Monday, October 4, 2010

Crunches and Munches

Do you read your work aloud?

This is one of those bits of writing advice I stumble across everywhere (yes, everywhere), and yet I've never done it. I feel like I have a good "ear" for writing, for dialogue, for the sound and flow of a sentence. So odd, that term, since my ear is exactly what I don't use. And yet maybe I'm missing something by skipping this technique?

What's making me rethink this audio absence is that I read a lot to my kids. Now, reading picture books was fun, but I wasn't exactly analyzing the prose (okay, only sometimes). But my daughter is five now, and though she's only learning to read and write herself, she absolutely loves listening to stories - and, when a story is involved, her attention span is incredible. She can make sense of complete novels, so we've been reading her long books. Anne of Green Gables, Old Yeller, The Secret of Nimh, The Hobbit, etc. I just started reading Lloyd Alexander's wonderful series The Prydain Chronicles, starting with The Book of Three.

And what was striking me as I read was not just the simple elegance of his prose, but how my voice played off it. What are the words on the page... and do I want to read them that way? Sometimes word choice and rhythm and flow made me unconsciously deduct or add words. I'd say it, and realize a moment later what I'd done.

There's an interesting sort of engagement with the words when reading aloud. Trying to have the voice inflect the words properly, to not just repeat them correctly but catch and reflect the proper meaning. I note word choices, sounds, the feel of how a character talks.

I'm coming up to the appearance of Gurgi in the novel, a little furball of a character with an odd speech pattern I've always adored. "Crunches and munches for poor Gurgi!" He's a memorable character, I'm sure, for anyone who's read the book, and I'm trying to figure out how to capture him in my own voice. To give a hint of Gurgi...

And of course this got me thinking about my own writing, my own stories, and how I've never read them to myself out loud. It's an interesting way to walk around in the words, hearing them from your own lips. It's like an echo effect: you read and interpret the words silently, the brain processing meaning, and then you hear them again an instant later, your voice echoing the thoughts, spitting them back out.

Yet sometimes the echo is not perfect. There is a slight dissonance, that sense of transformation as words pass from page to brain to lips. The complex process of interpretation and dramatic shading, the recreation of rhythm... there are little jarrings, small false notes in the performance. As I read, part of my brain tumbles over each of these, thinking and analyzing the prose, the interior versus the exterior soundings.

So am I missing something? Do any of you read your work aloud? Why do you do it, and what do you think it does for you? And, of course, is it embarassing to be caught spouting your prose at an empty room? I have a feeling I'd end up doing goofy pantomime that would find its way onto Youtube.


Ted Cross said...

I did a complete run-through on my computer and thought I had caught so much; I didn't expect to catch a whole lot more. But, once I read the book aloud to my kids I found that I caught all kinds of things. There really is a difference.

M.A. Leslie said...

I don't read my MS aloud and that may be the reason why I haven't broken through to an agent. I'll give it a try.

R.S. Bohn said...

I feel very strange reading my work aloud. Almost embarrassed. So I don't do it.

A friend of mine is constantly urging me to do it, though, because she believes it works. She's devoted to the technique.

When one of my stories was read aloud at Cast Macabre, I did have a jarring moment or two when lines, phrases weren't read the way I imagined them. This wasn't a bad thing, not at all. The reading probably improved my story, LOL. It was just odd, and proved that not everyone who reads your work will read it the way you intended, the way you initially narrated it to yourself in your head.

Claudie A. said...

I haven't read any of my work aloud, except for short passages. I did, however, do it to friends for flash stories and I believe it makes a big difference in how you perceive the text.

My main problem, though, is that if I read everything aloud, the whole book will suddenly have a French accent. It -might- derail me from the real purpose.

Scott Baird said...

Aw, little Gurgi. I always pronounced it "Gerji" like as in regurgitation. It's way more fun to say it that way.

I never read my stuff to myself, but occasionally read aloud to my wife or someone else close who will put up with it. It's great fun and gives me a chance to hear which parts immediately sound foolish. Question is, can you catch those parts on the fly and fix them without breaking the flow of the reading...

Bruce H. Johnson said...

The stuff I've written is in 1st-person POV. I've attempted to give the impression that the current character is talking directly to a close friend, describing what occurred.

This leads directly to the "read aloud" concept. Even if it's only sotto voce.

Some (many?) readers actually verbalize what they are reading; they might even move their lips.

As I'm actually writing scenes, I imagine 2 things:

1. What the text looks like which leads to fairly short paragraphs with a decent mix of dialog and narrative.

2. The reader "hearing" or verbalizing what he's reading.

Even if your reader isn't a verbalizer, doing the reading aloud or sotto voce can pinpoint awkwardness to you. And if it "sounds" awkard to you, what will it do to the reader?

Nate Wilson said...

I read much of my work aloud, especially once I reach the editing stage. I like to make sure the prose flows naturally, and I'm much more likely to catch trouble spots that way than by reading the same passage in my head.

Perhaps it's because when I read silently the words come out how I planned them, rather than how I actually wrote them. Or perhaps, my writing really is that stilted and unnatural. Either way, reading aloud helps me add the necessary polish.

Although, if you're embarrassed easily, I'd suggest not trying this technique if you write from a restaurant or coffee shop. Unless you want the other customers to give you a wiiiiide berth.

Bryan Russell said...

Love the thoughts here by everyone.

I'm not particularly shy, but it does seem odd to sit and read my stuff into an empty room. Just feels sort of funny. And I've always been a very visual person, so maybe I don't trust the auditory sense.

Reading to someone is intriguing, though. I read a rough draft of a flash piece to my wife awhile back, and even as I read I was already rewriting it. I think I even stopped and started scribbling down new stuff.

Which might be great for me. But not so great, perhaps, for the listener...


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I read my entire MG SF story to my kids, and it was very enlightening! I could tell the parts that were dragging - not just the boredom in their little faces, but I could feel it more when I read it aloud.

Since then, I've periodically read aloud sections just before submitting somewhere as a final check for cadence and flow. It's also fabulous for catching small errors, where your mind automatically corrects it, but there's a mismatch between what you just read and what you just said!

Also: my mailman thinks I'm nuts anyway.

Hannah said...

I definitely read my work aloud. I have to in order to catch awkward sentences or phrases that just don't mesh. I don't think I could edit if I didn't.

Matthew MacNish said...

Ah Gurgi, the Black Cauldron, and all of Prydain! I love those stories. We used to call my younger daughter the Gurgilizer when she still couldn't quite speak properly.

As far as reading aloud I think it's very important. You can catch all different kinds of issues with sentence rhythm, cadence and whether your choice of diction fits in exactly as you thought it did in that one particular place.

That being said finding the opportunity to do it can be difficult. Reading aloud to oneself is not the same as reading aloud to another. I have read parts of my novel aloud to my children, and it was very helpful, but now with the re-write there are bits that aren't really appropriate for the younger one, so I have to figure something else out.

Great question Bryan!

Unknown said...

Reading aloud makes a huge difference to what I edit and why.