The importance of door #3 when writing (and critiquing other people’s stuff)

Every important breakthrough I’ve ever made writing didn’t come from reading my stuff or published stuff, but from critiquing the unpublished writings of others. I think critiquing other people’s work is as important as reading published work when you’re still at the almost but not quite stage where you start getting handwritten notes about the almost-not-quite level of rejection.

I had blinders on with my stuff. We all do. So it’s really hard to see what doesn’t work from critiquing our own stuff. We know what we meant, and we can’t see it when what we see isn’t actually on the page. Other people’s work, whether they’re rank beginners, at the same level you are, or far beyond your ability, however, is black and white. It either worked (for you) or it didn’t. If it doesn’t work for you, there’s the very small chance that it’s over your head, but if they explain it and it doesn’t instantly make sense and make you want to slap yourself for not seeing it, then chances are it wasn’t done correctly and you can see it. Published work has all those foibles smoothed out.

I was reading a friend’s work who was quite beyond my own abilities. It was an absolutely brilliant epistolary set in Africa at the time of colonization that didn’t set the local people as being cliched cut-out characters. But either they were all vampires, in which case the whole ending had been as telegraphed as half the messages home or it was all in her mind and she was slowly going in sane, which was also obvious from the other character’s assumptions. Whether it was A or B, though, I found myself not caring because both could possibly be true, and if they were all vampires, it was stupid because it was obvious and if they weren’t, it was stupid because she was playing with the trope that all women are hysterical. Either way, it was a no-win situation for the reader.

It turned out they were all vampires. In the critique, I pointed out that either way, the ending was obvious and if she’d picked either door, I would have felt disappointed. And like I thunderbolt, I realized the story should have ended with a door #3.

And not just she was going insane *and* they were vampires. I thought of that, too. On Wednesday, I crossed over the 45k mark of the book. Either the vampire in the tub with the axe in his face was being paid off by Pallas or Athena. Pallas was a female vampire whose plans haven’ been discovered yet, Athena (despite the name) was a male whose plans were blatantly obvious, and for two days I was absolutely stuck, not knowing who had sent the assassin vampire and either way, it turned it obvious as to which of the two was trying to kill him.

Door #3 appeared and it became obvious that it wasn’t either of them. I was able to show that my main character, who wasn’t a vampire, was just as cunning as the vampire could be in thinking outside the box, and the story continued. After two days of writing almost nothing, I burned through the next 3k and I have twelve hundred more words until I’m done the nano.

Whenever there is a point in your book where either solution of a forked problem is going to be too obvious, try seeing if there’s a third solution possible that both appears out of nowhere and yet has come from something seeded out of the story as it is. Sometimes it could be one of those things that your subconscious just seems to add for no reason, and sometimes you actually have to go back and add that plot point into the story. Either way, by the time anyone other than yourself reads the finished book, they’re never going to know that Door #3 hadn’t been your genius plan from the start.

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