The Rise of the Audiobook

It seems like everyone’s talking about audiobooks these days.  Where it used to be only the bestsellers and classics got audio versions, now I can find as many as 75% of the books I search for at Audible.  Perhaps most importantly, they’ve gotten cheaper: on my particular membership plan, I pay less than $10 per audiobook.  Compare that to $50 for a whole stack of CDs (or, you know, the list price at Audible).  This year, I’m on track to listen to more than twice as many as last year.

Not that I don’t still read–I’m at 153 books this year and counting (as compared to 47 on audio).  But life is increasingly busy, and audiobooks have a distinct advantage for times like my daily commute, when a print or ebook would be hazardous in extreme (not to mention illegal).

What I like best about audiobooks

  • Making use of wasted time*
    I tend to feel guilty when I waste all my writing time curled up with someone else’s book.  With audiobooks, I can listen while driving, doing housework, exercising, or doing any other routine task that requires my eyes (which, lets face it, is just about everything).
    *AKA multitasking, which is also one of the biggest downsides.  More on this later…
  • Easy on the eyes
    I’m the kind of person who likes to keep busy.  Not necessarily active (writer-engineer, here), but my mind engaged.  I’m also a very visual person.  Unfortunately, I get chronic headaches, often triggered by eyestrain, that sometimes turn into month-long migraines.  If I can’t read, and I can’t write, and I can’t even mess around on the internet, then the next best thing is to lay down in a nice, dark room with an audiobook to keep me company.
  • Narration
    Sometimes audio versions of a book are just okay, equal or even inferior to the printed version.  But when the narration is right, they can be so much richer and more powerful.  I’m a fast reader, and I admit that means I often skim, taking in the words without taking the time to savor them.  Audiobooks force me to slow down and enjoy.

Of course, audiobooks aren’t all rainbows and unicorns.  For one thing, it can take a week or more to listen to a book that I could rip through in a day.  And that whole multitasking thing?  Yeah, sometimes that doesn’t work so well, and I end up missing whole chunks of the story.

As I’ve branched out into a more diverse selection of audiobooks, I’ve noticed that they seem to fall into several categories:

  • Old favorites
    For me, The Wheel of Time, Pride and Prejudice, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  These are the books I’ve read and re-read, and come back to listen to and love even more.  These are the best for multitasking, because I already know the story.
  • Slow and lyrical
    Books like Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.  They take their time, and linger over the details, so they really have time to sink in, even if I’m only half paying attention.  Plus, the prose is so beautiful, my attention is less likely to stray.
  • Transparent as glass
    Books like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.  The pace keeps clipping forward, but it’s all so clear and easy to understand that I hardly miss a word, no matter what I’m doing.
  • Fast-paced muddle
    These are the ones I have the most trouble keeping track of: sword and sorcery, space opera, and the like.  The fun adventure-y books that are great to read, but maybe not so easy to follow with half an ear.  Fortunately for me, I haven’t come across many in this category.
  • Bad narration
    Then, of course, there are those unfortunate books whose wonderful stories and lovely prose are rendered unlistenable by a bad narrator.  Dull, annoying, whatever the reason, their words just won’t stay in my head.  This is why it’s always a good idea to listen to the previews before buying.

Fortunately, I can’t remember the last time I came across an unlistenable audiobook, and I’ve actually thought twice about buying some books as gifts because I wasn’t sure if they would live up to their full awesomeness without the narration.  So, yeah.  I’m hooked.  I doubt I’ll ever give up reading paper/ebooks, but I’m pretty sure audiobooks are now a permanent part of my entertainment mix.

Advice for New Writers


Overwhelmed yet?

A couple weeks ago, my mom asked me for advice on setting up a writers group for some of her students. She’s a language arts teacher at a small middle school, maybe 60 or 70 kids total, and at least a dozen are really into writing. She asked about how my own writing group functions, but with kids that age the emphasis really needs to be on encouragement rather than critique. It got me thinking about how the advice that will work for a given writer depends so much on where they are in their journey.

For the very new and the very young, for those who may not be sure this writing gig is really for them, I say: write. Don’t worry about if it’s any good. All the craft in the world won’t help if you don’t love it. Writing is hard. Take some time at the start to be sure it’s what you want, to strengthen your resolve; it’s the only thing that will get you through the tough spots.

For the new and determined first-time novelist: forget about publishing. I know it’s super-easy these days and everybody’s doing it, but put it out of your mind and focus on actually writing the book. Lots of people start writing a novel, but it takes real determination and hard work to finish.

This is also the stage when a new writer will start to need help. I’ve been doing this for almost four years now, and it’s tempting to make a list of every book and website and podcast I’ve ever found helpful: Everything You’ll Ever Need to Know About Writing. But that’s the last thing a newbie needs. Reading about how to do something doesn’t automatically translate into skill; that takes time and practice. When a writer’s knowledge far exceeds their skill to put it into practice, well, that is frustrating. That’s when they’re most in danger of tearing their hair out and ripping up their manuscript and quitting, because their writing sucks, and they’ll never be able any good, and what’s the use of even trying.

So, experienced writers: resist the temptation to drown newbies in your font of knowledge.

Newbies: resist the urge to buy all the writing books and read all the writing blogs and never get around to actually writing your book. Pick one or two to get you started. Focus on what you’re having trouble with, and leave the rest for later. When writing feels like a breeze, you know you’re ready for another dose of learning.

A final piece of advice: all the so-called “rules” of writing are made to be broken. There are as many ways of writing as there are writers, so if something doesn’t work for you, ignore it.

Dealing with Hope

I know, I know.  The line’s supposed to be “dealing with rejection.”  But to be honest, the internet had me pretty well braced for it by the time I got around to asking for critiques, let alone querying.  The first couple times did sting a little, but I got over it surprisingly quickly.  Getting back to writing and keeping things in perspective really does help.

Photo © Linnéa Marks

Hope, now.  Hope’s a trickier beast.  It’s not quite acceptance—which I’ve heard comes with a whole new set of troubles—but it’s definitely not rejection.  It’s when you get that first request for a partial manuscript, and then a second, and then a full.  I don’t know about anybody else, but that’s when I start to imagine what if.

What if she really likes it?  I’ve heard stories about agents calling right away, excited to read the full manuscript.  What if that happens to me?  What if he offers representation?  What if they both do, how will I choose?  And then my mind goes spinning away into a fantasy-future where the agent of my dreams calls to say she loves my book, and what else am I working on, and she’d like to offer representation, and then my book goes to auction…

I have kept myself awake at night, more than once, because I am unable to stop my mind from playing through the entire hypothetical conversation.  Or the scenario where such and such editor just happens to be at the convention and I somehow become an amazing conversationalist and he loves my pitch and wants to buy my book.


It’s good to be prepared, but in the long run, dwelling on these kind of overinflated hopes will end up hurting more than the rejection ever could, because they’ll make any modest success look like it’s just not good enough.  I think I’m keeping my actual expectations pretty reasonable.  I’ve seen the statistics, I know how long it can take and how few writers really make it big.  Still, sometimes I can’t help but dream of the what ifs…

And then I dig back into my drafting, or editing, or synopsis-writing.  Nothing like a little fantasy to ground me in the realities of a writer’s life.

Yes, I Do Judge Books By Their Covers

Apparently, I have strong opinions about self-pubbed book covers.  I should start a business: five bucks, and I’ll tell you why your cover sucks.

Just to be clear: I have absolutely no expertise.  I am writing this post as a voracious consumer of books, and someone who checks the top twenty or so free kindle books every day to see if there’s anything worth downloading.

Usually there isn’t.  And nine times out of ten, I can tell just by looking at the covers.  The tiny, inch-high covers.  It’s not necessarily the artwork, either.  Sure, it’s pretty easy to tell when there’s a badly photoshopped image, but more often than not, the killer is the font.

Yes, you heard me.

Standard Microsoft Word fonts, too large or too small, in the wrong color, unartfully placed (that’s a word, right?).  On the I Should Be Writing podcast (#206), John Picacio talks about the balance between the type and the picture.  It’s not an exact science, but when the words just don’t seem to mesh with the image, it’s almost always an amateur cover—which, these days, often means an amateur writer as well.

I understand the appeal of doing it all yourself, not paying anyone for anything up front, but unless you’re an artist, you’re probably not doing yourself any favors (and let’s not even get into having your self-pubbed book edited).  Still, there’s blatantly amateur, and there’s subtly amateur.  I know nothing on the artwork front, but you can get some great free fonts at  Spend a little time and effort to get the type right.

I also recommend studying professional covers in your chosen genre to see what works.  A cover’s job isn’t to show you specifically what a book is about.  Its job is to help readers identify whether it’s the type of book they enjoy.  Usually, that means conforming to genre norms.  Somebody’s going to have a lot of disappointed readers if they put a scantily-clad couple on the cover of their detective novel, even if there is a romantic sub-plot.

You know what?  I’m going to save myself a couple thousand words, and just leave these here.

Gone GirlSound of Blood
I haven’t read either of these books.  I haven’t even read the cover copy.  I found one on the kindle bestseller list, the other on the kindle free bestseller list.  I chose them because they were similar, and simple enough that an amateur might have a prayer at DIY.

What it all comes down to is this: the cover is your potential readers’ first impression.  If you just slap it together, it shows, and I don’t think I’m the only one who judges those covers, and decides the insides might be just as hastily slapped together.

On Writers’ Brains and the Critique Process

Edited Version of First Book

Edited Version of First Book (Photo credit: TheCreativePenn)

I recently had a startling revelation.  My writing group was discussing the utility of picking on the details during a critique—grammar, spelling, etc—and someone mentioned that he doesn’t bother with the basics on early drafts, because he trusts the writer to be able to fix it on the rewrite.

This sounded eminently reasonable to me, but at the same time, it totally floored me.  During my time in online critique groups, I tended to operate on the assumption that if the author got something wrong, they didn’t know any better.  Now, sometimes, this actually is a good assumption, especially if the writer is unfamiliar.  But for me, it went deeper than that, and I finally realized why.

When I write, my sentences always come out complete and grammatically correct.  That’s just the way my brain is wired.  The word choice might be wrong, the sentiment trite, the pacing nonexistent, but my rough drafts are always readable.  Grammar and spelling are so ingrained for me, I cannot write a sentence that I know is wrong (barring honest mistakes, e.g. typos, cut and paste errors, etc).

Until that moment in writing group, it had never occurred to me that other people might be different.

Thinking about it now, I realize how ridiculous that is.  After all, when I read through my own drafts, I’m perfectly capable of recognizing where the prose is stilted, where the characters are clichéd, and where the setting needs more description.  Just because it doesn’t come out right the first time, doesn’t mean I can’t fix it on my own.  It makes me wonder if somewhere, some writer looks out on all us mere mortals and wonders why in the world we’d ever need more than one draft, because his come out perfectly on the first try.


More seriously, though, I think this is important to keep in mind when critiquing any unfinished work.  Sometimes, letting your red pen bleed all over the page may overwhelm a newbie and make them cry; or, your oh-so-helpful explanations might just annoy a fellow journeyman so they skim through and miss your more important remarks.  Not every story represents a writer’s best work—in fact, at the critique stage, it almost never does.  That’s why a regular critique partner or group can be so helpful.  You get to know each other’s capabilities, so you don’t have to guess which mistakes were just careless errors, and which are worth pointing out.

By a strange coincidence, the exact same thing came up at last week’s staff meeting at work.  In this case, it was drawings being sent out for review, but the basic message was: if it’s a preliminary drawing, and you’re only looking for conceptual review or design input, MAKE SURE TO TELL THE REVIEWERS so they don’t spent a couple hours finding every last formatting glitch and misplaced dimension.  With fiction, too, it’s never a bad idea to spell it out: rough, untouched first draft; or solid, ready-to-polish fourth draft?

Perhaps the best assumption to make is this: you won’t be the only person to critique the piece.  It is not your job to catch every tiny mistake (unless the writer specifically asked for it).  Concentrating on the most important issues will make a more effective critique.  And when in doubt, ask the author where they are in their process.  It could save a lot of frustration on both sides.

How do you approach a critique?  Have you ever had trouble deciding how much to say?  Ever been frustrated with a critique you received?

Related articles: