The World Doesn’t Exist in a Black Box

I started taking myself “seriously” as a writer about five years ago. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve always had an insatiable need to write, I’ve always been “the writer” amongst my friends, and this has been both a good thing and a terrible thing. For one, the praise I’d experienced in high school for my essays blinded me to areas I needed to improve upon once I reached college. My first C absolutely floored me. I was the girl with merit grades, paraded before the class and lauded with honors. Until that point, I’d never gotten less than an A, and I was irate. It took me a long time to realize I wasn’t top in my class anymore; I was in a class now with everyone else who’d been top in their classes.

We’re all constantly learning, and we should be learning. There’s always room for improvement. Writing is one of those things where anyone can do it, but not everyone has the ability to tell a story well, and not everything can be taught. It’s kind of like baking a cake. I can bake a cake. I can follow directions on a box, but whether or not the cake turns out edible is anyone’s guess. I’m not a baker.

Really. Don’t trust anything I make.

I’ve had the feeling that something was missing from my work since I started querying two years ago. There are things I do naturally well: I’m good at banter, I’m good at humor, I’m good at writing dark creepy things. I have a strong Voice. I’ve heard “this book was great” and inflicted a book hangover or two.

My rejections have all read the same: “this is a great idea, but I just didn’t connect.” It’s hard to figure out where you’re going “wrong,” if you’re going wrong. The market is subjective. But when each rejection said the same thing, some sprinkled with nice comments about my talent or my humor, I knew there was an issue.

I wrote another book, and the same thing happened.

I wrote a third, and that’s when I asked for help. Thanks to my darling friend Cat and my CP Sarah, we figured out my problem is interiority.

I’m a method-writer, in the way many of us are–we spend our time being other people after all–but for me, I get so immersed in character and time that I forget to bring the reader with me. I’m too busying being to remember that my reader isn’t clairvoyant. When I write, I see everything like a play: the staging, the lighting, etc. The characters are fully-formed, three-dimensional people. They’re real. They exist.

In my head.

And that’s the problem. I write in a theatre, but it reads in a black box. Cat was kind enough to look at three chapters from all three of my books, and it was the same issue: I was missing interiority.

Interiority is weird for me, and I couldn’t see it because I was too in my head. I wasn’t expressing my character’s actions or their inner thoughts. I wasn’t exploring the whys. It’s the different between

“Gale strolled past the copious selection of pastries, popped a chocolate bonbon into his mouth, and smirked as Calamity masked her frustration at the empty vase stand before her,” and

“Gale strolled past the copious selection of pastries, enticed by the sweetly tart scent of candied citrus and bitter dark chocolate. He popped a tiny bonbon into his mouth and smirked. Across the ballroom, Calamity stomped her heeled shoes, fists balled in frustration directed at the empty pedestal before her.”

These are the opening lines of my current WIP, which is a total departure from the three books I’ve previously written. The first paragraph doesn’t set the scene nearly as well as the second. In the new opener, Gale smells the desserts, he tastes the bonbon. It’s more sensory and I put you in the room with him. You know, because the world doesn’t exist in a black box.

Since this is a new book–new genre, new era, new everything–I wanted to start fixing my interiority issue here before going back to edit previous work. When I first started, I wasn’t sure what I was doing or if I was doing it. I was trading snippets with Sarah in the literary equivalent of “Can you hear me know?”

“Did I do it now? Did I get it now? Am I doing it? Did I get it?”

It felt overwhelming. I felt like I was revealing too much, that I was telling and not showing, that I was over-saturating everything. It felt like so much because I hadn’t been doing it at all. My first book had more interiority then next two; my second was closer, but needed more whys; my third book… well, it’s resting while I work on this new one, but I’d venture that it might be a bit better, given that Sarah pushed to me explore Violette’s whys when I was struggling with the narrative.

Seriously, I can’t state enough the importance and value of good critique partners.

And now that I get it, it’s a wonder I didn’t notice in the first place. I do have to remind myself to include it, but it’s far easier now that I can see what I’m (not) doing. Hopefully, I’ve got it this time. I think I do. I can see that I’m getting better and my book is getting stronger.

Of course, added interiority likely also means that when I do something terrible, you, the reader, will cry that much harder. I need a lot of tears to keep my bathtub brimming.

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