Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Narrating My Own Audio Book

The Rolling Stones Discover America, my eyewitness account of a month-long Stones tour in 1969, became an Amazon Kindle Single e-book early this year (some of you may recall that I reported on this earlier this year). Being published and marketed through Amazon has delighted my ego, and the monthly royalty checks (nothing huge, but nice) have delighted my wallet.

Now more good news: the success of The Rolling Stones Discover America as an e-book has led to Hachette publishing it as an audio book, out in December. In the past decade audio book sales have soared in parallel with e-book sales, so I am eagerly looking forward to this chunk of my writing getting a second big boost forty-plus years after first publication.

When Hachette Audio's editor Anthony Goff and I shook hands on the deal in June, I asked if I could narrate the book. Sure, said Goff, listeners like audio books read by their authors, but, he added, please agree that you'll bow out gracefully if the recording director feels that you're an amateur trying to do a pro's job. Fine, I replied; I had no wish to sit in the vocal booth watching the techies at their computers roll their eyes as I stumbled from one mistake to another.

The only way to avoid that, I knew, was to prepare, prepare, prepare. I've often recorded my singing going back to the 70s, but reading aloud seventy-odd pages of prose that varied from background exposition to detailed description to multi-voiced dialogue posed a brand new challenge. How could I keep my vocal lively, not boring? How could I imitate Mick Jagger's British accent or capture Keith Richard's razor-sharp cynicism? The text included song lyrics — should I try singing them?

I could answer these and other questions only by talking to pros, so I promptly called three actor pals with long experience on stage and in films, and in recording audio books.

Kraig Swartz, a fine comic actor, heard me first and had two instant suggestions. One: "Slow down, waaaaayyy down! You've got to give listeners the time to let your words create images in their minds." Two: "You sound like a radio announcer! Sure, you're addressing many people, but talk to them one-to-one. Make it a conversation, let the listener into the process."

Luis Carlos de la Lombana, who narrated Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography for the Spanish market, advised me not to read too carefully. "If you read trying to avoid mistakes, you'll sound stiff, timid. Stopping and re-doing a goof is no big deal with digital recording, so go with the emotions of the words. Your book is about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll — you can't read that like a geology text book!" Above all, Luis said, "Own the text! You were there in 1969, backstage, in the hotels, the planes — you're the author, the authority!"

Michael Page, who narrates so many audio books that he's built a professional vocal studio in his Michigan home, also warned me to slow down. "After a period, leave a full moment of silence," he counseled. Then he added what at first seemed a small technical point, but what I soon learned was an invaluable trick of the trade: "Don't end all your sentences with a downward finality." For instance, he said, if I read:

We gave her a lecture on getting along with her parents until she could make it on her own. Then we put ten dollars in her reluctant hand and called her a cab to take her to El Monte. I hope she got there.

— and lowered my vocal tone on "her own," "El Monte," and "got there," the prose would thud along from stop to stop to stop. If, however, I lifted my vocal tone at the first two periods, I'd animate the prose with the ongoing action; then, if I let my vocal tone drop on "got there," listeners would sense my doubt that the scared little runaway ever made it home.

With such ideas percolating in my mind, I began reading and re-reading the text aloud. Hard work! A page I could skim over reading silently became a series of hurdles that, try as I might, I kept blundering into. Fortunately, this was my own text, so I could help myself by making small word changes. I turned many passive voice constructions, "Glyn must be picked up at Burbank by Mary the Driver," into the active voice, "Mary the Driver must pick up Glyn at Burbank." I broke long sentences into two, sometimes three short sentences. This sentence kept throwing me:

The campus looks more like an airport or an electronics factory than a college.

—until I cut out that tricky "an electronics factory." Then "The campus looked more like an airport than a college" became a snap.

Still blundering more than I thought would pass muster, I typed "tongue-twisters" into Google and found pages of nutty sentences that exercised all the muscles and organs of speech. Daily through the summer I ran through the exercises — here are three of my favorites:

Theophilus the thistle sifter, while sifting a sifter full of thistles, thrust three thousand thistles through the thickness of his thumb.

The sixth sheik's sixth sheep's sick.

Grass grew green on the graves in Grace Gray's grandfather's graveyard.

When I went back to the text, I found that the steeplechase of high hurdles had become a curving but easily maneuvered walk in the park, and that I'd also gained new insight into the mystery of speech. The tongue twisters broke down words into their constituent sounds, each letter a stage direction to my lips, tongue, teeth, jaw, palate, and vocal cords, telling them to pucker, waggle, hiss and hum this way and that to make the required sound. What powered all this precise activity in my mouth and throat? The big muscles of my diaphragm, back, and chest that pumped my breath up from my tummy and out into the world.

As letters made words, words made phrases, and phrases made sentences. Each required its own tone and color. By a miracle as old as human history, all my huffing and puffing painted clear and believable pictures of a 60s rock 'n' roll band on tour some forty years ago: the beige-bland hotel rooms came to life again, and so did the long fluorescent airport corridors, the smoky, messy dressing rooms, the pounding drums and guitars, the screaming crowds of long-haired hippies. Amazing!

Early in the fall Hachette booked two five-hour sessions at a little recording studio on Broadway in the East 20s. Cheryl Smith, a most capable director, set me up in the vocal booth with a huge microphone, earphones, and an iPad on which I could scroll through the text. Beyond a wide soundproof window, Jared the techie sat watching a computer screen that represented my voice as an ever-advancing squiggly blue line.

All my preparation, I was delighted to learn, paid off. I didn't need to imitate Jagger's or any character's voice, not did I need to sing any lyrics; small changes in vocal tone sufficed to distinguish narrative from dialogue from lyric. I didn't stumble often, and when I did, Jared quickly rolled the cursor back a few sentences, then re-started the playback; when we got to the stumble, he clicked "Record" to capture a second take. From time to time Cheryl asked me for a new reading to accent a key word or suggested that I sip some water to get a frog out of my throat. After three hours I thought I was still cruising, but Cheryl could hear fatigue in my voice, and since we'd gotten well past the halfway mark, she called a halt for the day.

At home that night I could feel that my entire vocal apparatus was flat-out exhausted: no sore throat, but I didn't want to speak above a whisper. I went to bed afraid I'd have to cancel the next day's session, yet come the morning, after a fortifying cup of tea and honey, I strapped on the headphones again, and in a couple of hours we reached "The End." Cheryl had hours of editing ahead of her, which might include calling me back for minor fixes, but I walked home happy: my first audio book was in the can.

How will this reading influence my future writing? It's still too soon to tell, but I'm sure, at least I hope, that the glimpse I got into language's mysterious melding of sound, symbol, and substance will enrich my work for years and years to come.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday November 7th 2013, 6:52 AM
Comment by: Jim K. (Sandia Park, NM)
Michael, your account of initial production questions and later delivery preparation was fascinating. I've listened to a couple hundred audio books and had never thought of some of the points your article described. I look forward to 'reading' your audio delivery. Jim
Thursday November 7th 2013, 6:57 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Fascinating and useful, Michael. Thank you!
Thursday November 7th 2013, 7:30 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Michael, five stars; ditto Graeme Roberts.
Thursday November 7th 2013, 9:39 AM
Comment by: Robert E M.
I wish I had the guts to send this to my preacher friends who read their messages. I bet it would improve them and their listeners!
Thursday November 7th 2013, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Craig J. (Mundelein, IL)
Thanks. I appreciated the "inside baseball" stuff, and tried to relate your article to my practice of reading what I write for edits. I have been bothered for some time by the thought that simplifying/re-writing to smooth over verbal glitches might be counter-productive to producing a distinctive "voice" and to taking advantage of the fact that most of us don't read out loud. In other words, do you think the practice of "editing aloud" costs something? Also, you as the author, or the "authority", as your friend put it, could legitimately make edits on the fly, but do professional readers generally take the same license when reading someone else's work, particularly when it is sold as "Complete and Unabridged"? I would imagine so, but I can also picture a little more compunction reading something written by another. Again, thanks, your article is very much appreciated.
Thursday November 7th 2013, 1:35 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, all, for the positive comments!

Craig: no, narrators reading a book not their own must read the text word-for-word as written--the original writers and publishers insist on that.

Reading aloud and analyzing what causes a stumble will, I think, not hurt a writer's voice. Often this study will lead to good revisions, but sometimes an unusual and distinctive phrasing will be worth practicing to get right as written.

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