The following is an extract from my short book How to Improve Your Writing: The Art of Creating Professional Fiction, available in Kindle and all other eBook formats.
TRUST YOUR INNER VOICE
I honestly believe that, when you start out on a piece of fiction, you might not understand exactly where it’s going. But your subconscious does.
In his novel The End of the Affair – told from the first-person viewpoint of fictitious novelist Maurice Bendrix – Graham Greene discusses this in detail. And he most importantly tells us the following: When not writing, we might be busy with other things – going to the supermarket, recording our business expenses, chatting with our chums – but “the stream” of the unconscious goes on flowing regardless of all that, studying the problems in our story and pre-planning.
That is perfectly true, and I believe that I can prove it.
You spend most of the afternoon working on a new novel. Finally, you reach the end of the chapter you’ve been busy with and decide to call it a day. Your partner comes home and you talk about the day’s events. You watch the Simpsons and the TV news. You read the evening paper. Then there’s dinner, washing up. And then, when it’s round ten o’clock and you’re preoccupied with something else, the book that you were working on a few hours back suddenly pops into your head again. You abruptly realize that you’ve got some detail wrong, or ought to add more detail, or the whole plot would work better if you changed this thread to that. It might not even be the chapter you were working on that afternoon. It could be a scene you wrote last week, or one you haven’t even written yet but suddenly have definite ideas about.
But the real point is this. You weren’t consciously thinking about your book at all – you had completely different matters on your mind. The notion that just struck you came, apparently, from nowhere. Except that cannot be true.
The only explanation has to be that your subconscious mind continued working on your book the whole while you were doing all those other things. So it already knows your story and where it is headed. Quietly and secretively, it has more than likely figured the whole plotline out. Getting all of that unconscious gunk out of the latter regions of your mind and up into your conscious brain, where you can think about it, work on it and re-work it – that is the true job of a writer. Greene was of the opinion that we “remember the details” of a piece of fiction, rather than inventing them. So that on one level, a part of the task before us is already done.
But those sudden flashes of revelation are not simply your subconscious helping you. They’re your subconscious yelling at you – “Put this right, you dope!” And it’s important that you take immediate notice; mental promptings of this sort have a nasty habit of sinking back far too quickly into the tar pits from which they first emerged. I might not type up notes before starting a novel (see Chapter 4) but I do meticulously write these elbow-joggings down as soon as they have come to me, on a pad or Post-It if there’s one handy, or on the torn-off corner of a newspaper or envelope if not.
It’s often the case that – once produced – there’s no need to refer to these small scraps of paper. The simple act of writing on them is an aide memoire in itself. But I always make sure to rifle through them once a new draft is complete, discarding those that have already been used and keeping those that might just still be helpful.
But is that the only thing that your subconscious does, simply jog your elbow? No, it tries to guide your entire journey through the telling of a story, and it does that thing by leaving clues.
It is important – at this point – to understand how the subconscious mind works in the first place. This might sound unhelpful from a writer’s point of view, but it does not use words as a medium the way the thinking part of the mind does. It does not form sentences, nor does it decide that one adjective is better than another. No, all it largely does is throw up dreamlike images and vague conceptions which the conscious part of the mind absorbs. Your conscious mind translates those images, solidifies them with real detail, and then turns them into prose. In fact, it might be said that writing is a process where the two separate parts of your mind start ‘interfacing.’
The trouble is that you are often so fixated with the conscious act of completing your story, you might well miss the true significance of what those images are trying to tell you. Let me illustrate this point with an example from real life.
One of my oldest friends occasionally enjoys taking a crack at writing fiction. He was halfway through a long sf story one time, but had got stuck in terms of plot, and so he asked for my advice.
His story was a post-apocalyptic one, set within a blasted landscape populated by barbaric characters, but with some technology still intact. His Character A was down in the desert. His Character B was up in the air above that desert in – if memory serves – a rather battered but still functioning flying machine.
“I need to have these two characters meet,” my friend said, “but I can’t figure out how to make that happen.”
I gave his last few paragraphs another glance. Character A was looking up at Character B’s flier, which was already moving off into the distance. But the flying machine … it was not only battered, it was leaving in its wake a thin, dark trail of smoke.
And there’s the point at which my friend’s subconscious had dropped him a clue, except he didn’t have enough experience to see it.
“There’s something wrong with that flying machine. So have it crash land, and your characters can meet that way.”
Which doesn’t merely solve that immediate problem – it opens up whole realms of possibility in terms of plot and character development. Here are just a few of the options from this point on:
1/ A rescues B from the crashed, burning flyer. They become close friends and allies.
2/ A and B were enemies before the crash. But now B feels indebted to A, which has consequences later on.
3/ A pulls B from the flier, but B is badly hurt. A feels compelled to nurse him back to health.
And so on.
The fact that your subconscious mind already knows your story means that what you have already written holds the keys to what you will write next. The details you have set on paper … they might seem to have been chosen arbitrarily, but that is not the case. Somewhere in the far, dark reaches of your mind, the tale you’re working on is already complete. And another word for complete is ‘whole,’ every aspect of your story having relevance to every other part.
If you mention a river near the start of your story, that river is sure to put in another appearance sometime later on. Literally or figuratively? That’s up to you, a conscious decision, except that it was prompted in the first place by your latter brain.
Halfway through your story, your character stubs his toe? You might see that as an amusing detail at the time of writing it … but what if he has to run for his life in the later pages of your book?
I spoke in the last chapter about ‘little silver bells,’ the process of seeding your story with tiny hints of what is coming next, so leading your reader’s train of thought in the appropriate direction. That’s a conscious process, a deliberate act of will. But while you’re writing, even when you’re resting, your subconscious mind keeps doing the same, making sure you describe details that will have relevance later on. The real skill lies in spotting and deciphering those tiny clues. And you develop that skill the way you do most others, through experience and practice.
The worst example of the output of a writer who’s ignored both processes – the conscious and subconscious one – is a story which culminates in what US magazine editors used to call a ‘banana surprise’ ending. That is, an ending which was never once hinted at in the entire course of the preceding story. Your female character – let’s say – is married to a violent bully. All throughout the story, she is nervous, timorous, and cowed. She never seems to leave the house except to go out shopping or attend her yoga class. And then, right at the very end, it turns out she’s been having an affair for ages with her husband’s boss, and they’ve been working out the perfect scheme to do away with Mr. Nasty.
You can almost hear the writer of that bellowing tah-dah! But no, a story’s not that kind of conjuring trick. A surprise ending is a trick, though, and you need to be extremely artful in the way you pull it off. Have your female character come home three hours late and smelling of a man’s cologne and you’ll have given away the game completely. Your reader will roll his eyes and move on to another book.
But wait. But softly …
When Mr. Nasty happens home one day, his wife is talking on the phone. She hangs up quickly. “Just my sister,” she says calmly. And your reader will most probably think nothing of it.
But your female gets back slightly late from yoga class on one occasion because her instructor “asked me to help tidy up the mats.”
And on another occasion, she gets in her car and drives half an hour to a different part of town because “the local stores just don’t have what I need.”
Taken on their own, these three small incidents will seem like nothing but the fine detail good writers fill a story with. Only that when your reader reaches the conclusion, he’ll go: “Aha, that’s who she was talking with, that’s why she was late from class, if there really was a class at all, and that’s why she was gone so long when simply shopping!” All the little silver bells you’ve put in place start ringing in his head at once.
But your subconscious mind is doing that to you the entire time. Be aware of that process and make use of the help it gives you.
Don’t give in to it entirely, though. Your subconscious might be brilliantly creative and can tell you which direction you should go, but it lacks the discipline required to turn its images into a finished piece of fiction. No, your intellect must do the rest.