Rewriting for Audio

I’ve been working on the early stages of converting some of my writing to audio, which also means learning a whole new body of skills: microphone control, GarageBand multi-tracking, splicing and removing, fading background music up and down. It doesn’t help that my computer is eight years old, and I’m running GarageBand 2011. It’s easier these days, and I’ll have new software pretty soon.

But one of the things that we don’t often think of when we write to speak is that text gives us a ton of visual cues about who’s saying what. Paragraph breaks, quotation marks, block quotes in italics… it’s easy when you read text to know who’s speaking. When you write for audio, you have to do a thousand little changes to allow a listener to easily track what’s happening.

Here’s a simple example, a sequence of dialogue on a page.

He washed his knives and cutting board, put them into the drainer, and went to set the table. As he was folding napkins, Thanh walked into the apartment. “Feed me!” she said. “Feed me now!”

“Nice to see you too, honey,” Clay laughed. “You want a bowl of Cheerios, or what?”

“A bag of Doritos and three beers would work.” She sat her briefcase down. “I was on the phone for five hours today, in English and Vietnamese. My ear hurts.”

Clay took her under one wing and used his free hand to stroke her ear. “Poor little executive… I’m so sorry about your sore ear. Make us a million dollars today?”

“I either made or lost a fortune, and I don’t have any idea which.” She rubbed his chest. “I like my head on your shoulder when you talk,” she said quietly. “It’s a lot better than hearing Jon and Trung threatening each other all day. I think they’re gay, they keep saying they’re going to cut each other’s balls off.”

“They’ve probably got a collection of them hanging from the visors on their Beemers. Go change and I’ll feed you in twenty minutes.” She walked off, he rolled his shirt sleeves and started cooking.

Not one of those lines of dialogue starts with a dialogue tag, with “He said…” or “Thanh said…” In text, it’s completely obvious who says what, but read it out loud, and you’ll see how confusing it is to someone without a script. So if you were re-writing for an audiobook, you’d make a bunch of little modifications so that the listener was never stranded.

I say this because The Adjunct Underclass has a lot of interviews excerpted within it. They’re set aside in italicized block quotes, so a reader knows exactly what’s happening. But now that the audiobook is available, I can hear that there’s no lead-in to the quotes. So when I was listening to the sample, I came to a section that said “I taught as an adjunct from 2009 to 2013,” and I thought to myself, Gosh, I hope I didn’t say that, that’s not true. But of course, it wasn’t me at all, it was my interviewee “Helen,” whose interview started right after a section break. I’m glad that I didn’t mis-represent myself, but geez, what an easy fix that would have been…

I respect that the narrator and audio production company didn’t take liberties with the text, didn’t modify a bit of it. That’s really kind. But they should know that it’s going to present mighty problems for their listeners, and I’d have been happy to do an audio rewrite for free in order to get it right.

Always a million things to learn, too often after the fact.