Some thoughts on audiobooks and performance

I may have mentioned that I have recently been listening to a few audiobooks. It started last summer, when my fiance forced me to listen to Dune through his Audible.com subscription. I say forced like he had to twist my arm, but it wasn’t hard. I hadn’t read Dune yet (I know, bad Amanda) so it was something that I wanted to knock off my list. And he loved it so much, which was surprising, since he typically is not a huge fan of fantasy or science fiction.

Anyway, I listened to Dune. And then I listened to The Fifth Season. And then I downloaded a few nonfiction books, and most recently I listened to The Water Knife.

What’s so interesting about each of the books above is that they are read by very different narrators. Dune, for example, is read by a white man. His voice is vaguely British, and there are all sorts of little flourishes and sound effects that really brought me into the story – blowing wind on the desert, that sort of thing. It was almost like listening to a radio play. The Fifth Season is narrated by a black woman, which is appropriate because both the author and the characters are black. The narrator of this book doesn’t do as distinct a set of voices for the different characters, relying more heavily on dialogue tags. Her voice is rich, and listening to a black woman tell the story within the context of the plot – that of slavery and prejudice and racial violence – is particularly chilling. Lastly, The Water Knife is narrated by a woman who, based off her proficiency in Spanish narration, is at least fluent in the language if not a native Hispanic Latina. It was fascinating to hear her manipulation of different accents – the Mexican-born Angel, a man, was voiced very differently from the probably-Canadian Lucy, a woman, for example, or even the bilingual Texan girl Maria. The way that she managed to capture their underlying identities with accent was fascinating.

Listening to these different books has taught me more about writing than I could have imagined it would. Before listening to these separate humans from separate backgrounds narrating these stories, I had sort of imagined that every book had a firm, definite way it should ‘sound’. That is to say, emphasis should be put on certain words and not others. There was a way I read, and I interpreted that way as the way the author intended the words. Now, I’m not so sure. there have been several moments when listening to these books where I have found myself absolutely taken aback by a stylistic choice in delivery of a sentence or paragraph. I could, in those moments, hear the sentence as it was spoken, and hear, in my head, the way I would have interpreted it from the writing. These two things did not match up. The whole text transformed before me, unlocking new meanings, clarifying characters. It was an epiphany each time it happened.

It makes me realize just how little control I, as a writer, have over what the reader will understand of my work. Sure, we writers do our best to be clear. We comb through, searching for misunderstandings or bulky phrasing. But in the end, the reader has their own voice, their own experiences, that must be laid out over the story we have made. We’ve provided, perhaps, the line drawings. The reader has to color in everything. The picture will always be of more or less the same thing, but that doesn’t mean that any two readers will end up with identical pictures. I don’t think I had ever really understood that before. I certainly had never realized that all of those ways of coloring inside the lines are totally sensical and valid. That all of them can add something, some essential essence, to a story.

So, in closing, I’m very excited about listening to more audiobooks, and about working to get my book into audio form. Speaking of, the audiobook should be done over the next week or so. I will be reviewing it and then it will be ready to publish! I’ve still got to get the cover finalized for upload, so I’m looking at a August 20th roll-out, in all likelihood.

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Author: Amanda J. McGee

Food and books are my passions. When I'm not planting a garden or working my day job, I can often be found writing genre fiction. Also I like to take hikes.

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