The Subconscious Writer

By Allison Brennan

At RT one year, I sat on a panel with other thriller writers. One fellow author was shocked that I don’t plot. He was even more surprised when I told him that I didn’t know what was going to happen in the book I was writing at the time.

Thriller writers tend to be plot driven and for most of them, not having a roadmap—at least of the basic plot points—can be paralyzing. But thriller and mystery writers aren’t the only people out there who can be anal plotters. Take the fabulous Suzanne Brockmann, who writes romantic suspense. 

I took an online class from her in December of 2003 about writing connected stories (as opposed to a series.) I had just sent out THE PREY to agents, including several who were reading the full manuscript, and I was very excited because I’d never had so many request the complete with my first four manuscripts.

I was stunned when she shared with the class that she was a plotter. Not only a plotter, but an uber-plotter—she had 100 page outlines before she even started writing the book! She admitted that it takes her longer to outline the book than it does to write it. She had color-coded notebooks, multi-book character arcs and subplots, and all these were clearly labeled.

I thought to myself, “If this is what it takes to get published, I’ll never be published.”

If I was told I had to write a detailed outline before someone would buy a book, I would very likely stop writing for publication. I’d rather write the entire book first, then create an outline. 

I do not know where my story is going when I start. I do not know where it is going to end. I know who the hero and heroine are. (Most of the time—twice I’ve been wrong.) I know the basic crime. I don’t always know why, I don’t usually know the villain or if I do, I don’t know why. I don’t know who’s going to live to the last page or who is going to die. Well, except for the hero and heroine because I write romantic suspense and they kind of have to survive, or it wouldn’t be romantic suspense.

Getting to the end is half the fun of writing. Finding out what happens is thrilling. If I knew the ending, I wouldn’t write the book. It’s enough to know that my hero and heroine are going to live, and the bad guy is going to get what’s coming to him.

To quote Stephen King. “Why be such a control freak? The story is going to end up somewhere.”

This isn’t to say that all thriller or mystery writers are plotters or all romance writers are organic storytellers. It’s just that I think aspiring thriller writers think they need to have a structure and detailed outline before they write because of the complexity of most thriller plots.

I’m here to tell you that no, you don’t have to.

You CAN if you want to. I’m not going to tell anyone NOT to plot their story just like I’m not going to tell anyone they HAVE to write organically. Our brains are wired differently and one thing I learned early on is that no one can tell anyone else the best way FOR THEM to write a story.

I have a workshop I’ve presented a few times called “No Plotters Allowed: Solutions to Writer’s Block for Those Who Can’t, Won’t or Don’t Plot.”

I’m thinking of renaming the subtitle of the workshop to “The Subconscious Writer.”

I’m deep into writing currently untitled Lucy Kincaid #1. Friday night I was stuck. I had everything set up and I started writing what I thought was the next scene, but it just wasn’t working. Something felt off to me. (Organic writers tend to “feel” problems in the story. I know, it’s sounds all wishy-washy and stupid, but it is what it is. And I really hate the word “pantzer.”) I put the book aside and started working on a title. My title had been rejected (NO WAY OUT) and I didn’t like what my editor  came up with, then I submitted another title, which they liked but didn’t feel was right, so it’s back to the drawing board. (Aside: Lucy #1 is coming out in January of 2011, and Lucy #2 is coming out in March 2011. Lucy #2 has a title—we think. It’s not approved yet. So I was trying to match the rhythm of that title.) I scoured my thesaurus and bookshelves, pulling out words that have some relation to the story.

Betrayal. Bait. Stop. Tempt. Lose. Lure. Love. Murder. Kill. Dying. Death. Trap. Shoot. Ruin. Entrap. Chase. Thrill. See. Touch. Watch. Predator. Web. Seduce. Snare. Break. Fear. Retribution. Stalk.

That’s about 10% of my list of words. Then I moved to phrases, which may or may not be title-esque. Cry Me a River. Dying Breath. Taking the Heat. Don’t Look Back. No Time to Run. No Way Out. Edge of Danger. Web of Lies. Over Her Dead Body.

Again, that’s just a small fraction of what I had written on seven sheets of notebook paper.

Then I went to bed.

Saturday morning I woke up with not only a title (actually, four good titles that all have the same basic foundation) but I’d solved my story problem!

When I was stuck Friday night, as I often do I skimmed what I had already written. This is bad for me because I usually start editing as I go and that takes time, and often sends my story in new directions. (At least when you’re on a tight deadline, it’s bad.) But since I’d already edited the beginning of this book to death, it was tight and I wasn’t doing major editing, just small tweaks here and there. So when I went to bed, I had the whole story in my head, as well as a couple hundred words and phrases swimming around.

I realized when I woke up that I had the solution already written in the book. I didn’t have to fix anything, it was already there. It was as if my subconscious had the story down even when I didn’t know it.

I thought Character A was watching Lucy out of a sense of paternal protection, and even though he’s a bad guy, he didn’t want to hurt her. He was more worried about her.

It’s not Character A at all! I realized that in two specific places in the story before the midpoint, Lucy had the distinct impression of being watched. But she has a fear of being watched, and knows this about herself, and thus has learned to dismiss the sensations because they happen whenever she’s in public.

My husband thinks I’m very strange. I told him that I was excited because the guy I thought was watching Lucy really isn’t, it’s this other guy who I didn’t even know about but he’s been there all along! Seriously, I had two scenes where he was there and I didn’t even know. When I re-read them this morning, it was so damn obvious you’d think that I’d planned it out. Dan said, “But these are your characters. You’re the writer, you tell them what to do.”

Um, no. When I start telling my characters what to do, they put on the brakes.

My editor is sometimes amused with me, I think. I always do a round of revisions. Always. Even if the book is pretty tight, I always go through it with editorial notes. Virtually every book I’ve written has a completely different ending than the first manuscript. My editor likes this because she feels like she’s reading a completely new story. Most people think I’m insane because I essentially write every book twice. But I don’t see how I can do it any other way. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work for me.

Yesterday, Alex commented about fast writers and swore at me (in her loving, kind and non-judgmental way, of course!) I’m not a fast writer. I’m a subconscious writer. I’m writing 24/7, just not always at my computer. I run through dialogue in the car (when I’m alone—thank God for hands free phones because people think I’m talking to someone else and not myself!) I play the what if game. I think about my characters and how they would react to different situations. When I’m sitting down actually writing, I write fast, but the physical writing is only a small part of the writing process.

In a way, I suppose this is plotting. (Shiver.) But 99% of the time I don’t write down that verbal dialogue I played with. I don’t use a plot point that came to my head playing what if? I don’t put my characters in situations where I know what they’ll do—or, they’ll do something completely different because of a factor I hadn’t considered.

Every writer I’ve talked to has lamented their process. I tend to freak out near deadline when I don’t know what’s going to happen. I write frantically, excited to finally know how it’s going to turn out, and hoping I don’t get stuck. I usually know who the bad guy is, but sometimes even I’m surprised.

And that, for me, is half the fun of writing.

Over at Murder She Writes on Thursday, I posted a short story I wrote called “Ghostly Vengeance” that was printed in a the Walmart “Book of the Month” selection printing of ORIGINAL SIN. I finally got permission to post it on my website (it’ll be up at Seven Deadly Sins Books later this week, but I wanted to give my blog readers an early preview.) Hope you enjoy it!

And no, I didn’t plot it out or know what was going to happen. In fact, when they asked me to write a short story with the ORIGINAL SIN main characters, my editor asked what I’d write. I said, “How about a ghost story?” 

Then I wrote it.


27 thoughts on “The Subconscious Writer

  1. heyjude

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this post. 🙂 So many people say that in the crime fic genre you have to outline, but I’m with you–I don’t want to know the end before I start! It takes away something from the process. And the end always turns out just the way it should.

    (My husband thinks I’m very strange too, btw.)

    Thank you!

  2. Maribeth

    Hadn’t read OS but am on my way to get it as soon as everything opens!
    If you don’t follow the outline thing don’t bother–you are great on your own.
    I’m even going to get the anthology because I love short stories by the pool.

  3. Louise Ure

    Hurray! Another subconscious writer! I’ve had the originally-planned villain change by the end of the book, too, and found characters I didn’t plan on in scenes. But these aren’t "my characters talking to me. It’s the subconscious writer coming through.

  4. toni mcgee causey

    I spent too many years in screenwriting not to have a loose structure in mind as I write. I tend to know the overall arc, the turning points (though they can change), the ending, and who’s doing what at major moments. That said, everything else is very free flowing–I’ll discover characters along the way, or specifics about a character that will change or deepen the story that I hadn’t anticipated. I’ll have a vague sense of a conflict and paint my heroes into a corner and then have no clue for a while how they’re getting out of that, but almost always, the way is already built into the story, as if I’d planned it. So definitely, a lot of subconscious writing going on.

    I particularly love the epiphanies like you had about the other guy who was watching Lucy. I’ve had those and once you’ve had them, it seems so obvious because it looks like it was right there in the text, easy as pie. These are the discoveries along the way that make writing a pure joy.

  5. billie

    Love this post – I work the same way. I don’t think it’s wishy-washy at all – it’s just a different way than outlining. If you love it, and it works, it’s an amazing way to write.

    I always read from the beginning when I write, and I always find things I don’t actually remember writing, but that fit perfectly and open up the path to the next section.

    I have never lamented this way of writing – but I am not operating under hard deadlines. But it’s a reason I would hesitate to sign a multi-book deal. I don’t want to mess with my process.

  6. Allison Brennan

    heyjude, I’ve wondered if thriller writers plot more because they’re men, but Stephen King doesn’t plot so gender may not play a role in the creative process. I think men generally are more linear in thinking and women are more emotive, drawing conclusions based on seemingly disparate facts. Yet some of the most anal plotters I’ve ever met are women. It’s just the way we’re all wired differently! My kids think I’m weird, too, because I once said to my oldest daughter when I was brainstorming something and she offered a suggestion, "But my heroine wouldn’t do that."

    Thanks Maribeth! I’ve really learned to love writing short stories. I wrote a paranormal for the Horror Writers Anthology coming out in October 🙂

    Yeah Louise! Another organic writer 🙂

    Yeah, Toni gets the brunt of my subconscious mind as I shoot off emails at all hours of the day and night asking if something makes sense or is plausible. 🙂 I do have a basic understanding of story structure, but I don’t really think about it. I know when I get to it what the midpoint of the book is–after I write it. True. Then I look at my word count and see if I’m short or long. When I was writing OS the midpoint is when Moira finds Rafe near death in an abandoned cabin. It’s actually a very quiet scene–no major action–but there is a huge amount of information that foreshadows the rest of the book and also changes the stakes. When I wrote it I realized then that the book was going to go long.

    billie, same here! I read something and think, wow, I must have subconsciously known that! As far as contracts? You can pretty much set your delivery dates (within reason) but you have to know what you want. One book a year, two books — don’t hesitate to sign a multi-book deal! You negotiate delivery in the contract.

    Thanks, Pari. Thanks. 🙂

  7. Allison Brennan

    Dusty, I have to write 1-2 pages for sales for every book. When I look at it again, I laugh because it looks nothing like the final book. Then I go re-write the cover copy because that’s what’s used to draft it. :/

  8. kathy bremner

    I shall take this post, print it, laminate it and hang it on my wall! For the last year, the ‘other’ kind of writers have been intimidating me and my writing has stalled miserably because I’ve tried to do all those ‘other’ things.

    I too hate the word pantzer and will now cling to subconscious and organic.

    I used to love sitting down at the computer and reading a story as it came from my fingertips. Then I started to loath the whole procedure as I struggled to write ‘properly’ with outlines and plans.

    About a month ago I decided to toss it all aside and just write for fun and I’m back to rattling off pages a day. Now, hearing that someone like you has a similar writing style to my own, I’m just tickled!


  9. Perry Wilson

    Hi, I like your take on this – I think people do tend to assign plotters to thrillers and mysteries because they are complex, but I have to say it’s not about the book it’s about the author. I’ve posted the link to it on our PaperBox Books blog.

  10. BCB

    I love it when you all write posts about your process. Everyone has such different ways of creating a story. It makes me feel better. I’m too new at this to have a process (and probably shouldn’t even talk about it, seeing as how I’ve only just recently completed a rough draft — yay me!) but so far it’s been a weird mix of subconscious writing and plotting afterward. No, that’s not quite right — more like taking a plot template and laying it on top of what I’ve written, like a dress pattern (not that I can sew), and seeing where there are little gaps that need to be filled in but realizing everything is pretty much in the right place. Which is an awesome feeling — when you think you’ve been making a huge mess and getting it all wrong and struggling with structure and then see that apparently you were doing it right after all. If that makes sense.

    But pretty much everything has changed from what I thought the story would be when I started it, except for the original premise and main characters. It’s so much better. Maybe someday I’ll be able to write in a more organized manner, but I kind of doubt it.

    And I’m glad you said what you did about not telling writers they HAVE TO do something a certain way. I see so many writers around the internet who are trying to teach others "how to write" and doing a pretty good job until they start speaking in absolutes. While it may be true that they have to do things a certain way, or even that several other writers they know have to do it that way, it’s not true that everyone has to. It’s harmful, especially to new writers who don’t have confidence in their writing, to send that kind of message. There is no right or wrong way to write. Whatever works for each of us is absolutely perfect.

    But I do love hearing what works for others. Because you never know when you might find a better way.

  11. Paula R.

    Hey Allison, thank you for writing about the subconscious writer (LOVE that title btw). I am a newbie, and I don’t plot. I find it a very difficult task to do because characters do take you in different directions. As I write, the story goes to places, I didn’t expect them to. I know what I want, but the characters want something else. Like you, I know who my H and h are, and I know they get together somehow, after overcoming whatever obstacles come their way, but I don’t know how they will do that. I am working on my first manuscript now, and I can’t wait to see direction things take. Hopefully, when I am done, everything connects seamlessly. It think it is a good story now, but I know that after revision it will be a much better one.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  12. Shizuka

    Allison, can you teach that class again?
    On the East Coast somewhere or online?
    Outlining definitely isn’t working, but my subconscious isn’t talking
    to my conscious in a language I understand. Not most of the time.

  13. JT Ellison

    Okay, that’s just creepy. You’ve pretty much crawled in my head and explained, moment for moment, point for point, exactly what I do, how I think, and how I title. So I’m a thriller writer who doesn’t outline, because it feels so incredibly constraining to me. I love Subconscious Writer, I’m using that from here on out.

  14. Allison Brennan

    I’m glad the post resonated with you Kathy! I think the most important thing is the WRITE. Editing and rewriting are part of the process. If you need a detailed outline to write, have an outline. If you need major plot points and nothing in between like Toni? Great. If you hate outlines and wouldn’t write the book if you had to write the outline first? Then just write.

    Thanks Perry! 🙂

    EXACTLY BCB! (And congrats on finishing your first rough draft!!! That’s a terrific achievement. Most people who want to write never get that far.) There are NYT bestselling authors who are anal plotters. There are NYT bestselling authors who don’t plot at all. There’s a story about Nora Roberts that after she sold her first book, they wanted another one but wanted to see a detailed synopsis first. She wrote the book, then wrote a synopsis from that and sent it in. She did this for several books before her editor found out, and told her fine, just write the book 🙂

    Paula, all writing is rewriting. Don’t be scared of self-editing, because that’s when we make our books shine. Few writers write perfect novels in one pass.

  15. Allison Brennan

    Hi Shizuka! The only class this year is scheduled for Thrillerfest in July, which you need to registered for Thrillerfest (worth it if you are writing anything with suspense elements!) I don’t have as much time to teach anymore, and while I enjoy it, I don’t know everything (don’t tell my kids.) After Thrillerfest maybe I’ll write a long blog about common excuses for writer’s block.

    You’re welcome to it JT! I hate pantzer, and someone years ago said that Pantzers were "organic writers" so I took that. But I like subconscious writer much better!

  16. Barbie

    I love these writing lessons blog posts. 🙂

    I *really* identified with writing 24/7, putting the characters through situations and see how they’d react and especially running through dialogue in the car. I’m like that, they’re there, 24/, full of stories, all the time. I write a really tiny portion of these stories, but they’re all in my brain. You make me feel normal (or, at the very least, comforted to know there’s AT LEAST one person as looney as me!)

  17. judy wirzberger

    People look at me like I’m crazy when I tell lthem I don’t know where the book is going I write scene by scene, and say, "Oh, that’s intereting. She could …." I know where I’m going. The end. Like putting my car in the garage but driving by the ocean or in the mountains or the city before I get there. One never knows until it just feels right.

    Great post.

  18. KC

    What I love about this post is that writing is about finding your own process and embracing it.

    For a long time, I thought most writers didn’t outline and that writing organically was somehow "better." But I ended up wasting a lot of time meandering in the woods with the organic approach. I need a fricking outline. I’ve found Alexandra’s "Screenwriting Tricks for Authors" incredibly helpful in that regard.

  19. Robert Gregory Browne

    I’ve never quite understood why any writer is shocked by another writer’s process. We do whatever we personally have to to get the job done. What works for us. Our method is no better or worse than anyone else’s.

    I’ve outlined and I’ve gone without outlines. I actually like both methods, but have found that if I outline, I can write much, much faster.

    Having said that, I prefer writing without one. I think the work is more spontaneous that way.

    But it really doesn’t matter. Getting the book into the readers’ hands is all that counts.

  20. Mikaela

    I am a plotter. I have to have some sort of outline, since otherwise I wont finish the draft. I have learned this the hard way.

  21. BCB

    Thanks, Allison! (re finishing) There were times I thought I never would. But I did, even though it’s still very rough. It’s an incredible feeling. 🙂

  22. Robert Burton Robinson

    Allison, my characters sometimes have conversations while I am driving too. But I’m curious to know whether you also do this: Sometimes when I am trying to prepare for a real conversation with someone I visualize it. I imagine what I will say to the banker who doesn’t want to approve my loan, for example. I give him my arguments. He responds. I offer a counter argument. The conversation gets heated. By the end of it, I am all worked up. How dare he talk to me that way! Then I have to remind myself that it wasn’t real. It never happened. Otherwise, I will be upset when I see him. This is freaky stuff. Do you ever do this?

    I love the term "Subconscious Writer." When I am working on a book, my main characters go with me everywhere. I find myself imagining how they would react to the situation I’m in. I don’t do this on purpose. It just happens. Subconsciously. It’s great, since it gives me a better understanding of my characters.

    I laughed when I read what you said about your husband thinking you were strange when you told him you don’t have control over what your characters do. I get the same reaction from my wife. In my second book, "Hideaway Hospital Murders," one of my minor characters, Macy, began to take over the story. And I couldn’t stop her—unless I wanted to kill the story. Because of Macy, the story became much more sexual. She nearly turned my mystery into a romantic suspense. But she also became my favorite character, even though she dragged me into places I didn’t want to go.

    And outlines? I wrote my first four novels online, posting each chapter as I wrote it. Talk about flying without a net. I had very little idea where my story was going. But, like you and some who commented here, I was always excited to find out. For my fifth novel, I tried to plan out everything. It was a whodunit, so I figured I had to. I posted it on my site as I wrote it, staying fairly close to my outline. I happy with how it worked out, but it just wasn’t as much fun. And if I’m having less fun, I imagine the same is true for the reader.

    So, I’m writing my new mystery novel, "Rebecca Ranghorn," offline. But I’m not outlining it. I agree that strong characters will drive the plot. And who knows where they will take me this time? It’s dangerous to live this way. But it’s a lot more fun.


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