Put The Stuff On The Page
When I was a young writer, I wrote a rape scene. It was full of pathos and horror. It made me cringe and cry. I thought I might be too graphic.
Then my reader — yes, that’s right, at the time I only had one — aka my husband read it. “Why is she so upset because the guy came into her room?”
Yep, that’s right. All that actually made it on the page was that this guy came in, and then she was re-arranging her clothes and crying. The rest was still in my head, and I was putting it into the scene without noticing it was not actually written.This might seem to you like a personal problem. And yep, to that level it probably is. There is a reason I must work really hard to write action scenes, horror scenes or scenes of rape and murder: I don’t like them and prefer to flinch away from them and go off to write the aftermath.
The problem is that the reader needs to experience what you have experienced in your head to actually “feel” the aftermath. Because books are emotional experiences, and if you’re cutting out the lows, the reader won’t experience the highs right.
In this writing is similar to art. There is a tendency for beginning artists to avoid the really dark tints, with the result that their painting looks washed out and you don’t see the highlights as well.
That’s one reason people leave things out, and one that I was VERY guilty of as a “kid” (twenty three when I started writing.)
There are others. When my then best friend first got published, she got an urgent and confused letter from her publisher asking what in heck her character looked like. Turned out she never gave a description, because the character was all in her head, so clear, she thought everyone else could see her.
I’ve written before about my issues with writing about Portugal when I first came to the US. I couldn’t do it, because I had no idea what was in people’s heads about Portugal, so I was giving them all the wrong cues. Things I remembered fondly were interpreted as “running down Portugal” because of what was in the readers’ (mostly editors) heads. Honestly, I probably was also leaving a ton of things behind that the reader would need for the emotional impact of the story because I knew it so well.
This is the reason when someone comes to me and tells me they’ve been writing a world/series for years, and can’t sell/don’t do well indie, I tell them “come up with another world/series/genre.”
This often occasions wails and groans and “But this is MY series.” Or “but this is what I really want to write.”
Look, I’m not saying you can’t write this thing that really excites your passion. I’m saying right now you can’t write it effectively. Go and write something else for a year or two, and when you come back there’s a chance you’ll see what you’re doing wrong.
Take me. I had a world all worked out. 100 generations of rulers. History. History of anyone of any prominence. Bios for 50 people or so. There is a reason my husband first found out I wanted to write when he came home to me crawling on hands and knees on a fanfold paper that extended the length of our living room, writing out a time line.
The problem? I could burst into tears at a character coming into the room and saying two words. But the reader woudln’t cry. He didn’t know that character from Adam. He had no clue why those two words were significant.
When you write something you know REALLY WELL the reader’s experience can be like coming into a family reunion. People laugh at the weirdest things. Like someone says “And it was an elephant” and since you don’t know it relates to an experience a set of cousins had at the zoo 20 years ago, you can’t understand why they’re all laughing. Or two guys who are obviously not related and look completely different are introduced as “the twins” and you don’t know that’s because moms used to trade babysitting and were amused when people asked if these totally different kids (like different races) were twins. Or people burst out crying when people mention Freddy the ant, and you don’t know that’s a person who died last year.
BTW listening to someone doing a reading of a book with those issues, and laughing at her own jokes is twice as infuriating. I badly wanted to brain a young writer for it once.
Then there are smaller problems. Things I have to watch for on long running series like Darkship Thieves, for instance. I’m not experienced enough not to leave it all in my head, but there re still issues. You know the world very well and you fail to cue minor stuff, like oh, brooms. If you don’t explain it’s an anti-grave wand when it first shows up, the reader is going to think he’s reading science fiction/fantasy. And wait for magic to come in. And be confused when it doesn’t.
So, how do you guard against this?
First – beta readers. Caveat, they MUST NOT know your world or your story, or they too will put stuff in that isn’t there.
Second – have more than one world/series, etc. Alternate between them.
Third – SERIOUSLY, go away after you finish the book. Go wander off and take the dogs for a walk, clean the house, go to a movie. Stay away at least two weeks, and preferably a month. Then go over it and pretend to be a reader who knows nothing of the world.
Fourth – Really pretend to be a reader who knows nothing of the world. And look for places where you didn’t cue up things enough.
Get it out of your head. You’re not writing for mind readers.