Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Writing Dreams

Actually this isn’t a post about writing your dreams. Or dreaming about writing. It’s about what dreams can teach you about writing. (But that seemed like too long of a title.)

First, let me tell you about a dream I had this morning. I usually don’t remember dreams, but this one I do because I woke up during it.

I’m in my car, driving. The sun is high and bright. Heat radiates off the hood, causing me to squint. Despite the air conditioning, my left arm is hot from the sun glaring in the side window. I’m alone and headed back to the house. My husband is at home with the kids. As I turn into the neighborhood, I know this is not where I live now. It is not even where I lived when the kids were babies. It is the neighborhood where I lived as a child from one month to ten years old. Even though I know the way, I take a wrong turn. A car in front of me turns down a side street and I follow. At the first driveway, I u-turn and backtrack, until I get to our street. I roll down the windows and the sharp scent of the pine trees lining both sides of the road floats in. I pass the persimmon tree that has stood there forever, since I was a child and snitched persimmons on my walk home from school. I smile.

I approach the driveway. The house is the same as from my childhood. Except instead of a front yard, there is a small pond. The ground around the pond is wet, soupy, as if there had been a big rain. The mud lies between the water and the green grass that encircles it like a bright emerald picture frame. As I get closer to the house, I wonder about the lake. Will it stay against the hot sun? Will it be overtaken by the grass? What will the fish do if it dries up? Before I reach the house, I spot something lying in the mud, next to the brown water.

A child. A very young child in diapers. Face down.

I slam on the brakes and fly out of the car. Screaming for my husband.

A baby. My daughter.

I run toward her. The mud slows me, but I push through it, gunk caked over my shoes, sucking my feet down. I must lift my right foot high, shove it forward, then drag the left. Lift, shove, drag. Lift, shove, drag. She is still too far to reach.

My baby.

And then I wake.

Lisa Logan could interpret the dream for me, I’m sure. But I really don’t need her to since I know why I dreamed it. The dream itself and the purpose behind the dream isn’t particularly important. What it says about writing is.

I tried to write this dream as I experienced it, as I felt it. Notice the flow. I’m driving. I’m aware of the sun and the heat. The smells and the memories. My sentences are long, languid.

Then something goes wrong. In a flash I know what it is and I react. My sentences (and the scenes in my dream) become short, broken, fast, choppy.

I can’t reach my daughter. My sentences reflect that. They become complicated, as weighted down as my feet. Repetitive and laborious, as I slog through the mud. I’m no longer using words like “emerald,” “bright,” or “float.” Now, it’s “gunk,” “sucking,” and “drag.”

The last sentence is two words. A cry.

As you write, look at your sentences. Make them reflect, support, become the actions. When your scene becomes tense or hurried, your writing should make your readers’ hearts beat faster, not slower. As this dream became tense, I (in the dream) no longer notice the trees or the grass. If your character is about to get shot or is the one aiming his gun at someone, he’s not likely to admire the lone petunia in a pot. He may have seen it earlier, but now his focus, his life, has narrowed to one moment, one thought. And your writing should be just as focused.

As you edit your work, look at the different scenes in your book, whether they’re tense or funny, and make your words and sentences not just fit the mood, but establish the mood.

Is this something you’re aware of as you write and edit?

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  1. You remind me of my editor, Helen. (that's a good thing, btw - lol) As an author and an editor myself, I have learned this valuable element of writing to be constantly aware of.

    Such a vivid dream you had! And your writing of it had me right there - nicely done.

    Could you share a more pleasant dream next time, though? The old ticker ain't what it used to be. :)

  2. That is an excellent analogy, Helen. And a reminder that readers need to experience our stories as if they really were experiencing them!

    L. Diane Wolfe

  3. Good morning, Marvin. You always start my day off right. And I am honored to be in any way compared to your editor.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. "readers need to experience our stories as if they really were experiencing them" - excellent way of putting it, Diane!

  6. Good advice, Helen. But, I wouldn't call that a dream - I'd call it a nightmare!

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  7. Cool! I've never learned creative writing. I just wrote. So it's good to learn these editing/writing skills. Need to check out your blog in more detail.

    Fantasy stories by Enid

  8. It was a bit of a nightmare, Jane.

    Do come back, Enid. Look forward to hearing from you. Sometimes the best information comes in the Comments section!

  9. Kudos to you, Helen, for creating a positive, learning experience with writing out of a pretty frightening nightmare. And you were able to decipher your own dream this way, so that's a bonus!

  10. It was a bit odd, Christina. The dream woke me up and I knew two things right away - why I had the dream and how this could relate to writing.

  11. Thank you Jean. And I'm glad you stopped by!

  12. I'm sharing this post with the writer gang down at the Val Verde County Library. You will be part of our Wednesday meeting. Thanks.

  13. Man, I just had a "kid panic" dream the night before! Now THOSE will get your heart pumping!

    Interesting analogy. And yes, just as a serene, majestic tree outside a child's window can transform into a host of sinister, wicked claws under cover of a "dark stormy night," so should our writing take a turn to fit the occasion.

    The guy getting shot at (or shooting) may not notice a lone petunia...but he may also notice it in a moment of irony. It may stand out in absurd relief, a cheerful splotch completely out of place with the moment. He may not stop to smell that posy, but depending on how it is written, a cameo can still add weight to a tense moment.


  14. Why, thank you, Lisa! Cool.

    Good points, Lisa. It really depends a lot on where you want your readers to focus. It's through your writing that they see or hear or feel or know what you want them to experience. It's part of why we try so hard to perfect our words.

  15. Nice writing, Helen, and good memory to be able to write about your dream so descriptively!

  16. But what if it's a particularly nice petunia? ;)

    Very good advice here, Helen. I know I strive for this all the time. Not sure I actually achieve it, but that is the goal. I'm a big fan of short crisp sentences when the action is hot.

    On the subject of dreams, I once entered a writing challenge where we were supposed to write something surrealistic. I was stumped until I recalled that my dreams are often very surrealistic. Problem solved.

  17. Connie, that's because I wrote it down as soon as it woke me up.

    That's true, Jon. Dreams are often surrealistic. This one seemed based in reality, yet was way off kilter.

  18. Worst dream I ever had was just after I had my wisdom teeth cut out. I was on some prescription pain killer. It was the most frightening dream of my life. And every time I'd fall back asleep it would start over again. The next morning I flushed the rest of the pills down the toilet. I'd rather live with the pain.

    To tie that back to writing, I use that dream for a basis for a lot of dark material, not so much the events of the dream, but the raw emotions it evoked.

  19. Timing is everything.

    This has only recently become a bigger priority for me when doing revisions. I guess I've moved up another step on that learning ladder.

    Changing words, almost rolling them around in my mouth to get a feel for how they relate to the emotion I'm trying to capture and convey. Harsh, nasty words for the grit and danger , and more curved, flowing words for languid descriptive phrases - very true and hugely impactive.

    Well worth getting right.

    Good post.


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