To cap off our June is Audiobook Month coverage, we at Readerly asked Karen White, one of our favorite narrators, to share with us a little more about the process of narrating an audiobook.
On May 30th, Readerly published an article to kick off Audiobook Month with what I thought were wonderfully practical tips on getting started as an audiobook listener.
The first three suggestions: using audiobooks to re-read books and choosing books which are engaging and fast paced but not overly complex. These make a lot of sense to me. In our current age, we take in information primarily through our eyes and in short bursts. Audiobooks demand that we take in information only through our ears, concentrating for long periods of time. In Shakespeare’s day, 400+ years ago, it was the opposite. People talked of going to “hear” a play. A written sentence at that time averaged over twenty words in length. When I was studying all this as a young teaching artist twenty years ago, the average sentence’s word length was seven. Today, I imagine it’s even shorter.
All this is to say that our brains are certainly capable of the kind of concentration that audiobooks require, but many of us may never have developed these neural pathways. But they are there for the using, and many devoted audiobook fans report that building up this particular muscle is relatively painless and worth the effort as they are rewarded with an intimate performance that is like no other.
And that brings me to the final suggestion: listen to the best narrators. As a narrator myself, I hope I can give you a backstage peek as to what skills and talent are involved in creating an excellent audiobook performance, and why it makes a difference.
I have been privileged to serve on a few panels on the topic in the past few years. In April, a group of narrators recorded a chat for the AudioGals blog moderated by Lea Hensley and in May a group of nine narrators, led by the indomitable Johnny Heller, taught a workshop to a group of more than eighty narrators in New York. I learned a few things from my colleagues, but also realized that there are values we all share in our work.
Audiobook narration is a subset of the acting profession. While some non-actor narrators may get away with innate storytelling instincts, having a solid base of actor training is considered the professional standard. Learning to break down a script into playable actions, studying a wide variety of genres, and training one’s body and voice so that they are as expressive as possible are all necessary components. And while “good acting is good acting” whether you’re on stage, screen, or behind a mic, audiobook narration requires a unique set of skills in addition to basic acting training. New narrators mistakenly believe that since they can read and act, they can do audiobooks. Most are disabused of this fallacy on the first day of recording. Not only is recording an audiobook a marathon versus the sprint of working in commercial or animation voice over but, as many listeners know, it requires one to “play all the parts”. Theatre actors have experience with creating a character that is believably going through some sort of psychological journey in a fictional reality, night after night. Audiobook narrators have to keep the through-lines of every major character going, as well as keep every single character consistent and distinct from the others. This does require some practice. And while in the theatre and sometimes in film and TV there’s a rehearsal process to develop the character and overall story, there’s no rehearsal in audiobooks.
What narrators have instead is preparation, another essential element of audiobook excellence. While we all may have different techniques for marking our scripts or remembering various character voices, everyone reads the book, carefully, at least once, before beginning to record (unless time pressures or secrecy makes this absolutely impossible). This preparation not only allows us to make character choices that are built on the author’s words, but it allows us to get to know the author’s writing style. As a director of new narrators, I’ve found that the hardest thing to learn is not the recording of dialogue, tricky in that you have to play both sides of a conversation, but the recording of narrative, where we have to find a way to make the author’s voice our own. This requires a somewhat academic understanding of literary styles and genres, listening to audiobooks to get an appreciation of what works, and something perhaps a bit more difficult to pin down.
We seek to honor the author’s words. We achieve this by being “present” while recording every single word. Some narrators practice meditation or yoga to exercise this particular muscle; some find it through the process. Thorough preparation plus a well-developed storytelling instinct allow the top pros to get lost in the words, immerse completely in the story and achieve that highly sought after sense of creative flow. This not only makes recording a book more efficient, but more fun. Most importantly, being present when recording creates a product that is not only excellent but unique. It allows an intimate collaboration between at least three people who may never be in the same room together: author, narrator and listener (of course others are involved along the way including publishers, casting associates, directors, engineers, editors, proofers, and more). Because you, as listener, have an important role to play as well. Your imagination is engaged as you take in the author’s words, spoken by a single voice. They move through your ears directly into your mind where your imagination takes the words, the performance, your memories and experiences and builds something new: a whole new world complete with sound, color, smell, texture, even taste.
Karen White has been narrating audio books since 1999, with more than 200 to her credit, and is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA. Honored to be included in Audiofile’s Best Voices and Speaking of Audio’s Best Romance Audio 2012, 2013 and 2014, she’s also a two-time Audie Finalist and has earned multiple Audiofile Earphones Awards and Library Journal starred reviews. She currently lives with her family in Wilmington, NC.
Learn more about Karen and explore her audiography at her website, Home Cooked Books.