Thursday, January 10, 2013

Reading and Listening

One of the pieces of advice I often give my writing students is to read what they’ve written out loud. It helps them catch errors such as missing words or improper punctuation—things you just don’t see when you read off the screen or a piece of paper. If you can’t read a sentence out loud clearly, I tell them, then there’s probably something wrong with the punctuation.

I experienced this myself, in a slightly different sense, as I listened to the individual chapters of In Dog We Trust as they were being recorded for an audio book version.

I put a lot of work into that book, the first in my golden retriever series. It was my first attempt at writing an amateur sleuth, after years of using police procedures to structure the Mahu Investigations. I rewrote the beginning a half-dozen times as I struggled to figure out where the story really started, and how to work in the character’s back story.

Steve Levitan is forty-two, returning to his hometown in scenic, semi-rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his tail figuratively between his legs. His wife suffered two miscarriages, which led to their divorce and his brief incarceration for computer hacking. Released on parole, he’s lost his marriage, his home, his career, and the freedom to do whatever he wants.

The architect of Steve’s restoration is a golden retriever owned by his next-door neighbor, Caroline Kelly. The story requires Steve to meet and dislike Rochester, and then for Caroline to be murdered. The book’s opening was bumpy, jumping through nearly a year in the space of a chapter or two. It took a lot of rewriting to make the timetable work well.

Then there was the problem of Steve’s character. I based him too closely on myself, and frankly, he came off like a fuddy-duddy. He drank tea and spent too much time comparing his situation to characters in books. It took the advice of a savvy editor, the estimable Joe Pittman, to make Steve a character readers could have some fun with.

So I thought that by the time I self-published the book in e-book and paperback format, it was in great shape. Early reviews, and strong sales, justified that opinion, and I went on to write three more books in the series—The Kingdom of Dog (2011), Dog Helps Those (2012), and Friar Lake, which should be polished and published in 2013.

During the fall, I listened to the individual MP3 files uploaded by the book’s narrator. I’ve never been much of a fan of audio books. I know many people who enjoy them, but I don’t work out (I know I should) and my commute is too short to get into anything longer than a short story, though I love the Selected Shorts put out by Symphony Space.

I needed something else to do while I was listening, so I played computer mahjongg as Kelly read his way through the chapters. It took me a few chapters to get into the book, but now I understand why people like this format, and I also gained a new appreciation for my own work. It was almost like I was listening to a book I hadn't written!

Buy the audio book at Amazon

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