One of the most useful writing tools is the human voice – the writer's own and the intended reader's. We read not so much with the eye as with the ear (and the spine, an early warning of boredom). Not a few of the great and famous authors are known to have read their work aloud before signing off on it. It's an ideal aid, an extra editor, provided there's time. If there isn’t, a punishment may await, especially if you are one of those writers invited to read your book onto tape.
I've just completed for HarperCollins a recording of the US unabridged version of 'Ireland – a Novel'. In optimum circumstances, with superb production staff, I read one thousand pages of manuscript to which the text had been re-ordered so that every page could end on a paragraph, thereby obviating page-turning difficulty.
Did I find it easy? No! Did I enjoy it? Yes, and much more than I expected. And did I learn anything from it? Oh, boy! And how…
The lighter rhetoricals first: I didn't find it easy because it wasn't. Sustaining a narrative in acceptable vocal delivery, keeping in all the cliffhangers, acknowledging all the inflections, personifying all the characters – no, that wasn't easy. Nor was keeping up the energy, although that is where talented and experienced colleagues help; they know immediately if the voice drips or drops, they catch the tiny, tiny slips to which a tired voice is prone.
As to enjoying it – to my astonishment it proved full of ideas. Though strenuous to fell an ox the whole effort ramped up my enthusiasm for the act of writing. Inside most writers there probably is a performer of some kind – writing in itself is a kind of performance. Therefore, to sit and literally breathe life into one's own sentences – how could that not be enjoyable, whatever the natural extrovert/introvert split that seems to cleave some of us?
But now comes the cost - although it could also be called 'reward' because it arrived in the form of learning. The reading-aloud required to record an audiobook feels far more intense than the reading-aloud one does before letting go of the text. This is a different level, as demanded by the form; extra concentration on every word, sharper awareness of every sentence's flow, essential scrutiny of each paragraph's leadership. Consequently, the text of the book becomes subject to far greater 'exposure'; every cadence, every nuance, every rhythm is laid bare.
Here comes the wounding part - every flaw gets magnified. Only a superhumanly confident author can read his or her own book aloud into a microphone for commercial sale and not wince and cringe from time to time at infelicities, solecisms and – to me, worst of all – missed opportunities. Oh, if only I had developed this thought! And why didn't I package that image more succinctly! Lord! but there's a lame simile. Or – ouch! another damned adverb. Hey! See how the energy of the writing dropped at the end of that chapter?
A stark experience presents few choices; this one offers two. You can either cringe onwards, wallow in the wincing, flagellate yourself at your incompetence and turn away in shame – or, having tried some or all of those exercises, you can grab the opportunity with both hands as a learning experience without parallel.
That's what I mean by ramping up enthusiasm for the act of writing. One of the many wonderful aspects of authorship is how it forgives the author. By this I mean – 'The next book is always the best.' 'Great improvement is just around the corner.' 'You were right when you told yourself that depression is the seedbed of creativity.' 'See how much you've learned from your mistakes on this one.' In other words, the act of reading what you've written with the expectation that people will buy the recording (which comes out in Spring 2005 from HarperCollins Audio) can improve by leaps and bounds the intent to write better.
Many years ago, as a young reporter in Dublin, I interviewed a visiting American bishop, the famous Fulton Sheen. He was a practised communicator, smooth as satin, not afraid in a televised sermon to leave a pause hang for up to ten seconds, an aeon in terms of air-time. As I set up the tape recorder in his suite he said with studied wryness, 'I see that I shall have to render an account of every idle word I speak.' I smiled, impressed at how aptly he found the appropriate quotation.
Ten years later I interviewed him again – the satin had been ironed further, the oil flowed thicker. And once again as I arranged the equipment he looked at the microphone in my hand and repeated the phrase; 'I see that I shall have to render an account of every idle word I speak.' I was less impressed this time; he obviously hauled it out as often as a politician shakes a hand.
Not until now, though, have I valued what must have been his original thought on the first day he used the line.