The Four Things I Learned About Life and Writing While Narrating Audiobooks
1. Here, in a nutshell, is my life: Wanted to be a famous writer. Wrote a novel. Wrote another one. Wrote a third one. Etc. Then, 20 years and three more novels later, I got my “first” novel published.
To support my family during the “dry” years, I worked at a REALLY LARGE advertising agency. Often, when we edited television commercials, I was called upon to be the voice for the “scratch track” — the track they discarded when they hired the PROFESSIONAL voice talent.
I left the ad biz to pursue two dreams: writing and voice work. First things first, I wrote the novel that eventually got published. Then I drove to New York to attend an audiobook audition. There were 25 people from New York, 25 people from LA and me. The guy from Detroit. Yes, Detroit. I didn’t get a single job that year. Complete and total rejection. I went back to New York the next year to try again. (Hmm, there’s a pattern developing here.) This time it resulted in my first audiobook, Firehouse, by David Halberstam.
Last month, I was awarded one of the industry’s coveted awards, an Audie, for my twelfth audiobook, the narration of Philip Yancey’s Finding God in Unexpected Places.
Lesson One: Never, never, never count yourself out.
2. This moment occurs in many, many novels. There’s a killer or a rapist loose in the city. It’s all over the news. On a dark night, our protagonist hears a noise outside on the porch. She thinks, “Gosh, I wonder what that could be?” She might even consider — for a nanosecond — that it might be the killer. But she talks herself out of it and opens the door. Enter the killer.
As readers, we wince when we read this scene. It’s so transparent.
As writers, we try to be less obvious about such turning points.
As a narrator, it becomes a little more complicated.
When I get a book to narrate, I receive the manuscript a week prior to recording. I read it both to get the sense of the story and also to try out various voices for the characters. When I get to the scene described above, I tend to wince a lot.
Then, a week later, I’m in the booth recording that scene where it’s my job to perform it. To “sell” it. To make it work — sounding more true notes than false ones.
So when I read those fateful words, “Sally thought to herself, Oh quit being a worrywart and open the door. It’s probably just a stray cat,” I try my best to make it sound real. I don’t over dramatize the moment. I try to read it like the simple, quick, dismissive moment it is. And, in some instances, I find myself thinking, “Hmm, you know, it’s not as bad as I thought it was.”
Lesson Two: As a writer, you owe it to yourself and your reader to read the dramatic scenes of your book out loud. The false notes are masters of disguise when lying flat on a page, but reveal themselves when heard by the writer’s ear.
3. When I wrote my first novel, I thought I was the Most Talented Writer on the planet. After 20 years of rejection, however, I adjusted that assessment downward to Six Rungs below Useless Hack.
Even when I got my novel published, I felt that there was a vast gulf between my work and that of more successful writers. Sure, friends were always quick to point out to me the bestsellers they’d read that didn’t measure up to my book. But they were being nice.
In the past year, however, I have narrated several novels. The vast gulf has disappeared for me. Everything we’ve been told to avoid as writers is on full display in these bestsellers. Horrible metaphors. Nonsensical substitutes for, “he said.” Adverbs from hell.
The one common strength I have found is this: the structure of the story is compelling — even at the expense of character development. Yes, even when we think, “No way would this character open the door when she hears a noise on the porch,” we don’t mind it when she does. We forgive her because, by doing so, she’s kicked the story into another gear.
Lesson Three: You may not be as far away from the bestseller list as you fear — as long as you know how to tell a ripping good tale.
4. Even when I used to jog three miles a day, I never would have tempted a marathon without gradually working my way up to 26 miles.
The process of narrating an audiobook is a marathon. A typical CD is 75 minutes worth of recorded material and takes me anywhere from 100 — 120 minutes to record. (The three most frequent reasons for stopping the tape are: 1) Realizing halfway through a sentence that I got the “sense” of the sentence wrong; 2) Having the director point out that, without intending to, I’d rewritten the words in a sentence; and 3) Throat clearing, stomach gurgling, mouth clicks and nose noises.)
In a typical day at my home office, I spend about 5 minutes talking — mostly to my dog.
So, to go from that meager output to speaking for eight hours a day is no simple matter. My lips literally turn rubbery. I find it extremely difficult, at times to pronounce words with m’s and b’s in them. I can stumble over a two-word phrase again and again, unable to pronounce it when, on any other day of my life, I could repeat it effortlessly.
I find myself thinking, “Damn! I need to do this every single day so that I build up the muscles that move my mouth and tongue.”
Lesson Four: Change audiobook to manuscript-in-progress. Change mouth muscles to brain. The parallels are blatant. If you don’t work on your writing every day, it will show. Thank God for editing.