I was recently introduced to an interesting way of thinking about the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind, which I’ve found very helpful in working on my writing. Think of the mind as a ship, with the captain steering and looking out to the horizon, and the crew working away below decks, out of sight. From a writing point of view, the crew does a lot of the work without the captain even being aware of it, and it’s very useful to be able to communicate with them in order to tap into what they’re doing.
This fits very nicely into what I call my percolation technique, where I place a project or a particular plot point into the back of my mind and don’t think about it consciously for a few days. Most of the time, a few days later, an idea or some kind of insight just comes to me and I’m then able to move on with the story.
Utilising the skills I learned at a NAWG Fest workshop in September (run by Steve Bowkett), relating to the ship analogy, I’ve been able to cultivate this technique and create a more predictable structure for it. Instead of just tucking my story idea away and waiting for my crew to come back to me with an answer whenever they feel like it, I now set them specific questions and deadlines – and, amazingly, it works!
My typical approach to the weekly writing competition I take part in now proceeds as follows. The prompt appears in my inbox on a Monday, and I set it in the percolation chamber of my mind. Around Tuesday lunchtime, I say very definitely to myself, often aloud, “When I sit down to lunch tomorrow, I will gain some insight into my competition entry for this week.” This technique easily can be framed more specifically – eg “I will know how the story I’m working on will end,” or “I will find out why my character is doing a particular thing”.
Sometimes, the answer to the question just turns up in my head at the appointed time, without me even having to think about it. Other times, it doesn’t. However, I’ve learned that my crew doesn’t mean to let me down, and sometimes they just need a little support from their captain to get the job done. On the occasions when the answer doesn’t magically appear, I have found that if I sit down later in the day and present myself with a blank screen and half an hour of dedicated time, the words will just start to flow and everything about the story will resolve itself as I go. The crew were just holding back until I gave them the outlet to present me with their work.
Historically, I haven’t been a fan of scheduling my writing time. I’ve always preferred to wait until the mood strikes, thinking I need to be in the right frame of mind for the creativity to flow. But, more and more as this year has gone on, and I’ve been focusing much more on finishing and submitting things, I’ve learned that I can create that ‘right frame of mind’ for myself. And giving myself a set time and date and venue for writing (if possible, out of the flat and in the company of other writers) has always resulted in much more productivity than just leaving it to my own whim.
Between now and the end of the year, I have several writing dates set up with friends, several others with different writing groups, and two eight-hour train journeys to look forward to. Now, my tendency in this situation is to think I’ll be getting so much writing done on those occasions that I don’t need to worry about writing at other times. But then, in some ways, it’s nice to relieve the daily pressure of finding time to write – and, regardless of what other writing time I find, I know those scheduled slots will give my crew the time and space they need to tell me what’s on their mind.