Reading Novels Aloud

English: Created by modifying this image Itali...
English: Created by modifying this image Italiano: Creata modificando quest’immagine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the pleasures of parenthood is reading to your children. Most children’s books read well out-loud. The Hobbit (a children’s book) is a great read. The Lord of the Rings, despite it’s length does pretty well, too. The early Harry Potter is also nice verbalized but, unfortunately, its suitability falls off near the end of the series. It isn’t that the novels get longer (LOTR isn’t exactly short), it’s that as they progressed, there gets to be too much plot filler (oh look, Ron and Harry are fighting like teenage girls again, we all know how that will end) and reading some of the dialogue with a she/he said plus adverb on every single piece of dialogue gets a little ridiculous (said the blogger, snarkily.) Even so, the Potter series was an enjoyable read through book 4, passable for another book but I gave up mid-way on book 6.

After not quite finishing book 6, it was time to find something new. I loved Dragon Riders of Pern (DRoP) as a teenager and still enjoy it, plus it’s on my kindle already so I decided to try that. Ouch. It takes a novel not very suitable for reading aloud to remind you of what makes a good one. DRoP had setting elements that proved a challenge: try distinguishing N’tol from Nytol when you are actually speaking it. It can be done but it’s a good way to trip you up. Then there are a lot of names with the same starting letter (F’nor and F’lar, neither of which really roll off the tongue.) But I think the real challenge is that the story flits around a lot in the first few chapters, both in scene and POV, making it fairly hard to follow as the listener is nodding off to sleep. I gave up on it as a bed-time read and went back to LOTR. It’s been a few years since I read that to my son and, for better or worse, it’s long enough to be the last thing I’ll read to him (most likely). He’s getting all growed-up.

Having wandered into a tough one and thinking about why it didn’t work as well, it seems it’s a combination of things: distinct and easy to pronounce setting names, places and terms. Clear POV is a huge help, preferably with only a few changes or at least a good while between changes. Same for settings: walking from one place to another is one thing but hopping from city to city, each with a different POV, can make it rather hard, especially when there are several per chapter.

As a writer, I do find reading my own scenes aloud helps both find problems but also produces better prose. Writing a book that is suitable for being read out-loud isn’t an explicit goal but I would be happy if folks found it suitable.

I suspect most YA and younger makes a good read-aloud book. Any thoughts on what makes a good read-aloud, be it a specific book or general observations?

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Niggling Characters

This isn’t really about niggling characters, it’s about the two main aspects of the writing craft I learned in the last year. One is “don’t ignore niggling doubts” and the other is the importance of strong characters. Well, the second one is more something that I (think) has really, finally, truly clicked, after all, you can hardly read a writing blog or craft book without the author mentioning it (but what do they know?)

Cover of "Shrek (Full Screen Single Disc ...
Dreamworks made me love an ogre and a donkey…

Niggling doubts are one area that’s a little different for me. There’s always a sentence or a scene or an opening that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Typically, I’m not quite sure if it’s a problem and, more often, I may not be sure what to do about it. So I leave it in, thinking, “Let’s see what the readers think. Maybe they’ll like it.” Bad idea. They never like. Sure, some may not comment on it but someone always will and after they do, it’s time to kick myself, thinking “Why didn’t I just fix it before I sent it out?”

It happened most recently in a revised chapter 1 for SOTA that I put through critters. I wasn’t sure if the exposition was too much in chapter 1. It was. And thing is, before queuing it, I knew it. I should have fixed it but in the end I wasn’t really sure what to replace it with. (Although queuing it wasn’t a total loss, some of the feedback did point me in the right direction.) So, new resolution, never ignore the niggling doubts. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on for the past year but I’m done with letting the niggling prose slip through. If something doesn’t feel quite right to me, it won’t feel any better for someone else. Afterall, I’m the author of said prose; if someone as biased as me isn’t sure about it, who will it work for?

Hotel Transylvania
Hotel Transylvania: even a silly movie can hook you with good characterization.

The other thing that finally clicked has to do with characters: characters that appeal to the reader from the first scene but still are changed by the story. Here, I’m sure I’ve got a lot of work to get it right but what has changed for me is the realization that my stories aren’t going to go anywhere without solving that part of the puzzle. Interesting settings and clever plots are nice, and there’s always some author who can get away mostly with that (techno thrillers can sometimes survive with cardboard characters) but I don’t like stories where the characters don’t engage me so why should I write them?

This realization has partly come through analyzing what appealed about movies and books I like. Why did I like Shrek so much? I remember hearing the premise and thinking “Donkey and ogre, that’s completely stupid.” It was the characters and, especially, watching Shrek change. Even something as silly and in the end forgettable as Hotel Transylvania was fun. It was predictable yet the characters still had me cheering for them. The Harry Potter series is another example. The setting is amusing and endearing although silly in many ways. The plots don’t always work for me although some of the twists are fun but it’s the characters that grab me, including Hogwarts: it’s more character than setting for me.

TMSO has a great series of posts on how Pixar handles this. I’ve also found Laura Barker’s Discovering Story Magic to be a great way to define the characters in a way that can help shape my stories and (hopefully) connect my plots to characters that engage the readers and have them cheering by the end.

Anyway, it’s off to the next false summit for me 🙂

Happy writing.