No, Really, I’m Working

More on work that doesn’t look like work. Sometimes, I work in my sleep. No, really.

You see, I have very vivid dreams, but only if I’m between writing projects or it’s been a couple of days since I’ve written.

This is either a subconscious manifestation of something my wife, Laura, calls “leaking weirdness,” or leaking weirdness is a conscious manifestation of the subconscious phenomena.

In either case, if I go for more than a couple of days without actively working on my fiction, I start to get a little strange. The longer I go, the stranger I get, and the stranger I get, the more frequent are Laura’s suggestions that I “go write something and get it out of my system.”

Basically, as far as I can tell, I need to tell stories, to invent new worlds and people and share them. If I’m not actively working and I can’t get them down on paper, they start to leak into my dreams and out of my mouth, especially first thing in the morning. This has led to such bizarre ideas as llamoflage, and Robert the Bruce Springsteen-you can take our lives but you canna’ take our guitars.

It has also led to some of my better story ideas. Basically my brain, seemingly independent of my conscious will, starts to put things together that might not normally go together, like goblins and laptops in WebMage, or food fights and the twilight of the gods in the short story FimbulDinner.

Mind you, the ideas I get from dreams almost never come complete and coherent. I’ll get one really striking image in a big mish-mash of dream-story that resonates for me. Then, when I wake up, just past the edge of dreaming, I’ll try to identify what’s so cool about that image by telling myself a story about it, filling in a background and future developments that were missing in the dream, and converting impression into narrative in a very conscious way.

The dream provides the seed, but I have to plant it and nurture it to arrive at something that’s worth sharing with others. This is where craft comes into the equation.

Do your dreams whisper narrative in your ear? Do billboards mix with Celtic mythos and drink recipes in your waking mind? What weird and wonderful things happen in the dark corners of your mind?

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    I often dream stories—dreams in which I don’t appear at all. Sometimes they are science fiction or fantasy worlds, other times not. I usually identify with one characters even though it’s clearly not me, and sometimes not even female. I’ve gotten one decent (I think) novella out of a dream but the others were too fragmented.

  2. 2. Cliff Dunbar

    Doesn’t work for me. I don’t remember my dreams.

  3. 3. Stormy

    I know what you mean! Just last night I was thinking how much meaner my dream self was than me. Where as I have a hard time challenging my main character, my dream self threw mean alien invaders, a dying mom who gave me her baby, two deaf people (and I don’t know sign language) and a dark tunnel to crawl through (with the two deaf people who then couldn’t communicate at all.) I couldn’t dream that up awake!

  4. 4. Martyn Drake

    It depends on how much cheese I have first (my secret weakness!). A considerable amount tends to invoke nightmares that I do remember – but these nightmares are not so much scary, but sad. It usually involves a loss of some kind based around recent events. I can never remember the exact details, but much of the outline of it. Would make for a decent drama if I could remember the details, though.

  5. 5. Kelly McCullough

    Stormy, yes, my dream storyteller is often darker than what my forberain comes up with, though I’ve trained myself to add necessary darkness via the conscious process too.

    Karen, mine are, I think more coherent than most, but it still requires a lot of hammering away to get it into a publishable shape.

    Martyn, interesting. Mine are much more coherent in terms of image and world than plot or conflict. The latter two I have to impose ex-post-facto as part of the story building process.

    My subconscious is pretty good about processing the book I’m working on if I’ve got one, that’s why I generally don’t dream vividly during a project. I tend to sleep like the dead and wake up with answers to book questions that were bothering me–of course sometimes that means waking up at 3:00 a.m. and writing but such is the life.

    It’s only the in-between times where my dreams get truly strange, that and when I can’t write for a week or more.

  6. 6. Maria V. Snyder

    My dreams usually do not connect to what I’m working on.

    However, one time and one time only, I dreamed a complete novel with characters, plot and a twist at the end. I wrote for an hour after waking up so I didn’t forget it. I sold the idea last year and am now writing the novel – which is due January 2nd – which is why I’m here…. best place to procrastinate :)

    Thanks Kelly – I enjoyed your post!

Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.

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