Saturday, September 12, 2009

In Praise of Audiobooks

I can say with complete honesty that I listen to more audiobooks than I read actual books. I’m to the point now where I prefer audiobooks over printed books. Take Dan Brown’s newest puzzle book. Instead of getting in line for the hardcover at the library, I’ve got the audiobook on hold. Chances are, I’ll get the book by late next week merely because the waiting list for the audiobook is shorter.

I also believe this: if you don’t listen to audiobooks, you are missing out. Fundamentally, every book tells a story, even if it’s a non-fiction book about migratory patterns of birds. And what better way to experience a story than having it told to you the way our ancestors did: aurally.

As a listener, the story comes alive in ways you just can’t get when you’re reading the story in your head. The voice actors almost always do a bang-up job with their narration, providing nuance where there is only black-and-white on the page. For me, at least, these readers narrate faster than I read so I can get through a book faster than if I read it myself.

Some caveats: yes, the voices of the characters in your head are your own creation and the reader’s voice is what you’re hearing. Sometimes, they don’t match well. I’ll grant you that one. And there are times when a reader of one gender has to voice a character from the other gender and it comes out funny. Touche. Not to be sexist but men doing women voices is a shade better (note I wrote shade; not loads) than the opposite. It’s a rare women narrator who can do men well (heh). It’s best when either gender just reads the lines as best they can.

Experiencing a book with your ears and your imagination is a great way to “read” a book and one I’ve come to prefer. As a writer, however, there’s an underrated advantage to listening to an audiobook. You pick up an ear for pacing, one, and dialogue, for another.

Let’s take pacing. When I’m reading a physical book, most of my mental energy is focused on the book and the words and what they mean. Well, duh. But seriously, I sometimes find myself so focused on getting through the words that I don’t have time to ponder the grander meaning of the words, the prose choices, the pacing. It’s not until I go back and re-read or sit and think on the work after I’ve put down the book where these thoughts come to me.

Not so with audio. As I listen, it takes me less energy to “get” the story and, thus, I’m free to ponder all those esoteric topics that my writerly brain likes to think about. Thus, my writerly brain is more actively engaged with a story as I listen to the book without having to stop, re-read, and think on everything later. As a writer, I find this kind of give-and-take essential to making me a better writer. I can easily ask myself “what would I do next?” and then have the answer the author chose given to me. Yeah, I know most writers do this anyway when they read; I’m just saying that, for me, it’s an easier exercise when I listen rather than when I read.

Dialogue. More often than not, it’s difficult for us writers to put good dialogue in our stories. I’m referring, of course, to dialogue that really sounds like people talk. Any of us can write dialogue that sounds like a writer wrote it. That’s easy. But real dialogue, the everyday speech patterns of cops, lawyers, killers, femme fatales, you name it, that can be very difficult to come by and “sound” authentic.

With audiobooks, you get the dialogue read to you by a professional voice actor. It’s the reader’s job to make the words sound real. Here’s where you can tell the gifted writer versus the regular writer. With a gifted writer and a gifted voice actor, the words and speeches of the characters roll out of the speakers and into your ears like sunshine on a warm summer day. It’s effortless. For a less-gifted writer, you can hear the wrongness with the words. Were the narrator an actor in a movie, he’d be able to get a re-write. Not so with audiobook readers. They have to read what’s on the page.

I have found that I pace my stories better and write more natural dialogue as a result of listening to audiobooks. Last week, I wrote about the digi-novel, a new way to experience a novel. Why not go back to oldest standard that has yet to be topped: having a story read to you.

Am I the only one who loves audiobooks?

P.S., In my writing group, we read our chapters aloud. I find that when I read my own dialogue, I often go “off script” and read the line as if I were the character and spoke in a natural way. I always make a note and go re-write the line of dialogue with the extra/fewer words I used. Anybody else do that?


Bernadette said...

No. You're not alone. I wish they didn't cost 4 times what a print book costs and I wish my local library would carry an audio book title published in the last 10 years but I love them too. When I day dream about what I would do if I won the lottery I never think of houses, cars or jewellery - my first step would be to hire someone with the story telling ability of Stephen Fry to be my personal reader. Other people have personal chefs but I'd much rather have my very own narrator on hand 24/7.

David Cranmer said...

I love audio books myself but wouldn't go as far as to say I prefer them over reading the book. Still, it makes the plane, train, and automobile rides a lot easier on occasion.

Mike Knowles said...

I'm into audio books like they're crack. So much so, that they are the topic of my blog tomorrow too. I knew this kind of thing would happen eventually. It's cool though, mine's more of a whiny complaint.

Scott D. Parker said...

Bernadette - I get many of my books via There are a few books out there where the digital/audio version is the only copy I have. I'm lucky here in Houston that both libraries have a good collection of recent audiobooks. Not a *great* selection but a darn good one.

David - I think for it's a time issue. I can commute (45 minutes, one way) and get through an audio book in a week. Especially when they were the adventure stories I wrote about on my crime fiction blog. With all the actual duties I have to do everyday and the things I want to do everyday, being able to read and drive or read and paint the house is intoxicating.

Mike - Yeah, it was bound to happen. Guess this'll be Audiobook Weekend. Take solace in the knowledge that I didn't know what I was going to write about last night until around 9pm. I had been pondering an audiobook post for awhile on my crime fiction blog but thought it might go well here. I'll be up early tomorrow morning to read your piece. My goal with this blog still hasn't been reached: have my Saturday post ready by Friday at noon. I'll try again next week.

Jay Stringer said...

i do love a good audio book, and a good podcast, for many of the reasons you've given. Its great to hear the dialogue, and to listen to someone else's take on the pacing.

At the same time, i'd always choose the print version first. My work commutes are desperate (and brief) attempts at getting through a chapter, or at least a paragraph, of the text. And i've never been one for XBOX or any that. Aside from my love of one football game, i'd much rather spend spare time reading.

An audio book is like a film adaptation, to me. Great fun, and when it works its phenomenal. But its somebody else adapting a work before it gets to me, they're preferences will filter the work, and they're professionals doing a job....they may not even like the work that they're reading.

There are some real classics out there though.Rob Reiner did a great reading of THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

Dana King said...

I love audiobooks for car trips, where I have time to listen. I tend to read in frequent, shorter bursts, so they're a little problematic for me. The availability of books I want to read in audio format is also an issue.

Yes, I definitely read things other than what I wrote when reading aloud. I've even trained my writers group to catch them for me, and now they do it for everyone.

Ah, to have left a legacy.