Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • What does abridgment of a book mean? Does it matter?
    I received the audio book of GEARS OF WAR: ASPHO FIELDS today, the unabridged version. Being a writer who usually works at between 150,000 - 190,000 words per book (with the CW novels being an exception) that means an awful lot of CDs - ten for ASPHO FIELDS, in fact.

    I've had to put the audio book to one side and resist the urge to listen to it for the time being. The single narrator isn't, of course, the full cast of voice artists who did the game. And while I'm writing Gears books, I have to keep those voices untouched in my mind to hit the dialogue right. If I hear another voice when I should be hearing John DiMaggio, then I'm stuffed. It's just the way I work. So David Colacci's interpretation of the Gears will be a treat for a future date when I can no longer be distracted.

    One thing is certain, though - an unabridged ASPHO FIELDS will be the full experience of the novel. Nothing has been cut. If you splash out on this full version - and I accept that it costs a lot more than the abridged one - then you won't be missing anything from the book.

    I admit I have mixed feelings about the value of audio books simply because of abridgement. Some books are abridged for audio and some aren't, and it's all about length. A number of readers have asked me about the audio versions of my Star Wars books, and I feel honour-bound to put a few caveats on my response because I don't want to mislead customers.

    Put bluntly, abridged audio books are not the full book experience. Don't get me wrong; they're very cleverly done, and they have to be cut for a sound business reason, but they just can't be the same thing as the full book they're based on. What you lose will depend on the writer and their individual style, but on content alone, you'll see that a 160,000 word novel boiled down to about 90,000 - 100,000 words so that it fits on five discs in standard packaging and hits a certain price point will not yield the result that the author originally intended. It's almost cut in half.

    Abridging for audio book (or radio, come to that) is a demanding skill, and it's impressive to see it done well. Working on BLOODLINES was an education; I was given the abridged manuscript and I compared it with the full version to see what had been changed. Nothing had been added. It had simply been filleted. It was so cleanly done that the plot remained intact and none of the basic detail essential to following the plot had been lost. That takes some doing.

    What had been lost, though, was the depth of characterisation and worldbuilding. I don't pad books, and every line is there for a reason - primarily characterisation, to immerse the reader in what it really feels like to be the point-of-view character. A lot of Fett's motivation didn't make it into the audio version, for example, and while the audio book was still a coherent story and it had the bonus of excellent narration, it lost some of the essential flavour of the novel. It simply wasn't what I wrote any longer. It was more like a translation, despite the fact that nothing had been actively changed or added. The detail that had been removed out of necessity had changed the work into something else. That should be obvious, I suppose, but most readers won't realise what they're not getting if all they do is listen to abridgements.

    Discussing the dilemma of abridgement with a lit critic, something struck me; the two incarnations of BLOODLINES make an excellent teaching tool for would-be writers. By comparing the two, you can learn a lot about the nuts and bolts of characterisation. You can see and hear exactly, word by word, what makes the difference between an okay and entertaining story, and one that reduces a reader to tears. That's a quote from a reader, by the way. The novel made them weep; the audio book didn't. The novel built a cumulative effect of watching Fett come to terms with his wretchedly empty life. There were elements that were lost in the other plot lines,too, but that one that stuck in my mind because a reader explained to me in detail how she felt about it.

    So if you rely wholly on abridged audio books, you will never actually experience an author. You'll be getting a taster of what the author does, and you'll be hearing the talent of an editor and a voice artist. But you won't be experiencing the book any more than a faithful movie adaptation (and note that I say faithful) will replace the novel it's based upon.

    Many novels aren't abridged for audio, and so you lose nothing. It's still a different experience on a very subtle level, if only because the narrator's voice will steer your mind in a slightly different way from where it might have gone had you done the reading for yourself. But nothing the author intended has been removed.

    So - if you buy an audio book, check which version you're getting. If it's abridged, it won't be the same as the book, and in the case of some of my books - it might only be the half of it.

    Posted on May 26, 2009 at 11:5