Preparing the audio book: what am I learning?

GoodLiar_COVER.inddPreparing to produce the audio book of ‘A Good Liar’ is turning out to be an interesting experience. The first task, before any other planning or costings can be undertaken, has been to re-read and abridge the original text. Actually, even further back, the very first question was whether I wanted to abridge at all, and the answer is I would prefer not to. ‘Murdering your darlings’ they call it – killing off slices of the story that meant a great deal to you at the time. That process is usually part of editing the final draft, but abridging is even harder. The final text of my first book was truly a labour of love. Writing ‘A Good Liar’ took me nearly four years and involved some very steep learning, stumbles, frustration, almost chucking it on the fire and then dogged determination to see it through. Maybe there’s always a special attachment to the ‘firstborn’. Whatever the reason, abridging it is proving painful, but unavoidable. An unabridged version would run to too may CDs, twice the time and at least twice the cost. Every extra 1000 words of text means more studio time, more CDs to duplicate, more packaging – and each of those means more outlay for me and a higher price for the buyer. Just not practical. So abridging it is. Woe is me.

Rather than using the paperback for this process, I’ve chosen to work from the mobi file, highlighting on screen where the cuts are to be made. That way I can read off the screen rather than the page, and avoid the inevitable sound of turning pages, which the sensitive mike at the recording studio picked up when I made my demo disc.

big-booth-11I’m glad it’s me doing the abridging: the decision about what to leave out is dependent on thorough knowledge of the text and the significance of details. It’s made me realise how keen I was on the authenticity of the setting in this first book, both place and time. That’s why many local readers enjoy it so, but for an audio book there may be too much detail, and some of it has had to go. Some of the dialogue has been cut too: on the page it reflects the complexity of conversation, the interruptions and dialects, but that’s hard to relay in a narrated text with only one voice. It is possible to cut some of the text and still leave the story moving on, with enough detail to help the reader understand the where the characters are, and why they do what they do. I’ve found myself drawn in to their stories yet again, which has been reassuring. It’s a good tale, if I say it myself.

Apart from the necessity of abridging, I’m also clear now about the need to read it myself. I’ve seen some critical comments about audio books and poor narration by authors. I simply couldn’t afford the extra cost of a professional actor, and the demo disc sounded OK. Really! The abridging of ‘A Good Liar’ should be finished this week. Then I have to read it all through and check the timing. The goal is to get it down to 240 minutes, but I’m not confident yet that I’ll achieve that at the first attempt. When the required length is achieved, then it’s off to the studio. Hard work, but enjoyable on the whole, and I’d rather be busy than bored..

 

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Audiobooks: can I do it all myself?

headphones-with-microphone-on-white-backgr-clip-artIt’s amazing what a relief it is to have decided already that I won’t have a new book out until mid-2018. For the first time in five years I feel I can step back a little and not be plunged immediately into the research and planning of a new book, while simultaneously up to my ears in promotion of the last one. This time I can do the usual round of WI meetings and library groups and still let my mind roam freely around ideas for the next project.

The new book will be a project, of course, but before I get deep into it I’m thinking in greater detail about a new way of presenting at least some of the books on my growing backlist. I’ve done the paperback and the ebook for each book in my original trilogy – Between the Mountains and the Sea – and now I want to do them as audiobooks. It’s been on my mind for a while, but hitherto discounted as too difficult, or too expensive and risky. Now I have the time to break down the audiobook challenge into its component parts and see if I could actually manage it.

The first step came from a casual conversation at our weekly coffee catchup about some very popular local slide shows and where the voiceovers are recorded. A phone call and a few emails later I visited the studio just twenty minutes from my home, to meet the man who owns and runs it. It was a really impressive set-up, and I had the chance to discuss the detailed practicalities of abridging and reading the books myself, to make each one – if possible – fall within the number of minutes on a disc. And would CDs be the best option, given the recent advances in the technology? I have to be careful that in going for the latest technology I don’t put the product beyond the reach of many of my potential audience.

If I take the CD route, each disc has a maximum running time of 80 minutes: how many discs would I need for each book? If it’s more than three, it gets cumbersome and more expensive, but could I abridge sufficiently to manage a running time of 240 minutes without sacrificing the integrity of the storyGoodLiar_COVER.inddI’ve already tried abridging the first book ‘A Good Liar’ and the first cut is relatively easy: there are some sentences and even the odd paragraph that can be cut with too much damage to the story, but after that it gets really tricky. On the first attempt I managed to cut a fair chunk of the text, mainly descriptive details of setting and some extended dialogue, but would that be enough to achieve the time limit overall? Very hard to judge: the only thing to do is to ‘edit/abridge’ the whole book, check how many and what proportion of the words have been removed relative to the whole word count, do some basic sums and see whether it would fit in the 3 CD target. Abridging is always a wrench, and could be annoying for the reader, but at least if my text is abridged it will be done by the author, who is in the best position to know how it should work.

The next decision I needed to make was about whether I could read it myself, and here again the only answer is to try it and see. So I went into the studio, put on the headphones, took my cue from the man at the console and read for five minutes from the abridged copy of ‘A Good Liar’ that I’d already worked on. I managed the reading – although the wonderful microphone picked the rustle of turning pages – and enjoyed it, and was given the demo disc to take home. There are many more practical hurdles to be considered: costs, time, how many to produce, where and how, packaging, promotion, distribution. It’s all pretty outfacing. It would help for a start that I could find the courage to listen critically to the demo disc, but I haven’t found the courage to do that yet! When I finally take that plunge, I hope I feel I can do this job, because I really want to. If I can sort out all the decisions and embrace the adventure of the audiobooks, it could be so much fun!

 

Authentic local setting: useful or off-putting?

It was a wild and snowy night, with a full moon wierdly visible through the snow, as I drove to a readers’ group meeting at Grange-over-Sands library on Thursday and spoke to the hardy souls who turned up. Talking about the new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ grange-librarywithout giving away most of the plot was a challenge, so I relied on questions to pick up what my ‘audience’ wanted to discuss. ‘You obviously like to use specific local settings,‘ said one, ‘but what about people who nothing about the place? Doesn’t that specificity make them feel excluded and put them off?’

It’s a good question, and one that’s been on my mind for a while. Many of my most enthusiastic readers are local to the region of West Cumbria that I love and have used as the setting for all my books so far. The area has everything a story backdrop should have – interest, historical depth, variety, beauty and even controversy, in the local nuclear industry based around Sellafield. Occasionally I have to anonymise the community I’m writing about, but mostly the place names and the details are precise, and that’s what many of my readers enjoy. They haven’t seen references to their own home turf in novels before, and it’s great fun to recall them in your mind’s eye as you read.

But there’ll be many more readers – I hope – for whom the area is unknown and the specific references immaterial. Honestly, I don’t think this detracts from their reading pleasure. All of us read about places we don’t know, and accept the author’s word about what the settings look like. Too much description is a drag, but we appreciate enough detail to picture the scene, whether the setting is authentic or not. We enjoy finding out more about the setting of a good book: evocations of Ann Cleeve’s Shetland or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh add immeasurably to the reading experience.

For me, setting is important on a number of levels. For all readers it provides the visual context of the story, adding colour and depth to the ‘events’. Sometimes, setting is so crucial that it becomes almost a character in itself. CRUEL_TIDE COVER frontIn my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’ the vast mudflats of Morecambe Bay and its sneaking tides are central to the plot. This can be achieved whether or not the reader knows the area herself. Local knowledge is not and should not be essential, but it adds another layer of enjoyment for some readers. This is especially so when the locality has previously been neglected in fiction, which I feel West Cumbria has been. Cumbria has been celebrated by many writers and poets, but not the west of the county, where the mountains meet the Irish Sea and seams of coal stretch further west under the waves. Coal and ore mining have gone, steel and iron works have closed, ship building has been replaced by nuclear submarines and commercial fishing is a shadow of past prominence, but the fascination of this coastal area continues and cries out to be shared. My next writing project may be different in characters and genre, but I’ve no doubt the setting will be the same, and hope it will be appreciated whether the readers are familiar with it or not.

Do I really need an ‘App’ for my writing?

I didn’t know ‘writing apps’ existed until I was being interviewed for a blog last year and the interviewer asked me which one I used. He was far more digitally sophisticated than me, and seemed surprised that I was plugging away in ‘Word’, saving drafts into files, struggling to find things, taking time to find previous versions and essential research notes. Actually my writing process was even more more messy and muddled than I confessed to him at the time, but it had worked for some years, just about, and I felt “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. scrivener-essentialsHowever inefficient, my approach by last  year was a vast improvement on the frustrating experience of writing my first novel ‘A Good Liar’, which took four years from 2008 to 2012 and nearly went on the back of the fire more than once during that time.

My blogger friend had mentioned Scrivener, and I checked it out. Even the introductory blurb seemed very complicated: in the middle of the first draft of ‘Fatal Reckoning’ I was too busy to read it properly and carried on with my usual writing process that may not have been efficient but was at least familiar.

Some months later I ran a workshop on ‘Starting to Write’ at the Borderlines festival in Carlisle in 2016, and decided to mention it to the group, some of whom of course were well ahead of me, but still it felt like something that other people might use, not me.

Another few months on again and in the flush of New Year’s resolutions I’m telling myself that the time has come to try it out properly. I’m at the very early stages of researching and planning the next novel. Already I’ve eased the time pressure on myself by deciding from the start to aim for the summer of 2018 to get this book out, and the time to re-examine my writing process is definitely right. I decided to go straight in, avoiding the various guides to the software, and so this morning I downloaded the 30 day free trial version of Scrivener and have resolved to make myself try it out, patiently and with an open mind.

I have already reassured myself that the software has nothing to do with the content or style of my work, but deals only with the process of drafting in a way that might be helpful. My fear is always that my writing might become formulaic, paying too much attention to the usual protocols, but there’s no reason to believe that using Scrivener as a tool would increase that possibility, at least as far as I can see. So I’m resolved to give it a go. I reckon that by the time the free trial runs out I should have either decided to continue with it or not, and I’ll report my progress then.

In the meantime, if anyone reads this far and has practical advice to offer, I’m all ears. I am going to treat this experience as an intellectual challenge, like learning another language, which is believed to be good for an ageing brain like mine. Bring it on.