Do you love audio books? Maybe you like to devour the latest epic fantasy novel while you’re on an equally epic road trip, or let a new thriller by your favourite writer entertain you during a boring but necessary house clean. Maybe you have a child who adores the Harry Potter books but is not quite up to reading the last two on his or her own – how excellent to have Stephen Fry do that job instead. I’m of a generation that used to enjoy radio serials – in New Zealand we had one called Portia Faces Life (Portia was a lawyer whose personal and professional lives were both complex.) Another was Doctor Paul: A Story of Adult Love, which I suspect couldn’t have been so very adult, or my parents would not have allowed me to listen to it on days when I was home from school sick. I also remember the evening book readings on radio, in particular Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and a night plagued by fearful dreams after listening to The Speckled Band.
Fast forward to the present day. Technological advances have transformed our world, both for good and bad. The publishing business is no exception. I’ve been a published writer for twenty years, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see almost all my novels published not only in print and ebook formats, but also as audio books. Up until this year, the books have come out first in print and ebook, and have later been produced as audio books, often with a different publisher. The audio books have proved popular with readers, sometimes outliving the print editions. Maybe that shouldn’t surprise me in this time-poor society! Audio books allow multi-tasking in a way print books and ebooks don’t. This year I’ve been writing a novel specifically intended for audio book production. This was something new for me, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.
As a reader, I value the effective and original use of voice – my favourite writers of fiction all use voice cleverly to help convey the mood and meaning of their story, to give it a unique shape and character. I try to do the same in my own writing, and increasingly I develop structures around voice. This particular story is an expansion of a novella already written and published. The story, Beautiful, is based on the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and my version is written in first person from a single point of view. My narrator is not the heroic young woman who is the protagonist of the original tale. My character is not human. The story I created for her has its roots in the fairy tale, but moves far beyond it. Because I had worked hard to develop this character’s striking and unusual voice, I believed the story was particularly suited to audio book production. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.
I generally read my work aloud to check that rhythm and flow are OK, and I knew that would be especially important this time around. Reading aloud helps you to hear what is clunky, what is repetitive, what is long-winded, and also what soars, what soothes, what makes a strong and powerful statement. It highlights bad pacing and stylistic errors such as oft-repeated words, sequential sentences with the same structure, lack of variety in sentence length and so on. I was happy with my manuscript as submitted, but as I hadn’t done a straight-to-audio book project before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The editorial notes I got back were overall positive, but it was clear I still had a few things to learn about writing for audio book.
I had not considered how my word count would equate to the time taken to narrate. My editor pointed out that a certain section of the book, in which not much action occurred, added around 7,000 words, and that this would take 45 minutes of audio. I was shocked! His request that I tighten up that part of the story seemed entirely reasonable, and I did so. In retrospect, I think I was lucky that they accepted a ms that was (drops voice to a whisper) nearly 20,000 words longer than the contracted word count.
Some things simply don’t work in an audio book. My character can read and write, but in a very limited way. At one point in the book she’s writing place names on a map, in company with another character who can draw but not write. In the text, the place names are spelled correctly when our narrator is saying them aloud: Queen’s Castle, Troll Cliffs, and so on. But as she writes them on the map she spells them as a small child might do: Kweens Kasl, for instance. In an audio book the misspellings would sound exactly the same as the correct names, and would therefore be nothing but a stumbling block for the person narrating, and meaningless to the listener. I changed them back on request.
I’ve realised while working on this project how much I care about the way my stories sound, whether read aloud, or as imagined in the mind of the reader. I’m sure that comes first from my lifelong love of traditional storytelling which has a rhythm and flow all its own. And it comes also from being a musician since I was very young – if you love music as well as writing, the patterns of the first make their way into the second. Now I’m waiting with eager anticipation to find out who is chosen to narrate my book.
Some of you may have narrated your own audio books. Some of you may have published your own. I’d love to hear your experiences with audio book writing and publication. Please share your successes and challenges in the comments section. Or tell us about your favourite audio books and why you love them!