The Invisible Writer

By John Gilstrap

I spent last week in Las Vegas at the SHOT Show, the once-again-annual convention thrown by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). Attended by roughly 65,000 people, the SHOT Show is to the shooting, hunting and outdoor adventure industry what the Detroit Auto Show is for cars. It’s the place where firearms manufacturers announce their new products. It’s also the place where I can meet up with the various subject matter experts who keep me from making huge mistakes. Good times.

On the flight out, I watched an episode of a documentary called, “One Perfect Shot,” which turned out to be entirely different than what I was expecting. The shots in this series refer to movies. Each episode highlights a different film director, who chooses his or her favorite shot, and reveals the story behind the story. I chose to watch the episode in which Michael Mann discusses the the bank robbery sequence from Heat–hands down, I believe, the best gunfight ever filmed.

The episode was interesting, but it featured a filmmaking quirk that is the point of writing this post. The director of the episode, whose name I cannot find in the brief time I am willing to dedicate to the search, chose to shoot much of her interview with Michael Mann in a wildly asymmetrical way. If you’ve studied filmmaking at all, you know about the rule of thirds, where the subject of an interview is rarely in the center of the screen. In this episode, which appears to have been shot in a black box theater and is formatted in wide screen, the subject spends much of the screen time in the lower corner, with his eyes looking off screen, rather than toward the center, which is the expected convention.

It was an interesting choice, but I think it was also a foolish one. I chose the episode because I wanted to hear the director’s story. The quirky filmmaking took away from that in a way that felt almost disrespectful. Mann was the man of the moment, yet the director decided to call attention to him/herself. It interrupted the story that it was trying to tell.

There’s an analogy her to writing for the page.

I strive to remain invisible in my writing. I want my readers to be fully aware of everything my characters are thinking and feeling, thoroughly immersed in Brother Bell’s “fictive dream.” The moment I draw attention to myself, I show disrespect to my characters and their tribulations.

Writerly affectations–lack of quotation marks for dialogue, impossibly long paragraphs, and the like–annoy me. They eject me from the story. Good writing isn’t flowery, it’s concise. This is why word choice matters so much. Why the flow of sentences matters.

If you’re reading this and you’re new to the craft, think twice–and then twice again–about the nature and structure of that oh-so-important first book. Adhere to conventions while still being interesting. I have repeated proclaimed that there are no rules in this writing game, and I always will. But there are expectations and human reactions.

On the rare occasions when I agree to critique rookie writing, I cringe when I see that the piece is written in present tense. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but it’s hard to pull off, and my Spidey sense warns me that there’s likely to be trouble ahead. The reason? Because the author is deliberately writing against the current and trying to draw attention to himself. One of the reasons I don’t read fantasy/science fiction (or many foreign novels) is the propensity for unpronounceable names. How am I supposed to keep the characters straight in my head if I can’t say their names?

Are you Mensa and have a giant vocabulary? Good for you. If you want to succeed in a commercial fiction market, check your brilliance at the door. Obeisance is a fine word, but respect is better recognized and known by more people. If you’re hoping to sell your stories, you’re hoping to break into a corner of the entertainment business. Everything you do is about your customer–your reader–not you.

When I mention this in seminars, I often field objections from students who are incensed that I expect them to write down to people. Inherent within the objection is a sense that writers are smarter than their readers. (One cannot write down without considering oneself to be above.) I don’t believe that to be the case at all. My job is to give readers a fun ride, and to make it feel effortless on my part. That effortless part is where the really hard work comes in.

So, TKZ family, what do you think? How easy is it for you to be ejected from a story? Do you like authors to show off, or do prefer for them to stay in the background?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

27 thoughts on “The Invisible Writer

  1. Hi John, I agree 100%. I once heard Lee Child in an interview say that he sees himself as the driver of a car. He is doing all the work driving his passengers around while they just have to enjoy the ride. In contrast, he believes some writers (literary) believe that the passengers should be doing all the work in figuring out the journey. I don’t think I’ve explained that as well as Mr Child, but I liked his analogy. Thanks.

  2. Many have said regarding writing: “There are no rules.” But there is at least one rule:
    ✿ ❀ ❂ ✽ 𝔻𝕠𝕟’𝕥 𝕓𝕠𝕣𝕖 𝕪𝕠𝕦𝕣 𝕣𝕖𝕒𝕕𝕖𝕣𝕤. ✿ ❀ ❂ ✽

      • Yes, among others, George J. Nameless. Why does that ring a bell?

        [The excellent linked article, had I read it at the time, also would have provided an early warning about Confederacy of Dunces, my least favorite winner of the Pullet Surprise, thereby saving me two valuable minutes spent thumbing thru Dunces, in search of literary value.]

        [Said article also might have steered me earlier down the Ayn Rand road, which I’d never trod until last week. Anthem is amazing. Prescient, even, with its mention of the “Great R̶e̶s̶e̶t̶ ” Rebirth.]

  3. I tell my three-character story from a deep close third pov which alternates roughly between the characters, depending on which is most affected, and I do not belong in the story (except in that each character uses different parts of who I am).

    Any whiff of a narrator or an external pov or exposition or info dumps gets rooted out – as I’m trying to make it possible for a reader to live three different lives from the character’s pov. The characters don’t even get to have streams of consciousness – their thoughts are triggered by what’s happening and what they’re observing and reacting to, because that’s how I choose to tell this story.

    Once I decided what I was doing, it has become fairly easy to be consistent.

    There are other options.

    And another rule I like: Don’t CONFUSE the reader.

    There hasn’t been anything I can’t cover more or less the way I want. So, as we would say in math, the solution is necessary AND sufficient.

  4. RE: Your example of “Obeisance” — I recently signed up for a “word of the day” type email, & almost every example sent is a fifty-dollar word that I would never use in fiction (nor anywhere else). It wasn’t worth the subscribe.

    Thankfully, I don’t often read books where the writer falls into that trap but when they do it certainly makes the read a less pleasant experience.

    It annoys me that I can’t remember what TV show it’s from, but I can hear the character’s accented voice in my head offering advice I’ve held to for years: “Speak plain, man!”

    Also related, I’m reading through a historical fiction manuscript I put in the drawer 10 years ago and there are a couple scenes where I wrote a note in the margin: “Why am I using modern-feeling psycho-babble in this scene? Does it really belong here?” The irony is that I WAS working in the psychology department of a healthcare institution at the time—and I think it got the better of me. LOL!!!!! Will definitely need to pull back and revisit those scenes in their historical context.

    • Bless me, Father Bell, for I have sinned. I have actually used obeisance in A True Map of the City:

      …There was nothing in the nightstand except the obligatory pristine copy of the thick, grey book known as “The Deresthian Book of Obeisance.” The latter, I’d been told by my tutor, consisted of a fine-print compilation of hundreds upon hundreds of Deresthian bureaucratic regulations, all translated into horrid Anglic in the form of wretched poetry. I opened the book….

      I hope my penance won’t be reading three chapters of Dunces

  5. I agree with your opinion on unpronounceable names! They frustrate me into tossing the book aside. On another note, one of the reviews of my first novel was “She used a lot of words I didn’t know.” Oops! My enormous vocabulary got in the way.

    • There will always be readers who won’t know some words in your book. Always. Maybe we shouldn’t write for eggheads who delight in sesquipedalian phraseology, but prose written entirely for the other end of the bell curve would be dull and lifeless. We’ve been given 1,000,000+ words in English, but there’s no need to go ape and use all of them. I consider the genre and shoot for a happy medium.

  6. A great followup to Kris’s post yesterday. I do my best to stay off the page. I want the story, not beautiful sentences. My characters do the talking.
    And, I agree. Present tense, especially 1st person, yanks me out of the story. Only a couple of authors I’ve read can pull it off well enough to keep me reading.
    As for fancy names … one of my critique partners writes sci-fi/fantasy, and my brain automatically changes the names of his characters into ones I can identify.

  7. When I first started writing, my husband was my first critic. He read my story and said, “Why did you use a three syllable word when one would do? That’s stupid.” It hurt at the time, but readers will rarely find three syllable words in my books unless a stuffed shirt is talking.

    And if I pick up a book in first person present tense, it goes back on the shelf. I’ve only read one book (willingly) that pulls it off, and that was the The Hunger Games.

  8. Great post. An observation on readers and writing style. First person and present tense puts off some readers as noted in today’s comments. My internet friend Freida McFadden is a master of first person/present tense. It’s challenging as JG notes yet when done well it works brilliantly.
    Freida recently (currently?) had 7 books in the Kindle top 100 and her readers are wildly passionate.
    Her books are suspense-packed, super twisty, and fun. I’m a fan. In Freida’s talented story-telling hands, the writing style facilitates immersion and a very entertaining reading experience.
    I suspect many more authors will be attempting to write in this style.

    • Your point is well-taken. It’s worth noting, though, that in some ways, journeymen writers face easier standards than rookies. Once a writer has proven to the world that s/he knows how to tell a compelling story, the benefit of doubt is easier to earn.

      • John – I’m not sure I follow the journeyman reference(?). Freida is a relative newbie, indie published exclusively until recently and still working in her non-writing profession.
        Anywho is cool to see an author bust loose with a distinctive style that readers love. Gives hope to all 😊

  9. “Everything you do is about your customer–your reader–not you.” I would add the other part is respect for your characters.

    I was interested to read the comments about first person, present tense. I’ve read books written in first person that I liked quite a bit–others not so much. But I think it’s encouraging that authors try different styles. How else will they discover something new in themselves?

    • Let the record show that I mentioned nothing about first-person storytelling. That is often pulled off brilliantly. It’s what most of the private eye corner of fiction is built upon. The present tense is where my concerns lie.

      • Oops. My neurons got tangled up. I conflated some of the comments with your article.

        I also think present tense is harder to pull off, but I applaud authors who try new things.

  10. The reason I hated Series of Unfortunate Events at ten years old was all the author intrusion. I suppose author intrusion can be pulled off–hitchhiker’s guide, Ever After High–but Limony Snicket just intrudes to excuse his bad writing.

    That aside, I don’t discriminate against books just for the convensions they choose. I’ve like first person present, third person present, and the traditional third person past. What makes me put down books are more intangible things like the lack of stakes, or a character sitting on the curb looking at his phone. (Certainly not real examples.)

  11. If the vocabulary and style choices match the story’s aim and attitude, I’m fine. Present tense can work, provided the story has pulled me in and gotten me to lose myself in the narrative. A strong voice, a compelling situation, characters I care about, these are what keep me reading. When I struggle and lose interest, it’s usually because the story hasn’t pulled me in.

    I’m currently finishing The Killings At Badger’s Driftby Carolyn Graham, published in 1987. Written in omniscient, with a deft, dry wit and a keen eye, the narrative uses a vocabulary well beyond what I could or would do in my own fiction, but it works here. The descriptions are vivid and evocative, the words well chosen, and it creates an atmosphere for a compelling mystery, in equal parts grim and amusing (perhaps darkly funny is more like it). I’m very much held in thrall while reading it.

    • I remember reading a bit of The Killings At Badger’s Drift and I loved the writing. It didn’t get in the way of the story and I liked the way the book started on such an interesting note. Unfortunately, I had to return it to the library. I always meant to rent it out again, but by the time it crossed my mind to do so, I was never able to find the book in the library ever again. What I’ll do is buy it online. There are other books in the Inspector Barnaby series by Caroline Graham too, which I’d love to get my hands on and read one day.

  12. If you want to succeed in a commercial fiction market, check your brilliance at the door.

    Brilliant, Mr. Gilstrap . . . 🙂

    I prefer to read the characters’ stories, not the author’s. This was a good reminder that my readers probably feel the same way.

    Happy Wednesday!

  13. “Look at me. Aren’t I clever” writing is a sign of literary fiction although it’s not as common these days.

    “The fictive dream” is courtesy of John Gardner’s THE ART OF FICTION. An interesting read. This John Gardner wrote GRENDEL, not James Bond novels.

    First person immediate has settled into young adult fiction, and I find it as annoying as heck. It’s also sad because the authors tend to do the exact opposite of what they intend. It becomes a list of I do this and I do that instead of immersing the reader in the scene.

    And on another topic, the History Channel has a new series called HISTORIES GREATEST HEISTS which starts on Feb 7th.

  14. Agree, John. Right now, I’m reading a book where the author is channeling Raymond Chandler. The turns of phrase and descriptions are so wonderful and lyrical that i’ve totally lost track of the plot. I’m enjoying the craft but where’s the story?

    One of my mentors said, “Good writing is like water–clear and invisible.”

    New writers do need to try different techniques to flex their muscles and find their voice. I certainly wrote my share of pretentious, show-offy, self-conscious work. Those stories are on 3 1/2″ floppy disks and there they will stay.

  15. Agreed. It’s also easier to spill your character’s emotions on to the page, even if those emotions are felt by the author, as well. We have no business poking our heads into the story. It’s not our journey, it’s our characters’.

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