My husband is used to seeing me walk around muttering to myself. Or so he says, as he casts me a quizzical look while I cast myself into my story. A sheaf of pages in one fist, my other hand waving in the air or pressing the top of my head, I speak my book. A dress rehearsal of sorts. Over and over, I read passages aloud, running words across my tongue, phrases through my teeth. Do they sound right, do they inspire and explain, or are they awkward and confusing? I twist like a drill at tense moments, collapse into a chair when a scene changes, drop my voice to a mouse squeak if secrets are being shared, shout like a football coach when a character is angry. Sometimes I choke up. Is the scene set as solidly as a block of granite, can one taste the spices in the mountains, did I scratch my hand on the bark of a fallen tree where my character sat to consider her future? I wander as I read; hubby looks askance. Don’t interrupt, I’m editing my book. The dramatic presentation isn’t meant for him and I’m embarrassed that he sees me, but still I don’t stop. It’s part of a lengthy strategic approach for editing my book: to read my book out loud.
If you ask my advice on the best way to ascertain the power of your writing and the suspense of your plot, I will tell you to read your book out loud. It’s often the most sincere and best advice I give because much of the rest might be thought of as criticism ill or unfairly placed. Read your own book, you will sense its worth for yourself.
Before I begin to read my story, I’ve already edited for a thousand small errors and structural faults. Spelling and punctuation are corrected, paragraphs are organized, and the story is complete with most of the loose ends tied in knots. Reading aloud is not for a work in progress, it’s for the one that’s near the end of the work order. I’m vigilant about finding fault, I’m tough on myself, and I’ll do this out loud reading after letting the story sit untouched for a few months. I can then think of my writing as that of a stranger, the neighbor whose barking dog wakes me just as I’ve fallen asleep. I want it to irritate me because only then can I ferret out the weak parts for repair. I read with a plan and stick to the plan. I read it out loud twice (at least) red pen in hand (OK, highlight key on the computer) cutting and pasting as I go. Slash and burn if needed.
The first reading is to proofread for continuity of facts. I look for dates to line up on an actual calendar and the book’s invented calendar, make sure proper names are spelled the same throughout, ascertain that scenes show up in chronological order, and insure an important action doesn’t get repeated a few chapters later. I watch out for lapses, diluted suspense (happens when a resolution is revealed too soon or with blah words) and holes in plot that will leave readers confused or frustrated. Unusual words can only be used once and maybe should be swapped for words that won’t send folks to a dictionary. (However, I don’t shy from 50 cent words; sometimes they are the ones that best fit a passage.) The first out loud reading will capture most of these mistakes.
To help keep this part of the story organized, I keep sets of files on my computer. There are writers’ programs available I could (maybe should) use. Still, my files serve me well. They’re titled and organized so they’re easy to find when I want to check facts or sort the timeline. Relationships, background information, the impact of history, character development within the story are all noted and stored. Usually there are files of real people, incidents, and places as well as the imagined ones that comprise my book.
The second reading is to gauge the physical sensation of the story. Does the story arc make me react, do I feel something intense when actions are described, am I sympathetic to the characters and their dilemmas, do I care enough about the complexities of the plot that I will spend time determining if it makes sense? My words must make my gut curdle and my hair stand enough to hold up a halo and my teeth ache with the pain of being held in my jaw. If I didn’t write a story strong enough to wrest emotion from me, then who else will care what I wrote? It’s this last reading that will convince me it’s a decent book or a work I must improve before it sees daylight. Thespian that I am, I walk and read, sit and read, dream and read, emoting, whispering, quoting the words of my story, fixing, changing, polishing.
When I’ve read aloud until my voice is hoarse and my eyesight bleary, I’m ready for readers. Still they are at first only critiquers, the folks who get the free book in order to inform me what does and does not work after all. They catch the oversights I should have caught. They are not the paying readers I hope will line the Amazon block to acquire my book. But I’m grateful to this hearty crew who read, think, comment, trying to help me get it right, make it better. I want the “critters” to know that if I’ve asked them to read my story – editor, agent, writer friend – I’ve put a great deal of effort into it. I’ve already read it aloud myself, many times. No one gets a sloppy “first draft” from me. I respect all readers too much.
My hubby who watched my peculiar dress rehearsal? He’s an unwitting audience and a saint.