Friday, March 18, 2011

Reading out Loud

Just thought I'd take a step back from all things London or English and share a revelation with you this week. A revelation to me anyway. We all know how important rewriting and revision is to the writing process. Some would claim it's the most important part. It is for someone like me, who finds it quite easy to get words down on the page - I can write upwards of 10,000 words a week given a prevailing wind - but often finds those words are bad ones. I don't let it worry me and plough on, knowing that when it comes to the second and third drafts, or more, the bad words will be weeded out and the right ones chosen. Or, at least, at the end the good will outweigh the bad.

However, I've had to work differently on my current book (being written under a pseudonym, to be released next Spring, and at the moment I can't tell you more, though in the future I hope to). The publishers would like to take a few sample chapters to the London Book Fair, which takes place next month, to lure the interest of some foreign publishers. This means for the first time I've been editing as I go along. I can see why I haven't done it before. It's tortuous, and makes for pretty slow going. Or at least it was. That's when I had my revelation.

I started reading what I had written out loud. As if I was sat in a bookshop giving a reading (the equivalent of strumming a tennis racquet and pretending I was on stage at the Astoria when I was young, though not as fun). I've only ever given one reading and it wasn't that enjoyable an experience. I'm no actor. Funnily enough, give me a talk to give, some outline notes, and I can be as fluent as they come. Hand me something to read and I become stilted and tongue-tied. I could make Chandler sound banal and awkward. I don't think I'm alone. I remember listening to Mark Billingham and Ann Cleeves read their work at Harrogate last summer. On the page, for my money, Cleeves' was the better written passage. Read out loud, Billingham's sounded far superior. He's a stand up comic, learned in the art of performance; she isn't. It showed.

But, in my office, reading to my imaginary and very sympathetic audience, and not having drunk seven glasses of cheap 'Book Launch' red to calm my nerves, I've discovered a fluency. I've also discovered a great way to improve my writing. Before, digesting silently a page full of words, I found it quite easy to convince myself a phrase or a word was right. Reading out loud, there is no doubt when you come across something clunky or asinine or plain wrong, and are compelled to put it right. It has given me more awareness of the pace, rhythm and tone of my writing. I have a better idea of tension, how it builds and sags. Dialogue, in particular, becomes much sharper when you give it a real voice. In my head, it's acted like Cary and Katherine at their wisest and wittiest; after all, the best actors can make the dullest words shine. I'm more Ulysses Grant than Cary, so when I read it out loud all the imperfections and awkwardness are exaggerated. Again, there is no place to hide

Now I'm sure there'll be those of you out there who will be thinking, 'Yeah Dan, like, duh! We've been doing that for years Einstein.' (See? Told you it got sharper...) I'm sure many writers read their stuff out loud, and now I can see why. Plus I can get a sense of how long the podcast of my novel will be.


Dan - Friday


  1. I definitely know that this is something I *should* do, but on the whole I don´t. My brilliant excuse is that I don´t like reading aloud in English. I feel fairly comfortable when I write it, but I don´t like the sound of my own accent. I just don´t speak the way ANY of my characters would.

  2. And some of us have been talking to ourselves for long before we began to write...

  3. Some of the best conversations I have had are those I have had with myself. Husbands don't listen, children don't either but they argue anyway.


  4. Dorte, I can sympathize. Maybe it would all sound wrong if you're not writing in your mother tongue. I wouldn't know, given my hopelessness at languages. It's an interesting dilemma.

    Jeff, Beth, the upshot of this is my wife and kids think I've gone mad, acting out gruesome plots behind closed doors. I'm no stranger to talking to myself, even if it is the first sign of madness. I'm developing others.

    'Husbands don't listen, children don't either but they argue anyway.'

    I'm tucking that one away for a rainy day too (with a few modifications...)Thanks!

  5. I can't wait to hear the new you at a reading from one of your upcoming books!