What can you do if your manuscript has a problem you can’t pin down? Simple. Critique someone else’s.
The benefit might not seem obvious, especially when you’re busy and it feels like you’re wasting time helping someone else, but trust me, you’re helping yourself. Writers are notorious for not being able to edit their own work successfully (let’s face it, that’s why publishing houses pay editors to work on our stories). But what you might not know is that the easiest way to find your own hidden problems is through uncovering the flaws in someone else’s story. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been doing a manuscript assessment for a client and have been typing on their report something along the lines of “There isn’t enough tension in this scene. The main character should have overheard that conversation so they could be stressing about the danger coming up. Then they might make mistakes because of their fear and that would make things even worse for them.”
Remember, Rule Number One for plotting is “Make things worse for your characters.”
So at the point that I’m typing something into a report, I’ve often have a light bulb moment and realised that whatever I’m typing is exactly what’s wrong with a section of my own manuscript that doesn’t feel right. Maybe I’ve got a character who doesn’t realise the danger that’s coming up, and things would be worse for them if they did. Alongside this revelation I might even get a flash of insight into how I could fix that, but before you start worrying, its never a ‘copy what I’ve just suggested to the client’ fix. My subconscious has far too many ideas of its own for that to ever happen, and the fix has to be organic to my own story and believable for the characters who inhabit it. So a copy fix would never work. But finding the source of the problem. That’s gold.
‘Mirroring’ is a concept as old as the Vedic scriptures and as new as modern psychology, where you have an emotional reaction to the trait in others that you can’t see in yourself. It works with editing as well. I used to think my light bulb moments were the result of The Universe looking after me, attracting manuscripts that had the same problems I needed to address in my own. But now I think it’s the work of my subconscious mind. I find lots of ‘areas for improvement’ in manuscripts I assess, and only occasionally have light-bulb moments, so that tells me that my subconscious is filtering, looking for ways to help me, and I like that! A lot of bad things are said about the subconscious mind, and many people fear their unconscious beliefs and attitudes are influencing their behaviour.
Maybe that’s true, but there’s also a positive side. For a writer the subconscious is the seat of creativity. It’s the magical, thrilling swirl of everything you’ve ever seen or heard or smelt or touched or tasted, every crazy fantasy, every naughty impulse, every skin-bursting moment of bliss. It’s the left hand of the damned and the kiss of a fairy princess. It’s the pure adoration of a mother who holds her baby for the first time, and the gut-wrenching grief of loved one’s death. Every moment of your life is witnessed by this amazing storehouse, and for those of us who create story it’s the pantry where we select the ingredients for our banquet, either with a recipe as plotters do, or using intuition if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer.
Critiquing is another way you can access the intuition/subconscious realm and hone in on your hidden weaknesses. It works every time for me. Give it a try. At the very least you’ve helped someone else. And remember when critiquing that the rule is to point out two great things for every one ‘area of improvement’, and don’t put on your bossy boots. It’s just your opinion, after all. But do remember to have a notebook beside you for jotting down insights about your own work.
You’ll be surprised.