In The Unstrung Harp, Edward Gorey’s character Mr. Earbrass has gone over his manuscript so many times, he’s heartily sick of it and hopes to never see it again. I know exactly how Mr. Earbrass feels. By the time a novel gets published, a writer has edited it at least five times. This doesn't count the dozens of times the manuscript gets revised during the writing process. You read it, and read it, and read it – and by the time you're through with it, you can't really see its warts anymore. Your brain glosses over the mistakes. And you never want to see the damned thing again.
But you do see it again. Eventually you pick up the book it's become (or these days, the e-reader), and morbid curiosity prods you to read it. If you're lucky, it's a pretty good book and you don't see many mistakes. If a professional company published it, copy-editors went over it with a fine-tooth comb and the glitches are minimal. But these days, we're all jumping into the self-publishing ring – we're completely responsible for the finished product.
In a previous blog I mentioned that I hire a professional editor, Elinor Mavor, to go over my manuscripts. She has made a huge difference in the quality of the finished work. She gives me a valuable perspective that allows me to take a story from inspiration to finished book. But after Ellie has gone over a manuscript and made her notes on it, I still have to go back and revise. By this time, I'm WAY past fed up with the story. But I've found a way to make it fresh again – read it aloud.
Maybe you've heard this advice before – I heard it years ago, and I even thought it was a good idea. But when I wrote my first nine novels, I had those wonderful, professional editors to go over the manuscript after I did the revisions. Now I've got to do it myself. Ellie reads it one last time, but I'm the one who does the quality control before it goes to book format. My eyes are crossing as I plod through, over and over.
I already had plans to do audio versions of my books. I've done readings, and people seem to like my speaking voice. So as I tested the waters with these new books, reading them aloud to see how they sounded, I remembered that advice I'd heard years ago about reading a manuscript aloud as part of the editing process. I found out it works really well.
But what if you don't have a voice people like – what if you stumble a lot when you read stuff aloud? Surprisingly, it's not a problem. Reading aloud for editing is not the same as doing a reading for an audience or recording an audio book. You can pick your way through the manuscript like a hiker going from rock to rock in the middle of a stream. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, you sound the thing out. When you stumble, you just go back and read it over. If you keep stumbling over a particular passage, you ask yourself if it might need a bit of work. You end up re-writing those clumsy passages and sounding them out again, until they sound right.
You will also notice mistakes you didn't see when you were just eye-balling the manuscript. You'll see faulty punctuation and spot words that are repeated too often, overused, misused, or misspelled. You'll notice when you've accidentally called a character by another character's name. And you'll even see holes in the plot. Somehow, reading the thing aloud gives it another dimension, makes it more real.
One more piece of advice – don't try to act the story out and make all the characters sound the way you imagined they must. You may end up feeling you have to keep doing it until you get the acting right. Save that approach for the audio book, if you're planning to record one. This reading is for another purpose; allow yourself to be casual and even clumsy. You'll learn more about the story that way.
You may be wondering – do I read these blogs aloud to myself before publishing them? This is the first entry I've read aloud. I won't necessarily do that every time with a blog. But from now on, I'll be doing it with my novels and stories. They're so long, they need the extra work.
I'll be publishing my first books online very soon with Smashwords and amazon (among others). I don't know how many sales my editing techniques will generate (or my writing and plotting techniques, for that matter). I'll have to learn new marketing techniques, too.
But I like this process better than the old publishing model. It's empowering to be in charge of your own book from start to finish. I enjoy writing again, even the pick & shovel work. For that reason alone, it's worth it to go over the manuscript that last time, reading it aloud.
Who knows – maybe even Mr. Earbrass would find it helpful.