Category Archives: about writing

Audio from the Authors: Lessons Learned

I’ve had the privilege of working with some fabulous authors in my new vocation of audiobook narration. In my recent series I interviewed some of them to give encouragement to colleagues and interest to listeners. Here they are:

Just Then and Right Now
Coming this Summer
Share and Share Unalike

I Was In on It Too

Of course I was my own first customer, and thought I would conclude this start-of-summer series with some of my own reflections. Working as a narrator is so fulfilling and interesting, I can only compare it to teaching as a source of joy. Right now, those two things are just about all I’m doing for work so you can imagine how happy I am.

Lesson One: Audition Yourself

I found the entire experience to be a dramatic endorsement for the value of reading your own work out loud. I’ve posted on this several times in the past– even if you never publish a single audiobook you need to hear your own writing. There is no better way to pick up on a host of errors invisible to the spell-checker, and the rehearsal is great preparation for DIY if you choose to go on that path. Some colleagues have told me they can’t pick out mistakes when they are reading, so they let Dragon do it for them. I suppose that could work too.

But I suspect they also just don’t like their own voice– and that was a key revelation for me, to realize this about other people. I’m such a ham, I heard myself much earlier than most folks–I got over the shock of how different my voice sounded to my own ears with a tape recorder when I was six. It’s a habit you have to form: now I’ve spent hundreds of hours listening to myself as I edit the books and I don’t notice any difference anymore.

Lesson Two: That FX Thing Seems to Have Worked Out

I still see reader reviews who mention that the sounds I put in are “distracting” etc. I’m honing my craft and certainly opinions will differ. But no question, the AUTHORS I’ve auditioned for loved them and reacted the way I was hoping. They have kindly let me know that the sounds (and voicing) add atmosphere and deepen the experience for them. I keep the FX on separate tracks for easy removal, replacement, or emendations.

Model Behavior

Let’s admit it frankly– the more I try to rely on the Per Finished Hour model (getting paid up front) it’s increasingly the author I need to please. Another aspect of moving into the PFH crowd is that I’m meeting authors with their own plans and resources for marketing. I trust they know what they’re doing.

But I bet there were times in my work, where the sounds became too much (loud, sudden, frequent). I’ve always held to the mantra that this is about the author’s words first and foremost. Now I try to open with a gentle environmental effect, like breeze or rain, as the very first chapter begins. It can’t be an unpleasant surprise if it’s not a surprise.

Lesson Three: Series Work is Like Bread

My first two forays into narration, beyond my own series Shards of Light, were with authors who either had or were just starting series of their own. I wrote out a notation sheet to double-check pronunciation of place names and jargon with them, and also jotted down my impressions of what type of voice to attempt for the major characters. Big-time payoff there! I revisited those sheets like old friends as I bounced back and forth between tales. Series work allows me to exploit my labor over several projects. So far, it’s mainly been in the Royalty Share model and those returns have been significant. The more series installments, the merrier.

Bundles are Like Sliced Bread

Most authors are aware that bundling a series of maybe three or four titles can be a great marketing tool over on the ‘Zon. But with Audible it’s even better since:

a) the main business model works with credits, so listeners get a terrific value plonking down their monthly chip on a title that has multiple tales in it, and

b) authors and narrators get better compensation than for a single title.

The exact amount is still a mystery to me, so I grumble even as I celebrate. But both for my own series and that of others, the bundle is attractive and leads to new sales. Excelsior!

Lesson Four: Always Doing, Never Done

May the Good Lord protect me from thinking that I’ve arrived as a narrator. Just in the past week I was able to make a small observation about my chief bugaboo, background noise. That amended my editing and production steps to make the final file just a bit better. I keep picking up tips on blending in effects. (God forgive me, I edited the first chapter of my own book yesterday and I have FOUR FX tracks supporting the narration!) Not a sound engineer, but I am learning how my voice works (and doesn’t). The environment I created in my basement is utterly consistent and I even get RMS and Noise Floor readings that are close to each other across the entire project. I just love what I’m doing.

And now I get to do it to myself again.

Coming This Fall, Harbingers of Hope

I’ll be spending the next 10-15 weeks heads-down and recording my titanic opus, 400k words of epic fantasy going into a single title and audio for the first time. Since I have a summer schedule with no teaching, it will only be me and the usual interruptions to my day. I hope to get a reliable impression of just how much material I can knock out in a week. Then I will be better able to return to auditioning, and put out offers with promises I can keep. I’ve been extra-conservative to date because I never want to fail of a deadline. And that’s largely been because I never knew how well I could do over a long haul. Well 400k is a pretty long haul. I hope to come out of the summer of ’21 as a truly professional audiobook narrator.

And the rest of you, don’t let the season slip by with only the grim aftertaste of hot dog and a little sand in your shoe to show for it. Get your books into audio! Don’t make me come over there.



Classics You’ve Never Read, Part Three- A Whole New World

Re-publication of a post originally written for the Independent Bookworm website.

Classic: a book that people praise and no one reads.

-Mark Twain

It’s not what you think.

"Not another post about WORLD-BUILDING!!"
“Not another post about WORLD-BUILDING!!”

True, we’ve hit on this theme before in many places. Hey, sue me, this is what we do in fantasy. But don’t forget the series title, dear reader- this is about the classics, and I don’t mean Tolkein. Once again, you’ve never read it (be honest); a name as famous as Justin Bieber (now THERE’s another world for you). Everyone “knows” it, but not on paper. Hollywood and Broadway each took a swipe at this incredible tale: you ask me, they both missed by a mile. It’s not a horror story. It’s not merely a drama or a mystery and it sure as shooting is not just a romance.

No, Gaston Leroux built a world for you when he wrote… The Phantom of the Opera.

Shirley, You Jest?

Never mind that condescending “sure, it’s all semantics” nod you’re making. Fantasy has to build a world for the reader, not just point at it. You can’t bluff world-building- so you wouldn’t normally expect a tale set in the Alleged Real World to need it. But as authors of historical fiction know, today’s readers are a spacy race, and anything before the assassination of Kennedy is formally classified as ancient history. Maybe before Lennon. Even so, you can assume gravity, taxes, the nuclear family- billions of “normal” things in many tales. And plenty of other instances, like the calendar of days, don’t need explanation even if they’re not important-  the author can just write “on Tuesday” and everyone’s fine. Think about what it means to have Conar’s Day (your Sunday) instead- when do you stop to explain that?

Phantom_soapOK, I’m off the soap box now.

But this is the genius of what Mr. Leroux did. His tale is set in Paris, late 1800s. He draws on a wealth of worldly knowledge you already have- the gentleman caste, police procedure, what an opera is- but even so, he takes you into an entirely different world.

Where? Inside the Opera House itself!

The Craft of the Tale

I don’t want to spoil this pleasure for you, so at the top I say- read the book, it’s marvelous. And since you haven’t done so before, take note of a couple of things I’ll point to here and illustrate with examples:

Where it (practically) all happens.
Where it (practically) all happens.
  • Leroux dovetails history into fantasy with seamless precision. The Opera House really was that big, the cellars truly were that many, and the fantastical underground lake is rooted in the constant pumping the builders had to undertake to drive the foundations of this massive edifice so deep. I’m not talking about the author’s mind- this is what really happened. When he “creates” an account from newspapers speaking to these facts in the building of the place- he’s practically plagiarizing! The world is almost completely there to begin with: just add Ghost.
  • Leroux compounds the believability of this tale with numerous “accounts”- which is a classic device of the period, you see it in Dracula and Frankenstein. A set of “facts” gains credibility because the author doesn’t rely on omniscient third person, but uses a character’s diary, or a policeman’s report to “back up” the story. He adds another layer- of complexity admittedly, but also of interest- with the terribly confused goings-on during that climactic night when the Ghost’s plans come to fruition and ruination at the same time. Folks in the Opera House are all pursuing their own mysteries, and colliding with, not understanding each other- it’s a meticulous description of bedlam. One person’s “account” takes you away from the story thread you were just reading, and into another. You may be vexed for a second- but this new tale generates its own interest. Meanwhile behind your back, the suspension of disbelief goes from strong to impregnable. It’s genius.Phantom_chandelier
  • Finally, Leroux achieves painless world-building through a wonderful vehicle, one I have had occasion to adopt myself: the ignorant narrator.

As the story opens, the Opera sees the arrival of two new managers- nice enough guys, who like the arts and love the idea of being managers. But they know diddly about how the place actually runs. So you get a box seat on the action, as everyone steps into the office to whine about something that’s gone mysteriously wrong- and in the process, fills them in on how the Opera works. At one point, the Ghost (Erik, the Phantom- you know, HIM) steals a white horse so he can carry off the lovely soprano Christine to his palace in the underworld. How do we find out? When the stable-chief goes to the bosses to complain. I want you to fire all these dishonest stable-hands, he shouts. The managers blink and respond- wait, we have a stable? Oh yes, twelve horses… and now you’re hearing about grooms, and the different operas this matched pair and that black horse get used in, the chariot… None of that directly informs the plot- but you begin to sense how incredibly LARGE this operation is.

How large? I’ve already told you- it’s an entire world.

There are 2,531 doors and 7,593 keys; 14 furnaces and grates heat the house; the gaspipes if connected would form a pipe almost 16 miles long; 9 reservoirs, and two tanks hold 22,222 gallons of water… 538 persons have places assigned wherein to change their attire. The musicians have a foyer with 100 closets for their instruments.

How the Story Changed

I look awful in the mornings! And the rest of the time, yes...
I look awful in the mornings! And the rest of the time, yes…

Look at what Hollywood has done with this epic- pumped the horror.  See Lon Chaney wrestling with his organ, and the poor girl fainting dead away? Great imagery: Beauty and the Beast, minus the happy ending. But a trip to Erik’s underground palace is usually given short shrift on film. The underground lake, so Stygian and remote, is a great element: people die there. But that’s below FIVE cellars- where do you see those? The second level, where those horses are housed; the third, where the poor scene-setter supposedly hung himself, his life forfeit to hide the existence of its secret trap door; the fourth, where the rat-catcher evokes a scene from Hades itself- THAT was spooky! But you can’t see it on film, evidently- because there is no world there.

Love Never Dies- at Least not Until Phantom 3
Love Never Dies- at Least not Until Phantom 3

What did Broadway aim for? Duh- romance of course. Christine is beloved of the rash young Viscount de Chagny, but the Opera Ghost poses as her Angel of Music- let the tug of war begin. This is also fine- but in the book, Christine and Raoul flee to every corner of the Opera for a few whispered speeches. She suspects Erik is listening in wherever they go. Finally, they ascend up above the vaulted ceiling into the rafters of the roof where stands an enormous golden statue of Apollo, until she finally feels safe enough to tell her lover the truth. But even there, a shadow flits between the god and heaven… from the sky to the underdark, the Opera House of Paris is a colossal setting that launches the reader into an Phantom_roofexperience so complex and far-flung as to need tons of explanation. Is Erik a charlatan, a mystic, a sorceror, a monster? You can’t decide- because YOU’RE NOT IN THE REAL WORLD ANYMORE. This setting was too vast even for film or the stage, so its directors cut away nearly everything to do with that other world and focused on just one aspect of the tale. Only in the book can you get the full picture: mystery, farce, the supernatural, all of it.

Reading The Book

Phantom_ApolloThe free Kindle version of Phantom had a few glitches- the author uses footnotes to reinforce that “real-world” feel which is great, but Kindle doesn’t distinguish the break between the end of the note and the resumption of narrative. I’m also pretty sure there are issues with translation here (as Steve Martin pointed out, “it’s like, those French have a different word for everything!”). No way I’m learning French- but there may be a better translation out there worth paying for. And of course the two-page drawings were sadly absent. I’ve substituted some in this article, providing dramatic proof that there’s no accounting for taste.

I could tell you this story has terrific characters and I wouldn’t be lying. It’s pretty rare for me to feel any empathy for the villain- usually I see that the heroes, though admirable, have flaws that can make me angry with them. And Phantom has all this- Erik is horrifying and pitiable, Christine can evince the pity but cannot insist on her own happiness; Raoul is impulsive, the Persian shrinks from what’s needful. But hold on- the most true thing I can tell you, going back to my theme, is that these characters come to life in a fully-realized, beautifully described and completely believable WORLD. Ninety percent of what happens takes place inside the same building, and you’re never done exploring it, meeting its denizens and understanding its culture. This is a kingdom of its own, where old stage crewmen are pensioned with the job of just walking about and shutting doors (to keep out drafts that could harm the singers); where Box Fido believe in spooksve holds its secrets through all manner of frenzied searches, and the gas-man needs two assistants just to keep the furnace going. I’m telling you, read about the encounter with the rat-catcher, and you WILL believe in spooks.

Lessons Learned

Writing epic and heroic fantasy means you catch hell from all sides about world-building: like a flu shot, your readers have to have it, but they complain whenever they detect the smallest pinch. We amuse them with a distracting joke, promise it won’t hurt, and try to get it over quickly. Your book is better for it- but don’t hold your breath waiting for appreciation. Gaston Leroux brilliantly points the way to building a world within a world; this is the most highly recommended of the classics I’ve reviewed so far. In Judgement’s Tale I make use of an ignorant narrator of sorts, in fact two. The sage Cedrith is determined to befriend the taciturn, driven orphan Solemn Judgement despite the shock and embarrassment his company entails. He knows nothing of the boy’s mind and tries to tease it out. By the same token, Judgement- like the reader- knows nothing of the Lands of Hope and Cedrith squires him from church to library and theater in an effort to educate him. How well it works I don’t yet dare allow the public to decide- but I’m mindful that a world can be as small as one person’s soul, and the story of it takes you through straight fantasy to mystery, horror, whimsy, erotica, in short, all the genres of literature.

All the writing in the world, because in the end you are writing about an entire world. A little spooky, truth be known.

Leroux, Gaston (1994-10-01). The Phantom of the Opera . Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.