A Book In My Ear: Audiobooks, the Writer’s Take

My nineteen-year-old son always has his face in his phone. Drives me nuts, and I confess that when he’s around I nag him about it.

“Focus on what you’re doing,” I say.

“But I’m just rinsing off this dish to put it in the dishwasher,” says he. (Okay, at least he’s following House Rule #1–Zero dirty dishes on the counter or in the sink.)

“The phone is rewiring your brain. You need to pay attention to what you’re doing. I think you’re addicted.”

“It’s just a plate, and I’m putting it in the dishwasher! You know,” he says, after taking care of the plate. “You kind of nag me sometimes.” He puts one arm around my neck–coincidentally it’s the arm with the phone on the end of it. “What’s up with that?”

Yes, I do nag him. But I’m also a hypocrite of enormous proportions. We’re a lot alike, he and I. We both have attention issues–as in, we are both very easily distracted and desire almost constant mental stimulation. I say “desire” because I’ve spent many years working to get a handle on my distraction habit–a habit that can be both devastating and helpful to a writer.

My name is Laura, and my phone is near me at all times. Not necessarily because I want my family to be able to reach me 24/7, though that’s important, but because my AirPods might lose the audio signal of the book I’m listening to. I listen to 5-6 audiobooks a week, with a few podcasts in between.

In fact, I listened to the entire 6+ hours of the excellent true crime podcast, Bear Brook, on Monday, after talking about it with my editor around 2:00 p.m. And Monday was a pretty busy day for me.

Sometimes, when I’m cooking and have a book in my ear, my husband will come in and talk to me as he has a snack or peruses his own phone. I’ll turn a part of my attention to him and let the narrator’s voice drop into the background. Husband doesn’t necessarily know if I have a book or podcast going on, or if the pod is just there for phone convenience. If he appears to want to have a conversation, I’ll take the pod out of my ear and slip it in my pocket.  I’ve started to feel a bit icky about this scenario. I would almost always prefer to talk to him.

Last November–and I can’t believe it was so long ago–I posted about my attraction to audiobooks as a reader. The comments on that post are amazing and truly informative. I love reading about other folks’ reading habits. A rereading of that post also woke me up to the fact that I’ve since almost doubled my audio consumption. I knew it was getting out of hand, but seriously…

Audiobook overconsumption is, I’m afraid, messing with my writing. There. I’ve said it. (Took me about 500 words, but I’m fond of big intros outside of my fiction. Sorry.)

As with watching television, audiobook listening is primarily a passive experience that can happen while the listener does other things. Yet, surely there are people who listen to books and do absolutely nothing else while they’re doing it, giving the book one hundred percent of their attention. Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, writes about listening to music that way. She’s a huge proponent of doing one thing at a time. She protests that she would be very offended if someone came to one of her dance performances and read a book, so she wouldn’t read a book while listening to Beethoven. Which leads me to wonder if I would be offended if someone vacuumed or changed tires or gardened while listening to one of my books. Or if they read a paper copy or ebook while keeping an eye on a televised football game as my dad often does. My answer is an emphatic no, of course not.

For the two and a half decades before I started writing, books were entertainment and solace for me. I paid attention when I read because I was interested in the stories. When I started writing, I learned to actively read like a writer. Writers read for language, grammar, story shape, character development, story arcs, plot elements, point-of-view. We read to learn how to do it–it’s as simple as that. Some of us try modeling our work on more skilled writers (a marvelous exercise to step into another writer’s shoes). After a while, the reading-like-a-writer habit can get frustrating for writers at every level. Sometimes you just don’t want to know about the puppeteer behind the curtain, you just want to know what happens next.

I find it difficult to track the writer’s journey in an audiobook. There are occasionally those moments when I think, “I see what she did there.” While I tend to recall plot details and my mental images of the characters in books I listen to, I retain little else besides the conclusion that I liked them or didn’t.

I have a similar problem with ebooks, oddly enough. As with audiobooks, I have a very hard time returning to a word or a scene I want to go over again. I can’t tell you the number of bookmarks I put into ebooks, and the audiobook screenshots I have in my phone so I can bookmark scenes that way. With a paper book, I usually remember where something I want to find appeared on its page, left or right, top or bottom, or middle. Also I can usually narrow it down to a half dozen pages with less than a minute of searching.

There’s something so concrete about watching a story unfold on the page and also following it in one’s mind. I feel like I can almost reach out and hold it. I remember very early on that my husband said of my short stories that they looked like short stories, but that they had little story in them. Yes, I’d read a ton of books, but I hadn’t yet read much as a writer. Still, shape is important, especially when you’re starting out.

Over the past year, most of the ebooks I’ve read have been friends’ or students’ manuscripts, or books to blurb. I’ve read some hardcovers and a couple of regretful paperback freebies I picked up at a conference. But I can say with confidence that the novels and books I’ve listened to outnumber the print/ebooks at least ten to one. That number feels pretty shocking.

I feel rather like a student who has been watching YouTube videos while sitting in a classroom as the teacher lectures. Ouch. That’s no way to learn. Content is important.

That said, I love all versions of books. Sometimes I think it’s not quite fair to the book I’m listening to if I’ve glossed over bits of it. I’ve missed something, and I hate missing out, especially on a story.

Today I ran across this interesting piece, 8 Science-Backed Reasons to Read (a Real) Book. It’s an eclectic list, focusing mainly on books themselves in place of other forms of entertainment.  But a lot of it make sense. I’m not surprised that turning pages helps one’s recall, and reading is like a workout for the brain. I’m much more likely to immediately look up a word when I’m reading, rather than when listening to a book.

Right now I have three books going: I’ve listened to the Twyla Tharp book, and have read the first fifty pages of the softcover version. The second is a ginormous hardcover, Robert Galbraith’s Lethal White. The third is, yes, an audiobook. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land. Perhaps I should be reading the Heinlein on paper, and listening to Lethal White. Heinlein’s characters are wonderful, but Galbraith’s are deeper, especially given that they are series characters. But I’m sixty-five on the waitlist for Lethal White at Overdrive. And it costs a small fortune to buy on audio.

It feels good to sit down at the computer with some hands-on, eyes-on reading backing me up again.

What about you? Do you experience a difference in your writing if your reading habits change?

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

18 thoughts on “A Book In My Ear: Audiobooks, the Writer’s Take

  1. Laura, I find I can’t listen to audiobooks unless I am a) driving; b) on the treadmill; or c) sitting and not doing anything else. With fiction, I choose to listen to authors whose style I admire, because that gets the sound in my head and stretches my own style. Ray Bradbury, for instance.

    I find myself doing a lot more reading on my phone these days, primarily because of the highlight feature on the Kindle app. I highlight passages I like in fiction, and that I want to save in non-fiction, and can print them out if I so choose. This is really a boon for research.

    • Intentional listening might be a good way to describe your habit, JSB. There’s nothing like being read to, especially when the book is one you’ve chosen for particular enjoyment. Bradbury is a real treat to hear.

      I have a Kindle on my Christmas list as my iPad died. They know how to do reading ebooks right.

  2. Audio doesn’t work for me. My mind wanders. It’s a struggle for me to proof listen to my own audiobooks or using Word’s read aloud features for the final run through before the book is published. I have to sit at the computer and read along on screen. I thought I’d get into audio when we moved to the boonies because driving times are increased when I have to go anywhere, but paying attention to spoken words just isn’t how my brain works.
    I read print and digital, and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Pros and cons to both–I’m reading a paperback that is a physical struggle to hold open enough to read the words dripping into the gutter. Good book, but I don’t want to “work” to read.

    • Sorry to be late to reply–have been away from the computer all day!

      I’m so impressed that you proof your audiobooks. Sounds like hard labor! The read along for a Word run through sounds ideal. I’d never thought of that. I do read my ms out loud right after copy edits.

      “I’m reading a paperback that is a physical struggle to hold open enough to read the words dripping into the gutter.” Brilliant image!

  3. I feel I must be the mirror image here! I can count on one hand the number of ebooks I’ve experienced. (Okay, so even more drastic a reversal than I thought!)
    In a nutshell: I wholeheartedly prefer hardcopy over audio. And I don’t tolerate ebooks at all.
    Two things about audio turn me away:
    1) The reader’s voice. Man, THAT can be worse than a bad writer’s tik! I fought through a free version of Treasure Island once, where each chapter is read by a different person. Oh, that was bad! Most people are NOT meant to narrate!
    (Yes, I know there are professionals for the task. I’ve heard one, and it was quite nice.)
    2) The same issue(s) you have: I have trouble retaining the story afterwards! It’s too easy to get distracted by external stimuli. I tried listening while working (medical correspondence.) I couldn’t do it. If I paid attention to a letter on my work screen, I lost the thread of the story in my ear! And if I’m going to focus solely on the story, I’d much prefer holding the book in my hand and reading versus having some stranger’s voice in my ear for hours on end.
    Additionally, as with your ebook issue, it’s ridiculously difficult to return to a specific area in audio.
    In answer to your actual question: yes!
    (Caveat: since I stick to print, this might be considered only half an answer.)
    I have to be cautious about my reading material. I write epic adult fantasy. I’ve always had a broad fictional reading range, but if I overindulge in too many blogs on writing, for example, I find myself needlessly critiquing my work, thereby bogging myself down. If I read too much YA or horror, the style creeps into my own “voice.” But one must keep abreast of current titles in the industry, so it’s a constant struggle!
    Thanks for the interesting personal take on audiobook habits. I’m forwarding this to a friend (reader only, not a writer) whose habits run very close to yours.

    • Argh–free audiobooks are often indeed torture to listen to. For classics, there are some podcasts you can peruse that are free.

      I hear you on the struggle to keep current yet stay relatively uninfluenced. My thought is to read the competition briefly and lightly. Save the concentrated reading for the books that really move you. None of us can afford to chase trends–the balance is to stay contemporary but put our own original style forward. Advice is always free here, lol!

  4. I spend a lot of time running. When the weather is amenable, I run outdoors, always with my very old ipod shuffle clipped to my waistband and filled to its gigalimits with podcasts and/or audiobooks.
    I used to listen to the books as a reader, and enjoyed the storytelling. Now, I listen as a writer and I find myself latching on to character development, plot points, and tension-building. It’s fun to try to outline the author’s work in my own mind as I slog through a few more miles.
    When I’m on the treadmill, I do the same thing while watching movies. I used to watch for the enjoyment, but now I watch to see how well the plot works.
    I never listen to books while doing chores around the house, though. For some reason, it’s hard for me to concentrate on the story while unloading the dishwasher. But I will turn on a podcast.

    • “It’s fun to try to outline the author’s work in my own mind as I slog through a few more miles.” That’s some incredible concentration, Kay. I wish I had your concentration super power!

      My husband and I become huge critics when we watch television. There’s nothing more fun than saying a line out loud that you’re sure is coming and being absolutely right. We’ve been watching OZARK on…I think it’s Netflix? Incredible writing. It’s one of the very few shows that we don’t often predict what’s going to happen. Highly recommend.

      • Ha! I don’t have incredible powers of concentration. It’s just nice to have something to think about so I can forget about the pain!

        Thanks for the recommendation for OZARK. I’m always looking for something new to watch while I’m on the treadmill.

  5. laura, I’m with you, obsessed with audiobooks. Here’s a recent NYT on audio vs reading https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/08/opinion/sunday/audiobooks-reading-cheating-listening.html which basically says that if you were given a test on recall of what you read versus what you heard, you would have an equal score. Thanks to James Scott Bell’s Sunday post, I’m listening to Lawrence Block’s book about writing. OMG, I was putting away the laundry last night while thinking that this was the first book I liked as much about writing since I read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. That’s a high compliment from me. I ordered print versions of two of the other books on JSB’s list, but they may sit on the shelf for a long time as TBR. As for Lethal White, I would have been six months reading that tome (22 hrs audio) and I found it to be tedious at times even with an overall good story.

    • Wow–what a timely article, Alec.Thank you! I can’t wait to read. I may have to read the guy’s book as well…

      JSB always has the best suggestions. Love Lawrence Block. What a pro!

      Thanks for the heads-up on Lethal White. It put me to sleep last night–which isn’t hard. I read for about twenty minutes this morning, and I didn’t have a problem stopping. Hoping it picks up. Given its length, I confess I’m not surprised there are going to be tedious parts. Ahem. *has wondering thoughts about editors and famous writers*

  6. I mostly read books on my ereader. It’s part of my bedtime ritual & it relaxes me. It pulls me out of being an author (hopefully, if the book is well-written) & puts me into reader mode.

    I don’t seek out audio books but my mom loves audio books & I get whatever she finishes. I listen to audio novels as I’m falling asleep. In the dark, it keeps my mind off distractions that can keep me up. It’s like someone reading me a bedtime story. I love it.

    I got hooked on audio books in Alaska when we’d take them camping. There was nothing like listening to Anne Rice’s The Mummy under the stars. Oy.

    • “It’s like someone reading me a bedtime story. I love it.” Yes, yes, yes, to this! I heartily agree. Only I recently listened to “Psycho.” Stunning book. Way more graphic than the Hitchcock film. Do not recommend for bedtime!!!

      Have never read Anne Rice. I must.

  7. I can’t enjoy audiobooks. My mind drifts to my never-ending to-do list or my WIP. I need to read words on a page in order to absorb the story. I’m definitely a multitasker, but not when it comes to novels. I may be able to do non-fiction through audio. Music enhances my writing and puts me in the zone, so when the headphones are on, the fingers race across the keys. No idea why or how it happens. I’m just thankful it does. 🙂

    • I’m fascinated, Sue. Do you even dislike books you’ve always loved on audio? But I confess that if things get slow my mind drifts as well. It’s frustrating to have to snap it back and realize I don’t know what the heck is going on in the story, lol.

      Music used to be my go-to for writing time. So many brilliant soundtracks out there. I can’t write with singing going on. One of my faves is the soundtrack from The Gift. Now I really prefer near-silence. Maybe bc I wrote for so many years with kids and an open office door.

  8. Years ago, my husband and I enjoyed books-on-tape during long trips. They were kind of a throwback to radio days when your imagination filled the visuals. Nowadays car jaunts are too short to get into a book. Plus, I want to focus on that nutcase who’s veering into my lane w/o signaling three inches off my front bumper.

    Walking and gardening are writing work time when I sort out plot developments and brainstorm. Physical activity and fresh air invariably help me solve writing problems. If I started listening during those times, I wouldn’t the writing job done.

    Kindle is my preferred way to read. However, audio books would help my computer eyestrain.

    Nice to have so many options for reading.

    Fun post, Laura. Your self-described hypocrisy with your son made me laugh. Sounds like you guys have a great relationship.

    • Debbie, yes! It can be dangerous to drive without paying 100% attention. I don’t know about where you live, but around here, one ALWAYS has to pause before proceeding on a green light. 4/5 times someone will run the red light.

      I’m jealous that you sort out things while gardening. Mostly I just puzzle over what is going on in the dirt.

      My son and I do have a great relationship. Hard to let him grow up–but he seems determined to, anyway!

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