Thursday, June 17, 2010

When words go wrong (iLesson)

Sometimes perfectly good words get completely out control when they're in the wrong company.

My Wednesday night critique group is a read and critique style: writers get (up to) 15 minutes to read their work aloud, which is then viciously torn apart commented upon by the group. This method has pros and cons, but it definitely makes you realize the value of reading your prose out loud, even if it's only to yourself.

The writer's brain often fills in gaps and smoothes things over so we read what we meant to write and not what we actually, you know, wrote. But the ear hasn't heard the words as often as the eye has read them, so we catch things that sound weird or wrong (or even silly).

Last night, we had two instances of unintended hilarity in critique group. Rather than embarrass anyone I know, I'm going to use an example from a published work that came out so long ago, I don't remember the title, or the author, just the instance.

So, it was a historical romance, and for reasons I don't remember, the hero and heroine accidentally ended up in bed together, and there was mistaken identity or whatever, but they're... um, doing what heros and heroine's DO in such situations, and when the hero gets to the, er, moment of truth, this happens:

"Oh my God. You're a virgin," he ejaculated.

Um. I can't help but think if the author (or editor! or copyeditor!) had read that aloud, I would not have gotten a C in Algebra when my hysterical laughter outed me for reading romance novels in class.

So, silly example aside, reading your work aloud can save you some mocking on the internet when you put words together that sound dirtier than you meant them.

Here are the other ways that reading aloud can help your writing:

1) If you stumble over an awkward phrase or clunky word combination, chances are your reader will, too. Even though we read without moving our lips (well, most of us) we still 'hear' the flow of the words in our heads.

2) Your prose shouldn't sound like the refrain of a pop tune. The rhythm and structure of your sentences should vary, so you get a run of sentences with a sing song cadence.

3) If your dialogue sounds like it's being spoken by a robot, a space alien, or a Victorian maiden (and it's not actually being spoken by any of the above), you have a problem. There is no better way to discover if your dialogue sounds like words people would actual say than to actually say them aloud, and see how they flow.

4) Word and phrase echos will jump out at you. I love reading aloud and discovering I used the word "thing" five times in two paragraphs (or that my heroine's sister laughs 'musically' three times in one scene).

5) If a sentence or paragraph seems too long and/or word, it probably is.

6) If the prose seems choppy, jumping around without smooth transitions, it probably is.

7) Words that sound innocent in your head, may not sound that way out loud.

I don't read everything aloud, but when I have a scene I'm not sure about, or the dialogue doesn't 'feel' right, or it seems to be dragging, or missing something, I'll close my office door and have a reading circle with just myself.

3 comments:

  1. Reading aloud helps out a lot. I still laugh EVERY SINGLE TIME somebody brings up the legendary IHOP workshop example of a (not so) steamy scene gone wrong during a read aloud. ;)

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  2. It's not a rookie mistake, either! Sometimes there's just NO way to tell how WRONG something is going to sound until you say it out loud and go... Wow. That wasn't dirty when I wrote it.

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  3. The example nearly made me spit my iced tea at the monitor!! LMAO! Yeah, it would be good to catch stuff like that...

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