This title of this post comes from a quote by famed western and crime novelist Elmore Leonard. I came across the 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 attempted to record the audio book version. 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. 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.
This didn’t just happen when reading my own book. I remember reading books by Tom Clancy. Clancy’s stories are masterful and complex, but I often found myself skipping the minutiae of the military operations. 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 cracked down on me when I was writing my books. I tend to insert a lot of back story because I think 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.
As I finalized the 3rd and fourth books in the Frank Rozzani series, I think I’ve learned from my earlier work. Something that every writer should realize that completing your book with no grammatical or punctuation errors is only the beginning. Read your work aloud and take out the things that readers may skip or that are not necessary.
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 about a third of the way through 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 five in two years while working full time.
Leonard’s slower pace is likely due to the traditional publishing route, which was virtually the only option at that time. I’m sure he had countless professional editors and help marketing his books. Independently published authors don’t have these same luxuries, but we also don’t have the time constraints. 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.