Working With an Invested Author

Much of the process of producing an audiobook physically takes place within the confines of the sound booth where the narrator labors through the sentences and pages of the manuscript. This is done in isolation. At the top levels of the profession, there may be producers, sound technicians, and directors, but for a whole lot of us it’s just you and the manuscript in a sound insulated, padded room.

When narrating fiction, you need to become one with all the characters, both major and minor, good and bad, male and female, strange and normal. You also need to picture the action and depict it for readers, who have only your voice to create all this for themselves. The isolation of the sound booth and the unnatural silence can be helpful here to transport you to the world you need to dwell in as you try to find your way to credibility.

While you are engaging with your alternate world, however, there always lurks a bit self-doubt about how well you are doing at building a story in the minds of listeners that is both true to the author’s intention and an accurate rendition of the text.

There are mechanisms built into the process of moving from narration to finished recording that offer external feedback on your performance. The rights holder is required to give the go-ahead at certain points before the project gets too far along.  Changes can be requested or the project can be halted if it’s just not coming together. This is typically somewhat perfunctory and it is not intended to catch specific errors that may pop into the narration at various points in the story.

For that, an editor is needed. As in writing, there is truth in the idea that everyone benefits from an editor. You will always miss errors in your own work.

If the rights holder is casual about proofing the recording, which some are, it is a good practice for the narrator to set up some kind of third party review of the recording as things progress. (My wife, Candy, who will do this if I ask, once agreed to proof an 18-hour-long history of the French and Indian War that included French phrases, sentence-long honorific titles in French, and obscure locations and characters with unpronounceable names.)

Most authors, publishers and book producers do take this aspect of producing the project seriously, and any flaws are usually caught and eliminated. Some rights holders, however, simply choose the narrator, approve the initial clip of the project, and ultimately approve it for sale, after only a random sampling of the recording to get a general sense that it’s basically okay.

My most recent project was a novel about gangsters in Chicago during the Prohibition era. I was selected for the project by the author himself, who coordinated the publication of the book. He was thorough from the get-go, and turned out to be the most involved rights-holder I have encountered. We interacted frequently throughout the production of the audiobook.

Before contracting with me, he wanted to know if I felt confident with the Chicago/Italian/Irish accents needed. He asked good questions about my style of narration and the timetable for completion. He sent me a written profile of each of the characters, describing them in terms of their temperaments, physical aspects, and even vocal attributes. This character analysis was immensely helpful to me as I began to develop my approaches to creating the personalities of the characters and their vocal styles and quirks.

As each chapter was finished, I posted it to the web, where the author would most often review it within a day of my posting of a chapter with comments and suggestions on what I had just completed. An example of an issue in this project was that I always pronounce the word “status” with a long “a.”  The author’s preference, though, was to pronounce the word with a short “a.” Dictionaries list both as acceptable. The word came up often, and I would tend to absent mindedly toss off my familiar locution of the word using the long “a.” The author missed not one of these slips, and I had to go back and change each of them to the author’s preference.

This book also had a relatively large number of characters, some of which appear only once or twice in the book and many pages apart. It was easy to forget how I rendered the voice of one of these characters the first time around when he or she popped up again 100 or so pages later. More than once I thought I had correctly reprised a character’s vocal mannerisms, but I did not. The author caught the inconsistency and showed me where to look for the original utterance. I had to go find it and make the character sound like she did the first time around.

This close attention to the minutest details by the author made me a bit nervous. Did I get the voice right for Al Capone? Does Dean O’Banion sound like he did back in Chapter 6? There are many renderings in film and television of the voices of these historical characters as done by prominent professional actors. I listened to them on YouTube, but I worried that I had not quite captured all of the inflections and rhythms that would make people believe these characters were authentic. Would I have to go back and find all the places I did Capone’s voice and redo them? No, the author seemed happy with my renderings.

So, did I find the authorial feedback a professional problem? Quite the contrary. He didn’t second guess every little item or voice rendition. He was very courteous in requesting changes, and complimentary when the changes were made.

And the process was a two-way street. I found some glitches in the manuscript, and the author happily acquiesced to my suggestions for changes to the book itself, which improved the overall product.

This close reading by the author and his requests for changes was also reassuring. That nagging self-doubt is assuaged, and my confidence in the quality of the final product was enhanced.

The narration process for this project became copacetic, and I could focus my attention on who might get whacked next as my mob figures vied for dominance in Chicago’s North Side.