I’m a big fan of famed western and crime novelist Elmore Leonard. I came across a great quote some time ago and it didn’t resonate with me right away. It really hit home, however, when I began reading my first book, Frankly Speaking, as I recorded the audio book.
If it sounds like writing, rewrite it – Elmore Leonard
It is amazing what you uncover when you read your work aloud. I found some of the sentences to be clumsy and even difficult to read at times. (Also, my voice sounded to me like someone was strangling a cat while running their fingernails down a chalkboard).
I had read in another writing tips book to read your work aloud as you rewrite it. I always thought that it was a waste of time, but I am now convinced that it isn’t.
Another tip from Leonard took on additional meaning as I read my book aloud. He says, “take out the parts that people skip.” As I read my book, I found one or two spots where I had some redundancy and maybe some back story items that just didn’t matter in advancing the story. When I used to read books by Tom Clancy, I often found myself skipping all of the minutia of the military operations that he describes in great detail. I found that I could completely skip these sections, that were sometimes 10-20 pages, and not lose any plot points within the story.
My wonderful editor, Catherine Violando, cracked down on me when I submitted drafts to her. I tended to insert a lot of back story because I thought the readers want to know what is motivating my characters to do the things they do.
I would have big chunks of information about the characters’ childhood and family life. She encouraged me to insert little pieces of this information here and there and not dump it on my readers all at once. I noticed, as I read other writers work, they used this technique as well. Stephen King is famous for giving the reader little tidbits about the character and then leaving them hanging. He might write something like, “John Doe spent the day with his children on a bright, sunny Saturday. He loved to spend the day this way. Too bad this would be his last.” Then he might end the chapter and not tell you what happened to John Doe for another couple of chapters.
It will be interesting, as I continue writing my 10th book, to see if I’ve learned anything and have improved. What I have learned, and this should be something that every writer realizes, completing your book with no grammatical or punctuation errors is only the beginning. Read your work aloud and take out the things that readers skip.
As I chronologically read the books of Elmore Leonard, I can see that he practiced what he preached and improved from book to book. Was his work perfect? I’m finished about a third of his books, and no, they are not. They do, however, show his progression as a writer over time. He wrote novels on a pace of one every 1.5 years or so. I have written 9 books in three years with a 10th on the way while working full time. Leonard’s slower pace is likely due to the traditional publishing route, which was the only option at that time. I’m sure he had countless professional editors and marketing plans. Self published authors don’t have these same luxuries, but there is no reason that we cannot produce work that is both entertaining and high-quality. Reading your work aloud and skipping those things that don’t advance the story are two tricks you can use to get there.