Confident (overconfident, perhaps) in my narrative skills, until recently I had never followed a piece of advice that I’ve heard and sometimes given. To read your manuscript aloud. I have now learned the value of this simple technique. I’ve also seen the suggestion to listen to your writing with text-to-speech software, but I haven’t tried that, and don’t know that you’d get the same benefits as reading it aloud yourself.
Now, I’ve advised writers to read aloud as a way to sense whether or not the narrative they’ve crafted is doing the job of being compelling or not. I came to this because many of the submissions I get on my blog, Flogging the Quill, fall considerably short of that mark because they open with backstory, or you-need-to-know-this-to-understand info dump.
My thought there was that if you’re reading your manuscript aloud and your mind starts to wander, that’s a sure sign of a narrative that has bogged down and is taking the reader nowhere. This happens to me when I’m reading such a manuscript silently, but I can see how a writer might not be able to do that with his own work, and it made sense that reading it aloud could help them become aware of pacelessness.
I think it’s a difference in how our minds process
In reading words and sentences to pronounce them out loud, we use additional parts of our brains, and I think that’s what makes us more aware of the actual content of the sentences than when we’re reading silently. Necessarily, there’s a tighter focus, too, and less tendency to skim and skip.
As I mentioned, I hadn’t been in the practice of reading my stuff aloud. I now regret that I haven’t been. This epiphany is due to creating podcasts for my latest novel, The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles. The manuscript was copyedited by a reasonably sharp-eyed colleague who performs that function for the university where I work. It was read by my sharp-eyed English-major wife. And I read it again and again and again before publishing it, both in manuscript form and in book form.
Yet reading it aloud has uncovered at least a dozen typos and other linguistic mistakes. Argh! Despite all the care and attention, there they embarrassingly were. I’m almost finished with the podcasts, and will load a revised version into the POD supplier, Lightning Source, when I’m done. Because it costs $40 for me to make that change, current copies purchased will have embarrassing glitches in them. (Maybe they’ll become collector’s items—get your copy today!)
On the other hand, there’s a good chance the errors will go unnoticed. After all, they escaped the beady-eyed gazes of people who were on the alert for goofs. I also think that the nature of the narrative is a factor. There’s plenty of humor to distract you, not to mention seeing the world through a cat’s eyes, and fast-paced action that becomes quite involving. Readers (not all, it does have its critics) speed through the story, constantly racing forward to find out what’s going to happen next in the madcap tale. I like to think that, in a way, quality of storytelling is the culprit.
The goofs have primarily been just that—goofs. A typo now and then. A word out of place. Once a description that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Here’s an interesting sidebar: I use contractions in the narrative quite a lot, partly because it’s in first person. However, in reading it aloud for the podcast recording, I found that the rhythm and sense of the words play better when the contractions revert to whole words. I’m not going to change them in the typeset narrative, but, when I record, I find myself de-contracting the contractions more and more.
So now I’m reading another one aloud
I’m still working on getting my We the Enemy story ready for publication (I just rewrote the opening and some key parts thanks to the input of a beta reader–thanks, Jami), and now I’ve embarked on reading it aloud, though not for recording.
And guess what—I’m finding a word missing now and then, some hidden echoes, and other glitches that have not been seen by the same crew that missed those in vampire kitty-cat—the wife, the editor, and myself. Just this morning I found a line that had a character finishing a beer—only I’d cut the earlier reference to him having one! Argh!
(I’m still interested in finding beta readers for this book. Here’s ad copy I’ve composed about We the Enemy: “Madmen, madchildren, and criminals kill us with terrifying firepower. Revolving-door law spits felons back onto streets uncaught, unreformed. But maybe there are ways to change. A gripping ride in a unique speculative thriller that sparks thought.” If you’d like to give it a read and give me feedback, email me at ray at ftqpress dot com.)
On the positive side, I’m still confident of my narrative ability. I’m finding that the prose reads well and is involving, and doesn’t need much in the way of revision—but I am also seeing ways to clarify now and then, which means a better read. This reinforces the lesson I learned with the kitty-cat novel—storytelling and writing craft abilities aside, my ability to get it right is only 98 percent accurate. Read it aloud. A valuable and humbling lesson learned. I’m going to do it with the other WIP that’s been “finished” for years, Finding Magic.
If you think this advice doesn’t mean you . . .
I ignored this advice for years, to my detriment. So why not do this? Take a couple of chapters of something you feel is polished and tight, right now, and read them aloud. Then post the result in comments for this post. If you don’t discover anything, excellent. But it you do . . .
For what it’s worth.