Writer and teacher John Gardner had a concept he called the fictional dream, which was the idea that fiction does its job by creating a dream state for the reader, and as long as the writer is doing a good job of maintaining that dream state, the reader won't "wake up" from it and will continue to read and believe in the fictional world the writer has created. Gardner argues that this fictional dream first happens in the writer's head, and the writer's job is to write it down for the reader:
“In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead.”
For me, at least, this is a pretty accurate description of what writing is like, at least some of the time. As I work my way through the second act of "Cocke & Bull" I am finding that even though I've got a couple of outlines written for the book and I'm accumulating notes to myself about what the second act is all about, the tool upon which I am leaning the most to get the writing done is my imagination. Last night I was trying to write a simple scene in which three people camp out for the night in a pine forest, and when I imagined the scene I found myself imagining all sorts of surprising action and then I found myself describing this action in all sorts of surprising ways. I read back over what I wrote and at one point had to ask myself where a certain symbolic image came from; I didn't remember writing it at all but there it was on the page and it was perfect.
All of which should give me confidence as I move forward through the middle section of the book, but still I feel like I'm taking a white-knuckle ride through the story, because even though I know certain things that have to happen by the end of the second act, in some ways I have no idea at all what's going to happen during the course of this act and I'm still feeling my way blindly through the story even with my pages of notes and outlines and maps and charts (yes, charts). I breathe a sigh of relief at the completion of each chapter, as if I've survived some harrowing experience. Which, you know, I have.