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Jul 19

Storytime

Well, S.K. is on vacation so you’re stuck with another blog post from me.  (Hope you’re enjoying the beach, S.K.  Without me.  Yep…enjoying mojitos on the beach, with the waving palm trees and parrots……without me….).  (I’m only slightly jealous.  Slightly.)

Anyway.  Angsting aside, I just read a fabulous blog post by Jane Friedman called Why Take the Time to Read Your Work Out Loud?  As the title suggests, she talks about how important it is for writers to read their works aloud as part of the editing/polishing process.  Most of the comments that I read concur with her argument…as did I.

I completely agree with what Jane Friedman and her commenters said about reading aloud.  Kind of like changing the font and the page layout, reading out loud makes you see the text of the story in a different way.  I think maybe your brain receives the information differently when it is heard rather than read.  I can read the same chapter twenty times, skimming it over in my word processor, but when I start reading it aloud, all of a sudden I hear the poetry of the text (for lack of a better word).  How it flows, how the sounds fall, how the sentences roll off the tongue…or get stuck on it like a piece of dog fur.  Like the others noted, I get a sense of where I get bored, or where the descriptions don’t work, or the dialogue sounds clunky or repetitive…or even those places where I accidentally wrote in inconsistencies (“Wait, she’s sitting down, but a paragraph ago she was standing up….”).  It’s also great for catching typos that I would otherwise unconsciously ignore.

But the post and comments got me thinking about something else.

All of them talk about reading their works-in-progress out loud, but I didn’t see any mention of reading them to anyone.  Well, maybe I’m weird.  Maybe I’m lucky.  (Or, quite possibly, both.)  But when I was growing up, I could always count on my mom and S.K. — and close friends, too — being generous enough with their time to tolerate me reading to them.  Any time I had a new “story” I was working on, one of them got to hear it.  Possibly through infinite revisions.  Heck, my mom has heard just about every iteration of Down a Lost Road from the time I was 12 to the final, published version.  In fact, I can’t even imagining starting or working on a story without expecting that it will be a read-go project.  (Hey, I made that up.  Pretty smart, huh?)

There are so many more advantages to reading aloud to someone, not just oneself.  Reading to someone lets you gauge how your audience is going to react to your work.  If you wrote a bit of dialogue that you thought was knee-slap hilarious, but your audience receives it without cracking a smile…well, that should tell you something.  I don’t know how many times my “audience” has brought up critical points or questions about the plot that completely slipped my attention.  Or at times there have been things that I took for granted because I “know” the characters or story so well, so I forgot to actually explain them.  In those cases my audience waved a red flag at me and asked me to back up and fill them in.  That was always a revelatory experience.  At times I’ve even gotten very honest feedback like, “I don’t really like this character…why do you describe him like that?”  Or, “Why would she do that?  That’s not very smart/nice/likely/whatever.”  Also incredibly eye-opening.

It’s not just important to create a work that sounds pleasing to your own ears.  You’re writing for an audience.  And, ultimately, they are the ones who will be buying your book (or not).  Reading aloud to an objective audience really gives you a way to judge how effective a storyteller you’re being.  (I know, many people will say that Mom and Sis don’t qualify as objective — but when you have awesome fellow writers for a mom and sis, they do.)

So, if it’s at all possible, read to someone.  Pay them in coffee or chocolates if you must.  And read to them while you’re writing the story…not just at the end.  Make it part of your writing process.  The things that you learn from your guinea pig (err, mini-audience) will help you fix things before they become too deeply rooted in the story to be easily  exterminated, and correct the course of future chapters if necessary.

Just a couple final thoughts:

  •  Find a willing listener who likes the sort of thing you’re writing.  Don’t force sci-fi on a period romance fan, in other words.  Might make you an enemy.
  • Only read a chapter or two at a time.  Too much and you’ll tire out your listener, and probably yourself too.
  • If it’s not your husband, wife, sister, mother, brother, son, or any other person you can safely enslave for half an hour at a time, be sure to be courteous and find some way to thank the person for their generosity.
  • Receive any questions, comments, or criticisms with patience and humility.  Yeahhh…sometimes I need help with that one myself.  If you’re taking the time (and someone else’s time) to get feedback on your work, you’d be incredibly foolish to ignore it when it comes.  It might be hard to hear, but trust me, you do yourself no favors if you don’t at least consider what your audience is telling you.
  • If you can’t find a willing victim, follow the advice that one of the commenters gave on Jane Friedman’s blog post.  Read loud into an audio recording program, and then listen to it yourself later on.

Since I can’t really recall a time that I didn’t read everything out loud to willing victims (stories, essays, emails, whatever), I don’t know if this is unique to me, or if everyone has this happen.  But basically, I can’t write any more without mentally hearing myself speak what I’m writing.  Intonations, dramatic pauses, etc.  That in itself has been a huge benefit, because as I get more practiced in this mental reading process, I find that I have fewer and fewer awkward sentences or clunky dialogue that need fixing later on.  I’m not trying to brag or anything.  It’s just that I’ve basically done the first draft by reading “aloud” in my mind.

With the rising popularity of and demand for audiobooks, it seems that writing a book that sounds good is even more important than it has been in recent…centuries.  Of course, if we think of the great masterpieces of ancient tradition — the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, etc. — they were all composed first as oral and aural works.  They were meant to be heard.  They were written to be received with rapt attention, to be remembered not just by the bards and scops, but by the people who listened.  Heard or read, those stories still have that effect.

We can learn a lot from their example.  Read early and read often.

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