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Last December, I got some welcome pre-holiday news: I’d been awarded a small project grant by Create NSW, the state arts funding body for New South Wales, to develop an unusual sort of novel. Called A Turn off the Path, it would be for adults this time, rather than for my usual audience of children and young adults, but that’s not what was unusual about it. What was unusual is that I would be writing the novel for the audio format primarily, not print. That was inspired by the Audible Original range of audio books that are written for audio first and may or may not be published in print later. I’d been listening to a few of them, as well as to more traditional audio books, ie those that are published in print primarily, but with an audiobook edition as well. I wanted to see how that would work in terms of whether my creative process might have to adapt to something that is absolutely designed to be read aloud, but would still be a novel, not a play or a podcast.

Here’s how I worked my way through the challenge.

The novel is set in 2017, in the town of St Jean Pied de Port (Donibane Garazi in Basque) in the French Basque country. It’s a picturesque town which is a very popular starting place for people to go on the famous Camino del Santiago walk, and when the novel starts, my main characters, Australian twins Helen and Alex, have arrived there to begin the Camino. But misadventure means Helen has to stay behind in the town while Alex goes on ahead, and a very different experience ensues for the two sisters, especially after Helen unexpectedly meets up with an old schoolmate who has come there not to go on the Camino but to investigate his family’s Basque roots. The inspiration for the Basque theme comes directly from my family: on my mother’s maternal side, we have Basque family roots both in the French and Spanish sides of Euskal Herria. And I’m very familiar with its settings, culture and atmosphere, especially on the French side, as we have lots of uncles, aunts and cousins there and frequently visited both in childhood and adulthood, while recently some of my siblings have settled there as well.

What I wanted to do in the novel is highlight that strong sense of Basque landscape and culture and atmosphere yet without the novel turning into some sort of guidebook or containing boring infodumps. And I wanted it to be character-driven, with two main points of view—ie Helen and Alex’s—which would be conveyed in different ways: straight narrative in Helen’s case, blog posts in Alex’s, with phone conversations between the sisters also conveying their relationship as well as plot progress and general feel.

That’s all by way of background; but how does all that translate into the actual writing process? I’m still writing the novel at the moment but am well past the halfway mark now, and there’s a few things I’ve learned already which may be of interest:

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      Photo by Sophie Masson

      I found it was best to read each chapter aloud as I finish writing it, and go back over it, reading it aloud again to check if the sentences sound right when they are spoken. Don’t get me wrong; I always ‘hear’ the sentences in my head when I write a novel, and very often I’ve read passages aloud to know exactly where the rhythm of a sentence is faltering. But this is much more marked, in this one, and it needs to be right.

    • I’m also very much a visual writer, and love to paint word-pictures of places and people and atmospheres; but in this novel, I’m also very focused on sound, not just the way that the sentences sound, but also other things. For example, I’m putting in small references to Basque words in the novel, but I’m very much aware that in an audio version you also have to consider how the narrator might tackle such words, and give extra clues to pronunciation (Basque looks difficult to pronounce when you see it on the page but it isn’t necessarily so).
    • There’s also other sound elements to flag, like mentioning that someone has a slight accent that you can’t quite place (not a French or Basque accent which you’re obviously going to find there, but something else), and  also the sound of bells and music in the town. It’s not that I wouldn’t include those things in a novel normally, because I do; it’s just that I’m more conscious of it in this one, and more conscious too of how it might sound coming through your earphones.
    • I’ve often used different POVs in novels. That’s similar too, in A Turn off the Path, but I’ve been more conscious that the different POVs must really sound different, even if you have the same narrator voicing it all. I felt that two straight narratives—one Helen’s, one Alex’s—might make it more difficult for the narrator and also the listener, so mixing different narrative forms, like narrative, blog post and phone transcripts works best for me.
    • However some things have remained the same. I’m not writing shorter sentences, as I’d half-expected when I started. I’m using punctuation carefully, to indicate pauses and natural breaks, but as I’ve always done. And I’ve also always treated each chapter as a mini-story but with a twist, small or otherwise, that carries you onto the next.

WU’ers, I’d love to know your thoughts on what you think makes for a good audio novel, and also hear about any experiences you might have had yourself in creating fiction intended to go straight to audio.

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About Sophie Masson

Born in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in France and Australia, Sophie Masson is the multi-award-winning and internationally-published author of over 70 books, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, she has a PhD in creative practice and in 2019 received an AM award in the Order of Australia honours list for her services to literature.

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