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Whether you’re new to acting or have been doing it all of your life, you’ll find that performing an audiobook is a unique challenge. Audible Approved producer Karen Commins is a prolific audiobook narrator who has completed over 30 titles on ACX. Today, Karen offers advice about audiobook performance.
Landing your first audiobook contract is so exciting!
It can also be quite terrifying, especially if, like me, you arrived here from voiceover work without ever taking an acting class. Yes, voiceover jobs require acting skills, but audiobook narration is true storytelling that demands 100% acting.
Narrating a book can be daunting even to trained theater actors. You are responsible for emotionally connecting to the story and telling it in a believable and captivating way. Rather than playing one role, you are now playing ALL of them.
Where do you even start?
Psychologist Richard Wiseman would answer, “By acting as if you are a certain type of person, you become that person.” Let’s look at four ways to act like an audiobook narrator.
1. Listen to Books
Before you began to work in commercials, plays, or TV shows, you probably studied the medium to know what its producers and consumers expect from that type of actor. The same is true of audiobooks. You really need to listen to audiobooks to understand how you can best serve both your author’s intent and the book in front of you. Many new narrator questions can be answered by listening to audiobooks.
Although I recorded my first commercial audiobook in 2003, I listen to audiobooks every day. Each listening session is like a mini master class. While I am enjoying the story and getting through more books each year, I also am evaluating how the narrator conveys the emotions in all of the words, especially the narrative portions. I note the production quality. I analyze the narrator’s vocal choices, phrasing, and pauses. Concentrated and perpetual listening improves my performances. You can start your education in this unique art form by listening to samples on Audible.
2. Take Notes
After I celebrated getting that first contract, I panicked when I realized how many characters were in the text! Listeners expect a performance, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to do it.
Luckily, I found an antidote for panic: preparation!
The first step in solid audiobook prep is to read the complete book before starting to develop any character’s voice. Take notes every time the text says anything descriptive about each character, including things the character says about himself and what others say about him.
I create a new notebook in Evernote for each book I perform. Within the notebook, I create a new note page for each character. As I read a description in the manuscript, I copy and paste the info from the book into the note for that character. I end up with a complete profile on each character, like this example from a recent book.
The goal is to inhabit each character’s mind so that their dialogue sounds natural. The listener always needs to know who is talking, especially when the book doesn’t include the dialogue tags.
The author may not leave obvious clues that could help direct your vocal characterization. Seek to understand the subtext for each scene because the emotional content will illuminate the characters’ attitudes and personalities, as well as guide your acting choices
3. Play The Attitude
New narrators tend to rely on pitch changes to distinguish characters. However, voices will soon start sounding alike if you only make changes to pitch. In his workbook for “The 9 Critical Skills to Voiceover Excellence,” the phenomenal performer and teacher Pat Fraley offers numerous examples to help you develop or expand five additional elements of a character’s voice: pitch characteristic, tempo, rhythm, placement inside your mouth, and mouth work.
You also can add some physical movement, as that energy will be heard in your read. You can change posture, add hand gestures, or even do something subtle like raise a shoulder and turn your chin. I do these slight movements when voicing my most famous character Bitty Hollandale, who appears in the Dixie Divas series. Just be careful that your movements don’t make noises that get picked up by your microphone.
The most important way to distinguish characters, though, is by playing their attitude and personality.
I recently heard Dan Musselman, Director of Studio Production at Penguin Random House, say: “A little bit of characterization goes a long way. If the character is in your head, we will hear them. [Character differentiation] may be more between your ears than in your throat.”
Even so, the tendency among new to intermediate narrators is to concentrate on doing a voice rather than being the character. I think of whom I would cast in the role if I were making a movie or TV show. The person could be someone famous, a family member, or a friend. If no one comes to mind, I make up a backstory for the character that would shape his outlook and reactions, as well as influence his speech.
Many narrators particularly worry about voicing the opposite gender. In a recent webinar, Penguin Random House director Christina Rooney advised male narrators to listen to women around them and realize that pitch is not the biggest discriminator in voices. Instead, she said that women speak more fluidly and with softer consonants, rounded vowels, and more clarity on plosives.
In that same webinar, superstar narrator Scott Brick commented that when a woman does a man’s voice that’s too deep and distant from her natural speaking voice, he knows something false is going on. “We can’t share falsehood in an audiobook,” he said. “We have to share truth.”
During a workshop led by Grammy-winning audiobook director Paul Ruben, I learned to hold back and fight to get the words out when voicing a male character. Men aren’t called the “strong, silent type” for no reason! Men process things differently than women and don’t just spill their guts with the least provocation. For instance, Ruben said women express themselves when stressed, where men will swallow it.
4. Add Appropriate Accents
When a main character of the book speaks with an accent, a native speaker from that region is usually cast as narrator. Still, you’ll often find secondary and minor characters with various accents strolling through the pages of your text.
Generally, it’s sufficient to add a dash of flavor of the accent without being completely authentic. If you’re struggling to sound like a native, you may lose both the battle and the listener. On the other hand, hinting at the accent does not mean you should do it badly. It’s better not to do the accent than to do it poorly.
You’ll find the International Dialects of English Archive to be an invaluable resource in your study of accents and dialects. You can search the site to hear a native speaker voice a standard text and then talk extemporaneously. You also might hire a dialect coach to help you learn and improve a particular accent.
By listening to audiobooks, making notes before recording, playing the attitudes of characters, and adding accents, you’ll find yourself evolving into an audiobook actor. Congratulations, and best wishes for your continued success!
A voiceover talent since 1999, Karen now works almost exclusively in audiobooks. Her two previous articles about audiobook marketing (part 1, part 2) offer more great advice for narrators. Karen shares additional helpful articles and insight about audiobook performance and marketing on her blog, in InD’tale Magazine, and on Twitter.
Reblogged this on Starlight Book Check.
Really enjoyed this. Thanks! I remember how difficult it was for me to voice my first woman. I did it terribly. But then I realized it’s less about pitch and more about the things you mentioned in the article. Now I don’t feel that is something that I struggle with nearly as much anymore.
Author/Narrator of RazorWire: After Civilization Series
Hi, Troy! Thanks for the nice comment. I apologize for the extreme delay in my reply.
Like most jobs, one can’t become a skilled narrator without actually doing the work. In fact, most authors say that narration is a lot harder than they expected it to be — and they wrote the book they were reading! 🙂
My goal in each recording session is to be better than I was yesterday.
Thanks again for your interest, and best wishes for your success!
I listen to audiobooks all the time. In fact, if the narrator is stiff and boring and “just reading” it, I’ll find another audiobook because the narrator is SO important to the book and keeping the listener so engaged, it’ll be hard for them to push PAUSE, BOOKMARK because they are so into the book and just can’t stop it. I listen in the car, while walking and just hanging around the house! I would like to know how to challenge myself in a way I would want to hear it myself.
Does one need to go to classes or workshops first before an interview?
One of the best, and most knowledge-generous narrators on the planet. She shames me when I think of how crabby I am! 🙂
Lots of love!
Mr. Unapproachable 🙂
Ha ha! Well, Mr Unapproachable,
How does one, such as myself, begin such an endeavor?
As I explained earlier, my husband is a 100% disabled Veteran, who has endured many surgeries. 18 to be exact, and he refuses to do anything for his back…yet.
But I am his caregiver and would LOVE to have the opportunity to learn the art because of I absolutely LOVE a good narrator!! It makes the experience of listening so much more enjoyable.
Is there a way I could get in to that art form?
I read all what you had to say regarding the research and learning the ability of bringing out each character by studying and learning different voice inflections.
Looking forward to your reply!
Hi, Wayne! Thank you so much for leaving this sweet comment! I apologize that I didn’t see it before now.
Congrats on your 5-year anniversary as a narrator! You are hard-working, wonderfully talented, and richly deserving of every success!
Reblogged this on christopherjfgibson.
Thank you for the insights on voiceover narration I look forward to this new exciting career I mean people around the world can hear my voice!! I have listened to audiobooks, podcasts and video games best of all I can act!! A dream come true. Here I come world.
Hi, Felipe! Thank you for the delightful comment! Audiobook narration is a dream come true for me as well.
It takes courage, time, energy, perseverance, and steadfast devotion to our dream in order to answer the soul’s call and become the person we were meant to be. Your enthusiasm will serve you well on your journey!
Best wishes for your success!
Excellent article! I am a writer, not a narrator; however, this article will help me evaluate auditioning narrators under consideration for future books.
Hello, BonSue! I’m glad you found this article to be helpful.
You might be interested in a 2-article series that I wrote for InD’tale Magazine specifically to guide authors through the ACX process. Part 2 includes a 10-item checklist for evaluating narrators.
Part 1 — Author Seeks Narrator: Must LOVE Books
Part 2 — From Casting A Narrator to Happily Ever After
In addition to these articles, I’ve curated and categorized many more resources about audiobook production at this link: http://AudioForAuthors.com
I hope you find these links to be useful. Thanks for your comment, and best wishes for your success!
Thanks, Karen – I’ll be sure to check them out & share them with my fellow authors. Best regards…BonSue
You are wonderful Karen. Tell me how do you make your voice sound like a man and also, how long did it take you to get your first read, i.e. audio read. I’ve auditioned 5 times but nothing yet. I love reading and I thought I really had this skill down but as you can see, I don’t. This is my passion and I will not give up. I’d appreciate any pointers you could give me. Thank you so much Karen.
Karen Commins submitted the following response, which the comment system seems to have eaten for lunch – Scott
“Hi, Scottlnk! Thanks so much for the nice words of praise!
As I wrote in the article, playing the opposite gender doesn’t necessarily mean you contort your voice to be in their range. The narrator is more genuine and does a better service to the text by visualizing a real person for each character and using the other techniques discussed in Pat Fraley’s book.
Everyone has a different ratio of auditions to bookings. It’s not uncommon to do 20 or more auditions before you are cast. Choose to audition for books where you are a great fit, do the best audition you can, upload it, and forget it. I highly recommend you watch this 1:23 video from Bryan Cranston, whose stellar advice to actors also applies to audiobook narrators: https://youtu.be/v1WiCGq-PcY
I also recommend you read this article on my blog: How to Become An Audiobook Narrator.
You may need to practice skills, get coaching, and/or improve your sound to improve your auditions-to-bookings ratio. You shouldn’t expect to use an ACX project as on-the-job training. Rights holders expect to cast experienced talent to narrate their books.
Finally, if you have a profile on ACX, you can join the lively and informative ACX Narrators and Producers group on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/ACXNarratorsProducers/
I created and maintain an FAQ for this group which is always available from the group’s pinned post and this link: http://j.mp/ACXNP-FAQ. Going through all of the questions and answers on that page is like a mini-masterclass!
I hope these thoughts are helpful. Best wishes for your success!
Great stuff! I have also found it helpful, with the script in PDF or Word, highlighting each character’s dialog in a different color, which helps as a visual clue as I’m voicing, but also facilitates edits if a character ends up…. out of character for a moment!
Hi, Wes! I originally marked each character in a different color, too. Over time as I gained experience and confidence, I felt the colors became a bit distracting.
Just like we often stop listening to another person because we are thinking of our own response, I found that the colors in a conversation made me start anticipating the next character’s lines. It made me less in the moment of the line in front of me.
Now, I will underline the dialogue tag or write the character’s initial in the margin so I can instantly switch to a new character and give them my full attention.
We all do our prep in ways that make sense to us. Your mileage may vary!
Thanks for the comment, and best wishes for your success!
Karen, Hopefully, this is not closed. Just getting started narrating audiobooks with a few short self help and auto biography books under my belt. I’m wanting to progress to some fiction books now and was looking for some tips on recording the different male/female/accent voices. When you are doing the book solo, do you record the script as written and alternate your voice to the character as you go? Or, do you record the audio for each character separately and then edit it together as one in the final project? Thanks in advance for your response.
Hi, Barth! Thanks for the note. When reading fiction, you change your voice for each character as you progress through the book. Recording each character separately would cause a time-consuming nightmare editing nightmare.
Best wishes for your success!
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