Monday, May 20, 2013

LTUE--Accessing the Subconscious

Good morning on this bright and very wet day! At some point someone told me we were living in a desert--certainly doesn't look like it right now.

During LTUE I went to a presentation on accessing the subconscious. One of the things she pointed out was that writers use as much of their brains in the process of writing as in high level competition chess.

I remember a story told by one of my brothers in law, who talked about the time he faced a professional chess player. Just casual, not in competition, the man agreed to play him. He apparently took the chess player by surprise about five moves in with a move that seemed entirely illogical. The chess player looked at the board, looked up at him and said "You're thinking fourteen moves ahead?"

As writers, we do that. Whether plotters or pantsers, we have the movements of our characters, the setting, the sub-plots, the main plot, and half a hundred other things running through our heads all the time. Your brain has to balance all of those different aspects and keep some idea of where those characters will be fifty or one hundred "moves" down the line. I look at a chessboard and I can think maybe four or five moves ahead. But at the same time I have no difficulty in driving my stories forward toward that distantly seen goal.

My mind tends to look ahead for the unexpected, the twist that will take the story in a new direction. Hopefully unexpected to my readers. Not just the next sentence or paragraph, but what is going to happen in the next few pages? So I'm writing and my mind is fifteen or twenty steps ahead, working at the problems presented by the characters and how to make them less predictable. Like right now I'm not thinking about the sentence I'm writing--I'm thinking about the next paragraph, its subject and how it will be structured. And the paragraph after that, and the next. The focus might change (as it just did in this post) but then my brain starts to work on the new direction.

As you learn to write and begin to write more your mind develops the ability to move further ahead, planning and directing the words two sentences ahead, then a few paragraphs. Maybe eventually you'll get to the point where you have the whole plot-line in your head, arranging and re-arranging itself as your plan changes.

Some people would say "I outline, I don't need that," but nevertheless that's the way the human mind works. As you follow your outline the brain moves ahead and works out the problems it sees. Most of us are not even aware that this process is going on.

Let's say you plan to make dinner. Your mind knows all the steps, and while you're cutting up onions it's already on to the next step--or the next fifteen. In your mind, whatever you're fixing is already on the table.

You see the toddler in the doorway and your mind automatically calculates the trajectory. You intercept the child's grab for the knife block without thinking, continue to cut up onions, and your head (while simultaneously keeping track of the child, the knife block, the onions and the rest of the recipe) goes off on a tangent about a possible new story line.

Just like in high level competition chess.

More about "Accessing the subconscious" next week, unless I come up with a better idea. And no, this wasn't from the presentation. My brain went off on a tangent.


  1. Love the whole chess comparison! I'm learning that outlining is soooo necessary. Even though I'm such a pantser, I've started to force myself to get the story out first. Fascinating post. :D

    1. Our minds are designed to work this way. Authors just use it more than most. :)

  2. Interesting stuff. It's great that you can hold all that info in your head. I can't hold more than three steps at a time in my head or I get lost. It's great that you can do that. Though I also started out as a pantser I found need some form of an outline, not only so I don't get lost, but also so I don't lose my reader. Still, most of my ideas come while I'm writing.

    1. And yet you know where your story is going, you know where it needs to go in the next few pages, and you develop what is actually happening before you get there without referring to an outline with every sentence. Multi-tasking. :)