On the page and on the stage: Ali Bacon finds there's nothing like a live performance to sharpen the editing pencil

Recently I was lucky enough to have a short story chosen for the twice yearly Stroud Short Stories event which took place last Sunday and before this I'd already done two other reading 'gigs'  at Writers Unchained and Talking Tales, both in Bristol. 

Reading at Talking Tales
For all of these evenings I spent some time rehearsing my piece, especially for Stroud which has the biggest audience and called for a  story I hadn't read aloud before. As usual I found myself making small changes to my typescript - as I often do - to get the right emphasis or to smooth the flow of words. 

Just to be clear, I had submitted these pieces in advance to a judge or judges as a document, but I justified these changes to myself on the grounds that spoken word and written word have slightly different requirements and none of these changes were substantial. 

Or were they? After SSS organiser John Holland, reminding me that all SSS stories would go into a future anthology, asked if I'd made any changes to the original,  I had to 'fess up and send him the file I had used on the night rather than the one I had submitted for selection. Aware I had made a few more changes than usual, out of curiosity I used the 'compare document' feature of Word. I was shocked at the result!

Minor edits!

No substantial changes? Actually I would say no, the story is exactly the same. But what does this say about the whole process of writing for reading aloud?  Why did I change what was on my original page?   

Stroud - all right on the night
I think over the last few years I've  watched other more accomplished readers engage the audience, often by assuming more of a storytelling persona than that of an author reading from a predefined work. I'm never going to speak the whole piece from memory but I like to make it feel as if I'm telling the story, if not for the first time ever, at least for the first time to this audience. I certainly need to feel at home in the voice I'm adopting and, especially in a first person narrative, attempt to adopt a consistent character.  So acting as well as reading? 

But which story is better, the one I submitted or the one I read? You could argue that the original, designed to be read off the page, got me the gig. If John hadn't asked me about my 'live' version, it's the one which would have ended up in the 2021 anthology and I wouldn't have complained. So should I have left him with that one, designed for the reader, rather than the one designed for the audience? 

I don't think so. Many writers will tell you that they read their work aloud in order to highlight the clunky bits, point up repetition or  and just to enhance  the fluidity and consistency. The story I submitted had already had this treatment from my writing critique group so all I really did in advance of the event was a more extreme (panic-driven) version of the same process.  

So, advice to writers?  Don't just read your work aloud, do so while imagining an audience of seventy eager listeners, most of whom are writers themselves, many of whom will have submitted for the event and just missed the cut. So make sure it sounds - and reads - the best it possibly can.  

Excerpts from Ali Bacon's latest novel  In the Blink of an Eye, have been read at Stroud Short Stories, the St Andrews Photography Festival and other live lit events.
Buy it as paperback or ebook from Linen Press.

She also appears in the  Stroud Short Stories Anthology Volume 2.


Griselda Heppel said…
One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was from Caroline Lawrence (author of the Roman Mysteries series), to read your finished book out loud all the way through. I hadn't realised till then that the sentences need to flow silently in the reader's head, in the same way as pleasing the ear if spoken out loud. I do it now and it makes a huge difference - clunky, pedestrian phrases are mercilessly exposed. But reading a whole story out loud to an audience does step up the pressure somewhat! I shouldn't worry about the small changes - if they don't change the plot or characters in any way, they aren't significant. Congratulations on the success of your story!
AliB said…
Thanks Griselda :)
Umberto Tosi said…
So true. And so brave of you. I hate to read my work aloud because I'm a freeze-dried public speaker, and I edit myself along the way, becaause reading aloud is an editing tool for me, in private... But I manage because, as you point out, public readings are a must for us independent publisher-authors, and it's actually an honor to be asked to do so. Thanks for another fine post.
Thanks for proving the usefulness of the reading-aloud theory!

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