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Writing to be Heard: Audiobooks

Photobucket [1]Have you ever heard of The Audies? They are, according to the AudioFile Magazine website [2], “awards recognizing distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association (APA).” This year’s Audie for general fiction was a tie, going to both Stephen King’s Duma Key, read by John Slattery, and Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, read by Paul Boehmer, Susan Duerden, Rosalyn Landor, John Lee and Juliet Mills. Other Audie awards are given for literary fiction, mystery, romance, science fiction/fantasy, teen lit, children’s and more. (Read the full list of categories and winners HERE [3].)

I don’t listen to scads of audio books, but I own a few. Sometimes I buy an audiobook if I loved a novel to bits and want to experience it in a new way; I own Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption on audiobook, for example. Other times I buy audiobooks for car trips, mostly for my kids. We own the entire Harry Potter series in audio form (as well as in hardcover), and they’ve provided hours of true entertainment on long car rides. Last year’s “solo narration-male” winner was Jim Dale, who I think utterly deserved the award for his many voices and expressive delivery in the Harry Potter series. (You can listen to an outtake of Dale’s work on the AudioFile magazine website, HERE [4].)

I enjoy these books, hearing someone chew over the author’s chosen language like auditory candy. But as a writer, I wondered: Is writing to be heard something to consider when you’re drafting your novel? I spoke with Robin Whitten, editor and founder of AudioFile, to learn more.

I asked Robin plenty of questions, but everything came back to the most important: What, if anything, can a writer do to impact the potential quality and even future sales of an audiobook–or is it more about crossing your fingers and hoping your story is read by the equivalent of a Jim Dale? She admitted that she hadn’t thought about it much from the author’s point of view, but as we started talking, several ideas surfaced, things an author might be able to do to maximize audiobook potential.

Avoid the story bog. Lifeless prose may be forgivable in nonfiction, but for fiction, it’s the great sin. “Some stories just flow better than others, even books by the same author,” said Robin. “A great narrator can only do so much, so if the story slows or flattens out for an extended period, they may not be able to compensate.”

Vary your words. Every author has a favorite word or phrase. Didn’t think anyone would notice? “When you’re listening, if there’s a repeated word or phase, it is like neon for listeners, leaping out at you,” said Robin. Solution? Mix it up.

And vary your sentence structure. Short sentences used back-to-back can create a narrative that evokes tension, perfect for suspense scenes, whereas long sentences are ideal for settling the reader back into calm. An intermingling of long and short together can help to create a dynamic narrative flow that’s pleasing to read and to hear. It also gives a narrator more to play with. “A good narrator pays attention to your work as the author, and pays attention to the pace the author intended,” said Robin.

Polish your prose. As if you needed another, here’s reason #1768 why it’s important to tend to your wordsmithing: “Interestingly, I was just doing a podcast for Audiopolis with reviews and clips, and one of the stories chosen was DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers,” said Robin. “I hadn’t read the book, but after listening to only three minutes of the narrator reading the novel, I thought, ‘Wow! Listen to all the work this author’s prose is doing!’ It’s just amazingly, beautifully written and evocative in so many ways.” It’s not just about adult novels, either. “If you listen to EB White reading Charlotte’s Web, the brilliance of each sentence is immediately apparent,” she said. “You see the sentence is working on so many different levels.”

Read your work aloud. As early as the first-draft stage, taking the time to read your work out loud can help make you a better writer. It’s one of the most effective way to catch problems with sentence structure; it’s also a great way to test the ebb and flow of your prose. “If an author reads their work aloud, then they can get a sense about how someone might hear it, even without the extra spin that you would get from a good narrator,” said Robin.

Regardless of whether you ever envision your story as an audiobook, all of the above tips are great for helping to polish your manuscript. And, hey, maybe your book will end up as an audiobook; if it does, you can be assured that your work will be music to your listeners’ ears.

Write on, all!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s suchitra prints(Away for a few days) [5]

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About Therese Walsh [7]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [8], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [9] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [10], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [11] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [12] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [13]). Learn more on her website [14].