Sunday, February 24, 2019

Talking of Books: A Look At Audio

Zoë Sharp

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about writing fiction was to read the words aloud. Reading your own work really helps you to pinpoint those clunky bits of narrative or dialogue, or those descriptive scenes that go on for just a bit too long.

Better yet, I’ve found, is to get somebody else to read your work back to you. After all, you as the author know how the rhythm of the story should run and where the emphasis should go for maximum dramatic effect.

"Listen very carefully. I will say this only once..."

But, if those clues are not present in the way the words are presented on the page, then your reader is never going to be able to reproduce that same rhythm in their head. I’ve always believed that more than the subject matter, the characters or the plot, it’s the individual voice of the writer that turns casual readers into continuing fans.

When you pick up a book by an author unknown to you, before you’ve finished the first paragraph—often even the opening sentence—you just know if you like the sound of that writer’s voice. I had this with the first Robert B Parker novel I picked up, the first Ken Bruen and the first Lee Child. More recently, I happened across the Wyatt Storme series by WL Ripley. They all have such a distinctive style that flicks a switch inside my head. Something in the back of my mind goes, “Yes!” and I have to read on.

I confess I have this same feeling when I start to listen to an audiobook by a particular narrator. There are some books by authors I love, but I simply can’t stand the way the narrator sounds. And vice versa, some narrators are so good, I’d listen to them read from their shopping list if I got the chance.

Much as listening to Rowan Atkinson go through an imaginary school register is a riot, for some reason I’ve never found his Mr Bean character funny.

Lewis Hancock falls firmly into the category of narrators I could listen to all day. (I wonder if I could persuade him to record that Rowan Atkinson sketch…?) I know I’m not the only person who thinks so. I’ve listened to all kinds of books he’s read, some of which would not have been my usual choice. But with Lewis speaking the words to me, I am invariably glued to the story.

I was lucky enough to have Lewis as the narrator for THE BLOOD WHISPERER and he made a wonderful job of it. I have to confess, though, that the extract they chose for Amazon UK sample is taken from the one mildly kinky sex scene in the book, which I’m not sure is entirely representative. I swear I can hear the smile in Lewis’s voice as he’s reading it.

Last week, I spent a day in Manchester at Greenbank Studios in Sale, listening to Lewis record part of DANCING ON THE GRAVE, which came out in print and digital formats last year. The audio edition will be out very soon from Oakhill.

Lewis spends a lot of time before he gets to the recording stage prepping a print-out of the manuscript. He adds his own punctuation so he’s not taken by surprise by convoluted sentence construction—although I do try not to include too much of that.

Lewis Hancock, in an uncharacteristic serious moment.

He also checks pronunciation of unfamiliar places and names, and chooses suitable voices for the different characters if they’re not specified in the text. (And there’s nothing worse, he reckons, than mentally rehearsing one accent for a character, only to find out near the end of the story that they speak with another. Or—worse still—it not being mentioned until book two…)

The technician at the studio was Liam Wheatley. It was his job not only to handle the actual recording of the narrative, but to monitor the quality of the sound and check for errors.

Liam Wheatley at the flight deck.
Watching Liam work was amazing. Originally from a screenwriting background, he’s been working for Greenbank since 2014 and can actually read the waveform of the audio track. So, if there was unexpected background noise, or Lewis tripped up on a sentence, he was able to instantly pinpoint the location. He’d take the cursor back to partway through the last clean section, which he’d play to Lewis in the sound booth next door, cutting back to recording just before the error so Lewis could pick up the narrative again. And he did it in less time than it’s just taken me to explain the process.

This means that Lewis feels able to stop and go back if there’s a piece he’s just read that he’s not happy with, without worrying about slowing the job down too much.

Liam also follows the text on screen, and pays enough attention to point out the occasional missed or transposed word. Sadly, not everybody takes such care over the text.

He takes just as much trouble over post-production. The system he uses, Pro Tools, marks all the pick-up points so Liam can go back later to close up any extended pauses. He also removes any page-turning noises, mouth clicks or breaths. Having listened to THE BLOOD WHISPERER, as well as other recordings done by this partnership, I can vouch for the quality of Liam’s work.

Spending the day watching Lewis and Liam work was illuminating. Here are just a few of the notes I took during it:
  • Try to pick names that are easy to pronounce quickly, unlike Frederickson, Blenkinship, and Sibson.
  • Quick swaps between characters with very different accents can be very tricky.
  • Exciting bits flowed better. It seemed easier with some impetus behind the words.
  • It’s very hard when using a Geordie (Newcastle) accent, to have a character say angrily, “With all due respect, sir!” and not have him come out sounding Scottish.
  • The words "bull bars" can sound remarkably like "ball bars", which conjures up entirely the wrong image!
  • It would make life much easier for the narrator if you invented a character who spoke with a stutter or a lot of phlegm in his voice…

So, my question this week is, do you listen to audiobooks more now than you used to? Do you follow certain authors or certain narrators particularly? What irritates you about an audiobook recording? What do you like best about them?

My thanks to Lewis and to Liam for their patience and forbearing. I tried not to stick my oar in too often, guys!

If you’re looking to have an audio recording made of your work, it would be well worth talking to Liam at Greenbank Studios. Contact him at

This week’s Word of the Week is vicissitude, meaning a passing from one state to another, an alternation, mutation or change, usually for the worse. It comes from the Latin vicis meaning change.

Upcoming Events:

March 8-10
CRIME & PUBLISHMENT—The Mill Forge, Gretna
Workshops on Getting Your Action Scenes Right
Caro Ramsay is also teaching at this event—Breaking Bones For Fun

May 9-12
Friday, May 10, 13:40-14:30
Contemporary Issues: Reflecting How We Live

Saturday, May 11, 11:20-12:10
Ten Year Stretch: The CrimeFest Short Story Anthology
Peter GuttridgeCaro Ramsay, Zoë SharpMichael Stanley (Stan Trollip), Kate Ellis (Participating Moderator)

Sunday, May 12, 09:30-10:20
The Indie Alternative


  1. Valuable points as always, Zoe.

    We find character names particularly tricky. Black African names are quite hard for readers, even when they only have to say them in their heads let alone read them aloud. It's easy to mix up characters if the names are hard to pronounce. Whether the pronunciation is correct or not is less important. (Except in the case of Sithole - a common name here - where some readers added an extra h in an unfortunate place. Shades of Trump.)

    We loved Simon Prebble's rendition of our first book - A Carrion Death - but he did decide one Tswana character was an Indian for accent purposes. Probably no one cared except us!

    1. Thank you, Michael. I can imagine that character names from Africa might be very tricky. Mind you, there's a village in the Lake District that visitors thing is pronounced "Longs-lee-dale" but the locals call it "Long Sleddle" which is not nearly so attractive. And there's "Wet Sleddle" as well, which definitely sounds like an insult. Never mind Holker, which is pronounced "Hooker"...

    2. Needless to say we don't use names that have any of the local languages click sounds. Xhosa, for example, has three basic clicks: c for dental clicks, x for lateral clicks and q for post-alveolar clicks. Some of the KhoiSan languages have dozens of click variations. Listen to this YouTube example.

    3. What an amazing language, Stan!

  2. Good observations, Zoe. You've show there's a lot more that goes into producing a quality audiobook than merely reading the text.
    I listen to a couple dozen audiobooks pretty much every year. An inconsistent or less skillful narration can make all the difference for a satisfying reading experience.
    I think a good narrator understands you don't have to inject a major voice characterization for the listener to understand different characters. Subtlety should be her watchword. Guttural or nasal inflections are over the top and take me out of the story.
    Simon Prebble, Davina Porter, George Guidall, Eric Conger, and, recently, January LaVoy are narrators I enjoy.
    I dislike books narrated by multiple readers. It changes the story in my head. I'd recommend against it.

    1. Hi David, and thank you. It was an eye-opening experience but very enjoyable as well. I agree that subtlety is key. You don't need an exaggerated accent, just enough so that the listener knows who's supposed to be speaking, which is very useful with authors who don't attribute dialogue very much. Numerous times when I've been reading a book I've had to go back over a page of dialogue mentally going 'Him. Her. Him. Her. Him. Ah, that bit's her...'

  3. Between yours, Stan’s, and David’s advice, this is one of the best tutorials on audiobooks EVER. The one audiobook I remember most was one I listened to in my pick-up truck driving back alone to New York City from the outer banks of North Carolina in late September 2001. I’d picked it up in a “dollar bin” at a roadside convenience store. It was a Cormac McCarthy novel narrated by some unknown actor at the time it was recorded. I was blown away by the unexpected brilliance of a complex narration. As for the name of the narrator, how’s this for a vissisitude: Brad Pitt.

    1. Thank you, Jeff. You're a gent, sir--no matter what people say.

      Great story about Brad Pitt reading the Cormac McCarthy. What a wonderful travelling companion to have on your journey!

  4. I, too, think that reading aloud what you have written is essential. As you say, it highlights awkwardness and invites rhythm.

    1. I agree, Stan. But listening to someone else read it to you can be surprising. I used to belong to a writers' critique group where we'd email stuff out to the group beforehand and then bring our comments and notes on the day, as well as having someone other than the author read part of the piece out loud. I really learned a lot from the experience.

  5. Z, I have had some of my books butchered, and one—so far— brilliantly read, but Dennis Kleinman. Based on his wonderful narration of Strange Gods, he is now at work on Idol of Mombasa and The Blasphemers. My experience tells me that writers need to produce their own audio books, to make sure that the narrator gets it right.

    I love to listen to books, especially ones that I have already read and want to read again, something I enjoy, but that I can’t ordinarily take the time to do, Audio allows me to do hear the story again.

  6. Hi Annamaria. I try to listen to my audiobooks through once when I first get them, just for my own information, to see which bits work and don't work. I discovered one audio narrator didn't understand terminal velocity, '32ft per second, per second' as I'd written it, and instead put emphasis on the last two words, as if that was my intention. I now know, if I need to include that again, to write it differently to prevent confusion.

    I too love talking books often more than radio plays, as David mentioned. It does alter the story quite a bit. Lovely to have a story read to you when you haven't time to sit and read yourself, though.