by Courtney Pierce
“Print out your work and read it aloud.”
I am sheepish in a ball in the corner.
“Again . . . one more time with feeling. Print out your work and read it aloud.”
This time I have more confidence but am still not sure I’m doing all that I need to do. And, it turns out, I’m not.
“Not enough!” says my mind’s literary taskmaster with narrowed eyes, her red pen wielded like a stick.
“What must I do?” I finally ask for guidance.
“Record your work and listen to it.” Whack!
With sore knuckles, I finally listened to my inner taskmaster—and now I listen to myself.
It wasn’t enough to print out my work and read it aloud. Now, I record it and play it back to myself as if it were an audiobook. It’s easy to quiet the taskmaster. We’re not really multitasking creatures—if I’m trying to listen while I read aloud to myself, I’m not fully focused on my listening. So I listen only, and then I zoom home to rewrite. Hearing my story thrown back at me has transformed my writing. Here are three main ways, as well as a bonus reason to listen before revising:
* My sentences become smoother, cleaner, and more interesting because I can hear them, so I can vary their length within each paragraph. The eyes play tricks, but the ears don’t. Once I started listening to my chapters on CD in the car and on my iPod at the gym, a whole new world of writing inspiration unfolded. I can hear all kinds of bugaboos I would have missed if I’d only read my chapters aloud.
* I’m able to match the rhythm of the words to the emotion I’m trying to convey. A word can look just right on the page, or even when read aloud, but sound downright wrong when heard in context of the whole scene.
* I hear words repeated too often, words that need to be changed to create smooth alliteration, characters’ names that sound awkward when written in the possessive or plural, and dialogue tags needing enrichment to describe facial expressions and feelings. It’s amazing to hear what the eyes have missed, especially in dialogue. Ears are designed to pick up natural dialogue; they know when it’s fake, forced, or fudged.
Bonus: Listening makes the editing process a (relative) breeze before I deliver my manuscript to Kristin Thiel for the sweep of her literary Swiffer.
Recording your work doesn’t require an expensive home studio. In fact, it only requires one investment. Let’s start this six-step process there—I’ll include more bonus tips as we go.
1. Purchase a simple headset for around thirty dollars, which plugs into your computer like a flash drive. Headsets are available at any office supply store.
Bonus: These headsets are great for conducting author podcast interviews—something you’ll be doing as part of your marketing—via Skype, Google Hangout, or any other service. They make the voice sound clear and professional, just as if you were in a studio.
1a. Your other purchase may be a box of blank, recordable CDs, if that’s your preferred listening method. But you can transfer your computer file right to your MP3 player—or just listen to yourself through your computer—and have no extra cost.
2. Visit the open-source and cross-platform Audacity, to download a free—yes, free—recording program. There are other programs available, but that’s the one I use. Within five minutes of the download, I recorded my first chapter.
3. Record, pause, stop, play. And done! I don’t use any additional fancy tools, such as sound effects, overdubs, or layering—they’re not necessary for this purpose.
4. Save as an .aup file (specific to Audacity) and listen immediately on your computer or save to a device. Once you complete a recording and label it, choose to export it, at which point you will have numerous file options so you can choose for your device. Choose .wav, MP2, MP3, etc. The .wav audio file format is a fairly universal option for listening on your computer, emailing the file to someone else, burning to a CD, downloading into iTunes, or transferring to an iPod.
5. Start listening anywhere and everywhere: in the car, on the treadmill, on your dog walk, or when you take a cat nap.
6. Revise with a whole new level of skill!
Big bonus: You’ll never again dread an author reading. The practice you get from this exercise will not only allow you to read with confidence but also make your performance engaging. No more boring, monotone readings for you! Just avoid that wave of narcissism that may prevent you from hiring voiceover talent for your audiobook—just as you still need a professional editor, no matter how strong your revision skills, you still need a professional voice for an audiobook.
Courtney Pierce is a fiction writer and lives in Milwaukie, Oregon, with her husband of thirty-four years and bossy cat. After a twenty-year career as an executive in the Broadway entertainment industry, she moved back to Portland to finally write the stories that were rolling around in her head. Courtney is currently completing a trilogy of mystery/magical realism. She is in the Hawthorne Fellows program at the Attic Institute and will be vice president and board member of the Northwest Independent Writers Association in 2014. Her short story “1313 Huidekoper Place” was selected for inclusion in the 2013 NIWA Short Story Anthology of Speculative Fiction. Follow her series on her blog. Her first two novels, Stitches and Brushes, are available in soft cover and ebook at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and kobobooks.com. The final book of the trilogy, Riffs, is due out in 2014. Indigo edits Courtney’s books.