Writing Rules That Were Made to Be Broken: Steer Clear of Dreams
There's a distinctly rebellious air about the Muse and the Marketplace Conference this year. Come April 6-8 at Boston's Park Plaza, #Muse18 presenters will be letting loose on the writing rules that have held our manuscripts hostage for far too long. To kick off the conversation ahead of the Muse weekend, this year's Muse series explores the writing, publishing, and workshop rules, conventions, and accepted norms that authors, agents, and editors at the Muse love to hate -- and why they'd love to see them broken. Some presenters will also offer their own rules or conventions that they want to see adopted in writing and publishing spaces. This installment comes from Xhenet Aliu, the author of the novel Brass (Random House, 2018) and the short fiction collection Domesticated Wild Things and Other Stories (Univ. Neb. Press, 2013). Xhenet will be leading the Muse session Shut Up and Listen: Crafting Literary Voice from Literal Voices.
My subconscious isn’t very sub, so it generally doesn’t take a trained Freudian to crack the code of my dreams. Recurring ones include plane crashes (fear of failure), tornadoes (anxiety), zombies (alienation), and lots and lots of snakes (duh). Dreams are obviously manifestations of the data your brain has been processing before you lay it on the pillow; if the dreams are intense enough, they can linger into and color the whole next day. So if dreams are such an essential part of the human experience, why is writing them so frowned upon? Probably because inexperienced or lazy writers use dreams as a shortcut for doing the work of characterization that’s supposed to be done elsewhere on the page: my character wants this but doesn’t know it until the dream reveals it to her, or other such tidy nonsense. Also, of course, there’s the trick that’s so silly that every undergraduate Fiction 101 workshop has to explicitly forbid it: you cannot end a story with, “It was all a dream.”
But can a little, tiny bit of a story be a dream? I think so, as long as the dream speaks to a character in a way that’s both native and invisible to the character once they wake. It’s not epiphany so much as it is a shifted perspective on the motivations and desires already revealed in the character’s conscious world. And, just as when you’re deciding which of your own dreams are worth sharing with your bed partner in the morning, be prudent in the telling: keep it brief, leave out the tedious parts, and don’t expect anyone to find them as interesting as you do, unless you can render them as viscerally as you could the rest of your fictional, imagined world. Playing with surrealism is fun, but your dream sequence won’t work if it’s so nonsensical as to reveal nothing more about the dream’s psychic origins than an online spam generator would. Likewise, if it’s too literal, there’s probably no point in writing the scene as dream. Fiction is already made up; writing dreams into fiction is like made-up squared, so aim to make that secondary fiction deepen the primary one. If it only obscures it, well, save the dreams for your journal and/or shrink.
As Editor of GrubWrites, GrubStreet's popular blog, Sarah serves the Grub community a daily dose of literary goodness. Book lovers can find reviews, news, recommendations, and conversations with exciting new authors to stay up to speed on all things lit. Writers, GrubWrites is your go-to spot for expert craft talk, thoughtful discussions on how writing is learned and taught, and essential publishing and publicity advice. Sarah is also a GrubStreet instructor and consultant specializing in the novel.
Sarah is Writer-in-Residence at Wellspring House and a recipient of the work-study scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her creative work has appeared in Solstice Literary Magazine, The Conium Review, Poetry and Audience, and other places, and her essays have featured on Dead Darlings and elsewhere. She's served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine and The Conium Review and is currently Fiction Editor at Pangyrus. A graduate of GrubStreet's Novel Incubator program, for which she was awarded a scholarship, Sarah is at work revising her first novel. She was educated at Leeds University, where she received her BA hons in English Language and Literature (International), with stints at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Kansas State University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, where she was awarded the Seaton Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing. Most recently, Sarah completed an MA in English Literature at Boston College, where she was awarded a tuition fellowship and the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize. Hailing from Yorkshire, England, her life's mission is to introduce the word "sozzard" to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and other services, including copy editing, please visit sarahcolwillbrown.com.See other articles by Sarah Colwill-Brown