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.

Oh.

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 thought on “Plus ca change, plus la meme chose

  1. Widespread literacy is a relatively recent thing. Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. At that point, so far as I can tell, the Netherlands and Germany led the world in literacy with about 18% and 16% of their populations reading.

    Two hundred years later literacy rates in Great Britain and the Netherlands breached the 50% threshold. About one hundred years later, in the mid-1700s, literacy rates in the American colonies approached 50%. Germany didn’t break the 50% threshold until about 1800 and France was 30 to 40 years behind them.

    As you said, change alters the story. While tweaking Term Limits to be more suitable for audio books was a little tricky, imagine the changes that took place when printing became widespread. As literacy spread so did news and shared wisdom, in forms brief and long. The first major published book printed with movable type was the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. The first printed newspaper was, arguably, a weekly called Relation, which was published in Antwerp in 1605. The first European novel of the Modern Era was also started in 1605, when the first part of Cervantes’ Don Quixote was published.

    We’ve come a long way. Or have we? How many words are there in a sound bite? How many characters are there in a Tweet?

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