Interviews Writing for Audio Audible editor Katie O’Connor explores the craft of writing for the audio format with Audible Originals authors Samantha Allen, Lauren Blakely, Dennis Mahoney, and Ben H. Winters, as well as two editors of Audible Originals, Lara Blackman and Steve Feldberg. By Katie O'Connor stop mute max volume 00:00 16:32 repeat Update Required To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin. Note: Listen as you follow along with this audio essay. Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.Hi, listeners! I’m Audible Editor Katie O’Connor, and I’m excited to be exploring the craft of writing for audio with you. I’m currently pursuing my MFA in creative writing, and in my work with my professors and fellow students, I’ve noticed just how much my time at Audible the last eight years has impacted my writing style. I lean heavily into dialogue in my fiction, and I obsessively read my work aloud before submitting it to others to read—I’m constantly cognizant of the way it sounds.This influence, I believe, has made me a better writer, but my time at Audible has made these stylistic choices second nature. After a conversation with a professor last year about Audible and the process of writing for audio, I started thinking about authors who write audio originals, and how their craft does or does not change when they’re writing for audio.To answer this question, I set out to interview four Audible Originals authors and two of Audible’s in-house Originals editors. The editors—Steve Feldberg and Lara Blackman—see unique challenges when working with an author who is new to the audio-first format. For Steve, the chief obstacle is an author’s natural tendency towards wordiness: “One of the big differences between writing for print and writing for audio is that in print you can overcome wordiness, because people don't always read every word, and also through kind of punctuation and the way that it lays out on the page, you know, it can work for the eye, but when you start writing for audio, every single one of those words registers with the person who's listening.” In other words, when you’re writing for audio, you should be asking yourself the question—is there a simpler way to say this? Can I make the same point in a clearer, more succinct way? For editor Lara, it’s a lack of dialogue that’s the most obvious issue for new audio-first writers: “I feel like people coming to audio for the first time sometimes are not making as much use of dialogue as they could be. To me, you know, when I'm editing something that I know is for audio I'm always trying to look for ways to have dialogue be the thing that's moving the plot forward, have that being really front and center to give the narrators a chance to perform and really go all out.”In addition to moving the plot forward, dialogue can also be used help to convey emotion or body language, rather than relying on descriptive prose. Lara continues: “I worked on a thriller called In Her Skin [by Alex Kiester], which came into me as a project that was potentially going to be a print book, but ended up being an original. And the characters in that book, there was a ton of body language stuff, like always rolling their eyes or shrugging or giving little looks to each other or something. And, you know, if moments like that can be performed, can be kind of taken care of in dialogue, I think that's a lot more effective.”Editor Steve has a similar gripe: “One aspect of writing for audio that I find with a lot of writers, when I'm listening to a novel that obviously was written for print and then it was just produced for audio, is when a character says something and then you [the writer] immediately describe their emotion or you immediately describe, you know, the accent in which they delivered that line. […] And so when I'm working with writers, you don't have to tell me that the person was angry when they said that because the narrator's gonna understand the tone of that and they're gonna deliver that line in that way.”The performance element of audio can capture emotions expressed in dialogue. Adding dialogue tags with descriptive adverbs (he said angrily; she replied sadly) can create a redundant experience for the listener. Best-selling romance author Lauren Blakely avoids this trap in her audiobooks by supplying her narrators with stage directions: “We can have a lot of, ‘He laughs, he points, he gestures,’ that sort of thing that can remind us in the e-book who's talking, and can be necessary. But sometimes you don't need that in audio, and sometimes it can be a little distracting. […] And a lot of times you can just include it as a parenthetical stage direction. I adapt my script when it's duet narration or full cast narration. Sometimes I'll just include as a parenthetical, you know, ‘Dean laughed, Brin laughed,’ whatever, and let the actors decide if that feels right in that moment.” The duet narration or full cast narration that Lauren references often sound like you’re listening to a movie or a play. In those instances, dialogue tags would truly take you out of the performance. In more traditional audiobooks, where one narrator is performing either the entire book or a chapter by themselves, there is still a need for the occasional dialogue tag, but you can play with their order to improve the listening experience. Author and podcaster Dennis Mahoney observes: “One thing I noticed [in writing for audio] was something like dialogue attribution. An example would be, ‘We're going to the graveyard,’ she said. I picked up my flashlight and knife. ‘I'm ready,’ I said. That's how I'd write it in print. There's a formality to it. But if I were telling you that story at a party, I'd probably put the attribution first. So it would be, She said, ‘We're going to the graveyard.’ I picked up my knife and flashlight and said, ‘I'm ready.’ So the syntax is just changed, because it feels less stilted. You’d never do that I said, she said in a bar conversation.”That conversational tone that Dennis touches on is a critical part of the listening experience, and it’s a stylistic choice that can be leveraged in both fiction and nonfiction. Journalist, author, and LGBTQIA+ advocate Samantha Allen said that while working on her Audible Original she aimed to make her writing more conversational:“I generally made my sentences shorter, unless I was lengthening them for comic effect, and I tried to make, honestly, the prose a little more intimate and warm and more second-person. You know, I feel like writing for audio opens up that space where you're really talking directly to a reader and you can really lean into that in your prose in a way that I enjoy.”Dennis also picked up on that intimacy—that connection between writer and listener—in his work: “Whether or not someone's listening to my audio live, there is a voice out there. And the talking somehow feels closer to actual conversation. And that just became very exciting for me.”Samantha sought that connection with her listeners in her Audible Original M to (WT)F in the form of humor: “I feel like when you come up with a joke or like a funny observation or a little quip, so much of it depends on timing, on pacing, on tone of voice […] I feel like writing it for the audio opens up this, you know, fourth dimension of the writing, where you can write for those moments of levity. You can write for the tone or for the pause or, uh, or for the punchline. And that's really exciting, you know, 'cause I feel like the humor that was showing up in my previous print writing would be like these little droll moments that I would let kind of surface in the text, and you get access to such a broader range when you're doing something for audio, you know. You can have parts of it be silly. You can have parts of it be wry. You can have parts of it be self-deprecating. You can have parts of it be comically self-aggrandizing, you know. You can just go in all sorts of directions that you can unlock with your voice.”Samantha uses her humor and uses her voice to break the fourth wall between the writer and listener in M to (WT)F, which is a collection of stories about her gender transition. In this clip, Samantha is describing her first experiences with her new therapist, and uses a food metaphor to joke directly with the listener: stop M to (WT)F Clip from Samantha Allen's Original M to (WT)F 00:00 28:49 Update RequiredTo play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin. I warned you I was going to stick with that metaphor—this simple aside from Samantha creates a direct link with the listener, making us feel as though we are truly having a conversation with a friend. It creates an intimacy and a familiarity with the author, that allows us to become even more invested in her journey. It also enhances the quality of her performance. And her focus on the performative aspect was a wise choice, because as editors Steve and Lara agree, the performance is critical for listeners. When asked what’s the biggest expectation listeners bring to an audiobook vs. a print book, Steve replied: “Well, I think the main thing is the quality of the performance […] And I definitely had cases in my own listening, not just in projects that I've done, but just in my own listening where a good book can be made great by the right narrator.”Lara agrees: “I think that honestly a listener brings really high expectations for a narrator. So, you know, our job, and I don't really work directly with narrators unless my author is doing an author read and is reading their own work, but I think that, our job, to sort of that end, is to give them really great material to work with and to give them a chance to shine and to bring the characters in the story to life in as vibrant a way as possible. Dennis Mahoney, though not a narrator on his Audible works, does have performative experience through his podcast Equinox Society Radio, a podcast of dark and otherworldly stories. Through this work, Dennis has found a link between performance and character development: “I've liked being able to revisit the same characters over and over again. I liked that their voices do need to come out more. It's forced me to get to know my characters better, knowing I'm going to need to read them in my voice and it needs to feel like I'm reading Amanda or this is clearly Claire's voice. And there are little vocal ticks and there are little catchphrases, um, that sounds cheesy. But it might be something like, they all have a sign-on and a sign-off when they're doing their reports. So Claire always begins with, ‘Hey, it's Claire.’ Because she's a middle-aged woman and she's tough and she's flat and she's funny. As opposed to Amanda who's much younger and happier and brighter and it's, you know, ‘Hey, Dennis!!!’ It's always, everything about her is just, you know, extra excited and very enthusiastic. And you can hear my voice change a little as I'm doing those. It's helped me get into the characters more. The minute you can hear them, the words begin to start to choose themselves differently.”This can be a great exercise in character development for any writer. As you’re working on a scene, you should try performing it out loud and seeing what comes out. How does the character change? What do you learn about them? Do they talk fast or slow? Are they timid or boisterous? Do they stumble over their words, or is there a formality to their speech? In Dennis’ Audible Original Ghostlove, he uses the communion of a spirit and a human to unlock the emotions of the former. The resulting experience is very evocative of his character development work. Listen in: stop Ghostlove Clip from Dennis Mahoney's Original Ghostlove 00:00 28:49 Update RequiredTo play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin. Lauren Blakely, who’s known for full cast productions filled with several favorite romance narrators, leverages her close relationship with these performers for character development. When asked if she has the narrators in mind from the very beginning when working on a new story, or if she thinks about the casting later, Lauren replied that “a lot of it happens at the same time.” Recently, she even let one of her narrators in on a character decision: “I have a book that Shane [East] is doing next year, it's gonna come out in 2021 called The Muse, and it's a little different for me because it's a contemporary romance with magical elements and it's art coming alive in a museum and there's ghosts of artists from the past and curses and all sorts of things, and all of the characters are either French or British. And I had one character where I could kind of go either way, where she could be French or British. […] I was messaging him [East] and I was like, ‘All right, you've got 10 French characters, you've got one Scottish character, you've got a bunch of English characters, I've got this one unassigned character, do you want her to be French or British?’ (laughs). And I let him pick, because he's the one who's gonna be balancing all of those voices in the audiobook, and it didn't make a difference to me in terms of who she was or how she interacts with anybody else.”This close partnership between author and performer definitely comes across in Blakely’s works, but the example she provides and the scope of The Muse highlights one of the advantages of audio. It’s much easier to convey accents and dialogue to a listener than it is to a reader. A disadvantage? Relying on the listener to remember who all these distinct speakers are, especially when a character hasn’t appeared for a while. Award-winning author Ben H. Winters observes: “I think when you're writing a novel, there's a certain expectation, like in a book, a reader might flip back and forth, remind themselves of things, you know? And with the experience of listening to a book, I think, tends to be more just straight-up linear. Like, people aren't necessarily stopping and going back and trying to find where they were to remind themselves of details. So I think you need to be a little more careful about it, if a character reappears, you know, four or five chapters on, of making sure you reinforce who that person is.”The editors agree:“You do need to be reminding the listener a little bit more about who the character is, or we haven't mentioned somebody for 73 pages, and, you know, remembering that, if I'm reading that book I could flip backwards until I find that person's name. But you really want to be mindful of that in audio because you can't do that. You never want the listener to stumble, because that audio is gonna keep going for the most part. You know, somebody's driving and they're listening, they're not going to be able to stop it.” –Steve Feldberg“If, you know, the whole plot hinges on one quick sentence, and if you miss that sentence, then you're completely lost, that just really doesn't work, and I think that you see that a lot. […] You can be stylistic, you can do things that are fun, stylistically, without being too subtle, I think, and that's a big challenge as well.” –Lara BlackmanStylistic advantages can sometimes feel more abundant—and a bit subtler—in print. For example, authors often communicate the passage of time via italics. Steve observes: “You can use a lot of visual devices to tell the story or to indicate things. So for example, if you have a story that's heavy on flashbacks, you know, a lot of time, somebody will use italics to show that we're in a different time. And one of the things about listening to that same story in audio is that it's a continuous process of listening, and that change in typeface, you know, that visual thing that's supposed to indicate we're in a different place or time, doesn't happen in audio.”So how can you communicate that change to a listener? Lauren Blakely’s latest Audible Original, One of Those Flings, handles this by subtly fading in and out of conversations. Listen in: stop One of Those Flings Clip from Lauren Blakely's Original One of Those Flings 00:00 28:49 Update RequiredTo play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin. Lauren has decided that the story of the hero’s ex isn’t critical to the plot. She carefully fades in and out, communicating that time has passed, and now we’re later on in their date. The ambient noise in the background also helps orient the listener, and makes them feel like they’re at the restaurant with the couple. Soundscape—the closing of a door, the starting of an engine—can replace prose in audiobooks, adding to the exposition. Ben Winters mulls on the possibilities: “There's a lot of opportunity to imagine the kind of soundscape or whatever you wanna call it of the piece where you know that this is gonna be first and foremost for ears […] Where are the kinda long pauses? What are the kinda background things that are going on?”Ben also explores the way that sound can become a part of the storytelling in a novella he’s working on for Audible called Q&A, which will come out in January: “So the opening scene of that is an interview quite like this one, between a writer and a lawyer, and the writer is there to collect information for a book he's writing. So it's like the fact that it's on tape, the fact that it's a conversation is part of the storytelling.”For his Audible Original that’s out now, Inside Jobs, Ben leaned very much into our current times. He imagines pandemic life in a collection of three high-stakes stories: “You know, I'm never gonna write a book about quarantine, because by the time I write it and it's edited and comes out, it's gonna be a year and a half from now. […] And this will be, hopefully (laughs), this will be in the rear-view mirror. But with Audible, I was like, I can write short stories pretty quickly. That are very much part of this moment. It was just sort of almost like a way of coping with it for me, psychologically.”The nimble nature of audio allowed the project to come to life for listeners very quickly. The first story in the collection, The Crimson Parrot, highlights the difficulties of working from home—even for criminals, who are trying to plan a robbery over zoom. And audio is uniquely positioned to bring zoom frustrations to life: stop Inside Jobs Clip from Ben H. Winters' Original Inside Jobs 00:00 28:49 Update RequiredTo play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin. Even criminal masterminds have to battle with mundane technologies during the pandemic. Knowing that this project was going to be audio only dictated a lot of the experience for Ben:“I had the multiple voices in mind […] the fact that it was going to be read aloud informed the tone of it from the beginning, which is really fun.” Ben taps into an interesting question here, which many writers might not consider—how can writing for audio change your tone? For editor Steve, that difference lies in the cadence of a story: “I think a lot about when I'm reading through things, I think a lot about the beat, you know, of how that comes out of somebody's mouth when they're performing that. And it's a little bit different because when you're reading, when you're reading a book, you're kind of imagining the cadence of the writing in your own head. […] But when it's spoken out loud, that cadence becomes very important. And I really do think of stories and writing as having beats.” Cadence and beats become important in performance, as do the different sounds that various words make, which is something you might not consider on the page. Take Lauren Blakely’s example of homophones: “Sometimes there's even little things like homophones that you think about more as you do more and more audio. I had a chapter (laughs), a chapter opening in A Guy Walks into My Bar that said, ‘As soon as the door closes, we're tearing off clothes,’ and it was fine in the e-book, you don't really think about it because the words mean two different things (laughs), but until I heard it in audio, I thought, oh, that doesn't really sound great so I did a pick up for the actress and said, ‘As soon as we shut the door, we're tearing off clothes.’”All four of the authors I spoke with noted the benefits of writing for audio, and how it positively impacted their writing. Samantha Allen sums up her experience nicely: “I feel like writing for audio just makes you a better writer overall, you know. I feel like the lessons I've learned writing an Audible Original are ones that I'm going to carry with me as I continue to write print or print books or digital books or that kind of thing. I feel like there are differences in doing it, but I also feel like there are things you learn writing for audio that are just general lessons about how to make sure your sentence structure doesn't get too clunky. You know, I've written two books before. Both were author read narrations, but I wasn't really thinking about the audiobook version when I was writing them, and then I would get in the recording booth (laughs) and I would be like, ‘Why do these sentences have so many em dashes? Why did I write sentences that I have to take four breaths to get through?’ It exposes you to the flaws in your own writing real fast to write something without having heard it spoken aloud first, I think. So I feel like the adjustments I've made writing for Audible are things I'm going to carry with me.”And as we’ve seen from Lauren, who writes romance, Dennis, who writes about the supernatural, Samantha, who writes nonfiction, and Ben, who writes across genres, there is no limit to the type of story that can be told in audio. Ben comments: “I think that anything that can be successful in print can be successful in audio. I think that, you know, you might go yeah, like mysteries or sci-fi, kinda big concept stuff with a lot of crazy action in it might lend itself better 'cause you can record the sound of the screech of the tires or the gun fire or the- you know, whatever it is, or the spaceship landing, all that kinda stuff. And that can be part of the tapestry of it. But like the kind of romantic fiction or literary fiction, whatever it is, there are powerful things that can happen in the audio format that, you know, that can happen in any of those things, too. So I think it's just a matter of how it's produced, how it's acted, whatever the emotional power is of any kind of good work of fiction or nonfiction, for that matter, can be reproduced in audio with enough sort of ingenuity and quality of the production and the performances. […] You know, a small moment can become large in an audiobook in the same way it does in a book.”So where is the future of writing for audio going? Our editors have some thoughts: “I mean, this might be a very hopeful answer, but I think that as the medium of audio storytelling, especially in fiction continues to grow, that I think that we're just gonna see more and more works that are really written with audio in mind from the very first sentence.” –Lara BlackmanFor Steve, the future lies in exploring the form itself, and he’s on the hunt for authors who aren’t afraid to explore the possibilities: “It has a lot more to do with thinking about the use of sound in your storytelling, or to think about ways that people communicate with each other that is not, you know, the traditional prose writing of first-person storytelling or third-person storytelling. And I think for a lot of writers, you know, that's a leap that they had never actually considered. But when you find the writers who are really adept at doing that, even if they've never done it before, it's really a revelation.”Writing for audio can change your craft, and it can change it for the better. It can teach you to write more fluid sentences. It can help you eliminate unnecessary dialogue tags. It can allow you to get to know your characters better. Writing for audio can also allow you to tap into other areas of your creativity. How can you use dialogue to push the plot forward? How can sounds be employed to communicate scene or setting instead of prose? What dialects or accents can be used to create a richer experience? And even if you’re not writing exclusively for audio, reading your work out loud as you go can help you avoid run-on sentences, and ensure that your characters are fully formed. The possibilities are endless.This was produced and written by me, Katie O’Connor. Thank you to the authors and editors who participated, Samantha Allen, Lauren Blakely, Dennis Mahoney, Ben Winters, Lara Blackman, and Steve Feldberg. And a special thanks to Michael Collina, Aaron Schwartz, and Harvey Hix. All of the audio was recorded at home, by me. Post production by Brian Corcoran. Production copyright 2020 by Audible, Inc. Tags Audible Originals Interviews Download this essay Writing for Audio Recommended The Best Black Audiobook Narrators to Listen To Right Now Escape From Our Echo Chambers Starts With Listening Greatness Claire Adam's Debut Novel 'Golden Child' Shows That No Person Is An Island, Even When Living On One 7 Ways You Can Enjoy The Baby-Sitters Club Up Next For Danielle Evans Authenticity is Key to Relevant and Timely Storytelling The author's award-winning short story collection 'Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self' is now available in audio for the first time and hitting notes that make it seem as relevant today as it was 10 years ago.