Monday, September 12, 2011

The Importance of Invisible Writing

So you’ve just finished your novel. No, not just any novel, the Great American Novel. No, your magnum opus! This novel has been designed to make people perk up and listen. You had a theme and you stuck to it and now everyone will be talking about it. The word will go out and awareness will be raised for those trees in the Amazon rain forest, those civil rights issues in the south, the sea turtles off the Eastern seaboard facing extinction, the sexism across the country.

Well, I hate to tell you this but if you’ve just finished writing a novel under this mindset, you have a problem. Notice I said novel, not nonfiction. The trouble is people read novels to be entertained. They want to be taken away with a cast of characters. They want to see what they see and feel what they feel. They want to be brought into the emotions of another person and learn their story and savor the conclusion. No one wants to be preached to. That’s what textbooks are for.

We’ve heard it time and time again: The story must be king.

When anything in your novel bounces the reader out of the story and takes them away from the vividness of those characters and settings, I’m afraid to tell you that your writing is showing through. You worked hard on those words but in actuality, no one wants to see them. They just want to be told a story.

Now unfortunately this doesn’t just apply to those larger themes mentioned above. This applies on a much smaller scale. You may have that novel where nothing is more important that the conflict and the characters. And yet your readers are constantly being pulled out of the story for some reason or another and forced to examine the actual words you’ve put on the page.

I’m talking of course about the technicalities of writing. I recently read two books back to back. One, an absolutely fantastic work where the only thing that took me out of the book was the use of OK vs. okay (okay, I admit, I really like “okay” better. OK looks like it’s being yelled). On the other hand, the other book was so full of passive writing, telling vs. showing, adverbs and other bothersome things you may think are not so important, that there were times where I would go for pages only seeing the words and never being drawn into the story at all. I spent more time mentally editing sentences than I did actually reading the stupid thing.

I’m sure someone is yelling at me at this point that not all readers see or even know about these silly writing rules. I agree. Most readers don’t know about them. They simply read the book with a vague sense of annoyance. They’re never drawn fully into the story and they probably don’t even know why.

Writing rules are in place for a reason. They allow us to smooth down those sharp edges into a silky piece of work. People will read it and walk away talking about your characters as though they are real people. They’ll make fan pages for the fantasy world you’ve created and sport t-shirts with your brilliant magic system brought to life.

The only people who appreciate purple prose are the ones who write it. You will never be able to sell the importance of your theme to a group of people if they can’t get into your novel. People will never get to know your characters unless you can make them seem like something other than words on a page.

So here’s the kicker. You know your characters better than anyone. You can go to any page of your Work in Progress and see their faces and feel their emotions and see their thoughts. To you they are real because you created them. You saw them before they were those words on the page. So how do you know if you’ve actually made your writing invisible?

1. Alpha readers. Beta readers. Writing groups. Editors. I can’t stress enough how you need an outside opinion on your work. Someone honest who won’t tell you what you want to hear. Allow them to tell you when they can’t stay connected to parts of the story. Or when that word keeps jumping out at them. Or when they’ve had to read the same sentence five times to discern the meaning.

2. Learn those all-important rules. Active vs. passive writing. Limited adverbs. Varying word choice, point of view, etc, etc, etc. Don’t just learn them, embrace them. Make them become as natural as typing. The rules are in place for a reason. They are formulaic devices honed over the years by people much more brilliant than ourselves to pull the story forward and make the words sink quietly into the background.

3. You know if you’ve themed your writing. It’s good to have a theme. It’s better to have a story where readers feel for the characters plight and worry about said characters surviving in that doomed rain forest in the Amazon.

Make the story the King.

So let’s be honest here. Is your writing invisible?


  1. I'm afraid that OK you're referring to would be my book. That was sadly out of my control. Editor's choice. Those things happen. Sigh. I might fight harder to keep it a certain way in my next book, but who knows. I agree with you here and keeping your writing as clean as possible. I don't personally believe in rules for writing outside of grammar, but I do think every writer needs their own set of rules for what works for them. That's why it's good to learn what works in other fiction and what doesn't.

  2. I guess i am not an invisible writer--hey I am not a writer at all but I am very impressed with you!


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