Making Survival First Part 7: Audiobook Training
Recording an audiobook was not part of the original book plan. Narrating it myself wasn't even on the bingo board.
But it happened.
As of this writing I have what my team tells me is not only a completed audiobook, but perhaps even a good one. Recording it has been one of the most challenging, rewarding, and dare I say, spiritual parts of an already challenging, rewarding, and spiritual book journey.
As before, I'll you everything.
Like I mentioned, I didn't originally plan on doing the audiobook. It seemed expensive, hard, and I had no idea where to even begin. Besides, every author I've ever heard whose recorded their own communicated the sheer misery of the experience. I didn’t want to put myself through that.
If I did an audiobook, I figured I would hire a professional narrator. I wouldn’t want to be one of the many great books plagued by terrible reviews due to poor narration.
I didn't think I had the skills. Sure, for as long as I can remember people have been telling me I have a "radio" voice. But still inside me was the child who grew up with speech impediments, the teenager who got made fun of for how I spoke, and the reasonable adult who rationalized “if you want things done right, hire a professional”.
Of course, there were practical reasons to have audiobook. It would mean more sales, money, and reach. Surely, whatever I spent could be recovered in sales. But what pushed me over the edge was the psychic observation that you can’t go all in…if you don’t go all in. Having an audiobook was part of that. But I wasn’t sure how it would happen. To find out I needed to find the right people. So that’s what I did.
I knocked at destiny’s door. Sophia answered. Sophia is THE audiobook girl. She’s produced countless audiobooks and has worked with plenty of author-narrators.
Within minutes our first call, Sophia has me convinced I was not only going to have an audiobook, but that I was going to have a GOOD audiobook, and that I was going to narrate it myself. Not only that, I was going to have a top level professional studio and one of the best coaches in the industry.
There were some mechanics to figure out. In total it would cost around $8000. It was definitely an investment, but a reasonable one. When it came to recording location I technically had three options. I could record in Austin, but no studio was up to Sophia’s standards. I could go to Los Angeles, which has great studios. Or I could go with the only real option - New York. In New York not only would I have an amazing studio, but I would also get to work next to Danielle.
Enter Danielle, stage left.
Sophia connects me with Danielle Quisenberry-Ruvolo. Danielle is, in short, the best. She’s a an award winning actor with decades of experience from performing to coaching and directing. I had the fortune of catching Danielle in the early phase of her transition to the audiobook industry. Working with her was finding a glitch in the matrix that will soon close once the market catches up to her value.
As with Sophia, I knew within the first minute of speaking with Danielle that I in the right hands. Danielle is kind, excited, creatively oriented, and sounds exactly like the kind of person who should be teaching narration. We would work together in two chunks. First we would do five coaching sessions over Zoom, and then at the New York studio for the actual recording.
With Sophia and Danielle my work was cut out for me. All I had to do was follow their lead and everything would be fine.
I love working with coaches, specifically the kind of coaches who love to geek out about subtle minutia. Danielle is one such coach who is intimately familiar with the intersection of performative arts and body mechanics.
Our first session was not at all what I thought it would be. We didn't start with voice, but with body. The first surprising thing was learning how physical narration is. Danielle coached me to think of my body as an instrument - and instruments need to be tuned.
The first thing she has me do is poke and prod my jaw muscles. I do as instructed. I couldn't believe how tight they were. It made sense that I would need loose jaw muscles if I was going to talk for hours on end. Try it yourself. Poke your jaw muscles. I bet you'll feel what I felt.
That's just the start. Danielle runs me through a battery of movements to loosen everything in my face, neck, and shoulders. Even my tongue got a workout with the get-the-peanut-butter-out-of-your-mouth exercise. So far it felt more like a yoga class than a narration class.
Narration, I learn, is basically verbal parkour. The same way you want flexibility and mobility to do physical stuff, you want flexibility and mobility in your face to run through complex word patterns for hours on end.
Then there's body positioning. Sitting normally on the chair is good for comfort, but not ideal for speaking. The belly doesn’t get the full range of motion it needs to take air in and out of the body. Instead I sit on the edge of my seat with my belly hanging out in order to give it more room to do it's thing. Free the belly, improve airflow, make good sounds.
Saying stuff for long periods of time requires lot’s of breathing. So we do some breathwork exercises - humming, mouth fluttering, diaphragm breathing, and the make-your-face-buzz thingy. This helped me figure out how to manage airflow, and nail down resonance. Good resonance is the difference between a flat sounding voice, and a warm fuzzy one.
With all this out of the way it was time to...actually say stuff. But we hadn't graduated to words yet. Instead we got to basics - consonants and vowels. Vowels are where emotions come from, and consonants are where…I forget…comes from.
Each vowel, consonant, and letter combination is a unique mouth, face, and tongue pattern. We all do it unconsciously, but because we do it unconsciously we sometimes forget to give each micro-movement the full attention it needs. This is fine for ordinary conversation, but results in jumbled audio.
As if I’m doing speech therapy (again), Danielle takes me through some more vowel and consonant exercises. Try it yourself.
Guttah Guttah Gaah.
Guttah Guttah Gay.
Guttah Guttah Gee.
Guttah Guttah Go.
Guttah Guttah Goo.
We did the same with the other consonants. Doing these exercises forced me to become more conscious, and eventually, more comfortable with the physical logistics of each sound pattern.
Finally it was time to read stuff. Danielle throws some tongue twisters my way to practice strings of complex word patterns. This is the beginning of one such twister. The whole thing took me about ten minutes to get through.
Give me the gift of a grip top sock,
A dip-drape, ship-shape, tip-top sock,
Not your spiv-slick, slap-stick, slip-slop stock
Subtly, we go from speech training to acting training. Danielle gives me the below sentence. Here we would experiment with different pauses, speeds and tones to demonstrate how each affects the energy of a sentence.
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anaïs Nin
Then we practiced word flavoring.
The yummy ice cream was smooth and creamy.
Try saying this, but make the yummy sound yummy, the ice cream sound creamy, and smooth sound smooth.
These exercises were the merely tip of the iceberg. Eventually, we got down to reading the manuscript and mimicking how the actual recording would go. She’d stop me when she needed to and let me continue when things went well.
I started with the title:
Me: Survival First - The Rebel Entrepreneur's Guide to Risk Riches and Immortality.
This is when Danielle’s acting background kicked in.
Danielle: Good….Now imagine like you're saying it like you're introducing a Broadway show.
Me: Survival First! The REBEL Entrepreneur's Guide to Risk...Riches...and IMMORTALITY.
Probably more important than anything, Danielle’s acting background was critical to learn how to not just narrate my book, but perform it. This, I suspect, is the difference between audiobooks that sound dry and boring, and those that are rich with feeling and energy.
This was the also best case for me narrating my own book. I know the flavor of each word. I know how I felt and the tone I had in mind when I wrote them. Danielle showed me how to bring those flavor to the recording. If the final recording “pops out” in the way I think it will, this is why.
I even had to flex my non-developed acting muscles. Since I voice different people in the book, I had to learn how to shift between character-acting and narrating. Danielle would challenge me to embody that person, and bring their energy to the reading.
Between sessions I would send Danielle recordings of myself reading different chapters from the book as if I were in studio. This would help her program the next sessions.
Another surprising thing was how hand-wavy my narrating became. I intuitively started using my hands like an expressive Italian conducting an orchestra of one. I can’t explain why this worked, but using my hands helped me hyper-focus on tone and speed.
After five sessions Danielle was confident with how training was playing out. I could handle whatever lesson, exercise and challenge she threw my way. One of the coolest part of these sessions was discovering innate skills and intuitions I didn't realize I had.
The Read Out Loud Edit
I had a few days between my final coaching session and the start of recording. In that time I would do what Scribe calls the Read Out Loud edit. This is the one of the many final-final-final editing stages. It’s exactly what it sounds like. You….read the manuscript…out loud.
Most authors skip and subsequently regret skipping this step. I avoided it for as long as possible because I was self conscious about reading out loud. Besides, I thought after so many passthroughs and editing stages everything would be fine. But, I didn’t want to go into recording without fully preparing. So I caved and read the whole thing out loud.
Unsurprising to anybody who had done a read-out-loud before, this turned out to be critical. I found a lot of small things that made sense on paper, but sounded terrible when vocalized. I even found a few typos along the way.
What I didn't expect was how satisfying it would be. For the first time I got to apply Danielle's lessons and vocalize the energy behind the words.
With this final passthrough of the way it was time to fly to New York and give the performance of my life. What surprised me most was what I didn't feel. I was about to do something incredibly difficult and deeply consequential. But with Sophia’s guidance and Danielle's training I felt no nervousness, dread, anxiety, or fear of failure. Instead, I felt total confidence.
I was born for this.
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