Writing Rule #4: Be Invisible

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.

elmo-leonard-bookElmore Leonard, who in addition to being a brilliant writer and storyteller was no slouch when it came to giving tips to writers, prefaced his book with these words:

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.

elmore_leonard.01.26.04.rr_lrgOf 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!

“There Are Places I Remember …”

notre_dame_montrealI hope that you were singing along to that title! It’s been on my brain since I had the idea for this column. I was thinking of the issues of place in fiction recently as I prepare to begin the second novel in my Martine LeDuc series, a series situated in my beloved Montréal. (Here’s a photo of Notre-Dame basilica, where one pivotal scene in the first book takes place. How could you resist doing something dramatic there?)

How important is place?

One of the great challenges of writing science fiction (or so I understand, having never done so myself) is in world creation: making a place that has internal consistency, that’s believable, that can feel real to the reader. Not an easy task.

Sometimes we don’t want to name a specific place. One of my soon-to-be published mysteries takes place in Pemberton, a town that I made up simply because too many odd things were happening there and I didn’t want to subject the people of any real place to them!

Dennis_Lehane_by_David_ShankboneBut in general it’s terrific to be able to use what we have as backdrops for our work. I love reading Dennis Lehane, mostly because he does brilliant things with dialogue, but also because I can visualize, completely and accurately, his depictions of Boston and his own old beloved neighborhood of Dorchester. That doesn’t mean that other people cannot appreciate the scenes and ambiance he describes; but it’s like slipping into an old comfortable sweatshirt when you read about a place you know.

Two authors I know about take completely opposite approaches to the question of place:

  • It may be apocryphal, but my understanding is that Phyllis Whitney, who wrote romantic suspense, used to decide where she wished to vacation next and that would become the setting for her new novel. I personally find this a delightful idea, and whenever I travel I’m always looking for ideas for backdrops to future stories.
  • Quiller_KGBElleston Trevor, who wrote fantastic thrillers under a number of different pen names—including Adam Hall—almost never visited the places he wrote about (and he wrote about Hong Kong, Laos, Germany, the Soviet Union, and many, many more exotic venues), relying exclusively on maps, guidebooks, letters, and so on for his information. Yet there’s an immediacy and level of description in his novels that make one feel one really is thee.

Have you thought about where you situate your fiction? Is place important to you? Is it in and of itself a real character to your readers? Could what you write take place anywhere, or is it connected to a specific place?

There are no right answers here. But as you mature as a writer, it’s important to ask yourself the questions. And then you’ll be … beyond The Elements of Style!


How To Start Writing Your Novel

seo_article_writingWe’ve all heard it. “I’d write a novel, if I only had the time…” Yeah, right. Time is all it takes to become the next James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, or Thomas Pyncheon.

Okay, sarcasm aside, getting started writing can be difficult. A lot of people who could probably turn out effective and even brilliant work don’t — because they don’t know how to begin.

However, I’m here to tell you that the famous terror of the blank page (or computer screen!) doesn’t need to overcome your creativity. Here are some tips for getting started that will awaken your muse … and put the pen in her hand!

Your first mistake is, in fact, starting with the blank page/screen. Any project takes planning, and writing a novel is no exception. So accept that you have to do some reasonably heavy lifting before you even get to the pivotal scene that’s been playing in your head.

  1. That said, start by choosing your tools. Don’t worry: pen and paper are completely acceptable. However, if you’d like to make your life a little easier, I can wholeheartedly recommend using Scrivener (no, I have nothing to do with Literature and Latte, I’m just a very satisfied Scrivener user). Go to the site and take a tour and if you’re not convinced that this will help you with every writing project you’ll ever undertake, I’ll be surprised.
  2. Okay, now that you have your tools lined up, use them. One of the reasons I recommend Scrivener is that it gives you access to spaces where you can jot down your ideas (I use the corkboard feature for this). If you don’t already have ideas for your novel, then perhaps you should wait until some come to you; otherwise, this is the time for random thoughts about it. They could be anything from the color of the protagonist’s eyes to the final exciting scene to that one point that you think someone should make.
  3. letter writing vintage photoNext, create a character file. Note that I didn’t say “list,” though you may wish to do that as well. I want you to go deeper: create a filecard (either real or virtual) for each character, and spend time with them. What’s the character’s backstory? What did he want to be when he grew up? What was Mom like? Where did your character go to school, and what was that like for her? What are his favorite foods? What’s her defining quotation? What is the character’s quest, both in life and in the context of your story? How do other people feel about your character? What’s his most endearing/annoying trait? Religious beliefs? Memberships? Relationships? As you see, the list is only limited by your imagination. Why are you doing this? Because while people are often inconsistent in their thoughts and behavior, it’s up to you as their creator to make sure that these inconsistencies are neither sloppy nor haphazard. You need to know your characters inside out. Even if you don’t use a lot of this information, you need to have it.
  4. The next most important thing to consider is your timeline. I cannot count the instances of timeline mistakes I’ve made (thank goodness for editors!), because, quite simply, we forget. Was Elizabeth born in July or September? Is she older or younger than her brother Joe? Did the life-changing accident happen when she was twenty or twenty-five? Could she have listened to Rhianna in her car when it happened, or was that before Rhianna became popular? All these and more are waiting to trip you up, so make it easy on yourself and note it all down.
  5. man using typewriterLet’s talk geography. Back in the dark ages before the internet I wrote a novel in which a character strolled on the beach … at San Jose, California, which is an inland city. Oopsie. Never made that mistake again … but geography can trip you up. Use maps! They’re wonderful, and you can make them into pdfs and insert them into Scrivener for later perusal.
  6. Finally, have an idea of the plot. Just a vague idea really is fine … you may find, as I do, that your characters take a strong hand in changing it. That’s fine. But have an idea where you’re setting out for before you set out, and it will raise your confidence level substantially!

So there you go. Follow these steps and you’ll find that the blank page isn’t quite so terrifying. And then you’ll be … beyond The Elements of Style!