• Writing

    Why Reading Aloud Is the Best Editing Tool

    Cats can be good listeners, until they fall asleep
    Cats can be good listeners, until they fall asleep

    I’m in the final stages of editing a manuscript. Today I read the book aloud. It took a long time. Doing it such a pain — it sounds strange to hear your voice after sitting for so long in silence, and it’s physically arduous — but my gosh, is it revealing. I find all sorts of mistakes and clumsiness. And I find the strong sentences too. But mostly the flawed. That’s why reading aloud is the best editing tool. I highly recommend it for any writer, fiction or nonfiction. Here are the things I discover when I do it.


    Repeating words or gestures

    I read aloud and hear that my protagonist shifted in his seat twice in the space of a page. I used “against” twice in a paragraph. Ehh! Buzzer.

    Clunky grammar

    Phrases like “had to be heard at” or “being uncomfortable with what was” or whatever I may write that ends up sounding like a Sarah Palin spoof.

    Overused or too many metaphors

    Did I just compare that woman to a weasel and then a sentence later her hat to a fox? Is that man’s round face like the moon? Baaad… remove.

    Long sentences

    Do I need both “vivid” and “green” to describe the field. Should I say “cramped” forest or is a forest by its nature cramped? Kill the darling description. Tighten, tighten, until the rhythm is smooth.

    Dialogue missteps

    Didn’t my protagonist already tell his cousin, in a slightly different way, that he’s anxious to confront the villain? Yes, I wouldn’t have caught that had I been reading silently. And, do I really need so many attributions? “He said,” “she said,” etc. Probably not.

    And lastly, and most importantly, what I learn from reading aloud is how the tension rises and falls. Where the slow spots are. And whether or not all of that works. If not, it’s sixteen steps backward and into reconfiguring plot scenes and internal sequels. Luckily, I worked those issues out earlier in the year and didn’t have to do that today. Whew.

    One thing I don’t necessarily learn but think is a great benefit is hearing yourself tell the story, hearing your voice, how you project or don’t, how you simply articulate words, and how quickly you read. The delivery of the story to the outside reader is incredibly important, because after all, that’s what this whole endeavor is about.

    For more writing advice, see my post, A Lesson From Neil Gaiman in How to Write Emotion.

  • Writing

    The Struggle Between My Words and the World’s

    Radio, The Struggle Between My Words and the World's, https://karenhugg.com/2016/01/20/silence-during-writing/ #writing #words #silence #novel #fiction #kids

    These last few weeks I’ve been immersed in the final edits of my novel. It’s the slow time for my gardening day job. I sit for two-hour-long chunks (or more) and I read and type words. This has been productive. I’ve lived in the world of my novel: Paris, plants, the people I’ve created. I hear nothing else except the dog barking occasionally, the hum of the heater blowing warmth in the room. I can concentrate, I can think, “No, ‘harsh, steady rain’ is better here because I used ‘downpour’ two paragraphs before.” I imagine the railing on a stone building, imagine my protagonist examining a plant, and create words to describe these things. It’s empowering. I have the power to create a world with something so simple as an arrangement of words.

    The Silence Interrupted by Other Words

    Time of course evaporates when I’m in this meditative state. Then my kids come home, one by one, and the situation changes. While I’m thinking, “What does he (my protagonist) see when in the car on St. Honore and what would be reflective of his story about it?” I hear my son come up the stairs. Sometimes he goes straight to the bathroom, sometimes he says hi, and sometimes he has words to ask or say to me. Eventually, as my two daughters stream in, the puzzle of what I’ll include in my story dissolves into which snack I’ll get up and make for the kids. And then, their words: A form needs to be signed. Can I go to the pool with a friend? A boy fell on the playground. I drew a dinosaur. We have a concert in two weeks. And on and on and on.

    Soon, the last trickle of words and thoughts I had for my novel are drained. They disappear into the activity of my kids running around, talking to each other, asking permission for whatever, bickering, water running, doors closing. It’s transition time. If I return to the book, I feel displaced. Where was I? I was going to change the phrase on a street sign in the story but what was the new phrase I’d thought of? So I close my computer and move on to the mundane task of unloading the dishwasher.

    Others’ Words Fill My Head

    There are moments, when a child isn’t coming in the kitchen, where I have quiet alone time. But creating in miniscule windows is impossible. So on the radio goes as I do chores that can be interrupted. Voices talk about the drug dealers camping in RVs in Seattle. A commercial warns of gum disease. If I switch the station, NPR’s discussing Syrian refugees. If I switch again, Adele is singing “I’m in California dreaming about who we used to be…” A podcast jokes about Uber and the Eagles Club. The phone rings and my mother talks about mice in her basement. For each set of minutes that I hear these words, I travel to these places. I think about these issues. I feel, I worry. This is what fills my head. This is me now. A receiver of changing words and emotions.

    Silence During Writing Is a Gift

    Silent time is the most precious thing to a writer. There are no words and emotions coming at you. You are in control of creating them. And yet we’re social beings. We have families, friends, workplaces, a society with events. But lately, in these immersed days, I’ve realized that though I have housework and correspondence and errands to complete, the silent creating has to come first. So I’m not just reacting to the outside world’s words, but sitting with my own. Spending time where I imaginatively want to be. In a place that feeds my soul. In a place where I accomplish something important to me. That I even get some hours of the day and evening to be in that imaginative space is a gift. The best part is the more I get that gift of my own words, the more I can later give back to the world’s.

  • Writing

    Being Married to a Beta Reader Can Be the Best Blessing

    Being Married to a Beta Reader Can Be the Best Blessing, https://karenhugg.com/2015/06/26/beta-reader #writing #tips #betareader #fiction #feedback #editing #criticism #books

    Last month I finished my to-do list of edits on my novel. The next step? It’s what it always is: ask my husband to read it. He’s my most trusted beta reader and best editor. I’ve come to realize how precious getting his feedback is.

    So we do what we always do. I send the chapters in email. He reads them on screen. Then we sit together and go through them one by one. “These paragraphs on page one need to be longer. It’s difficult to picture what the protagonist is seeing exactly. So there are mountains on the left, a field in front of them, and a lake? Lay it all out for me.”

    Oh wow, I think. He’s got stuff to say right off the bat. Ugh. I take notes. We move on.

    A few chapters later: “Would [character] really get that upset about it? He seems to be picking at his son for no reason.” I debate him on that point. He makes his argument. I debate a bit more. He shrugs but I know I haven’t changed his opinion. Occasionally I can change his opinion if I can locate another sentence or section of text to back up my point. But this time I haven’t so I take more notes. This goes on for almost two hours.

    An Objective Logical eye

    My husband is an engineer and he thinks like one. How do the various parts fit into the whole? How to build this? What is logical? He gives me feedback with a polite cool eye. Sometimes I’m surprised by what I’ve missed or a weak link. I hadn’t been thinking about that aspect at all. Now I am. And more importantly I’m getting a feel for where I am on the “How much work does this manuscript still need?” spectrum.

    A Tender Approach

    This time he gives me is precious. I wonder why it’s more special that he read it rather than a friend. It’s because the work is in its infancy and needs tender care. That tender care is most likely to come from him. Working with him makes me feel safe. He won’t be mean because he can or because of a power trip. (Any writer who’s been in a workshop knows about that.) He criticizes early unpolished work in such a way that I don’t think I stink as a writer and should give it all up tomorrow.

    Like Minds…

    I believe anyone in a happy relationship can benefit in this way. Usually your life partner is a person who thinks a lot like you do. Maybe the most of anyone. They will bring a similar but different perspective. They need not be an expert writer or artist, they just need to be delicate and want to help you. If it happens, I urge you to be gracious. Probe. Get details about what they think. Prepare a list of your own questions based on your doubts and get their thoughts. If you do, your work will be ready for the even more objective, scarier feedback from secondary readers of friends or colleagues.

    In the meantime, I make it as easy as possible for my husband to read my work. If he wants to go over the manuscript later, we go over it later. If he wants to read it then and there, we do that. His opinion is one I trust and having someone’s opinion you trust may be the most valuable thing to have as a writer.

    Do you have someone you trust above anyone else with your work? Let me know in the comments below.

    If you’d like more information on writing, sign up for my newsletter. I send a monthly digest of writing tips, book discoveries, travel posts and gardening tips. Subscribe here.

  • Writing

    My Meltdown While Revising

    Madeleine, My Cat and Co-editor of Revision
    Madeleine, My Cat and Co-editor of Revision

    I’m in the thick of revision now. I’m living inside the world I’ve created in my manuscript. I sit for hours on my comfy, corner chair with the blanket on my lap and Madeleine or “Maddie,” my cat, on my legs while I edit, hitting the delete button and inserting new words and phrases here and there. I mull over logic. Worry about melodrama. Make sure everyone has a motive, or a wound that propels their behavior. I read big chunks of text and realize, with a fallen heart, that they need to fit better into the overall plan of the story. Sometimes those big chunks get highlighted and moved to the Leftovers file. It’s harsh, and sometimes painful, but the result is much better for the story. I go on to other chapters that need my attention.

    After doing these sedentary but mind-sucking tasks, I read the rest of the novel. Two-thirds of it is still a mess. I go to my 25 Questions sheet, a handout I received in graduate school, that forces you to answer vital questions to your plot, setting, characters, emotional arc, etc. Some of the answers I gave in October when I was prepping to write the first draft make me wince. Then I put my face in both hands and rub it hard. I have to reset my clock, forgive myself and rewrite with those answers in mind — as best as I can. Will it ever be in presentable shape?

    I run my hands through my hair again and again, I take a deep breath. Sometimes two, or many during an entire half-hour. I meditate. I come to terms with the draft being a mess. After several deep breaths, I’m surfacing into logical thought again. I have ideas. Get to work, I think. I open my eyes. I set the computer on my lap. I type, I think, I’ve released it all. I’m on my way.