PhotobucketTherese here. Today’s guest is author Laura Harrington, who’s here to talk with us about the importance of reading your work aloud. Laura’s debut novel, Alice Bliss, was published this past June by Pamela Dorman Books. It has since been widely acclaimed–chosen as a “People Pick” by People Magazine, a “Listeners’ Top Book Pick” by NPR’s Tom Ashbrook, and as a fall book in Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” program. Alice Bliss is the story of a girl’s adjustments to her father’s absence after his deployment to Iraq, and her development over that time from tomboy to teen. Said author Sarah Blake:

I put down this book and thought, there is no one like this girl, so fully has Harrington brought a new Alice to life. The great sorrow, of course, is that there are many Alice Blisses out there. The power of Harrington’s richly delineated novel lies in putting a girl like Alice before us and asking us to remember how many beautiful, feisty others are staring down the long hall of adulthood with a father or a mother gone to war.

Aside from being an acclaimed debut novelist, Laura is an award-winning playwright, lyricist and librettist. She knows how to wring the most from her words, as she’ll prove here. Enjoy!

Reading Out Loud – Not Just for Kids

As a new novelist after 20 + years writing plays, musicals and operas, I am fascinated by the craft discussions that I read at Writer Unboxed.  I also completely devoured Elizabeth Benedict’s “Mentors, Muses and Monsters – 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.”  In both instances I have been amazed at how often writers are spending years on a book, seemingly stumbling around in the dark.  This is not to say that I have not done my own fair share of stumbling along dark paths; it goes with the territory.  But I get the feeling there’s a lot of pain and anguish and just plain feeling lost and uncertain out there.

Playwright Terrence McNally said, “A novelist can afford to lose his reader for a page or two.  A playwright can’t afford to lose the audience for a minute.”  I can already hear the debate raging over that one, but it’s true insofar as a live audience gives incredibly clear and immediate and painfully honest feedback.  Feedback which runs the gamut from being restless to falling asleep to getting up and leaving.  Playwrights are taught to stand in the back of the theatre and watch the audience, not the play.  Everything you need to know about where your play lags, loses momentum, takes a turn down a blind alley, can be read in your audience’s behavior.  And heaven help you if you somehow managed not to notice this or address this before opening night.

What’s a novelist to do?  If someone puts down our book, bored, or grows restless, gets up and gets a sandwich and is just never actually compelled to pick up our book again, we’ll never know.

Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, etc.) has famously said: “Musicals are like sharks.  If they don’t keep moving they die.”  And yes, he has even said those words to me, because of course we are all trying to get away with breaking the form, expanding the form, bringing something new to the party.

How can a novelist find out what a playwright gets smacked in the face with?  Read your book out loud.  To yourself.  I’m serious.  All of it.  You don’t need an audience for this.  In my world you haven’t completed a first draft of anything until you’ve read it out loud.  You will be amazed, I promise you.  I hope there are sections of your book which are so wonderful when you read them out loud, you find yourself smitten with those words all over again.  Because I know there will be passages where your characters gas on with nothing to say and without moving the action forward, scenes that take a left turn into description instead of getting down to the business at hand, characters who are too nice, settings that add nothing to the action or the emotion of a scene, etc, etc.

As Marsha Norman (‘Night Mother, The Color Purple, The Secret Garden) says, “No one wants to take the great bumpy ride to nowhere.”

I think storytelling is a dramatic art, no matter what form it takes. Reading your work out loud is a brutally honest look at your novel and its drama or lack thereof.  After fifty pages in one character’s voice, if you’re writing in the first person, are you still as charmed by this character or have you boxed yourself into a corner with nowhere to go?  Are you engaged by the narrative?  Surprised?  Do you continue to subvert our expectations and delight us?  Is each character’s voice distinct?  Could we read a conversation between two characters and know who’s who via word choice, language rhythms, and voice, without the crutch of “he said/ she said”?

Does the story have velocity?  Do you change rhythm and tone?  Reading out loud will unlock the music in your language.  Are you using that music to its utmost, varying tempo, line length, chapter length?  A symphony written with only gorgeous legato lines will grow dull and begin to grate on the ear, no matter how lovely those lines are.  I think the same is true with language.

Cast a spell. See how fast you can seduce us into believing in the reality of your fictional world.  Sweep us into your story.  And then carry us along as fast as you can.

Read it out loud.

Thanks for a great post and valuable reminder, Laura! Readers, you can learn more about Laura and her novel, Alice Bliss, on her website and blog, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter. Write on.

Photo courtesy The Glowing North Stars