The audiobook of The Bargain has just gone live! My story of the heiress who marries a dying man in order to secure her inheritance--and then he doesn't have the grace to die!--has always been a reader favorite, which is why I thought it worth putting into audio.
Last year I decided to produce my first backlist audio book, Thunder and Roses,I used ACX.com, the audio production arm of Amazon, which brings together producers and potential narrators. I posted an audition and listened to many samples from different narrators, pulling my hair because they were all good, but who would be the best choice?
For The Bargain, I found a narrator by pure luck. A fantasy writer friend had met British fantasy author and narrator Emma Newman at a conference, so she sent me a link for possible future use.
I listened to first one clip, then another, then another. I'm still trying to define what kind of narrator I like, but perhaps the term Listenability fits. If I want to keep listening no matter what the story is, that's listenability. The elements include a pleasant voice, a good crisp pace, sufficient inflection for reading different characters, and suitability.
I like Emma's voice, and it occurred to me that she might be just right for The Bargain. One of the first books I wrote (under an original title ofThe Would Be Widow) it has a lighter feel than most of my later historicals even though the plot has the heroine marrying a dying man in order to keep her inheritance. The fun comes when her mortally wounded Waterloo office hasn't the grace to die. <G>
So I contacted Emma about possible narration. She was interested, and connected me with her sound studio, the Audio Factory in Glastonbury, Somerset. They were great to work with, the recording went ahead and now the audio is available here.
Having blogged about the process from my point of view for Thunder and Roses, I thought it would be interesting to ask Emma what narrating a novel is like from her perspective. So here is a picture of her, and some questions.
MJP: Emma, I think it must be unusual for an author to be a professional narrator. How did you happen to end up doing both? Do you thing these two different areas enhance each other?
EN: Back when I had written my first book and was struggling to find an agent or publisher, I hit upon the idea of podcasting my novel by a chapter a week. I was so uncertain about whether I just hadn’t written anything good enough yet or if it was simply a matter of not finding the right person yet that I wanted to get feedback. I didn’t want to put the text online, for obvious reasons, so I recorded it. Completely unexpectedly, I got amazing feedback about my voice and narration, alongside a very positive response to the book which went on to be published. Enough people urged me to look into becoming an audio book narrator too that I created a portfolio and finally built up the courage to audition for an audiobook. I actually ended up getting it! I haven’t looked back since.
I love narration and I think the two aspects of my career really do enhance each other. I have always read aloud as part of my editing process, and feel that it’s a critical part of determining where the rough spots are and making sure dialogue sounds plausible and authentic. Audio book narration has sharpened my sense of pace within scenes as well as across a book and has also made me focus more on the voices of the characters. It also stops me from including things that are impossible to enunciate well! I feel that if something flows well when read aloud, it flows well in the mind of the reader.
Audio book narration has also helped in terms of author events. Reading aloud is now far more enjoyable than scary (I do still get horribly nervous!) and I feel being able to read your work well aloud helps a great deal when at huge conventions where people just drop in by chance.
MJP: How do you approach narrating a book? Do you start with a read through, making mental notes about possible interpretations and pronunciations, or what?
EN: Yes, the first read through is the time when I get the characters in place. I make notes about any descriptions in the text and form a picture of them in my mind. Then I assign different voices to them in terms of pitch, delivery, accent etc. For example, in The Bargain I wanted Elvira (the antagonist) to sound more harsh and sharp than Jocelyn, the kind of voice that could cut through you (but not too much as people are listening for pleasure after all!). Then in turn, I wanted Jocelyn to sound refined and poised, but not quite as smooth, calm and accomplished as her aunt. And Jocelyn’s voice changes in subtle ways depending on who she is talking to and when, differentiating between situations when she feels excited or in charge etc.
Then I look at pronunciations and tackle them in chunks throughout the book on a second read through. This is partly so I don’t bombard the author with a huge list all at once but also because it helps me to focus on the next bit I’m narrating and ensure I read through at a detailed level rather than when I read for pleasure. Some sections I practise aloud, especially if there is an accent involved. I’ve narrated books with fictional names and locations as well as foreign ones, and always like to check with the author about pronunciation even if I have a fairly good idea already. As an author, I hate the idea of the book’s author listening and thinking ‘but it never sounded like that in my head when I wrote it!’.
That’s another thing that being an author makes me more aware of; as a narrator I am adding a third person into a relationship that usually only has two, namely the author and the reader. The reader interprets the words on the page in their own way, but when a person listens to a book, there is also the narrator’s interpretation added to the mix. I do my best to not get in the way – by having overly theatrical or melodramatic voices for example – and hope that my interpretation compliments that which the author had in mind. Of course, when I’ve had the privilege to narrate my last three novels, I’ve worried about that less!
MJP: What is a studio session like? I get the feeling that it's a team approach. How many people are involved, and how much editing must be done?
EN: There are three of us in the studio; myself in the recording room with headphone, microphone and my Kindle on a music stand (so much better than having to edit out page turn noise!) and on the other side of the glass in the technical room, there’s the director and sound engineer. The director doubles as a proof-listener to ensure I’m word perfect, but also asks for retakes if a line doesn’t sound right. The sound engineer handles the technical side of the recording and annotates his copy of the manuscript with shorthand notes he uses when editing the files after the session in the studio.
For example, if I’ve had to pause to have a sip of water, he notes the time stamp so that can be edited out more efficiently. We record for about six hours a day, usually spread over two weeks so we can have a long weekend in the middle to rest the voice. It is exhausting, as what you narrate is played back to you simultaneously through your headphones. So for hours I’m standing, concentrating intently, doing my best to narrate and gently act the dialogue whilst processing how it sounds all the time and thinking “was that right?” Sometimes I ask for a re-take if I feel I haven’t delivered something well enough having heard it myself.
It is very much a team effort. In one session I had the strangest brain freeze and couldn’t pronounce ‘physician’ correctly after fluffing it in the first take. The guys helped me back on track (and we had a good laugh about it too).
MJP: Do you keep a certain professional detachment from the stories you narrate, or do you find yourself getting more emotionally involved with some characters and situations?
EN: In the studio, when narrating, there is a professional detachment. When prepping and especially on the first read-through I let myself get involved more! Narrating a book is like climbing inside it though. I become more keenly aware of structure, character development etc as the recording days go by. At the end of the recording, I feel I know the book so intimately that I do miss (some of!) the characters afterwards. And I did feel I related to Jocelyn so much more after reading her words, especially in the last scene.
The detachment when performing is critical though. Especially when there are raunchy scenes! Being British I am, of course, embarrassed by almost everything, but recording those scenes with a male director and male sound engineer heightens that! Saying that, though, I was so worried I would giggle (I always do that when really embarrassed) during the most graphic parts but no, I think we only had one re-take in all of those scenes. That’s the detachment and concentration, I reckon!
Emma, thanks so much for taking us inside the recording studio with you! I've really enjoyed hearing about how an audiobook is made.
For those of you who are audiobook listeners: what makes a narrator special for you? Are there some who you'd listen to even if they were reading the telephone book? What might turn you off as you listen? I'd love to hear, since I'll be doing more audiobooks in the future.
One commenter between now and Tuesday midnight will receive a prize, which may be a free download of Thunder and Roses, or ofThe Bargain, or a print edition of The Bargain. We'll work it out!