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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Dreams

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice

When I was fifteen years old, I had a nightmare.

For two reasons, I won’t describe it to you in detail. First of all, it was a particularly vivid dream full of all the typical nightmare clichés: running in slow motion, inability to scream, absolute certainty of impending doom. I don’t need to describe these things to you, my dear inklings; I’m quite sure you’ve experienced them yourselves. For most of us, there’s a certain strange familiarity in nightmares — sort of like an old, unpleasant acquaintance who keeps popping into your life uninvited, and you don’t really know how to get rid of him. Doubtless, you know quite well what I’m talking about when I use the phrase “nightmarish helplessness.”

My second reason for not recounting the dream for you is that if I did, I would be copying directly from the climactic scene of my very first fantasy novel. You see, when my fifteen-year-old self sat down to record the fascinating whos and whats of this nightmare (and it was so horrid and so real and so invigorating, I couldn’t resist), my act of journaling sparked a story. At first, I didn’t realize what was happening…but as I wrote out the scene, I started seeing this guy in my head — and events were playing out from his perspective, not mine. And the funny thing was, this guy was a real jerk, not at all the kind of person I would want as the main character of anything! He was obnoxious, sarcastic, and callous. He knew he had to fight the monsters in order to help someone, but he really didn’t want to be there. He was arrogant and selfish, had low self-esteem, and was wholly in love with this girl and unable to tell her so.

Wait. What girl? Where did she come from?

Dreaming It Up

And thus was born my first fantasy novel, Legend’s Heir Trilogy — Book One: Legend’s Heir. That led to a second book, Legend’s Heir Trilogy — Book Two: The Bearer of the Stone (not terribly original, I know; which might be part of the reason this story faltered and died after about 12,000 words). The third and, so far, best of the trilogy carries the simple (and more wieldy) title Triad (most recently mentioned here). A single nightmare spawned two-and-a-half novels. Not bad for a Swiss cheese brain.

For the last eighteen years, all but three* of my novels or wanna-be novels have started life as dreams. Indulge me, my dears, as I stick my hand into one of those mental Swiss cheese holes and pull out some reminiscings…

Selfish Loverboy and the phone booth monsters led to:

  • Legend’s Heir
  • Bearers
  • Triad
  • And Deren’s Story (a fourth novel set in the Legend’s Heir universe, but not part of the trilogy)

Dark-haired, darkness-spewing demon on the iron bridge became:

  • Colors of Deception
  • And Shadows After Midnight

Last year, a vivid nightmare involving a cat turned into

  • A short story about a scary sociopath and his even scarier baby sister

I know it’s not a novel, and it doesn’t belong in a paragraph about dreams that led to novels, but it’s my favorite of the few short stories I’ve ever written, and this is my article, so I get to say pretty much whatever I please, within reason and the boundaries of Aaron’s goals for this blog.


And just this week, Magician’s Apprentice Helping Damsel-In-Distress has graduated from convoluted dream sequence to plotted, outlined, chapter-headinged novel entitled Tapped Out. Chapters 1-3 are complete, Chapter 4 is in the works, and I am having all sorts of outrageous fun. (And yes, you can take that as a work-in-progress update, cleverly disguised as its big sister WILAWriTWe.)

Of IMAX and Warehouses

My husband, the poor dear whom I once attacked in my sleep because I was hungry and thought he was a ham, says that while his mind is an empty warehouse when he sleeps, I have been blessed with a mental IMAX theater. If I weren’t a writer, I would call that blessing a curse, because if I couldn’t exorcise these creative demons through content content-creation, I would run mad, yea verily. (Some might claim that this has happened anyway, writerhood notwithstanding, but that is another story and shall be told another time.) These dreams-turned-stories whirl around my brain like caged things, looking for a way out and hammering at the inside of my mind if I don’t let them have their way (with me). Why is this? Do I not give my brain enough things to do during the day, that it must needs torment me at night? Is it overstimulated? Do I have an unresolved Internal Sequin Issue?

The answer, my darlingest of darling inklings, is that I. Don’t. Know.

I don’t know why I dream weird, I don’t know why I dream vivid, and I don’t know why I seem to start dreaming weird and vivid right when I wrap up one project and want to start a new one but don’t know what it should be. The dreams come when I need them, and they’re always exactly what I need. I don’t know why this is; I just know that it is.

Drink, and Drink Deep

Of one thing I am certain: When I sleep, my brain goes to the place where creativity flows. When I sleep, my conscious self gets out of the way, and my mind goes down to the pool and drinks deep. I am a writer, and I thirst. Constantly. I’m willing to bet that you do, too. I don’t know if your creative self goes down to drink when you’re asleep, or if that happens for you at other times. However it happens for you — try to let it happen. Try to get your Self out of the way so it can happen. Let your mind go on autopilot so that your feet — whether in a dream or in the waking world — can take you to that place you need to be. Drink deep, writer…and then write.

And that’s WILAWriTWe.

* The novels that did not begin as dreams are: ‘S’ is for Survival (young adult post-apocalyptic), Mindsnatcher (young adult sci-fi), and Tomato Electric Destroy Force 9 First Draft: Writer Dearest and the Interlopers (romantic sci-fi literary metafiction [yes, I really said that]).

(Click that link up there. Go on. You know you want to. You don’t have to buy Benny & Joon when you get there…but if you buy something, I get something, and we’ll all be happy! Yay!)

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

3 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Dreams”

  1. Great stuff Courtney! I too have had some of my best stories from dreams. I have 2 or 3 in the works right now that were really vivid dreams that I woke up and wrote all of the notes I could remember down. Try to read some of those scrawls…now I use a recorder. The story I am doing now on my blog for fiction saturday was a dream that has stuck in my mind for years.
    I am not sure what to do with the old chinese people tossing dolls over their shoulders down the waterslides though.

  2. Courtney Cantrell says:

    Old Chinese people tossing dolls over their shoulders down waterslides… That sounds like a harbinger of the apocalypse to me. I’m sure you could incorporate that somewhere! 😉

  3. […] by dreams?So, once upon a time, I wrote a fantastic blog post about dreams. I know you remember it, dear inklings, because that’s just the kind of sweet, attentive […]