One of the more humiliating experiences of my childhood was reading aloud in class.
I’ve nothing against Shakespeare or Henry IV Part One, but at 15 I didn’t understand it. It was difficult enough, getting my head, let alone my tongue, around his rich prose, without the teacher bursting into fits of laughter.
‘Didn’t you get the joke, Crouch?’ He stared at me as if I was an imbecile. ‘Falstaff is the comic relief, the joker, and you’ve ruined most of his punchlines.’
I don’t remember any jokes. But then I didn’t get Shakespeare at the time, but that’s another story.
Since those long lost days of school, I haven’t read a story aloud in front of an audience.
I’m not including my appearances in the witness box at the Magistrates Court when I had to swear that my evidence would be the truth etc. I should add before you wonder what offences I might have committed, that this was in connection with my enforcement work as an environmental health officer.
And I should also discount the Christmas cracker jokes I read out each year as I don’t class them as prose.
So, when I was asked to read at Eastbourne Book Festival last Saturday, memories of Henry IV Part 1 flashed through my mind.
Fortunately, I was allowed to read from one of my novels. As I’m writing a murder mystery series, I chose to read the opening from Chapter One of my first novel, No Accident. I wanted to show my audience how an environmental health officer could investigate murder.
Like most things in life, preparation is the key. So, a couple of days before, armed with a cup of tea, and my reading glasses, I settle into my chair and began to read. Within seconds, I stopped, realising I could have written a better first sentence. A few seconds later, I’d rewritten the first paragraph in my head.
Aware that I might end up rewriting large parts of the chapter, I ignored the revisions in my head and focused on the original script. With a steady pace and clear voice, I read aloud, warming to the task with each page turned.
It wasn’t long before I stumbled over my words.
When I wrote the ‘coarse cries of crows’, I thought it was a neat piece of alliteration. Not once did I realise what a tongue twister it could be.
I also found the occasional line that would improve the rhythm and flow if removed. But they were nothing compared to the two long sentences that would have tested the stamina of a marathon runner.
At one point, Harvey, my West Highland White Terrier, came to listen. I don’t know whether he thought I might reward his interest with a treat, but within minutes he returned to his favourite position on the sofa and went back to sleep.
Not that he can complain.
I rarely read my work aloud, though I’m beginning to think it has some merit. On occasions, I will read dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds realistic. And I’m sure some writers like to shout that reading aloud is the best way to edit. They may well be right, of course.
After Harvey turned his back, I stopped reading and Googled breathing apparatus in case I needed help with the long sentences.
On the day, I took my copy of No Accident, my reading glasses, and headed for the reading room, hoping someone would want to listen to me. To my relief – sorry, delight – several people were already waiting.
I didn’t stumble over any words or crows. I managed to finish the long sentences without going purple and fainting. And no one interrupted me by laughing. Pity, because there were some funny one-liners in that opening.
Flushed with success, I’m now tempted to audition for voiceovers or programme announcement, citing Shakespeare in my CV. I could audition for audio book readings, cutting my teeth on my own novels. Trouble is, I’d probably have to revise some of those sentences.
So, I’ll settle for the occasional reading at a talk or event, as long as they don’t involve crows or marathons.
Reading aloud can bring your story to life and hopefully interest people in your writing. Maybe next time I’ll read from the second novel, No Bodies, which from memory doesn’t reference any crows.
There could be a ponderous procession of platitudes though.
But that’s another story …
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