Put The Stuff on the Page

(This is a blast from the not to distant past. Sarah is away from her keyboard and asked me to cover for her. Being lazy resourceful, I thought the best thing to do was find one of her earlier posts and, well, post it. Since this is a problem I have at times and see quite a bit in new writers, I felt this fit the bill perfectly–ASG)

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.


Featured image via Pixabay.


  1. And when you’re writing a series, don’t forget you do have to describe things all over again in each book. Admittedly, I got very tired of reading about what Harry Dresden’s car looked like, but I was binge-reading them all in a row. I’m sure that when the next one comes out, I’ll like a new description of Harry’s duster, his car, and his apartment, because it’s been a while.

    1. I’ve seen some descriptions like that where the entire descriptive paragraph has been boiler-plated from one book to the next. It gets really noticeable in serials like Tom Swift, Doc Savage, or the old Matt Bolan series. The better authors (IMHO) at least tweak them a bit so they aren’t verbatim.

      1. There’s some upside to doing a boilerplate. When I was a kid and still reading the Babysitter’s Club, there were a lot of jokes about how Chapter 2 was always exactly the same so you could skip it (a description of all the sitters). Thing was, it wasn’t EXACTLY the same, and there was usually enough in that chapter about the plot of the current book that you couldn’t actually skip it. I’d have preferred it if it were the same boilerplate so that I could have moved on to Chapter 3 without worry.

        1. I remember Phoenix Force and Able Team doing that. 😀 Frist chapter was always the set up, then came the long run down of the cast, quick cover of their back-ground and key physical features. Just enough variance to make the reader spend the time seeing what they were doing at the time.

      2. The directly-quoted paragraphs of repeated description kept throwing me out in the Nightside series.

        The Dresden ones don’t bug me so much — more like a comfortable blanket that I know well. But then, I tend to skim bits of text like that, too. It might bother me more if I was reading them as audio books and couldn’t skim familiar descriptions.

      1. Not until he looks as if we need to chase the chickens out of the hearse. (To use a south-east Texas phrase.)

  2. *Raises paw* Guilty of not putting character description in subsequent books. I suspect in some ways this is a problem for indie more than trad-pub, because we can assume that all books in a series will be available to readers at the same time. Trad-pub today, with only 2-3 on a shelf unless it is something wildly popular like The Dresden Files or Diskworld, and releases only every year or every-other-year, the author can’t be sure that readers have actually seen her other books in the series.

    Oh, and don’t describe something in your world by referring to something else in your world, unless you include more familiar adjectives as well. Something like “He stood as tall as an ostan tree,” doesn’t make sense without back-up.

  3. I’m definitely guilty of not describing my PoV characters. A paragraph describing another character who’s just walked into view feels natural. Interrupting the PoV’s stream of thought to pay attention to how tall he is or what color his eyes and hair are feels awkward.

    Any tips?

    1. Mirror scene, or sees himself reflected in still water, or musing about clothing fits and colors, or the trouble of finding a horse large/small enough…

      1. Mirror scenes are notorious.

        True, I have one in my current WIP, but that’s because the heroine is trying, in a bit of a panic, to convince herself that she’s not going to be fairest of them all.

    2. In the WIP, I told the beginning from the POV of the main character’s father. That made it easy. In the previous two, I compared the MC to his brother. “Unlike Peter, who had blue eyes, Simon’s were dark. Like his soul.” Or something like that.

      I agree that it’s weird to describe someone when you’re in his POV. Why would he be thinking about what he looks like? On the other hand, someone here once pointed out that we shouldn’t forget that there’s a narrator who gets to just describe stuff. After all, if we’re writing in third person, shouldn’t we get to do that? Otherwise, we might as well go for first person, with all its constraints. At least we’d get the benefits of first person, then, too.

      1. I won’t say that I did it well but I did something similar with my POV character comparing a trio of men to her brothers because there was a similarity she couldn’t put her finger on, but her brother’s description is that she and they all have the same coloring, eyes, hair, dimple and bump on the bridge of their noses.

        (I’ve long noticed that siblings in many families look like they have the same genetics, some families have such mixed genes that there’s a big variation but even then we’re used to television where siblings often don’t look the least like anyone in the family. Many families have a “look”. I was looking up a second cousin of my Dad’s that is an author and is distant from the family and when I used google images and found him, he looked so much like my dad that I had no doubt I’d gotten the correct “Frank”.)

  4. Can’t remember which author (because it wasn’t bad enough to annoy me too bad) but I remember reading a few books in a series where it seemed like every time a few things were mentioned, the author automatically copy/pasted the same reminder of what it was into the story. So you got to read the same two or three sentences again and again throughout each book in the series. Just in case you forgot since the last time.

    It was just enough to be noticeable, not enough to make me stop reading.

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