Great New Western Novel

I just finished Carl Dane’s Canyon of the Long Shadows, my next narration project, and want to report that it is an excellent read.

Of particular interest is the complexity of the main character.  While it’s usually the kiss of death to call a western or mystery “intellectual,” it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Canyon is a novel that prods the reader into some soul-searching about moral dilemmas encountered it battle – including weapons of indiscriminate destruction (in this case, the newly-invented compound called Dynamite) and the torture of a combatant who knows the location of an innocent woman held hostage.

That’s the distinguishing feature of this series.  They are not philosophical treatises, but do provide a main dish of old-fashioned fun with some serious thought for seasoning.

Making a Good Impression

The book I am currently narrating takes place during the “Big Band” era just prior to the advent of World War II, and it includes passages of dialogue delivered by well known personalities of the era.

Among those who utter words in this book are Walter Winchell, Walter Cronkite, Bing Crosby, Orson Wells, Harry James, Jack Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Will Rogers. As narrator, it is my job to integrate each and every one of these characters as smoothly as possible into the recording without calling undue attention to them in a way that distracts from their role in the story. That’s a lot of people. And they require much closer attention by the narrator to vocal characterization than characters whose hold on existence extends only to the imagination of the author.

When a well-known personality is no longer among the living, and enough time has passed to leave few if any potential or actual listeners who ever heard her or him speak, I can just come up with a rendering that seems appropriate to what is known of his style and/or personality, and no one will know whether he really sounded like that or not.  Wyatt Earp, for example, or, as discussed in a previous post, Al Capone, can be suggested without trying to replicate their tonality and speech patterns. But, of course, there are many renditions of Bing Crosby, and many impressionists over the years have replicated his dulcet baritone voice with uncanny accuracy. This means that that a lot of people know precisely what he sounded like. And thanks to YouTube, there will always be such people. When they encounter a performance in which that character speaks, they want it to sound at least something like her or him.

In circumstances like these, my approach is to try to provide as close an approximation of what Bing Crosby or Orson Wells or Jack Kennedy actually sounded like as I can, given that I will never rise to the level of dead-on accuracy that someone like the great impressionist of a bygone era, Rich Little, achieved. He is unrivaled in his ability to render impressions of the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby,  Johnny Carson, or Carol Channing with which he entertained television and nightclub audiences in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

As it turns out, I can actually do a pretty good impression of Walter Cronkite. And, thanks to Vaughn Meader’s wildly popular “The First Family” record album in the 1960s, I can pull off a reasonable version of Jack Kennedy without too much effort. But as familiar as Bing Crosby is to people, and as many renditions of his voice as there are out there, it does not come easily to me to develop the right combination of speech patterns, rate, pitch and intonation to really nail his iconic informal patter, let alone his singing voice.

YouTube is my tool of choice for honing my “impressions.” Its archive of news clips, television segments, and recordings of performances provides ready access to the voices and mannerisms of nearly any celebrity of the past half dozen or so decades.

So as I sit before the mic in my dark little padded studio, blithely reading along, and suddenly my protagonist is introduced to Bing Crosby who is sitting at a table in New York City’s Stork Club, the recording process screeches to a halt, while I pause to spend an hour or so watching YouTube videos of Crosby trading barbs, for example, with Bob Hope in a scene from The Road to Morocco while Ava Gardner looks on. Next step is to record take after take of the lines I must perform until I think I can offer a sense that I really am Crosby commenting that the case of wine he recently received from the Stork Club’s owner: “Must’ve cost more than a year’s salary for Hope’s joke writers.”

Fortunately, I am of sufficient age to have heard most of these people in their heyday. That helps with Walter Winchell, for instance, who rattled out his celebrity gossip-based radio reports to “Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.” And I watched and listened nightly to Walter Cronkite as he delivered the evening news in a way that made him the most trusted man in American long after his stint ended as play-by-play announcer for the Sooners football team at Oklahoma University, as the audiobook has it. I have a tonal range sufficient to emulate the basso profundo pronouncements of Orson Wells, if not the precise midwestern accent that characterized his classic radio performances on The Mercury Theatre on the Air. But Harry James? Kind of a Texas drawl, but not quite. Toughest one I ran across.

So if you ever buy this book, and get to the passage that takes place in the Stork Club, you may be less than impressed with me as a spot-on impressionist of personalities of the big band era. But when you come to the passage that has Bing Crosby responding to protagonist, Lance Roark’s admiration of a recent Crosby box office hit, try to suspend disbelief and imagine that my interpretation of “der Bingo” conveys just enough casual nonchalance to make you believe it’s somewhat in the vein of the iconic Rich Little as he nails the way the crooner would sound tossing off a joke at the expense of his road picture buddy, Bob Hope.

 

 

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.

 

 

Eighty-three Characters in Search of a Narrator

My most recent audiobook project was a collection of four classic westerns which will sell as a “box set.” The writers were classic authors who published at the beginning of the 20th century, i.e., the likes of Zane Grey, Bret Harte, etc.

The stories were written with finesse and wit and the characters were interesting and well drawn. The total list of different characters numbered 83 individuals and included cowhands, innocent maidens, Indians, macho heroes, stage coach drivers, and a collection of doctors, cattle drovers, and innkeepers, all in need of voices and personalities that would distinguish them one from another.

I ran into a number of unexpected and often challenging vocal requirements as I worked my way through these books. For example, I had to render a variety of animal sounds: an owl whose sound was something other than “who,” a horse that snorts in the way that horses do when they stamp their forelegs and lower their heads, and most interesting of all, a turkey call, which author Zane Grey rendered as “chugalug, chugalug, chugalug chuck.” I gave it a rapid high-pitched rendering, which didn’t sound too unlike an actual wild turkey, or in this case a Huron Indian imitating a turkey to lure settlers into the woods for abduction.

As a male narrator, when called upon to render a woman’s voice, I have developed a fairly standardized delivery in a slightly higher pitch with a softer, lighter intonation than male characters. In this project, however, there were a number of instances of two or even three women in conversation with one another, which meant that my single female voice was insufficient. I had to exaggerate the pitch differences among characters in conversation with each other without sounding like I was doing some Monty Python version of female characters in the Eric Idle mode that relied on an extreme and highly accentuated falsetto.

When any of the four authors wrote dialogue for ethnic characters, they usually helpfully deployed creative spellings, adaptations, punctuations, and phoneticisms that helped me come up with the appropriate characterizations. There were, for example, backwoods men and women that said “ye” for “you,” “kin” for “can,” and sprinkled words like “kalcilate” throughout and made generous uses of words like “reckon” and “ain’t” that displayed the ethnicity and backgrounds of the character. There were characters who used Mexican/Spanish accents, Chinese locutions where the letter L sounded like an R and vice versa, Swedish accents, and even a Kentucky colonel who had that Foghorn Leghorn sound. (“Pay attention, son!”)

Perhaps the most unexpected characterization I ran into was a backwoods female of simple origins who is encountered in her sylvan cabin by her suitor as she sings what is said to be “a Negro camp meeting song.” There were mysterious phrases like “glory hallalugorum” and “Lord Bress de Lamb,” which evidently made sense in some context other than in modern parlance. As I said, she was singing this little ditty, and she did not stop at just the one verse. With no idea of how the melody went despite my best efforts at Googling it, I finally decided that if I can’t find it, no one else can either, and so I made up a melody and sang it in a simple, soft, high pitched voice with a slight woodsy warble.

Pronunciations were not really much of an issue in this project in terms of difficult names, foreign words, and locations. It was bit of a challenge, however, to maintain a Mexican/Spanish accent through several pages of a drawn out, detailed ghost story recited in dramatic tones by a character named Enriquez. I also had a long story to tell in the voice of Myeera, an Indian maiden, who followed the convention, exclusive to Indian characters, of referring to herself in the third person, eschewing the use of personal pronouns.

I suppose this is the kind of an account that might be better told in a podcast, where I could use audio clips to show how these quirky sections sounded on the finished recording, but that’s a bit more than I want to take on after the long three-months-plus of intense work that characterized this project for me. Despite its 30 hours of finished recording, the project received quick approval from the rights holder when I submitted it, and in a week or two it should appear for sale on Audible, Amazon and iTunes. I don’t know yet what it will sell for, but I’m guessing it will be an attractive price for four full books composed by skilled storytellers who allow you to get to know a variety of unique characters whose fictional lives involve adventure, romance, acts of derring-do, and hard won accomplishment.

Despite the complete disregard for matters of modern gender, racial, and ethnic sensitivities, these writers had a knack for yarn spinning, humor, character development, and the imaginative use of elevated language to move stories along in a way that is guaranteed to engage even modern readers/listeners for many hours.

I will probably never again undertake a project of such duration and complexity unless the compensation is substantially more than this one will turn out to be after all is said and done. For just this one time though, it was a rewarding undertaking, and I feel like I obtained a graduate education in how to figure out and then interpret characters of widely varying temperament and personality types using only the one voice I was born with.

 

 

A Rainbow of Audiobook Characters

In narrating a work of fiction, to a certain extent you are an actor who gets to play all the parts. That is a common observation by experienced audiobook narrators who have developed a style that allows the listener’s attention to drift away from the narrator and focus on the story itself as conveyed by the words of the characters in the work.

Of course with the fulfilling task of “playing all the parts” comes the challenge of distinguishing characters one from another, and offering credible performances that successfully depict a variety of character types, personalities, and genders.

I have written before about some of the techniques that work for me when trying to interpret various types of characters, but in some works, simple tricks of the trade like lightening the force of delivery for female characters while slightly raising the pitch, are not sufficient to address the situations depicted in the narrative.

I am currently producing a boxed set of four different books—classic westerns by the likes of Zane Grey—which were originally published more than 100 years ago. In one of the works in that collection, there are numerous characters, and a number of passages in which those characters engage in good-natured banter about the goings on that take place on a cattle ranch. In several such passages that take place in a bunkhouse, seven or more characters trade rapid-fire wisecracks about other characters and situations in the story. The characters have names like Shorty, Slim, Weary, Cal, Chip, Happy Jack, and Jack, and their lines are intermingled in a snappy repartee that reflects the quirks of each character’s personality.

The obvious challenge for the narrator is to represent each character’s persona succinctly and accurately while clearly differentiating the characters from one another as the dialogue unfolds.

In my previous outings narrating western fiction, characters have most often interacted in short scenes involving at most two or three characters at a time. And those characters appeared off and on throughout the book. It was not difficult to differentiate them when they had conversations.

A multifaceted dialogue, though, is considerably more challenging for a number of reasons. How do you establish a presence for the individual characters? How do you make it clear, using only your voice, who is speaking when while keeping in mind that you are not performing a drama, but reading fiction from a book?

Here’s what I came up with to address this challenge.

First, I decided I had to read well ahead of where I was in my recording process to get as detailed sense of who these characters are as I could. Do they have any distinct physical characteristics? What are they wearing? Do they possess any special skills or abilities that might help me get to know them? In the bunkhouse scene, for example, the character called Slim was so named because he was quite the opposite of what the name implied; he was portly and short of stature. But he was also a good horseman, and highly respected as such by his fellow cowhands.

Once I got a sense of who the characters were, I had to decide what they sounded like, and how I could render their unique voices in my performance.

I did this by thinking of classic characters that I am familiar with. For example, I decided that the owner of the ranch should sound something like Ben Cartwright of the classic TV western, Bonanza. The protagonist and title character, Chip, would have a John Wayne quality because he was often engaged in taunting exchanges with the lead female character, Della, reminiscent of films featuring “The Duke” and Maureen O’Sullivan. If the voice of an actual person did not come to mind, I characterized a person as a “Granny, well-met,” or simply as “morose.”

I made a sheet of notes using a kind of shorthand to describe my assessment of the key traits and voice types I had decided on for each character. It is posted in front of my mic in my announce booth.

Characters are listed with brief notes on their quirks and personalities. They are assigned colors to link them to their lines in the manuscript.

On the sheet I also assigned a color to each character, and beside each character’s name, I drew in a small box using a colored pencil. So, for instance, next to the minor character, Mr. Denson, who sounds like Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke) is an orange box, while James G. Whitmore, the ranch owner, gets a green box.

Next I went through a printout of the script and marked each character’s “lines” with the corresponding color for his or her character. This is helpful because passages often just begin with a line of dialogue and don’t identify the speaker until the end of a lengthy speech. So, when I see a passage underlined in blue, I know that the character is Chip, and I know to affect that voice. If Della speaks next, I can see that coming when I note the red colored lines beneath her words, and I switch to the modified Maureen O’Sullivan that I’ve chosen for her voice.

Next I had to rehearse. I read the script aloud until I felt comfortable that I had the voices down (I don’t do impressions, so my Ben Cartwright will never be confused with the real Lorne Green; the best I can manage is to “suggest” his intonations, pitch, and force when he created Ben’s character in the classic western series.)

When I’ve gone over the dialogue enough to acquire a good sense of who’s speaking and how they all sound together, I record. There is a lot of starting and stopping, but with skillful audio editing, the finished product sounds reasonably credible. I backstop my own opinion about this by asking (coercing?) my wife Candy to listen to the book, chapter by chapter. So far I’m meeting the “Candy Standard,” so I have reasonable confidence in the outcome of my process.

My background as the narrator with a resonant authoritative baritone is of little use in these heavy dialogue situations. That’s a hurdle to overcome, but it’s also rewarding to learn new skills and approaches and produce something fresh. The chapters in this book are relatively short, so I get a frequent sense of accomplishment as I finish one little melodrama at a time in the march toward a believable and, I hope, entertaining completed audiobook.

More Than Just Another Narration

As an audiobook narrator/producer, I do not have a strict set of criteria that I use in looking for promising projects. Of course I want to find a book that is likely to sell, and I try to steer clear of the wide selection of usually self-published “whacko” books that proliferate on Amazon and elsewhere. I also try to match my talents to the requirements of books seeking narrators. I look for those that seem right for an authoritative baritone voice and avoid those with exotic characters who speak in accents and with inflections that I know I cannot pull off.

All this is to say that seldom is the choice of books I audition for motivated by their being books that I would read purely for pleasure. Nor does the fact that I have chosen to narrate a book imply that I do or do not endorse the content and ideas therein.

Now and then, however, a book unexpectedly becomes more than just an exercise in interpretation. That is the case with a book I am currently working on. The book is titled Combat Chaplain, written by James D. Johnson.

It is a memoir that describes the day-to-day experiences of a 27-year-old Army chaplain, who volunteers for duty in Vietnam where he ends up serving with combat troops in the Mekong Delta in 1967—the height of American involvement in that war.

The author kept meticulous records of his experiences for the year he spent with what were generally known as riverine forces, troops that patrolled the rivers, canals, and rice paddies of the Mekong Delta looking for Viet Cong troops and engaging them in combat.

Reported as a series of journal entries, Johnson’s book is unblinking in its descriptions of what this kind of life entailed for the soldiers and sailors who were assigned to this duty. Chaplain Johnson, an unarmed non-combatant, accompanies his “guys” on combat operations that exposed him to the same high risk of injury and death the others faced. He ministered to his men in the midst of combat and in base areas between operations. He was awarded two Bronze Star medals with V device for valor during combat operations, though that activity did not include shooting at or personally trying to kill the enemy.

It’s a terrific book that shows rather than tells what life was like for those facing unrelenting misery and the likelihood of being killed or wounded on a day-to-day basis without ever really understanding why they were being called upon to do it or what it was intended to accomplish. They just did their duty. Many are heroes, some are slackers, but they are all there participating, experiencing, and enduring as best they can.

When I submitted the audition for this book, I didn’t know much about it other than what I could surmise from the title and the few short paragraphs that I recorded for the audition. I had an interest in it because I too had served in Vietnam at nearly same time as Captain Johnson.

I have to say that narrating this book has been difficult at times for me. Not because it revives difficult memories; I never even came close to the kinds of searing experiences that Johnson and his fellow troops endured on a daily basis.

What makes it difficult at times for me to read and record this account is complicated to articulate. At times I come close to tears when reading about a particularly horrific loss of life or a touching moment. And there are many such throughout the book. Often I have to stop and compose myself.

But why such an intense reaction, given that I completely escaped the misery and danger that pervades these pages?

I think it is some kind of manifestation of survivor’s guilt. Many veterans struggle with this. I took active steps to avoid ending up in combat situations, including volunteering to go to Vietnam on condition that I be assigned the job I wanted in radio broadcasting in Saigon. (One passage in the book describes how far removed from the chaplain’s war is the gleaming Armed Forces Radio broadcast studio in Saigon where he came to record a series of devotional radio programs for the troops. These studios were just a few steps down the street from the compound where I advised Vietnamese Army broadcasters in similar surroundings.)

When I am reading this riveting account it comes dramatically home to me how different the lives of these troops were from mine. We were in the same country at about the same time, participating in the same war. But they were living in mud, facing the likelihood of horrific wounds or agonizing death, and doing so day after day for their entire 365 days in country. I feel a strong sense of guilt that while they were out there dodging incoming mortars, cruising down the middle of the rivers ducking rifle fire from both banks, getting wounded and killed and sleeping in mud, I was enjoying steak at the officer’s club in Saigon and going back to my BOQ to sleep in air conditioned comfort.

A part of me begins to feel that what they went through was something they did for me. Instead of me having to be there, they were there in my place. They were out there in the bullet riddled rice paddies so I didn’t have to be.

But it was too much to ask of them. They suffered so much. And the suffering for too many of them didn’t end when they returned from Vietnam. I should have been there with them. I should never have tried to avoid doing my bit.

This is no mea culpa; in my heart I know that nothing I did or did not do would have changed the lives of the heroes I met in this book. And I do not really believe that I was derelict in not opting for combat and misery.

So what’s the bottom line here? There isn’t much of one really. I feel deeply honored to add something to the telling of this magnificent story of James D. Johnson’s. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer another medium through which audiences may engage this story and be inspired by it.

I am halfway through narrating this book. When I’ve finished it, I plan to contact the author. I want to tell him that his book made a difference in my life. I won’t be able to say exactly how, or what exactly changed, but I want to let him know that one fellow veteran is very glad he had the chance to know what this heroic chaplain and his “guys” went through those many years ago in that awful war. That’s not much really, but it seems important to me somehow.

A Staff of One

If I could clone myself, I would be better able to handle the workload I need to manage to make a go of audiobook narration.

The dilemma for narrators who who take this work seriously is that sometimes there are too many projects with too many deadlines that are too close to each other. And only one person to perform all of the functions connected with getting an audiobook from print to a recorded product ready to sell.

For example, when I began doing this eight months ago, I submitted two auditions for projects listed on the ACX site, thinking that I might get one of them if I was lucky. I was offered both of them. Then I received another offer for a project that came through someone finding my profile in a search of the site by an author looking for a narrator.

With a marathon effort (these were all long projects that required hours of recording, editing and processing), I completed them all by their specified deadlines. I was off and running, but after that I became a bit more circumspect, submitting auditions in a way that avoids this clustering of work.

Currently however, I have run into another aspect of the clustering effect in doing projects. Here’s how that can happen.

I auditioned for a work of western fiction offered by a company that produces book projects for writers. These companies coordinate the print and electronic aspects of book publishing for their authors, and at the appropriate time in the life of the projects offer the book for auditions on ACX. Then they shepherd the audiobook projects through the steps that ultimately see it posted for sale on Audible and other platforms.

As I signed on for the western book I auditioned for, the producer offered me a second western by the same author. When I completed the first western, the book producer praised my work and asked if I’d be interested in other projects the company was handling. I answered in the affirmative and the producer sent me a list of about 25 books that he hoped I would consider.

I was still working on the second western, so we left it at that until I finished that one. Meanwhile, I had begun working on a long non-fiction project that I received while working on the westerns. Having no commitment about the additional books I was asked to consider by the western producer, I decided to back myself up by auditioning for another western listed on ACX, this one a four-book boxed set of classic westerns.

Turns out I immediately got an offer for that project. In addition, the producer for that project liked my audition enough to ask me to consider another boxed set project when I finished the one I just accepted, and indicated that there would be a lot of other work beyond that if I wanted it.

Suddenly I am faced with the possibility that I could be lining up work that would comprise some 40 books with deadlines to be determined.

Because all of these projects are paid on the basis of a percentage of royalties, I need high volume to make the work worthwhile. The royalties continue over months and years, so for any given project they tend to be modest to say the least. With a good number of modest royalties paid monthly over years, a narrator can compile reasonable compensation only by pumping out books regularly and in fairly large numbers. (Top narrators, which I aspire to be, can command per hour rates, or other stipend-based compensation, but I’m not there yet.)

So I am inclined to accept all of these projects if and when they are offered. But how to manage them without going into hibernation in my little padded room of a studio for the foreseeable future?

I don’t know the answer to that. Of course there are no guarantees that all of the projects I have been asked to consider will be offered. Things change in this business as in all others and there are no guarantees that offers made informally will actually come to pass when push comes to shove.

I have decided, however, that I need to consider a way to streamline my operations. At present I do everything: narration, recording, editing (a surprisingly time consuming activity), and audio processing and mastering.

One can hire out many of these activities, but with the low potential for profits, that can be financially counterproductive to say the least.

So where can I turn for help? My grandson likes playing with technology. He’s 10, though, and for some reason has to spend a lot of his time in grade school.

Wait, my wife was a broadcasting major in college! Don’t say anything to her. I want to find the right time to try to sell her on the idea of sitting in front of a screen all day listening to me drone on about cattle drives and feuding drovers while she manipulates representations of audio waves on a computer screen.

 

A Christmas Memory

For a good number of Christmases I have thought about getting these thoughts down in writing. I’ve made some less than successful attempts in the past, but this year I gave it another try. This version seems about as close as I will get to expressing why I think we need one particular Christmas song to be the song it was when it first appeared, and not the version that is most commonly heard today. 

I was 24 years old and a captain in the Army. It was 1968, and I was home on leave after finishing Vietnamese language school in Texas. When my leave ended, I would fly to San Francisco and board a military transport to Saigon.

I would arrive in that sad country about 10 days before Christmas. With luck, I would return a year hence, also at Christmas.

I was ambivalent about heading for the war zone. I would be in a relatively safe job. I would be doing something related to radio broadcasting, which I had pulled some strings to make happen when it became evident when I was in Germany that my number was coming up for reassignment to Vietnam soon.

Of course the prospect of going to Vietnam did come with at least a modicum of anxiety, but I had known many military colleagues who had come and gone without serious repercussions, so I was pretty much taking it all in stride.

And what I expected to happen there turned out to be pretty much the case. It wasn’t without unpleasantness, but as with my colleagues, my life as a “Saigon Warrior” was not particularly dangerous, and all of us assigned this duty realized that there were many others in country who were having far worse experiences than we were. We were grateful for our relative comfort and safety while constantly mindful of the greater sacrifice others were making nearby.

Interestingly my most lasting memory of that long-ago time relates to the time just before I left for Vietnam. It was just before Christmas 1968.

I wasn’t fearful or particularly stressed out, but I was experiencing a kind of ennui, a vague discontent at the prospect of going to war, not really knowing what would be entailed.

And there were some things that gnawed at me. I never expressed openly any misgivings about our nation’s involvement in the war in Southeast Asia, but if asked, I would have registered disagreement with our presence there in a general sort of way. And I felt like my compatriots who had not been corralled into military service were getting a jump on me in beginning their adult lives and careers. All things being equal, I’d have just as soon been doing almost anything else.

That was more or less my state of mind as I waited out the time before I was to leave. Still unmarried and unattached, I was spared the intense pain of pending separation from wife and children that some of my friends had to endure. To pass the days I decided I would join in pre-Christmas festivities until I left. There were parties to attend, decorating to do, and Christmas shopping to do.

Amid this low-key holiday hubbub before departing for Saigon, one simple, at-random little experience has stayed with me, and I think about it without fail every year at this time. I treasure this experience even though at the time it amplified my misgivings about going off to the war zone.

I was driving home from a nearby mall after doing some shopping when I began to pay attention to the lyrics of one version of a particular Christmas song that was playing on the car radio. It was Judy Garland’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

It was she who introduced the song in the film “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

I had never noticed that the lyrics as sung in the film and in the familiar recording I was listening to conveyed such a melancholy sentiment:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas; Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

Next year? Troubles?

Then the lines:

“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.”

“Someday?” “If?” How tentative that sounds.

“Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

“Muddle through?”

The words bring to mind the “stiff upper lip” mentality displayed by the British at Christmas as German bombs rained on them during the build-up to World War II.

I am about to go off to war, and it’s Christmas. I guess I’ll be “muddling through somehow” until next year when those “troubles will be far away.”

I sat for some time reflecting on those seemingly prescient lyrics that somehow seemed to fit my circumstances. I thought about how many others were in far worse circumstances than I faced. Most were younger than even my tender age. Would they be able to muddle through?

What did the songwriter have in mind when he chose to express this particular set of emotions in this particular song? It was easy to guess given the sense of the scene in the film where the song appears. It’s about dislocation, and Judy Garland’s character is singing it to comfort her little sister, Tutti. (Rent the film; it’s worth seeing.)

Every year since then I listen for this gentle little song during the annual heavy radio play of Christmas music. Strangely, somewhere along the line since the Garland version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” first became a Christmas standard in 1943, the lyrics were changed. I don’t know why, and I don’t want to know. But if you listen to nearly any modern version of the song you will notice the difference. It’s not plaintive; the longing is gone. It’s happy and sometimes bouncy. I hate that, but so be it. You can still find the original lyrics in a handful of versions if you look, and I hope you will.

I always pause for a brief moment of wistful reflection when I hear the Garland version of this song at holiday time. Perhaps there is a small element of maudlin false self-pity in this—probably so—but I know that there is also a sense of my connection to our common humanity.

Through the years since I first noticed the words to this poignant little song I have come to learn that there will always be circumstances that spread around more than enough negative experience to give everyone her or his own version of what it feels like to know disruption and separation from “faithful friends that are dear to us.” For a host of possible reasons, they won’t always be with us at this time of year when we especially value their presence. Other “troubles” will loom from time to time as well.

And so we need that little reminder each year that “Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore” there is the hope that “we all will be together”—perhaps next year. Hearing this song each year awakens that assurance in me, just as it did long ago when it seemingly was speaking directly to me.

All we have to do is “muddle through somehow” until that time comes.

So we must have hope for better times despite whatever comes our way. That hope is seemingly more available to all of us at Christmas.

So “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Now.”

 

Vocal Characterization

In the world of audiobook production, narrating a work of fiction entails skills that differ from those required to narrate nonfiction. Good narrators may be excellent readers of fiction and pretty much just as good at interpreting nonfiction. It is less common, however, that that a competent narrator of nonfiction is also adept at fiction.

The reasons for the failure of very good nonfiction narrators to be adept in the fiction genre can be several. It may be that a voice that works well for history or  philosophy—the kind that might be associated with movie trailers, for example—draws too much attention to itself to work in fiction, where the narrator’s presence must give way to multi-faceted characters of various ages, genders, personalities, and dispositions.

Another reason may be that the fiction narrator always needs to make use of at least a modicum of acting skills. These are not easy to acquire and develop.

There is a distinction though between being a good stage actor where characters are fully drawn personae, and a book in which characters are more often suggested using subtle clues to differentiate one from another. And the narration must successfully blend the tasks of providing explication of action and setting one minute, and then making a segue to portraying an Indian warrior brandishing a tomahawk the next. The term storyteller may be a more appropriate designation for audiobook narrators than actor per se.

After working on non-fiction projects for three or four months, I decided that I’d like see if I could also get fiction projects. My first auditions were not successful. One author, whose book was told in the first person by the main character, told me that she liked my voice, but that it did not fit her visualization of the character she had created. Other rights holders just passed me over without comment.

I kept auditioning, however, and finally received an offer to narrate a western. There were two by the same author, and the rights holder said he thought my voice and reading style would suit both of them. (It is fairly common for authors with a series of books to try to get the same narrator for all of the books in a series.)

As I undertook the projects one at a time, I found the task of being a storyteller to be somewhat challenging. Listening to other westerns, I noticed that a rich baritone is often the vocal choice for westerns, so at least I had that going for me. Learning how to “suggest” the characters, was a steeper learning curve.

I sought advice from my fellow narrator, Carl Hausman, who had in fact done some westerns, and went to Audible to find westerns by seasoned narrators to see if I could discern their techniques.

I got some ideas, but putting them into practice goes beyond just understanding what others were doing.

Two things, in my opinion, make the process of defining characters particularly difficult: doing the voices of women and children, and differentiating characters of the same gender one from the other, especially in scenes where two or more characters engage in dialogue.

I had the most difficulty with women. (Not a new thing with me, by the way.) I had to suggest feminine vocal patterns and intonations (if there is any such thing) without resorting to the falsetto used by Eric Idle, for example, while wearing a dress in classic Monty Python skits. That doesn’t work when Indians are kidnapping the young wife of a pioneer settler.

I played around until I came up with a style that simply lightens the speech in an overall sense without overdoing the increase in pitch. Overall the baritone remains, though ideally the reader is not overly aware of it.

For male characters in dialog, I had two basic voices. One was what I called the Gabby Hayes effect, which is a toned down version of the grizzled 50s TV host for reruns of Hollywood B-level western films. The other was a standard male character with no obvious vocal quirks, but a kind of Lone Ranger type of authority that exudes common sense and a logical approach to problem solving.

Emotions are rendered as variations on some of these techniques. Anger is increased volume and some raising of pitch. Love is softer and often lowered pitch. Exasperation is rapid fire delivery in a lowered pitch, which is also a component of anger.

All this has to be toned down enough so as not to become caricature. And there are variations. For children, for example, I often add a bit of a plaintive tone that suggests innocence and vulnerability.

I don’t try to create foreign accents. For a French trapper, for example, I use a deep pitched bellicose baritone delivered with high energy and volume rather than ending up with a hackneyed version of a poorly rendered dialect.

In practice, developing and maintaining characters takes more prep time than nonfiction. It’s pretty hard to get through even short passages with out substantial rehearsal. Another problem arises when a character drops out of the action for a while and then reappears several chapters later. Now did I use Gabby Hayes for this guy? Was the young pioneer wife soft spoken and fragile, or was she a take-charge, no nonsense mother bear?

So how did my initial attempt at western fiction turn out? Not too bad, I’d have to say. After granting approval to put it up for sale, the publisher sent me a note to say he liked it very much and offered me four more projects. That’s a much better result than I expected.

Much obliged for the kind words, pardner. Reckon I’ll keep at it a mite longer.

Anatomy of an Audiobook Project

Often when I finish a particularly difficult audiobook project, I resolve to give myself a break before taking on another project. Invariably, however, I become restless and feel like I want to have something in the pipeline so I can keep the process alive and ongoing.

This sends me to the listing of books seeking a narrator on the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) website. There are always numerous projects to take a look at. They could involve anything from sci-fi, mystery, romance novels, and contemporary fiction and non-fiction to exotic self-help books, treatises on crackpot theories and even explicit X-rated fiction. (That last one is often offered in the guise of non-fiction.)

In my short career as an audiobook narrator, I have landed and completed projects that ranged from very complicated explorations of decrypted ancient systems of knowledge to advice on how keep your pastor from fleeing due to impossibly demanding parishioners. I had also recorded treatises on the connections between drug kingpins and celebrities, and read sophisticated philosophical treatises on the nature of human existence.

Because I often drift toward more scholarly works, I decided this time to look for something in the area of history.

My search led me to a book that was described as scholarly in approach, but accessible to a general audience as well. An outfit called University Press Audiobooks held the rights to the audiobook rendition of the book, an examination of the French and Indian War from the perspective of the French government under King Louis XV.

Just what I was looking for. I recorded and submitted the audition.

I was offered the project last spring, and worked on it through the summer and fall of this year., . I completed it in early October and it is now on sale through Audible.

The finished project runs for a total of 17 hours 9 minutes and 11 seconds.

The time allotted for production was substantial, so I reckoned I would have no problem reading through the Introduction and 13 chapters that lay ahead of me back on June 17 when I got underway.

Despite a summer of steady work on the project, I would still miss the September 30 deadline by a day. Fortunately this was not a problem for the rights holder.

When I began I recalled the rights holder’s caution about pronunciation. Be sure you get them right; don’t guess.

I knew there were websites where I could look up pronunciations, so I wasn’t particularly daunted by this warning, and I launched into the narration without trepidation.

I quickly became intimately familiar with these websites as I found myself wandering through cyberspace looking for the sites that would best recognize the name, the place or title that I need to pronounce as though I had been familiar with it all of my life.

Here’s a sample of one of the less lengthy passages that sent me to the pronunciation websites:

“Accompanying Montcalm were Colonels Gaston, duc de Lèvis, and Françios Charles de Bourlemaque, the second and third in command, respectively with the general’s aide, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, and engineers Captain Jean Claude Henri Lombard de Combles and his assistant Jean Nicolas Desandrounins. In addition around 1200 troops of the second battalions of the Royal Roussillon and La Sarre Regiments crammed into the ships.”

Such passages would recur with regularity throughout the 411 pages of the manuscript. To make it through such passages, I estimate that it would typically take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more to determine how to render the reading in an acceptable manner that sounded natural to the listener.

I also came to realize that the author of the book was a meticulous historian. He had a penchant for leaving no detail out of his accounts of events depicted in the book. His obsession with detail took the form of exhaustive listings like this one:

“’We captured also, 7 vessels of war; one of 18 guns, one of 14, one of 10, one of 8, three mounted with swivels, 200 barges or bateaux, 7 pieces of bronze, 48 of iron, 14 mortars, 5 howitzers, 47 swivels, a quantity of shot, bombs, balls, powder and a considerable pile of provisions. ‘ When those supplies were tallied, the French had taken 28,000 pounds of powder, 8,000 pounds of lead and balls; 2,950 shot of various caliber; 150 shells of 9 inches and 300 of 6; 1,416 grenades; 730 muskets; 340 grapeshot; 704 barrels of biscuits; 1386 barrels of pork; 712 barrels of flour; 11 barrels of rice; 1 garret full of vegetables; 32 live oxen; 11 hogs; and 3 chests of specie.“

It was my job to vocally interpret these recurring lists in a manner that somehow kept the reader from fleeing to the nearest mindless romance novel for relief. So I varied the pacing, the pitch of my voice, and the rhythm of my speech to break the monotony that otherwise would characterize the performance. And if I accidentally said there were 152 9-inch shells instead of the actual 150 as indicated in the manuscript, I rerecorded, inserting the correct figure, even though I surmised that the slip-up would never be noticed, let alone seriously affect the veracity of the account.

I gradually became more adept at getting through such passages with a degree of appropriate vocal interpretation and in a not unreasonable amount of time.

Each chapter in an audiobook project is a separate digital file, with a limit of 120 minutes for each file you eventually post to the site for uploading by the production team. Each file must be edited to close gaps where edits are made and to vanquish mouth sounds or other extraneous noise that finds its way into the brief pauses in the narration. The editing process can take as much as two or three times longer than recording the material in the first place.

Once you have a “clean” recording, it has to be proofed for accuracy, which means that someone has to listen straight through the entire chapter and note any problems on the manuscript, indicating the time marker in the recording where the error occurred so the passage can be located in the recording and fixed.

Unlike most of the manuscripts narrators work from, this one was not available as a Word file or pdf.; I worked from the physical printed pages of the actual book.

This was easier to do using separate pages, which meant using a box cutter to slice the individual pages out of the bound book one at a time.

Turns out that reading from pages that have two sides is somewhat problematic. The mic picks up even the slightest crackle of a bending book page, so I had to learn how to deftly flip the page, let it gently come to rest on the table top settling gently as a feather. While the page was airborne, I would utter the three or four words at the top of page two which I had previously memorized while my eyes searched frantically for the point in the text where the unmemorized portion began.

I got so that I could do this successfully roughly 80 percent of the time, reading smoothly through the flip without missing a beat or audibly flicking the page. Sometimes the page I so adroitly (and silently) flipped would take flight and flutter to the floor, or land too far away on the table top for me to read it without drifting seriously off mic.

While you are doing all this paper shuffling and taking care to locate the text you need to find quickly, you must continue to sound like your attention is focused entirely on the subject matter.

Some version of this process goes on day after day, week after week until you finally emerge from your dark little “booth” one day and discover that you have finally produced an edited, proofed, and processed, “clean” recording which now comprises an audiobook that is ready to go out into the world and face the marketplace.

Next step is to find the screen on ACX where you will upload those completed files containing the chapters and other elements of the audiobook. When you have uploaded everything, you locate a button that says simply “I’m done.” When you click on it, your work of many months is delivered to a digital location where only the rights holder can access it.

There’s nothing else for you to do now, but wait and see what the client thinks about the work you’ve done

The rights holder will usually do a spot check of the recording, listening for problems like mispronunciations, poor edits, extraneous noise, or misreads.

While this process unfolds—a matter of a week or two—doubts inevitably begin to creep into your mind. Will they reject it out of hand because I just didn’t get the pronunciations right? Or perhaps they’ll compile a long list of corrections that have to be made before the work is approved. Or maybe they’re thinking that they made a terrible decision when they picked you in the first place.

The worst is highly unlikely to happen. If there are small corrections to attend to, you get a list from the rights holder and set about recording the necessary passages and editing the new material into the original recording. These are usually few in number and relatively easily fixed.

When it is determined that all is as it should be, the final event is a message saying the project is approved and will soon be available for sale on Audible. ACX will check the audio standards of the project, and if it checks out, you’ll get word in about ten days to two weeks that the project is now “Available for Retail.”

Only then will you relax, grab a scotch, and swear never to put yourself through that particular version hell again. Until, that is, you one day wander back to the list of available projects…because you just can’t seem to feel comfortable or productive unless you’re working on an audio project of some kind.

As General George Patton once put it when talking about the experience of doing battle, God help me, I do love it so.