The First Story I Ever Wrote

Here is the first story I ever wrote:

Once there was a decative who thot thout thoat it was a simple quite thing, but it wasnt.

Right. I think I was about eight years old. No sign of precocity there.

A year or so later was when I discovered the old Royal portable in the back closet. This was  a wide dark place across the back of the house, behind both the dining room and the kitchen. It was full of interesting stuff, including the typewriter. There was still some ink in the ribbon, but the only paper I could find were small pieces of the textured light-blue drawing paper which my father used, with an orange conte crayon, for his first rough sketches. I rolled one in, and wrote a short ghost story of maybe a hundred words, probably less. It couldn’t have been longer, the paper wasn’t big enough.

I found another piece of paper which was slightly larger and slightly more square, and wrote a haunted house story. I quite liked it. (I may still have it somewhere.) I read it to my mother. It began when my character saw the stereotypical old abandoned house and became curious. I had him, as first person narrtor, say something like, “Maybe I shouldn’t have gone in there.” My mother said, “No, he certainly should not.” I took about three breaths, then finished reading it to her. I never read her another one.

Part of the problem, which I didn’t understand until much later, was that my mother didn’t like fiction. She knew it wasn’t true, and so she couldn’t enjoy it.

But she did read The Planet Masters, my first novel, because, well, it was my first novel. Despite all the discouragement, I proved that I could do it. I was afraid that she would figure out that Larson McCade, my anti-hero, was based on my dark side, and think that was who I really was. But she told me that she had quite liked it — because of McCade. She never made the connection between my anti-hero and me, and she never read anything else of mine.

But I kept on writing, despite my mother’s harsh disapproval of my first efforts. I wrote a lot of things, and made notes and lists and charts, all in service of some day turning them into stories. My parents didn’t like this, and thought I was wasting my time, and did their best to make me give it up. But I persisted.

And despite more failures than successes, I continue to write. There were many times when it seemed like simple wisdom to stop. And though I haven’t published that much, I can look back on some of my work with pride, and know that there are people who have read and enjoyed some of my books. And I keep on.

Once there was a riter who thoat thot thout that it was a simple quite thing, but it wasnt. But he kept on writing anyway, and learned how. Because he couldn’t not write. And my few successes have made it worth doing. I can’t not write, after all.

I can’t read when I’m writing

Lately I have been so deep into my current project, that not only can I not read fiction, I can’t read much non-fiction, and I can’t even watch movies. Reading — especially fiction — and movies are supposed to take you away from the world for a while. They are deliberate distractions from those thoughts and worries which preoccupy you. They give you a break from work. (Or, if you’re bored, they give you something to help you pass the time.) And they do the job quite well. Which is why I can’t indulge in them while I’m writing.

It used to be that movies were okay, but not so much any more. Many times it’s because I’m not in the mood for that kind of movie, because it conflicts with the mood I’m trying to sustain in my current project.

But many times it’s because I’m more critical of plot — or lack of plot in movies. Walt Disney’s Cinderella, for example, is a great classic, but it lasts an hour and a quarter, with about twenty minutes of actual story. All the extra is a lot of fun, and it’s done well — singing and dancing and foolishness — but it’s not story. It has been added to what would be a short film in order to make it a full-length feature.

And if a movie has a good story, which I might and do enjoy at other times, it conflicts with the story I’m working on, so I can’t watch it. There are a few exceptions I guess.

But mostly I’m not interested in the stories in novels and movies because I’m intensely interested in the one I’m working on now, and I don’t want to be distracted from it. I want to work on it, to focus on it to the exclusion of other stuff. Of course, after a few hours I run out of creative energy. I have to put the project down and find something else to do. Like my day-job of household management.

But just because I’m not actively creating, or developing, or rewriting, or editing, or polishing, that doesn’t mean that I want — or can tolerate — distractions from it. It’s just no longer in the forefront of my mind, and is grinding away, percolating, fermenting, revolving, growing in the back of my head, all unconsciously. Then the next day I bring it out for several hours of good work. If I distract my unconscious from the project, then I have nothing to work with the next day.

But I have discipline, which means I work on my fiction when I’m supposed to, for as long as I’m productive, without distractions. But there are other things which I’m supposed to do, and my discipline applies there too. On Saturdays I have to put the story aside and work on my book site, or my blog, like this one. On Sundays I have to deal with bills, both paper and on-line, and with emails, and with other things which I have put off doing during the week.

But right now, I am so deep into Amanda Valentine, and her growth as a character and as a person, as she seeks to overcome all obstacles, external and internal, to find the Heart of the Fey, that it takes all my discipline this Saturday morning to put the story on hold until Monday.

Get It Right the First Time

At one time it was popular to criticise the idea of “New and Improved” when referring to ads for laundry soap, cookies, or toothpaste. The sardonic response to this claim was, “Why didn’t they get it right the first time?” Which is really a stupid thing to say. Fortunately, the popularity of this criticism didn’t last very long. Nobody pointed out the fallacy, it just faded away. Like so many things which rouse my ire (better to leave my unroused ire sleeping), it has stayed with me. Get it right the first time doesn’t make any sense.

For example, consider a recipe that has taken you years to perfect. Why didn’t you get it right the first time? Or the computer you are using now. When they started making personal computers (Apple 2 for example), why didn’t they get it right the first time? Or when they upgrade my system, or game, or word processor, why didn’t they —?

Because, of course, you has to start somewhere, do the best you can, and do better as the technology evolves and you gain more experience. If you don’t like upgrades, you can stick with DOS. Or Model T. Or black & white TV on a 6” screen. They did get it right the first time, for what it was then. What you do the first time is your best try, but then you learn from your mistakes, you learn how to do it better, and you move on.

So what does this have to do with writing?

A long time ago, way back in the 1950s, when I was in grade school, teachers would say, “Take out a blue book and pencil. Now, write about what you did over the weekend,” or something like that. After ten minutes or so, the teacher would say, “Pencils down, pass your blue books forward.” And she would grade you on what you had written. The blue books came back, and every least mistake in language, logic, content, spelling, punctuation, whatever, was marked in red. And the more red, the lower the grade.

What we learned back then, was that when we wrote, we had to get it right the first time.

When we got older, and decided to write fiction, we’d try to do that, get it right on the first draft. And when compared our struggling efforts with what we had read in magazines or books, what we had done was terrible. Maybe we couldn’t write after all. Many of us gave it up after a while.

These days it’s different. Students in grade school, at least in the 90s when my daughter was there, were told to first put down an idea, and the class would talk about it. Then they were told to sketch out what they wanted to say, and were helped to put it in outline form. They they wrote a draft, which was marked up, but not graded. They they fixed the mistakes for a final draft.

Which, of course, is how real writers really do it. And real graphic artists, too, if you read the cover articles in ImagineFX. They don’t submit their first drafts, they submit their final drafts. They don’t have some magic talent that lets them get it right the first time. They sketch, rough it out, do a clean draft, revise, edit, and rewrite, as many times as necessary. If the beginning writer could see the first raw sketches and notes and rough drafts of the writers they admire, they would see that maybe their own rough drafts weren’t so bad after all.

Some of the people who take my Writer’s Workshop, when asked to read their exercise, start off by apologizing for how bad it is. They still have the idea that they should get it right the first time. Well, nobody does. Ever. There’s always improvement. Windows 10 is a lot better than Windows 8. Or than DOS of whatever version. Current cell phones are far more powerful than the computers which directed the space program in the sixties. And seventies. My cooking has improved over the last (ahem) years. So has yours.

So, if you’re a beginner, when you sit down to write a story, just remember: do your best, put even the worst down on paper, revise and correct, produce the new and improved version. Then do it again, until it’s as good as you can make it, and then move on to another story. You have to move on, because there can never be a perfect version. Just do the best you can do at the time.

They keep correcting translations of the Bible.

A Thousand Words a Day

When I was a beginner, the common advice was to write a thousand words a day. If you wrote for eight hours, that would be only 125 words an hour. Easy. If you wrote for only four houers, that would still be on 250 words an hour. That’s not bad, and quite doable. If you wrote for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, that was still just 500 words an hour. Not so easy, but not so hard either. And if you wrote 1000 words a day, five days a week, at the end of the year you’d have a very long novel. Or two long novels. Or three normal novels.

And so it goes. It’s easy, it says here… But who can keep that up? At my very best I’ve written 1000 words an hour. For about two hours. That day. And not so many the next.

But there’s something that the people who suggest 1,000 words a day don’t explain. Is that 1000 words the first draft? Or final polish? Because there’s an awful lot of work in between those two states. What about research time, does that count? Or, more importantly, revision, correction, development, tightening, enough proofreading for a clean draft, and so on. If you can do all that and still have 1,000 finished words at the end of the day, from first word to last, you are a phenomenon. I don’t think it’s possible.

So, “write a thousand words a day” doesn’t really mean anything. A thousand words of what?


Two hundred fifty words a day is doable. Sometimes. Sometimes that 250 words comes easily and superfast. Sometimes you struggle to find the words, to fix the problems, to discover that you’re going in the wrong direction, and you’ve actually typed over 1000 words but none of them work. So you stop. Do those words count. Or only finished words.

So, go ahead, write as quickly as you can, but by the time you finish your story or novel and go back to re-read it, it will look like crap. Because you’ve learned a lot about your story since you started. And because all first drafts are crap, by definition, and you haven’t done a second draft yet.

A second draft may not take as long as a first, but it may take longer. How many drafts do you need? When you read the story, can you honestly say it’s the best you can do? Or is it just good enough? Think about it.

My point is, writing a story of any length includes not just that 250 words/hour/day/week/year. It also includes all that other stuff — research or creation, revisions and corrections, notes and outlines and rough sketches. You have to take all these into consideration, and probably a lot more.

I know some writers who can do two books a year. I know a couple who have done six books a year, and published them all. And I know some writers, Joyce Carol Oates for example, who’s every story is as close to perfect as possible (I don’t know how many drafts she writes). Literary critics can’t understand how she can write so much so quickly, and still write so well. I can’t either. You may not like what she writes, but you can’t deny her quality.

But I’m not any of these people.

My second point here, is that comparing yourself to other writers is not good. Every writer works their own way (‘their’ not ‘his or her’). Every writer has different strenghts, and very different weaknesses. Comparing your first draft to someone elses published work will destroy you. You have to discover your own work methods, your best time and location, your own progress one scene at a time or the whole story at once.

So, again, “one thousand words a day” doesn’t mean anything.


Sometimes, as you grow as a writer, you learn how to work more quickly. It’s true, sometimes, and it’s great. Or sometimes, as you grow as a writer, you set higher standards for yourself, and it takes longer to achieve those standards. Or you can just hack.

Jack Woodford wrote a book on How to Write for Money. And if you follow his methods, you can do it too. Really, he’s not telling you a theory, he’s telling you how he really did it. Look him up. He wrote other writing books as well, which I don’t have.

How to Write for Money is out of print and costs a couple hundred dollars second hand. But Woodford was a self-admitted hack writer, and proud of it, and wrote bad but marketable books constantly, which all got published by publishers who wanted fast turnover. He made a living. If you can get a copy of his book, read it. You’ll learn a lot. And then decide, what do you want, quantity or quality. It’s not easy to have both. Unless you’re Joyce Carol Oates.

It’s what I do.

On February 21, 2017, I was working on the final, final polish of chapter 97 (out of 120) of The Black Ring. I was quite pleased with it — there was emotion, a progression of ideas, a tying up of some loose ends, and preparation for a significant turning point a couple chapters later. It was my final read-aloud for performance, and I felt that whoever read it would enjoy it, and be moved by it.

And then I thought —

Nobody’s going to read this. Nobody is going to even know that it has been published. So why am I wasting my time. How many of you have read Slaves of War? Dead Hand? Sturgis? Stroad’s Cross? I’ve sold about a dozen copies of some of them, and none of others.

The sense of despair and futility was crushing. It still is. It was not easy to keep going, but I did. It’s a good chapter, in an epic story, which explores the limits of fantasy, real science, character growth, courage, duty, hope, and super extra-cosmic meta-reality (ahem). But who’s going to even know about it?

I need publicity, and I don’t know how to get it. I did some reasearch, but they don’t help much, and almost all advice on how to promote your self-published book says you have to have a blog. Like this one.

I tried a blog once years ago. I couldn’t get it to work, I couldn’t post to it, I just didn’t understand the mechanics. The site remains empty, and by now it’s probably closed down.

But I have to do something. A search through Ralan and Duotrope comes up with nobody who whats to publish books like mine. My books are too long mostly, or too complicated, or too hard to categorize. Which is why I publish myself. And I have to promote myself, get my name out there, let people know that my books are available. Start a blog. That, they said, is how it’s done.

I must be missing something.

I did research, I learned about blog hosting, about blogging software, and I think I can do this, because here I am. But nothing I’ve read answers one basic question. How do I promote my blog?

It may not even matter, though I would like people to read my books and enjoy them. Some have. But even without readers, I know I will not stop. Stopping is the surest way to fail. I write, because I can’t not write my stories. It’s what I do.

Okay. I’m feeling better now.

Sometimes Longhand is Best

We all start writing by printing. Later we are taught cursive, or longhand. When we’re in grade school, that’s what we do, even if we have computers at home. That may change, if laptops or pads become common in the early grades. Writing by hand is still a valuable skill, for those times when we have no computer, tablet, or even phone handy. (Writing twenty pages of a story on a smart phone might be a bit tedious.) And when I started writing stories, when I was about eight or nine, for myself as well as for my schoolwork, longhand was what there was.

When I was about eight or so, I found an old royal portable typewriter in our back closet and tried to use it, but finding the letter I wanted to type took forever. Unless it was the same letter twice, in which case it took half as long. It took me a couple hours to type out a 100 word story. Not to create it, just to type it. It wasn’t worth the effort. I took a typing class in junior high (grades 7-9, not middle school grades 7-8) and passed, but typing was not to be my career, as it could have been for a number of the other students. It was just a tool.

Even today I can write longhand almost automatically. (I do have to think about it if I want to be able read it after a day or so…) So when I began to write seriously, in 1972, I did it in longhand. I could think about the words and the story, and not about the mechanics of getting my thoughts on paper. Then, of course, I had to transcribe. But whether it was first draft in longhand, or retyping after editing the typescript, it was the same. I hate typing.

One time at a convention, SciCon I believe it was, I was hosting a small party, just soft drinks and chips, and for some reason Jack Vance came in. He told us about how he went from longhand to a word processor. He had used yellow legal paper which he folded top to bottom, turned 90 degrees, and wrote across the lines, using fountain pens in red, green, blue, and black, paying attention to the patterns he made, not the words he wrote, which let the muse in his subconscious provide the story. Then his wife typed it up for him. He didn’t like word processors because he kept on editing himself, the way he did with a typewriter, and since it was easier, he did it a lot more. Someone suggested that he turn down the brightness on his monitor, so that he wouldn’t be distracted by the text and, as long as his fingers were on the right keys, he could just concentrate on his story. It worked.

He spent the rest of that evening, into early morning, in the bedroom, playing guitar and singing with Janny Wurtz, who had also come in for some reason. They had an audience.

I decided to try to compose by looking off to the right somewhere, into my imagination instead of at the screen. I too had a tendency to edit everything as I wrote it. And it worked pretty well. I was able to keep my mind focused on the story, and save the editing (and typos) for later.

But I still use longhand when I need to be careful about the text. Longhand is slower, but correcting with a pen is easier than with a computer keyboard and mouse. For me at least. I’m composing now on the computer, and I don’t have that direct link with my imagination, as I do when I use longhand, just my thoughts,.

It all depends on what I’m trying to do. I prefer longhand for rough sketches, computer for drafts. I prefer longhand for some forms of editing which require moving text, and lining out, and interlinear notes, and I prefer the computer for rewriting, revision, copyediting, and proofreading. Most of my work is done using a word processor, but longhand still has a place. And I get to use different colored pens.

Where is Your Muse?

Most people who wait for the muse wait forever. The harder you look for the muse, the further it receeds from you. Ask me how I know. And I have been struck by the muse, when I was least expecting it, which came to me and gave me The Planet Masters.

I remember, many years ago, walking almost literally in circles, for nearly two weeks, looking for an idea for a new book. At last I decided to go to my list of over fifty book ideas, which I had taped to the wall of my office, and just choose one. I didn’t use it, whichever one it was, because the next morning I had three new ideas which I liked better. (I forget which one I used.) When I stopped looking for my muse, there it was.

According to Greek mythology, the nine muses were all women. We haven’t been Greek for some time, and most of us don’t share their sexism. Do women see their muse as a man? Hmmm.

I know where my muse lives. Yours may live in some different place. My muse lives deep in the back of my head, and it is always there. It comes to me most frequently in the morning, in those moments between sleeping and waking, when I am half dreaming. If I have gone to sleep thinking about my story — the direction of the plot, aspects of my character, details about my setting, how to solve a problem for my hero, creating a challenging obstacle, whatever — I almost always come up with a solution.

If I’m editing a story (novels are just long stories) and find something wrong, and don’t see clearly (or at all) how to fix it, the best thing is for me to do, is to just walk away for a while, do something that takes little thought (washing some dishes, cooking the meal, reading the comics in the paper, taling a walk — walking is a great way to stimulate the muse, that’s how The Planet Masters came to me) and very soon after I start, the muse will present the solution to me, all at once, and I can get back to work.

It has taken me a while to learn this, but I know now where my muse is, and how to let it come forth. It frequently comes when I shut off critical thinking and just let my imagination run loose. And I can depend on it in need, if I don’t pursue it or frighten it away.

It makes no sense to wait for the muse to strike, you have to let it sneak up on you when you’re not looking.

No Such Thing as “Good Enough”

This post has given me a lot of trouble. Like the previous two, every time I revised and edited it until I thought it was good enough, then left it for a while to cool down, when I came back to it again, I found that it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough at all.

Many times, in the course of revising and editing and polishing a story of any length — usually long — I come to a passage which seems to be not quite right, so I try to fix it, and move on, knowing I can come back to it later. It may be a word, a phrase, a sentence or two, a paragraph or two, a page or more. When I come back for another read-through, I’ll be able to see my fix more objectively. Some of the problems have been fixed, but sometimes I find more rough spots, and try to fix them. Each read-through, for text silently and aloud, for story, and for performance, reveals different problems. Each time through it gets better, and fewer problems have to be left for later. But when I get to my final polish, when I read aloud for performance, if there are any rough spots left, anything which makes me unsatisfied or uncomfortable, I have to take whatever time is necessary to fix it right then. I can’t let it be just “good enough,” but as close to truly right as I can make it. After each fix I still have to let it cool down again, but I don’t have to read the whole story, just those trouble spots. And try again if they’re still a problem.

If I don’t fix these problems, if I don’t enjoy reading it again this time, despite however many times I’ve read it before, anyone else reading my story will feel the roughness, though they may not know what is causing it, and they won’t enjoy the story as much as they should.

I’ve read passages that just weren’t right in other books, fiction and non-fiction. One time it seemed to me that the final page, which was supposed to have hammered in the point of the whole book, was actually a nonsequiter. I went back a few pages and read it again, to see if I had missed something crucial. But I hadn’t, the last page made no sense, spoiling an otherwise good book and argument. Why was it left that way?

Possibly because the writer — and almost certainly the copy editor, who should have caught it — felt that, at the moment, it was “pretty much okay.” It would take a lot of work to fix, and maybe the author thought he’d come back to it, but he never did, and it had to get out the door. There was nothing wrong with it when I read it just as text. The words, the grammar, the punctuation, the phrasing, the syntax, all were fine. But when I read it for meaning within the context of the rest of the book, it was totally wrong. I could not figure out the point he was trying to make. And I don’t remember what the book was about, all I remember is that bad last page.

So, when I come on a “good enough” passage in my own work, if it persists into my reading aloud for performance, where it really sticks out, I have to try to figure out why it is only “good enough.” I can’t just pass it over. I must make it as good as I possibly can. Maybe my standards are too high.

One time I spent over two hours working on one short paragraph, because no matter how many times I read it, and revised it, and corrected it, it made me feel uncomfortable, and made me want to stop reading. It took rephrasing, reordering, different words and punctuation, tightening, expanding, and on and on. And a lot of time pacing the floor. But at last I made it right, or at least as right as I was able. And then it was a pleasure to read, instead of a chore. All that time spent was worth it. And my readers will never know which paragraph that was.

For me at least, when I’m writing a story — or a blog post — there is no such thing as “good enough.” Not any more. There’s only “the best I can do.” Only the best is good enough, according to the company motto of a certain toy manufacturer. And as time goes by, my standards get higher, and I get better.

Reading Aloud as Performance

I didn’t do many readings at SF conventions, because I wasn’t going over well, and I didn’t know why. I had done good readings before. One time, at Disneyland, I read the captions for my daughter on a Cinderella’s Palace walk-through, and I was applauded by several young women following behind who had overheard. But a friend told me that my readings at conventions sounded just like everybody else’s — my voice was flat, I was reading too fast, and there was no feeling. Especially no feeling.

I wanted to do better, so I began to practice, and I discovered that a dramatic reading revealed clumsy phrases, problems in paragraphing, passages or paragraphs that read like non-fiction, and other problems, all of which my readers would notice, but none of which I had found while reading for the story. So I decided to use “reading as a performance,” not only as a practice for a live reading, but as a final draft as well. Here’s how I do it.

First, I must always have, in the back of my head, the idea of giving my (imaginary) audience, all of them SF readers, a reading that they will enjoy. I have to keep them entertained, and hold their attention, so that they will want more.

I have to read what I actually see on the page, not what I “know” is there, or think is there. That means I have to read slowly, word for word, as if I were proof-reading; I have to articulate carefully, so that I will be understood; and I have to put enough feeling into the words, carefully not overdoing it, so that my audience can share it.

I pay attention to the punctuation, to find where there is too much, or too little, or it is serving  the wrong purpose. I have to think of punctuation as a guide for delivery, not just as markers for grammar. After all, the original purpose of punctuation was so that people reading aloud would know when to pause and for how long.

When I do it right, the pitch of my voice drops. If my voice gets too high, then I’m reading too fast, and I’m not paying enough attention. I have to back up a paragraph or two, and try again. If I find anything that makes me hesitate, even for a second, or that just feels rough, or wrong, I take whatever time is necessary to fix it, whether it’s ten seconds, or ten minutes, or two hours, until it feels right. When it is right, it’s a pleasure to read it, no matter how many times I’ve read it before. And when it’s a pleasure for me, then it will be a pleasure for my readers too.


I didn’t make this up. I just had to apply some proofreading techniques, as told to me by an editor, and adapt some of what I learned in Toastmasters to what I am doing now.

I was a member of Toastmasters International ( for twenty nine years. It is an oraganization devoted to helping people learn how to speak in public, in as professional a way as possible, and techniques have been developed and perfected ever since Toastmasters was founded, in 1924. I also did theater in college, and use some of what I learned there.

Public speaking of any kind, for entertainment, for giving information, for persuasion, or for playing a role, requires certain skills. Which I used to have, but forgot about. Listen to recordings of Martin Luther King, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, for some examples. Listen to live conversations when you’re among people at conventions, and compare them to conversations as performed in a movie, or on a stage, or on TV. You can easily tell the difference. Clergy who give sermons know that they have to acquire these skills, if they want their congregation to stay awake. Actors who don’t acquire these skills never get to perform.

Most of us may never read as performance, but we do want our readers to keep on reading. And by reading aloud, as if for a performance, we can discover all those little roughnesses that make our readers pause, and perhaps stop, and put the story down. And then we can fix them.

And storytelling, whether by page or picture or voice, really is theater after all.

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.