Or… why writing is like using a muscle.*
Our youngest, though approaching two years of age, still believes in at least one, preferable two bottles a night. (Bear with me for a moment. This really is a post about writing.**) Three, if he can get them. Add teething to the mix and our nights are not just broken, but actually shattered.
Last Saturday night, between his 2am bottle and his 3am cry of indignation, I fell into a restless, vivid, detailed dream, one of those that seem to make perfect narrative sense as you dream them. More often than not, the sense—if not the dream—evaporates shortly after waking up, between breakfast and first coffeee at best. I’ve written stories about dreams, and dreaming, but none of them was ever actually based on a dream narrative.***
So on Sunday morning, groggy with sleep deprivation, I went through the mental motions of trying to anchor the dream narrative in my mind, but without expecting anything to stick.
Today, commuting back to Amsterdam on my regular afternoon train, I gingerly prodded the nook in my memory where the dream was still lurking. To my surprise, it was still there, in all it’s Technicolor vividness, detail, narrative logic, and multiple character arcs. Quickly, I got out my tablet PC, and started typing the outline of the images, characters, and scenes that unfolded in my mind.
By the time Amsterdam was announced, I had 750 words of outline, and had discovered to my astonishment what the outline was for.
For years now, I’ve been toying in my head with an idea for the Broken World: a bizarre fragmented world that would be the ideal setting for a fantasy novel. (Or three.) I have the world in quite a bit of detail, I know exactly what is wrong with it, what catastrophe is waiting; I have the backstory, the history, even a bit of its astronomy. What I didn’t have was plot, or character.
Until I finished an outline on the train today, based on my Saturday dream, and discovered that I had actually outlined a couple of chapters, or perhaps even an entire Part 1, of a Broken World novel. The plot, the characters, their bit of the world fits exactly into the Broken World, and the end of the outline ties neatly into the overarching conflict, even though none of the elements of what I dreamed Saturday and wrote today were ever before in my conscious mind.
I once wrote that writing often feels like a traffic light relationship. I’m glad to say we’re currently back together…
* Because I’d probably never have dreamed that dream, or used it to write an outline, or had my subconscious vomit up a large chunk of Broken World plotting, if I hadn’t been working regularly on an entirely unrelated novella. As every writer will tell you: the only trick to writing is to write, and then write some more.
** Or alternatively, if you’re not here for the writing bits, enjoy the bits about Real Life™…
*** Prisoner of war, which I sometimes claim was based on a dream, fits that description only in the sense that an image from a dream triggered the story. In that case, the dream didn’t even have a narrative, just a really scary little kid.