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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Aaron Pogue, Redux

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice

Or: The One Where Courtney Grosses Out the Readers

I don’t really enjoy listening to myself talk.

Growing up, I faced every cold and flu season like a small soldier stepping onto a battlefield without armor — meaning, every year, I was the first kid in my class to get sick and the last one to recover.  For all practical purposes, my immune system seemed not to exist.  Simple colds turned into tonsillitis within what felt like a matter of hours; I visited the doctor the way other kids visit the neighbor down the street to get cookies.  But all I went home with were antibiotics and little packages of something called “grape sugar.”  Yum.

By the time I was 15, my tonsils had been through so much — brace yourselves, dearies, this ain’t pretty — that they were rotting in my throat.  I’ll spare you the gory details; suffice it to say my doctor shoved a tongue depressor into my mouth, peered with expert detachment down my throat, and pronounced, “Die müssen raus!“*

Sounds horrific, doesn’t it?  Alas, the doc scheduled a tonsillectomy, and I meekly submitted.  While my dad, grandma, and cousin, visiting from Oklahoma, moseyed off to Paris in the summer of ’92, I languished in a German hospital, tormented in what felt like Spanish Inquisition style by twin demons of pain lodged on either side of my throat.

Fast-forward to the next cold/flu season…and suddenly, instead of tonsillitis, I’ve got bronchitis.  And bronchitis will plague me every year for the next few.  Thankfully, this is relatively short-lived (compared to the preceding 10 years, give or take).  Not so thankfully, I now begin a 15-year saga of chronic sinusitis, which leads me to the whole point of why I’m telling you this long, gross, sordid story in the first place.

Chronic sinusitis means chronic dealing-with-gunk.  Yay!  It means a daily fight with congestion other such loveliness.  For me, it means harboring a sneaky suspicion that I have a very nasal speaking voice (please, no need to confirm or deny this!) — a suspicion which morphs into fullblown certainty anytime I hear a recording of myself talking.

So, you ask (and yes, I know you’re asking — I can hear you thinking), what has this got to do with writing?

Well, see, there’s this thing we writers are supposed to have…a thing about reading our work out loud.

Oh no.  By all the gods of menthol tissue and postnasal drip, please no.

What Does It Sound Like?

Aaron has talked about this before:  As we hone both our craft and our stories, we need to be reading our work out loud.  Why?  Because it’s impossible to hear what a sentence, a phrase, a word truly sounds like unless we give it sound.  Here’s what Aaron says about it:

It’s easy to forget, living in one of the most literate societies the world has ever seen, but every written word is a direct representation of spoken language. It’s not a vague connection, it’s not even two different symbols both pointing to the same idea – written words are graphic representations of the spoken words (that ultimately point back to ideas).

Your readers jump through those hoops every time they glance at your book. A voice in their head converts all of your letters and symbols into sound, and then tries to build meaning out of it. It’s your job, as a writer, to direct that voice. It’s your job to manage not just the words on the page, but also the imagined sounds in your readers’ brains.

Just last week, I finished the second draft of my novel-in-progress, Shadows After Midnight (working title).  After going through the process I delineated here, I went a step further and — oh, horror of horrors — read the entire 75,000-word manuscript aloud to myself.  And, technically, to the cat and the husband.  But I don’t think they count as an audience, because one of them doesn’t grasp the concept of spoken language (and yes, I do mean the cat), and the other was watching baseball (and yes, I do mean the husband).

Anytime I read silently, the voice in my head sounds melodious, sparkling with all those fresh, airy qualities one associates with elves of Galadriel‘s ilk.  (Can I use “Galadriel” and “ilk” in the same phrase?)  But when I read my work to myself out loud, there’s that scratchy nasal thing again — which I do hope only my ears hear, and no, I don’t need you to dash my hopes with the awful truth.  Anyway — even without the measured, breathy tones of a Galadriel, I managed to hear a lot more in my novel than I had yet heard in silent read-throughs.

Awkward phrases stood out.  Misplaced paragraphs shouted their indignation (in very non-elflike voices).  Typos scrambled like escaped prisoners from the digital confines of the computer screen.  I corrected and copy-pasted and rewrote with abandon.  My crows of delighted laughter distracted the one watching baseball and perplexed the one lacking opposable thumbs.  Reading my novel out loud showed me where it just didn’t sound right — and opened up to me a veritable vista of manuscript improvement.  It was glorious.

Not Just For Novelists

And lest thou thinkest, O Thou Wordsmith, the advice of read-it-aloud doth apply to creative writing only, think thee again, I pray.  The article you’re reading right now went through several draft stages.  In each draft, I read the completed parts aloud — and made changes based on the sound of it all.  While the words remained trapped on the computer screen, I couldn’t hear them.  But once I gave them a voice (hoarse and scratchy though it was), I could tell where words were missing and where phrases were too long.  In reading out loud, I discovered paragraphs that were too long and tenses that didn’t fit.  And with every voiced read-through, my communication with you, dear inklings, became clearer and clearer.

As you read this, your mind is giving imagined sounds to my words.  Had I not read this article aloud multiple times, I’m pretty sure those imagined sounds would lack some of their resonance.  Nothing I’ve written is perfect — room-for-improvement is never just a tired old cliché — but I harbor no doubts that what you’re reading flows better than it did when it rested mute on my computer monitor.

At the very least, I’m confident the voice in your head doesn’t sound like it needs antibiotics for a sinus infection.

And that’s WILAWriTWe!

(Click that Galadriel link, buy something from Amazon, and I’ll get a few pennies to put toward my next round of antibiotics, may it be many more years in coming.)

*”These must come out!”  I promise you, in English it sounds positively mellifluous, compared with how my teenage self received the guttural German.

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

9 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Aaron Pogue, Redux”

  1. Heather says:

    You are so funny! I am jealous (but that is a separate point.)

    I completely agree! So glad you posted this. I read aloud a lot in my house with three kiddos who are supposed to be listening. Now that they are older and the reading content has matured I am noticing how often writers seem to miss this point. Reading a book to yourself silently is one thing, but reading aloud brings out all of its flaws in a vibrant way. And lest any of you doubt that this message is for you… think of the last time someone tried to read you and email or blog post that they had just read. It could happen to you! 🙂

    • Ha ha, thanks Heather! I’m just glad Aaron doesn’t mind my goofiness permeating his blog from one week to the next. I do so adore taking a “business casual” tone. 😉

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Heather says:

    sorry, the smiley face was to represent how hard I’m laughing at myself since I was using dramatic creepy voices there at the end. Guess you had to be there.

  3. You have more guts than I, if you are able to read your own work aloud in front of your family (be they only a feline and a distracted husband). If I’m doing aloud reading of my WIP, then I’m shut in my room with no one around.

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Oh, it’s not guts. I promise. It’s the knowledge that from across the room, the husband won’t be able to hear me over the raucous sounds of the televised baseball game. 😉

  4. Trish Pogue says:

    Sometimes Aaron will ask me to listen to his writing. Sometimes I roll my eyes and say, “Yeah sure”. But I love it! When he reads in his office, sometimes I stop outside the door and listen for a moment. I like it.