The Writing Muse: Dreams

Some people wonder where writers come up with their ideas. Well, I don’t actually know that for a fact – there probably is someone out there reading a book and wondering “where the heck did that idea come from?”, but for the purposes of this entry, let’s assume it to be true.

I previously blogged about how fear inspires some of my ideas. But sometimes I rely on a more traditional source… dreams.

Yes, it’s cliché and it sounds silly, and there are a lot of plots that sprout in my brain during REM sleep that might be straight out of the TV show Lost. But every once in a while, something else blossoms there. Sometimes it’s a single image, or a word, or a phrase, or a whole scene. It rarely has anything to do with the novel I’m currently working on, oddly enough. It’s usually something waaaay out there, related to some television I watched before I went to bed, or a magazine article or an image I saw on the web. Sometimes I have no idea where they come from. But they’re enough to wake me up, and flick some little switch in my brain that screams “This is important. DO something!”

When I get those idea-lahar sirens going off, what I should do is turn on the light, write them down and go back to sleep. But turning on the light in the middle of the night to write something down every couple of nights wouldn’t be good for my marriage. The lazy me – which is around more than I want to admit – ignores the sirens and hopes I can remember the idea in the morning. This is almost never the case. I usually remember that I was supposed to remember something, but what it was that I was supposed to remember is just a vague premise. I drop my head in shame and tell myself “Next time, get your ass out of bed. That could have been a best seller you just threw away.”

But on those nights where the idea is so good (or so powerful) that I can’t shake it, I run downstairs, and type it into my ‘What if’ file. I also mark it as ‘from a dream’ and add the date. The date doesn’t usually matter, but the ‘from a dream’ part does… a lot. Often, in the light of the day, things I typed in during that sleepy haze rarely make sense. And in some cases, I shake my head and wonder what exactly was my brain really working on when I dreamed that, and why did I ruin a night’s sleep for that incoherent mess. But sometimes, there is something there. The novel I am currently planning came from a dream, and so far, it’s working out very nicely.

The trick is to separate the wheat from the chaff… the great, game changing ideas which occur infrequently, from the crazy, nonsensical, stress or heartburn driven drivel that I wake up with on most days. The key is to record them all, and then come back to them once your awake brain has the power to blow away the chaff and to seize upon that kernel of real value.

In order to get to that point, you either need a spouse who isn’t going to wake up in a panic when the light comes on in the middle of the night, or you need to have the personal-resolution to get your ass into another room and write the damn thing down. You won’t remember it in the morning if you don’t. The sooner you accept that, the better your writing career will be… you know, if you depend on dreams as your only source of good ideas.

But if you’re like me, and your hand-writing sucks on a good day, be prepared to hit the keyboard at god-awful hours. Have your ‘What if’ file as a shortcut on your desktop. Have a lamp on your desk that doesn’t wake you completely up. Make sure, when you go to bed, that there aren’t kid’s Legos on the floor near the computer for you to step on in the middle of the night. Legos snapped into the bottom of your foot are not conducive to coherent thought. Make it as easy as possible to get the idea written down to whatever level of detail you have, and then to crawl back into your warm and cozy bed, and get back to what you were supposed to be doing when you were so rudely (but hopefully profitably) awoken.

For god’s sake, don’t just roll over and let the idea disappear back into your subconscious. You’ll never get it back. Sure, it might be crap, but it might not be. Don’t make that decision in the middle of the night. Let your conscious mind have a crack at it the next time you’re looking at that ‘What if’ file, and see if it’s wheat or chaff. You may be glad you did.

4 Comments on “The Writing Muse: Dreams

  1. I think I’d go with a tablet (of any stripe) or even a smartphone by the bedside. It makes minimal light (hopefully keeping the spouse asleep) and would avoid the need to run the Lego gauntlet (yes, I’ve done this too, ouch) in the dark, wee hours!

    • I hadn’t thought of that. Of course having my phone by my bedside would mean I’d likely wake up in the middle of the night with an urge to check Twitter. I’ll see what I can figure out.

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