I was curious what the process of making an audiobook is like on the author’s side, so I asked! Nicholas Nicastro writes richly detailed historical fiction, and I’ve been lucky enough to voice two of his recent works, Hell’s Half Acre and Ella Maud.
My first step is to pre-read the manuscript. Any surprise reveals? Is there a bad guy hiding in plain sight? Characters, especially when they’re written well, have a voice that just comes out through my mouth. I trust that. The words that have been put in their mouths and the adjectives that describe
Everybody's does. There's a scientific reason for that, too.
Because my voice sounds different in my head, though, it's not much use for me to just listen back to prior recordings to see what I made different characters sound like (say, for a sequel).
Instead, I have to get back in touch with what attributes I had in mind with that character, that came through in their voice.
I love how this guy (exceptional at voices, all genders) has a "fleet of actors in his head" and he casts them in the roles that come in the books.
It's not like that for me.
I get the sound of a character by pinning some quality to them. Qualities like "Always expects the best of everyone", "aggressive to be taken seriously".
It's even better if I can boil it down to one word. Caffeinated. Skeptical. Serene. Snob. Tentative.
These cues almost always come out of the narrative. I pre-read the story, and just like everyone else reading a story, I get an imaginary vision of the characters. But in my case, I have to get the imaginary voice. Sometimes the author provides helpful character notes, but the story is most important.
Usually, it just starts the first few words that they speak. I can get a little bit in and be like, no no, that's all wrong for her, and start over. I can tell right away if I'm forcing a voice. Good writing gives good voices- voices fall on the characters and drape them completely.
To remember what I made a character sound like, I have to remember them, not their voice.
I listen to a great many audiobooks. I recently made the leap to listening to more books than I read, thanks to the many digital resources available - happily! I wouldn’t be able to read 100 books a year any more if I had to sit down to read them.
I've observed a few things from my listenings.
1) Production quality is less important than the performance. I can easily forgive a dull staticky background (sub-standard booth or mastering) in exchange for a voice that makes me feel the story. I was heart broken when one of my favorite authors went (mid-series!) from a native Icelandic narrator with middling production to a "beloved" English narrator backed by swish production values. I’m still holding a grudge about this.
2) There's some very, very bad production out there. I get many of my audiobooks from the library collection, many of which are classics apparently recorded before digital media, in a time where production standards must have been different. I hear page turning. I hear swallowing. I hear near stumbles. I hear people talking in the next room. Any amateur starting on ACX would be destroyed for such poor production, and this is from Random House! Speeding up, slowing down (varying pacing is far worse than just reading faster or slower than you’d prefer). Volume up, volume down. Mic bumps. I swear once I heard the narrator take a sip, and in the same book, read right over a burp (the two might have been related). It's like they locked him in a room and said “You can't leave until it's done! No breaks! Have to pee? Read faster!” This kind of crap always makes me feel better about my early mistakes. Standards are much higher these days:).
3) Using unusual emphasis, once in awhile, keeps the listener alert. There's ten ways to read every sentence using different emphasis. Even a three word sentence. Three ways, with emphasis? Add a question mark, exclamation mark, anger, sadness, resentment, hope, hopelessness, or distance. Considering just emphasis, though, placing it slightly on a word unexpected makes a little hop of cognitive dissonance in the listener, and I find it keeps me very tuned in.
4) It's obvious when the narrator doesn't know what the sentence is saying. When they don't, they aren't able to communicate the meaning to the listener. Maybe you (listener) can get it, if you remember the words of the sentence and reassemble them in your head retrospectively, but maybe the narrator carries on and does it again with another sentence, and then you can't catch up. I think this is the essence of the job of the narrator, and the difference between reading a story and telling it. As the surrogate voice of the author, the narrator is supposed to be communicating meaning with all the nuance available in speech, not just vocalizing words in the order they're on the page. It’s easy to tell (and frustrating) when the narrator doesn’t get the point of a sentence.
The last thing I see before I shut the door to my recording booth:)
Never start a sentence with "So". No. No, never. "But" can be even worse, in immoderation. (I totally do this -gulp-!)
Good writing is easy to read aloud. There are all those things they teach you about writing - vary the length and complexity of your sentences, utilize assonance, sibillance and alliteration, etc - but all of those things can be intuitively understood by doing one thing: reading it aloud. Can you read without effort and running out of breath? Does it have a natural cadence? Does it feel smooth, or do certain words lurch?
Speaking as the narrator, I "feel" good writing flow before I "notice" it. Like when I have been reading without fault for minutes and realize, "Hey, this YA romance author has silky smooth writing!".
It's easier to describe what happens with bad writing, which is difficult to read aloud. Breath control becomes difficult ("longest sentence ever no human could possibly say in one go" gaaaaasp!). I falter. Certain words are just not meant to be next to each other, and take many tries to twist out of my tongue. Everything is lurching. My brain gets tired trying to interpret the intention of the punctuation a split second before I get there.
This is a situation where the narrator hopes to "elevate the manuscript", making it a better listen than it is a read. They try to inject flow where there is none, and to some extent this is possible. But it is one heck of an effort.
I have an idea that J.K. Rowling's flawlessly smooth writing (I've read all of H.P. aloud with zero fatigue) is that excellent because she wrote it for her kid! To be read aloud! I'm betting she read the drafts to her very first critical audience with a pencil in one hand to make edits on the fly. She was writing with the voice in her head narrating it.
Good writing makes the character. Characterization is what makes books memorable. As the narrator, often charged with giving characters different voices, I know the authenticity of characters exists in their dialogue. I can tell when a character has lived inside an author's head, and when they are faking it. Faking is bad.
Sure, I can slap a voice on someone, but it's like throwing a can of paint at them (you're blue, blue is the simpering soprano, and red is the gruff grumpy guy). They aren't really red, or blue. They've just been tagged. In good writing, the voice is already there, existing and waiting, and it comes almost immediately to me when the character starts to speak in the book (super neat, I don't even understand how sometimes). As organically, the other characters sound different from each other because they speak differently, on the page, before I "slap a voice" on them.
In poor writing, all the characters speak with the same vocabulary and style regardless of age, gender, personality. When characters are bantering without any he said, she said's, and I lose track of which is which, and have to go back and count lines? That's a bad sign. Characters should be distinguishable by the words they choose, just like real people, beyond the order in which they talk.
50 books is a big deal for me. I feel like a salty old dog in the audiobook game now...
Hardly! So far from it, it took a stack of books to learn how much I didn’t know.
I've figured out a few things, some of which I had to on my own because I was reluctant to take the advice of others in the first place.
50 books: 3 years, 150 hours of audio.
Meeting ACX quality control means nothing. You can pass QC and still sound like garbage. Pay for sound expertise early! If you’re trying to do a good job narrating, that will go to waste without good mastering.
There's a reason sound technicians go to school: there is a vast pool of knowledge about sound, not even counting all the software and equipment used to manage it. It has its own vocabulary! If you want to get down to reading books aloud, and not spend all your time learning about sound, then assistance from someone who has done that time is NOT OPTIONAL (this is the more obvious piece of advice I ignored at the outset to my later chagrin).
It's ok to turn down books. Struggling through a poorly edited ms takes time and effort. Just about every spelling error and punctuation fault means a stop and start, which means an edit, and it all means time. An ms that's not in shape to be read isn't worth trying.
It’s ok to back out of books you don’t want to give your voice to. The one time I declined to do a book for moral reasons, was, naturally, the time the author asked me "Hey, how come?" I answered, and I learned about my discomfort lines (they don't have to do with sexuality - I have no problem voicing eroticism that doesn’t represent me because sexuality is as diverse as snowflakes in a storm. The wild diversity interests me).
Sales aren't fair. Sometimes garbage sells, and quality doesn't. Not all the time, but too often, I see no correlation between good writing and a good margin. Two of the most poorly written, riddled with errors, popsicle stick characters, zero plot books I voiced (which shall not be named and came before I learned the last point about freedom to bow out), remain my best sellers. I can't comprehend how this is possible! Maybe I'll get some illumination in the next 50 books. Then I'll also be able to explain to the world why 50 Shades happened. Just for instance. But since this isn’t all about the money, but about enjoying the process, getting to do books I appreciate, and working hard to do a good job on them is satisfying no matter the payout. The quality books are what makes this job worth doing.
Like most things, tenacity matters. I'm going to learn more in the next 50, I know there's more to learn, but I have to show up to them in order to learn it. I don't think it's talent that matters as much as work. "[N]othing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent" - Calvin Coolidge. Work, over time = growth.