Reading Out Loud – Not Just for Kids

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

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Comments

  1. says

    So true! I realized this myself (in my own, clunky way; your post was far more eloquent and intelligent) just last week when I was preparing for a reading. I was shocked by how I was better able to “see” the cliches and melodrama when my ears were doing the reading. Thanks for the reminder and the affirmation that we writers can’t neglect our ears in the process of writing great fiction.

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    • says

      Thanks for this great comment, Sarah. Mac Wellman (a wonderful playwright and teacher) and I both give our playwriting students an assignment to go out and eavesdrop. They are asked to write up the conversation as though it is a play. The purpose: to begin to “tune” their ears as well as to see how real people actually talk. Mac goes even further: when you hand in your overheard conversation, he’ll often hand it right back, saying, “Pay attention. How you hear is how you write.”

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      • says

        As I’m unpublished, I haven’t had a reading–yet. But, like you, I came to novel writing from theatre. I taught speech and drama to high schoolers. Scoring a script seemed logical. I write funny stuff, so timing is everything.

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  2. says

    I’ve always heard, “The ear is a better editor than the eye,” so I always read my writing out loud. I use Writeway pro and it has a text to speech function that reads my manuscript to me, but it’s pretty choppy. My best secret weapon is my husband. I love to hear him read and he’s very good at catching the right voice. If I hear him stumble or become lost, even for a moment, I know that section needs work. Great post!

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    • says

      Hi, Kendra, I’m going to remember that line “my best secret weapon is my husband” for a long time. This takes me back to theatre training as well. It’s common practice to gather actors around a table and do a cold read of a new script. It may sound brutal, but it’s totally honest. You learn so much about what’s working, what’s awkward, what combinations of words cannot be said.

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  3. says

    Love this. Reading it out loud is the best way ever to catch awkward phrasing and weird words. Also perfect for dialogue. It is a little daunting to face doing it for a whole novel, though!

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  4. says

    Sarah, I love the idea of one’s ears doing the reading. As an editor, I’ve given this advice often because I know it’s true–I read all of my novels aloud. Never thought of recording those readings for playback–but I did create podcasts of my novel “The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles” and that reading plus listening to the playback to edit was hugely helpful.

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  5. says

    That’s a great point. Knowing how your story sounds and feels really is important in order to ‘unlock the music in your language’

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  6. says

    Thanks for this fabulous post. The last several paragraph’s had the most impact for me. I am almost done with the first draft of my first novel (which will be read aloud, most certainly!) and those last several paragraphs were an exciting challenge to make it more than a story, but to make it art!

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    • says

      Hi, Lara, thanks for your kind words. I think it would be possible to write a craft essay about each one of those questions in the last paragraph. Glad to hear they resonated for you.

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  7. says

    Don’t have much to say except that I <3 this post! Such great advice, backed by some lovely metaphors (like the symphony).

    Also, hehe, it coincidentally echoes a couple things that my own WU guest post (scheduled for this Thursday) says.

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  8. says

    This is such great advice. I always read dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds right for the character, but I hadn’t really followed that through to the idea of reading everything aloud. Thanks for a great post.

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  9. says

    I totally agree. I’ve caught things in my writing when reading it aloud that I would never have noticed when I was reading it to myself. Of course, I feel kind of silly doing this when alone. So it always helps to have a willing victim.

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  10. says

    Laura,

    Such a great post. There is a rhythm to writing, one that can only be fine-tuned when we read our work out loud. Often, I read aloud to determine the best places for white space, so that the reader will pause at the right time.

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  11. says

    I have a question. I love the “sound” of my characters voices in my head, when I try to read my book out loud my own voice ruins their lines. What should I do?
    I feel like I need to hire an actress to read my book to me.

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    • says

      Hi, Eve,
      You raise a very interesting question. Our discomfort over hearing our own work out loud is very real. But it’s that “awkward” or even “neutral” read-through that you will learn the most from. Talented actors can make even lame material sound pretty good. Your reader won’t be able to hire an actress to read the book to them (unless they buy an audio book) so your own voice is your best bet.
      As a side benefit, this is great practice for all those readings you’ll be doing once your book is published.

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  12. says

    This is such a valuable post. I do read sections out loud when they’re looking clumsy to the eye, but haven’t tried a beginning to end read. With a revision currently in progress, I feel both excited and inspired to jump headfirst into Laura’s excellent suggestions here. I was having a similar issue to the one mentioned in Eve’s comment above, in that the distraction of my own voice left me feeling just plain intrusive. Not so once I managed to “forget” myself and put my head into the words. If your writing is strong enough, and the story and characters compelling, reading out loud really does become all about the ebb and flow of words and not so much the voice reading them.

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  13. says

    Wonderful suggestion that I’ve heard before yet never done. I love your analogies to watching a play. Your post is the kick in the backside that I needed to prod me onward to read my books out loud!
    Thank you.
    Patti

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  14. says

    I love reading my work aloud to myself and I hate it. Love it because it is SO useful. Hate it because it’s where it becomes glaringly obvious that I’m reading the words that I think are there rather than the ones that are. And when you find yourself rephrasing something to say it out loud you know it’s time to change it on the page.

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  15. Keith says

    Great post! Reading it out loud is the best way ever to catch awkward phrasing and weird words. Also perfect for dialogue. It is a little daunting to face doing it for a whole novel, though! I love this.

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