Okay, so I don’t really know if this is rule #4 or not. It’s somewhere in my top five for sure. I’ve talked about it in my podcast, in workshops, and probably on this blog, and I talk about it with every new client I take on: the danger of writing in such a way that the reader knows there’s a writer in the room.
In other words, it’s the story that readers need to be immersed in, not the fact that someone has written it.
These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.
Ah, yes, gentle reader, you might look them over. In fact, go buy the book. Right now. Because Leonard gives the best advice currently available on the planet, and every beginning (or even seasoned) writer should engrave them on his or her heart. And since there are exceptions to every rule, Leonard covers them, too:
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)
If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.
What Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1″ and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2″ as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”
Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.
Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.
Of course he did. But do recall that they were the exception. In general, it’s story that you want to have come through, story that you want the reader to absorb, and story that keeps you away from falling too much in love with your own writing. (Didn’t think I knew that one, did you? Relax: we all did it at some point. Get over it.)
Do all that, and then you’ll be … beyond The Elements of Style!