Number nine is a mess. It’s quite possibly the messiest first draft I’ve ever written. The Intruder is something new for me: a suspense novel without a hint of supernatural in it, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that it has been a little difficult to switch gears. It’s not like I’ve only written supernatural stories. Fully half of my published short stories are straight crime, i.e. contain nothing surreal or supernatural, and those first two “practice” novels didn’t contain any supernatural elements, either. But when my third novel (first one published), Isabella Moon, which was all about the ghosts, sold for actual money, I figured I should stick with what worked. I didn’t look back until about a year ago.

Writing about ghosts and demons is enjoyable to me. It’s fantasy. An escape. As writers—may I speak for us all here?—we spend lots of time in alternate realities. For me, at least, it’s not much of a stretch to envision realities in which the presence of perceivable ghosts is not only possible, but probable. And why not? There’s certainly a market for it.

Why write something different this time? I wanted to try something new, and my muse said, “Let’s go for it.”

I was struck by something the estimable James Scott Bell said in his January 29th post (in fact, the entire post was very timely for me):

“One of the nice things about short fiction is that you can get an idea and just start hitting the keys to see what happens. It’s fun. You can write whatever the heck you want to, without a huge expenditure of time.”

That feels very true to me about short stories. They’re low risk. If a new story in a new genre works out, you’ve just opened up a new door for yourself with attendant readers. On the other hand, if you’ve written five thousand words of uneditable dreck, it’s only cost you a few hours’ commitment. No big deal, and you’ve (it is to be hoped) had a good time. Hello, one night stand of the writing life.

But thinking about making such a big jump from one genre of novels to another was, dare I say, hard for me. In fact, it slowed my writing down considerably because I was afraid of screwing it up. Of looking like an idiot. I don’t like to admit it when things are hard. (Insert years of therapy here.) It felt BIG.

On the one hand, it is big. I just spent most of a year writing something very new for me. One hundred and five thousand words of new. If I thought of myself as a brand—and, seriously, I have a very hard time with that concept—then this book would be considered off-brand. My answer to that is that all of my published books are similarly suspenseful mysteries, it’s just that they also contain ghosts. How that plays with the buyer for Barnes and Noble, I’m not sure. Marketing myself as a part of a category has never been my forté, and you don’t even want to get me to hop onto my literary vs. commercial fiction soapbox. (Literary fiction is just a genre. Way too many MFA programs are still teaching people to write for Esquire magazine, circa 1972. The End.) But I digress.

On the other hand…really? I’m a writer. The words I put on the page are just words and ideas. Not pearls of wisdom or gold bricks. They aren’t even fully formed until I play with them and shape them into something readable. Writers who think that every word they spew out, or squirt out, or precisely place with the tiniest, cutest pair of word tweezers in the world is some precious, permanent thing are delusional. We are creating. Playing. And if we don’t write what we want to write (again, thanks, JSB and Mr. Bradbury), then it’s our own fault and shame on us.

Here I am, in between hands. Today I print out the manuscript to see it on paper. That’s my first step of editing. You can’t edit a blank page, but you certainly can edit four hundred pages with words on them. Wish me luck.

As I was working on this, I read a post on Facebook (I know. I get distracted.) that asked if writers found it hard to talk publicly about their writing, and I had to laugh at how many people said, “Oh, I just couldn’t.” I love that TKZ folks talk openly and honestly about their work and experiences. It’s very refreshing.

So that’s my vein-slicing for today. What about you? What’s the biggest, most public risk you’ve taken as a writer?

 

 

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