Reflections on Making an Audio Book
Hello, world. It’s been a few months since I blew off the dust on this blog, and while I can be blamed for some of that, I’m going to convict the Month of All The Things Going Wrong for the crime. Aside from caring for a sick parent—who is feeling much better now and is a testament as to why doctors make diagnoses, not Google—my work life blew up and, well, once you get behind, catching up is pretty much impossible.
But something pretty awesome happened earlier this year. My very first book (appropriately titled Firsts) became my very first audio book -- or mostly, we're still waiting on final approval from the test-readers before I give the go-ahead. There were several things I knew when I first entertained turning any of my works into an audio book, but many more things I learned or had reinforced.
So, let’s start with things I knew.
Audio Books Rock
Anyone who knows me knows that audio books are pretty much how I do my pleasure reading these days. My work schedule is stretched to the max, and when I’m not working, I’m either trying to find the energy to write or, well, caving to exhaustion and/or cutting loose. When I rediscovered audio books in 2013, it was a lifeline. I’d forgotten how much I missed reading for fun, and quickly went on a lets-wrack-up-debt binge purchasing old favorites from old favorites (which was how I subsequently rediscovered my love of Stephen King), and finding new authors to add to my must buy list, including Julie James and Molly Harper. I’ll return to this point in a moment.
No Book Is Ever “Done”
Since I’ve become an Audible-addict, I’ve also had the sometimes dubious pleasure of sampling works that were not yet ready for prime-time. One of the things I love about a really good audio book its ability to help you ignore or gloss over poor sentence structure and bad grammar. But I’ve listened to a lot of audio books since I started my Audible membership, many of which I’ve had to give up due to the errors. Yes, I am that type of reader no matter the media. Still, even in the really stellar works, I’ll find my inner editor creeping up and marking certain spots as needs reworking. I can’t help it, my inner editor is kind of a killjoy. But those mistakes are easily forgiven for me. I accept there will be errors in everything, from small to large, because no book is ever 100% flawless—and even if you think it is, this is often a matter of subjective, not objective, opinion.
There Are Narrators And There Are Performers – You Want The Latter
Back to Point #1. The reason I stuck with and will forever buy anything by Julie James and Molly Harper is largely due to their respective performers. Karen White, who read James’ FBI/US Attorney series, and Amanda Ronconi, who reads (I think) whatever Molly Harper writes, are two voice actors I’ll follow across genres. They understand character voice and how to really bring a narrative to life, helping the reader/listener experience the world rather than just expose them to it. This is also why, while I enjoyed Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, I didn’t get as into it as I did Full Dark, No Stars, which had two narrators over the course of four short stories. And why, when I finally read The Stand last autumn, everything I wrote during that period, I heard in performer Grover Gardner’s voice. And, BTW, if you haven’t read (or hell, even if you have read) The Stand, it’s definitely worth a listening-to. Day-um.
I mentioned in Point #2 that I have given up on a few books due to the structural/grammatical errors sticking out. There are many, many others I’ve given up due to the reader, sorry to say. Books that sound amazing but are read in ways that just don’t suck me in. I hate doing it, but I don’t want pleasure reading to be a chore, so if it doesn’t gel, I return it.
The main issue I’ve found, which has led to returns, is the lack of performance. I want to forget I’m Reading, Or Something Like It. I want an immersive experience, and as some authors are better equipped to pull this off—it’s the same thing with whoever you have reading your work. A really good performer doesn’t just sell the book, s/he sells the author. Case in point: I’ve stuck with books I considered “meh” because the performance was so good—not only that, I’ve bought other “meh” books by the same author because I enjoyed the listening experience so much.
I’m sure there are other Things I Knew, but those are the points that most readily came to mind.
So what did I learn, in this experience? That list is longer.
It’s Difficult Listening To Your Own Work
This is one thing I never anticipated after I uploaded my two self-pubs to ACX. As someone who routinely buys audio books, and someone who isn’t shy about rereading sections of her own works from time to time, I never knew that I’d be so freaking strung out when I received the audition for Firsts. I was, through my adolescence, a shy person. As an adult, I’m really not. I’m outspoken, inappropriate, and the person everyone looks to skeptically when a group is told to be on its best behavior. I like being that person—it’s the person I was supposed to be, but was too afraid to embrace when I was younger due to being, yes, overweight, academic and nerdy. I didn’t start to change until my senior year of high school, and really discovered that self in college (which is evident on my feeling about college if you read Firsts—Wesley’s experience was pretty much mine). Now I’m the person who comes with a disclaimer, and I love being that person.
Still, when I received Jem Matzan's audition for Firsts, I regressed like whoa. And the most frustrating part was I didn’t know why. I am not ashamed at all about what I write. Plus, the section he read was goddamned tame. So...yeah, beats me.
Sometimes, It’s Really Difficult Listening To Your Own Work
So above, we established I’m a bit of a wuss. We also established that I have no idea why, as I’m also not easily embarrassed. Everyone I know (except my grandparents, because I want them to hold onto their hope that I can get into Heaven) knows I write erotic romance. My erotic romances have been read by: my husband, my best friend, at least three sisters-in-law, my aunt, three coworkers (who will admit it, anyway), and, yes, even my mother. I’m out and proud among pretty much all my acquaintances. I’ve writtenarticles on why women need to be sex-positive, how romance novels fit into the feminist movement, I spoke to a class at Wartburg about sex-positivism and feminism and how it relates to what I write, as well as panels at conventions. It’s easily one of the topics I’m most passionate about.
Still, still, listening to someone read aloud sex scenes that I wrote? Well...it was hella weird.
By the time I got to that part in the book, I had mostly gotten over the awkwardness I experienced in the point above. There was no reason to feel weird about it. Hell, I’ve listened to more graphic shit with my mother. Sidebar: on our mother-daughter trip in March, she wanted to listen to Fifty Shades because “it would keep her awake" (yeah, Mom, likely story). You guys know how I feel about Fifty Shades, so I told her we could listen to something with cocks and pussies if she wanted, but it was gonna be something good. I suggested (and got her hooked on) Laurelin Paige’s Fixed Trilogy (performed by Carly Robins) instead. And friends, if you haven’t read it, it’s not PG. At all. Was it weird? Yeah, a little, but I got over it. And so did she.
Last night, as I was listening to the steamier sections, my husband kept laughing at me because I reverted to a fourth grader. I can’t explain why, though I am perfectly willing to admit this is all me. I’m not bothered in the slightest at the thought of anyone else listening to the sex scenes. Heck, my mom can’t wait to get her copy (and I hope she enjoys it!). It’s just something else to work on. Maybe a good use of ERP (Exposure Response Prevention)—make myself listen to it over and over until the need to squirm goes away.
Sometimes, You Get Really Lucky (Or: That’s What She Said)
It’s really appropriate that Firsts is the first book to make the jump to audio. It was my first publication, and my first self-publication, after I reworked it in late 2013. As I mentioned in the “Things I Knew” section, I went into this thing completely aware of how vital it was to find the perfect reader. I played a lot of things safe when I first got into publishing because I was so goddamned green. I still am green in many ways. But I knew going in that I would absolutely not compromise on the quality of reader for the audio production. I figured any auditions I received would be across the board on talent, but as with everything else, Firsts proved to be the gift that kept on giving. Jem’s audition was the first, and it was perfect. I mean, really perfect. And that’s not just me—I’ve sent the finished cut to two pre-readers and one has already raved on how good he is, and I take zero credit for that, except for I was smart enough to go forward with it. I’m going to have to check out some of his other work after things settle down. Like I said, I follow good voice performers across genres.
What You Write Is Not What Others Hear
Of course, this is something all authors know on some level. There is a cadence to your writing that lives entirely between your ears. My characters’ conversations are often Sorkinesque in my head (because if you’re going to emulate someone, emulate the best). And though I heard this some in the finished product, there were other places where Jem’s interpretation of the characters was very different, though in ways I figure only I would notice.
I met Molly Harper briefly at RT in 2014, and when I mentioned that I love her work—via the audio books—she raved about the performer, Amanda Ronconi. If I ever get the chance to chat with her again, I’d like to know if Amanda’s interpretation was the same thing Molly heard when she wrote. Molly’s writing is so wonderfully witty, as is Amanda’s voice; it’s hard to divorce the two in my head, but then I’ve only ever listened to the books.
I could write more on this, but this seems a better place to plug the book, since I talk more about my thoughts on Jem’s interpretation in the author interview.
I Don’t Care How Well You Write, You Need a Goddamned Editor
So we’ve established that I listen to a lot of audio books. Enough to have caught the occasional flub—a missing word here, the wrong character mentioned there, and so on. I know damn well that my work isn’t perfect, even after it’s been edited within an inch of its life. I assumed to a degree that audio book errors were sort of the equivalent of Cake Wrecks. The material is sacrosanct and presented as-is. And maybe that’s the case with books produced by publishers, but I was fortunate enough to work with a voice performer who informed me of the little typos he caught here and there, allowing me to update the document (digital and print) and ensure the readers/listeners get the best product available.
I had an editor—an editor I’ve used before and will use again. I heartily recommend her. But an editor doesn’t cut it, friends. Even the best editors don’t catch everything. They’re only human. And as an author, you will never, ever be able to impartially review your work. Sure, you’ll catch this grammatically incorrect sentence or this random mid-sentence quotation mark, but you won’t find everything. Your brain knows how it’s supposed to read, and since your brain is an asshole, it’ll fill in the missing word and trick you into thinking it’s there.
You need beta readers, crit partners, editors—people who don’t give a shit about your precious feelings and are good enough to catch the things you’re going to miss. If you’re serious about your craft, you have an editor budget, and you don’t settle for less than the best. And true, there are some poorly written books out there that get hailed as masterpieces, or somehow make it to the top of the New York Times list. Many readers might not notice that you used a dangling modifier or have a character improbably doing two things simultaneously. But to every author out there who cares about their work, you owe it to yourself to make sure you have the best product. You owe it to yourself, and to the readers who will pick up on this stuff. And believe me, they’re out there. Many, many readers don’t have much patience for a lazy author.
All in all, this was a fabulous experience, and I’m really proud of the end-product...which should be released soon. I’m waiting on my two test-readers to give me their final verdict, but I think we’re close. Once we’ve exhausted the post-production motions, I’ll make a general release date announcement.
Until then, I hope everyone has had a good few months. I’m going to do my level best to not let this thing collect this much dust in the future. Happy Memorial Day, my US friends.
PS. If you only see one movie this summer, make it Mad Max: Fury Road. Or, as I like to call it, Furiosa: Drinking Meninist Tears And Giving Zero Fucks.