Thursday, July 30, 2015

Editing Out Loud

by M. P. Cooley

I spent four years working on my debut novel, Ice Shear. Six months of that time was spent on developing the plot, fleshing out characters, and doing research. The other three years and six months was spent developing the book’s voice. Reading the manuscript out loud and recording it were key tools I used to refine the voice of my narrator as well as all the other characters who populated my books.

The voice of Ice Shear and its sequel Flame Out is that of the hero, June Lyons, who is a smart, sardonic cop. June is depressed as Ice Shear opens, reeling from years of loss: Her husband died of cancer, she gave up her career in the FBI, and moved back home to the dying mill town where she grew up. I struggled with writing the voice of someone who is so cut off from life in a way that was accessible to readers, and ended up flipping the book from third person to first person two years into the process, doing a complete rewrite. Still, it wasn’t quite right. I was listening to an audiobook and was thinking about how different it was to experience the story off the page, and I decided to record myself reading the whole book out loud. I was amazed by the benefits to the manuscript, both in the reading and the listening.

Assuming that you aren’t preparing the files for audiobook listeners, this process is easy and free. I have a mac and used QuickTime to capture the audio—there are comparable programs for PCs--and found that the process worked better when I had a standalone mic instead of shouting at my computer screen. I printed out the manuscript, grabbed some tea with lemon, and started reading. I was looking to refine the voice, but I found in reading out loud that I caught plotting errors and story mistakes, dropping checkmarks into the margin where I needed to go back and review the information. There were a lot of checkmarks.

Listening to the book provided a different experience. I could hear those sentences I stumbled over, the syntax too twisty, as well as how well or poorly the dialogue was working. This process became even more important in Flame Out, in which June is trying to solve a 30-year-old crime that took place in a tight-knit Ukrainian immigrant community. I worked hard to write dialogue that captured the characters’ different experiences, creating distinctions in syntax between those that arrived in the US as adults versus those that arrived as children. Through hearing their dialogue out loud I got a sense of those that assimilated and those that refused, and through their world I was able to get a better sense of how they viewed the new world.

Reading the books out loud made a huge difference in my manuscripts, improved both the dialogue and the characterization, giving my characters unique, natural voices and strong viewpoints.

What do you think you’d discover about your suspense fiction if you read it out loud?

M.P. Cooley's novel FLAME OUT, released in May 2015, was praised in Library Journal in their starred review: "Cooley has upped her game with a whip-smart, complicated heroine and a labyrinthine domestic mystery that will surprise and delight fans of her first book, while earning the author scads of new fans." Nominated for the Anthony Award, Barry Award, Strand Magazine Critics Award, and the Left Coast Crime best first novel prize, her debut ICE SHEAR, was named one of O, The Oprah Magazine's Best Books of Summer 2014 and was called "an excellent debut" by Publishers Weekly in their starred review. Currently, she lives in Campbell, California where she works in administration at a nonprofit organization. An ebook novella, FAINT TRACE, was released in April 2015. Visit her at:

As a police officer in the Rust Belt town of Hopewell Falls, New York, June Lyons keeps an eye on the abandoned factories that line the Mohawk River. On patrol she spots a slick of gasoline running across the parking lot of an old apparel factory; inside, an unconscious woman lies near smoldering piles of old fabric. The fire destroys the building down to its subbasements, and the badly burned woman June rescued is in a coma. No one knows who she is or how she got there. Thirty years earlier, June's father made a name for himself when he arrested the factory's owner, Bernie Lawler, for killing his wife and child, though their bodies were never found. Sifting through the factory's ruins, June and her partner, Dave Batko, discover a woman's body sealed in a barrel. They're sure that the body will be Luisa Lawler's and her cold case file will finally be closed. But the body isn't Bernie's wife's, and the discovery opens old wounds and cuts fresh ones, triggering a new cycle of violence and revenge that threatens to destroy her family and friends.

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