Tag Archives: subconscious

It’s Time to Write Some On-the-Nose Dialogue

It’s Day 8 of JulNoWriMo, and I’m writing some terrible dialogue.  It’s clunky.  It’s stilted.  It’s on-the-nose in that way that every writing teacher on the planet tells you dialogue shouldn’t be.

I’m declaring this to be a good thing.


We’ve all had the experience of having a conversation with someone who isn’t being as nice as they could be.  Someone who doesn’t have a problem looking you in the eye and saying something kind of condescending.  Or rude.  Or just downright idiotic.

And we’ve all had the experience of not knowing how to reply.  So we bite our tongues, or stutter an “excuse me”, or just shake our heads and change the topic.

Then, a week later, we’re in the shower rehashing that conversation and voila, it shows up–the perfect retort.  “That’s what I should have said!” we explain to our uncaring shampoo bottle.

Because that annoying conversation is still bothering us, and deep in our heads, some part of our brain was still trying to come up with a response.

The bad news is that I don’t have any advice for being wittier at parties.

The good news is that you can use your brain’s tendency to get stuck on the dumb stuff you said a week ago to be a better writer.

First, you have to actually write the crappy dialogue.  Let it be horrible.  Let your characters make fools of themselves.  Let them spill their guts all over the page of your first draft.

Second, each night before you go to bed at night, pick a horrible section and read it before you go to sleep.  Allow the awfulness of this passage to bother you.  Not that you wrote it, but that your characters spoke it.  Be bothered by the fact that one of your beloved characters didn’t get the last word.  Imagine how embarrassed your hero that he sounded like a total dorkhead.

Then sleep on it.

Repeat until you find yourself staring off into the distance at the grocery store checkout line, mumbling that perfect line of dialogue over and over again so you won’t forget it by the time the cashier hands over your receipt.

I can’t tell you how soon you’ll start having those, “That’s what she should have said!” moments.  I’m starting to come up with better lines for the scenes I wrote back on Days 1 and 2.  That’s about right…that’s how long it takes me to come up with the perfect retort in real life too.  But my subconscious might be a lot slower than yours.

Here’s the passage from my WIP that I’ll be chewing over tonight:

“I don’t want my record expunged,” Soji said.  “I want a fair trial and I want to choose my own lawyer.”

Ghost cocked her head.  “You liked being court-martialed so much, you want to do it again?”

“I didn’t hide those drugs in the convoy.  Someone else did.  And they got away with it.”

“Revenge,” Shadow said softly.

Soji shook his head.  “Justice.”

“You’re hired,” Ghost said.

“Incidentally,” Shadow added, “when you accessed the file on your new bounty, your implant received an upgrade that will keep us informed of your location at all times.”

He took out neural inducer and tossed it to the floor in front of Soji.

Soji picked up the tiny patch—a sleeper.  He’d be unconscious for fifteen minutes, during which time they would be free to do who-knew-what to him.  I already hate this job.

“What if I need to contact you before I get to the rendezvous?”

“That would be unfortunate.”

Join in the fun–pick a run of dialogue from your work-in-progress that you’d like to improve and try this technique. 

If you want to save me from being the only person sharing first-draft awfulness with the world and post a snippet here, you’ll earn my undying gratitude and a virtual high-five for your bravery. 


Keep the Ideas Flowing: Cultivate Inspiration with Active Incubation

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.”
– Peter DeVries

Great quote, right? But what if you sit down at the keyboard every morning at 9 a.m. and nothing happens?

How can you make sure that you’re inspired on a regular basis?

You’re probably already familiar with the technique of incubation, where you set a project aside and give your subconscious time to transform your ideas and experiences into something new. Sooner or later, your subconscious makes connections that your conscious mind didn’t, and voila, you’re inspired.

But waiting for inspiration–known as “passive incubation” to psychologists–wastes a lot of time. While you’re waiting, it’s easy to get frustrated and start worrying that the muse has abandoned you. Frustration and worry can block your creativity, delaying inspiration. The longer it takes to get inspired, the more frustrated and worried you get. Next thing you know, you’re in a downward spiral and haven’t written for weeks. Or longer.

Active incubation to the rescue!

Thomas Edison was a master of active incubation. He discovered early in his career that inspiration struck much sooner if he:

  1. Clearly defined the problem he was trying to solve.
  2. Examined that problem in great detail, absorbing as much relevant information as possible.
  3. Once he was sure he’d considered all the angles, he deliberately set the problem aside, ignoring it while he slept or worked on other things.

By pre-loading his mind with a clearly-defined objective and a mass of data, he was often able to incubate with a twenty-minute nap and wake up with the solution he was looking for. I can’t promise it’ll be that quick for you every time, but active incubation significantly shortens that frustrating waiting period.

So how can you apply active incubation to fiction writing?

Here’s the two phase process:


Start with whatever you know about the story. Maybe all you know is that you want to write a novel set in that castle you visited on your trip to Scotland. Or maybe you’re sure your heroine is a demon-slayer, but you’ve got no idea why or how she came into her unusual career.

Dig deeper. What captivates you about this idea? Is it the possibility of discovering secret passageways and finding ancient treasure sealed up in a castle wall? Are you fascinated Scottish history?

Do you have a yearning to write a kick-ass heroine who believes that she’s damned? Does your demon-slayer have a magic sword you’d give your left arm to own?

Are you dying to write about something that happened to you, exploring how you might have handled it if you were a different person? What emotions do you feel when you think about this idea? How does this character or setting relate to you and your life?

Now broaden your thinking. What other story elements might be appropriate for this setting/character/etc? Does your initial idea suggest a certain type of plot or theme? Have you read books with similar story elements, and if so, how would you like yours to be different?

Identify what you know and what you don’t know, but don’t worry that you don’t have a complete picture yet. When you feel as if you’ve explored the story idea as completely as you can right now, set it aside for the rest of the day.

Sleep on it. Your brain uses sleep time to process everything you were exposed to during the day, and this is when your subconscious gets busy.

PHASE TWO (repeat daily until inspiration arrives)

Keep your subconscious on track. Take a few minutes to review whatever notes you made, and if a new idea pops up, jot it down. As soon as you feel ready, pull out your usual story development tools—conflict grid, GMC charts, ten-scene plot diagram, whatever works for you—and fill in what you can without forcing it.

Reserve a few minutes each day for quiet time, to listen for inspiration. If your mind is filled to overflowing with the mundane details of your life, your thoughts can drown out the voice of inspiration. Schedule five minutes of “muse time.” Meditation, daydreaming, a contemplative walk, and freewriting are all ways to clear your head and bring messages from your subconscious up to the surface, where your conscious mind can access them.

Seek out new information related to what you already know about your story while you incubate. If your heroine’s major trauma is that she was molested as a child, read a book or article about the psychological effects of childhood molestation on adults. If your hero is a kendo master, watch videos of kendo tournaments on YouTube. Research how castles are built or take a class on life in medieval times. The more relevant information you can give your subconscious to work with, the richer your story will be.

Give yourself some encouragement. Before you go to sleep, thank your subconscious for working on your story overnight, and let it know that you’re looking forward to seeing what it comes up with. Don’t forget to keep a notebook and pen by the bed, so you’ll be ready if inspiration hits in the middle of the night or when you wake up in the morning.

Be patient with the process. Trust that inspiration will come, and don’t let yourself fall back into the old habit of passively waiting. The more consistently you practice the phase two techniques, the sooner your subconscious will have all the pieces it needs to construct that killer idea you’re looking for.

Make it a habit. Don’t wait until you get stuck. Incorporate active incubation into your routine now to keep your creative juices flowing and avoid future blocks to your writing success.

Is there any aspect of your work-in-progress that you’re stuck on or unsure about right now?  

How might you apply the process of active incubation to get clearer on that aspect of your story?

Time Management for Writers: The Kaizen Approach

Have you ever set aside time for writing–maybe even blocked that time off on your calendar in pen–but then skipped it anyway?

How often do you sit down at your desk at the appointed time, intending to start writing as soon as you send a quick email–then realize you’ve spent your allotted writing time surfing the web?

You might think that you need to learn time management skills. But if you already know how to block off time on a calendar and you understand how to prioritize your to-do list, you’ve got time management skills. What you really need are some self-management skills: tricks to help you stay motivated and focused, so that you’ll actually write during your scheduled sessions.

The kaizen approach is perfect for self-management. “Kaizen” is a Japanese word that means “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is the strategy of improving a process by making small, gradual changes that support your desired outcome. You make a single change, and when that new way of doing things has become a habit, you make another change.

Because small changes only require small amounts of willpower, you’re less likely to give up than if you were to make a bigger change. For example, rather than forcing yourself to get up an hour earlier to write before work, you could start by setting your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier and you go to bed 15 minutes earlier. After a week or two, your body adjusts to the new time and you do it again, until you’ve shifted your schedule back an hour and are now used to the new wake-up time. Continue reading