Things You Learn Listening to an Audiobook You Wrote

Today marks five years since White Feathers was launched. Weird to think it was so long ago! In honour of this, I’ve decided to write about the experience of listening to the audiobook that came out much more recently, and what I learned from it. I haven’t read very many accounts of what it’s like for an author to listen to their own work, though this vivid account by Caroline O’Donoghue was very well-observed. (I really really enjoyed her book!) So, here goes:

It’s nerve-wracking.

There is something about hearing your own words read back to you that’s difficult to handle. I wrote a nice polite tweet to the actress about the audio of White Feathers back in March but the truth was, I had hardly listened to any of it. I was way too nervous. Only when I saw the chapters guide on Audible and chose to listen out of sequence was I able to start getting stuck in, and her reading blew my mind completely. I would go on periodic binges then get scared again then go on another binge. I got almost a high listening to it, especially when Amy de Bhrún did such a good job getting me engrossed in the milieu.

Things you wouldn’t expect to work so well, really do

Long action scenes work very well in audio. I was not expecting that. The battle scene where Joseph Cronin makes his stand (of sorts), as well as the later butchery of the Somme depicted behind the lines, were really vivid when I listened to them in the car and the tension did not drop. I learned anew that this is where research excels – binding the narrative together with confident knowledge of the facts behind the fiction, without pushing itself forward too much.

Good dialogue is great too, with medium attribution by the writer being best for listening. No attribution is infuriating, but too much slows the pace down. It’s something I will bear more in mind now when I write longish exchanges between characters.

Pitch variation matters, especially with romance

With a novel that unapologetically foregrounds romance as White Feathers does, it is absolutely vital for a sole reader to be easily able to use the lower register for male characters (or the higher, for female, if the reader is a man.) You do not want to be listening to a conversation where both characters sound the same! The writer’s job, I think, is to help the actor by writing dialogue that creates such unmistakable sexual tension (or whatever dynamic is required) that it will be a matter of natural inclination to drop or raise tone for the other protagonist.

I’m delighted to say that the pitch variation here is perfect, and as for sexual tension? I reckon I needed to stick the phone in the freezer on occasion to cool it down 😀

Accents, accents, accents

I really didn’t appreciate the importance of accents until listening back and realising how many there were. And my God, the very narration of the story is a political act (which suits me fine: the entire damn novel is political) because it’s close 3rd person from Eva’s point of view, and she is a second generation Irish immigrant, a disrespected group in 1910s England. There is a line somewhere early in the book which says that Eva tries to suppress any trace of an Irish accent but it comes out when she’s angry or impassioned and when you hear this being done, it introduces a political context which was not always on my mind when writing, but is inescapable in the context of recent anti-Irish sentiment expressed by parts of the British media.

(I felt particular joy at the line where she’s so furious with Christopher that she calls him an expletive, and I forgot to clarify that her accent slips, but the actress leans in with such enthusiasm that there could be no doubt of it – hurrah!)

There’s also a matter of versatility. Fitting in Lucia’s Jamaican and Robin’s Glaswegian accent in two lines of dialogue takes a lot of vocal flexibility, I’d imagine. I really really liked how Lucia’s accent is portrayed so sensitively, the requisite Caribbean lilt without ever forsaking real emotion or being parodic. For such a volatile and emotional character, this is perfect. (And that scene invoking the goddess Erzulie was way creepier than in the book!)

Minor Characters

THE POOR CANADIAN GUY! Sniff! This fellow has probably max four lines but when he’s brought into the operating theatre during the Somme horror and he’s begging for a drink, in her reading he does it in this really soft Canadian accent and hearing him plead, I was heartbroken for him. I definitely did not feel that emotion writing the scene, to be honest I hardly thought twice about him once it was written. But that’s the thing about hearing people speak. They might not have much to say, but there’s something distinguished about it. Roma was a particular revelation: everything she said had cool authority, poised and perfectly pitched. You are going to get back in that van, Sybil, and there’s an end to it.

Also, a late, dishonourable mention for the odious Breedagh Stewart and her prurient perving over Eva’s stash of banned D.H. Lawrence novels. In the middle of some horrific scenes she provided much-needed, if grim, levity. Humour can be tricky, but here it works.

You Learn Stuff About Yourself

That nasty line from Christopher to Eva about how she fills up a space with talk? Delivered with such a blood-chilling, malevolent snarl that it quite shocked me? I realised why a little later. Being forced to hear it like that made me realise: it’s my own damn inner critic again. In the novel, he’s being an a**e, and he apologises. I guess my inner critic owes me an apology too. Or at least my turned back and a book of poems chucked out the window.

The Isle of Wight Scene

Because, just listen to it. It has everything ::beams::

Right, so that’s it for the audiobook. Many thanks to Amy de Bhrún for doing such a sterling job and giving me hours of happiness listening to it. Now, roll on the film, or Netflix series, whichever comes first 🙂

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