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  • jenniferpickensaud

Behind the Scenes...

Narrating an audiobook is both simpler and more complex than it may seem. Well, there’s a sentence that doesn’t say much of anything. Let me attempt to clarify. At its core, narration is understanding a story and then telling it. Simple. But understanding deeply is something that takes time. When I get a manuscript from an author or publisher, I prepare a cup of tea, make myself comfortable in my special prep-spot on the couch, and start reading.


My mind is working on two tracks. I’m trying to experience the book the way any reader would, to just let myself get swept up in the story. At the same time, I am creating a spreadsheet where I add each new character as they appear and make note of any clues the author gives about what they look like, how they carry themselves, what they sound like, where they’re from, etc. I assign them a color, and mark their dialogue with that color as I read (highlighting everything is too much trouble and distracting on the page. A little slash at the beginning of the dialogue is all the visual cue I need.) I didn’t always mark dialogue, but one of my excellent coaches Khristine Hvam convinced me to try it once, and I haven’t stopped. Marking the dialogue isn’t strictly necessary, but if I take the time to do it, I never have to stop and go back mid-paragraph because I’ve been doing the wrong character’s voice. I’m also marking any words I’m not 100% sure how to pronounce. 99% sure isn’t good enough. I look up words that I’m preeetty sure I know how to say. It’s way less painful to look it up now than it is to record a correction later (or have a listener call you on it in a review). If it’s the kind of material that necessitates a huge pronunciation list, that’s another spreadsheet. People and place names might require an email or a phone call if I can’t find them online. I like to type the work phonetically or drop a voice memo right on the page in the document so I’m not flipping back and forth too much while narrating. If the book is set in a place I’ve never been, I might read up on it or watch a documentary. I might read interviews with the author. I love a research rabbit hole, and I will dive right in.


I also keep a notebook and pen nearby for any insights I have about the story or how it applies to my life. Journaling as I go keeps me connected to the emotional center of the story. Character and pronunciation lists are well and good, but they aren’t what makes a good story. Who are these people? How are they connected? What are they feeling? How does it make me feel? I need to understand their journey. An author may spend months or years of their life writing a book. I have to honor all of that work. I have to do my best.


So, I’ve read the book. I’ve spent time with the characters. I’ve done my research. I know how to say every word in the book. I know how the characters feel, and I know how I feel as I’m reading the story. Spreadsheets done, notes taken. I know how to tell this story.


Okay, into the booth! Not so fast…Gotta make sure I’m hydrated. That starts the day before. I’m already drinking a lot of tea and coffee, but I have to drink lots of water on top of that. You have no idea how many weird noises your mouth makes until you stick a big microphone in front of it. And don’t eat anything that might make your stomach gurgle and burble. But you have to eat something or it will growl. I find that peanut butter is the perfect thing. Okay, I’m hydrated and my stomach is cooperating. Now I read the book out loud. But of course, it’s more than that. It’s acting. I didn’t have formal acting training before I started narrating. I didn’t consider myself an actor. But I’ve always been a little actress, playing pretend as a kid, talking to myself in different voices as I go through my day, narrating my way through life. Acting is exactly what I do in the booth, and a good audiobook coach will help you become a better actor. Aristotle defined acting as “the right management of the voice to express the various emotions.” By that definition, I am certainly acting. But when recording I am once again wearing more than one hat. (Tracks, hats, yes I’m switching up the metaphor)


If I’m recording in my home studio (which I always am), I am also the audio engineer. Most of the time I’m also the director. So while I’m working to stay deeply connected to the script, I’m also operating my DAW (digital audio workspace), the computer program where I’m recording the audio. I’m making sure my mic position is correct. A slight shift in any direction can drastically change the sound. I’m making sure my recording levels are correct. Every time I make a mistake I stop the recording, move the cursor to a clean spot before the mistake, being careful not to cut into a breath or cut off the end of a word, and start again. This happens fairly often, and the more emotionally connected to the words I am, the more I lose myself in the prose, the more likely I am to make a mistake. A double edged sword! (tracks, hats, and swords, oh my!) I’m also listening for any errant noises. The world is so noisy. A big truck rumbles past the house? My husband coughs in the next room? My knee pops? The mic hears all. So I try to hear it all too and know when to stop and rerecord.


And the director hat! Wait, it says the character whispered here. Shoot, I didn’t really sound sad enough. Switching character voices at the drop of a hat (we’re back to hats). Choosing where to put the emphasis in a sentence to really get a point across. And on and on, you get the picture. It’s a lot to juggle mentally.


New narrators are surprised at how mentally and physically exhausting narrating an audiobook is! It’s more than just talking. A quick, very unscientific internet search reveals that I am using either 45, 70, or 100 muscles to speak. It’s a lot. And breathing! I do a lot of it, and in a very controlled way. The mic picks up every little breath, so those need to be smooth and even. Breathing can actually be a tool to tell the story. I breathe differently if I’m scared than I do when I’m relaxed and happy. I need to take regular breaks to rest my voice and step out of the booth. It’s a small enclosed space, and CO2 levels can rise and make a person sleepy and just not feel great.


Audiobook narration is one of the coolest, most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Telling stories and finding connection through the special combination of written and spoken word is such a magical thing. It’s also one of the most difficult and exhausting things I’ve ever done.


I love it.


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