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Posts Tagged how to judge possible narrators for your book
Right now, my voice actor Sandy is in her recording booth, speaking like a bod. Lifeform Three, my second novel, is currently in production as an audiobook, so this week I went to an event in London hosted by ACX and the Alliance of Independent Authors. Audible president Jason Ojalvo and author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn were speaking, and they had some interesting points on the business of choosing and working with a voice actor. (For an introduction to how to work with ACX, including auditioning actors, look at this post.)
Male or female
So a female author or a male main character must need a certain gender of voice actor, right? (And if you’re crossing the gender divide, how do you choose?)
Actually, it’s less of a cut-and-dried rule than you’d think. Jason said he’d often had authors who’d specified they wanted a female voice, then when a male actor had auditioned it had been the perfect match – even in genres like romance, whose readership are very definite in their expectations.
Jason made the point that the book – or the author’s work in audio – might have a voice that’s independent of the voice of the author or the character; it is its own identity. We’ll come back to this.
When I originally looked for a voice actor, I specified a British accent, but as many of you probably know, the narrator I chose is from the US. Initially I got a lot of US actors auditioning because I was one of the guinea-pig authors when ACX launched in the UK – they hadn’t yet got a bank of UK actors to choose from. So I heard a smorgasbord of attempts to ‘do British’, some convincing and some not. But I soon realised it didn’t matter after a few minutes anyway. The accent was irrelevant. The interpretation of the book went deeper than a voice’s characteristic twang, or lack of it. What was actually important was the voice actor’s understanding of the work.
And Sandy, regardless of the flavour of her English, was the most in tune with the novel. She also liked a lot of books that I liked. I picked her.
Same voice for all your books?
Jason said if you have a series, listeners expect the same voice throughout or it breaks the story world. Authors of standalone books, obviously, might search for new narrators each time. I’m happy with Sandy for both my novels even though they are different in tone – because she works well with my style and outlook.
Joanna has two series, so she cast a narrator for each. Funnily enough, we might have ended up with the same one, as the narrator for her dark crime series was one of the auditioners for My Memories of a Future Life! Small world.
Hunting for narrators
You’re not limited to only the voice actors who approach you – and indeed, many authors don’t find an ideal match that way. Jason encouraged authors to hunt around the ACX narrator profiles, listen to their samples and invite them to audition for yours. Or some authors do what I did – if you know a voice actor who’d be perfect, introduce them to the system.
Working with unfamiliar accents
Joanna, like me, is British, and ended up working with an American narrator. Once into the recording process she found there were pronunciations that were alien to her Brit-tuned ears but natural to the US narrator. What to do about them? Tomayto or tomahhto?
Before recordings start, you need to discuss this, and also tricky pronunciations such as character or place names. Sandy and I talked about it. I suspected there would be many more variations than I’d have be able to think of. If I’d decided ‘leisure’ couldn’t be ‘leesure’, I’d have then, for the sake of consistency, had to pull her up on words I never dreamed had a US difference until I heard them.
And the difference goes further than isolated words – sentence emphasis is also radically different. US English stresses the adjective in a phrase like ‘lying on a sticky mat’. UK English stresses the noun (UK: ‘on a sticky mat’, US: ‘on a sticky mat’).
I didn’t want to stilt my narrator with unnecessary strictures so I asked her to pronounce her usual way. I’m glad, because there were hundreds of differences. Hundreds. It would have been madness. In any case, that didn’t matter. So long as the interpretation of the line was true, the emotion understood, the accent was irrelevant.
Joanna had also come to this conclusion, saying there’s a lot we need to leave to the narrator’s judgement and style. She intervened in place name pronunciations, but allowed everything else to go with the actor’s natural style and emphasis.
Having said that, an audiobook is a creative relationship. The voice actor is expecting you to guide them on interpretation. Sandy and I spent several emails discussing how the bod characters in Lifeform Three should sound and what their individual characteristics were. I sent her short recordings of how they seemed in my own head as I wrote them, which she turned into polished performances. It was quite a feat for her – sometimes she had four or five characters in one scene and had to inhabit all those minds, as well as switching to thoughtful narration. For me it was easy because I wrote them. For her, it was mind-and-tongue gymnastics.
You can probably see why questions of ‘leesure’ versus ‘lezzure’ cease to be important. Forget them.
Don’t expect a drama performance
Jason pointed out that the audiobook isn’t a stage or film performance. It’s a reading – a quieter, more subtle business. Characters’ accents don’t need to be full-on impersonations, they are a hint. Passages of emotion don’t have to be performed, merely rendered so they bring to life what is already in the prose.
In prose, the writer has already done the job on the page. The voice actor is converting that into sound. It’s intimate; it’s not slaughtering the back row. It’s murmuring in your ears.
The voice that is the best conduit for your work
Ultimately, the best narrator is the right person to inhabit the book and bring it alive, from its lightest moments to its darkest corners. If you’re weighing up possible narrators, be prepared to revise what you imagined. If you thought the narrator should be British or male, but the more true interpretation, the one that gives you goosebumps, is US and female, that actor is the one to choose. The differences will vanish as soon as the listener gets into the story. After a minute or two, they won’t notice.
Since I released My Memories of a Future Life, some people have asked me why I chose an American, and indeed have mentioned it in reviews. Then they report that they got immersed. Your best narrator is the person who can inhabit the book, who can become its voice in the reader’s head and make them forget everything else.
Thanks for the pic Michael Mol
Any tips or questions to add? Have you made an audiobook? If you listen to a lot of audiobooks, do you have any feedback on what makes a good narrator? Let’s discuss!
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A week or so ago I talked about making audio books with ACX, the self-publishing arm of Audible. From the author’s end it’s relatively simple – pitch your book, listen to auditions, guide the narrator and review chapters as they’re posted on ACX. But at the other end of the line, the narrator/producer is spending 4-6 hours on each finished hour you hear. What are they doing? When you listen to the files, what problems should you be alert for? And if you’re narrating and producing your own book, what do you need to know?
I put these questions to my narrator, Sandy Spangler.
Sandy: First I print out the pages of the text. Then I review them to refresh my memory and make notes about pronunciation or content/emphasis. Then I prep the ‘studio’ – which is my closet. I set up the laptop and hook up the mic and headphones.
Each chapter (or chunks if they are long) gets recorded in one go because the laptop needs to be outside of the closet, away from the mic or we can hear the fan. I hit record, then shut myself in with mic, headphones, and a glass of water.
Roz: You need studio-grade equipment to meet the quality standards for an audiobook. Podcasting gear won’t cut it. Equipment notes follow at the end of the piece. Back to Sandy.
Sandy: I monitor the audio as I go via headphones. Any time there is a mistake I do a retake and keep going so I don’t interrupt the flow.
Roz: Watch for these when you’re reviewing the uploaded files. Even with the most meticulous narrator, a repeated phrase or two can slip through. The finished quality is the responsibility of both of you!
Sandy: I usually catch around 98% of the errors. The tough ones are when I read a word incorrectly but it sounds right at the time (like make instead of makes) so I don’t catch it. Sometimes I can fix it while editing but sometimes I have to re-record the word or sentence. That’s a pain because it holds up the workflow.
The only time I come out is when I need to check a pronunciation – Roz has some pretty atypical words! Oedema? Nebulae? Roentgen??
Roz: Sorry about that…
Sandy: I record six or so chapters at a time, until my voice gets tired, then load them onto my main PC for editing. I splice together the chapters if they are in chunks, then compress the audio and equalize so the sound quality is good. Then I listen to each chapter and follow along using the printed manuscript to make sure it is correct. I try to fix any mistakes, and make a note of the ones I can’t. I also adjust the pauses between lines so it flows dramatically.
Roz: See the first post about establishing the perfect pause!
Sandy: I listen for the best takes and remove the bad ones, and cut out extra noises like mouth clicks and breaths. I usually end up listening to each recorded line at least twice, sometimes as many as five or six times. I spend more time on the dramatic passages because those feel important to get right.
Roz: This is like the writing process!
Sandy: Once a chapter is complete I run a range check to make sure it fits within the ACX parameters. I adjust the volume as needed, then export it as an MP3 ready to upload.
Incomplete chapters waiting for pickups get put aside until after my next recording session so I can drop in re-recorded lines. Sometimes the new lines need to be tweaked to get them to match the original recording – different days can sound quite different.
Sandy: Do your research before spending money on equipment. Get the best setup you can afford because when you are recording a solo speaking voice there isn’t much to hide behind, and there is only so much you can do in post-production.
Most audiophiles recommend a high-end microphone with a pre-amp to convert the analogue sound to a digital signal. The pre-amp is almost as important as the mic, so if you go this route you have to spend quite a bit of money to get a good sound. If you are planning on doing professional recording full time this is probably the way to go.
USB microphones have a built-in pre-amp, but traditionally sound tinny and aren’t warm enough for audiobooks. However, they have come a long way recently because of the huge rise in amateur voiceover work for video blogs and podcasts. The mic I bought is a high-end professional brand (Shure PG42) and tuned for voice recording. Since this voice project is a bit of an experiment for me, I wasn’t prepared to buy a full mic/pre-amp system, so I invested in one of the best USB mics.
There are some great resources out there for mic comparisons, such as this one. The other advice I would offer is to give yourself a crash course in post-production – for compression, equalisation and to remove mistakes and odd noises. There is a ton of great info on the web, such as articles like this …and video tutorials like this. ACX also has some very useful tips.
Oh cripes, two names that sound the same!
This really caused a hiccup, and made me rather unpopular with Sandy. Listening to her chapters, I discovered I had a Gene (the main hypnotist character) and a neighbour Jean. On the page, they are perfectly distinct, but in the ears… they sound the same. This gave Sandy some extra rerecording and messed up our schedule.
I talked in my previous post about the pronunciation guide. When you write this, check you don’t have two names that a listener might get confused!
Ooh, knotty word
Less of a problem, and certainly more amusing, was a word that didn’t translate well to a US accent. There’s a line where Gene, the hypnotist, is described as wearing a ‘knotty’ jumper. In Sandy’s voice it came out as ‘naughty’. I imagine comics letterers have the same problem with ‘flick’.
This might not have mattered, except that the knotty jumper occurs again in tense scenes that would be rendered farcical if the listener thought a character was wearing a ‘naughty’ jumper. We decided to stay the right side of serious and replace it with a less troublesome ‘rough-knit’…
In the meantime, do you have any questions or tips on working with audio? Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like or not like about them? Share in the comments!
Stop press! Once your audiobook is finished, you’ll need to market it. Joanna Penn has some great tips in this post.
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Do you want to release your title as an audiobook? If you live in the US, you can go through ACX, the DIY arm of Audible, but ACX wasn’t open to UK authors – until now. For the past month, I’ve had both my novels in production as a test pilot, and now I can tell you what I’ve learned so far about offering a title, choosing a narrator and working with them.
Good question. ACX is a network where narrators and producers can meet authors who want their work released as audiobooks. Once you’ve hooked up, you can then use the site as an interface to create the book, keep track of contracts and monitor sales. In short, it’s genius.
You know how tedious it is every time you set up an identity on a new site? All that form-filling and profile-making? ACX requires minimal faff. Once you tell them who you are and what book you’d like to offer, it pulls the detail off Amazon.
- opt to narrate and produce the audiobook yourself, but to do this you must have professional-quality equipment and experience of sound editing, or the book won’t pass the quality check.
- pluck a willing narrator/producer out of the ether – this is what I did.
Pitching your book
Next to your book info, you can add notes to make your book more attractive to collaborators – your platform, sales figures and anything else that will convince them you’re worth working with. Which brings me to…
Making an audiobook isn’t cheap. An average novel is about 10 hours of narration (roughly 90,000 words) and is likely to cost $200 or more per finished hour.
You have several options if you’re seeking a narrator/producer on ACX
- pay up front
- pay a royalty share (which I did)
All the ins and outs of this are much better explained on the ACX site, so check them out there.
Choose an audition passage
When I talked to the ACX crew, they told me many writers put up the first few pages as the audition piece. This can be a mistake, because the beginning may not be typical of the book’s action. I looked for a challenging scene with dramatic dialogue as well as the narrator’s internal thoughts, which I felt would test the reader’s approach more usefully.
I added notes about the context of the scene and the style of the book – and waited for auditions.
And lo, they rolled in. (This was in itself a wonderful surprise.) Once I got over the novelty, I realised I needed to tweak my presentation.
Accent – & mistake #1 – ACX lets you specify the age, style and accent of the reader. Age and style were easy enough to choose, but accent caused me more trouble. I assumed this had to be British as, obviously, I’m a Brit, my characters are Brits and I write with British language. However, ACX is predominantly US, so that vastly reduced the available talent pool. Some of the voice actors did very credible Brit accents. Some couldn’t pull it off and sounded Chinese or German. Others ignored my stipulation – quite wisely as it turned out they sounded just fine in their natural accents. So I quickly realised accent was a detail that didn’t matter, and edited my directions. Indeed the narrator I chose is American.
Another reason to choose an accent other than your own is if the majority of your readers are in another territory. I sell a lot in the US, so an American accent might make them feel more at home.
Accent isn’t the only deciding factor, though.
Suitability for the material – While the narrator might be able to do a good job with the audition scene, you have to be sure they’ll interpret the whole of your book in the right way. A Regency romance needs a completely different approach from literary fiction, and I can imagine it’s a nightmare to realise your narrator simply doesn’t ‘get’ your book. If you have a contender, poke around in their ACX profile and follow up any websites where they demonstrate other books they’ve narrated. Also, ask them what they like to read.
Acting versus reading & mistake #2 – some books benefit from a reader who will do a lot of gutsy acting, including distinct voices for the main characters. But for most fiction, that’s too much. They’re journeys in prose and need a more intimate, subtle treatment, which might even sound flat to some ears. Listeners know they’re being read to. They don’t need rollicking declamation – or music or sound effects. And a good reader can make it clear who’s talking without bursting into different voices, so you actually need less ‘acting’ than you might think.
I made another mistake here in my original guidance notes for the audition. I didn’t ask for different character voices, but I did explain the book had sections in a different tone – the female narrator, and the future incarnation who was a male version of her. Thankfully, before it went live a friend pointed out that this might cause a lot of horrible baritone overacting, and that I should simply let the text do the work.
Ultimately, you choose a narrator on a hunch that they fit your work. One author I spoke to at LBF said he knew when he’d found his because the guy sounded like the ideal voice he’d have chosen – but better. That’s how I found mine too – although it was by a more roundabout route.
And here is Sandy Spangler – my narrator!
I had a shortlist of possible voices, including seasoned Broadway actors, but there was one question I couldn’t answer. When I looked into their backgrounds, none of them had narrated a novel like mine, and I was worried they wouldn’t get it. Then I remembered a friend who I’d heard do narration work – on a computer game, of all things. At the time, I noticed how she had an insightful, feisty quality that reminded me of Laurie Anderson. Even better, I knew her reading tastes made her a good fit.
I contacted her. She didn’t know about ACX, but she was keen to give it a go, registered and sent me an audition. Her reading was just right – inhabiting the material with well-judged expression and I knew the book would suit her personality. If you’ve been a subscriber here for a while you might recognise her from some of the goofy photos I’ve used on my posts. But her voice absolutely suits my kind of fiction, and if yours is like mine you might like her too (here’s her ACX page).
Here’s how we’re working.
Pronunciation guide – All books have peculiar words and names and you need to warn your narrator of these. We set up an editable file on Google docs. As I said, Sandy’s American and I’m a Brit, so we had to decide whether she should pronounce words like ‘leisure’ and ‘z’ in the UK or US version. I decided we could fiddle endlessly with this so I asked her to do whatever was natural. If we tried to anglicise everything there would be certain words we’d miss, or the stresses would still be American. And I didn’t want to get in the way of her doing the most instinctive job. So she says tomayto while I say tomahto. No big deal.
Pace – one of the first tasks is to approve the first 15 minutes of the audiobook. Sandy was afraid I might think she was reading too slow, but I felt the text suited a measured pace. ACX actually advise that you err on the side of slow because listeners can artificially speed the reading up if they want.
Pauses – you need pauses between paragraphs, scene switches, and maybe in other sections too. We spent an email exchange identifying exactly the right kind of pause for each.
Listen to finished chapters – You need to set aside time to listen to chapters as your narrator uploads them to ACX. We have a schedule and a chart where we tick off chapters I’ve approved or asked for modifications (usually these are pronunciations or stresses). ACX gives you a time code so you can pinpoint exactly where an edit is needed.
Next time, I’ll delve into the narrator’s side, including what exactly is involved in creating an audio book.
In the meantime, tell me: have you made an audiobook? Are you tempted to? Have you any tips to offer or questions to ask? Share in the comments!
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