Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Subconscious Writer

by Dina Sleiman

In novelist circles you hear a lot about plotters (authors who carefully plan their books in advance) and pantsers (authors who write by the seat of their pants and make discoveries along the way.) I’ve even heard the term “organic” writer tossed around lately, which is a prettier name for pantser. I’m a combination. I like to start a book organically, but at some point I can see through to the ending quicker than I can type, at which point I write a synopsis to help me remember the story. Sometimes I really think I need a new kind of name for myself. I propose, "The Subconscious Writer."

Why subconscious? Because so much of my creative process takes place on a level even I do not understand. Ideas percolate under the surface, maybe for weeks, maybe for months, maybe for years. At some point they burst out like a geyser. Characters are talking to me, scenes unfolding in my head, worlds evolving, and I’m frantically trying to get them down on paper before I lose them. I’m sure if push came to shove, I could sit down and come up with an idea and craft a book like a normal person, but that’s not the way I typically do it, and it’s not the way I desire to do it.

An upside of this subconscious process is that I rarely deal with writers block. If the words and scenes aren’t there, I simply don’t write. If I’m under some sort of deadline, I will sit down and read the last chapter or so, and then try to write a few paragraphs. Often, that will stir things up and get them moving in my head, and I’m on my way again. If not, I don’t push it. And if possible, I wait for that exciting artistic wave, because it’s so much more fun to surf it than to try to paddle against the current.

When I returned from Colorado a few weeks ago, I had every intention to work on my newest novel, Chivalrous. This is one I needed to plot in advance for the publisher, but I had my first solid creative burst before my trip and the novel was well under way. However, when I returned, I could just tell. It didn’t want to come. My subconscious was trying to unravel things. I didn’t feel any leading from the Holy Spirit to write. And so I didn’t.

Instead, I did what I felt prompted to do. I worked on me. On the trip, God had been dealing with my heart, and I wanted to continue that work. Over the next few weeks, I read a lot of nonfiction books about the spirit, personality, and the true self. During that time, a few ideas welled up from my subconscious about places in the book where I needed to tweak the plot to be truer to the heroine’s character. Then finally, while reading Desire: The Journey We Must Take to Find the Life God Offers, bells went off in my head. There was a lesson in that book that my heroine desperately needed to learn. Problem was, I needed to learn it too. And Gwendolyn couldn’t learn it until I did first.

What if I had rushed the process? What if I hadn’t waited for my subconscious to untangle things? What if I had pushed ahead of the prompting of the Holy Spirit? I still would have written a good book, but it would have been missing something. It wouldn’t have been all God intended it to be.

I desire to write hand in hand with God in a creative partnership. (He’s so much smarter and more creative than me.) I can’t do that by rushing through a novel. In the end, being a “subconscious writer” isn’t the goal. It’s just the process. The ultimate goal, whether pantser or plotter, is to be led by the Holy Spirit and allow him to flow through every word we put on the page. This is how to write with a godly passion that will cause our readers to fall in love with our stories and transform them from the inside out.

Readers, have you thought about how authors write? Would you rather read a story that is planned or that develops naturally? One written out of practicality or passion? Writers, what is your process like?


Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Check out her novels Dance from Deep Within, Dance of the Dandelion, and Love in Three-Quarter time. And please join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at


  1. i like that term "subconscious" writer. i'm a strong believer in letting my subconscious percolate or chew on something. i've done it often for my graphics and animation processes - especially when my supervisor has asked for something that hasn't been tried before.

    i think i sort of do that now with my writing, but i'm still in that newbie stage where i'm not sure where it's going, but i want to be faithful to get words on paper and see where the Lord leads.

    very cool post - thanks for the insight. i hope you loved Colorado. that's my native home and do miss it very much. being on the beach in Virginia is some compensation except even after 17 years transplanted, i can't seem to deal with the humidity. *heh*

    1. Yes, that percolation process is so important. I think that's why most of the recommendations for dealing with writers block involve activities that allow your mind to wander free, like mundane chores and exercise. And of course sleep in the best percolation time.

      I have loved both of my trips to Colorado. But, I'm just the opposite. I don't think I'd want to live there because it's so dry and barren, although I did better with the dryness and altitude this year. Hardly noticed them at all.

  2. Wow, Dina. That's an incredible process. It's really fascinating. I let things percolate, too, but in a different way. I know what it is I want to write, and I don't usually know what surrounds the idea. That's when I would stew over it until it all makes sense. That usually happens while I'm washing dishes or something. The problem for me right now is that the process isn't working well with all of the data rolling around in my head from work. I haven't figured out how to get the two to mesh well so I can get my process back.

    1. Yes, as I just mentioned to Deb, house chores, exercise, and sleep are my best percolation times.

      And I agree, it's hard to write when so many other things are fighting for space in our brain. I'm always amazed when people with little kids successfully write, because I couldn't deal with all that noise and chaos and people needing me all the time and still be creative in the long, sustained sort of bursts needed for novel writing.

    2. Maybe a writing retreat is in order, Suzie ;)

  3. I've always been a pantser. But the trouble with that (I'm discovering now) is that you get to the end of the story and there are lots of pieces missing. I've spent this week working on a synopsis for a story I'm a third of the way through. I'm hoping it will help keep me from falling into that "can't finish the story" abyss again!

    Good point about percolating. If I consciously allow my story to percolate while I'm doing other things (baking is good for percolating, esp. cookies) I do much better when I sit down to write!

    1. I think if you're a panster it is important to go back in editing and make sure the bones of your plot are strong. Whether you do it before writing or after writing, it still has to be done.

  4. My subconscious is pondering your post.

  5. One of my favorite writers' quotes is:

    “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp.”

    ― W. Somerset Maugham

    I have to get my quota done every day, or I'll never make my deadlines, so I have to make sure "inspiration strikes" on a regular basis.

    Most of the time, that means I write the parts of the book that excite me on that day and leave the rest for "the boys in the basement" to mull over while I'm sewing or cleaning the cat box or something else glamorous. The downside is that I eventually reach a point where I have to fill in all those fiddly bits I didn't want to have to do, the mundane parts that get you from one exciting part to the next.

    Though I didn't enjoy it while I was doing it, I'm glad now that I had to write a detailed outline for the book I'm working on. It keeps me out of those "what in the world to I do now?" slumps. I still don't know if I'd go that route without being required to.

    I usually have a beginning and an outcome and a few major stops along the way and then let my characters travel whichever way they like to get there. It makes for a fun journey.

    1. You know, DeAnna, I understand that daily writing works for most people. But when I force myself like that, my writing stinks and takes tons more time to edit. But that's a really good idea to write the parts of the book that you feel excited about. I find that I often write the scenes from one characters point of view all in a row before switching to another character, even though I will weave the scenes together in the book.

  6. My problem is that my deadlines just won't wait for me to be inspired, especially when writing a series. Usually I have new book to plot at the same time I'm finishing up the current manuscript, and that's at the same time I'm doing edits for the last book. Add in interviews and promotional stuff and "what can you give us on the next three books" and so on. I have to stay on schedule.

    But I've found every writer works differently. It's always interesting to see how others do it. :D


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