At least at some point when editing, read your work in progress aloud. That’s common wisdom, excellent wisdom. For my part, though, it’s incomplete.
All prose isn’t the same.
Take this blog post, for instance. I draft on Tuesday, edit on Wednesday. I then post it on Thursday. I typically edit once and then read it out loud. Doing so makes it easier to catch issues my eyes gloss over. In other words, giving my voice the opportunity to catch what my eyes think I wrote.
That’s great, as far as it goes, but there are big differences between exposition and fiction. Minus any fiction examples, my blog posts are written entirely in my voice. My fiction is written in my characters’ voices.
Voice. That’s one key.
Another key is engagement. Ever listen to a lecture or speech delivered in a monotone?
This blog post, like most I write, will be less than a thousand words. I write one per week. I read it once. It’s easy to be engaged while reading my words in my voice.
What happens if I’m rereading a 2,500 word chapter I’ve read before and that’s one of several edited that day? It’s easy for words on the screen to go straight from vision to mouth. They can become rote, the chapter barely remembered afterwards.
Like taking the same route to work day after day.
Emotionless characters all sound the same. What’s lost is more than the opportunity to catch typos and awkward phrasing.
In short, it’s a case of:
See it … Say it
Everything changed for me when I switched to:
See it … Be it … Live it … Say it
See the words.
Be in the moment, the setting, the circumstances, and the character.
Live the character’s experience by processing the dialogue through the character’s emotions.
Say the character’s words through the filter of all of the above.
Yes, I read in the voices of the characters. Oh the horror! No, I’m not an actor. I’ve never taken an acting class and the only time I’ve stepped onto a stage was to accept a diploma. In other words, I’m sure I’m awful.
*One risk. I’ve discovered the phrasing/voices of a couple of my main characters have invaded my everyday speech.
So, what’s my method do? Well, I catch more bad writing issues because I’m more actively engaged in the reading. I also gain greater insight into my characters. That improves the characters and, by extension, the story.
Here are two contrasting voices. One glaring attribute that both heroines share is social awkwardness, but the roots of that awkwardness are different.
The first is Riparia Dellbane in Truth in the Forgotten, which I’m presently editing. Riparia was deeply loved until she was six years old when a traumatic event robbed her of her parents. Later, an old healer took her in, but she lost her, too.
Thus, Riparia’s social awkwardness comes from a place of loss and having lived an isolated life thereafter to protect herself. Her dialogue is declarative, often brief, cautious, and defensive.
“How do I know you aren’t a Ministry collaborator? You might want to come up with a better story, sir. I’ve had a trying week and it’s only become worse since I arrived in Coving.”
At a pivotal, later moment, though, her righteousness surfaces and those declarative statements, at times, become outbursts that often startle even her.
“No! Don’t try to diffuse my anger. I want it close, I want to wrap it around me tight and never forget it. I’ll not let this stand. Somehow, some way, I’ll find someone who can undo what they’ve done. If there’s a Talonton for our age then I’ll find him. So help me, I will.”
My second example is a contrast.
Zephtasha Barcaine, a fallen witch in Protecting the Pneuma Key, is someone who likes people, but has become an outcast. Zepha’s social awkwardness has its roots in a childhood of brutal abuse. Later, at the moment she’s carving out a life for herself, it all collapses.
Yet, she’s also an expressive artist. She both paints and performs supervised readings for children with her rylls (it’s part of her probation). In many ways, she’s a teen in a twenty-seven year-old’s body, struggling with anxiety, her dialogue often hesitant and wandering.
She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. “Agent Dayne, there are certain realities. People tolerate me, to a degree, because I keep my distance. Here, this place … people will see me as intruding. Worse, they’ll think … well, this is a place where, I mean, it’s a place for couples.”
Aid for her self-confidence comes from an unexpected source. It makes her more outspoken, but her excitable and dramatic manner of speaking remain.
Lifting her chin, she glared. “Personal or not, I’m here, I’m ready, and the rylls are ready. We’re capable. We can do this—now. All I need to know is where to begin. Oh, and if someone could be so kind as to unhitch Throe from the wagon.”
When I’m reading, and if I’m engaged, I more easily sense if the voice is off when I’m hearing it, when I’m being it. When I read the above passages I become Riparia’s serious melancholy or Zepha’s hesitant exuberance.
I can’t stress enough how much this helps, and it’s oh so much more fun. I encourage you to sit up, maybe lean forward, and become an active participant when you read your fiction.