When I hired my editor for State of Grace, she told me the last part of the process would be us reading the book aloud together. I was skeptical. It seemed silly to me, but I figured I was hiring someone for her expertise, and I should therefore listen.
So Sunday night we both opened up our computers, each with the most recent draft of the manuscript, got some coffee, and took turns reading chapters.
What happened was amazing. We both heard things we didn’t see.
“You’re missing a comma there.”
“That’s the third time you used the word, ‘elves,’ in two sentences.”
“Wouldn’t Wolf know that already?”
“What does this mean?”
In theory, all these questions and observations come up when you are reading the manuscript silently and making notes with a pen. But, somehow, hearing them (and following along silently while listening) brings them into sharper focus.
Monday night, I was reading dialogue, and, actor that I am, I inserted an “ah,” that wasn’t there on the page. “Why did you do that?” came the question immediately. When I replied that I was just performing, I was asked, “Well, should that ‘ah’ be in there?” After thinking about it, I decided it should. It sounded more like how the character talked.
We’ve added a few things to make sure there aren’t minor plot holes and taken away things that don’t add enough to be there. We’ve also found awkward phrases that we’ve rewritten or cut.
And we talk about it. We talk about what I’m trying to accomplish with a particular turn of phrase or characterization or plot device. We examine them carefully to see if they work or not.
It’s not that I don’t do all this myself when I’m reading my work and evaluating what I need to change or strengthen. But working with someone else and hearing it read aloud has a way of calling attention to things that slow the book down, that rupture suspension of disbelief, that intrude on verisimillitude.
I’ve written on this blog before that you need an editor, but I am convinced now you also need to be able to read your work aloud with someone who can help you criticize it. If your editor is local like mine is, it’s easy to set this up. If not, do it over the phone or grab some beta readers you trust. Have them read it with you when you’ve got the piece in what you think is publishable shape. You’ll learn things you didn’t know about your writing, and it’ll be stronger as a result.