That Time When I Did An Audiobook (Part 3, Final)

For this third and final part of my account about doing an audiobook, I’d like to conclude with some practical tips that I learned. Parts One and Two can be found here and here, respectively, or you can just go to the main blog here and scroll around.

As I mentioned in Part Two of this post, my sound engineers turned out to be valuable sources of information, guidance, and tips about the whole process. They also, one way or another, become your lunch-buddies, since you both have to break at the same time and anything else would be super-awkward. So, I will repeat myself here: be nice to your sound engineer. They are good people.

At Audible HQ in Newark, the cafeteria is downstairs from the recording studios, though if you need a snack to avoid being grouchy, there is a well-stocked self-serve kitchen on the same floor as the studios, too. The cafeteria at Audible is, well, like the rest of Audible. It is spacious, buffet-style, mod, well-appointed, and has…ping-pong tables. Yes, that’s right. Those millennial Creatives lounging about sharing ideas on their devices that I mentioned in Part One? They come down here to blow off a little ping-pong steam over lunch. What this means in practical terms is that you should be prepared to receive an errant ping-pong ball in your meal at some point or, like I did, spend some precious lunch-time rooting around underfoot in an attempt to seem like a “good sport” and help the kids retrieve their lost ball. The food, by the way, was perfectly fine.

Audible's "Cafeteria/Hang Out Area", ping-pong tables not pictured.

Audible's "Cafeteria/Hang Out Area", ping-pong tables not pictured.

This discussion of eating is probably a good place to get to my list of practical tips, since the first thing I learned (the hard way, I’m sad to say) is that those microphones are very sensitive and they pick up absolutely every sound your body makes, not just your voice. So, keeping a handle on your stomach’s effusive declarations over the course of a day will be an extra chore you might not have reckoned with. And sometimes, a losing battle. But here are some others lessons:

Do what I didn’t do: practice reading. As I mentioned in Part Two, I discovered immediately that, no matter how well you know a text, it is simply in the nature of clumsy human speech to produce slurs, pauses and tics of all sorts that have to be recorded away, slowing down the process. But what I also discovered is that reading aloud requires a lot of air. I’m a fit person (for a medievalist), but I was surprised to find myself out of breath and sometimes straining to wheeze out a few final syllables at the end of a sentence before taking another breath. So my advice here is to practice pacing yourself and getting a good speech-to-breath rhythm, lest you pass out in mid-sentence and miss out on all the ping-pong at lunch. I’m told sitting upright and not slumping helps with this too—getting the most out of your diaphragm without resorting to wheezing.

Speed and rhythm are important, and you should spare some forethought for them too. The general rule of thumb is that you should read much slower than you think you should, or than you would say, reading a bed-time story. I am told I have a voice reminiscent of 30’s radio announcers: speedy and clipped. Say fellas, pour me another glass of cold, refreshing Moxie, won’t you? So it took some genuine, conscious restraint to reach a good pace (and pitch) for producing the audiobook.

That said, it’s important not to be slavish to one speed only. In my case, a non-fiction book, I was never in a position to produce different voices for different characters, as professional voice-actors do for works of fiction. But nevertheless non-fiction prose does vary in tone over the course of two hundred pages, and I learned that changing your reading pace is really one of the few ways you have to account for these changes in tone. So, sometimes in a narrative of, say, a battle, I would pick up the pace a bit to convey a sense of urgency or panic, or punctuate a paragraph with sudden silences to connote finality, drama, or whatever. You get the idea.

Perfect your pronunciation. This most commonly came into play with place-names.  Race for Paradise is something of a sprawling book, as its theatre stretches from Portugal to Iraq, meaning the text necessarily throws up place-names in a range of languages, some of which I know nothing about. In my case, Portuguese and Catalan place-names were a source of great mystery. However, thanks to my awesome sound engineer, I learned about a web-based pronunciation guide called Forvo, where native speakers record the pronunciation of various words and you can listen to them played back to you. You can even request words yourself (though don’t expect an instant result). I highly recommend this tool—it saved my skin a number of times, and makes me look like I know what I’m doing (which, I want to assure you all, I don’t).

A final tip, for writers, not necessarily for narrators: be aware of your visual biases. My sound engineer reminded me, in recounting her own career path, that the concept of audiobooks really began with Books for the Blind, a free service in the U.S. that provides audio recordings of books to the visually impaired. Most books are pretty straightforward, but some, especially non-fiction books like mine, contain plates or maps or charts that, in an ideal situation, are described orally for the visually-impaired listener. But this is not often done with commercial audiobooks: my book features a number of plates, for example, and I was never asked to describe them. I wish I had been, or had thought to insist. However, it does include a prose “walk-through” of a medieval map, one I wrote without thinking of my audience. I think it is a helpful passage for someone who can’t actually view the map in question, but not thoroughly so, since that was not my original intent. So in the future I plan to keep visually-impaired audiences in mind when I write such descriptions of figures or illustrations, and I encourage all writers to do the same. Otherwise a vital part of your book is lost to a vital part of your audience.

The final product, waiting to be injected into your ears.

The final product, waiting to be injected into your ears.

All in all, I was pleased with the final product. I do wish Audible had allowed me to retain my dedication in the audiobook, which are just a few words which mean quite a lot to me, but I was told this was not the usual policy (though it appears to be ok if you’re Neil Gaiman…). And (without fishing for compliments) I’m a bit embarrassed by the general sound of my voice and hearing myself drone on and on. Producing the audiobook also made me aware of some of the weak spots in my writing and organizational styles, flaws that I hope to avoid in future projects.

But I am proud of the book, and proud too of the audiobook. I'm a big fan of audiobooks, and so I’m thrilled to have done one myself. If you like to work in cubicles or on sofas, I think Audible.com would be a great environment to work in. And if you are enthusiastic about your own work, have a creative spirit, and a good bit of humility, narrating your own audiobook will provide you with a new audience for your work and a new way to think about texts.