how to work with your subconscious to write a book that ‘hangs together’ (so an agent won’t reject it)



My agent once told me about a manuscript she was considering for representation. She was enjoying it. She thought it well-written. But when she reached the final page, she knew she would reject it.

“It was too muddled at the center,” she said. “I still didn’t know what the book was about.”

Which reminded me of something writing instructor Donna Levin said when I took a novel workshop with her a decade or so ago in San Francisco: part of the challenge of writing a novel is taking their different elements and making them “all hang together”.

As 2009 ticked into 2010, I noticed a trend among the blogs I was following when it came to goals and resolutions. People were choosing words that would set their personal  theme and tone for 2010.  These words are meant to act as a kind of North Star, to keep your actions aligned in the right direction no matter the distractions life throws your way.

This post from White Hot Truth helped inspire my own words for 2010 (love soul vision rising).

And then: why not find the ‘words’ that would guide my novel in progress?

Although I have the spine or plot of my supernatural thriller (a young dancer’s involvement with two older men triggers traumatic memories of a past life in which one of them may have killed her) – and a sense of what it’s “about” (how we subconsciously repeat the past in an effort to resolve or master it), I still need to ground these ideas in concrete incidents and specific characters. Everything needs to interrelate in order for the book to hang together – to be a cohesive whole and not just a bunch of working parts.

Because my novel is called THE DECADENTS, the first word was a no-brainer. Decadence!  I mind-mapped the word. I came up with everything from the pleasures of ice cream to acts of debauchery, ancient Rome to Bret Easton Ellis, luxury goods and consumerism and greed and the effects of global warming, narcissism and addiction, the ‘decadent’ arts and literary movement, decadence as rebellion, decadence as political statement. I thought about the definition of decadence as a ‘falling away’ from traditional norms (sometimes a GOOD thing) and moral values (who defines ‘morality’?). I brainstormed how this might apply to my characters. What is the ‘decadent’ version of love? If love is about giving, abundance, nurturing, allowing the other person the freedom to thrive and be themselves, then the ‘falling away’ value, the decadent underside, is about taking, scarcity, possession, using the other person to fulfill your own needs no matter the damage or consequences. How can this play out in my storyworld? What are the ‘decadent’ things my characters can do to each other and themselves that will drive the story forward?

When I pulled back and looked at my mind-map as a whole, I had a bigger sense of the book. I began to see how I can throw my characters against a larger context of culture and society.

For my second word I wanted a kind of counterweight, something to encourage conflict, growth, story. So I chose the word ‘redemption’.

The purpose of this exercise isn’t to impose all this stuff on the story, wave my authorial hands and declare the Deeper Meaning or Thematic Imagery. It’s to feed this stuff into my undermind and program my subconscious sense of the novel.

The reader should make their own connections. Your job is to develop connections for them to make.

When you write a story, you are constantly deciding what to include and what to leave out. Walk into any room and a million details will bombard your senses, of which you’ll only ‘notice’ a relative handful. If you’re writing that room into a scene, you’ll include even less. Which means that each thing you put in your story becomes important, simply by virtue that you chose it instead of a zillion other things. That act of selection becomes its own tiny statement. One little thing is nothing on its own, but through the course of a novel, they add up. You want them to accumulate in a way that adds richness and value to your story. Otherwise they’re just a bunch of random stupid things. They’re meaningless. They don’t ‘hang together’.

By telling my undermind ‘decadence’ and ‘redemption’, it’s like I’m coding it to ‘notice’ and include certain things — and leave out others. As I continue to write my novel, my subconscious will guide me. I’ll write little things and maybe some big things without really thinking about it. The book’s “deeper meaning” and “thematic imagery” won’t be implanted but grow naturally from the storytelling. The end result will be – let us pray – a compelling supernatural thriller that ‘hangs together’ all the way through to create depth and resonance.



Jan 14, 2010

11 comments · Add Yours

I like this a lot! You’ve written about themes before (was it you?) and how they typically don’t come until after the first draft is written. How trying to force a theme into a story typically comes across as obvious and heavy handed. I really like your idea of “keywords” that help your mind focus on the details of what to leave in and what to leave out. Very nice!


Absolute brava. One can also theme one’s similes and metaphors in a subtle way — all dealing with something related to the theme, or key words, say — and you’ll be even more cohesive. Superb analysis; yours are always the best, Justine.


Thanks! Yeah, I’ve written about themes before — ‘theme’ has a bit of a bad rap because it sounds so Weighty and Classroom-y, but it’s just the central idea your book is expressing, the abstraction your plot makes manifest…Sometimes you choose it, often it chooses you.


Thanks, Gene! Really, really glad to hear that.


I’ve never read any description of this type of feeding to the subconscious that comes anywhere near as close to spot on as your treatment of it in this post. My most vital, frequent activity in planning a story is what I call percolating, and it’s just as you describe it here: feeding things to the subconscious, letting them grow and spread and weave, every once in a while taking a peek in there and poking in something else.

And it’s true that it’s not something you have to babysit. Once you put it in there that it has to show up, you can just write and trust the writing to flow out and plan for it and incorporate it, foreshadow, unfold, and resolve.

Thanks for the lovely post. It articulates clearly what I understood in a vague, well-woven, subconscious jumble. I could never describe to anyone else how this works (though I’ve tried often enough), and here it is!

I’m going to post this to my Writer’s Notebook (as soon as I find the time, anyway.).


I like the idea of finding keywords for the mind to stew over, as distinct from more rationalistic ‘elevator pitches’ (this is the thing this story’s about) or for that matter the sort of themes one might express as a sentence in a critical essay.

This is, as you say, focused on the creative rather than the controlling faculty – which is not all that common in proposed ‘writing techniques’, perhaps because there is a tension between expressibility and connection with the unexpressed. I like the counter-intuitive notion of brainstorming a Word and then ‘forgetting’ about most of the results. Not forgetting about the bulk of them might parallel a mistake I once made in the past, when playing with themes so consciously that the story quietly choked to death in the resultant clutter.

For my current main work, the words that come to mind are: Winter. Revolution. Phoenix. H’mmm. Picking the last two out of the crowd was unexpectedly hard, and therefore probably helpful. Thanks for another fine post!


Rats. Apologies for the rogue italic tag.


This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last year or two — about how a lot of the writing happens away from the laptop, when your undermind is working stuff through and fitting stuff together. I’ve learned that my own process needs to include spaces of time for that to happen, and when I rush the process (to fit in a daily quota of words, for example) the work suffers.

And to “trust the writing to flow” — I think that’s another thing you have to develop — the faith and confidence in your own mind, your own voice. To let it flow and not second-guess it, which just might choke it off.


winter — revolution — phoenix. great words. i’m intrigued about the novel. :)

when we play with themes “consciously”, we’re using the wrong part of our brains, I think. to write we have to give ourselves over to a deeper, more mysterious part, which feels like a leap of faith that not all of us are willing to take.


This is a good way to put the logical or analytical side of the brain to bed and let the naturally creative side work and just create. Something I always have trouble with.
Thanks for the great post, I’m off to find my words.


Time to face the music armed with this great infomtarion.



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