Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Things I Learned From Listening to Audio Books

I have been absent from The Blood-Red Pencil for several months. Just thought I'd point that out in case you hadn't noticed (smile). I was laid low - really low - with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome the end of January, and it has just gotten to the point where I can do more than recline and listen to audio books. No reading, no writing, no television, no driving; and for several weeks nothing more than hobbling from the bed to the bathroom to the couch at my daughter's house. One of my sons joked that Ramsay Hunt must have been a CIA interrogator in a past life.

I believe it.

While being incapacitated, I did a lot of thinking about how other authors deal with health issues that throw great challenges at them. A blind writer who continually loses tools no amount of technology can replace. A friend who slogged through her last book hampered by the sludge of a mind drowning in personal problems. Another friend who continued to write during her losing battle with cancer. The writer who has such severe back problems she can only sit at her computer for a couple of hours a day.

I am lucky.

I also did not intend for this post to be just about my unwanted visitor. I wanted to write about some interesting things I noted while listening to audio books. Most of us know that reading our work aloud helps us catch awkward wordage, repetitions, and other  bits that weaken our work. Patricia Stoltey offered some great tips for what to listen for in her post here back in 2009 - Self-Editing One Step at a Time. 

What I didn't realize until recently was how much we can learn from listening to audio books. The ones I listened to ranged from mysteries by Robert B. Parker, Lee Child, and Louise Penny. I also listened to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Comparing the last two to some by Parker, I noticed that the dialogue was handled so much better by Stieg Larsson. All those dialogue attributives that Parker uses were hardly ever used by Larsson. Instead, he used actions to designate the speaker.

Parker has always been one of my favorite authors, and while reading his books the "he said" "she said" attributives will fade into the background as I focus on the witty dialogue that he did so well. Fading didn't happen with the audio book. In fact, the "saids" became so  annoying I couldn't ignore them, and I made a mental note to take a lesson from Stieg Larsson.

From Louise Penny I learned the art of the hook at the end of a scene or chapter. In The Long Way Home she ended one chapter with a question that wasn't answered until two or three chapters later. Very early in the story she introduced an inscription on a wooden bench but didn't let the reader know what that inscription was until three chapters later. Both were minor things, but things that kept me listening until the reveal. So we don't always have to have something monumental as a chapter hook. The little things work quite well.

Do you read your work aloud? Listen to audio books? What have your learned from that? Please share in the comments.

 Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent mystery, Doubletake, was named the 2015 Best Mystery by the Texas Association of Authors. She has a number of other books published, including the critically-acclaimed Season Series that debuted with Open Season. Information about her books and her editing rates is available on her website. When not writing, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. 


  1. Great post. So glad you're recovering and writing again! I joined a local writers group that reads short passages aloud for most of the meeting time, and it has made a difference in my writing. Hearing authors and genre I wouldn't normally read has sharpened my sense of description and dialogue, and taking my own turn has made me much more aware of the impact of my writing on audience. Your comments about dialogue tags is so informative-- thank you!!

    1. Thanks, C.T. I have been in writer's groups for many years and, like you, I learn a lot from listening to others as they read their work.

      One thing I realized after I wrote this post is that the style of writing that Parker used, and the time he wrote, was so different from now. The dialogue tags were handled differently then. If you pick up a novel written in the 70s or 80s there are all those dialogue tags in them.

  2. You've had a really rough time with this, Maryann - it is good to have you back, and glad you're finally feeling better. *hugs*

    I have learnt (not learned :-P ) a great deal from reading books out loud to my children (and I often edit on the fly as I read). Two things really stand out: firstly, dialogue tags, as you mentioned, too - I usually skip the modifiers on these, especially if I read the dialogue in, say, a normal voice and the dialogue tag says "she whispered". Too late now to whisper it. Sometimes I skip the tag altogether if it is really obvious who is speaking, or if I'm using a different voice for one character. Secondly, using clauses in the middle of a sentence for an aside comment can cause a lot of confusion and the need to backtrack, especially for children, e.g., "She wore a blue dress, which she had bought at a flea market and instantly fallen in love with, to the ball." These seem okay when reading the text because the reader can skip quickly back to check what "to the ball" refers to, but speaking such sentences places a disconnect between the two parts of the original sentence and it's much harder to keep track of when listening. And it's so simple to just separate the sentences. Books for children need to be simple sentences for the exact reason that they are sometimes read aloud. Audio really is a different medium.

    1. Thanks for the excellent points in your comment, Elle. I learnt a long time ago when editing for a client down under not to change it to learned. :-)

      I try to avoid those aside comments altogether unless the comment is something integral to the story. Even then, I usually try to make it two sentences.

  3. I think it is helpful to record your final draft and play it back with a copy of the manuscript in front of you. Highlight the parts that sound off and go back and edit them.

  4. I never thought about the way listening to audio books might actually help my craft, Maryann. I always just thought of it as a way to access books if you have a long drive or a lot to do around the house and no time to read. But, you've convinced me I should give it a whirl. What a great learning tool you've discovered!

  5. This is a great piece, Maryann. I have significantly reduced my use of dialog tags since I began my first novel nearly 20 years ago, and I encourage writers I work with to do the same. Those tags have their place when the speaker needs to be identified, but not at the end of every little bit of conversation.

    "I don't like that idea," Maggie said, frowning.

    Maggie frowned. "I don't like that idea."

    When read out loud, the second one clearly is the winner.

  6. Excellent piece, Maryann. I agree about listening to Parker. It really did get annoying, but I also found it annoying in print. I'm not the only one who did either. I have four audios of my books. The first reader, excellent, by the way, added attributions, and I made her take them out. Since she voiced characters differently, she didn't need them, and I didn't want them. I have stopped listening to audios because the reader's voice was so annoying, but on a long trip, driving alone, I stock up my car with audios from the library.

    1. Oh, and I read all my books out loud. Catches lots of awkward phrasing.

  7. YES, I find reading aloud is one of the most valuable exercises to improve flow. I also do a fair amount of my 'writing' by speaking it aloud into a recorder and editing as I transcribe. Thanks for posting about this. I will add a link from my Twitter account!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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