Friday, March 4, 2016

Reading Aloud as Revision Technique: What the Mouth and Ear Know

Are you ready to March Forth on this March 4th? If you don't know what I'm talking about, read this post by fellow TeachingAuthor JoAnn Early Macken. Today is also Poetry Friday. I don't exactly have a poem to share, but at the end of this post you'll find some advice from Mary Oliver that reads like poetry to me, along with a link to today's Poetry Friday roundup.

If you've been following our blog, you know our current topic is Reading Aloud, in honor of the recent celebrations of World Read Aloud Day and Read Across America. April kicked off the series with a discussion of reading aloud as it relates to poetry and picture books. Bobbi picked up where April left off, focusing on the relationship between listening and imagination. JoAnn then shared the titles of favorite picture books she read to her boys as well as advice from Mem Fox’s Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever (Harvest Books). And, most recently, Carla discussed how she often reads from her nonfiction books during school visits because in some cases "hearing the scene read aloud is more moving that reading it silently would be."

Today I'm going to look at the topic from a slightly different angle than my co-bloggers: that of a novelist revising a manuscript.
On Wednesday, I shared the results of my "30-Day Boost Your Writing Productivity Challenge," which was a great success. I finally finished a major revision of a middle-grade novel I've been working on for a LONG time. I'd originally written the novel in third-person-limited point of view, from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy. After having the opening pages critiqued by editors at several conferences, I realized the story didn't have a strong enough voice and decided to rewrite it in first person.

Interestingly, this isn't the first time I've rewritten a novel's point of view. The first draft of my middle-grade novel Rosa, Sola (Candlewick Press), which I wrote while I was in the Vermont College MFA program, was also in third-person-limited. I had a complete draft when one of my advisers encouraged me to rewrite it into first person. This task is harder than it may seem--it involves much more than simply changing "she" to "I." The first-person voice must sound true to the character in every respect, including her background, education, mood, way of seeing the world, etc. I resisted the change at first but eventually did as my adviser asked. She was pleased with the revision, but I wasn't. Rosa, Sola deals with a family tragedy, and, to me, the first-person narration sounded too mature and thoughtful to come from an average ten-year-old struggling with difficult emotions. So I rewrote the novel yet again, back to third-person-limited. That was the version that was eventually published. (You can read more about that revision process in this blog post.)

In the case of my current project, though, as soon as I'd rewritten the opening in first person the story felt much stronger and more engaging. I definitely prefer having a first-person narrator for this novel. But I needed to make sure the voice was consistent throughout, and for me, one of the best ways to do that is reading the manuscript aloud. Even though I've used reading aloud for this purpose before, I'm still amazed at the things I noticed/caught that I didn't when reading silently.

English professor Peter Elbow, author of Writing Without Teachers and Writing with Power, discusses this process when he talks about "what the mouth and ear know" in his most recent book, Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing (Oxford University Press). Below is an excerpt from the chapter on "Revising by Reading Aloud.":
     "The mouth and ear tell us not only about individual sentences but also about longer passages. We might have worked on two individual sentences and made each one strong and clear, but when we read them one after another we hear something wrong at the joint. Perhaps there’s a slight contradiction, or they need a transition, or they need to be in a different sequence. Or perhaps each one has a lovely rhythm, but the two rhythms work against each other . . . .
     Reading aloud helps us hear problems in the larger organizational structures too. When we are revising, we do lots of stopping and starting; we often lose perspective on the whole as we follow the twists and turns of the micro organization and lose sight of the macro organization. We can’t see the forest for the trees. Even though logic seems much more a matter of mind than body, nevertheless we can often hear a lapse in logic. That is, we can hear when the train leaves the tracks, whether they are organizational tracks or logical tracks.
     Reading aloud can even help us feel a loss of energy or focus or presence. The mouth and ear can lead us to say, 'Okay, everything’s pretty strong and clear here, but you’re taking too long. Spit it out, get to the point quicker. You’re tiring me.' "
I hope I'm not tiring you with this post, Readers, and I encourage you to read more of this chapter online here, especially if you're a classroom teacher. I think you'll be interested in Elbow's discussion of how he has his writing students read their work aloud, either to the class as a whole, or to a partner, as part of their revision process.

On to a different topic: with National Poetry Month just around the corner, I've been thinking about delving into poetry again, something I haven't done in ages. I pulled out my poetry journal and found an entry where I'd re-written a paragraph from Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook as a free-verse poem. I called it "Getting Ready," because that's the title of the chapter it's taken from. Here are Oliver's exact words, with only one phrase cut from the original text, as I wrote them in my journal:

          Getting Ready

     The part of the psyche
     that works
     in concert with consciousness
     to supply
     a necessary part of the poem
     exists in a mysterious,
     unmapped zone:
     not unconscious,
     not subconscious,
     but cautious.

     It learns quickly
     what sort of courtship
     it is going to be.

     Say you promise
     to be at your desk 
     in the evenings,
     from seven to nine.
     It waits,
     it watches.
     If you are reliably there,
     it begins to show itself--
     soon it begins to arrive
     when you do.

     But if you are only there
     and are frequently late
     or inattentive,
     it will appear fleetingly,
     or it will not appear at all. 

excerpt from A Poetry Handbook © Mary Oliver

Oliver's words reminded of why my "30-Day Boost Your Writing Productivity Challenge" was successful: because I committed to setting aside regular time to work on my manuscript. If I truly want to write poetry again, I'll need to do the same. I hope that's a commitment I'll be able to make.

Meanwhile, I plan to at least read more poetry, starting with the poems in today's Poetry Friday roundup over at Linda B's wonderful TeacherDance blog.

Happy writing!


JoAnn Early Macken said...

Hooray for you and your milestone revision! Reading aloud is an invaluable technique for revising--I'm glad you brought it up. Thanks also for mentioning March Forth--an annual celebration for me!

Linda B said...

I worked with Mary Oliver's words in that book a few years ago, and now you've inspired me to look again, Carmela. This is such wise advise. When I wrote for Laura Shovan's challenge, I chose the same time each day to write, and it did work, the poems (nearly always) found their way to me.) Thanks for the words from Peter Elbow, too. That's advice I urged for my students, and I do read my work aloud, but not consistently. Thanks for the helpful post! March forth!

Carmela Martino said...

JoAnn, I always think of you on this date! :-)
Linda, thanks for stopping by, and for hosting. I'm actually on a break from a weekend long conference, but I hope to get to some of the other posts in the round-up soon.

Julieanne said...

Thank you for this post. The Mary Oliver poem is beautiful. One that should be posted on every writers desk. Or perhaps refrigerator.

Carol Varsalona said...

Carmela, your post was filled with interesting pieces of information and a lovely Mary Oliver poem. I do like the practice of reading aloud what I write because it gives me another perspective. I think it is amazing that you rewrote your book a few times but it did prove to be the right route for you. Perseverance counts.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your revision, and thank you for sharing the quotes from Peter Elbow. It's amazing what you hear when you read your writing aloud.

Carmela Martino said...

You're welcome, Julieanne. And thanks for taking time to comment.
Yes, Carol, perseverance counts for a lot.

Carmela Martino said...

Readingtothecore, glad you liked the quotes. Thanks for stopping by.

Bobbi Miller said...

You are very inspiring! Congratulations on reaching your goal! I also enjoy Elbow's book. And Mary Oliver's poem was PERFECT! Thank you for this discussion!