I had my glorious moment of fame, performing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Fifteen minutes, one hot Monday afternoon, reading out my short story Be Careful What You Wish For.
When I decided to apply for Story Shop, I hadn’t really thought about what would happen if I was successful. I just sent off my story and fully expected to receive a polite rejection at some future point. I was not prepared for: We are delighted to inform you that you have been successful.
Next was a workshop: Speaking in Public. No problem. I’ve done that before. It’ll be fine.
Alex, the scary voice coach, had me stand up in front of the other story shoppers to read out loud. “STOP!” she shouted, after I’d barely started. “You’re going far too fast.”
I thought I’d been soooo sloooow. But apparently not. I was going to have to go a LOT slower.
I recommenced. And promptly tripped over my first sentence. What fool writes, to be read out as an opening sentence (when your throat is closed up and you can hardly breathe) ‘A ray of sunshine, filtered through the grubby windows of the Rose and Crown, picked out the few remaining tufts of white hair which clung to retired environmental inspector Bill Boston’s scalp just above his red veiny ears.’ ? Note to self: that’ll have to go. (The version on the day read, ‘Jack looked across the nearly empty pub. He noticed that a ray of sunshine, filtering through the grubby windows of the Rose and Crown, was highlighting the few remaining tufts of white hair which clung to Bill’s scalp just above his red veiny ears.’
I struggled on. “STOP!” What was it this time? “You’ve got three people in dialogue here. How can we tell who is talking?”
AH. And herein the first lesson learnt. If you write a story to be read out loud, think about how many characters to create. Because, if they speak, you’ll have to give them different voices. I battled with that one. Regional accents? No way. No phony Irish/Scots/Cockney for me. I know, I’ll do loud versus quiet – forgetting that the first performance of my story would be in a recording studio, where the sound would be levelled out. (My final solution? Turning my head to the left and then to the right, to indicate change of speaker)
And so we continued. “STOP!” What now? “You’ve given yourself stage directions – but you’ve ignored them.” The offending line? ‘the sprite said, in a majestic tone, somewhat spoilt by a squeaky tambre’
“You’ve told yourself how the sprite speaks, so do it.”
Oh no. But in the end, that brought the story alive. Me standing up there, doing my majestic but squeaky voice. And my voice survived it too.
More torture followed. Did you know about ‘beats’? No, me neither. But each sentence has a beat – where you should pause… my redrafts included so many commas, I felt giddy. What about power words? Yes, each sentence has a power word – emphasise it. Back to my redraft adding italics and bold, like some crazed hyperbolic writer on speed. I added in some stage directions too – adverbs and adjectives. It was like using the red pen in reverse.
“Don’t swallow the word at the end of the sentence.” So I practised and practised, emphasising the last word. It felt weird. But in the end, all that weirdness: the emphases, the italics, the squeaky voices, the moving heads – all came together in a performance that still seems OK.
Lessons learnt? If you are reading out loud, it’s a performance. Edit your work so it works as a performance. And unless you are an accomplished actor, don’t give yourself too many characters.