Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reading aloud

by Suw on September 23, 2009

I have always loved to read aloud. (I think it’s something to do with loving the sound of my own voice. Arf.) When I met Kevin, I was delighted to find out that he likes reading aloud too, so we frequently read to each other before we go to sleep. I love it. It’s a great way to relax before nodding off.

But reading aloud (and listening) also changes one’s relationship with a book. I can skim a tedious book when I’m reading silently, but reading aloud forces each word into the spotlight. For some books, that’s a wonderful thing. For others it’s the worst thing you can do to them.

Two of my favourite authors are Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Both of them write books that are a joy to read aloud. Sentences flow off the tongue. Scenes hold your attention. Chapters leave you wanting more.

Reading aloud takes a longer than reading in my head, so I have a lot more time to consider what I’m reading. When you’re reading a good book aloud you can savour the atmosphere for longer. When you’re reading a bad book aloud, every flaw is like a slap to the face with a wet haddock. You can’t escape tedious, run-on sentences because you have to say every damn word in them. Unpronounceable names trip you up and constantly repeated tropes become exasperating.

Some of the worst books I’ve ever read have been probably made worse by the fact that I read them aloud. Neal Stephenson’s Cobweb, written with Frederick George, gets the medal for Worst Book Ever. It is tedious in the extreme with excruciatingly long sentences and scenes that just don’t make sense. Kevin and I didn’t even make it to the end of the book. The killer was a scene in which the main protagonist was playing American football, running with the ball down the field whilst having a flashback which not only went on for so long you forgot it was a flashback, but also revealed the death of a key character. In a flashback. Honestly.

As we progressed through the book it became clear that there were two voices. I would hazard a guess and say that the really, awfully dreadful bits were written by George, with the more interesting pacey stuff written by Stephenson (they seemed more like the other books of his I’ve read). But as we read, I became decreasingly interested in finding out what happened next and it got to the point where I was actively avoiding reading. We called time-of-death at page 280.

The worse series of books I’ve read aloud were – and god, I know you’re going to hammer me in the comments for this – His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. The first, The Golden Compass, was ok, but I wasn’t thrilled by it. As the books went on, though, I found it harder and harder to read them out. Again, clumsy writing that tripped your tongue and multi-clause sentences frequently forced me to reread bits, often more than once, until I could figure out where the stresses were and what the hell he was trying to say.

Add to that characters I found it hard to sympathise with, affected speech that was very distracting and a level of preaching not seen since the last time I was (oh the irony) in church and you have a deeply unsatisfying read. Pullman’s pomposity is second to none and I found, at times, the only way to get through it was to put on a silly voice. Or take a break and read something else.

We did at least finish His Dark Materials, even if we only finished the third book through an monumental effort of will. Having invested so much time in the other two, I wanted to know how things ended. Annoyingly, it turns out. I just pray that they don’t try to turn the whole trilogy into films.

I don’t think either Cobweb or His Dark Materials would have felt so bad if we weren’t reading them out aloud. I probably would have just speed-read them and not bothered about missing any minor details. They would have remained bad books, but they wouldn’t have been such painfully bad experiences.

Just for contrast, we went straight from Pullman to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. And boy, what a contrast. It was so easy to read that often we’d find we’d been reading for an hour or more. This was “Oops, you do realise it’s 1am?” territory – a place I’ve only ever been on my own, never with another coming along for the ride. The Graveyard Book is a lyrical, joyful read. The words follow one another naturally and easily. And it was over far, far too soon.

All this to say… no matter how long it takes, no matter how raw your voice gets in the process, read your book aloud before you publish it. It’s a really great way to get a different perspective on what you’ve written and to, quite literally, stumble over problematic phrasings. Reading your book aloud should be a fabulous experience, not purgatory.

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