So here’s last night’s dream. I’m driving a car, holding between the tips of my thumb and index finger a scrap of paper the size of a Post-It on which is written the key to my new novel. It’s crucial that I not lose this piece of paper, but it’s hard to hold onto it and drive at the same time. Making matters worse are the three thugs – broad shoulders, sunglasses, shiny suits – riding beside me and in the backseat.
I’m not sure where I’m supposed to be going, only that it better be wherever these scary guys want me to go. They never utter a word, but I know that whatever they’re thinking can’t be good. All of this is making me super nervous, especially when I realize that the place I’m about to drive is suddenly filled with people.
They’re sitting all over the pavement, all facing the same direction and in the same straight-backed, crossed-legged pose, like some kind of art installation, or movers in a board game. Each one represents a different type: Business Man, Homeless Woman, Hipster, African Market Woman, Soldier, etc. This is like a hokey dream sequence in a movie, my dream self thinks.
The dream people look up with concern as I approach, but not one of them moves, and it’s immediately clear that unless I do something different, I’m about to run them all over. I throw the car into reverse and hastily back out of there, squirming with self-consciousness as I sense the thugs’ silent criticism.
I turn onto a new street, this one filled with different figures from a different kind of movie. Like the last group, these figures are also perfectly still, evenly spaced and facing the direction. But they’re standing, wearing coats and hats from the 1940s. Some hold luggage, like they’re waiting for a train. And this movie is in black and white.
Before I can think of what to do, I lose hold of my little piece of paper. It floats across the lap of the thug beside me. I lunge and snag it, then lock it safely inside a have-a-heart trap, which I set on the console beside my seat.
Did I mention that yesterday I hit a snag in my new book?
It was bound to happen. For the last few weeks, the work has been flowing so beautifully. A little encouraging nudge from my agent and I’d managed to turn off my inner editor. Once I started trusting the process, scenes and characters and conflicts blossomed. I didn’t try to write well, or even to write. I just started making notes and watching to see where they took me. They’ve taken me pretty far — far enough so I now feel like I can safely say I’m actually working on something new.
This process got a jump-start about a week ago, when I switched to new software. A bunch of the writers I follow on Twitter rave about Scrivener, which is specifically designed for writing long manuscripts. I didn’t pay attention. I’d managed to complete a 103k-word novel, with multiple characters and interwoven plot lines, on my plain vanilla word processor. I didn’t need to stinkin’ special software. Also, Scrivener was only available for cool Mac owners, and I’m still a PC dork. On the other hand, when I saw that the program was available in free beta downloads for Windows, I jumped at the chance.
I don’t love everything about this program. The fill-in-the-blanks character forms feel a little, um, formulaic. And the name generating tool is just silly. Also, the program froze on me a few times, which was very scary, though I suppose par for the course when your working with a beta. And in the end I didn’t lose any material.
The beauty of Scrivener is that it makes it really easy to see your manuscript as a whole, to navigate within the book, and to move back and forth between jotting down or referring to notes and drafting actual text. I did that with my last book, using an imperfect, byzantine system I spent way too long cobbling out for myself. Having that infrastructure already laid out for me, and working in a program that actually encourages my sort of non-linear thinking – let me follow my natural inclinations and kept the creative juices flowing.
When my energy flagged, I could turn to Scrivener’s progress meter, which lets you set your goals, and then tells you how you’re doing. It seems idiotic, and it’s nothing I can’t – and haven’t – done for myself. But, like the read-out on the elliptical machine at the gym, Scrivener’s word meter turns the process into a game. And sometimes that’s just the jolt you need.
What Scrivener can’t do is actually write the damned thing. Or tell you whether you’re headed in the right direction. Or figure out the solution to that big mystery you’ve hung your whole plot on. That’s the problem I bumped up against on Wednesday — the solution to that big mystery I’d hung my whole plot on. I actively wrestled with the problem all day Thursday, without success. It was still on my mind when I went to bed last night, and had that dream.
Your analysis, Dr. Freud?
The barely-in-control car is one of my standard worry tropes, a motif that arises when I have some problem on my mind. I’ve dreamed variations on this dream countless times. But last night was the first time I can remember a dream so literally identifying the problem that inspired it. The two sets of dream-sequence figures I was trying not to run over might have been the characters whose fates I’ve been trying to figure out. As for those thugs forcing me to go forward even as they silently second-guess my driving, let’s name one Inner Critic and another Publishing Industry. The third guy we might call, well, Drive.