Every scene is a dream sequence.
Okay, not literally. But I had a realization this past November, while getting battered by NaNoWriMo.
Having spent most of 2018 digging myself 150,000 words into a dead-end manuscript, I decided to work on something else for National Novel Writing Month. My chosen project was a literary fiction romance I’d plotted seven years ago. Several chapters in, I lost momentum. The beautiful sentences I envisioned simply weren’t coming. Instead, they were ugly, lumbering things that brought me little enjoyment to write.
I was frustrated and disheartened. Having moved in with my parents this summer to focus on my craft, it didn’t take much to send me into a writing-related panic. As many of us do, I began to doubt my abilities and wonder if I was truly cut out for novels.
Attempting to reclaim my flow, I skipped ahead and wrote a dream sequence from later in my manuscript. Surprisingly, the words flowed like liquid honey onto a slab of warm toast. I was buzzing with story by the time I finished the scene. Then disappointment struck. I had to go back to the “real” parts of my manuscript. Why can’t they all be dream sequences? I asked myself. My next thought was, well, why not?
Since this month’s theme is poetry, I wanted to open a conversation on creative writing. I’ve come to believe that regardless of genre—speculative, romance, non-fiction, memoir, whatever—thinking of prose as poetry activates a different part of the brain. Going straight to metaphor is uncomfortable, jarring, scary even, but it’s infused my process with excitement and my drafts with a richness I don’t know I would have acquired otherwise.
Writing dreams forces me to abandon the rules—to see the potential in the real, the magic in the mundane, the metaphorical in the literal.
Before I go on, I want to stress something. I think it’s so important to talk about the ups-and-downs of our manuscripts because it helps us understand that it’s totally okay to be fallible. From an early age, we encounter pristine manuscripts in the form of published novels, highly esteemed classics, and school textbooks. Rarely is there evidence of the sweat, blood, uncertainty, and failure these authors encountered while writing their bestsellers. Sure, some churn out word counts higher than Mount Everest’s peaks or spout perfect paragraphs on the first go, but that isn’t the norm. Staring at a blank page hoping to type miracles on the first go is so intimidating a thought it makes many would-be-writers run for the hills. For that reason, I believe it is crucial that we demystify creative process.
Because of this, I’m sharing excerpts from my works-in-progress to illustrate my point. They have typos, awkward phrasing, and are unpolished. Sharing is hard—I feel vulnerable knowing they are going online, but hopefully they will both serve as examples and help demystify process.
On that note, let’s dive in.
This first excerpt is from my speculative fiction manuscript. It is sooooo not poetic prose. As you can see, this passage is highly logistical.
The focus is contextualizing the scene by describing the characters’ surroundings and sensory information. There’s no metaphor, no simile. Just barbequed squirrel and Woman Versus Wild. This demonstrates the headspace I was in pre-NaNoWriMo. There’s nothing wrong with the style—it’s a different piece, with different goals. The following is a scene from my NaNoWriMo project.
Purely logistical. Protagonist takes bus ride. There’s nothing beautiful here. Now, I’m not saying all writing should be jam-packed with metaphorical language. I’m not actually saying it should be anything. Balance is key, and what you define as balance will be distinctive to your individual process. What I am saying is that forcing my brain to write prose as if it were poetry helped me stay inspired.
Check out the next excerpt.
Dream sequences are awesome. The “white worms” are actually human bodies, but describing them this way early on—hopefully— creates a sense of confusion and disgust for the reader. The grape-haemorrhoids have a similar effect. Ew, right? Making this link is one thing in a dream, where you can think outside the box because you know the laws of reality no longer apply. Below is an example from when I decided to carry this across into my other scenes.
Thinking of all your writing as dreams doesn’t mean you have to ignore the laws of reality within your story. It would be weird if my protagonist’s hands were literal chalices. But it colours the story. The story’s love interest is not actually an elf, but by calling him one I encourage the reader to see him as an otherworldly being. Similarly, with the chalice palms. I like that it charges the tenderness of the scene with an almost religious undertone, although it also could sound pretty dumb, depending on how I develop it. I might cut it while editing, or expand on it like the passage below.
I remember feeling meh about this chapter. After writing the Swamp Metaphor, I realized I could draw it out in a way that might enrich my story. I will edit it out, but at the time it was one way to get from point A to point B. It’s important to take risks and try things even if they might sound dumb. You can always excise them later.
Occasionally, weird things happened.
Here, the demoness simile popped up, as did the line, “I suddenly needed water or I would drown,” which is such a paradox. I think it almost works. Since metaphorical language is concerned with meaning making, it’s a useful opportunity to get into the psychological space of a character. In this passage, my character isn’t psychologically stable, so the world around her takes on a nightmarish quality; the woman at the podium transforms into a demon, and her anxiety manifests as a sensation of drowning.
Writing prose as poetry is an opportunity to push the boundaries of your creative writing in all sorts of interesting directions. Heck, we do it all the time in small ways. But I want to encourage you to make that leap—go straight for the metaphor. Often. See how it effects your writing to say one thing is another. Does it force you to think of your characters, descriptions, settings, dialogue even, in different ways? Does it affect your writing style or pace? What about sentence structure and flow?
For me, choosing to think of every scene as a dream sequence has helped my creative process metamorphose into something different. I’m not sure yet whether it’s a better something or a more pretentious something, but it is certainly a something I’m enjoying.
Willow Loveday Little
Willow is a Canadian writer and poet based in Montreal. She is currently working on the first draft of a speculative fiction manuscript, the second draft of a literary fiction manuscript, and a handful of creative, writing-related projects. Her poetry has appeared in The Dalhousie Review. Start a conversation with her on creative process at @willowloveday or say hello at www.willowloveday.com
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