Continuing my ongoing series on how I get a book out of my head and on sale, I’ll examine today my fifth draft process.
By now the book has been read twice by my editor and five or six times by me. I’ve massaged the text at least three times and made whatever structural changes were necessary. We’re ready for final polishing.
To accomplish that, we sit down, and I read the book to her. I read from the fourth draft with my computer open, and she’s got it up on her machine so she can follow along visually while she listens.
The aim here is not so much to find structural problems. We should have gotten those in previous drafts. Here, we’re looking for little things — words that are repeated too often, typos, missing words, awkward phrases. These bugbears are much more obvious when the book is read aloud.
She learned this tactic from a Pulitzer Prize-winner, so I figure there’s something to it.
After having published nine books this way, if there were a part of the process I was going to omit, it would not be this one. Listening to the story, hearing it in my voice, really helps me know if I got it right. I know if something doesn’t sound right. I can tell if the writing is clumsy or unclear. It’s just obvious. This one tactic alone has made me a much better writer since I began indie publishing in 2011.
It also catches things I wouldn’t have seen without the read-aloud. When I was writing the second Wolf Dasher thriller, Red Dragon Five, I found a pretty big logic error. There is a sequence in the novel, where Wolf kills a Phrygian agent and takes his place, so he can infiltrate the bad guy operation.
If you’re not familiar with the series, Phrygia is a fantasy-world version of the Cold War-era Soviet Union. Thus, Phrygians have Russian accents. I write dialogue that is spoken with a foreign accent phonetically. So Wolf imitated a Phrygian (Russian) accent when he posed as the agent he’d killed.
As we were reading those scenes and I was doing my best Ivan Drago accent, I realized something very important. This agent Wolf had killed had himself been infiltrating Wolf’s home country of Urland (essentially Britain and the U.S. mashed together). If he were a Phrygian spy working in Urland, he would be discovered quickly if he spoke accented Urlish. Therefore, he had to sound like he himself was Urlish, speaking with no foreign accent at all. To pass as him, Wolf would have to use his natural accent, not a phony one.
Wolf spends several chapters posing as this character. That meant I had to go back and change a lot of dialogue to read as unaccented. And I wouldn’t have made that catch if we hadn’t been reading the book aloud. Hearing it come out of my mouth made me realize it was wrong.
The read-aloud is sometimes a frustrating process. I’ll get into a flow, and suddenly, she interrupts me, wanting me to go back two paragraphs.
Or she’ll find fault with something that I don’t think is a problem. So then we have to discuss whether and how to change it.
Or we’ll agree there is a problem, but I can’t figure out how to fix it. We sit there, trying to come up with a way to rephrase an awkward clause or come up with an appropriate synonym for a word that’s been repeated too many times.
But my prose is much stronger this way. I write better books. They read well, and we catch the typos, because my editor insists we read them aloud and is unafraid to call out anything with which she has a problem.
Obviously, not every author has this kind of access to his or her editor. You might only see a manuscript once from yours if you have to hire someone freelance you don’t really know.
You don’t have to skip the read-aloud, though. Sit down with a friend, a loved one, or someone who is willing to give you several hours of their time and honest criticism. Read your book to this person, asking them to stop you any time something doesn’t sound right, is confusing, or they notice a typo. The more you hear the narrative, the better you’ll be able to fine tune it.
When we’ve finally finished the read-aloud, I’m still not done with a book. It’s now made it through five drafts. Mentally, I’m ready to publish it. By this point, I’ve been living with it for months, and I’m ready to move on — hit publish and focus on the next book on my schedule.
But there are important steps to take to make sure I’m putting a quality product in the marketplace. I’ll look at those next week.