Wednesday, April 04, 2007

JC: The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Fiction

Do you listen to your manuscript before sending it to a publisher?

James Michener did. Eight times. Imagine that. Here’s a man known for his King Kong-size novels, yet before sending a manuscript to his publisher he read it aloud, or had it read aloud to him, eight times. The very thought makes my lips ache.

Why would he do such a thing?

Back in the old days it was against the law to read silently. You could be burned at the stake for such a thing. I learned this little tidbit while researching my historical novel, Glimpses of Truth. (Not a shameful plug, because it’s out of print.)

What was the big deal? For a population largely illiterate, the idea that words could be passed from one person’s mind to another person’s mind without sound was considered witchcraft.

In a way, it is magical, isn’t it? The realization that I can project thoughts and images from my mind to readers around the world and beyond my own lifetime is one thing that attracted me to a writing career.

Today, we reward elementary school students when they progress to the point where they can read without moving their lips. And we associate having something read aloud to us with old age and senility. But I contend there is benefit to hearing your stories read aloud. Good writing sounds good.

During the writing of The Hiding Place, husband and wife team Elizabeth and John Sherrill could not agree on a style for the story. So they each wrote a couple of chapters and let their editor decide. (Poor editor. I often wonder how much marital counseling experience he had.)

While the two authors sat across the desk from him, the editor read one manuscript, then the other. He thought a while, then picked up John’s manuscript. He said, “This is great writing. Any publisher would be proud to publish this manuscript.” Then, he picked up Elizabeth’s pages and said, “But this manuscript sings!”

Why read your manuscript aloud? To see if it sings. It may be the difference between getting published and getting rejected. But there’s more to it than just getting published.

Not long ago a group of German physiologists did a study of Homer. (Not Simpson! Come on, stay with me here…) They were intrigued by the fact that ancient audiences would sit for three hours listening to a poem. What they discovered is fascinating.

They learned that the rhythm of Homer’s writing has a direct physical effect on an audience; that it synchronizes with the natural beat of the human heart, and that not only is an audience able to listen for hours at a time, but afterwards they actually feel refreshed.

Homer wrote in Greek, using a rhythm that has become known as heroic hexameter. The English equivalent is iambic pentameter, the stuff of Shakespeare and Milton, writers who also wrote long popular works that are still enjoyed today.

Try a little experiment. Take a simple nursery rhyme. Read it aloud and feel the lilting, calming effect of the rhyme. Now, alter the rhythm by rearranging the words. Same words. Different order. With the rhythm disjointed, the calming effect vanishes. The rhyme may still make sense, but it no longer sings.

Now, I’m not advocating that we turn our novels into epic poems, but at the same time, I think there’s something to be learned here. For example, if iambic pentameter has a calming effect on a reader, wouldn’t its opposite be a good way to write a heart attack scene? Is it possible to write the scene in such a way that the reader actually shares a simulated physical experience with the character—something that goes beyond sympathetic concern?

It’s a concept worth exploring, wouldn’t you agree?

Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to pick up the phone one day and hear an exuberant editor on the other end saying, “You know that manuscript you sent me? It sings!”

Jack Cavanaugh, the author of more than twenty novels, including Dear Enemy (Bethany House) and the supernatural thriller, Death Watch (Zondervan).


At 8:04 AM, Blogger Richard Mabry said...

Excellent post. At my very first writer's conference, I had the opportunity to show some of my early work (all I had at the time) to Al Gansky. I was surprised when he began to read it aloud. Afterward, he explained to me how this was a good way to judge the quality of the writing. Worked then. Works now.
Thanks for the reminder.

At 9:31 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post! Thanks.

At 3:15 PM, Blogger Ane Mulligan said...

I love it when I read - or write - a line that sings. Now to get the whole manuscript to sing!

Thanks, Jack. I enjoyed this post.

At 5:49 PM, Blogger Christina Berry said...

One of the joys of cowriting is being able to read each other's chapters outloud. Mom and I keep track of the subconscious word substitutions and the like and make the changes as the other reads.

At 10:02 PM, Blogger relevantgirl said...

What I love about writing is the flow of language, the cadence of it, the sheer beauty of words read aloud and internally. Thanks for the reminder and all the great historical tidbits.


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