Want to Read More? Think About Audiobooks

Samuel Montgomery-Blinn owes his life-long love of books to his parents: his dad for handing him worn paperbacks of Tolkien and Heinlein, and his mom for too many unthanked trips to the library and back. He graduated from Purdue University with a degree in computer science in 2000, and along with his career as a software engineer has since 2009 edited and published Bull Spec, a quarterly magazine of speculative fiction, which in April published its 8th issue. He also maintains a blog, The AudioBookaneers, on (primarily) science fiction and fantasy audiobooks. He and his family (and cats) live in Durham, NC.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. — Stephen King

I listen to a lot of audiobooks (80 last year; 70 the year before) and so, when Jeremy asked me to write a column on audiobooks for BookLifeNow it took a few tries to settle on just one of the dozen or so things I wanted to say about my favorite medium for stories: how to fit reading more (which is essential!) into a busy life of “real” work, life, and writing.

Long before The Matrix depicted Neo learning Kung-Fu by jacking in and downloading knowledge through a port hardwired into his brain, Robert Heinlein’s 1948 juvenile novel Space Cadet depicted a future where cadets would learn languages, histories, mathematics, and more by listening to sped-up lectures on cassette while under hypnotic suggestion. While I don’t suggest the hypnosis, or running things at supersonic speeds, I do suggest that you can find all manner of time you might not have even known you had to “read” more — to get those tools and ideas you’ll need when you next set pen to paper.

But I’m not here to convince you that you need to read more; I’ll let Stephen King do that. I’m not here to convince you that audiobooks “count.” (I’ll let Neil Gaiman do that.) I’m instead going to give you a few hints to help you discover that you can “read” another book per week than you already are reading. (Because you’re already reading, right? OK, well, to read a book a week, then!)

Actually, though, I lied. It’s just one hint: use more of the not insignificant dead time — when your Vonnegutian Big Brain is not fully needed — to read, by listening to audiobooks. It’s really that simple, and these slices of time quickly add up to 10 hours (or more) per week. To get you started, this hint comes in the form of two lists: (1) when to listen, and (2) when not to listen. I’m fairly confident you can take it from there.

First, a warning: most people can read much faster than an audiobook narrator will dare to read a book. (In fact, some narrators read slowly enough that you may find use for your device or software’s 1.5x speedup setting.) So I absolutely, for several reasons, do not hope you will give up any of your “real” reading time for audiobooks. Instead, keep your books handy and read them when you can; and when you can’t read your books, listen to someone talented read another one to you. Though when you’re pulled into an exceptionally good audiobook, by all means, sit in a comfortable chair and do absolutely nothing else. If you’re concerned about reading more than one book, or listening to more than one audiobook — this can be a very good thing, allowing different levels of engagement and interest for different moods and situations, along with creating episodic reinforcement of your memory for a given book’s characters, setting, and plot. The main thing is to read (or listen) more.

When To Listen

  • laundry: sorting, folding, ironing, hanging, …
  • dishes
  • cooking
  • making coffee
  • cleaning
  • de-fur the cat
  • waiting in line (post office, DMV, haircut, …)
  • wrapping gifts
  • knitting
  • signing a few hundred copies of your book
  • preparing and stuffing a few hundred copies of a magazine for mailing
  • walking (but be safe out there if you have noise-canceling headphones!)
  • stationary bike or other exercise (More from Gaiman: “I lost 30 pounds on ‘Bleak House’ earlier this year. That was awesome.”)
  • in that last half-hour after lights out when you can’t quite sleep — though I advise using a sleep timer on your audio player, as you need sleep more than you need to read another hour
  • when you’re resting your eyes
  • driving (Judith Shulevitz’s recent NY Times essay invites you to “Go Reading in the Car”; bestselling fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss says of listening to Jim Dresden’s Changes: “I’m looking for reasons to go driving because I’m hooked into the story again.”)

(That last note’s closing “again” does invite me to sneak in a secondary point to that “one” which I picked for this essay: re-reading, or as Dave Thompson coined “hreading“, books in audio can be a fantastic way to get something new from the text, or, for a difficult novel, to allow a good narrator to help pull you into the story and carry you along.)

When Not To Listen

  • writing
  • reading another book (at the exact same time)
  • conversing with your spouse (really, really, do not attempt)
  • checking e-mail, Twitter, websites, etc. — don’t do this to your friends or a good audiobook

Lastly, while I hope you will start filling up more of your downtime with audiobooks, another warning: do save yourself some time to be unplugged. Even The Motorocyle Way to Complex Plotting can be drowned out if you don’t give your mind any time to just churn on its background processes, to turn all these inputs into insights, breakthroughs, and ideas.

Further Reading

  • John Joseph Adams’s Audiobook Primer for Locus Magazine (though since 2004 some things have changed it’s still a very good resource)
  • The Guilded Earlobe — Bob Reiss’s wonderful audiobooks review blog
  • The Audies — “Awards recognizing distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association (APA)”
  • Short fiction: There are podcasts galore in various genres to bring you a large amount of short fiction to squeeze into the nooks and crannies of your Booklife. I talked about a few of these on a Functional Nerds podcast towards the end of 2011, but a few of the ones I pay attention to are: Escape Pod, PodCastle, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tina Connolly’s wonderful and Parsec Award winning Toasted Cake, Dunesteef, The Drabblecast, …
  • Speaking of podcasts: Luke Barrages’s Science Fiction Book Review Podcast, Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, Anton Strout’s The Once and Future Podcast, Adventures in SciFi Publishing, I Should Be Writing, The Coode Street Podcast, Starship Sofa, Writing Excuses, Speculate!

Inspiration From the Darkest Places

A quick note about this post: Andrew Liptak and I just announced an anthology of military SF, to be published by Apex Publishing in April, 2014. One of the things that can’t really be explored in press releases is, “Where did this idea come from? What are you trying to accomplish?” And because this is something very personal and dear to me, I asked if I could post it here.

More info on the anthology can be found at War Stories Anthology.

Last year, one of my friends said ‘I love George R. R. Martin because he’s pretty much the only SF writer I’ve seen who really understands what war and its effects are really like’. While I was quick to inundate him with suggestions about other writers who have actual military background, the statement stuck with me.

My friend is a former Army Ranger. He’s done six tours throughout the Middle East, was a staff sergeant, and spent long periods of time imbedded with the local fighters. He will talk for hours about how wonderful the Kurds are, how the generals of the Afghani army have ours beaten in terms of knowledge, and then go off on a rant about the cultural destruction that’s been perpetrated by both sides. Another quote of his: “I wish that my war was the last one, but I know it won’t be.”

He’s the reason I started thinking about an anthology of military SF stories that wasn’t just about war, but about the people touched by war.

I went out to get Greek food with my mom last year, in North Carolina, and we struck up a conversation with one of the owner’s daughters. She told us about how hard it was to get back to Greece, how the current political system affected them, even in America.

I have a friend in Israel right now, who told me last night about seeing troop transports moving north, toward Syria. I have friends in Istanbul, too, and still harbor a deep hope that I’ll be able to travel there some day. I know a couple of people who have been involved in South and Central America…and some who were involved in the Waco and Ruby Ridge conflicts.

I have listened to a Palestinian friend talk about what it’s like to watch your birth country support the destruction of your ancestral home.

We live in a world of war.

I have been so very, very fortunate, because war has never impacted me directly. I’ve never lost a loved one to war, or been forced out of my home, or had to live on wartime rations. I know how much worse things could be.

But I’ve seen what war does. My cousin advocates for soldiers with PTSD. I’ve dated active-service military, and lived in fear of the news. I have friends who are at severe risk of suicide from untreated PTSD. Many of them talk to me when it gets too bad, because they don’t have anyone else who will listen. Many members of my family have served, in various conflicts, in different ways.

The conflict doesn’t end when the guns go silent. Our entire history is marred and shaped by war, by defeat and victory, conflict and pacification. We are all affected and marked by it, whether we realize it or not. We may go a generation or two without being directly involved in a war, but that doesn’t mean we escape it.

No country escapes it, either. Invader or invaded, it changes us, and seldom for the better. The casualties aren’t just measured in bodies.

In War Stories, we want to bring to light those far-reaching ripples, and the dark things beneath the surface. We want to see men and women of all cultures, dealing with the most enduring legacy of humanity: conflict. Civil, religious, global. We want to see people rising above the blood and loss to change things in the most difficult of situations.

This isn’t an anthology about US soldiers, or Middle Eastern wars. It is about the future, and how we will process and come to terms with something that shows no signs of dying out. It’s about the bonds of friendship, cultural evolution, survival, and personal triumph.

The wars of today are where we found the building blocks of this collection, but they are not what we’re looking for. War has evolved constantly, but in leaps and bounds over the last century. What will it be like a century from now? Who will we be fighting? Why? How? What will change?

Those are the stories we’re looking for. It won’t be a pretty, comfortable collection of stories. But hopefully it will be a transformative one.

from start to finish, Illustrating Marisol Brook

In art, thumbnails are preliminary small scale sketches where you can experiment with layout and values before you jump into the final full sized piece. But I’m an impatient, trigger happy artist and I frequently overlook this step.  I work digitally and count on that to save me if I need to back-pedal or re-arrange an illustration to a better place. That doesn’t always work. Recently, art director Jon Schindehette, wrote about the importance of thumbnails, so as I prepared to illustrate Sarah Grey’s The Ballad of Marisol Brook, I began with these:

thumbnails for Marisol Brook

Water is a repeating theme in the Grey’s story; drowning, falling into water, reborn from water, etc, and that’s the symbol I wanted to play with in the illustration. From those thumbnails, I started working this direction:

the ballad of marisol brook by sarah grey WIP1

preliminary sketch for Marisol Brook

However, after working on this piece for a while, I felt it was losing its connection to the story. It’s a cool image and I’ll keep it filed for future use, but to connect it to what Grey had written, I felt I should switch it up a bit. So I did this:

a second preliminary sketch for Marisol Brook

As this version progressed I didn’t like all the horizontals so I took the layer with the red figure, rotated it, resized it, copied multiple versions across the page and played with creating variation in the pattern. (Like Jon Schindehette noted: “…folks that work digitally are more apt to skip [thumbnails] in their process. I found that observation to be quite interesting, and wonder if it has something to do with the fact that most digital artists feel like they can always “make changes”. Yep. Guilty as charged.)

Marisol Brook in Progress

There, I’d finally found my direction. So the real work begins:

Marisol Brook in progress

This part goes on for quite some time. “Finished” is such a subjective word, a teasing balancing act between overworked and not-quite-there. At the end, finding that point usually involves ignoring the image for a while as I work on other stuff, coming back to peek at it intermittently, make more notes, make small changes, leave it again, etc, until I’m satisfied that yes, indeed, it is “finished”

Final illustration for The Ballad of Marisol Brook. Written by Sarah Grey, published at Lightspeed Magazine


So there you go. A glimpse into my process. Speaking of process, here are some notebooks and sketchbooks from famous authors, arists, and visionaries (because I love that kind of stuff).  Also, here’s some more about thumbnails by Dan Dos Santos (because I really need to work on those.)


Your Words are Your Life, Your Death

Lauren Dixon knows how to shoot a rifle. She’s written lingerie catalogs for the Army, talks a lot about vaginas, and does not eat animals unless they ask her to first. Her newest young adult novel, Throwaways, hasn’t killed her, so far. Her creative work has also appeared in Scapezine, Extracts, Oracle, DIAGRAM, Sojourn, INTER, Kadar Koli and (R)evolve (from Naropa University), and was previously nominated for the Best of the Net 2012 award and Best New Poets of 2006 Anthology. A Clarion West 2010 graduate, Dixon edits the literary ‘zine Superficial Flesh, an amalgamation of weird, absurdist literature and art. Dixon previously taught creative writing and literature at University of Texas at Dallas. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from Texas State University and is poised to receive her doctorate in Literary Studies from the University of Texas-Dallas. Find her online here: www.laurendixon.net.

One word is urgency. It hits us while we sleep; we wake in a stupor, not quite understanding why that sentence begs to be written right now, at 3:44 am, while outside the world rests in a few hours of reprieve. Another word is ephemeral. We don’t write that sentence, we don’t let that story take shape, and it is gone, only tasted for a few seconds. But we live in regret of its passing.

In December, my friend Mike Alexander, who began submitting stories for publication in 1980, the year I was born, who finally made his first sale in 2010, the year I met him at Clarion West, passes away. I’ve known him for two and a half years, and during that time he sells story after story, has been named by Gordon Van Gelder as an up-and-coming writer to watch, and has been nothing but a kind, generous, and self-effacing man. He once got up in arms about the processed ingredients in my vegan deli slices, but other than that, I’ve never seen him angry or bitter. The last time I see him is in November, a month before he passes. I don’t want to write about him in the past tense, will always write about him in the present, forever in the moment, forever with us.

It is now May, six months after Mike has walked out of his body and up to the moon. Since April 15, the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, my grandfather (I call him Papa) has suffered multiple strokes that have landed him in a rehab facility in Bryan, Texas. I leave Seattle for a weekend when I find out a branch of his carotid artery is 100% blocked and there’s nothing they can do to remove it.

My grandfather is 84 years old. A decade ago, he walked off a heart attack in the jungles of Costa Rica. Last Thanksgiving, he walked a one-mile fun walk with my family at a Turkey Trot. The Thanksgiving before that, he took me out to my grandparents’ massive backyard to go turtle hunting. He is always, always, always on the move. He’s written several books about amphibians and reptiles. There’s even a Wikipedia page about him. He’s left-handed like me, has a PhD, has actual species of creatures named after him, and he’s had multiple strokes, and now has very little mobility in his right side.

When my dad and I arrive, it is 5:00 pm, so we walk into the cafeteria where my Papa is having dinner. He’s in a wheelchair, a sky-blue cardigan draped around his shoulders, and there’s a blueberry muffin on his plate. He tries to give it to my Grandma, but she gives most of it back to him. He shows us that he can lift his right arm six inches, which is worlds of improvement from a few days before. Dad rubs Papa’s back to relieve the pain of sitting in a wheelchair. Papa leans forward while Dad works at his muscles. Papa rolls his head from side to side and groans a little.

Later, Grandma forgets we’ve had dinner. She is 83 years old and doesn’t want to eat the snacks my mom has brought her because she doesn’t want to get fat. Grandma has low-blood pressure, and she, who once stood six-feet tall, leans into me, now the same height as my five-foot-eight.

A few days later, a former classmate’s father and grandmother perish in tornadoes that strike Texas, not an hour from my parents’ house. I seethe with the hole that begins to burn through me, the knowledge that death, the final unraveling frame of life, is all happening right now and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

To clear my head, I swim a few laps, do a headstand, go for a jog. Work on an essay about making the impossibility of fantasy a possibility in our world. I pull a muscle or tendon when I stay in a triangle pose too long. I will turn 33 in 13 days, and this is my life.

Nobody is burning out. It’s one little snap at a time, one little tendon pull, too much sugar or meat or alcohol or too little salt, too much attention paid to everyone else.

My Papa pulls at my cardigan, says he likes it. Tells me I should give my boyfriend Lucas a ring, says to tell Lucas to marry me. Says what happened to him, his strokes, can happen to anyone.

Back in Seattle a week later, Lucas and I sit beneath a gnarled tree in the afternoon sun. We drink coffee and Italian sodas and try to soak in a symphony of songbirds. A composer sits down at our table with his dog, who lets loose a stream of urine almost as soon as he sits down. He tells us he left Los Angeles because he didn’t want to be gentrified.

“You’re going to croak,” he says, looking at me. “Don’t ask for permission because they’re not going to give it to you.” Better to be who you are than who they tell you to be.

He is 22 years older than me, the age of my parents, of my father, who shaves my grandfather’s beard, wipes food from the right side of his mouth, and always asks if he can help any of the others whose weakened limbs prevent them from opening their half-pints of milk, from spooning their soup into their mouths.

Don’t ask for permission. A few years ago I felt my words had dishonored me, been part of something inside myself always destined to go rogue, to never answer a direct question directly. Part of something forever transgressive, my ability to write one sentence, then follow it with another, then another, no matter how wrong or sorrowful or regretful it made me feel. And in that way I learned to write about rape, incest, abortion, all wrapped up in the secret loves we have for each other, our fears that the mark of tragedy makes us untouchable, unlovable, unable to even fathom a touch of freedom. Body, a word we later learn to name “taboo.”

I have days, weeks, years left of my life, yet I’m forever touched by the knowledge that the meter is running. I work on my novel, I put it away. My Papa will probably never go back to Costa Rica, and I don’t know if my Grandma will be able to remember my sister’s baby when it is born in June. They are my past, my present, my future. I think of Mike, how his family and loved ones gave us that last chance to write to him, how I thought there had better be stars, how I didn’t know he’d left until the next day, when a crazy man began to yell at me about a government conspiracy hiding on the moon.

“Mike,” I thought, “you’ve left so soon.”

I have been a writer since I was able to pick up a pen. As a baby I ripped pages out of my mother’s books; as a child I loved my fairy tales so much I took them into the bathtub, destroying them when my clumsy fingers lost their grip and gave the books a good dunking. Words, like my family, have been my past, present, future, even when they violate me, cross a line I can never uncross. Nobody ever gave me permission, but I never asked. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do this, except myself, every time I rediscovered that impulse to veer off course and say too much, to expose taboo and offer a new name for it.

I try to avoid writing about my personal life. Never want to say too much, give anyone or anything too much power in knowing me too well. But time, my body, my Papa’s body, my Grandma’s mind, the composer’s dog’s bladder, there’s only so much before we lose the fight and something else takes the wheel. It can take you 30 years to hit your stride before your body decides you’ve had enough. It can happen tomorrow. But the fact that life can be an unbearably raw, open wound also means there’s a possibility of healing, however slow, however scarred. But if you shut the door on the words too early, give up in the face of cancer, of stroke, of dementia, of fear, the stars destined to come from your pen may well turn to dust.

So I will let my pen transgress. In the face of life rolling up the welcome mat ever so slowly, I give myself permission to say all of these wrong things, to give them a voice. Because there’s no going back, whether my thoughts appear on the page or in our lived world. And the truth is, they’re the same. Maybe we all know this. That’s the wound of writing. Someone out there will see your words as truth, even if in your mind you’ve made it all up. We all come from the same raw materials, after all.

The past, the present, the future – it’s always happening, right here, on the page. In this moment, I am with all of my loved ones, hoping to keep them forever safe in the company of my words. At least here I have the power to grant myself permission to love, to mourn, to be with them even as they transform into our beloved stars.