Beyond the Manuscript: How Writers Craft Captivating Audio Experiences

You’ve just finished writing your great American novel. If a book falls in the forest but doesn’t have an audiobook, does anybody hear it? Let’s talk about producing your audiobook.

Book Culture On Writing
books with headphones on them and Edward Savio next to it

Twain once quipped, “If God intended us to talk more than listen, he would have given us two mouths and one ear.” Since we have two eyes and two ears, I guess that means that the universe has called it a tie as far as whether it’s better to read a book or listen to one. But as anyone out there adulting will tell you, in today’s busy world, who has the time to actually read? This means that for many of us, one of the ways we can get through the growing list of books we want to read…is by listening to them. This allows us to consume stories while driving, walking, cooking, cleaning, or pretending to exercise.

For authors, the emergence of audiobooks presents both opportunities and challenges. As more readers shift towards digital content, producing an audiobook can significantly expand a writer’s reach and increase their earnings. Let’s talk about how a book becomes an audiobook.

Setting the Stage

You can’t just take a novel, give it to someone to read, and expect to come out any better than a seventh-grader standing before their class reciting an essay on a topic they SparkNoted the night before.

I know you thought you were done when you typed the last words, but there is more to do. To produce a successful audiobook, myriad considerations and concerns exist beyond the “Is it a good story well told?” It’s one thing for the audience to “hear” the voices (tone, accent, cadence) of characters in their head; it’s an entirely different matter to have someone read all these differing parts aloud to them.

Prep Work

One thing I’ve learned is that giving the voice actor (or the director) as much information as possible is better than giving too little. In a movie or play where they’re creating a singular character, giving actors too much direction is frowned upon. It undermines the collaborative nature. But when a voice actor is expected to concoct the tone, the pacing, and accents for dozens of characters and hundreds of moments, communicating your vision up front is critical. Failing to do so can lead to wasted time and money and… might well deliver an audiobook that’s less entertaining, less appealing, and ultimately, less “readable.”

For that reason, most voice actors are happy for the guidance.

Woman listening to an audiobook on their phone in a car.

The Significance of the Narrator

Some people will say, “It should already be on the page.” They’ll complain that if you’re not telling the reader a piece of info, why are you secretly telling the narrator? There are several reasons for this. But the main one is: A narrator’s performance hardens many of the malleable details, especially tone and character voice.

In my role as a screenwriter, I co-create a project that hundreds of other people, including directors, producers, actors, hair, makeup, lighting, and sound people, will have a hand in. But when I write a novel, I co-create it one-on-one with the reader. My words enter the mind of the reader and are sifted and colored by their own experiences, their thoughts, their dreams, their beliefs. The reader is the co-director of the movie that plays in their head when reading my words. An audiobook, however, has an extra layer between me and the reader. The narrator. That’s why learning the art of great audiobook production is so important.

Production Interaction

I know many writers who have nothing to do with their audiobooks. But, as someone who started out as a screenwriter, I not only enjoy hearing a great actor add their personality and talent to my words. Let’s be clear, my books have to stand on their own. I want it to retain the book’s “voice” even if someone else is voicing it. However, a great performance can offer the audience another way to enjoy the story. I’ve chosen to produce (with a number of great partners) my own audiobooks. Although it is an extra expense, an added risk, and takes time and effort, for me, the ability to help guide the process and create the most enjoyable “read” is worth it.

I’m going to give you some things I’ve learned producing audiobooks. The ingredients, if you will, of a well-produced audiobook.

1. Dialog Tags

Before you ever get near the production of your audiobook, there are things to consider when writing your book. If there’s been one change in recent contemporary writing that stands out for me, it’s the shift in attitudes over the dreaded, “He said. She said.” Having been a screenwriter first, it was easy for me to create visual prose — I had to learn to be poetic and thoughtful — so even before I had a book turned into an audiobook, I often tagged dialogue with action, using “he said, she said” less than most others did at the time. “He said, she said” is like the character name in a script. We don’t “read” it. It’s just a visual cue to let us know who’s talking.

“I am going to the store,” he said.
“Can you pick up some milk?” she said.
“I’m not coming back right away, so it’ll go bad in the hot car,” he said.
“Then, you know what, pick up some hot dogs. They’ll be cooked and ready to eat by the time you get back,” she said.

Now, reading that in your head, you probably ignored the tags. But a narrator can’t do that. They read exactly the words on the page with few exceptions. A couple more lines like this and the narration would sound clunky and awkward. Here’s how I might write this scene.

He walked over and kissed her on the top of her head. “I am going to the store.”
“Can you pick up some milk?” She exaggeratedly batted her eyes, knowing it would make it impossible for him to refuse.
“I’m not coming back right away, so it’ll go bad in the hot car.”
“Then, you know what,” she was suddenly hungry, “pick up some hot dogs.” Her eyes widened at the thought. “They’ll be cooked and ready to eat by the time you get back.”

Now, sometimes, you want the back-and-forth to come fast and without anything extraneous getting in the way. I will set up who’s talking in the scene and then run the rest of the banter back and forth without any tags. This is where, by the way, you may need to remind the narrator with a side note of who’s speaking. I embed notes and pronunciations in my text, which are hidden in the final print copy but show up as color-coded highlights in the narrator draft.

Woman talking into a microphone for audiobooks.

2. Importance of Pronunciation

Build out character points and reinforce any accents—especially for major characters in the highlighted text. Give any word you might think is difficult to pronounce; character names are one, and unfamiliar or technical words are another, the phonetic treatment. But not the phonetics you see in a dictionary that — to this day — I still don’t understand. I use simplified phonetics and or words that rhyme. For the native American name for what we know of as lacrosse, tewaaraton becomes (De–WAH–ah–lah–dhoon). Ngoc Nguyen: nahk nuhWEN or sounds like “knock” “WIN.” Sophia Lamagna: so-FEE-uh Lamagna (sounds like “lasagna”).

3. Choosing the Right Voice

Not to belabor the point, just as a screenplay is not a movie, an audiobook is not a book. It is more of a one-person show. That’s why it is imperative to choose a voice actor that meets the needs of the story. Someone who is well versed in the genre and style and tone of whatever the book is, and — if possible — is familiar to and successful with the audience your book seeks to reach. You should go after narrators YOU enjoy listening to — as long as they fit the profile for your book.

As stated earlier, the reader interprets a book based on their own experiences plus the content of that which they’re reading. Adding in the narrator to the mix further influences their experience. This is why it’s imperative to choose a narrator who truly understands and can bring the story to life. The narrator should be well-versed in the book’s genre, speak the language of its style, and resonate with the intended audience.

Audiobooks for the Win

For writers, the emergence of audiobooks presents both opportunities and challenges. As more readers shift towards digital content, an audiobook can significantly expand a writer’s reach and increase earnings. But having a skilled narrator, one who speaks to the audience the book is trying to reach, and one who can capably bring the writer’s vision to life is a must. Preparing a narrator for this task requires careful consideration to ensure the narrator understands the work, including its tone, characters, and nuances.

For readers, they provide busy individuals with a way to engage with literature and stories in a way that’s been missing from many of our lives. So, instead of doom scrolling on your phone or getting caught up in the quick but empty hit of social media when you don’t have the time to sit down and read a book, stand up and listen to one.

Be sure to check out other articles from writer Edward Savio by clicking here.

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