The Power of Dreams

April 05, 2020


That’s all I really have to say. I’m on.. my third started-and-unlikely-to-be-finished novel this time. I’ve got all the time in the world - just like the rest of the world - and yet I’m writing only sporadically. Instead, I’m diving into other ideas, writing more code than I have in awhile, and reading and admiring other people’s words. It’s infuriating.

I’m an optimist and a dreamer. And I’m reasonably smart. So when I start with a novel idea, I come up with a Machiavellian plot scheme and fill in the entire arc. I’ve got the fun and the mystery set out in my head and all I need to do, I think, is serialize it into words.

And the problem is that we read situationally. We think about the arc of the story we’re reading only in abstract terms and after the fact. When we’re in it, we’re racing with the characters towards their next decision, their next mistake, their next discovery. It’s exciting and fast (or should be).

The books that I’ve read on writing, the ones that have really connected, have all said this. I’m just thickheaded. Stories often start with a question, not a completed arc. Authors don’t always know what’s going to happen.

What I haven’t been able to do yet is connect plot to the individual scene and learn how to move a story along. With my obtuse engineering brain, I don’t think I have it in me to just ask a question about a character and let them take me on a journey. I need to have a bit more figured out. I need to be able to connect the two sides together - the plot and the situation - so that I feel content about where things can end up while the characters have enough freedom to find their own way there. This is way more difficult than it sounds and is at least as hard as the actual act of writing itself. I have no idea how a complex writer like Tolkien or Martin or Ludlum weaves their stories like this.

There’s another major problem with coming up with the idea of the plot too. It’s easy to admire. When it’s sitting idly in your head like a perfect crystal palace, it’s easy to miss all the flaws and to regale yourself with how crafty and smart you are. But try to pull that palace out of your head through your fingers and it will crack and explode under the pressure.

We all have dreams like this, writing a novel is just one example. It could be learning the piano or getting a PhD or entering a bodybuilding competition or running a marathon or living in Europe. Dreams have power and it’s up to us to decide what kind of power that is. Some remain only in our heads and we chase them forever, like the greyhound that never gets the lure and wouldn’t know what to do if he did. They keep us going and they haunt our ability. We all need some what-ifs in our life.

Other dreams try to get out. They won’t be the same beautiful palaces we have in our heads. They’ll fracture under the pressure of reality. But they’ll become real. Imperfect and dusty and full of mistakes and different than we might imagine, but tangible. And they will have changed the shape of who we are in the process.

Our job is to decide which dreams are which.

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