Writing Fiction and Making the Words Disappear
It may seem counterintuitive, since we work so hard at choosing just the right words when writing fiction, but one of my main goals during the editing phase is to make the words disappear on the page. I do this in such a way that the reader will forget she is reading, instead “seeing” the action in her head. While it sounds like a magic trick, it is in fact a fairly natural state for me. As a visual writer, I see the action as I write it. In fact, as I tell the people who ask me about my writing process, I often feel more like a journalist than a fiction writer, because I simply follow my characters around inside my head and write down what they do and say.
As a writer, one of the best things I can hear from a reader (aside from how much they loved the story and how much they want more) is that I made them late for work, or caused sleep deprivation because they stayed up all night finishing my book. The last thing I want to give them is the opportunity to set the book down to go do something else.
When the text draws attention to itself, it pulls the reader out of the story. Sadly, this is often as true for beautiful, shining prose as it is for poorly written, badly punctuated, or grammatically incorrect writing. While bad writing can be a mire the reader must slog through, glowing prose can be just as distracting. Either one can pull the reader out of the story. And the one thing a writer does not want is to allow the reader to fall out of the story realm and find themselves plunked back down in reality. A reality, mind you, filled with electronic devices, household chores or any number of real-world distractions calling out for attention.
The challenge is to keep the reader engaged and one key to ensuring it is, as Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote in his essay On the Art of Writing, to “murder your darlings.”
This sage advice has been reiterated by (and attributed to) a multitude of authors, including William Faulkner (who IMHO should have heeded it more) and even Stephen King. What it means is that when writing fiction if you find yourself stepping back and admiring a specific bit of your prose, a phrase or sentence that stands out in your writing like a sparkling gem in a field of sturdy, but functional paving stones, unless you are writing poetry (or in some cases literary fiction) it should be plucked out and tossed aside.
At first this will be painful (there may even be mental and emotional kicking and screaming involved), but no one said writing fiction was easy and if the purpose of the writing is to tell a story and take the reader on a journey, as is the case with most novels, then anything that detracts or distracts from that mission should be expunged, and I promise that over time it does get easier. And when readers tell you how they “were so absorbed in the story they couldn’t put the book down” that payoff will be worth the all hard work, including the tears and kicking and screaming.
As Pablo Casals said, “The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all.”