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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.

 

 

42 Comments
  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    You’re not writing for mind readers.

    Thank goodness. I don’t want mind readers to know what’s in my head. 😀

    June 20, 2018
    • Matthew #

      I agree. My brain is a disturbing place.

      June 20, 2018
      • I suspect many of us could say something similar. 😉

        June 20, 2018
      • Zsuzsa #

        If telepathy ever becomes a thing, they’re going to have to invent mental “Danger! Enter at your own risk!” signs for people like us.

        June 20, 2018
  2. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Writing scams of the future: writing books on blank “psychic paper” and telling readers they have to concentrate very hard to read the words.

    June 20, 2018
    • Terry Sanders #

      The Emperor’s New Book.

      June 20, 2018
    • Veteran of the Psychic Wars: A Memoir.

      June 20, 2018
  3. This was very timely for me, thank you.

    June 20, 2018
  4. Yeah. ::sigh:: I have really good beta readers but I suspect I need a professional help. No, not that kind! Um, for this.

    June 20, 2018
    • Let me clear space and I’ll try to do my mentor best to make up for being world’s worst mentor for five years while trying to die.

      June 20, 2018
      • Draven #

        or trying not to, as the case may be.

        June 20, 2018
  5. 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?”

    If you’ve never read Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles (lucky you), he wrote a “sex scene” exactly like the one you just described…and he was roundly condemned for his prurience. Tempora mutantur, as they say.

    June 20, 2018
    • I had to study it in college, and yes.

      June 20, 2018
    • It was one of the less bad novels forced upon us in high school. (sigh)

      June 20, 2018
    • Margaret Ball #

      I read it when way too young to decipher Hardy’s roundabout non-description… and several years later, while walking between classes and rethinking the plot, startled several people by exclaiming, “Oh, so that’s where that baby came from!”

      June 20, 2018
  6. Christopher M. Chupik #

    It was only when I was older that I fully grasped the implications of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s heroines being carried off by apes.

    June 20, 2018
  7. c4c

    June 20, 2018
  8. 1LLoyd #

    Between not wanting readers reading my mind and the psychic paper, The comments have been downright entertaining.

    June 20, 2018
  9. Mike Houst #

    “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 read a couple of books like that. You might know that the character is male or female, and had rich, poor, or absent parents, but you have no idea what race or ethnicity the character is. I suppose the best, and probably hardest type of character to write would be on that all readers to identify with, and imagine themselves to be. Just enough and not too much.

    Oh, and I’ve never seen myself as Athena or Darcy (although I’ve stripped my fair share of old furniture over the ears, so I can empathize!)

    June 20, 2018
    • Holly #

      I resemble this remark myself, but I don’t really know what they look like anyway.

      That realization-that people visualize characters and have to have something to visualize from-was worth taking creative writing in college for. That and realizing-finally-that the fact that other people read out loud in their heads means how words sound together matters. Not as much as English profs think, but more than I think. I mean, I knew other people “hear” the words like I “hear” music-figured that out with my roommate freshman year, but realizing that how the words sound together mattered . . . that took Prof Mary. (Poor Prof: wanted to teach literary students, got a whole pile of wannabe genre writers that semester.)

      Off topic, would one of the writers be willing to address the pros and cons of Pen Names for the Very Unusual Name shared by someone writing something totally different? This https://www.amazon.com/Firstborn-Son-Much-Needed-Resuscitation-Requires-ebook/dp/B005F0FOR4/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1529529337&sr=8-1&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_FMwebp_QL65&keywords=bambolo is my brother-in-law. I don’t think anyone looking for his book would care for anything I write, and vice versa. (Yes, I offered to copyedit that. He sent me an uneditable pdf. No, I didn’t print and red ink. I probably should’ve. I was out of ink and low on money, and rather irritated he couldn’t be bothered to send something I could at least highlight and save.) To what extent would it irritate folks who wanted a little fantasy or science fiction or a bit of romance to get his memoir-polemaic, or the other way around? I’d be annoyed myself, but would it lead to bad reviews? Or what?

      June 20, 2018
      • mrsizer #

        realizing-finally-that the fact that other people read out loud in their heads means how words sound together matters.

        Even people who read for entertainment?

        This is exactly why I hate reading dialect; it requires sounding it out to understand it. That’s SO slow. Reading Shakespeare is painful; listening to it is much easier.

        June 20, 2018
        • Terry Sanders #

          A lot of the secret behind the Evelyn Wood method is teaching people like that that they don’t need to sound it out. A lot of people don’t make the jump by themselves, that lets them go straight from marks on a page to pictures in a mind.

          I have a book on the system, written after it was in the public domain. One incident mentioned involved a pre-teen being taught the method, who leaped out of his seat and ran screaming into the hall. A quick check revealed that the “test text” he was reading was a description of the Hiroshima bombing. He’d heard about it. He’d read about it. But he hadn’t had it *happen in his head* like that before.

          June 21, 2018
          • Evenstar #

            What’s the book called?

            June 22, 2018
      • Synova #

        Holly, if your first name is “Holly” it is sufficiently different from his first name that I don’t think that having the same last name will be confusing to anyone.
        I would resist using a longer version. Keep the length and “shape” different.

        June 21, 2018
        • Holly #

          Yes, thank you. It is Holly. There are 18 people in the world with that last name as far as I know. My maiden last name-Akersten-would be an option with about fifty-ish folks sharing it in the US and Canada, and probably more in Finland.

          My father-in-law was told as a young adult that he needed a last name. He and his brothers each picked a different name. Bambolo is a combination of balho and mbolo. It’s also a perfectly good Italian word-but baby doll, male gender, does not seem to be used as a surname.

          June 22, 2018
    • OSC talks about how he deliberately limited description of a character on advice of an editor “so that any woman could see herself as the heroine.” And sure enough, several women all said that they assumed the protagonist like them. Then the editor changed her mind and he had to add in some description. *shrug*

      June 20, 2018
      • My only hint so far in a protagonist’s description that’s she’s Asian is her surname and that she’s making rice.

        June 20, 2018
        • Robin Munn #

          Plenty of people make rice once in a while. If she’s making rice for just about every meal, though, that signals Asia or Pacific Islands.

          Though there’s such a thing as cultural osmosis: for example, I would happily eat rice for just about every meal, and I have no Asian or Pacific Island ancestry as far back as I can trace. But I did spend the first two years of my life in the general area of the Pacific Islands and SE Asia, and I believe that’s where I picked up my love for rice.

          June 21, 2018
          • Yeah, I know. Which is why I’m wondering if I have too little description in the story so far.

            June 21, 2018
            • The last thing I published, I only included two details: that her hair was hennaed, and that she was very short. The henna wasn’t relevant, and the short was very relevant, as it makes getting appropriate gear, packing said gear in, and keeping up with people hard. So far, I haven’t had anyone complaining that they didn’t know what she looked like.

              I think you can get away with as little description as the story requires, and as much as you want to put in. Then again, it’s genre-dependent; action, adventure, and mil-SF certainly aren’t heavy on character description, where most romance I’ve read wants to go on for pages about what a catch the hero is, and heavy description of the heroine as well (and every outfit the heroine is wearing.)

              June 21, 2018
      • Synova #

        I’ve told this story before about a critique group experience.

        I’d written an opening scene with about six people in it and my critique group agreed that there were too many people and unable to keep them straight. I was supposed to figure out how to have fewer. After thinking about it I rewrote the scene with added visual tags for the walk-ons and their contribution to the conversation that contrasted them to each other, two were red headed but one was tall and the other had buck teeth, etc. The grand total was probably an addition of less than a dozen words.

        I resubmitted the story and everyone agreed that having fewer characters fixed the problem. 😉

        June 21, 2018
    • I haven’t had a single person complain that I didn’t put any physical description of a principal character in my book. Heck, I’m not sure if anyone *noticed* that there isn’t a description beyond approximately half a foot taller than the other principal character. It’s funny to me because I have physical descriptions of just about every other major character and a few minor ones, and heck, you hear about his clothes on several occasions.

      I guess if you have enough other descriptions in there (emotional and psychological, in his case), maybe it doesn’t occur to people to wonder why you’ve never said that he has a certain color of hair.

      June 20, 2018
  10. mrsizer #

    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.

    Some days I think you’re talking to me directly.

    June 20, 2018
  11. I … erm … THINK that I have been able to escape this, in the main. My early professional training was in communicating with the target audience. What do you have to say, how do you say it so that it gets through, do they — the audience — get what you are trying to say?
    (Thank you, DINFOS, and the supervisors who ruthlessly critiqued my proposed produced spots.)

    June 20, 2018
  12. Slither #

    Perhaps there are also times when an author can no longer write the next book in a series?

    I remember one series where there was one book in the middle where all the characters changed personalities from the previous books and there was lots and lots of emotion flying around. I asked the author years later at a con about this (very politely) and he admitted that not only did he write that book in the middle of getting divorced, but other things happened at the time which made him unable to empathize with his lead character.

    There’s another long-running series I’m reading where suddenly a minor character has taken over. He’s very self-centered and extremely needy, yet not only does the lead character for no apparent reason care very very much about his every mood, but so does the equivalent of minor gods! Why is not explained. Myself, I suspect that this character is based upon a real-life person and the author’s feelings about this person are bleeding over into the books. I just wish it would stop!

    June 20, 2018
    • Yes, this is a risk, too.

      June 20, 2018
    • mrsizer #

      The TV series Dante’s Cove did this.Every season had a new location and new actors for the same characters. Everyone pretended nothing had happened. A first season character came back in the third season and everyone kept remarking on her dyed hair so the audience would remember it was the same character. Just cancel the stupid thing.

      June 21, 2018
  13. 23skidoo

    June 20, 2018
  14. I actually had the huge world system built up over years, with hours of research, the whole thing (and yes, I was way too young to try anything like world-building).

    I wound up scrapping almost all of it when I actually got around to writing the novel, because nothing fit the stories I wanted to tell – as in, this character needs a completely different background, and so does his/her family in order to be that kind of person. And that city actually needs to have evolved this way to have these kinds of laws and attitudes. So history has to be completely different, etc, etc.

    I did wind up with a lot of research on history and human behavior that figured into the final world, so it wasn’t a complete waste (not to mention tons of great picture books!)

    June 21, 2018
  15. I’m at this point in my current story where my main character is walking through a psychic abattoir. I know that by writing this scene, a number of people that are pre-readers are going to have issues. I suspect that I’m about to hit a hot button of one of my friends in this part of the story, and it is not going to be pleasant.

    But, my muse just offers me her clean left hand, the right soaked with blood, standing on bodies that cover the floor completely, and says, “Please, trust that I will lead you right, just as I trust you to tell the tale true.”

    (And, in my defense, this is nowhere near as much a slaughterhouse as the Red Wedding or Glencoe. And, I know that the end of this scene will be something like Kintsugi for Adelaide.)

    June 21, 2018

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