Into the World of Audio Books: The Production

Onward I say! Here’s part 5 of my informational series on making an audio book. To recap: You’ve prepped – a lot, signed up for ACX, put up an audition, selected your narrator and have the first 15 minutes approved. Special note: Before you approve the first 15 minutes, review the contract and make sure you understand it. Once you hit approve, the contract is locked. If you want out of it after this, there are fees involved. So read the contract before you sign on the dotted line!

You’ve approved the first 15 minutes and your producer is off to the races, reading the chapters of your book and uploading the completed works to ACX for you to listen to. My producer, Keith McCarthy, and I had a slightly different system where he emailed me wav files that weren’t yet mastered. This was to help save him a little bit of time in the final mastering stage. He tried to explain the technical reasons for the request, but most of those went right over my head and I’m of the opinion that whatever helps make things easier for the producer also helps me in the long run. The producer you use may not make that request but if they do, it didn’t really have any detrimental effect on how I listened.

As I mentioned earlier, we set up a shared google doc file (well, Keith set it up) with the chapters of my book broken up into sections of about 4 chapters each. He would record each, chapter by chapter, and send me the wav file. I listened to the wav file, ignoring the things that he would normally remove during mastering – pops, odd noises, gaps in the narration, repeats and the like – and request corrections via the google doc comments.

I had already gone through the doc and noted how I wanted something read. I put pronunciations on the doc so he didn’t have to find another file to look them up. I went through the book and in places highlighted words or sections I wanted emphasized. I put notes in on tone and pacing. I read out loud so I would know approximately how it would all sound and if I found myself stumbling over words, I frequently changed them. An audio book is all about diction and flow. I had to take off my visual writer hat and put on an entirely different frame of reference for the audio. I learned a lot about being a better writer in the process.

While I listened, I read along to check for pronunciation, missing or wrong words, and to make sure the passage was read the way I wanted. Missing and wrong words happen. My litmus test on whether or not I asked for a correction was if the addition, subtraction, or different word changed the meaning of the sentence. If it didn’t, I left it and changed the writing (so the whisper-sync thing gets approved). If it did change meaning, I asked for a correction.

Once Keith put the corrections in, he mastered the file and uploaded it to ACX where I downloaded it and listened to it again, but usually only those places that were corrected as a double check before moving on. Depending on the request, there were times when the correction wasn’t quite right either. I had the good luck to work with a narrator who didn’t mind my pickiness and corrected the corrections! Those were fairly few and far between though.

When listening to the mastered file I discovered that there are differences in sound when listening through regular, cheap computer speakers vs online vs through headphones. It’s important to listen with different devices because your audio book listeners will do the same thing. If there are huge differences in tone/volume or any sort of irregularity that’s noticeable, your producer can fix those so don’t hesitate to speak up. I was fortunate again in that my producer was able to make those very nuanced adjustments.

There were also sections of the writing that required special effects to be applied. I wasn’t really sure I wanted any. A reader will apply their own inner effect (or not) to the written word. I wrote the book with that in mind. But listening required a different approach. I didn’t want effects that were too extreme, so it was a challenge to find the right ones that were just enough to be subtle and not annoying. This was again the difference between reading and listening.

For instance: in my book, Chosen, there is quite a lot of telepathic communication. Visually, on the page, it’s fairly easy to tell when that’s happening. Often I said so in the writing, ‘…he said to him’ or even ‘speaking telepathically.’ Some writers use italic for that, but I decided not to because there’s so much of it. Visually, those methods work – using italic, different paragraphs to indicate someone else speaking (with the standard “dialogue here,” punctuation, or directly saying these people are speaking telepathically. But with an audio book, there is no visual, so I needed to come up with a solution to that issue. Keith sent me several examples of what telepathy could sound like and we settled on a fairly subtle, very slight echo that’s just different enough that the listener will immediately understand what’s happening.

At times it was extremely difficult for me to convey what was not quite right about the reading. The tension was missing, the pace was too slow or too fast, a character was yelling when he shouldn’t be. Those were the easy things to note. The way we hear is very different from the way we read. Making those distinctions in tone is sometimes a big challenge. I learned that I had to let go of what I was hearing in my head as I read, vs the audio file I was listening to and allow a slightly different interpretation. Throughout the process, I learned quite a lot about collaborating effectively with another creative that was hugely satisfying and a lot of fun.

It was quite a lot of work too, which is good to know ahead of that happening. Primarily, that was a scheduling issue for me, which thankfully, I was able to push a few projects back to accommodate the project. Again, not everyone is going to have the level of involvement or the amount of work that I did. That was my choice to have that level of collaboration, which ultimately made me very happy with the end result.

Next: Fine tuning!


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Into the World of Audio Books: The First 15 Minutes

Here’s the next part of my informational series on making an audio book. To recap: You’ve done your prep, signed up for ACX, put up an audition and finally selected a narrator.

Now you get to it.

Once you pick your producer aka your narrator, you’ll upload your book doc to ACX for the producer. This is the doc that has your director notes. Keith McCarthy and I used email and google docs to communicate throughout the process. Again, ACX wants you to communicate via their website and interface but it sucks and needs improvement (IMO). You can’t send audio files through ACX other than to upload them as part of the work and that limits how your narrator can create, get feedback, and corrections. Working on the project via google docs, which Keith set up, made it all very easy to put notes up on places that needed improvement or changes.

One of the first things we did was set up all the voices for each of the characters in Chosen. This particular story has numerous characters. It was a lot of people to keep track of. Because of that, my producer had to have a level of organization that was above average. Keith certainly has that. He made a recording of each character voice that I then approved, or asked for changes. Once they were all set, he used those recordings as reference to go back to repeatedly throughout the recording process. This is where emailing was an absolute necessity. Keith sent me the voice files via email and there was quite a bit of back and forth that wasn’t possible through the ACX mail client. They need to fix that. I even sent over an audio file of me pronouncing the names, which was way easier than me trying to figure out how to phonetically write the pronunciation out. I still did that, but it was helpful to have the audio recording.

There were a few bumps. When picking character voices I didn’t give much consideration to their interaction. I was thinking visual rather than auditory. Reading vs listening. I describe several characters in the book as having a deep voice, which is all well and good until you end up with all three of those characters talking to each other in a scene. Reading that scene doesn’t pose any difficulty for the reader in making the distinction between the three, but when you’re listening – that’s a different ball o wax. You end up with three characters that can potentially all sound alike. I thought I knew every word forward and backward in my book. I wrote it after all, but it turned out that I missed a few things when giving characters their voice.

It wasn’t until later that this difficulty was discovered, well into the recording process, so it’s important in this step of choosing how your character is going to sound that you keep in mind all the different interactions that any one character has with others. There are accents that can be employed to help with the differences. One can be an aged voices (if that’s appropriate) or a whispering, thin voice. Or you can use the text to help differentiate between one character and another just as you would without an audio book. From this day forward, I’m writing all future books with the audio book in mind.

He said, she said can get very tiresome in an audio book. To have an unabridged audio book your narrator has to read what’s on the page (this is also a requirement for Amazon’s whisper-sync system). But your characters identify themselves by doing things – Kevin walked across the room before he spoke…dialogue. Shelly sipped her tea…dialogue. Having those identifiers in the text already is good writing. If it isn’t in the text prior your decision to make an audio book, there’s nothing that says you can’t add them. (You’ll have to update your book on Amazon if you make changes to the book for the audio in order to have whisper-sync enabled. The two have to match very closely.)

Back to the first 15 minutes which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the first recording of your work. You get it and approve it, or ask for changes and then approve those. This is where you can decide if your narrator is or isn’t going to work out. Once you approve the first 15, the contract is locked.

This is where you’ll establish how the work is going to move forward. You’ve already talked to your narrator about how you’d like it done and how they work. This is where you’ll get into the nuts and bolts of it, the organizational method you use. If it’s you waiting until everything is read and uploaded to ACX, you’ll have a month or so to do other things while you wait. If it’s taking each chapter at a time and asking for corrections as you go, then you’ll be scheduling your time differently. For me, I chose the latter option, taking each chapter as they arrived, listening to it, following along with the words on the page, and asking for corrections as we went. My narrator, Keith McCarthy, made that suggestion and it was an approach that worked extremely well. I can’t imagine, knowing how much work it is, leaving it all to do at once. Plus, once the book is fully uploaded and the producer clicks the ‘I’m done’ button on ACX, the author only has 10 days to approve the work or ask for corrections. I don’t think that’s enough time. Some may, but for me it wouldn’t have worked very well trying to cram the whole book in, in that amount of time. I’m very happy it was a play as you go system.

Play as you go, or correct as you go, is a system I recommend, particularly if you are new to ‘directing’ an audio book production. It will depend on how your narrator does the work, which makes finding that out all the more important, but it was far easier to catch problems as they came up. In the last ‘listen through’ there will probably be other issues to deal with, so taking care of as many things you want corrected along the way also saves time and effort. The most important rule is keeping the lines of communication open.

To summarize: setting up your character voices takes some careful consideration. Don’t skip this step. Be willing to add (and in some cases subtract) words to help the narrator make those different voices easily distinguishable for the listener. Set up how you’re going to manage the work with your producer during the first 15 minute trial period and then decide to move forward or go back to auditions. Also keep in mind that every change you ask for is more work for the narrator. This is why prep is so important. Making sure your text is set and just as importantly, that your director’s notes are clear, will save everyone time and more effort in the long run.

Next: The production!

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Into the World of Audio Books: Selecting Your Narrator

Here’s part 3 of my journey into creating an audio book from my first novel, Chosen. To recap: There’s a lot of preparation involved. Don’t skip it!

You’ve done all your prep, you’ve got your account set up, you’ve uploaded your audition script, you’re ready for masses of narrators to send in their auditions! Only … you may only get 2 (or perhaps even just one!). This is where you curb your impatience and give your book some time to generate a few auditions.

What to look for in a narrator is a highly individualistic process. Much depends on how you work and how well you play with others. There’s a level of control over your work that you aren’t going to have once you’ve picked your narrator, so it’s important that you have an initial level of trust. You also need to be able to communicate very clearly what you want. On ACX, narrators or as they’re called ‘producers’, have their own pages and it’s a good idea to take a look at their experience level. Google is your friend here. Before you make your choice, do a little stalking. No, it’s not creepy at all, but a way for the author to find a good match.

If you get enough auditions, you then have to make a choice. Sometimes, this is quite difficult, particularly if you’re faced with more than one producers who have given you excellent auditions. This is where your research comes in to help make the choice. And don’t hesitate to ask questions about how each producer works. How receptive are they to input? ACX wants you to communicate only through their web interface, but it isn’t very conducive to good work flow. I don’t know how other producers are, but if mine hadn’t been willing to communicate through email we’d still be back making the audio book.

How much effort and input you as the author want to put into the creation of your audio book is also highly individual. Some authors want to hand the project over and not worry too much about the nuances. Some want more control. Before you pick a narrator, you need to know what kind of director you’ll be. I thought I’d be in the former column, but it turned out that my inner control freak came right out when it came down to letting go of how the audio book was made. Fortunately, my producer was more than willing to accept my input. It’s helpful to everyone if you have in mind ahead of time how much involvement you’d like. You need to know how much work is involved with the latter variety, where you’re more involved in how the book is read.

Each narrator will probably have an individual process on how the work is created. Will you get it all after they’ve read the entire work and then you go through and give corrections, or suggestions? Or do you check each chapter as it comes out, making those suggestions as you go. One is a big chuck of time devoted to listening to the work, the other is also a big chuck of time, but spread out over many days and weeks. For me, it was more work than I anticipated, but that wasn’t a bad thing. Just a scheduling thing. Feel free to talk to each of your auditioning producers to get a feel for how they work, how you anticipate working with them, and how you expect to communicate during the process.

In making your selection of producer, do make sure you let the others who’ve taken the time to audition for you that you are going with someone else. It’s just professional courtesy to do so. My notes to each producer went something like; Thanks so much for your audition. You were really fantastic! It was a difficult decision, but at this time I’ve decided to use a different producer. Thanks again for your time and effort. I will keep you in mind for future projects. ACX keeps track of your auditions for you, and your correspondence with each.

The choice between the two narrators came down to tone and inflection. My ‘chosen’ narrator understood through my director’s notes what I wanted with each section in the audition. He was able to change voices between characters – even characters who sound very much alike, so it was crucial to be able to tell everyone apart. There was also a range of emotionality that the other audition was missing, an intensity of voice and a vocal range that meant I’d found my narrator in Keith McCarthy.

Here’s his ACX page – go ahead, check him out!

Next: The First Fifteen minutes…


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