Competence Strikes Again!

One year ago I wrote the following content. Now that I have a bona-fide website and blog, I am revising and sharing it here.

I am feeling a little competent about something and want to share:

For each character I “voice” (meaning I change my voice slightly in some way to distinguish between characters) I lay down a track with their name on it in a separate audio file. My audio mentor, Phil Mayes taught me to do this so that when the character shows up later in the book, I can go listen to what they’ve said at the beginning and mimic/recalibrate myself. (SIDE NOTE: I also make actual notes in a spreadsheet about how to stand, hold my mouth and what their voice FEELS like.)

I was just laying down a voice track for a new male character and I noticed, because they are all in the same file next to each other, that the vocal signatures –what the waveforms look like– are VERY different from each other.

I can actually SEE in my file that the characters are different. The pacing of their words is different. The roundness of speech is different. And each character has an internal consistency that is visual.

I’m not saying that sometimes I won’t slip and not quite do a voice 100%…it can be hard to remember that Kyle says sure with two syllables, “Shoo-wer” instead of “Sure” like Viola, but I feel good about training myself to be better and better, and notice these things over time!

If anyone I know does audiobook narration or audio-editing work and has more tips like this for me, everything is always welcome!

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Practicing (ONLY) Six Techniques

Practicing (ONLY) Six Techniques
Warmups in the Booth

Recording for The Body in The Bathtub is well underway. With each book I record, I sincerely try to get better at the process. Farther away from mediocre. More on that later.

As I’ve written, before I started this latest book, I asked for some coaching from Kathy Garver. From her feedback, I picked six (of a million possible) tools and techniques to practice:

Tip #1 – GESTURES assigned to each character (in addition to voice placement, physicality, etc.) The idea here is that the gesture will remind me to QUICKLY access the character, as I switch back and forth during dialog.

Tip #2 – WARMUPS (for my jaw especially) to loosen up my physical performance.

Tip #3 – MOUTH OPEN & NOSE BREATHS are the next tips I am working on. With Kathy watching me, she could point out that I automatically close my mouth when I stop talking, instead of leaving it hanging open. That’s the sort of critically useful feedback a narrator needs and can’t really get working alone. Because I can’t see myself, I wasn’t aware that opening and closing my lips makes a teenie bit of noise. Noise I might be tempted to edit out. To avoid editing, I’m practicing leaving my mouth open when I’m recording, ready for the next line.

NOTE FOR MY FRIENDS: If you see me doing this at a party, please quote Mary Poppins at me under your breath: “Michael, we are not a codfish.”

Leaving my mouth gaping helps with breathing, though not strictly the nose breathing that Kathy recommended I try. For some reason, it is hard for me to breathe in through my nose when I am doing audiobook work. I have that amateur bad habit of sucking air deep into my lungs, which makes NOISE and has to be edited out (by me). That adds time and work. To reduce this, Kathy encouraged me to take little nose-breaths.

This is a bit of an issue, for several reasons. First, I broke my nose learning to ride a bike when I was a kid. I haven’t had it fixed, so my nasal passages are off-kilter. One works much better than the other, but even nose breaths make a little noise when I breathe, because of the blockage.

Second, I don’t get nearly as much air via my nose (I assume because of the deviated septum), and third, I have to really THINK about breathing that way. I’m training my body to do the opposite of what I previously trained it to do when learning to SCUBA dive. So in one lifetime, I have tried training myself to ONLY mouth-breathe, ONLY nose-breathe, and to circular-breathe (which I used to be able to do when I whistled).

I’m practicing the nose-breathing, but I do think it is adding time to my recording. Which is OK, I’m still learning, and I need to allow myself time (but I hope it isn’t TOO much time. I’ve got self-imposed deadlines).

Also, using my nose to breathe is hard because I usually use this amazing technique for breath support that I learned during a singing class. This video by Madeline Harvey helped me FINALLY understand that damn turkey-basting metaphor. HINT: It is about sucking in, not squeezing out.

If you truly use all of your breath and create a vacuum with your diaphragm, you can suck air in fully, quickly, and silently. This gives me HUGE air reserves, for very very very very very very very very long sentences, and reduces the total number of breaths I need.

Ultimately, as all of this technique settles in, I’ll just breathe however it is most comfortable. Until then, my audiobook recording is a lot about airflow.

 

Tip #4 – ATTITUDE is a quick way to get to characterization in a scene. Just asking “What is my character’s attitude?” is a helpful way to understand them and figure out what is happening…and therefore with their voice and dialog. I’ve learned this half-dozen times at least. Sadly for me, I’m an amateur and I honestly just forget to ask myself this question sometimes.

For at least 70% of the narration, I think it isn’t a big deal. I am reading words, with nice emphasis, and finding all the set-ups and punch lines. If my comedic timing is good, and every word is correct, and the dialog makes sense…that’s close enough, right?

Sure, if I want to STAY an amateur. But let’s face it, I want to be in the Audiobook Narration HALL OF FAME!!! (BTW, That doesn’t exist. Well, I don’t THINK it exists). Seriously, I want to be just as conscientious about creating great narration as I will someday be about writing great stories. As Monte Schultz said in his opening remarks to the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference this week, “Why would someone choose to be mediocre?”

Uh. To pay the rent? Duh, Monte.

So yeah, I have permission from myself to be mediocre as long as I need to in order to pay my mortgage. I can be mediocre while I’m getting better because nobody can be immediately awesome the first time they try.

Though, only because I’m terribly honest, I will point out I was called “outstanding” in my very first audiobook. It’s good to remember there’s always someone out there whose itch you perfectly scratch, and Thank All The Gods For That!

 

NEXT POST:

Tip #5 – Character Sheets

Tip #6 – Through Line – Mystery!

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FILE NOT FOUND (Oh, FFS!)

FILE NOT FOUND (Oh, FFS!)

My last post was too long ago, and in it, I bemoaned broken hardware. But my Ortho Surgeon friend fixed my microphone, and I was back at recording two weeks ago, not knowing more troubles were on the horizon.

While I was away at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference I allowed my IT Dept. (husband) to make a full backup of my machine, install the newest iOS, and schedule a trip to the Mac store. All this despite my fear that the learning curve of software updates would decrease my productivity or that I might be without a computer for work that needed to get done.

Regularly scheduled maintenance is no one’s favorite phrase, but one of my ports died (the one I use for my USB mic), and the screen was being jittery in a way that made me glad I don’t have migraines or epilepsy. Then the machine crashed in the middle of a recording session.

I had hoped that the update might fix several annoying issues. It didn’t. And neither did a trip to the Mac Store. Well, I have other USB ports.

So last night I got ready to record, and plugged in my mic, and went to pull up the last chapter I had been recording when the Mac crashed suddenly in the middle…

Gone. All Gone. The recording work I did during my last session was kaput. Not on the drive, not on the backups.

Setbacks like this are the hallmark of amateur productions, and I’m disheartened that even after decades of careful checking and re-checking and personal procedures and checklists to prevent exactly this…I am still fallible. Fallibility SUCKS.

So, let’s move on from the fact that I am going to need to clear my schedule and double-down on recording time this week to make my deadlines, and instead focus on those tips I got from Kathy Garver.

Tip # 1 – gestures! 

In my session after the microphone got fixed, but before the Mac crashed for no apparent reason, I was LOVING the gestures! They were really helping me to ZOOM through dialog keeping the voices clear. Now let’s hope that having chosen specific hand movements for each character, notated them in my narrator doc, and practiced them for several chapters…re-creating them will be easy as eating pie. (Which I won’t do because I’d like to lose a few pounds before gaining them back on the cruise ship this summer).

Tip # 2 – warmups! 

This is one I had already been doing, but in my haste, Kathy caught me starting to record prior to physical warmups. I do do this…almost all the time…but she reminded me that just a few minutes of working out the kinks, the clanks, and the clicks helps energise a performer and help them be ready to bring the BODY to bear on the voice work.

For me personally, this is especially true of my chin and jaw. I hold a lot of tension in my jaw, talker that I am. Making a list of movements and never starting work without completing them is the sign of a “professional.” There are no shortcuts when it comes to physicality.

Join me for Tip # 3 next week, plus more stuff I learned at the conference this week.

 

 

 

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All dressed down in my recording duds…

And nowhere to go tonight, because:

1. My hardware is broken.


This screw that holds the thingie that holds my shock mount that holds my mic is busticated. Unclear how that happened.

I *JUST* adjusted it, for the first time in…over a year…on Sunday. Hmmmm.

When I got into the studio today the mic was flopped down. I’m super bummed because I just finished spending my work hours over the last day updating my narrator notes.

I needed to incorporate all the AWESOME 1:1 coaching I got from Kathy Garver this past weekend.

Kathy was an instructor of mine at Voice One in SF, specifically for audiobooks. By inviting her for a mini SB overnight, I was able to tempt her to visit. She took some extra time on a trip to L.A. to spend a couple of hours providing me with coaching.

I work alone and I’m a relative newbie, so it can be hard to evaluate my work and identify how to continuously improve. I asked Kathy to listen to my audiobooks as she drove, and provide professional feedback. When she arrived, I plied her with traditional SB fare (Harry’s Plaza Cafe), the company of friends, and an evening of SB Improv.

2. I am also having a fight with my Kindle app. It keeps telling me that my narration document can’t be uploaded, or converted, or some such nonsense. It will resolve eventually, but the mysterious process by which my Word Doc becomes a Kindle-readable file is clearly snafu-d and there’s nothing I can do but try again and wait.

Based on Kathy’s feedback, I’m trying out 6 new things to improve my audiobooks. Over the next few posts, I will share them, starting with GESTURES. The feedback from her was that sometimes, character’s voices become inconsistent, or fade out. During scenes, different characters will start out nicely different, but by the end of a scene, or when they come back in a later scene, the characters are not as easily distinguishable.

To combat this, I’m designating a gesture of some kind to go along with each character. I “know” that to inhabit the characters I have to change my posture, stance, head position. Usually, a lot of movements make up a character and character voice. Which means that if I’ve made it too complex, it is easy to forget something during the rapid pace of recording, and when the body slides…the voice slides…and if I am not careful, every character sounds just like me.

Bad Form. So to try simplifying and making the voice transitions sharper, I have gone through and picked unique gestures – all hand related – to do as I voice characters. Woo-Hoo! Learning and improving! I’ve practiced the gestures and voices and added hints to myself in my Narration Notes…

 

…the Narration Notes that I can’t open in my Kindle App and that even if I could, I can’t read and record because I have no way to keep my microphone pointing toward my mouth, not my toes.

So ends a disappointing work night for me. Tomorrow is another day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Audiobook Producer Anniversary

My Audiobook Producer Anniversary

It has been one year since I uploaded my first audiobook files:

I admit, I am tearing up with joy. You are all invited to celebrate with me as my dreams come true in real-time: I uploaded audiobook files I’m working on and received this feedback from my “rights holder”:

“OMG, that sounds GREAT! I love how you do NAME, especially during the drunk scene. So perfect. And you’ve really got NAME’s voice down. AWESOME!”

<sniffsniff>

 

One year later, I have three audiobooks on the market. Truthfully, I thought I would be farther along. I thought I could just crank out projects one after the other. Three doesn’t seem like a lot.

Then I recall how much time I spent working on the books being GOOD. Attending classes in acting, narration, and improv. Interviewing experienced narrators. Learning software for editing the audio. Trying out all the different mastering effects to see which one made my vocals sound the BEST. Making those three books as good as I could, with each one getting better, done faster, and improving along the way.

Work didn’t stop on my writing projects. I took time from production to edit four novels. To attend critique groups. To help out friends, plan a home remodel, visit with loved ones, get sick, get better, and get re-motivated. In short, have a life.

Being hard on myself for not accomplishing as much as I want in one area of interest doesn’t move me along my path. It does not open me up to new ideas and techniques. It does not encourage me to play and grow.

What DOES is knowing that my editing makes for better novels, my audiobooks have made hundreds of listeners happy, and I have plenty of work to do. (So far) no one is posting bad reviews, warning people that my productions are awful, or seeking me out on the internet for derision. That’s a pretty big bullet to have dodged, given the internet these days.

So today, on the first anniversary of teary-eyed elation, I remind myself what I wrote to you all one year ago:

Never give up, people.
Get out there and become/live/do/be whatever you always Wanted To Be When You Grow Up.

Oh, and this is really important: Work with great people and let them help you. I’m looking at Mark, Shéa, and a special shout out to my audio mentor, Phil Mayes of http://philandmaude.com/.

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Recording (closet) Studio

Recording (closet) Studio
Carpet Installation

“Hot Ash” colored carpeting was installed in my closet and office on Monday morning. It is the thickest of the thick, the plushest of the plush. The store was having a deal on a free carpet pad upgrade, which will really be nice at my standing desk and when I stand to do my narration. That means under the plum pudding colored pile is the very best cushioning on offer in the carpeting world today.

So I put it on the wall. And the ceiling. As you do if you are an audiobook producer.

Color Blocking

I already had other, smaller, creme brulee colored carpet rectangles to work with. They were sitting by the side of the road with a “free” sign about five years ago. The stacks were brand new from some neighbor or other also treating themselves to the barefoot sensory decadence of wall-to-wall.

I scavenged a dozen or so scraps back then, knowing clean carpet squares are hard to come by. Also believing they would be useful in a myriad of ways as dog, “Get on your spot” spots, and hatchback floor protection.

In order to make my recording (closet) studio, I had to try to figure out how much material I had and how much cutting I would need to do. I taped out the floor, creating a pattern to indicate the sizes of the walls.

Blue Tape For President!

Then I laid out bits and pieces to determine easily matching sizes and shapes. (HINT: There were only two pieces in immediately useful sizes. This is the point at which I gave up on full coverage and kicked myself for not ordering a dozen extra square feet). The ceiling layout I was able to conveniently pattern off of the floor.

Convenient Ceiling Layout

Finally, after much of the fiddling had been done, my husband helped me find the long staples (Thanks, Sweetie!) and I went to town. The satisfying Ka-CHUNK-a! noise of my Dad’s staple gun started in one corner, and then I worked my way along, smoothing and stapling. First the little triangle bits went onto the ceiling, then the biggest chunks on the main wall, lastly filling in any holes.

Ceiling and Main Wall

I knew I didn’t have enough of any one color or material to do a single wall, or indeed even group things attractively, so I went for as hodge-podge as I could. You can see where I used actual audio foam to finish out smaller gaps. The foam was leftover from creating the other “wall” of the studio: a wooden folding room screen that can be moved out to give more space when I’m recording, or used to visually block off the closet completely when I’m working in the office.

Screen

The screen is pretty to look at from the front side and keeps any casual visitors or clients from touching the sensitive recording equipment.

I was worried that I wouldn’t like the hodge podge, but I absolutely love it. There’s just enough sizes and shapes of rectangles and triangles, lights and darks, thicks and thins, to make going into the space exciting and energizing. Exactly what I need when I’m heading inside to record.

Small World After All

It reminds me of the shapes and designs of It’s A Small World at Disneyland, which is fun. Best of all, the dog likes the new carpet.

Olieo Approval

 

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The Top 10 Things I Love About Viola Roberts

The Top 10 Things I Love About Viola Roberts

When you narrate multiple books–“play” a character over and over–you feel like you know them. It is different from just reading a novel and archiving it off your kindle. Some months (like say, April, May, June), I’m living with Viola Roberts during every waking moment: recording her voice, hearing her thoughts, embodying her attitude.

Best of all, when I am preparing, recording, and editing the Viola Roberts Cozy Mysteries, I find myself spending a lot of time laughing. What I love about Viola is how much humor there is in her everyday life. She is always ready to crack a joke, express some silly self-awareness, and lighten things up. Like Murder. (Except not really. Murder is serious. Seriously fascinating.)

As a character, she can be a little blind-sided by her loyalty and love for her family of choice. She can be equally dismissive and judgemental about the competence of law enforcement (for no particular reason). But overall she is the writer I know with the most entertaining procrastination plans.

The Stiff in The Study is Book 2 in the series, and what I liked best about performing it was what I learned about the heroine. With that in mind, here are the top 10 things I love about Viola Roberts:

 

10. Like me, Viola loves small-town life. There’s nothing like knowing that if you go out, you’re probably going to run into someone you know.

9. Appreciation for the human form: Viola acknowledges beauty everywhere. Luscious and curvy, spare and lithe, blonde, red, white, black, male, female. Viola hasn’t come across a trans person yet, but I believe she doesn’t care. If they’re rocking their look, she sees it and it rocks her world.

8. Yes. That’s right. Viola saw that. I love someone who’s paying attention.

7. Architecture turns her on. Viola is aware and appreciative of buildings and interior design.

6. Pastries. I love a woman unafraid to scarf baked goods at a stakeout. Or take them to an interrogation. Hell, I love any woman who loves muffins the way I do.

5. Viola is polite (most of the time). Even if she won’t eat your pot brownies, she appreciates that you offered her one.

4. BFE! Viola is your Best Friend Ever. She’s got your back, whether it is getting you out of jail or supporting you at your latest book signing.

3. Ooodles of self-esteem. Viola is okay on her own. Family and friends are great; romance is fun; but at the end of the day, she can–and wants to–take care of herself.

2. Someone finally agrees with me that a beverage that “smells vaguely of rotten mulch,” should not be imbibed.

1.  The girl really knows how to turn a fork into a weapon.

 

Catch this amazing character in book 2, coming soon to audiobook!

 

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Reading Aloud: Tips Prepared for The Braille Institute of Santa Barbara

As part of the Library Week Open House, I’ll be speaking at the Braille Institute of Santa Barbara about being an audiobook narrator. The interview and discussion are open to the public, and if you’re at loose ends Thursday afternoon, please drop by!

 

 

The institute asked me to write up three tips for reading aloud to kids and adults, and I figured why not share them with my blog peeps, too?

Three Tips for Reading Out Loud to Kids

1) Repetition: Kids (of all ages) love repetition. This is why we love to sing along with the chorus; it may be why it is such fun to hear a favorite quote from a movie and be able to blurt out the next line! We love it when we can anticipate language, and then get the reward of hearing what we wanted to hear. So when reading to kids, find the repetition and make it dramatic. If possible….

2) Participation: …Encourage kids to fill in the blanks! One of my favorite, very long, Shel Silverstein poems, “Peanut Butter Sandwich” basically has a repeated “chorus” of (you guessed it) PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH! There’s nothing more fun than saying it together, every time it comes along.

3) Attention: Reading with children is about more than an entertaining story or teaching them to read. It is about giving them your undivided attention. If you are merely reading to them because you “have to” and it is part of the “routine,” they know it. So anytime you pick up a book, be ready to give the book, and therefore your audience, your undivided attention. Take a very deep breath. Decide to do nothing else. Enjoy just that one, simple thing and do it really well – no multi-tasking! Don’t even THINK about what’s next on your list. All your energy should be on the words (maybe pictures) and your listener.

Three Tips for Reading Out Loud to Adults

1) Know your audience: Ask the person you’re reading for what they like. Do they want a performance with voices? Do they want the reader to emote? Are they trying to learn something? Do they just like the sound of your voice? This is a lovely way to talk to someone about what they need in that moment. Reading aloud to someone is a special gift of time and shared intimacy, but listeners and readers don’t always want the same thing all the time from reading. A quick check-in can ensure the interaction is pleasant for both the reader and listener.

2) Choose good material: Read something that interests both the reader and listener. You’ll enjoy reading it more if you like it, so practice being curious. If you have no interest in the material, then be fascinated with the language itself. Each word, sentence, punctuation, and context must be clear to your listener. They should be able to HEAR commas, semicolons, and parentheses.

3) Hydration: drink lots and lots of water at least 4 hours before reading for any length of time. Have warm water handy and drink it at chapter breaks. Well-hydrated vocal cords are happy vocal cords!

I can think of TONS more tips for making reading aloud more fun, but do you have any favorites? Please let me know in the comments!
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Black Tea with Lemon and Honey

For the first time, I tried drinking my morning black tea with honey and lemon. The honey was a diluted buckwheat honey water (we are almost out of our honey stash and I am using up the last little bit). The lemon was a Meyer lemon, with a peel almost the pale orange of a sunset.

I tried it because with the cough I have had for almost a month now, the most significant advice given by the nurse at my PCP’s office was “reduce dairy and increase fluids.” Gah. For someone who tries to drink 64oz of water a day, plus 3-5 cups of tea, I know that I can ignore the second piece of advice. But give up dairy?!?! Dairy is my life. I love milk in my tea. I love bowls of cereal, I love cheese with fruit for my afternoon snack. Reducing dairy is no easy feat, but it is also one of the most common suggestions I have read for managing mouth-noise and assuring good vocal health.

I gave it a try. I cut the lemon and squeezed it into the cup, poured in the honey water, and added hot tea. It wasn’t bad. It also wasn’t the comforting, sweet and milky substance that makes me relax instantly. That somehow conveys, tongue to brain, “everything will be alright.”

It was a different set of flavors – but not flavors that were wrong, bad, disgusting, or horrible…as I had always projected they would be. The assumption that tea with lemon was awful has always been based on assumptions I had about the individual pieces-parts of the beverage.

Tea is a little bitter. I have historically not enjoyed the flavor or mouth-feel of bitter things. Lemon is sour. Same reaction. Honey is overwhelming – TOO sweet, too heavy somehow, and I had never enjoyed it, in whole, or as a significant part of a food.

Based on my reaction to the three component parts of tea with lemon and honey, it is understandable that I never experimented. My husband has a food theory that he lives by: If you like all of the things that make up a dish, chances are, you’ll enjoy the food. I never tasted tea with lemon and honey because I didn’t like any single bit going into the beverage.

Luckily for my dairy-reduction-therapy, Tea with lemon and honey is like Rice Krispy Treats. I don’t like marshmallows, and I can take or leave Rice Krispies, but add the butter, and melt it all together and BAM! An instant way for me to put on 20lbs! Magically delicious (yes, I know that’s the wrong cereal, but seriously: MAGICAL).

Somehow, the sour and sweet of the lemon and honey balance out the bitter of the tea. Together, the three components become a new flavor, one that is soothing, without being milky.

I’m very happy to know that I have tasty options for drinking my tea, especially since as my audiobook and voiceover work increases, I will probably eat less and less dairy on a regular basis. There’s still the issue of caffeine, which also dries out the vocal cords, but my experiments with green and herbal teas may be helpful in navigating my vocal health as well.

Do you have a favorite tea recipe? Clearly, I’m in experimentation mode, so please share!

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