Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"...a woundy luck..."

"Indeed, there's a woundy luck in names."
 -Ben Jonson

I had always heard that an essential component to rewriting was reading your work aloud. Frankly, I took that as downright hogwash.

I mean, honestly, wasn't my adorable, British-accented mental voice the best at the job?

Really. I mean it. For years I've swallowed whole the idea that reading your own work silently has exactly the same effect as reading it out loud. After all, you are the one that wrote the ruddy thing- shouldn't you be quite able hear in your head when a thing sounds out of place?

Apparently not.

The minute I actually read Fly Away Home out loud, a strange and wonderful thing happened. First of all, it sounded a lot better than I'd even hoped. The adorable Brit in my head evidently doesn't understand Calida Harper the way my sassy American self does. Because that girl is full of vinegar when I read her. Not only was the dialog more fun, but it was easier to hear the mistakes.

A sentence that may be grammatically correct does not always roll off the tongue very well. Your analytic "brain" filter would read it as a job well done, but your more objective ear hears that it needs to be reworded for best impact. Another thing I realized in reading aloud that I had not noticed while skimming in silence was that Callie used Mr. Barnett's name far too much.

Take a section of dialog in your own book and read it. You might be surprised at how often your characters reference each other's names, and how unnatural this sounds. Think about it: in conversation with a friend or a family member, how often do you really use their name? Not often, I'll warrant. In real life, you rely on body language and eye contact to get the person's attention. Unless you are in a crowded room, there really is no need for you to conduct a discussion this way:

"I need to get this done today, Sarah."
"But Rachel, I'm using the computer."
"Now, Sarah!"
"Rachel, I'm in the middle of a blog post!"

Right. So you get the picture. (And may I remind you that my dialog was not this cheap in FAH). In fact, think about the impact of names the world over. In the past, naming a place, a person, or a thing has been a ceremonious business-a thing people attach much importance to. In the Jewish culture you didn't name a child till the eighth day of its life. In Genesis, God gave Adam his name, and Adam (in turn) gave Eve hers. Throughout the day a little child is generally called by a nickname or a first, but if little Sophia gets into mischief, you can be assured it will no longer by "Sophy," but "Sophia Adella Hawkins!" 

Names add punch, so to use them as little as possible to is to make the times you do use them that much more powerful. In normal, amiable conversations, I edited the scenes so Callie hardly used Mr. Barnett's name. But there are moments when she does use his name that are all the more poignant for it. Moments when she adds his name onto a question because a name  gives her something to cling to, and she is drowning in a confusion. Until I caved and read my work out loud, I hadn't noticed how I'd cheapened the power of names.

But if reading aloud helps with editing, it is also a glorious exercise in professionalism. See, I have a complex. I can write all day long about my writing on this blog, on Facebook, in emails to relative strangers, and have not the slightest qualm about it. I'm not nervous, I'm not peckish. But the moment a member of my family asks about my writing--what my book is about, what the themes are, what the plan is-- or if they peer over my shoulder while I am writing, I freeze up. I can't think straight, and a fierce grouchiness comes over me. I think this phenomenon can best be described as bashfulness. As much as I love all of you, you are one dimensional to me. I don't live with you, I don't work alongside you, I don't give you a hug every morning when I come downstairs. I suppose the long and short of it is (without any disrespect for you) that your opinions hold less weight than my family's. I believe that is why I get nervous when my family wants to read my books aloud. I absolutely hate it.

Why do I hate it?

What is it to me if they read what dozens of you read on my blog every week?

I really don't know, and this is a thing I'm trying to get over. I am so awkward at home over my writing. Perhaps it is because I find it harder to speak what I feel than to write it. I can write my thoughts on what my book is about at great length here, but I can't express it in a handy sentence in reality. I sit there squirming like a worm in a pecan shell when my book is being read not because I'm afraid they won't like it, but because I'm unaccustomed to hearing my own words outside of my own head.

Speaking a thing, like speaking a name, has great power. You may have a world inside a world inside your head, but until you speak of it, no one else can share in the wonderment. Reading your own work out loud and just listening to the flow of story and sentence is a great way to practice graciousness. It seems ridiculous to think that you'd have to practice gracious acceptance of your own creations, but for me it's a real dilemma.

How do you deal with other people reading your work?
Do you read your novel aloud when editing?


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Oh, I'm just the same way. I can't even stay in the same room when a family member is reading something I've written—silently, to themselves—and I think if they wanted to read it aloud I'd hide in my room and put a pillow over my head. I suppose it's ridiculous to be so sensitive, but there it is! I think I may be a little better at this now that I used to be, now that I've had some practice. Actually, I don't mind being around if it's something straight-out humorous that they're reading. But if it's something dramatic, it makes me squirm just knowing someone is reading it.

I also have a very hard time trying to describe to someone what a story is about. I become stammering and inarticulate, and I'd suppose it a miracle if they really understood anything I was trying to communicate. In Agatha Christie's autobiography, she said she didn't recommend telling someone else about a story too soon, because if you make a muddle of trying to describe it you can discourage yourself—it'll sound muddled to you too and you'll feel it's not that good after all. I can understand that. :)

Kirsten Fichter said...

Hearing someone read your work aloud is always nerve-wracking. It's as if you want them to read it, you want them to like it and tell you so, but there's always that little nagging voice that says, "What if they don't like it? What if you wrote it badly?" Of course, I've been blessed with siblings who read my work and take every single thing I write literally. Something I may think is great, they will laugh at and ask me why I wrote it. It's sometimes difficult to accept their criticism, but I know that they're doing it in love, and that I can only better my writing by listening to what they think. I actually get the most nervous when my dad reads my writing. He's my biggest critic, but he doesn't read aloud, and you have to try to guess what he's thinking based on his facial expressions. At those times, all you can do is relax, knowing that you did your best and knowing that his opinion may make your best even better. Always keep in mind that your family loves you and they want to see you succeed in your writing. Whether your work is wonderful or terrible, they will respond in love and you will be all the better for it.

I've gotten into the habit of reading aloud to myself in editing and when just writing. If I'm struggling with how a sentence or a paragraph or even a conversation should flow, I'll read it aloud and try to "hear" what should come next or what I should delete. And yes, I get funny looks from my family when they hear me arguing with myself. :D

Unknown said...

I have a hard time when someone in my family is reading out loud from one of my books too. I have no problem talking about my novels, my younger sister Jacqueline (also a writer) and I have long, in-depth discussions about our respective WIPs all the time, but when it comes to people actually reading what I've written it's a completely different story.

You're right, reading your manuscript aloud helps immensely with smoothing out rough spots in dialogue and the like. Oh, and thank you for your advice about name usage. I've a dreadful habit of referring to people by their names far too often in my writing. *blushes *

Joy said...

I honestly do not struggle with talking about my writing with those closest to me, especially my family. One of my friends who I am really close to lives around two hours away from where I am, so we keep contact through phone-calls often and we often get to talk in-depth about our stories and even share with one another bits of our writing.

To be perfectly honest, my sisters hear me talk about my writing a lot. And you know what's the nice thing? On most occasions they not only eagerly listen, but offer me helpful suggestions, advice and ideas!! Talking to my parents about my stories is slightly more challenging but I've come to do it more often. But, as you mentioned in this post, the big challenge is to have someone I love read something I've written! the mental pressure of wondering how they'd like it, what critizism they'd have, but most of all that fact that they can see into my soul through the words of my heart... it just feels so so wierd and hard! I recall vividly that day when my Dad, and my sisters read my finished short-story, 'A Love that Never Fails', before I sent it off to the competition (mum read it later in full, but she gave lots of suggestions and advice before that!). I have to admit, when Dad started reading, my heart was thumping, I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment as I gazed at his silent expressions as he read quietly. But I am sure glad I let him read it. Because though there needed some work, his simple acknowledgment and encouragement meant more to me than a great author telling me my writing was brilliant. Honestly. Family are not quite the blind readers our creative writing text-books tell us... they can give us honest and deep (and sometimes quite painful) critique and encouragement, advice and a whole heap of support and praise. They're a wonderful bunch, family are!

So, if one can conquer that inner fear of letting three-dimensional people--our loved ones--see the stuff of our hearts in what we write, sharing our writing with family is such a blessing ;)