While I’m in the midst of self-producing the audio-book for my novel, The Procurement of Souls, I thought I would put together a blog on things other writers might like to consider when producing their own. I don’t pretend to be a technical whizz, although I will be making a software recommendation in a follow-up article; what I do have, however, is voice training from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and a visiting lecturer post at a university where I support doctoral level students in public speaking techniques. For this reason, I thought I would lay out some top tips for others who, like me, are reading the narrative themselves. I’m certainly not purporting to be the world’s greatest orator, but certainly the principles I outline below should help others in making their own readings clearer and more engaging.
Before I get started on aspects of voice production to consider, let’s briefly touch on…
A COUPLE OF THINGS READERS SHOULD AVOID:
Playing a Mood
I’m not talking here about imbuing (truthful) emotion into one’s delivery; this is something, depending on the content and narrative voice of the story that is certainly necessary, particularly in 1st person narrative voice prose and with dialogue. What I mean by playing a mood, is when one tries to adopt a specific tonality to the voice in an attempt to convey the genre of the story or the intended feel of a particular scene. We’ve all seen the horror film where the old lady tells the young couple, in her best crackling and creepy voice, not to go near the house that’s been abandoned for a hundred years, the whole time signalling to the audience: THIS IS A HORROR FILM, THIS IS A HORROR FILM. She’s playing a mood. It’s naff. It turns the audience off. Instead, when reading your book, whatever the genre may be, have faith in the prose and narrative thread: let the story, and power of your words, create the world you intended without additional layering – it shouldn’t be needed – and allow the reader’s (listener’s in this case) own imagination develop it from there.
Adopting a ‘Reader’s’ Voice
It’s true: not everyone in this world has the most charismatic speaking voice. I certainly don’t. But in the same vein as playing a mood, trying to manufacture a sound that is intended to sound ‘actorly’, for want of a better expression, will only produce something that is phoney and that will switch the audience off. Much better instead, to be true to your own speaking voice whilst ensuring that you ground it with solid vocal production by breathing properly (briefly outlined below); and that you create interest by considering the aspects of speech I mention, below.
AND SO TO ‘THE 6 PS’
- Practise: Before we look at the aspects of effective reading, I’d just like to mention the importance of practise, first. Taking the time to hone the delivery of your text is the only way to ensure that what you record is the best that you can make it. This means playing back material to yourself and, ideally, to others who can act as beta listeners. Try and choose people who you trust to be honest and objective. If your stuck for someone you know personally, then reach out to the writing community at large: there are plenty of peers out there who will be only too willing to take a listen, so long as you are happy to offer constructive feedback on a project of their own.
- Pace: It may sound obvious, but pace is essential for ensuring clarity and engagement. Too fast, and your words are unintelligible; too slow, and you are sure to switch the listener off. To achieve an ideal pace, try and tune in to the natural meter of the narrative, letting the words guide you. We’re not all Shakespeare and certainly our novels are not set to iambic pentameter, but the natural rhythm of the syllables within individual words and then within a sentence as a whole are useful pointers for how to set the pace of the reading. Additionally, should there be tricky words within the text (be they tricky to say or tricky as a concept) make sure that you give them sufficient space to be articulated by you as the reader, and absorbed by the listener.
- Pitch: I mentioned earlier, that we can’t all have the most charismatic voice in the world. What we can do, however, is be conscious of how we modulate it for effect. I’m not talking about endowing yourself with the ‘Barry White’ of speaking voices or of trying to emulate Ian McKellen: rather, like rhythm, words and sentences have their own natural melody to them – tapping in to it will support a more dynamic and absorbing experience for the listener. It goes back to practising and listening – are you aware of a monotony or flatness of tone to your own voice? If you are, try to think about the content of what the narrative is getting across. What’s important within the sentence that requires emphasis? Are you reading description or thoughts from an individual’s perspective? It’s about context and, ultimately, what will drive the inflection and modulation of the voice within the reading is the next point on our list:
- Purpose: whilst we want to avoid playing a mood, we need to strike a balance so that the purpose of the text is honoured. The over-arching purpose for us is to tell an engaging story. This means making the delivery dynamic and interesting, in line with the context of the story/narrative being told. I would suggest that pace and pitch will enable you to make your mark in regards to purpose if done so in a way that is natural to you. In a way, I suppose pitch and purpose are a bit of a chick and egg situation in that the purpose of the text will inform the aspects of pitch and modulation, and visa versa. But instead of worrying about that, try to think of these aspects as working in harmony together and being mutually-enhancing.
- Personality: Whatever your voice, you will undoubtedly have something unique and valuable to bring to a reading. I think that this is particularly important to note for writers who are reading their own work. You wrote it and your personal stamp will therefore be an integral part of the narrative voice. Have faith therefore that you will do the text justice – after all, who knows the text better or more intimately that its creator? Bring what you intended within the text to the reading of it, but be guided by those objective beta-listeners who may need to draw your ear to specific quirks that don’t quite work, or your attention to a specific need for greater variety in pitch, for example.
- Posture: I include posture here as it is integral to good breath control, and thence, to effective delivery of your text. Be sure to align yourself properly when sitting down to record; give due attention to the natural length and height of your spine and back (I’m loathe to suggest a straight spine, due to its natural curve); be sure not to squash the abdomen, ribs, and lung space, so that you can take advantage of your lung capacity and breath control. This leads nicely on to…
Breath is of course essential to a successful delivery. It’s not about taking huge lungfuls of air, but about an intake that is appropriate to the delivery that is required. How long is the sentence/s? How far into the text do you need to go, using that breath, to ensure clarity is maintained? Have you given thought to any inflection or modulation of the voice that might require additional air? How much of a breath will you require to ensure that you are able to energise the whole sentence/s without dropping the energy at the end? Regardless of the size of breath you’ve now established you need, in order to get that breath situated correctly, consider these things:
- breath into the belly
- imagine the breath dropping into the lower back
- feel the floating ribs swing out, as you breath in
- breath in through your nose to minimise the drying of the mouth
- Look ahead / mark up your text with breath marks (I use ticks P) within the reading so that you can anticipate the amount of breath that is required for delivery.
A NOTE ON DRY MOUTHS:
We’ve all heard those voices on the radio where a speaker’s words are punctuated by the sound of lips smacking and their tongue clicking. It’s off putting, unpleasant, and caused by a dry mouth. If you find that your recordings play back with these unsoundly additions then the key is to get the saliva going again and this won’t be solved by having a glass of water. Whilst this might refresh your mouth momentarily, what you need is a good boiled sweet or vocal lozenge to generate saliva flow. You can also try visualising the soft palette rising at the back of the mouth and the lips sitting forward of the teeth: these mouth postures can be useful in making the mouth moist enough to help eradicate those unwanted sound effects!
Good luck, and happy recording!
UPDATE: Due to circumstances outside my control, the audio book has had to go on the back-burner for the time being. I will update this post and my Soundcloud page when I’m in a position to begin posting episodes…