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Collaborating with your Subconscious

Do you want readers to love your protagonist? Or to be inspired by her? A powerful tool for achieving the strong visceral responses you want is outside your conscious mind, but it’s not out of reach.

Everything you write, especially a first draft, is a collaboration with another writer: your subconscious. You can micromanage its contribution, but you can’t eliminate it. Trusting it, however, while understanding its strengths and weaknesses, can make you a better writer.

not-if-i-see-you-first-book-cover
eric-lindstrom-author-writer

Column by Eric Lindstrom, author of NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST (Dec 2015,
Poppy). Kirkus Reviews named his novel among theBest Teen Books of 2015.
In addition to writing YA novels, Eric’s work as Editor and Co-Writer for 
Tomb Raider:
Legend received a 2006 BAFTA nomination for Best Video Game Screenplay, and as
Creative Director for 
Tomb Raider: Underworld he received a 2009 BAFTA nomination
for Best Action Adventure Video Game and a 2009 WGA nomination for Best Writing in
a Video Game. Follow him on Twitter.

It’s important to note that this concept doesn’t refer to some Freudian gremlin harboring its own agenda. It’s about how your brain routinely fills in gaps, provides details, and makes countless choices to support your intentions.

For example, when you run, you’re not thinking about how to move each of your muscles. That’s good. (Google “QWOP” if you disagree.) We achieve the most when we spend more energy on high-level goals and trust details to able assistants. When you’re having a good writing session, typing away, you’re not consciously making every decision deliberately. Your subconscious supplies many details and choices.

Let’s say you just wrote: “Isabel steps into a bracing wind.” Why steps? Why not emerges? Why bracing instead of biting? All these options and many more have different connotations. How does your subconscious decide which one to use? When delegating, the result depends on how well your assistant is prepared and equipped. So how do you ensure your subconscious makes good decisions and doesn’t subvert your intent, or randomly steer you into the weeds?

The first way is straightforward. Improve your craft, and your subconscious will become a better writer, too. Its skills are your skills.

The second way is a bit tricky.

In “Isabel steps into a bracing wind,” the modifier for wind also conveys Isabel’s state of mind. Bracing implies intrepid optimism. If she were pessimistic, the wind might feel biting, or bitter if she’s resentful. To communicate fully, in addition to knowing the effects of literary tools and devices, you need to know how Isabel feels.

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If you’re not sure, or just haven’t thought about it, your subconscious silently decides for itself, and often not in line with your big picture. It’s important to note this isn’t you wanting “A” and a subconscious gremlin pushing “B.” It’s you thinking nothing, so your subconscious makes up something to fill the void. If it chooses poorly, you only have yourself to blame.

This leads back to the initial question. If you want readers to feel a particular way, how do you accomplish it? The discussion above touched on improving writing skills, and being mindful of how characters feel, but there’s another tool that’s equally important.

Emotional honesty.

Not only is this critical for good writing, it’s an area where your subconscious excels. It’s probably more honest than you are. And when the two of you are on the same page, your subconscious can make your writing more effective than you’d produce alone.

On the other hand, when you bury your emotions, you’re hiding them in your subconscious, and it has nowhere else to stuff them. You can try to keep your emotions out of your conscious choices, but your subconscious can’t, and this misalignment sabotages your writing.

Let’s say Isabel faces difficult circumstances, and you want her to be inspiring, but deep down you pity her. Your subconscious knows this, which correspondingly informs the choices it makes. Your subconscious contributions will be tinged with the pity you’re suppressing and create a result different from what you desire.

This also can’t be blamed on your subconscious being a gremlin pursuing a counter agenda. It’s honestly communicating your feelings. It can’t do otherwise. You’re the one with the counter agenda trying to hide your true emotions. But you can’t realistically expect readers to feel differently about your characters than you do.

When Robert Frost said, “No tears in the reader,” he meant readers won’t feel emotions the author didn’t feel while writing. The discussion here is the other side of that coin. Feelings you do have will find their way into your writing, and influence the reader, even if you don’t want them to, thanks to your subconscious.

So don’t fight it. You’re in this together, for better or worse. Turn this limitation into a strength. You make the big decisions, but to get the reader response you want, create a narrative that’s emotionally honest. Only then will you and your subconscious collaborator work together seamlessly toward the same end.

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