Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Dreamer and the Editor by C.J. Busby

A week or so ago I woke up in the early morning. As with a lot of early morning wakings, I spent the first ten minutes or so half awake, half dreaming. This state of consciousness can feel a little like being a dolphin - diving down and then surfacing, playing around the boundary between dream and wakefulness.

You may be half aware that you're actually in bed, lying in a darkened room, but you are also happy to accept that at the same time you are walking down a sunny street, balancing a pancake on your head because if you let it fall off, the Grand Opera will have to be cancelled.

And then, suddenly, the Editor wakes up. Pancake? says the Editor. Why would that have anything to do with the Grand Opera?


You're awake, and you're not going back to sleep now. The happy splashing across boundaries has been terminated. You are lying in your bed, worrying about whether you remembered to put the bins out the night before, and considering whether your eleven-year-old really needs new shoes or can last till the end of term.

For me, this particular wakening was an unusually stark experience of the transition from woozy, soft-focus dream self, to awake and rational self, and it made me very aware that the properly awake me was a slightly different person, with a slightly different skill set, to the half-asleep me. The contrast is one that I think of as the Dreamer and the Editor. The Editor can't bear anomalies, or lack of logic. The Editor is very good at dealing with the real world, very focused, very analytical. If I had to pin the Editor down to one part of my brain, it would probably be the neo-cortex, and in fact that is the bit that's more or less quiescent when we're dreaming. The Dreamer, on the other hand, is very happy with anomalies, and bits that don't fit together logically. She dives headlong into adventures and then changes them half way through, she adds new ingredients and flings them all together in a wild melee. Then she gets bored and switches scenes entirely.

When I'm writing, I need both the Editor and the Dreamer - but the balance has to be right. Too much Editor, and the story peters out, the writing slows, the head-scratching begins. Too much Dreamer and the pen slips out of my grasp as I start to gently close my eyes... No writing gets done when the Dreamer is completely in control - and even if I could remember my dreams when I woke, they'd be a fat lot of use to my current work in progress, which has no pancakes or Grand Opera houses (although, maybe I should just get a pen and jot that down...)

The trick, I find, is to keep the Dreamer and the Editor in a kind of creative tension with each other. That's why, at the beginning of a book, I like to plot - to map out something of the journey we'll be going on, so the Dreamer is kept a little bit under control. But I can never plot too much, because the Dreamer has to be free to change things as we go along, to add new ingredients, to take characters in a slightly different direction. I think when authors talk about how their character almost comes to life, and insists on doing something they weren't, as a writer, ready for or intending, that's the Dreamer interfering. She's got inside that character, and she's making them into something a little bit different.

The way creativity and problem-solving operates on this sub-conscious level is fascinating. Even when what I did was predominantly analytical, I would find that things got solved and disentangled while I slept, or the solution to a knotty problem just seemed to appear, fully formed, in my head. My most successful academic paper (it won an anthropology prize that paid for my first car) was generated while slightly day dreaming, half listening to a conference paper given by my PhD supervisor. I scribbled it down on a piece of paper, and yes - it was just as brilliant when the Editor got to look at it properly the next day. (That doesn't always happen, by the way. Sometimes the Dreamer misses quite obvious flaws...)

A few days ago, I was working on a scene, and at the end, my characters were all supposed to agree to stay put and wait for further developments. But lo and behold, in the final paragraph the main character said, in effect, to hell with this - we need to go and search for this magical item ourselves, Before It's Too Late. And I sat back and the Editor looked at what I'd just written, and gave the Dreamer a nod of approval. Excellent! Much better idea! Why didn't I put it in before? And the Dreamer smiled an enigmatic smile, and closed her eyes.

C.J. Busby writes funny, fast-paced adventures with magic. Her new book, DEEP AMBER, is published by Templar.


Twitter: @ceciliabusby


Sue Purkiss said...

This is a really good way of describing the process - dream on!

Nick Green said...

It sounds like you work in almost exactly the same way as I do. I plan too, yes... but many's the time I've reached a point in the story, and suddenly realised that what was planned could not possibly happen, because of which people are in the room. This person would never sit and wait, or fail to come up with some sort of plan... And so the plot changes, for the better. The Editor may be very wise, but he or she cannot see all ends...

Becca McCallum said...

yes, this is just the way it works! Or I suddenly realise that actually the story would make more sense if we heard from this character rather than that character, or something clicks and everything falls into place.