For me, the creative process is a mysterious one. Sometimes, even downright spooky.
I read craft books, study the structures and elements of stories that I love, tinker with outlining, think up plot points and muse about character motivations and backstory. I’ll fill out calendars for the timeframe of my story and consider character arcs while also taking the traditional three-act structure into account.
However, as much note-taking and preliminary work as I might delve into, the true magic of storytelling never happens in the realm of “thinking something up.” At least, never for me.
I won’t deny I get some solid ideas when brainstorming. I might even get full outlines that I’m pleased with. I can come up with compelling characters and I might even catch a glimpse of how it all ends. What I can’t seem to manage with preliminary work, though, is creating magic.
Author Robert Lewis Stevenson, who based The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from his dreams, once wrote: “And for the Little People, what shall I say they are but just my Brownies, God bless them! who do one-half my work for me while I am fast asleep, and in all human likelihood, do the rest for me as well, when I am wide awake and fondly suppose I do it for myself. That part which is done while I am sleeping is the Brownies’ part beyond contention; but that which is done when I am up and about is by no means necessarily mine, since all goes to show the Brownies have a hand in it even then.”
In this wonderful quote, I believe that the “Brownies” Mr. Stevenson is referring to might just as easily be called the subconscious.
My subconscious, I have found, is a far better organizer than I am. Even if I’m working with an outline, I don’t ever force myself to adhere to it completely. In fact, if a story begins to take off in a new direction, I usually let it, if only to see what will happen and if it might work. Art, after all, should also be play. And play can be messy. Usually, that is how I find the gold. Or rather, that’s how the gold finds me. And by “gold,” I mean the all the stuff I couldn’t possibly come up with by consciously thinking and mulling it over.
In my current project, for instance, there is a specific item that shows up in every scene that a certain character appears in. At the time of writing those scenes, I was not purposefully making it a point to link that imagery and that character together. However, since it seems to be such a fitting element, during my subsequent drafts, I can now streamline that imagery, amplify it and take conscious note of something cool that I did unconsciously.
Sometimes, even well after a book has been finished, I’ll still think of the things that tied together at the end and wonder how on earth that happened in the way that it did. In the end, I know I owe it to my Brownies, of course. God bless them indeed.