Six impossible things

Blind spots

Every once in a while, I come across someone who has a blind spot for a particular major part of writing: description, emotions, action, internal monologue, or whatever. A lot of these folks think they can’t write because, without whatever it is they’re missing, their stuff doesn’t work…and they assume that if what’s missing doesn’t come naturally to at least some degree, they’ll never figure out how to do it.

This happens not to be the case. Every writer has some kind of blind spot; it’s just that for most of us, it’s something that’s not quite as obvious up front, something more minor than “action” or “dialog,” and we learn to dance around it or compensate for it fairly quickly. It’s more difficult when the blind spot is something central, like description or action, but it’s still possible.

The biggest difficulty, in my experience, is usually figuring out that one has a problem and exactly what the problem is, because of course the salient feature of blind spots is that one can’t see them. Often, the stuff one writes looks perfectly fine to the writer, and it’s only when the crit group or beta readers get at it that the writer begins to suspect there’s something wrong.

Unfortunately, at this point many writers decide that what’s wrong is the readers, not the writing. It always astonishes me when a writer’s first response to “I didn’t understand this bit” is “But it’s right there, see?” If somebody didn’t get it, then they didn’t get it; the question at that point is to figure out why and do something about it.

And yes, sometimes the problem is with the particular reader – but for a writer, that really needs to be the last possible conclusion, and never a final one. Because if you start from the assumption that the problem is always with the reader, you will never find and fix anything that you didn’t notice on your own, and there’s really no point in being in a crit group or having beta readers at all.

Even when you’re pretty sure that this particular reader has a bee in her bonnet about dialog or description or whatever, it’s worth reconsidering her comments from time to time, because as one’s writing improves, one generally gets better at spotting real problems, so it’s possible that in six months or a year or five years, one will look at the story and smack one’s head and think That’s what she meant! Why didn’t I see this before? And then one can proceed to actually fix the problem.

Because the very first thing to remember about fixing anything is that if you can’t see the problem yourself, it is practically impossible to fix it without mucking up everything else. This is what makes dealing with blind spots so extraordinarily difficult; by their very nature, one can’t see them, so how can one fix them?

Reader and crit group comments can alert one to the fact that one has a blind spot – that one always seems to start the story a chapter ahead of where it needs to start, or carry on three chapters past the actual end, or never say what the main characters look like, or never describe anyone’s thoughts/emotions, or whatever.

The next step is to learn to see the problem for oneself…and decide whether it’s a charming stylistic eccentricity, or a serious problem that needs to be fixed. A character who constantly “sings out” instead of calling or shouting may be fine for one book, though it can become a really noticeable and tiresome tick over a multi-volume series. On the other hand, if there are no action scenes at all (because the kidnapping, rescue, barroom brawl, chase through the ravine, and final shootout all take place offstage), that’s probably a very large problem unless you’re doing something meta and literary and know exactly what you’re doing.

Teaching yourself to see a problem happens in two main ways: by reading other people’s stuff and paying conscious and deliberate attention to seeing what they’re doing that you aren’t, and by going over your own stuff in revision and doing the same thing. This can be extremely difficult to do alone, though it’s not impossible. Sometimes, though, what’s needed is for you to go over the passage in someone else’s book, looking for the action (or description, or dialog tags, or whatever), and then have someone else go through the same passage and highlight it so you can’t miss it.

Once you learn to see when something’s there and when it really isn’t, and have decided that the book you’re writing will be improved by including it, you go to your own stuff and look. This is even harder, especially if whatever-it-is is something that’s missing (like action or description), rather than something that you’re doing too often. It’s relatively easy to go through a manuscript and highlight every spot where someone blinks or rolls their eyes; it’s a lot harder to mark places where there could be action or description or emotions, only there isn’t.

For most writers, especially if they’re still in the early stages of learning to write, this is second-draft and revision stuff. My personal experience has been that going through a manuscript and carefully deleting all the eye-rolls or overused “verys” and “reallys” and “managed tos” is painful enough that after doing it once, I remember and avoid doing that particular thing during subsequent first drafts…but that hasn’t stopped me from making new and different mistakes, which then need to be discovered and corrected. It’s a never-ending journey, but it’s the only way I know to keep improving.

14 Comments
  1. For me, it was (and still is somewhat) wordiness. Never use one word when six will do. It took a writers’ group and many critiques for me to even be able to see it, and I still struggle with it during revision. If I’d read something like this post five years ago, it would have saved me a lot pain and angst: I’m a terrible writer, I can’t do anything right, etc etc.

    The odd flipside to learning to see it in my own writing is that I’ve started unconsciously editing other people’s stuff for the same flaw. I don’t just do it with novels, either. Advertisements and anything written by a government agency are great places to practice.

  2. Wow! This is a really cool post!

    I tend to gild the lily. One of my revision jobs is/was taking out a third of the adjectives. I’ve gotten better. As you say, the pain of doing it once pricks when you’re about to commit the old sin in the new manuscript.

    But that’s a sin of commission.

    I’m really wondering what my sins of omission are.

    I know at least one: skipping scenes of character development and plot development when I have more than three POV characters. My first reader caught that one, and I’m alert to it now.

    Ah . . . just thought of another, again the catch of a first reader.

    I’m currently writing a lot of fantasy stories set in the same world. There are some complicated features to the world – especially the magic – that sometimes (but not always, depending on the story) need to be explained. And that is my current blind spot!

    How do I determine if I must explain it (all over again for me, but potentially for the very first time for my reader), and how do I do it succinctly? That’s my exact dilemma in my WIP. My first reader says I need to get the explanation in earlier than I managed it, and I agree with him. But yikes!

  3. Temporal clues. If the reader is thrown into one scene purely concentrated on the here-and-now after another, he’s not going to realize how long it’s been since the last one. This can be significant.

  4. When Marion Zimmer Bradley was editing her anthologist and her magazine, from time to time an author whose story she’d rejected for some obvious flaw would exclaim, “But you don’t understand!”

    Marion’s answer was always, “MAKE me understand.”

  5. This is hard to do, but as you pointed out, it’s why critique partners are so important. I tend to use the word “just” way more than necessary.

  6. I’ve heard an even better retort about understanding:

    “That’s what I just told you.”

  7. I’m not so sure that most people can’t see where they are weak. Which doesn’t mean that they can fix it.

  8. I was reading along and thinking “oh, yeah, like character physical descriptions” long before I got to

    or never say what the main characters look like

    Guilty as charged!

    I suspect that’s a blind spot for me as a writer because it’s something I’m largely oblivious to as a reader. Unless a character’s appearance is somehow relevant to their characterization, I’m hard pressed to remember even what color their hair is — even when it’s a book I love and have read multiple times.

    It makes it particularly challenging to balance between “a charming stylistic eccentricity” and catering to readers (some of whom, I’ve been told, can’t connect to a character without a physical description) when it’s something that, tbh, I really don’t care about. Haven’t yet found my way on that one.

  9. @LizV Maybe you could think about describing not “how the character looks” but more “how they present themselves to the world”. Does she dye her hair a fashionable but unflattering color? Does he never remember what an iron is for? Is there a small child that wears his favorite cowboy boots and superhero cape EVERY day? What someone does when they get ready for the day is their ‘normal’ and describing the end result is a quick way to characterize them to the reader.

  10. @Esther – Ah, but that’s cheating. 😉 The examples you give I *would* be able to describe, because those are “stand-out”, chosen things that do say something about the character. But having, say, brown hair? Not because it’s dyed, but because it grew that way? Not so much. 😉

    I actually do think in terms of how the character presents themself (themselves? theirself? Oh, English), but for me that’s more about things like posture, diction, what they do with their hands — actions, more than appearances; things the character chooses rather than things they randomly are. To me, the fact that my MC can load her entire life into a car and be on the road in 30 minutes says a lot more about her than the fact that she has brown hair. I really struggle to wrap my head around the mind-set that sees it the opposite way.

  11. Belatedly… I wouldn’t say that brown hair says something about the character (unless the character dyes it, or wishes s/he had the guts to dye it, etc.), so much as it lets visually-oriented people visualize the character.

    Some people like to play their MMORPGs with the camera zoomed in tight, so you only ever glimpse your sword as you fight. Others prefer to be widely zoomed away… (In my case, it depends on the game. >_> )

  12. @A.Beth – I think you’re right. And I’m very much not visually-oriented (at least not where people are concerned), so it’s a bit like trying to speak a foreign language.

    If you don’t mind me asking… why is visualizing the character important to you? What do you get out of it that enhances your involvement with the story, or interferes with that involvement if you don’t get it?

  13. I have the same problem as LizV. And I would dearly like to know, as she asked, why is visualizing the character so important, or perhaps more precisely, why does a reader need to know so many details about how the writer visualizes the character in order to visualize the character herself? If the character’s hair color isn’t a plot point, why does it matter if the writer thinks it’s blond and the reader thinks it’s black?
    I write pretty tight 3rd person–usually my POV character can describe other people, but unless I want to resort to the dreaded and forbidden ‘looking at self in mirror’ scene, it doesn’t make sense to me to describe the POV in any detail–she might push her hair out of her mouth after running, but she wouldn’t find the color relevant to notice at that point. She’ll only think about how tall she is if it affects her ability to do something–which is more along the lines of “He always put the pots up where she’d have to get a chair to reach them” then “She was 5’2″ in her three inch heels.”
    Yet my critique buddies always want the latter, and it seems to me that it’s both telling and irrelevant. The last time I thought about how tall I am was when I got my driver’s license renewed, after all! (Unless we want to count being the shortest adult in the house, and the others always putting the pots up . . .)

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