When the words disappear

 I mentioned recently about having some of my work up on the Authonomy website, where I exchange critiques with other writers. Well, the other day I commented to someone that I thought their work was so good that ‘the words just disappeared’. 

It’s not the first time I have made that comment when reading different books, but this time I really stopped to examine what I meant by this phrase. My experience when this happens is that I forget I am reading. The words are digested by my mind but instantly become images through which I ‘see’ the world of the other writer. This has probably happened to you too. Of course this happens with any book to some extent, but when the vision is greater than my recollection of the words the story transcends the media it was written in. To me, that is amongst the highest levels one can attain as a storyteller. Reading a book like that becomes an immersion, like watching a great film and forgetting yourself as the watcher.

Of course it depends on the style of writing, the type of book and so on. Some literary writers create prose that you can almost dine on, the words are so beautifully poised and set off against each other. They become objects of adoration in themselves. Favourite examples of mine are ‘The Fall of Fingolfin’ in Tolkien’s ‘The Silmarillion’, and ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson: 

“Though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are.”
(Tennyson, Ulysses). 

I admit that this style of writing casts a powerful influence over my own. But I realise that my style is less ‘literary’, more direct and less descriptive, edging more toward Michael Moorcock’s sparse style sometimes (if I may make so bold a comparison).

I believe that our preferred style as readers and writers chooses us, but for me as a writer it’s always the story that is more important, not the prose. As a storyteller my job is to use words – often very simple ones – in a way which ensures the swiftest and most direct understanding of the story. Words are just the imperfect medium through which the story travels. So to continue this perhaps odd analogy, the less resistance that medium provides to the reader, the greater the immersion in the writer’s vision.  

But how does one write in this way? Some of it is doubtlessly subjective, based on our personal vocabulary and use of language, our interest in the story. But it’s also an elimination of flaws in the writing. When editing my work and critiquing others, I come across words, phrases and sentence structures that don’t sound right. They draw attention to themselves, slow you down as a reader, throw you out of the story. Polishing these flaws becomes an obsession, until the words flow like a stream. Until, like water, you can see through them to what lies below.

It occurred to me that in many professions or skills you see the same end result. Something very difficult looks simple, but that simplicity hides countless hours of practice and refinement. The true technique can become subtle, almost invisible to the casual observer. So whilst I recognise that once I wanted to write like Tolkien, now I know that it is more important to tell my story. If you can experience my worlds in a way even half as powerfully as I see them, then I will consider my work done.

About Scott Foley

Scott Foley is a British fantasy writer based in Manchester. He is author of Knight of Aslath and the Dreaming God Chronicle. Brought up on a steady diet of Tolkien, roleplaying games and a never-ending fascination with the question ‘what if?’, writing fantasy novels seemed the only sensible and worthwhile thing to do with his life. Knight of Aslath is his first novel, and he is currently working on the sequel Warlords of the Dreaming God. Both novels form the beginning of the Dreaming God Chronicle and are set in the fantasy world of Teth-Kiran. Knight of Aslath is available on Amazon, and you can find out more about Scott's work at: http://www.scottfoleybooks.com