Note: I wrote a version of this on my Facebook page a week or so ago. I realize that not everyone who reads me here reads my yammerings over there, and perhaps someone here might glean a bit of useful info from what follows. Or, you just want to chime in with favorite audiobooks or audiobook readers. Whatever. It’s all good. We’re pretty chill here in the Fog.
I’ve tweaked this one a bit, using comments I made in response to others posting their own thoughts on the Facebook post. Having let this one linger in the back of my little monkey brain for a week, I think this is a nice little nugget of advice for those of you who just be starting out with your own writing. We can talk about that down in the comments, too.
Now, without further ado….
Some of you know that I take regular walks around the lakes in our neighborhood. I usually have a route that’s four miles and change, though on days where I have a light schedule I might opt to stretch that if I’m in the mood. I almost always listen to an audiobook during these walks, and if I’m really into the story that might well play into how long or how far I extend said walks.
During a few walks over the course of the past week, I was listening to Killing Floor, Lee Child’s first “Jack Reacher” novel, which was not meeting the above criteria.
It had nothing to do with the book itself, you understand. I’ve read a handful of Reacher books over the years so I generally know what I’m getting, but I’d never read the first one and I try to mix up the audiobooks I listen to on these walks so I don’t fall into a rut. Sometimes, I just want a snappy little thriller and Mr. Child has delivered for me in the past. Let’s face it: There’s a reason the Reacher books are a best-selling, award-winning series and spawned a couple of movies. They’re fun and Killing Floor delivered an entertaining listen, at least for the most part. This post is not at all intended as a review — good or bad — of the book itself.
(Aside: You can tell I’m at best a casual fan of these books, because until I started listening to Killing Floor I had no idea it was written in the first person. The previous Reacher novels I’d picked up at airports or other leisure reading destinations were written in third person. I find this infonugget rather fascinating, at least so far as within the framework of an ongoing novel series.)
One of the things I noticed as I listened to the bulk of Killing Floor over a handful of days is how it almost certainly was not written with an audio adaptation in mind. In fact, I’d need to check to see whether an audiobook edition was even released at the same time the novel was originally published. As for this audio edition, the narrator does a decent job giving personalities to the various characters, but the prose is pretty straightforward and almost regimented in its delivery, especially with the dialogue:
“__ <insert dialogue> __,” I said.
“__ <insert reply> __,” other character said.
“__ <dialogue> __,” I said. “__ <more dialogue> __.”
“__ <even more dialogue> __,” other character said.
And so on.
Now to be fair, when you’re reading this sort of thing in a regular print edition, you might not notice such things, and if you do there’s an even chance you won’t care. However, to your ears it can come off in a completely different way.
In the last few years, I’ve become very conscious of how my novels may and will sound when read aloud. There’s an old writer’s trick that suggests you read your manuscript aloud while editing, because your ears can and will pick up things your eyes miss. I absolutely believe that’s true and this tactic has helped me on more than one occasion. With the resurgence of audiobook popularity and now that my own novels are getting audio editions, I’ve been trying to pay even greater attention to such things.
My big example is how I’ve been teaching myself to structure things to rely less and less on dialogue tags like “said,” “asked,” “replied,” and so on. Fewer of these, used in the right spots, work to tighten the narrative. I’m also more conscious of eliminating unnecessary descriptors while varying sentence length and complexity, creating a cadence I hope won’t leave the narrator fumbling for a rhythm or gasping for breath because I just tossed them sixteen 75-word sentences in a row, or whatever.
(Another aside: The right narrator can make even a so-so story a cracking listen. The wrong narrator can utterly torpedo what should be an engrossing story. That shit is hard, and bless those who do it well.)
I have to believe considering and employing such new knowledge can only help me improve as a writer. I haven’t read (or listened to) any of the more recent Reacher novels, but I’m willing to bet Mr. Child has applied similar “lessons learned” as his writing has evolved over the years. I don’t think you get to the level he’s attained and attracted the loyal readership he possesses by failing to examine yourself and your craft or never taking the opportunity to improve your skill set. I’ve certainly noticed it in the works of other writers I’ve read on a more regular basis over a period of many years. I’ve already made a note to conduct an informal experiment about this the next time I opt for another Jack Reacher audiobook to accompany me on some future walk.
If there’s a constructive takeaway I can offer from this bit of rambling, it’s this: If you want to be a writer and enjoy any sort of long-term success, keep in mind that you never stop being a student. There’s always something new to learn, and there’s always homework, even when you least expect it.
Until you die.
Thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.