There are many types of workshops, but none are quite as useful at honing a novelist’s natural voice as a read aloud and critique workshop.
[This writing workshop post was written by guest contributor Shawn Scarber Deggans, a writer and web developer who lives in Dallas, Texas. He’s a Clarion West Graduate and long time member of the DFW Writers’ Workshop.]
Most writers’ workshops, especially the online variety, focus on some type of manuscript exchange. In this environment you read the work ahead of time, you take notes, and either through a web application or meet up discuss the works in a controlled way.
Many writers find this to be the ideal workshop format, because critiques are thorough and the person delivering the critique has access to longer works. Many of these groups have chapter exchanges that allow you to work a whole novel through the system. This allows a writer to get feedback from a single source for longer works.
It’s a great way to workshop a novel, but if you have access to a local workshop that practices read aloud and critique methods, don’t dismiss this resource because you have a longer work. You can and should workshop your novel in a read aloud workshop. What the read aloud workshop will do for your writer’s voice is amazing.
Getting started with a read aloud workshop
I have been a member of a read aloud and critique workshop in Euless, Texas named DFW Writers’ Workshop for years. I’ve seen numerous success stories born there. I even heard many, many novels before they ever hit the bookstore shelves. The process works.
This first hump to get over is the fact you will read your work aloud in front of other authors. It is as nerve-wracking as it sounds. The first time I read to a group my hands shook and voice cracked at least five times. Reads normally last anywhere from ten to twenty minutes, depending on the workshop’s standard.
After the read, authors take turns giving a quick verbal critique. Some workshops require you to submit your manuscript beforehand, but many are spontaneous. The listener gives you a critique based on what they hear. Rarely is there a rebuttal. Whatever needs to be communicated to the listener better be on the page.
This process, more than the written exchange process, hones your writer’s voice by requiring you to think about every sentence and how it sounds to the listener. You find word echoes, convoluted sentences, confusing dialogue tags, and overwritten descriptions and narrative sometimes before you even attend the workshop, because these are the little things you don’t want to get caught by the listeners.
Read aloud to yourself
Even if you don’t attend a read aloud and critique workshop, reading your own work aloud or having someone read it to you will alert you to many poorly constructed sentences and bad word choices. Writing fiction often involves creating a natural sounding narrative voice. What better way to achieve that voice than hearing your own words read aloud?
In addition to prose level improvements, your fellow workshoppers will often catch story logic problems, poorly rendered descriptions, character flaws (and not the type you want on the page), and their collective knowledge from multiple writing disciplines can give you insights on common genre clichés, historical inaccuracies, and present to you new and better ways to explore your themes or subject.
But what about longer works?
If you’re only reading for ten to twenty minutes, how do you manage to get through a four hundred page novel?
This is not the fast-track to novel revisions. For that you need a dedicated partner or development editor who doesn’t mind tackling your larger work in a short period of time. That’s either a really great friend or a pricey editor. Both are of course viable choices, but there are good reasons for taking the tortoise’s path in the race.
You will need to embrace the fact it’s going to take time. This means that even during your read, you should be prepared to read enough work that you can read through it with a calm and clear voice. Rushing through the read only hurts you as the writer.
Listeners need time to process your prose, your story, your setting, and your characters. Trying to read twenty five pages in twenty minutes will leave you with bewildered listeners and wasted opportunity. Most people can comfortably read a manuscript page a minute. That’s 250 words a page. If you have heavier dialogue, you can sometimes get through the page faster, but again, it’s not a race.
How to deliver your story aloud
Read as though you were delivering your story to an audience, because you are. There’s no need to try to act out the story though. I’ve heard readers attempt accents and sound effects. There’s no need for that. Just read what’s on the page in your normal speaking voice.
Because workshopping your novel will take time, prepare a manuscript exclusively for the process. My workshop sets a limit of fifteen minutes per read. I’ve found twelve pages is the ideal length for me–I’m from Texas, I read slowly.
Before my read I select the next ten to twelve pages and try to find a stopping place that ends well. I usually even mark my manuscript with a note to ‘stop reading here’. I read from my laptop so I preselect a red font and type ‘critique goes here’. Once my read is done I’m ready to take notes. I basically type out everything I’m told. If you can record the critique on a digital recorder and reference it to the manuscript, that’s even better.
Once the critiques are done, I thank everyone and prepare to listen to the other authors.
Revising after your read aloud workshop experience
I don’t touch the revision draft I’m workshopping until I’ve gone through the whole manuscript. Ideally, you do not want to read chapters or stories more than once in the workshop. First, it’s already a slow process. Reading the same work over and over only makes it slower; it’s drudgery for people who have already heard the work.
Second, you might find yourself trapped in revision hell, constantly making tweaks and changes to accommodate the advice of new listeners. Doing this makes you that author who is always writing a book, but has never finished a book. You don’t want to be that author.
Once you’ve workshopped the manuscript it’s time to sit with it and read through your critiques. You’ll find something amazing here. Many different authors will give you consistent advice. It shouldn’t be surprising, because good authors are usually good readers and they can pick out what works and what doesn’t work.
When it comes to applying the critiques to your revision, I suggest you do the following:
- Mark the things that ring true to you with a little star or smiley face.
- Things that don’t ring true, write down in a notebook.
- If you find the things that don’t resonate with you keep showing up, that means you could very well be in writer-flaw denial. Everyone is trying to tell you something, but for some reason your inner artist is ignoring it. You can continue to ignore this; it is your story, but do so at your own peril. Chances are if writers are catching this flaw, editors and readers will catch it as well.
- Once you’ve applied all your changes, set the manuscript aside for a while. Possibly even a few weeks. Return to it with a fresh set of eyes and give it another read.
Time to deliver!
At this point you’re probably ready to deliver a clean copy to your editor or beta readers. Unless you feel there are severe issues with the work, you’re done. Keep in mind you can still get caught in revision or workshopping hell here. I’ve seen authors try to revise novels three or four times over many years. You don’t end up with the perfect story. You end up with wasted years.
It’s always a good idea to collect your critique notes. Before you start your next work, read through them. See if you can avoid some of the same mistakes with the new story.
There are many great ways to workshop a novel, but not many will offer you the opportunity to build your writer’s voice and produce a wonderful work of fiction.
Have you participated in a read aloud workshop? Let us know about the experience in the comments section below.