By Christina Lay
I’ve had several story ideas emerge from the depths of dreaming. One totally bizarre dream, in which I was a one-legged man, resulted in a story that eventually won me a trip to a writers’ retreat in France. From that point on I’ve been a firm believer in listening to the ridiculous scenarios that weave themselves out of my subconscious threads, no matter how weird and plotless they may seem upon awaking. “That makes no sense” is no excuse not to immediately jot down notes and impressions from a vivid, story-like dream.
This has to be the most enjoyable part of writing. The unrestrained, unencumbered dreaming in which ideas are spun like planets out of cosmic dust and fortuitous collisions. The best part is when you don’t know you’re creating a story. You’re still dreaming, still noodling, with no annoying concerns about plot or probability to slow your momentum. That’s why the actual night dream is the best story incubator of all. The rational mind is asleep; logic, marketing trends and Amazon algorithms have no toehold whatsoever in this fertile realm of freaky wonderfulness.
My novel Death is a Star is entirely the result of a dream. The dream was pre-seeded by my interest in ancient history and the fact that I’d recently read Nineveh and It’s Remains, Austen Henry Layard’s account of how he accidentally discovered the ruins of the lost empire of Assyria (He was looking for Babylon). Early history makes a wonderful backdrop for a frothy dreamscape; full of gaps, silences, and mysteries. This is the sort of environment where the writer’s mind percolates and thrives as we speculate, create and dream up answers to whatever questions research has yet to answer. Some might say this is bad scholarship. I say it’s damn fun.
I don’t know where the circus element in Death is a Star came from. All I can tell you is I had this crazily vivid dream about flying trapeze artists from Assyria who traveled through time and got jobs with a circus, all because of a demon. Totally wacked, right? I woke up and thought “Wow that was weird and oddly cohesive”. I sat down at my computer and wrote the first chapter in one sitting. It remains largely unchanged, despite a zillion rewrites. I ran with the dream and let the story lead me through this bizarre world of half-baked history and purely fantasized circus lore. Awake, I never would have conceived of having my protagonist commit murder in the opening scene. My logical mind would’ve talked me out of it if I had. Writing instructors certainly tried to talk me out of it. Maybe they were right and the mighty logical hand of marketing trends will slap my little novel into the dustbin of Unacceptable Plots and Characters of Dubious Morality. I hope not.
Some Big Ideas, though really great, remain sterile and lifeless because the synergy with other elements never happens. Basically, the subconscious remains asleep, where more interesting things are happening. Unlike most of my previous novels, I never stopped liking Death is a Star no matter how many rewrites I did, and that’s all that really matters when you’re deep in the writing trenches. I think it’s because my subconscious signed off on the project from the get-go. I didn’t have to convince it to play along. When your most creative part is onboard, little else matters. You might be looking for Babylon, and discover a lost empire instead.
I recommend keeping a notebook and pen by your bedside.