How to Harness the Power of Your Dreams

Aside from the actual craft of writing, one of the best ways to improve your work (and generate more personal satisfaction and income as a result) is to harness the power of your dreams.

In this context, let’s use the word “dreams” to include those stories you tell yourself while you’re sleeping, of course, and also your waking daydreams, your fantasies about how life could or should or would be, plus those many “what if” scenarios you dream up in response to real life situations that strangers helpfully play out in front of you.

All of these ideas, scenes, set pieces, snippets, and snapshots may be sparked by external reality. But they nearly always feed off some of your innermost feelings, drives, and desires. As such, they are normally connected to strong emotions that, when woven into your writings, will tend to attract and captivate others much more powerfully than the relatively dry stuff that spills out from your comparatively cerebral creative processes.

It has often been said that if you are not crying while you are writing, you’re not doing it right. Starting with material from your dreams will make crying – and other high emotions – a more commonplace part of your writing process.

Here are some tips to help you harness the power of your dreams:

1. Keep Track of Your Dreams

The first step in harnessing the power of your dreams is to capture as much of this raw material as you can. This requires you to keep a “dream journal” in which, every morning on first awakening, you immediately note what you can remember of any dreams you’ve had during the night. At first, you might remember just a few disconnected snippets of your dreams. But as you continue with this practice, you’ll get better and better at remembering the details of what you dreamt the night before.

But don’t stop with nighttime dreams. Carry some kind of note-taking mechanism with you – scrap paper and pencil, a bound journal, your smart phone, a tape recorder, or anything else you can comfortably tote all the time – and use it frequently. Record random thoughts, complete ideas, simple stories you make up during the day, human interactions you witness, and any other fodder for writing that you encounter as you go about your daily business.

Don’t try to vet these items for quality, relevance, or any other virtue. Capture them all as they come to you. Later, you can decide whether a particular note has enough merit or potential to warrant further work.

2. Brainstorm On Your Dreams

You can think of dreams that pop into your head as “first generation” material, because it comes unbidden to your mind. But equally valuable is the “second generation” material you intentionally manufacture using your “first generation” material as starting points.

There are many rules to aid in brainstorming, the full range of which I won’t bother to discuss here. But I will cover just two: free writing, and pyramiding.

Free writing is a simple exercise designed to uncover lots of ideas that your native internal editor would normally try to keep hidden. It consists of starting with an item of first generation dream material and then writing whatever comes to mind, without stopping or thinking or editing, for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. If you have nothing to say, just write “I have nothing to say” over and over again until you do have something to say. The result of this free writing exercise is to “clear the pipes” and uncover subconscious material that often reveals additional thoughts, feelings, memories, and ideas tied in with your strong emotions.

Pyramiding is a more conscious process in which you start with an item of first generation dream material, then intentionally and logically build on it. Say you originally dreamt of an umbrella. You might pyramid on that idea by thinking of umbrella uses, such as shielding a person from rain or sun. You might think of other items that are reminiscent of or associated with umbrellas, such as awnings, tarps, tents, and porch roofs. If you start with an item of clothing, you might build to whole outfits or trending fashions. If you start with a snippet of human interaction, you might pyramid from there toward an entire play.

The discipline and practice of brainstorming applied to your first generation dream material is helpful because it produces further raw material on the basis of which you may later write something wonderful.

3. Refine Your Dream Material

Although your first and second generation dream material provides the valuable ore containing hints of golden promise, you extract the most value from this raw material when you refine it into ingots of first-rate creative expression.

To do this, sift through your dream material in search of nuggets, grains, or even flecks of worthwhile story material. Look for elements like a great line of dialog or description, a powerful conflict, a memorable character, a captivating visual, an exciting journey, an enthralling plot, or something better.

Collect and organize these as the basis for the most “writerly” part of this process:

4. Edit Your Dream Material Into Story Ideas

Here’s another place where we separate the “wannabes” from the professional writers. Anybody can think of a great line of dialog or an enthralling plot. It takes a professional to craft such elements into a complete idea for a story.

Take, for example, “Proof of Life.” It’s a compelling film based on a magazine article prompted by the actual practice of gaining freedom for hostages taken by terrorists. Lots of people knew about the practice; thousands more read the magazine article. The raw material was sitting out there in public view, just waiting for a professional writer to do the work necessary to wrangle the raw idea into a story.

Steps one through three, above, will regularly provide you with a treasure trove of raw dream material chock full of powerful elements from your own life, mind, and unconscious.

From that point on, you will have endless opportunities to use your writing chops to crank out a great story. Or more than one.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.

Earn More While Working Less

I don’t know about you, but while I greatly enjoy writing, and I love to re-read my finished work (plus I metaphorically glow every time I hear the occasional “you changed my life”), I have never forgotten that under the capitalist system there’s always the component of money.

As a result, I have spent a good deal of my professional time and effort thinking about, and finding ways to increase, my income from writing.

Here are some of the methods I have used to accomplish this simple but important purpose:

1. Raise Your Rates

This is fundamental to increasing your income. In part, I’ve always thought of this process as a simple scenario: Suppose you’re in a room or on the phone with a relative stranger, and you ask them to give you $10. Chances are, they’ll scoff and brush you off with a forceful “no.” That’s a natural reaction. But when you are in a room or on the phone with someone who is negotiating to buy your work, you can ask them for that same $10 (extra) with a much greater likelihood they’ll say “yes.”

That’s one big reason I’m routinely exploring how much more I can get for every word I write.

Asking for more is the basic tool for earning more. If I’m getting $1.00 a word from most of my clients, I’m likely to quote a slightly higher rate to my next prospective client. If she balks, I can always change my tune and offer the lower rate I’m already getting from so many others.

Of course, you don’t want to appear avaricious, nor do you want to queer a deal by behaving too greedily or money-grubbing. But there’s nothing wrong with considering the total earnout from a piece of your work and trying to maximize it.

Aside from outright asking for more, there are a couple of other considerations to keep in mind when trying to raise your rates.

First, part of the process of kicking up your rates is to establish and maintain a minimum rate, under which you will not work. If you don’t have such a minimum, it’ll be extra difficult to resist the inevitable capitalist pressures on you to work cheaper and cheaper. Naturally, you’ll want to keep raising this floor as you cement your ability to get higher and higher rates for your work.

Second, calculate how much you “should” earn, and how much you “want to” earn by summing up your living expenses for the year and dividing by the number of hours you generally work. If you spend $100,000 a year and work 2,000 hours (40 hours times 50 weeks), you should earn $50 per hour to meet your expenses. If you want to earn $120,000 next year, you’ll have to find ways to get $60 per hour.

Since inflation eats away at the value of your dollars, this calculation contains a built-in incentive for you to keep raising your rates.

Of course, you can always work more hours or spend less money, but that’s fodder for a different discussion.

2. Specialize and Become an Expert

As I’ve mentioned in a recent article I wrote for NAIWE, most writers should choose between specializing on a single field of knowledge, or writing on a variety of topics.

Aside from any other considerations, however, choosing to specialize can bring you more income. This is because:

  • You’ll tend to establish yourself as an expert,
  • You’ll be writing on a topic that few others can cover as well as you,
  • You’ll be writing for a narrower audience of people who may feel more willing to pay well for good information, and
  • You may uncover ancillary sources of income such as speaking, teaching, editing, researching, or something else.

3. Work More Efficiently

We’ve already touched on the number of hours you can work in a year and the amount you can earn each hour. Reading those ideas, you may have realized that another way to earn more is to produce more output per hour.

This brings you into the world of productivity and efficiency.

Back in 1980, I found a great way to increase my income by switching from an electric typewriter to a word processing computer. I not only cranked out more material on the computer, every line read better because I could craft it more meticulously.

At this late date in the computer revolution, there are probably very few changes you can make that offer a comparable productivity advantage. But you might want to think about:

  • Speech-to-text software instead of typing,
  • Auto-correcting software to reduce the time needed to clean up your work,
  • Automatic formatting software to facilitate writing scripts and plays,
  • “Mind mapping” software to help you develop complex characters and plots,

and perhaps other technologies I haven’t discovered yet.

You could also pull a “James Patterson” and simply supervise as others do your writing for you. But that’s a topic for another post.

4. Self-Publish Your Best Material

During the gold rush, it wasn’t the prospectors who tended to make a fortune. It was the prospectors buying equipment and supplies who made many shopkeepers rich.

Along the same lines, it isn’t the writers who tend to make most of the money available from crafting the written word. More often, it’s the publishers who do.

Fortunately, self-publishing has become much easier than ever before.

The techniques of self-publishing are topics for a different discussion, but there’s no shortage of information and advice on how to do it. In fact, by one reckoning, many of the most successful self-published books unabashedly cover the topic of how to self-publish.

Of course, that’s not the only topic that works as self-published material. Look into it. You’ll discover that when you are keeping 100% of the sales income, you don’t have to sell very much to earn more than what you might receive from a project that pays you only a small fraction of total sales or, even worse, only a flat fee.

5. Negotiate for a Piece of the Action

One of the nice things about TV, film, and music is that the writer can reasonably expect to get paid not just an upfront fee, but a portion of all the revenue the work generates.

You can gain increased income from this simple principle by trying to write for industries that offer such ongoing payment.

I’m not telling you to abandon your principles and your passion to write pot-boilers for network television. I’m simply saying that if you’re looking to harvest apples, you’ll do better in an apple orchard than in a fallow field.

To a lesser extent, you can also try to gain more revenue by negotiating a piece of the action from the kind of writing you already do for other projects and purposes.

6. Stop Getting Screwed

Perhaps the most difficult, yet important, avenue for earning more income is to stop signing contracts or accepting assignments that allow others to take advantage of you. I’ve done lots of work for people that resulted in limited – even zero – income for me. I’m not proud of it. I don’t like to talk about it. It really galls me. But it motivates me to avoid making the same kinds of mistakes in the future.

I therefore suggest that you make one of your professional mottos the following: “Screw me once, shame on you. Screw me twice, shame on me.”

You can find more advice on avoiding bad contracts here.

Working to increase your income from writing is different from, but related to learning the craft of writing. Based on my own career, as well as those of people I have helped to succeed as professional writers, I can tell you that half a loaf is better than none, and being able to afford to buy a full loaf is even better than that.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.