This BOT Contributor is Keir Graff. He is the author of The Phantom Tower.
Here’s the conundrum: as a writer, I craft my words for their effect on strangers, but I can’t read my own writing the way those strangers can. As much as I want to, I can’t have the experience of discovering my own work for the very first time—unless I’m fortunate enough to have my books turned into audiobooks.
I hear my own voice while I write, both in my head and in my writing room. Typically, I read a late draft of every book out loud, a crucial step for finding out where my sentences stumble, where I’ve repeated words, or where the dialogue fails to move the story along. This is especially important for kids’ books, which are often read aloud by parents and teachers. But while reading my own work aloud is helpful, it’s still my words, my voice, with not very many surprises.
Listening to an audiobook is a different story. At first, it’s weird to hear my sentences come out of someone else’s mouth, but after a few minutes, something else happens—it begins to sound like that reader’s story. And even though I know what’s coming next, I find myself pulled along, encountering my own narrative in a way I never have before.
As I write this, I’ve just finished listening to Robbie Daymond read my latest middle-grade adventure, The Phantom Tower. When I pressed play, I had two questions: Could Robbie do justice to my story? More importantly, did I do justice to my readers?The first question may be easiest to answer: Robbie nails it. This isn’t the easiest story to narrate, with twins, old people, foreign accents, magic spells in another language, and even a song, but he handles it all with the aplomb of the veteran performer he is. The story is about twelve-year-old twins who move with their mother to a mysterious old high-rise in Chicago, only to discover the building is cursed and they’ll never be allowed to leave. From the twins, to their new friend Tamika, to the real live princess and crusty old professor who play crucial roles in the mystery, Robbie differentiated between characters with changes subtle (the twins) and dramatic (the princess, whose voice delighted me the moment I heard it). Their voices don’t sound like the ones in my head—which is great!
Even more importantly, he gets the kids’ emotions just right, using the tiniest tonal shifts to indicate whether narrator Colm is feeling excited, worried, defensive, angry, or sad. There’s also a wonderful touch at the beginning, when he reads a vintage advertisement with the zippy tone of a carnival barker over 1920s-style music.
The answer to my second question is more subjective. By the time I publish a book, I’ve been over the words on the pages so many times they can seem to lose meaning—I rely on my editor to let me know if I’m achieving my intended effect. And I’ve never once sat down to read one of my books after publication because, frankly, I’m a little nervous that the final version I’ve committed to the page will somehow fall short.
Now this is going to make me sound lame, boastful, or both. But as I listened to Robbie tell my tale, I was utterly immersed in my own story—and loving it. Sure, I noticed a few small things I would have liked to tweak, but overall, I felt satisfied and incredibly proud that I was the one who’d put the words on the page.
And finally, a confession. My first editor for the book (I was lucky enough to have two!) told me the ending made her tear up every time. It had the same effect on me, too. You might think it was because I was so grateful to have finally reached the end, but my emotions were genuine. Even though there’s a lot of adventure in The Phantom Tower, at heart it’s a book about a young boy dealing with the death of his father. As I grow older and start to lose some people I care about, I find the thought of kids losing parents unspeakably sad—and helping even a fictional kid find some uneasy peace with his loss conjures up some surprisingly real feelings in me.
So the ultimate test for me was the final part of the book, the lifting of the curse and Colm’s slowly dawning sense that he can move on. And as Robbie movingly narrated the final pages…well, maybe I had just a little bit of dust in my eye. As I delicately dabbed the corners of my eyes with a tissue, I felt a profound sense of relief because, by the time you’re listening to the audiobook of your book, it’s definitely too late to change anything.
Now if only I can get Robbie to read my rough drafts back to me!
Learn more about Keir Graff’s The Phantom Tower:
Twin brothers discover their new home, Brunhild Tower, is also a portal—for an hour a day—to a parallel dimension. All of Brunhild Tower’s former residents live on in this phantom tower, where the rules of the real world don’t apply. But when the brothers and their newfound friends discover they’re all trapped by an ancient curse, they must band together to set everyone free before it’s too late.
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