Plus ca change, plus la meme chose

Today’s post is by Katie Isbester, Director of Claret Press.

Brace yourselves because I’m about to make two contradictory statements. Here goes the first:

It is my passionately held belief that the essence of storytelling has not changed over the millennia. It can’t change because we haven’t changed. Our species emerged around 200,000 years ago and stayed stone age until about 2000 BCE. We’re Stone Age beings in a space age era. So what was a great story then, also works now.

That’s why we can continue to read and appreciate not just Shakespeare but further back than that, to the Mahabharta in the 6thc BCE and further to the Illiad, in the 8th c BCE. (Let’s leave the Bible out of this as I don’t have the time to block the fruitcakes who will descend on me like a plague of locusts.) Instead, check out the Sumerian poems of Gilgamesh which date back to 2100 BCE, to the dawn of recorded history. In other words, as soon as we figured out how to write, we wrote a story. And it’s a thriller grappling with the big issues of life.

A good story is a good story is a good story.

Now I’m about to contradict myself so buckle up.

The way we tell stories has changed. And that change alters the story itself. Gilgamesh was carved onto clay tablets. Try curling up with that. The Illiad was oral and meant to be recited to large groups; it was the ultimate party piece. The development of not just widespread literacy but also cheap paperbacks that could literally slip into your pocket as you commuted to work, produced pulp fiction: short, explosive stories with stock characters and ludicrous plots. So the means by which the story is communicated shapes the story itself.

Here’s the most recent example: audio-books.

Audio-books place different demands on the writer as the experience of absorbing the story is different.

Let me give you an example. I recently published a political thriller called Term Limits. Its political message was subsumed by the mounting body count and the chase to catch the murderer. It’s a gritty page-turner. Better still, it’s written in short snappy chapters, occasionally just paragraphs, rarely longer than a few pages. These little bon-bons of suspense drove the reader on. As one reader told me, “I stayed up all night reading this because I kept thinking I could read just one more chapter.”

So I contacted an audio-book producer, Catherine O’Brien, who had bought the audio-book rights to a few of the Claret books and then made the most fabulous audio-books through her own company, Essential Audio-books. When I told her about Term Limits, she was pretty excited to read it.

Yet she rejected it. “The chapters are too short for audio”, she told me.

What adds suspense while reading dissolves suspense while listening. What is a page-turner in a book is an off-button on audio.


And also, uh-oh.

So we tweaked the book until it worked for audio. We kept the story, the plot, the good guys and the bad. We kept the suspense, the action, the chase. We just…. reshaped it to be appropriate to the audio-book age.

This meant, in practice, longer chapters, a shorter intro, fewer letters, more dialogue.

Turned out that Catherine O’Brien was right. The resulting audio-book is chilling, nerve-wracking and powerful. A great story told brilliantly.

My next challenge: tweaking Term Limits so it can be carved onto a clay tablet.

Today’s blog post was by Katie Isbester, Director of Claret Press and a publishing professional for many years. You can read more about Claret and Katie at                        Clapham Presses                     Small Publishers                     How Does a Book Sound?            To Cut a Short Story Long 

One response to “Plus ca change, plus la meme chose

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.