Dress Rehearsal

DressRehearsalMy 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.


25 thoughts on “Dress Rehearsal

  1. You and I have wonderful husby’s (is that the plural? Maybe I should say it out loud–oh no. That doesn’t help with spelling). Of all the advice I’ve every heard–including ‘show not tell’, this is the most repeated. Good reminder, Shari!

    • Yes, both our husbies (I think this is the correct spelling though Spellcheck does not) are truly wonderful. Done correctly (paying attention to yourself as you read and not texting at the same time,) a writer can catch a great many flaws while reading aloud.
      Now, if I only had a dog as great as yours to listen to me read….

  2. Yes, I have heard ‘reading aloud’ is a great way to pick up nuances of characters’ dialogue, speech patterns, incorrect or repeated words etc. I get hoarse quickly.
    I enjoyed this post. Another reminder regarding what I forgot. Again. Thanks for the nudge, Sharon. ❤

    • I’m glad you found this useful, Tess. I also enjoy reading “aloud in my head” even when reading any novel. I like the drama of story, and maybe I’m a drama queen. It does make me a slow reader, however. Please let me know if you try this technique and if it helps you. You might just use it for passages that you’re not sure about in order to limit the hoarseness problem.

  3. Excellent post, Sharon! This is something we all should do, because when you read it with just your eyes, your brain is seeing what you wanted to write, rather than what you actually have written. I’ve never been any good at reading aloud so I use a program called “Natural Reader.” It is, as the name implies, natural sounding text-to-voice software. It can’t of course, raise its voice in anger, or cry, or whisper, but it’s a brilliant when you think you have covered all the typos. I just print out the MS and listen with highlighter in hand. You can slow down or speed up the reading, choose from male or female voices, British accent or American accent – or even have it read in French or Spanish if you want. My voice of choice is British male “Charles.” Having your story read by someone who would make a great Shakespearean actor is fun, but can be very distracting – you tend to just sit and listen and forget about editing 😀

    • Wow, Natural Reader sounds like a fun program to try! I’d love to hear what my story sounds like with a French accent! And this might be just what Tess needs (see commenter above) to be able to hear her story without straining her voice. Thanks for this tip, Lyn.
      Our brilliant brains do indeed fill in the blanks and fix the boo boos which is what we don’t need when we’re trying to edit.

    • Thank you for bringing up Natural Reader. I have uploaded the ‘free’ version. Have you sprung for an upgrade? Seems there’s a 5,000 letter limit per day on the free version. Will need to give this a better trial before I pay for it. I welcome any feedback. 🙂

      • Yes, I bought the paid version and couldn’t be happier. I’ve had it for about six years now. There is a wide variety of voices, which you can test out on the site prior to buying. I love English Graham and Hazel 🙂

        • Thank you for responding. Yes, I tried a number of voices. Good to know you have been happy with this program. I’ll give it another chance and will buy it most likely. Thanks for your recommendation. 😀

  4. Excellent post Sharon. Reading aloud is a great tip as well; I have the students I work with read aloud from their work – they’re surprised by all that they catch when reading aloud than when they just read over silently.

    • What a great teacher you are to have students use this strategy. It will become part of their writer’s/communicator’s toolbox at a young age. I didn’t start using it till I was way past university.
      Isn’t it wonderful to witness young people making the discovery that they’ve created something terrific? To be the catalyst that helps them find their place in the world?

      • Sharon – it is rewarding to work with them, yeah. I’m working with them out of the writing studio at the university where I’m getting my Master’s in English (I know, I rarely watch my sentence structure or grammar outside of that 😉 ). Many of these folks have no idea how to write a coherent sentence, let alone a creative piece. It’s really great to see the looks on their faces when they realize that they can elevate their writing instead of just “getting through” it. 🙂

  5. When I write a script, I read every line aloud, complete with changes in voice and intonation to try to at least pretend that someone else is speaking the lines. Since a script requires you to basically tell the whole story through dialogue, it’s far more important that the words “sound right” than it is that they are “written right”.

    When I write a narrative piece, I tend to read aloud only the parts that I struggle to put down on the page.If I edit a paragraph or phrase repeatedly, that’s when I realize there’s something that needs to be read aloud in order to just get it down on the page. Sometimes what I’ll end up doing is switching to writing it like a script, just to work out the details of it, then I’ll put it back into prose. I don’t know if other writers do this or not but I find switching formats to be extremely helpful to work out complicated or difficult sections. So when I’m stuck on a script, I’ll write a scene out in prose – this allows me to have a narrator to set the scene, describe the setting, etc. Then I can fine tune the dialogue to use in the script. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that shift to be really helpful, much like the shift to reading it out loud is helpful to get the wording right as well.

    • Rob, I also employ a bit of your techniques when I write. One thing that works for me when writing dialogue is to focus only on the speaking parts, not including any background noise or activity, not even speaker tags. I’ll read these parts aloud, in character and voice, making sure it sounds plausible and comfortable, as well as promoting the story arc. Then I’ll go back and add the descriptive-narrative-background parts that place the speakers within scene and bring it to life. In a film, these would be the setting and sounds that contribute to atmosphere, but we as book writers must include at least some of it in our story.
      I also read aloud the troublesome parts more than those that flow, but I do read everything aloud at least twice. My dress rehearsals are pretty dramatic and can last well into the night.

  6. For Tess: (I didn’t want to attach my comment to the stream because it makes that long single-word thread and is so hard to read.)
    I’m so sorry if I misled you. I haven’t tried this program myself and can’t give you a personal accounting. I simply noticed from Lyn that she’s employed Natural Reader, then recommended it to you.
    Myself: I love reading my stories aloud. Loved theater as a kid, so reading is right up my alley.
    Thanks for trying our the program and letting us know about the contraction quirks – that might be quite funny to listen to!

  7. It’s all good, Sharon. Trying something new is right up my alley, and the contractions make we sit up and giggle. Still it’s a good idea and I’ve wanted to try a program like this for a couple years but didn’t do anything about it.
    I’ll give it more of a trial and I might dig deep into my pocket to get an upgraded version so I’m not restricted to number of words per day use.

    Thanks for this post and for the great discussion. I’ll try contacting the user in this thread to see if she has anymore input. ❤ ❤

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