There’s no magic bullet for being a decent writer, or making people bond with your characters or fall in love with your story. Writing is a million different skills and challenges, and each story is different. But the more I struggle to make this work, the more I think there’s one key thing that makes writing more excellent: Finding your own blind spots as an author, and trying to see into them.
This is something I found out while I was rewriting and editing and tenderizing my new novel, All the Birds in the Sky, which had massive huge blind spots in the middle of it, even in what I thought was the “final” draft. (And it probably still does, because you never really win the fight against your own blind spots.) But it’s also something I’ve found with every other creative writing project I’ve ever taken on. Just the same way you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s hard to see what you’re not seeing in a story—but it’s essential to try.
Your blind spots are almost always where the most interesting stuff is hiding. They’re the weaknesses and omissions in your story, but they’re also where you’ll often find the strongest emotional pressure points. Your own blind spots contain all the unquestioned assumptions that can either break your story—or make it much stronger.
The most common kind of blind spot, in fact, is a plot hole: Something that happens in your story that defies logic, but you didn’t notice, because it made sense to you, the author. This honking huge coincidence, contrivance, or total lapse in logic, has allowed you to get from A to B in your plot outline—but actually, you glossed over some crucial stuff. You just figured that certain things “happened” “somehow,” without fully interrogating them.
When a plot hole comes from your own unexamined assumptions and expectations, then it can be especially hard to find and eradicate.
But a major narrative blind spot can also include those side characters that you didn’t quite flesh out, or make believable even as background players. You know, that supporting actor who’s just there to make the main character look good, but who is sort of embarrassingly thin on the ground. Plus the moments that you skimmed past, on your way to the next big set piece.
But blind spots are also about your main characters, and their motivations and relationships—and the choices they make that aren’t entirely set up or justified by the story. Without getting too meta, chances are your protagonist’s blind spots are a version of your own blind spots as a writer and as a person, and the things that they don’t think about are things that you don’t think about. But you’re putting them into an unreal situation, and—for example—if your character goes through a horrendous trauma and then shakes it off a few pages later, that’s an example of not really seeing something important.
Blind spots also include the holes in your worldbuilding—all the stuff that you created in the background, that add up to a setting that isn’t entirely logical or convincing. And your blind spots, all too often, are cultural—they include cultural prejudices, and your own ignorance about other cultures. Especially if you belong to the dominant culture, then all of society’s engines have been deployed to keep your ignorance about other cultures and experiences as comfortable as possible.
These blind spots are where you’re “cheating” on the story, but more importantly, they’re also where you’re not even aware that you’re missing part of the story. And often as not, the part of the story that you’re missing is an important piece—maybe the most important.
So I’ve come to believe that a huge part of getting better at writing is forcing yourself to see the things that have been in the corner of your eye all along. That means writing stories that include characters from other cultures and backgrounds—but also, being more open to other viewpoints in general. It also means interrogating all of your other lazy ideas and drilling into all of the “of courses” that you let yourself get away with. This is an ongoing process, that unfortunately never gets easier, but the good news is, it can be super rewarding. Writing is full of “aha” moments, and some of the best “aha” moments come when you get a clear look at something that you weren’t even seeing before.
This happened several times after I’d completed the “absolutely final” draft of All the Birds in the Sky—there were places where Patricia and Laurence were acting or behaving in a way that I hadn’t adequately set up, something I had to go back and fix with small, seemingly insignificant moments. There were minor but important characters who felt too much like they had no life or feelings of their own. There were plot points that I had still kind of half-assed. In all of these cases, I realized that my own assumptions and prejudices were making the story weaker, because I hadn’t held them up to the light.
So how do you know where your blindspots are? This is why you get as much feedback as you can. And why you show your work to as many people as possible. This is also why you do your homework, and research the real-life stuff that your story is drawing on, including actual history. And this is why you need to read as widely as possible—and read stuff outside your immediate genre and the work of people who share your background and expectations.
I also think outlining your story over and over, in different ways each time, is one way to catch the stuff that happens “just because,” and the elements that are just there because they made sense when you were throwing words on the page. And talking through your story with people, and reading bits of it aloud, are also great ways to try and catch the bits where it’s like, “But what about—?” Sure, it can be a little mortifying to stand in front of the open mic at the Taco Palace and realize, in front of a dozen people, that you have a blob of nonsense in the middle of your story. But that’s not nearly as bad as having that blob make it into your actual book, printed between covers, for all time.
So of course, you can fix the immediate problems in your work that are caused by your blind spots. And you should. You can rework plot holes, and find a more plausible way for these events to happen, so that the rest of your story still holds water. You can give that weak supporting character more life, and add some more plausibility to your broken worldbuilding. You can repair the worst sinkholes in your story and paper over the cracks, etc. etc.
But what I’m saying is, fixing the problems that your blind spots created is just the beginning. You can also try to look into your blind spots, and poke at them, and keep delving deeper and deeper until you find what lies behind them. Going past just solving the immediate problem, and investigating the underlying weaknesses, is where the action is.
The things you don’t want to think about are at least as important as the things that you are dying to write about. The things your eye is pulling away from are often the secrets to making your world more expansive, your characters more three-dimensional and interesting, and the adventure more thrilling and unpredictable. After all, the things you’re not seeing are also the last things your characters (or readers) would expect. There are surprises and hidden rooms full of treasure, hiding in your blind spot.
To be sure, writing doesn’t have to be therapy, and reading someone else’s therapy session on paper can be kind of painful. But at the same time, there’s always going to be some heavy lifting that goes into making a satisfying world and a rich diversity of characters, and that can pay off big time.
But also, finding your blind spots and exploring them is an “eat your spinach” thing—it’s a “juicy red meat” thing. (Assuming you eat meat. If not, please substitute a vegan metaphor.) Figuring out what you’re not seeing in your own writing, and the things that you’re leaving out without even realizing it, can lead to some of the best power-ups and most fun discoveries.
And pretty much any kind of fiction or storytelling benefits from paying attention to the things you’re missing. Even a wish-fulfillment romp about happy marshmallow warriors flying around on sno-cone rockets can be way better if you at least think about all the stuff you’re leaving out of it.
All storytelling is wish-fulfillment, to some extent. Whether it’s a story about being the best wizard in the world and the chosen savior of the human race, or a gritty dystopian tale about suffering and misery—or even a small domestic story about someone who buys a brand new tea set and then breaks one of the cups. There’s always some wish-fulfillment in getting to live another life, or go through an experience and come out the other end, having survived or grown in some way. Vicarious living and wish-fulfillment are two parts of the same glob of reading pleasure, in a way.
Genres come with their blind spots, which is part of how you get unquestioned assumptions among all the tropes and things. Sometimes these can be toxic, like the “torture always works” assumption in ticking-time-bomb thrillers. Sometimes they can be cozy and benign, like that bar where every urban fantasy character goes to drink cheap whiskey, that somehow stays in business despite being mostly empty all the time.
And part of how we expand the maps of our favorite genres is by trying to stare into our own, or other author’s, blind spots. George R.R. Martin tried to delve into Tolkien’s blind spots—but now other writers can look into all of the things that Martin himself hasn’t been able to see. And so on.
The great thing about genre fiction, in fact, is how expansive it is, and how much storytelling it can accommodate. Genres don’t weaken when you poke into the places that they don’t show us, any more than individual stories do. In fact, it’s the other way around—the way we get stronger storytelling, and stronger genres overall, is by directing our attention into precisely those points where our attention least wants to go.
All images via TimUnderhill, McClaverty, Eric Carl, Leo Boudreau and Frederick Barr on Flickr.