Thomas Harris’ infamous character Hannibal Lecter has become one of the most iconic villains of the last thirty years, thanks in no small part to his brilliant portrayal by Sir Anthony Hopkins, in movies based on Harris’ books.
One of the most memorable scenes for me—from the film adaptation of Red Dragon—is when Dr. Lecter attends a symphony concert and one of the performers makes a noticeable mistake. Hannibal’s eyes twitch ever so slightly while the musician pauses, seemingly oblivious of his error. If you know the film, you know the musician makes for a delicious amuse bouche, served between courses to the symphony’s board at Lecter’s home.
Writing music is a lot like writing a book. The two have a lot in common. Is there anything more detail-oriented than making sure the notes are in the right place, in the right key, and played by the right instruments? Even a single note out of place can be jarring the audience. Think of the strokes from an artist’s brush. Just like one swatch of color in the wrong place can throw off the visual image on the canvas, the wrong word or phrase in a book can change the meaning of a passage or confuse a reader.
When you listen to music recorded in a studio, you rarely hear mistakes. You’ll seldom hear a musician’s finger hit the wrong string or a drummer miss the off-beat by a few millisecond. These kinds of mistakes are edited from a musical track before it ever reaches the listeners’—the customers’ ears. Or they’re recorded over until they’re correct.
The same is true with books. Editors and proofreaders go through manuscripts over and over again, to make sure the words read correctly and sound right together. If you’re indie-publishing your own writing, here are some easy tools to help you publish a more successful book.
1) For your second or a subsequent read-through, change up the visual appearance of your manuscript. Manuscript files are fluid documents. Make the font bigger or smaller. Change the font from one with serifs to one without. Change the font color from black to blue. These changes return some objectivity to your brain and you’ll catch more mistakes.
2) Read the manuscript out loud. There is no better way to listen for clumsy phrasing or words that don’t fit well than by hearing your text read aloud. Speaking the words will also help you detect cluttered writing, run-on sentences that need pruning, and passages that aren’t as clear as you intend.
3) Take a break. Rome wasn’t built or burned in a day. Set your manuscript aside for several days. During your break, take in a movie or two, go to the symphony, read a book, take a little road trip. These changes of pace and scenery help return objectivity while they freshen your eyes and ears. Repeat step 2 and read the manuscript aloud after your mini-vacation. You’ll hear those out of place notes and find more of the mistakes that you’ve previously missed.
4) Finally, invite others to the symphony! Now that you’ve got what is effectively a third or fourth draft of your manuscript, it’s time to share it with one or more readers to get feedback. It’s a perfect time to ask for general thoughts and/or for specific structural or character feedback. Most importantly, was there anything they’d suggest needs additional attention or corrections? Remember, these readers aren’t professionals. They’re not critics. They’re members of your audience, hoping for an entertaining or informative reading experience. They may provide fresh insights and hear faulty notes that you’ve missed.
Why is this so important? Think of every letter or character on your pages as a note in a symphony. An orchestra has about twenty-three different kinds of instruments and oftentimes two or more musicians to play the varied parts for each type of instrument. A page of music has hundreds of notes building measures and lines, just like your manuscript’s page has hundreds of letters building words and sentences.
Think of a musical performance you’ve attended. When the music is played well, you enjoy the familiarity of the performance alongside other performances or recordings of the piece you’ve heard before. When a variation is played, with a new accompaniment or any new additions to the piece, the contrast can be very attractive to the ear. But any miscues or mistaken notes can quickly unravel your enjoyment of an artistic piece.
When you’ve done your work well, and your reader has become accustomed to your style and voice, any misstep can quickly disrupt their experience with your book, just like a misplaced note or a loud cough from the audience can throw off the enjoyment of a piece of music.
The only time your reader should be jolted is when you want them jolted on purpose, with an effective plot twist or a boisterous exchange of dialogue—not with typographical errors or clumsy stumbles of words.
Though this process can seem arduous and time consuming, your life isn’t at stake. Your book’s is. These are chances to make your manuscript better before you have it reviewed or edited by our team or any professional. Just about every pass you take with your manuscript will improve it.
As you write, think like a musician and an artist, letting your words flow and connect on every possible level with your readers. They’ll reward great writing with positive word of mouth. And that makes all the difference in the world!