Reading Aloud for Story

I have been struggling with this post ever since I uploaded “Learning to Edit.” I’ve written maybe a couple dozen first paragraphs, as many first lines, and none of them went anywhere. I had a couple thousand words that seemed to be right, or okay, or would do in a pinch, and then, when I started editing before posting, I discovered that they were all wrong.

The original quote, “I know it when I see it,” was about obscenity, but I’ve heard it used about science fiction too, meaning they can’t define it precisely but they know what it is when they read it. It’s like that, I know what I’m doing when I read aloud for story, but putting it into words has been difficult. And once again, I’m learning more about how I do something by trying to explain it than by actually doing it, even though as I do it I get better.

I’ve attended only a few readings at SF conventions. Most people read too fast, and their voices are rather flat. It’s as if they were trying to read aloud at the same speed as when they read to themselves. I feel rushed, I can’t get into the story, it’s just a text. So when I read for story, instead of for text, I deliberately read more slowly, and articulate more carefully, because we can’t hear as quickly or as accurately as we see. I have known people who talk so fast that I can’t understand what they’re saying.

(This is an issue in my Writers’ Workshops, when the writers read their exercises aloud. We on the panel sometimes have to ask them to slow down so we can follow. Anybody who does readings should slow down. You read better, and your audience enjoys it more.)

When I read aloud for text, reading at a normal speaking pace is okay, because I pay little attention to content, mostly to technical style (as in Strunk and White, or the Chicago Manual), and only to those aspects which are meaningful to me. But when I read aloud for story, I have to slow down, because it is the content, not the style I pay attention to. The pitch of my voice drops, which tells me I’m doing it right. If I’m reading, and find my voice rising in pitch, I know I’m going too fast, and I’m not reading carefully enough. I back up a paragraph or so, and make myself slow down again.

I don’t worry about copy-editing when I’m reading for story. I’ve done that in the previous read-aloud, and I’ve fixed everything (almost everything). But I do pay attention to personal style, as in Hemingway or Lovecraft (two extremes between which there is a fairly broad range — to misquote Dickens). I’m not looking for things this time through, I’m listening for them. Listening to my own words. Anything that doesn’t sound right has to be fixed. I am always surprised by the weaknesses, flaws, and errors that I become aware of while I’m doing this. (And somewhat disheartened by not having found them through however many drafts I did before.)

Some words which are correct in non-fiction are inappropriate in fiction. For example: “There was a dark aperture in the wall.” It’s technically correct, but it just sounds strange in a story, unless a character who talks that way is saying it. More natural, whether in dialogue or narrative, would be “a dark opening.” This kind of mis-use of words — and I discover that I’ve done that much more often than I like — is more apparent when reading aloud for story.

I don’t consciously think about what I’m listening for. I just read, and if I’m doing it right, I find patches that need to be smoothed over, holes that need to be filled, breaks that need to be mended, and so on. So what kinds of thing may need fixing?

Mood. Atmosphere. Voice. Personal style. Pacing. Movement or flow of plot. Development of setting or characters. Continuity with what came before. Can I see it in my mind’s eye? Is the beginning a grabber, and is it strong enough. Is the ending inevitable, and is it satisfying. Descriptions according th a character’s experience rather than what I know. Weather. Environment. Passage of time. Distinctive personalities. Character dialogue that matches the speaker’s personality. Character feelings, and emotion in the reader. Character motivation. Physical senses other than just sight. Growth of characters. Anticipation. Exploration. Tension. Conflict (and resolution). The strange and unknown. Friendship. Loss. Evil. Writerly language. And on and on.

I do not consciously listen for these things, but when I’m thinking “story, story,” I become aware of them in a way I could not when I’m thinking of text.

There is, or there was, a school of literary criticism, which declared that the most important part of a text, by which they meant fiction, was surface, that is, the words themselves. Content of any sort was secondary. I’ve read “stories” that were written that way. I found them boring, full of writerly language (words and phrases chosen to show off the writer’s skill or something), and with no story at all. Such critics, if they still exist, or ever existed (I sort of studied literary criticism decades ago) would find this essay, for example, utter nonsense. I can reassure them that I feel the same way about them. I am not writing text, I am writing story.