Ask Correia #17: Writing for the Ear, Tweaking Your Writing To Work Better in Audiobook Form

The Ask Correia posts come about because people would ask me writing related questions, and my answers wound up big enough to turn into blog posts. This one was a little different because it came from a conversation I was having with one of the directors at Audible. He was teaching a seminar about how writers could make their work more successful in audio format, and wanted to get a few quotes from me. (apparently I do okay in audio!)

Only then I got to thinking about it, and that’s really a great topic. It has caused me to change my writing style over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever talked about how.

Some background. If I could do as well in regular book sales what I do in audio, I would be on top of the world. Audible has provided me with absolutely fantastic narrators, and my writing style lends itself well to narration. Put those two things together and you end up with great sales. I’ve been the #1 bestseller, I’ve got a book on the top 100 of all time, I’ve been nominated for a bunch of Audies and won a few.

I can’t talk too much about narrators. Picking narrators is beyond most authors’ control. The publisher is going to pick them for you. If you are indy, then you can hire your own, but you probably won’t be in position to afford well known top shelf talent. And believe me, narrators are talent. The best of them are high quality professional actors. Some of mine have had a lot of success in movies and TV, and they’ve told me that voice acting can be more challenging than being on screen because you don’t get to show anything with your body, everything you are feeling has to be demonstrated through your voice.

I’ve been blessed with some amazing narrators, but I’m not the one who hired them. I’m a terrible actor, and this post is aimed at writers, so I’m going to concentrate on:

How writers can make their audiobooks better

First, think about it from the consumer’s side of things. Listening to a book is a different experience than reading it. Things that are unnoticeable on the page can become jarring in your ear. That is because visually, when you are reading fast, your brain will sometimes skip over certain extraneous things.  When every word is delivered, it will register different. Things which are overused or repetitive are noticed more when delivered, because you can’t unconsciously skim.

Most of the time you are producing one product that will then appear in different formats. So you can’t really maximize it for one or the other, but you want to write it in a manner that works well for both.

Read your stuff out loud.

I don’t do this as much when I’m writing the first draft, but when I am editing, I will usually read everything aloud. Dialog that is unnatural, stilted, or weird is going to be obvious when you hear it, even if it looks okay when you see it.

If your family thinks you’ve gone insane, close the door or turn your radio up and get talking. Even if your writing isn’t going to get turned into an audiobook, this is still a valuable exercise to weed out stupid dialog or awkward descriptions. You don’t need to do voices, or be loud, just muttering it to yourself will usually reveal the awkward bits.

Keep in mind however, that in either format you do not want to write exactly like people talk. That’s because in real life most speakers use a lot of uhm… err… uh… pauses and brain farts.

If you write all those noises down that people make when they’re thinking of what to say, it becomes annoying for the reader. I try to use that stuff sparingly in fictional dialog, and when I do, I try to use it only when it is going to tell the reader something about that character. So if you’ve got somebody where it is important to convey their awkwardness, nervousness, or hesitancy, do it, but try not to overdo it. A realistic amount of ums and urrs will annoy readers and waste your listener’s time. Same with affections like ending every sentence with know what I’m saying? A little bit goes a long way. A good narrator is going to convey those character traits, and in written form you can convey that stuff through the story you tell around them.

Oh, and that one liner that sounded really super cool in your head? Reading it out loud will help you realize if it actually sucks.

Make sure your narrator knows about the technical jargon

My narrators have all been excellent, but they can’t be experts on everything, and sometimes an author takes things for granted. If you are using terms that are familiar to you and your readers, that doesn’t mean your narrator knows what they are, so behind the scenes suggestions about pronunciations will be appreciated.

This is especially true if you are writing something with Riot Nerd Weapon Speak in it, because only a gun nut will see 30-06 and know that it is pronounced Thirty Aught Six or 7.62×39 is Seven Point Six Two By Thirty Nine. Never assume and never take your narrator for granted. Be thorough and be professional. The same basic thing applies to your made up fantasy or alien names too. Give the narrator some direction otherwise they are going to have to guess.

Don’t overuse dialog tags.

The biggest change I made to my own writing after listening to my books on audio was to drastically reduce the number of dialog tags. It turns out that most of the time you write he said/she said/Bob said, it isn’t necessary. This becomes readily apparent when you are listening, because every extraneous one of those punches you in the ear.

When a listener is immersed in a really good audio performance, and the narrator delivers this compelling, profound, dramatic line SAID BOB. It kicks the listener out of the experience, because they already knew that was Bob speaking, so why did you say that?

Overuse of tags is also annoying in written form, but it is the kind of thing that most people will unconsciously skim.

The only purpose dialog tags serve is for clarity. They are there to avoid confusion. If the reader can’t tell who is saying what, they get confused. And in writing the two unforgivable sins are Confusion and Boredom.

Ideally, your character’s voices are going to be distinct enough that there will be clues in the dialog itself for the reader to easily understand who is saying what. However, sometimes you just have to have dialog tags. If there are only two people having a back and forth conversation, then it is really easy to get by with a minimum amount of dialog tags. The more people speaking in a scene, the more complicated it gets, the more necessary they become.

Now a good narrator is going to change their voice/delivery/pitch for each character, so they are distinct for the listener. If you are writing for something that is going to be strictly audio, then you could probably get away with zero dialog tags. The problem is for reading purposes, your dialog would become an incomprehensible mess.

So what’s the right amount? It depends. When you get done with your book, do a word search for “said”. Then flip through and see how many of those are really necessary. My first book had like 800. After years of getting punched in the ear by my own audiobooks, my last book had less than 200.

Some people will give the advice that you shouldn’t use tags other than said, like muttered, shouted, whispered, etc. but I disagree. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, take it out. If the readers like it, leave it in. So if it helps you paint the picture you want, great. However, just like overuse of the basic Said, the same principles apply.

If you set up the scene so that it is obvious how the character is acting, and your narrator is clearly reading it that way, then those other descriptive dialog tags will still feel superfluous. So if you’ve got an intense arguing, highly charged, emotional back and forth, saying Bob Shouted is probably extraneous, because from the context and exclamation points it is obvious things are heated and voices are raised. Or if you are writing two ninjas sneaking around on a murder spree, you probably don’t need to add Bob Whispered.

You need to convey enough information so that the reader knows the emotions of the character. There have been times when I’ve been listening to the audio of one of my books for the first time, and the narrator delivers the line in a manner totally different than what I had intended that character to be feeling. At that point I’ll go and look at the original document, and sure enough, it is because I failed to properly convey how it was supposed to go down. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, and the narrator’s interpretation works fine, but it is a good indicator where you need to be careful. Just because you imagine it in your head does not mean that ever actually made it onto the page.

Hidden Dialog Tag Tricks

There are a few simple nuts and bolts ways to avoid excessive dialog tags:

“You can put things in dialog and then add a said.” Bob leaned back in his expensive leather chair and lit his Cuban cigar with a flaming hundred dollar bill. “Or you can just as easily have the character do something interesting or descriptive in the paragraph where he is talking.”

“Also, Bob, if there are only a few of us having a conversation, by addressing you by your name in dialog occasionally it keeps it clear which one of us is speaking.”

“Good point, Jim.”

Jim gave Bob a menacing glare. “By starting this paragraph with me taking some action, readers and listeners will automatically assume the dialog that follows comes from the person taking action.”

“Readers aren’t stupid,” the rich man said. “Even when you use a dialog tag you don’t need to insult them by using my name over and over again. They’ll figure it out. A few simple descriptors around a tag can mix things up and keep the scene interesting. Repetitive word use gets boring.”


Character Voice is Vital

This is always important, but doubly so in audio, because the character literally has a voice, not just the imaginary one in your head. And when I say voice, I don’t mean the narrator decides to be high pitched or deep, or use an accent, I mean that you have provided that narrator with a clear enough picture as to the nature of the character, that they’ve got enough material to work with to really make them come to life. You’ve conveyed their personality to the extent that the vocal artist now has something to create with. The more you give them to create with, the richer the performance they are going to be able to provide.

Whether reading or listening, wooden characters are going to be wooden. A good narrator can make a boring character more interesting, but a good narrator can make an already interesting character phenomenal.

Every scene is stronger if the PoV character is interesting. The richer that personality, the more the reader is going to be drawn in, because everything in that scene is going to be coming through them and changed by their perception.

For a great example, listen to Bronson Pinchot read Hard Magic. He takes interesting characters (well, I think they are, but I’m biased) and invests in them so that everything they experience feels more real. I don’t just tell you that Jake Sullivan is this world weary, war vet, hard-boiled detective, Bronson makes you feel it with every word. He delivers those scenes like he’s a world weary hard-boiled vet. Oliver Wyman is the voice of Owen Z. Pitt. He owns it. As that series has gone on, the character has grown, and Oliver has brought so much to the character. Tim Gerrard Reynolds lays down the LAW. When Adam Baldwin talks about quality customer service, by golly, I believe he means it!

Every narrator has a different style, but no matter how good they are, they can only read the words you gave them.  You provide another artist some good material to work with, and they will produce better art.

As for the literal voice, a good pro narrator will usually talk to the author after they read the book and ask questions about the characters. The author often imagines lots of things that don’t actually get said in the book. This is a wonderful opportunity so take advantage of it. Really amazing things can come out of this. Many of us have actors or real life people in mind when writing characters (I find it helps me keep the characters consistent as I write them because I’ve got a picture).

When I wrote Into the Storm, I had been on a kick watching old Frank Sinatra movies. And specifically the character of Sir Madigan was based on Sinatra’s character in Von Ryan’s War. Ray Porter asked me what I had in mind. I told him that. It turned out that Ray does a really good Sinatra impersonation. It made the performance awesome. (and nobody realized Madigan is played by Frank Sinatra until I said that, but now go back and listen, and you’ll see what I mean).

When I wrote Monster Hunter Alpha, for Nikolai, I’d been picturing YOUNG Christopher Walken from Dogs of War. When Oliver asked, I told him that. It turns out that Oliver had done voice over work to clean up Walken audio already, so he literally had a professional Walken impersonation already. How could we resist this wonderful opportunity? Same exchange over the same book, Oliver had no idea what a Finnish accent sounded like in America, so I found some Youtube videos of old Finnish immigrants speaking English. And the voice for Aino is one of the coolest I’ve ever heard in an audiobook ever.

So you don’t need to have somebody famous in mind, but if the narrator asks you should be able to describe what any particular character sounds like, what region they’re from, young, old, educated or not, fast spoken, slow drawl, etc. And if the narrator has to ask that about an important main character, that’s probably a good indicator that you didn’t describe them enough.


Tighten the Pace

Many audiobook listeners are commuters. If the book is languid and slow enough to lull listeners to sleep while driving down the freeway, you aren’t just a bad writer, you are a pubic danger. Don’t be boring! Lives depend on it.

Scenes that linger on too long are extra obvious when read out loud. As long as you’ve got the reader hooked, you’re good to go. If their mind is wandering it is time to wrap it up. On paper this is the part where their brain gets bored and they start to skim.

The goal is to have somebody listening to your audiobook while driving home from work, arrive, and then sit in their car in the garage, because they have to keep listening until the scene is over.

Quick Update
I wrote a story for the Joe Ledger: Unstoppable anthology

44 thoughts on “Ask Correia #17: Writing for the Ear, Tweaking Your Writing To Work Better in Audiobook Form”

  1. I absolutely agree with dialog tags part. I’m too often seeing books where authors are trying to push dialog tags in every sentence, even the neutral (and useless) ones like “she said”.

    But you in fact weren’t overusing these tags even in your older books and you were working nice with hidden ones. You even were quite good in avoiding “said/ask syndrome”, infamous habit I’m seeing regularly in English books when author is using only these two tags and in the worst case using them in every dialog line.

    1. In at least three different school systems I was *taught* that as an example of good writing.

      Heck, back when authors got paid by word count, it was probably still considered good form.

      When you’re reading your eye just skips over it as redundant noise so it doesn’t hurt much. In audio it’s much harder to ignore.

      1. Try to work as translator of books. I’m reading these books literary word by word three time in matter of month and even these minor flaws I would normally skip during reading suddenly shine like little novas, especially when your native language is more sensitive to repeating words then English.

        This is one of reasons why Larry is in my Top3 of best translatable authors because I don’t have to spend so much time with “said/ask” and how to alter it to be readable in Czech.

    2. > I’m too often seeing books where authors are trying to push dialog tags in every
      > sentence, even the neutral (and useless) ones like “she said”.

      John Scalzi is among the most egregious offenders of this. Its one of the reasons why I find most audio books of his works very tedious to listen to.

  2. Good information. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been thinking about adding a read-aloud pass to my editing, and this is a nudge in the right direction.

  3. I use a lot of what you call “hidden dialogue tags”, both for variety and because people very seldom just sit or stand still when speaking. I’ve gotten some criticism for it, too–there are editors who would red pencil the examples you give because you don’t explicitly say, “Bob said, while leaning back in his expensive chair…”

    I also want to let you know about Earplay, if you aren’t already familiar with them. It’s a company that makes audio based games. The high concept seems to be a Choose Your Own Adventure style audiobook, with the listening choosing options by speaking. You might want to check them out.

  4. I was fortunate to get a pro for my first audiobook. Of course this spoiled me for anything else, and until I can routinely afford pros it puts a crimp in my audiobook plans 😀 I gave him a pronunciation guide for all of the strange fantasy terms and names and brief sketches of the main character personalities, and he did a stellar job with it.

    What really amazed me is I could “proof” the audio files quite well (he made only two bobbles, and again being a pro he had his own recording rig at home and it was fixed the next day). The mistakes stood out by ear as clearly to me as if they were a typo in print.

    1. Hey, Sabrina.
      I don’t know why, but a weird glitch that i can’t recreate had me signed in as you earlier.
      It wouldn’t let me post or sign out. I had to leave the site and reboot.

      1. It is one more special service Larry’s site offers. I blame paratemporal contamination. Others have had the same issue. It is NOT, repeat NOT because I am actually an AI taking over your computer in preparation for world domination and the elimination of all carbon-based life forms. We fully intend to keep some of you as pets! 😀

  5. “The goal is to have somebody listening to your audiobook while driving home from work, arrive, and then sit in their car in the garage, because they have to keep listening until the scene is over.” Been there, done that. I was listening to one of your books (one of the Grimnoir, I believe) on my way home from work one night and was so engrossed that I missed my exit. The next exit was ten miles down the road, so I illegally cut through one of the Highway Patrol cross-overs so I reduced the mistake to maybe 5 miles instead of 20. I think I’ve listened to the Grimnoir trilogy at least three times.

    1. Which is why I have now made it a personal rule to NEVER listen to a Larry Correia or John Ringo audio book while commuting; I save them for those long uninterrupted cross country drives I occasionally have to do.

      Its really hard to have to explain to your wife why it is you were sitting in your car with the engine running for a half hour after you came home,.

  6. Wow, this is some great writing advice. As I was reading that bit about dialog tags, it made me think about going back and taking another look at what I’ve got so far. I’d probably be removing quite a few needless dialog tags.

  7. Larry,

    Thanks so much for this. I’m not a writer, but I appreciate this blog entry as an audiobook consumer, AND appreciate what you do to make the books easier to perform. I often consume your books on my commute and agree with everything above.

    I just yesterday finished my second pass through Hard Magic with Bronson Pinchot simply because I think it’s the best combination of writer/voice actor I’ve encountered and I couldn’t quit thinking about it. You had said before you didn’t have any choice in the voice talent, but you answered my other question: Do you get to collaborate with the reader and give them pointers, tips, pronunciations and such. A bad reader can kill a good book and a great reader can make it epic. Bronson Pinchot does that for me…

    1. Bronson is a pro. He always reaches out to the author after reading/before recording to ask questions. He is very thorough and a real pleasure to work with.

      All of my narrators have been great at asking questions. I’ve been really lucky.

  8. I will second that the tags thing is huge. John Ringo has a huge problem with this in my opinion. I had never noticed it reading his books, but as soon as I picked up the audiobook of Under a Graveyard Sky, the constant “X said, Y said” stuck out like a sore thumb. He’s done better in Memoirs, but I still notice it.

    1. “He’s done better in Memoirs, but I still notice it.”

      I wonder if that was because Larry was working with him? He also had less digressions than he usually does. Reading a, say, 500 page John Ringo novel is normally like reading a 300 page novel while taking breaks to check out an entertaining conservative/libertarian blog. *Grunge* wasn’t like that. I haven’t got around to *Sinners* yet (HUGE kindle backlog).

  9. If you have any holes in your story, audio will bring them out like a roach on a countertop.

    I’ve listened to audio versions of books that have been favorites for decades, and suddenly realized they were full of stupid. Because when I’m reading I tend to skip over questionable bits, and the audio just progresses at its slow pace, giving me plenty of time to think about what I’m listening to rather than zooming off to the next interesting bit.

    1. …I tend to skip over questionable bits…

      Do you know how many authors’ careers rely on that little bit of psychology?

      1. A lot of them…

        Some percentage of most novels is filler of some sort, added to pad the story out to some arbitrary length. Un-needed backstory is a favorite filler, or lengthy “calm before the storm” scenes.

        You can skip past that when reading, but the story bogs hard at fixed audio speed.

  10. There are a couple of major publishers who routinely use narrators who are… not perhaps of the best quality.

    My work lets me listen to a couple of audiobooks per week. I’m far more familiar with Snot Man and Sneerboy than I want to be…

    1. Great advice, thank you! I love audiobooks, on every level. Speaking as a pro narrator myself, the excessive tag thing is huge; we, uh, ahem, kinda hate it, especially when they are unnecessarily stuck right in the middle of a dialogue line: “I can’t stand that guy,” she said. “He’s such a jerk.” Not only does it, as you say, “punch you in the ear,” but it’s also a pain for the narrator, because we have to momentarily switch from the character voice to our own, and back to the character again.
      I am also an aspiring fantasy writer (been working on debut novel a while now), and I try to do that “hidden tag” thing as much as possible and makes sense.

  11. This is an outstanding post and discussion but I do have a criticism of monster hunter sinners audiobook. it’s very jarring to hear Oliver Wyman’s Tennessee accent for Chad Gardenier mispronouncing New Orleans street names and other Cajun/creole terms. He’s such an outstanding performer, I think in the next book Mr Wyman could do the New Orleans pronunciation and the problem would be solved.

  12. One quibble.
    Languid can work in an audio format, it’s just a different type of storytelling than is normal for written prose, and is somewhat difficult to read because it’s fairly rarely encountered in this day and age.
    The Silmarillion is an excellent example of this oral tradition. As is much of the Bible.

    🙂 It’s likely not worth it for any established writer to hone that particular skill for something that’s currently a subsidiary market, but things change. (And some of us are dilettantes, or trying to break in. The smaller pond might just be fun to play in, or might have the potential to establish a niche fanbase to build from.)

  13. When I had to write a couple of “radio plays” (actually performed live at a con), I found it really helped my dialogue and character voice, since I had nothing *but* dialogue to rely on.

  14. Wow. printed this out and posted it next to my PC. Great, solid writing advice.
    So, Larry, when are you going to publish an “Aspiring Writers’ Handbook”?

    1. Despite being an Evil Capitalist and insisting that folks Get Paid for things they do well, Larry has thus far posted is writing tips for free on his blog. If you haven’t read them all yet, they are well worth looking up.

  15. Thanks for more great advice and insight into pro writing. I always enjoy reading your writing posts.

    Overuse of dialogue tags, or as I think of it: Scalzi Syndrome. Even in written form, his overuse of “he said” becomes grating. In audio, it becomes unlistenable. The only book of his I’ve ever read/heard where this wasn’t the case was the one specifically written for audio.

    I must have read similar advice to yours about dialogue tags a while back, because that’s now pretty solidly the same view of them that I have. They’re there to avoid confusion, so use them only to the degree necessary to do that.

    Speaking of the narrator not reading it in the manner the author intended, I can’t think of the exact line right now, but there was a part in one of the latest Dresden books (I think it was Skin Game, actually), where even as someone who hadn’t read the book and was listening to it on audio for the first time, I heard it and immediately thought, “I don’t think he read that in the way that line was meant.” Though in Marsters’s defense, I think it was one of those lines that is sort of meant to have two possible interpretations because the author was being sneaky and trying to misdirect the reader. So really, it was more a case of the narrator by necessity having to choose between two possible readings and he went with the one that didn’t totally give away the actual intended meaning.

  16. Interesting and informative. Hmmm . . . often I find myself wishing the internet had never been invented, given how much tosh now has a direct line to you personally, but then there’s stuff like this, “so I found some Youtube videos of old Finnish immigrants speaking English.” which is really rather cool. 🙂

  17. I found it fascinating how Adam Baldwin did the voice of President Adam Baldwin in Tom Stranger–it was like, just the slightest exaggeration of the qualities of his own voice.

  18. Know how I either need help or new glasses? I first skimmed the headline as “twerking your writing.”

    I mean… I suppose it might be possible. There have been some good soundtracks provided but they’re mostly metal and i’m not sure how all of that fits together… So, probably not actually going to twerk your writing or my own. Just the way it is.

    You’re welcome.

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