What dreams may come

by Alex

I always tell the students in my writing workshops that if they’re not writing down the dreams they have, every morning, they’re working way too hard.

I’m starting to do interviews about THE PRICE, which comes out next month, and I got that question yesterday: “Where did the story come from?” And because you tend to forget how you started your last book, and pretty much everything else about it, when you’re tearing your hair out over the new one, I had a moment of, “What the hell?” And my mind was scrambling for some intelligent thing to say about my thematic obsession with the secret deals that we make with ourselves about the things we want, but what came out of my mouth instead was, “I dreamed it.”

Which shocked me speechless for a second, and then I remembered. That’s right. It did start with a dream. A series of dreams, actually.

I love that about interviews… they teach you so much about what you’ve written and why you wrote it.

I didn’t dream the whole book, or even the whole idea of the book, which I understand happens to people all the time – and I believe it. But certainly I dreamed the seed that grew into the book.

This is an extremely sad story, but this is what happened (in real life). A friend of mine and his wife had just had their first child, and she was born with a hole in her heart. She lived the whole of her two months of life in the children’s ward of a Boston hospital, and her parents moved into the hospital to be with her. When she died, her parents were too distraught to come home to all the unused baby furniture and clothes, so a bunch of their friends packed everything up for them, and because I have a huge attic, we put it all upstairs in my house. That night I started having dreams of a beautiful little five-year old girl who was not alive but not dead, either – somewhere in between. And that was the beginning of the book – that little girl haunting me in my dreams.

Now, who’s to say why it was that little dream girl who crystallized all the rest of that heartbreaking real-life situation into a book? No one would read the dreams I had and recognize them as the book that came out of that, which really isn’t about that little girl at all, important though she is in it. Maybe I needed to feel the girl first because I don’t have a child of my own and I needed to put myself in the position of her parents to write the book I was going to write.

But there are certain dreams you have that are just so vivid that you KNOW they’re the start of a book. I don’t know if this is true of all authors or artists but it is true of many of the writers, musicians and painters I know: your dreams work just as hard on your ideas as you do at your desk in waking life. And particularly as a writer of the supernatural, I depend on those dream images to give a certain unreality to real-life situations – and to give a certain inevitability to my unreal situations.

I know that this new book is finally clicking into place because I’m starting to dream it, or rather dream I’m in it, and let me tell you, it’s a relief to have my subconscious take over for me, because I was getting tired of doing all the work myself.

I meet a lot of people who say they don’t dream. Well, that’s impossible – dreaming is a vital life function. What they mean is they don’t remember their dreams. Since dreams are so elusive, you need to actively court them to keep them on the surface long enough for you to remember. I’ve kept a dream journal since I was fifteen or sixteen. The more you write them down – even just a word or a feeling that you remember – the more they will start to stay with you. And this sounds strange, but it really works – if you wake up from a dream that you can’t remember, but you know you were just dreaming – try rolling gently back into the position you were actually sleeping in. Many times the entire dream will pop right back into your head, like magic. I don’t know how that happens, but it works like a charm.

And I swear, if you don’t keep that pad and pen, or tape recorder if you prefer, right next to your bed, you will not remember as much. Your dreams seem to need to KNOW that you are committed to remembering them, or they won’t let you remember.

In fact, if I get on a kick of writing every dream I remember down, then I remember pages and pages of dreams, six or seven a night – so many it would start to cut into my work time if I wrote them down.

So you have to find a balance. Or maybe I could get my dreams to do entire books for me if I wrote all that stuff down. Who knows? I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

So of course my questions for the day are – Do you remember your dreams? Can you share an example of a book or story that came from a dream? And do you have any tips about dreamwork in general? And for bonus points – have you ever had precognitive dreams?

27 thoughts on “What dreams may come

  1. J.B. Thompson

    I had a dream once that turned into a daydream and kept recurring. It was at that point that I decided someone was trying to tell me something and that I’d better write it down. It turned out I’d dreamt the entire first chapter of a manuscript, and although that book has yet to see the light of day, I kept that opening chapter intact and true to the dream – all action with hardly any dialogue, a raging river, a rescue and the birth of a romance.

    I haven’t remembered a dream in a very long time, and except for the one above never did write any of them down, although on occasion I find myself wishing I had. I think that’s excellent advice. As for precognitive, I used to have a tendency to dream about people I hadn’t seen in a while and then out of the blue they’d contact me. Hasn’t happened recently – which is not such a bad thing because it started to freak me out after a while … 😉

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  2. JT Ellison

    Alex, the entire plot for Pretty Girls was from a dream. I got up in the middle of the night and wrote 13 pages in a reporter’s notebook so I wouldn’t lose it.

    I know exactly what you mean about dreaming the current WIP. I know it’s working if I’m experiencing it.

    And your post is so timely because I was thinking about the genesis for the new book, 14, while I finished the CEs yesterday (yay, they are DONE!) I built the entire book around a single scene. And it was something between Taylor and Baldwin instead of murder, or death. Weird, but true.

    Can’t WAIT to read The Price!!!

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  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Two great examples!

    JB, that kind of precognition you’re talking about seems to happen all the time. There’s a theory – and I wish I could remember who said it – that since time is a spiral, then just as we remember the past we can also remember the future. I think that’s a fascinating thought.

    I know, JT – a dream about a book doesn’t have to do with the main story at all – but it is somehow the critical mass that makes you say – Eureka!

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  4. pari noskin taichert

    I’ve had some vivid dreams, Alex, but none yet have landed in my works.

    However, I look forward to going to bed tonight . . .

    BTW: Hold a good thought for me, everyone. Today is the big launch of SOCORRO. Yee haw!

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  5. Catherine

    I’ve had a few pre-cognitive dreams.The one that stands out the most is reading a letter with a Government letter head advising me about the birthplace and age and name of my natural half sister and also the ages of my half brothers. Though in my dream it was clear about my sister and one half brother. My youngest brother I thought was another sister.

    I found my natural mother 3 days later.My little brother shares my sense of humour and was ok with an apology re:mixed dream gender.

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  6. Diane Chamberlain

    >>if you wake up from a dream that you can’t remember, but you know you were just dreaming – try rolling gently back into the position you were actually sleeping in.< < Alex, taking the above to the extreme: I may forget all about my dreams until I go to bed the following night. When my head hits the pillow, they come back to me. Spooky. There’s so much we don’t know about our dreams. Why is it then some people never remember dreaming while people like me remember four or five a night? In my unscientific research, it seems that more women than men remember their dreams.

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  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Wow, Catherine, that’s a huge precognition. But I hear about that kind of thing all the time. We are so much more turned in than we know.

    Diane, that’s really interesting – that you remember your dreams the next night when you’re back “in position”. Whatever works, I say!

    HUGE congratulations on SOCORRO, Pari!! If there weren’t a marathon blocking me in today I’d go right out and buy it. But tomorrow!

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  8. Christa M. Miller

    I just completed a short story that was the result of two dreams I had. As soon as I finished it, I realized it would make a great novel(la), so I’m working on an outline now.

    I’ve had other dreams like JD’s – complete stories. The major challenge I have with setting them down is translating the surrealism in them. Of course they make sense in my head, but not on paper, many times. So finding the words can make a dream project take much longer than a more conventional story.

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  9. spyscribbler

    I rarely dream details of my stories, but daydreaming in the world of my story is something I probably spend three or four hours a day at, while I’m going about the business of the day. Then when I sit to write, I don’t much have to make up stuff; I’ve already done it.

    My sleeping dreams are way too self-centered, lol.

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  10. Angelle

    When I was about 19, I had a series of dreams about a rebellion under a totalitarian coup in a near-future America. They went on for months and I took copious notes, but I wasn’t ready to turn them into anything back then. I really hope to one day – they were pretty cool.

    As for my current WIP, started with a dream of being in a big rambling house and following a little man through a hole in the wall and something about a “Downsman.” Like you, Alex, I don’t know that anyone reading my dream-notes would recognize the book necessarily, but that was the genesis of the story.

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  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    >>> So finding the words can make a dream project take much longer than a more conventional story.< <<< Christa, that’s so very true (and well said!) My most difficult project ever, not a book yet, came from dreams and I just have not nailed it. So frustrating!

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  12. R.J. Mangahas

    I actually had a very creepy experience concerning dreams. A while ago, I had this dream about a writer whose wife had died shortly after he showed her a manuscript that he was working on.

    Several months later, I showed my fiancee a draft of a manuscript I was working on. Not long after, she died.

    I still get creeped out by that dream, though I haven’t had it since then (as far as I know).

    Looking back on it, there is certainly a story there, whether I write it or not, is another matter.

    Oddly enough, the story I was working on was about a man who had lost his wife. I remember thinking, “if this happened to me, how would I feel? What would I experience.” Unfortunately, I got to experience it.

    On a more positive side though, several short stories, and one play that I wrote all had a dream as the basis.

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  13. Angelle

    R.J., that gave me goosebumps on a sunny California morning!

    And thanks for the kind words, Alex – Lord knows I’m looking forward to it being done, too! 😉

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  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeow, I;m with Angelle – that is truly creepy, RJ. Even if you don’t write it exactly (and you really could), it obviously was your subconscious working on the issues of your story.

    And thanks for being the first man to weigh in on the topic – Diane Chamberlain is so far anecdotally right that women are more tuned in to their dreams.

    Yes, that was a challenge. 😉

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  15. Allison Brennan

    I absolutely believe in precognitive dreams. I think our subconscious mind knows far more than our conscious mind acknowledges. I’ve never had one, but I’d believe it if I did.

    However, I have solved many, many problems in my dreams. The first time I noticed it was when I had a computer problem at work. I wanted to extract specific data from a proprietary database we were licensed to use in the Legislature. I called the programmer and told him what I wanted, because I couldn’t figure out how to do it on my own. He said it wasn’t possible. I HATE that answer. For days I thought on it and had no solutions. I was working in the database late that night, went to bed, and when I woke up I had the solution. It was actually a three step process, but in the end, I had the data I needed. The programmer was shocked (I’m not a technical person!)

    In writing, I often go to bed thinking about a plot problem and wake up with the solution. I don’t remember these dreams, I just have the instant knowledge (it seems.)

    I used to remember all my dreams, and they were vivid. So vivid that I sometimes wondered if something really happened or if it happened in my dream. But after having kids, I became a lighter sleeper–I haven’t slept through the night in years. Now my vivid dreams are few and far between. But fortunately, I can still solve plot problems in my sleep.

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  16. toni mcgee causey

    I’ve had a few pre-cognitive dreams, but mostly solve problems as well. The projects that I tend to finish have all started as dreams. The whole of book 1 showed up as a dream, and the beginning and end of book 2 as well as book 3 have appeared, as well.

    I’m lazy about writing them down, but then, I tend to dream so vividly and so loudly, it’s imprinted heavily when I wake up. Also, someone told me they don’t dream in color, which shocked me – I dream in vivid colors. I assumed most everyone did.

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  17. a Paperback Writer

    This is so weird that you’d post on this now — I’m working on developing a story from a very odd, very real dream I had a few months ago!As for pre-cognitive dreams, I call them my “Twilight Zone” dreams, and they happen fairly often. The most goosebump raising series happened throughout 1990, when I kept dreaming one of my students had died. At first I only knew it was a boy, then I actually saw my 5th period class in one dream, and I kept trying to figure out who was missing, then I dreamed of speaking at a funeral in a church I’d never seen before but I couldn’t recall the name of the boy who had died. About 6 weeks after the funeral dream, an 8th grade boy in my 5th perioed class was killed in a freak hiking accident on Valentine’s Day of 1991. I was asked to speak at his funeral — and it was in the very church I had dreamed of. Every detail was exact, except — for some odd reason — the color of his casket.I am not joking about this; it really, truly happened.

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  18. Catherine

    After the first ,I found that any precognitive dreams I’ve had have worked really well as a heads up…It just means I’m a little more aware when something important comes to pass.I think they usually precede something fairly lifechanging.

    The majority of my dreams are in colour, except that letter pre-cog dream was in black and white.I’m also very grateful to be able to dream up solutions sometimes. I haven’t dreamt in animation(sounds fun), but there is sometimes an almost slapstick quality to a few of my dreams.

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  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, it doesn’t surprise me that you’re working out story problems in your sleep. You would have to be, to keep up your pace.

    I love your story about working out a problem that wasn’t even in your own field of expertise!

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  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Paperback, that’s an astounding story. I mean, you could make the case that you were just picking up on something physically perceivable if the boy had died of cancer or some other illness, but to KNOW that something so random was going to happen –

    I just don’t see how anyone can say that there ISNT something huge going on.

    Catherine, that’s interesting that your letter dream was in black and white, because as other people are saying, those B/W dreams really do stand out.

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  21. a Paperback Writer

    When the dreams were happening, I dismissed them because a few months before they started, I had the unpleasant experience of having to inform an 8th grade boy that his best friend (not my student, but he collapsed in the front hall of the school from a medication overdose, probably intentional) had just died. I naturally thought the dreams of one of my own students dying were coming from my brain re-working what had happened. In fact, I didn’t connect the dreams with my student who died until I got a phone call from the family’s neighbor, asking me to speak at the funeral. At that point, I suddenly realized the weird detail of the dreams, how the dream I’d had of taking roll and trying to figure out who was missing had had every kid in the correct seat– but the boy who’d died had a seat last in the row, and it’s always easier to miss an empty chair when there are normally empty ones behind it. Then, when I saw the inside of the church as I sat waiting my turn to speak at the funeral and realized it was the same church. Whoa. Well, it was odd.Now, I’m a religious person, but I still can’t come up with an answer why or how all this happened.But I do tend to believe people who tell me they’ve dreamed stuff that’s later happened…..

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