Thoughts about writing fiction

['Venus' sculpt by Alice Wilcock]

Writing fiction cannot be done without the co-operation of the sub-conscious mind. That’s the dreaming mind, the childlike primitive mind whose native territory is the imagination.

Put to it, I could write an article, a sermon, or a section for a non-fiction book under almost any circumstances. Ideally, there is time to think, to prepare, to get in the zone. Sometimes there isn’t. Every now and then arises a fluke situation where 1-2-3-GO! applies. May not be my best work ever, but it’s not far off, and passes muster.

Fiction is different, though. The planning, executing, grown-up mind has no choice but to wait on the tricksy wildness of the sub-conscious mind, inhabit its landscape – basically, do what it wants.

In my own experience (yours may be different) this is why routine and discipline are essential to writing fiction: because the subconscious mind is another term for the inner child. Just as routine and discipline get the best results out of children, so do they from the inner child the writer has to lure forth to write fiction.

And I have found there is a contract that mustn’t be broken. So I can say to the subconscious mind, ‘I expect you there at 5.30 sharp the next morning, and we have 2,000 words to do. You can have breakfast and a cup of tea, then you must push through to 1,000 before you do anything else. After that, you can do physical, active things until lunch-time. Then I expect you back here for the 2nd thousand words. After that, you are free to play. You can watch telly or read or go for a walk, or chat to the people you like. After your 2,000 words are done, you don’t have to do any more work until tomorrow.’

And my subconscious mind listens intently, takes it all in, says, ‘Okay!’ And that’s what we do. Everything goes fine. It’s happy, I’m happy. All is well.

But woe betide me if I break the contract.

This can happen in two ways, both common enough.

One is that I get interrupted.  

I have made three attempts at describing here what might constitute such an interruption, and deleted them all. Best I not identify the typical sources of interruption! Suffice it to say, sometimes they are personal, sometimes professional.

If I am interrupted, my subconscious self / inner child goes nuts. Furious, despairing, wringing its hands, beside itself with rage – ‘BUT YOU PROMISED WE COULD WRITE THE STORY! YOU SAID WE COULD!’

At such times I am hardly accountable for what I might say to those who interrupt me. There’s a reason people who write novels incarcerate themselves in rented villas on faraway islands.

The second thing that can happen is my conscious mind tries to take advantage of a Good Thing. It sees the subconscious mind is out, all singing and dancing, doing what was asked of it, spinning stories like candyfloss made of light. And the conscious mind makes the mistake of saying, ‘Oh, right! How about 4,000 words, then today?’

It’s the old fairy tale (Rumpelstiltskin) of the miller’s daughter, locked in with a heap of straw and a spinning wheel – ‘Spin that straw into gold before morning,’ says the Prince. And she does! She does! Is he pleased? Sort of. He locks her into a bigger room with even more straw in it and says, ‘Okay. Now this one.’


Shocked, duped, betrayed, the subconscious mind stands gaping. ‘Four thousand words? Two. You said two – then you said we could play! You said after two, no more until tomorrow. You promised.’

I find, it doesn’t work if I break the contract. But with discipline, routine and no interruptions, the work moves with joy like the rhythm of the sea.

Novelists, take time to play. Move far away from Porlock.


  1. Brilliantly put. Thank you. I, and my subconscious mind, are off to write

  2. No doubt it's the reason I am dreaming and inhabiting instead of writing - thanks!

  3. This is an excellent image for the relationship between conscious and unconscious mind when it comes to writing discipine. Many thanks!

  4. Oh Pen, loved the way you got your point across. I'm not a particularly experienced writer - especially of fiction - but I could identify with this after doing NaNoWriMo last year for the first time. Absolutely brilliant, and something I need to bear in mind....

  5. Brilliant! This is just how it is. Thanks for describing it so well. But seriously, 5.30??! My sub-conscious mind would never forgive me for that. Full of admiration for you Pen!


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