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The Challenges and Benefits of Writing for Audio by Alex Callister

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alex callister

Alex Callister

Let me tell you a story…

Six of the most powerful words in the English language. Now imagine I said them out loud. How much more powerful they would be. How difficult to ignore. As social creatures, we are wired to respond to that phrase, to prick up our ears, and pay attention. Back before the written word existed, there was a good survival reason for this. Almost an evolutionary imperative. If someone round the fire was telling a story about a sabre-toothed tiger and the hero who defeated it, it made sense to listen.

As a modern-day story spinner, my mythic hero is a woman, her name is Winter, and she fights the dark web. Her sabre-toothed tiger is a man called Alek Konstantin. The beasts Winter fights are dark markets and pay-to-view torture sites. I see potential danger in the internet’s ability to influence public opinion, undermine democracy, and facilitate crime, so, like those fire-side story tellers of long ago, I spin stories that reflect this.

These are exciting times for audio writers. We have gone from niche to mainstream in a few short years. Smartphones are everywhere – plugged into our car dashboards, at the gym, out for a walk. We listen driving, running, walking. We can listen pretty much anywhere, at any time, and the amount of content delivered aurally has, unsurprisingly, skyrocketed. Audio is the hot new way to consume content at the same time as being a very ancient one. More people than ever before are listening round the fire to someone telling them a story.

Writing specifically for audio is a different skill to writing for the print market. The audio writer is crafting something to be read aloud and the focus is all on how the words sound not how they look. Rhythm, repetition and rhyme are the fundamental tools of the trade. The ear is far more sensitive to the cadence and rhythm of prose than the eye. The audio writer has to be very mindful of the harmonious coherence of the whole. Consider these lines from Winter Dark;

I open my eyes.…The grey-white hollow is alive with the sound of moving snow – the creak, slither and slide of it. The trickle of thawing water. It is so hot in this snow pocket, the heat has woken me. I burn with it.

A sound wakes me.

Chipping and jarring like a broken tooth. Digging…Arms reach down into my hollow, into my cocoon, into my Winter-shaped snow hole. They haul at me, dragging. My legs scream at the movement. The pain pulls me into itself and there is nothing but black.

Jolting wakes me.

My head slams against a restraining bar. I am moving along the ground…

Pain wakes me.

Arms are forcing me into water. My eyes open. I am in a bath, fully clothed…My body jackknifes. Arms hold me down in the burning heat. I scream and scream, thrashing like a martyr in the fire.

Now try them out loud. Can you hear the alliteration, the short sharp sentence lengths that mirror the stop-start jolting action? The judder of the sledge is matched by the judder of the prose. The repetition of ‘wakes me’ emphasises the falling in and out of consciousness. If the writer has got it right, the audio version will be a more powerful experience than simply reading the text. There will be intimacy and adrenaline and after eleven hours spent with the narrator it will be a wrench to let go.

Ell Potter, the narrator of the Winter series was a 21-year-old drama student when she was chosen as Audible’s break-out narrator in 2019. Winter Dark was her first audio book and it earned her an Audie nomination. I remember the first time I met her in the LAMDA offices in London. She had a nose ring and bleached blonde hair and the feeling of familiarity nearly knocked me over. She was more Winter than Winter. We sat down with Tamsin Collison, one of the best audio producers in the business, to discuss the characters and voices. I was worried about the accents, there are more than twenty accents in the Winter books, but I needn’t have been. Ell is an accents specialist. That afternoon in the LAMBDA offices she reeled off perfect Cornish, Italian, Russian. Nothing is beyond her. As the series has grown so has her range. Now I put in challenges deliberately to make her laugh – like an Italian-speaking Algerian or a character that hoots like an owl and barks like a seal.

Right from that first meeting, Ell and Tamsin have influenced the books. Simon, Winter’s GCHQ partner, has an Aberdonian accent and a whole backstory because Ell is from Aberdeen. Back in 2020, the three of us went to New York for an awards ceremony. We walked the Manhattan streets and paced round Central Park and talked about female action heroes and how they tend to be young and beautiful. When I got back to London, I started writing the third book, Winter Dawn. My head was full of our New York trip and the lack of female action heroes in literature. The final scene of Winter Dawn is set in Central Park with a 60-year-old female senator in a gunfight and I realised the series had come full circle. Real life was influencing art and my fire-side stories were being shaped by the people who hear them. And that is how it should be.

Let me tell you a story…

(c) Alex Callister

About Winter Falling:

For fans of Lee Child, Robert Ludlum and Stieg Larsson, comes the exhilarating fourth instalment of the Winter series, winner of Audible’s Thriller of the Year 2019.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster….

Firestorm is down – the assassin for hire website that had the world by its throat, gone. Alek Konstantin, king of the underworld, is in hiding. But while the world celebrates, Winter is bracing for what must surely follow.

All the world’s cut-throats, assassins and thugs are unemployed, roaming the globe without a leader – and nature abhors a vacuum.

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken….

Something’s not right, and it’s not only that Winter’s body is in pieces. A boy held captive. An attempted assassination. Thirty men gunned down in rural South Wales. What sinister hand is directing these events, and to what end?

GCHQ is a place of secrets, and they follow Winter everywhere. There is so much she must conceal, and Control is keeping something from her, something vital about her past.

As she crashes towards the ultimate showdown, Winter faces the hardest decision of her life – and she must ask herself the question – whose side is she really on?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Alex’s debut WINTER DARK was short listed for Best Opening Chapter and Best Pitch at the York Festival of Writing and was the number one best selling Audible Thriller of the Year 2019. It was nominated for an Audie in 2020 and won the J.M.M. Audiofile Earphones award.

Alex read history at Oxford and the British School at Rome and was set for a career in academia until the beginning of the tech boom woke a life long interest in the internet. She has spent twenty years in the City studying the rise of technology and its transformative effect on industry. She describes the ‘internet of things’ as the internet of increased attack surfaces.

Winter Dark is dominated by Firestorm, eBay for the contract kill market. As an analyst in the telecoms and electronics sector at the height of the dotcom boom, Alex watched the internet sweep away barriers, break down borders, transform every industry. Ever since, she has been fascinated by its potential to facilitate crime – a potential that, to date, has yet to be fully realised. She spends her days visiting London’s high security hosting sites and speculating about what might be.

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