Lessons From an Audio Book

Back in April, I wrote about having received a copy of the audio book version of Below. I flippantly said that when I got a spare 4 hours and 10 minutes I was going to listen to the whole thing.

A few weeks ago, realising that I was unlikely to get a spare 4 hours and 10 minutes, I cued up the first of the CDs in the car, and began listening in small increments – 15 minutes on the way to school, another 20 on the way to work, the occasional extra 5 sitting in the driveway because I simply had to hear how a particular chapter ended (I wrote this book quite a long time ago!).

While I was listening, a few things occurred to me:

1. I have no idea how voice actors do it.

All the characters in Below are voiced by one person – Tara Sands. That’s Cassie, Liam, Mum, Dad, Elijah, Hannah, Mayor Finkle, and one or two other bit parts. And the story really is acted, rather than simply being read; it’s brilliantly done, and it was a real treat for me to hear my characters coming to life like this.

Here’s an interesting article I read recently about voice acting; I had no idea it was such a burgeoning field but it makes perfect sense when you think about the rise of e-books.

2. I am even more of a creative magpie than I had realised.

I’ve written before about how unexpected influences can creep into my work – for example how the opening lines of Below unconsciously echo the cadence of a Sylvia Plath poem.

There was something about hearing the story that made more of these sorts of instances apparent to me. I stopped taking mental notes after a while, but in the first half of the book I noticed the following:

‘ …he was hauling me in, all the way to the good solid ground’

I recognised ‘good solid ground’ as a phrase from a picture book I love – What If? by Jonathan Shipton. I don’t have a copy with me but there’s a point where the main character climbs down a sunflower … all the way down to the good solid ground. Before my first picture book came out, I used to use this book a bit when I was doing storytelling for lower primary and obviously repeated that line often enough that it lodged somewhere in my mind.

‘It was funny to see him hurl himself down the track, puffing and blowing, tie flapping loosely around his neck like a flag gone mad in the wind.’

‘Hurl himself down the track’ I recognise now as an adaptation of some often-quoted lines from the iconic Australian film Gallipoli:

What are your legs? – Springs. Steel springs.
– What are they going to do? – Hurl me down the track.

And:

‘I cruised the last few metres in a slow breaststroke, keeping my head above water like a grandma, all the better not to see disgusting floating bandaids with.’

I’m confident that anyone who knows their fairy tales will be able to work out how my mind slid from ‘grandma’ to ‘all the better … to see … with’

I guess this is what they mean by ‘Stealing like an artist’ …? I hope it is, at any rate!

3. I have some writing tics of which I was previously unaware

Again, it was really interesting to me how certain things only became apparent when I was listening. I noticed that I have a tendency to repeat certain patterns or structures on the sentence level.

For example, when Finkle comes into the classroom, Cassie narrates it like this:

Because someone was coming in. Someone familiar. Someone with a funny, crooked nose.

When she talks about why swimming at the lake holds such appeal, she says:

maybe it was something else too, something I wasn’t quite letting myself think about, something I had shoved years ago into a box under my bed.
Something that lay far below, something I didn’t realise was about to come rising up to meet me.

There are many more examples of this something … something …/someone … .someone slow-reveal type patterning throughout the book, to the extent that at one point I rolled my eyes at the audio and said, “Oh, come on! Just tell us what it is!”

And because I’ve done so much reading of the first chapter of Duck for a Day, I noticed immediately that this is the exact pattern I use there when Max is being revealed for the first time. And it occurs elsewhere in that book as well, and I’ve now caught myself using it repeatedly in my work-in-progress.

There’s no problem with this pattern per se, of course. It’s just that it has a particular kind of impact, and if you overuse it, it diminishes that, and also runs the risk of trying the patience of the most sympathetic readers, if my own reaction is anything to go by.

I also found myself impatient with my many tangents, the way I sometimes tend to ‘sidebar’ the action to talk about something I consider interesting, the numerous little associative rabbit holes I give myself license to burrow down in the middle of a scene, effectively putting the narrative’s forward movement on pause. This is a tendency I’m well aware of, but I don’t think I’d really experienced the impact of it on a reader until I listened to the audio book. I suspect this is because the audio had the effect of giving me that extra step of removal, a distance from the narrative that I couldn’t achieve when I was reading it on the page, regardless of how long I might have set it aside for.

So all of this to say that listening to the audio book was lots of fun, but it also taught me some interesting things about my work. Of course, I’m conscious that the experience of hearing the book performed is not the same as that of reading it, so I’m cautious about leaping too quickly to conclusions; not all elements of the listening experience can be generalised to the way the reader meets the book on the page.

But still, there’s food for thought. As someone who places a high value on cadence, on the way a sentence sounds on a fairly micro level, I do read my work out at points so I can hear where the beats fall, how the rhythm flows and so on. But that’s generally been on the level of individual sentences; I’ve never had the practice, as some writers have, of reading out chapters and then playing them back to myself to listen to how the narrative flows as a larger whole.

There probably isn’t time to do this with my current work-in-progress, as I’m racing against a bit of a deadline just now, but I’m thinking I might try this with my next manuscript, which will also be of a more manageable length.

If nothing else, it may stop me from doing something heinous …

… something I should probably be more conscious of
… something many writers have been criticised for
… something I really didn’t mean to do, officer, I swear it!

… copying other people’s stuff!

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