Posts Tagged drama

‘Road trips require a soundtrack; so do some novels’ – The Undercover Soundrtrack, Linda Collison

for logoMy guest this week says she studied music in high school. She describes music as a time machine, and even indulges a wish that in a parallel life, she became a musician. (In common, I’m sure, with many of my Soundtrack guests – not least, me.) In this life, though, her instrument is words, and she compares writing to a long process of dreaming a journey. Her novel is the story of teenagers coming of age on a road trip and was a finalist in Foreword Review’s Book of the Year Award. She is Linda Collison, her novel is Looking For Redfeather, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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How to make an audiobook using ACX

Do you want to release your title as an audiobook? If you live in the US, you can go through ACX, the DIY arm of Audible, but ACX wasn’t open to UK authors – until now. For the past month, I’ve had both my novels in production as a test pilot, and now I can tell you what I’ve learned so far about offering a title, choosing a narrator and working with them.

acxWhat’s ACX?

Good question. ACX is a network where narrators and producers can meet authors who want their work released as audiobooks. Once you’ve hooked up, you can then use the site as an interface to create the book, keep track of contracts and monitor sales. In short, it’s genius.

Setting up

You know how tedious it is every time you set up an identity on a new site? All that form-filling and profile-making? ACX requires minimal faff. Once you tell them who you are and what book you’d like to offer, it pulls the detail off Amazon.

Getting voices

You can:

  • opt to narrate and produce the audiobook yourself, but to do this you must have professional-quality equipment and experience of sound editing, or the book won’t pass the quality check.
  • pluck a willing narrator/producer out of the ether – this is what I did.

Pitching your book

Next to your book info, you can add notes to make your book more attractive to collaborators – your platform, sales figures and anything else that will convince them you’re worth working with. Which brings me to…


Making an audiobook isn’t cheap. An average novel is about 10 hours of narration (roughly 90,000 words) and is likely to cost $200 or more per finished hour.

You have several options if you’re seeking a narrator/producer on ACX

  • pay up front
  • pay a royalty share (which I did)

All the ins and outs of this are much better explained on the ACX site, so check them out there.

mm acxMy acx journey – mistakes made and lucky discoveries

 Choose an audition passage

When I talked to the ACX crew, they told me many writers put up the first few pages as the audition piece. This can be a mistake, because the beginning may not be typical of the book’s action. I looked for a challenging scene with dramatic dialogue as well as the narrator’s internal thoughts, which I felt would test the reader’s approach more usefully.

I added notes about the context of the scene and the style of the book – and waited for auditions.

And lo, they rolled in. (This was in itself a wonderful surprise.) Once I got over the novelty, I realised I needed to tweak my presentation.

Accent& mistake #1 – ACX lets you specify the age, style and accent of the reader. Age and style were easy enough to choose, but accent caused me more trouble. I assumed this had to be British as, obviously, I’m a Brit, my characters are Brits and I write with British language. However, ACX is predominantly US, so that vastly reduced the available talent pool. Some of the voice actors did very credible Brit accents. Some couldn’t pull it off and sounded Chinese or German. Others ignored my stipulation – quite wisely as it turned out they sounded just fine in their natural accents. So I quickly realised accent was a detail that didn’t matter, and edited my directions. Indeed the narrator I chose is American.

Another reason to choose an accent other than your own is if the majority of your readers are in another territory. I sell a lot in the US, so an American accent might make them feel more at home.

Accent isn’t the only deciding factor, though.

Suitability for the material – While the narrator might be able to do a good job with the audition scene, you have to be sure they’ll interpret the whole of your book in the right way. A Regency romance needs a completely different approach from literary fiction, and I can imagine it’s a nightmare to realise your narrator simply doesn’t ‘get’ your book. If you have a contender, poke around in their ACX profile and follow up any websites where they demonstrate other books they’ve narrated. Also, ask them what they like to read.

Acting versus reading & mistake #2 – some books benefit from a reader who will do a lot of gutsy acting, including distinct voices for the main characters. But for most fiction, that’s too much. They’re journeys in prose and need a more intimate, subtle treatment, which might even sound flat to some ears. Listeners know they’re being read to. They don’t need rollicking declamation – or music or sound effects. And a good reader can make it clear who’s talking without bursting into different voices, so you actually need less ‘acting’ than you might think.

I made another mistake here in my original guidance notes for the audition. I didn’t ask for different character voices, but I did explain the book had sections in a different tone – the female narrator, and the future incarnation who was a male version of her. Thankfully, before it went live a friend pointed out that this might cause a lot of horrible baritone overacting, and that I should simply let the text do the work.

Ultimately, you choose a narrator on a hunch that they fit your work. One author I spoke to at LBF said he knew when he’d found his because the guy sounded like the ideal voice he’d have chosen – but better. That’s how I found mine too – although it was by a more roundabout route.

afterMeet Sandy

And here is Sandy Spangler – my narrator!

I had a shortlist of possible voices, including seasoned Broadway actors, but there was one question I couldn’t answer. When I looked into their backgrounds, none of them had narrated a novel like mine, and I was worried they wouldn’t get it. Then I remembered a friend who I’d heard do narration work – on a computer game, of all things. At the time, I noticed how she had an insightful, feisty quality that reminded me of Laurie Anderson. Even better, I knew her reading tastes made her a good fit.

I contacted her. She didn’t know about ACX, but she was keen to give it a go, registered and sent me an audition. Her reading was just right – inhabiting the material with well-judged expression and I knew the book would suit her personality. If you’ve been a subscriber here for a while you might recognise her from some of the goofy photos I’ve used on my posts. But her voice absolutely suits my kind of fiction, and if yours is like mine you might like her too (here’s her ACX page).

Our process

Here’s how we’re working.

Pronunciation guide – All books have peculiar words and names and you need to warn your narrator of these. We set up an editable file on Google docs. As I said, Sandy’s American and I’m a Brit, so we had to decide whether she should pronounce words like ‘leisure’ and ‘z’ in the UK or US version. I decided we could fiddle endlessly with this so I asked her to do whatever was natural. If we tried to anglicise everything there would be certain words we’d miss, or the stresses would still be American. And I didn’t want to get in the way of her doing the most instinctive job. So she says tomayto while I say tomahto. No big deal.

Pace - one of the first tasks is to approve the first 15 minutes of the audiobook. Sandy was afraid I might think she was reading too slow, but I felt the text suited a measured pace. ACX actually advise that you err on the side of slow because listeners can artificially speed the reading up if they want.

Pauses – you need pauses between paragraphs, scene switches, and maybe in other sections too. We spent an email exchange identifying exactly the right kind of pause for each.

Listen to finished chapters – You need to set aside time to listen to chapters as your narrator uploads them to ACX. We have a schedule and a chart where we tick off chapters I’ve approved or asked for modifications (usually these are pronunciations or stresses). ACX gives you a time code so you can pinpoint exactly where an edit is needed.


And that’s the story so far. If you’re interested in the finished audiobook, you can sign up for my newsletter here. And you can find out more about My Memories of a Future Life here. Next time, I’ll delve into the narrator’s side, including what exactly is involved in creating an audio book.

In the meantime, tell me: have you made an audiobook? Are you tempted to? Have you any tips to offer or questions to ask? Share in the comments!


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‘A trickle of notes can flood your thoughts with broken things’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Warren FitzGerald

for logoMy guest this week has studied music more closely than some. His previous artistic incarnation was a rock singer – both with a band of his own and performing as a session vocalist to vast venues. (If you’re very good, we’ll include a video of him so you can see for yourself.) Now he has settled into an artform of lower decibel, but he hasn’t left music behind. His latest novel, Tying Down The Sun, is the story of a kidnap in the Sierra Nevada and he used music to help him verbalise the landscape and to mark the plight of his captive characters as their ordeal wears on. He is Warren Fitzgerald and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Tragedy and loss are cornerstones of my story’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anne Allen

for logoOne of the special pleasures of hosting The Undercover Soundtrack is the honesty of the writing. My guests are ready to delve into their innermost creative spaces and share the bare, exacting process of turning memories, experiences and feelings into stories. My guest this week is one of those writers who drew on raw times to create the novel she shares with us. Music helped her examine two tragic losses, with their conflicting emotions and struggling hours. The soundtrack is haunting and melancholic, but is also rakish and fun – Rod Stewart makes a welcome appearance as life recovers and warms up again. The author is romantic mystery novelist Anne Allen and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Pictures in melody’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Aaron Sikes

for logoYou could divide my Undercover Soundtrack guests into those who aren’t put off by lyrics and those who are. My guest this week is one of the latter. He says that music with lyrics is too domineering when he’s trying to write – but that orchestral or ambient electronic music sets his imagination free to roam. His novel is a quirky noir of dirigibles, automata, back alleys and a hardboiled hack (the bipedal journalistic sort, not an equine), and his central character was honed by long hours simmering with Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Dark Knight. He is Aaron Sikes and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Everyone is haunted by something’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

for logoNo matter how many of these Undercover Soundtrack pieces I post – and by now it’s nearly 300 – I still get a thrill from reading a new one. There is such pleasure in delving into the essence of a writer’s creative soul, to be reminded that what we are doing is taking the personal and making it an experience we can invite the reader into. This week’s is no exception. It begins with the writer’s mother-in-law having hallucinations that she is hearing opera – a typical occurrence for elderly women living alone with impaired hearing. Then we progress to a haunted child narrator, who is unabashedly the essence of her writer-creator. Her first novel was nominated for the Harold Ribelow Award and she teaches at UCLA. She is also a renowned psychic. Her name is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Bring on the empty horses: handle synonyms with care

5232325286_09d118be15_zI have a friend who is French, and despite years of living in England, he uses a vocabulary that is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. He became a legend when he referred to a top-down convertible as a ‘topless’ car. (I am so looking forward to the SEO results of this first paragraph.)

I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and one of the narrative strands is in the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian who speaks very little English.

In an attempt to seem more educated and impress the hero, Alex is, as he himself would put it, ‘fatiguing his thesaurus’. In his account, people sitting around a dinner table or at the wheel of a car are ‘roosting’. If something is nice or good, it’s ‘premium’. If a character is standing still they are ‘reposed’; annoyed is ‘spleened’. Alex’s choices are often unintentionally ridiculous, and he has no idea of their appropriateness or connotation.

This creates various literary effects in the novel, which I’ll come back to if you’re curious. But actually, a lot of writers – across all types of fiction – choose words that make their action or characters unintentionally ludicrous or comic.

In times of trouble

This particularly seems to happen with dramatic moments.

In a fight, the heroes might be ‘whacking’ and ‘walloping’. A vulnerable character might get their hand ‘squashed’ under an attacker’s boot, or ‘bounce’ down the stairs. These words might be accurate, but they have a comic ring that ruins the atmosphere. In a scene where a much-loved character is found murdered, there will be ‘blood-splattered’ walls. (Try this instead from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’) Someone discovers the body and lets out a ‘squeal’ or a ‘squeak’ – which sounds jolly instead of appalled.

9780340839959Accuracy and gusto

This might happen for a number of reasons. Quite a few of my clients are merry souls even though they write dark stories. Or they’re trying to make a description dynamic, but in their vigour they pick a word that has gusto instead of menace. Or they’re trying to be accurate about what’s in their mind’s eye – after all, blood probably does splatter and spurt from a slashed artery. The trouble is, it sounds slapstick.

In prose, words suggest pictures and atmosphere just by their shape and sound. Those beginning with ‘s’ seem to be especially risky – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unfortunate appearances of squashed, spattered, squatted, squirmed and squelched.

Ear and eye

To control our text fully, we need to develop an ear for the mood suggested by a word, and for how it looks on the page. This is different from the way they might work if you were describing the scene to friends, who would have your personality and vocal delivery to disguise the odd inappropriate word. Similarly, you might be led astray if you read a lot of scripts instead of prose. Screenwriters don’t have to be so sensitive to these subtleties. They are presenting instructions for an experience that will come to life in other media.

But on the page, you are creating the actual experience. Your word choice is your tone, the personality behind the scene, the theme music, the lighting. We have to examine these qualities every word we use, both its sound and its shape. Look at that Thomas Harris line again, about a gore-splattered room: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’

In Everything Is Illuminated, the word choices appear oafishly comic, haphazard; mangled, even. As with all well-executed tomfooling, this belies a great deal of skill. Each odd word has been chosen by the author with great care, with an eye and ear for the grace of a sentence, for how jarring or surprising it might be, and to encourage us to think of what it might really mean. And this clumsiness also gives the narrator a great transparency; he is so unaware of other connotations his narrative has a quality of charm and honesty.

Choose synonyms with care.

Thanks for the thesaurus pic, Julie Jordan Scott

Do you have trouble picking the right synonym? Do you have any examples of writers whose descriptions hit the spot for you – or don’t? Let’s share in the comments!

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‘Drumming is my heartbeat’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Wendy Storer

for logoThis striking phrase is a manifesto for a character who lives, breathes and seeks refuge in music. She is Daisy, an aspiring musician coping with a family member who is slipping into dementia. In the early stages of writing, her creator found that she would judge every piece of music she heard on whether Daisy would love it or not – and so the character was created by a series of instinctual responses. Memory is necessarily a theme here too, which became strangely real for the author as the music of her teens brought back the times she messed up at school, fell in love and wanted something so badly it didn’t seem possible. She is Wendy Storer and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘This song says it’s time to get serious’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rebecca Cantrell

for logoMy guest this week says she always begins a project by assembling a sequence of music tracks. To start with, she notices every word and note, but after a while they settle into a familiar environment – a mental writing room that claims her attention and tells her it’s time to immerse. The novel she’ll be sharing with us is set in 1938, so her soundtrack is a mix of her own favourite contemporary songs to help capture the mood, and then a lot of material from the period of her story to conjure the historical period. She is NYT bestselling thriller author Rebecca Cantrell, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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