At some point in the writing of every novel, the time comes when the author (or authors) need to block out a broad segment of time, sit down and read the story from page one to the last page written, and take out their little mental microscopes and search for all the little (and large) mistakes that weaken (or entirely ruin) their stories. This is called a “comprehensive reading.”
Today marks the finish of chapter ten of “An Evil Heart,” the joint novel I’ve been writing with my friend and mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen (Mimi). I spent several hours at her home yesterday, and a few more hours this morning, finishing up the scenes that we weren’t able to write without the other person being present. Now that the paths of her character and my character are fully intertwined, me and Kim’s “together time” will need to be multiplied. Kim and I have chosen to do comprehensive readings about every ten chapters, so I will spend the next week revising and refining the previous chapters so that the story can be read with as little interruption as possible.
A week from today, she and I will get together, find a relatively private location and spend the whole day reading what we’ve written. Because I hate to read aloud, and am more audibly oriented in my learning style, Kim reads and I listen. This is a tedious process, but it is where all the logic flaws, plot problems, character inconsistencies and previously overlooked grammatical errors shine through.
Although this will be the first read-through we’ve done of An Evil Heart, we did several on my first book, The White Room (which is currently looking for a home somewhere in New York right now), so I have an idea of how this works. It is a process that can take anywhere from nine to thirteen hours. But it’s worth it. In my previous read-throughs, I was continually amazed by the blatant errors an author of a novel can overlook. Worst of all, perhaps, are the logic flaws.
A logic flaw is just that: a flaw in logic. During one read-through, I was made embarrassingly aware that a character had taken the last sip of the same beer three different times. At another point, a crucifix that burst into flames and turned to ash suddenly reappeared in a characters front pocket. These little things are so easily written but become terribly apparent when read aloud.
Plot consistency is another obstacle you’ll contend with during a comprehensive reading. For example, in The White Room, I had created vampires who, of course, could not go out into the daylight. I can not count how many times a vampire appeared in the middle of the day, totally unaware of the sun shining above. In writing entities who could only survive in the darkness, I realized I’d placed a terrible restriction on myself and continually had to change the story around to keep consistent with the “reality” of the storyline.
Characters also like to lose consistency throughout the duration of a novel, and some characters end up being completely unnecessary. There was one character I really liked and wanted to give more presence to. Reading the story through, I realized this character seemed like a kind of strange appendage of the larger characters, and really had no place in the story other than the original two or three lines she was given. I then had to go back and cut her out of all the scenes she didn’t fit into. At another time, one of my characters voices changed so dramatically as the story progressed that by the end, he was nearly unrecognizable. He began as a wise type who used proper English and eventually evolved into the barely educated boy next door. This was one of the largest problems I had with that story and it took considerable time and energy to rephrase all of his dialog as well as correct his general disposition.
Not all flaws are big ones though. Reading your manuscript through, you could continually find little sentences and phrases that, when heard aloud, just sound ridiculous. “Bob flicked concerned eyes at me.” Oh yeah? And from just whose head did Bob pluck these concerned eyes out of? And why on earth did he flick them at me?
These are just a few examples of the potential corrections a comprehensive reading offers a writer. If it weren’t for several such sessions of my last story, I could have easily made the fatal mistake of sending a fault-riddled manuscript off to an agent, who would take one look at it and surely deem me unfit to write fiction.
I am both excited and reluctant to see what errors we find in An Evil Heart. I’m learning that we humans, unfortunately, are flawed creatures by nature and we insert a little of that nature into everything we produce. A comprehensive reading is a good way to spot and correct enough problems that by the time the story reaches the hands of an agent or editor, it is in acceptable and semi-professional condition. The side effect to this, of course, is that by the end, you’ll be so tired of your own story that you’ll just want to kill every character in it call it a day. But don’t. It’s about that time that you know you’re getting close to being done.
And no, it will never be perfect. But it can be damned good… and given the right amount of attention to detail, you might even find an agent who agrees.