Writing Advice: Coach Yourself Through the Silence

When I write to my students each month to provide feedback on their submissions, one thing that often comes up is rhythm and its close relationship to style and punctuation. “Do you read your work aloud, from the printed page in your hands?” I often ask. I then go on to discuss the power of punctuation not just as a grammatical tool, but as a manipulative device with an impact that builds over time to create rhythm, meaning, and so much more.

This week, I want to point out another reason to read work aloud: hearing it for yourself might coax the imagination toward closure of a few loose ends. A few weeks ago, I spent a few mornings revising Chapter 4 by hand. The holidays hit, and in the back of my mind I knew the notes I’d scribbled in the margins of my printed pages awaited me. This week, I dove back in and by today, was ready to share Chapter 4 with my faithful companion, Brad.

It’s worth sharing that I play a little trick on myself when I read aloud: Before I begin, I
tell myself that I’m going to be reading very polished, excellent writing to a smart, attentive audience. I don’t focus on the fact that the writing is mine and that it’s only a draft. That doesn’t really matter at all. Sometimes, I even go so far as to imagine the physical setting where this reading might take place. This exercise helps me infuse my voice with confidence, for better delivery of the work. I also find that sentences, words, or ideas that come up short are a lot easier to identify if they’re read in a voice that implies they’re complete…because, if in fact they’re not, they really stand out. I can’t stress this suggestion enough. When you read, read like you mean it. Or as my martial arts instructor used to tell me, “If you’re going to say the wrong answer, at least say it correctly.” Meaning, at least sound confident and speak up, delivering your message with your full, spirited presence. (I use this same trick to read aloud when judging submissions for a contest, giving the work complete benefit of the doubt.)

So when I got to the final sentence of my Chapter 4 and felt the silence at the very end, I knew something still wasn’t right about the work. I could feel the problem in that silent space, but the solution was not immediately clear. I sat there and felt the silence a little more, then questioned Brad about his experience listening to the work. We finished our tea and I continued sitting on the couch, considering that silence and the problem it contained. When I revised, I thought I’d solved the issues as best as I knew how…What more could I do?

I flipped open my Levenger folio and reviewed my notes–a summary of formal and informal critiques I’ve received on the novel, in various forms, to date. This is my cheat sheet to help me focus on what really matters. In part, it reads: Avoid subtlety, especially when the convoy stops. Don’t be coy. Tell a story that transcends the basic actions of the plot. Narrate through your transitions and section breaks whenever possible. Exhale and describe people, places, and things. Drive the plot forward by setting up promises and fulfilling them. Write with one, central consciousness. Create a protagonist that fully inhabits the heart. Let readers see change and know what it means for the main character.

Reviewing these, I was able to determine that I hadn’t created quite enough conflict between my characters in the scenes with dialogue. Sure, those scenes weren’t about conflict, but I could still revise a little at the line level to make sure my characters were speaking to each other in ways that demonstrated they had complex relationships and shared a past. A single, well-placed verb can do this job.

I was also able to see an opening for my protagonist, in a one-sentence reference to Ritalin. Ritalin? I didn’t know my character had considered taking Ritalin. That was good, I reasoned, and I knew the surprise meant an opening. I could add a few sentences to imply a flashback where Nathan, the main character, seeks help from the Doc on base and is prescribed Ritalin, but never takes it. In just a few lines, I could amp up the tension, plant a seed for future problems, and add depth to my main character.

Finally, I realized a missed opportunity when the convoy drives slowly past the dead body of an Afghan male citizen. Don’t be coy. Yes, that’s right–I had a dead body on the page, and while that wasn’t such a big deal in a war novel, it was still a stark opportunity to be a little more direct. With some slight revisions, I could ditch the subtlety and enhance meaning.

Would I have been able to solve these problems if I hadn’t read my work aloud? If I hadn’t mustered all the confidence that I possibly could to project my voice and stand behind my work, reading it like a pro? Maybe. But I bet I wouldn’t have solved the problems as quickly or efficiently…and I might not have solved them in such a meta-cognitive way that helps nurture the habits I’m trying to form with this novel. A few touch-ups tomorrow, then onward to the next section of the novel!

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