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How writing an audio-first novella changed John Scalzi’s writing process

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Audiobooks are more popular than ever, and as more people listen to novels on their phones or computers, publishers are beginning to experiment a bit more with the form. One example is John Scalzi’s The Dispatcher, which arrives today from Audible. The novella is debuting as an audiobook months before a print edition, and presented some interesting opportunities for its author.

The Dispatcher is the result of a long partnership between Scalzi and Audible. Much of Scalzi’s works have been published as audiobooks under the label, such as his audio-only anthology Metatropolis. Audible approached Scalzi, wanting to know if he’d be interested in a new short, audio-only project.

“Around that time, I had been thinking about the central conceit that would become The Dispatcher,” Scalzi tells The Verge. “It had been an idea rolling around in my head for a quite a long time.” The idea was: what would happen if people who were murdered returned to life? “What does that do to the world and society?” Scalzi muses.

The story follows Tony Valdez, who works for an insurance company as a professional killer. He murders patients in hospitals right before they’re about to die on the operating table. Because of this quirk in the world, they come back to life, giving the doctor a chance to try and save them again. When one of his colleagues is kidnapped, he sets off to find him, and discovers that there’s lengths that people will go to to exact revenge, and that there are things worse than death.

The Dispatcher is a bit different from Scalzi’s larger body of work, which is largely space operas: his Old Man’s War series has spawned a number of sequels, while his 2012 novel Redshirts earned him the 2013 Hugo Award for Best novel. Part of the fun of writing The Dispatcher, he says, “was doing a subgenre that I’ve never really approached before.”

The Dispatcher is firmly urban fantasy, which had its own particular challenges for Scalzi. Science fiction comes out of a tradition of realism, where everything is explained. “To sit there and write something and know that I’m not going to assign it a rational basis made me itchy,” he says. “Part of my brain went ‘you should try and explain this!’ It goes against everything I believe.”

Writing an audio-first story also had its challenges. “It makes you pay attention to things like dialogue where you really do want to make sure [it sounds] reasonably like humans speaking,” Scalzi says. One of the changes he made was in how he used dialogue tags such as “he said / she said,” which work in written books but aren’t necessarily useful for a listener. “It sounds like a small thing, but when someone is speaking what you’re writing, those small things add up.”

Scalzi also focused on making sure each character had their own distinctive voice. Because audiobooks generally have a single narrator, “there’s only so many voices they’re going to make [to] distinguish one character from another. You want to be their ally in making sure that specific characters are talking at specific times.”

While novels are a largely solitary endeavor, audiobooks are more collaborative. The Dispatcher is narrated by Zachary Quinto, known for his work on Star Trek and Heroes. Scalzi notes that while he’s responsible for the words on the page, it’s Quinto who brings them to life. The narration is a performance in and of itself, Scalzi says. “You want to support the narrator without restricting them.”

The end result is a book that goes beyond the author’s vision. “I know in my brain exactly how I intended it,” Scalzi says. “If you have a good narrator, they will do a performance of your words that you didn’t realize was there or was an interpretation that you didn’t expect.”

Scalzi has few other books in the works: Miniatures, a short story collection, is due out from Subterranean Press early next year, and a new space opera novel, The Collapsing Empire, will be out in March. He also plans to write Head On, a sequel to his 2014 novel Lock In. For people who want to read The Dispatcher, there’s a print version coming from Subterranean at some point in 2017. The Dispatcher is now available on Audible for free for the month of October.