Saturday, April 14, 2012

Recording audio books

I'm just back from a wilderness week on the French moors and my head is still full of open spaces and moody light. I suspect my photos are a reflection of my subconscious at the moment. I won't shout about exactly where they were taken because it wouldn't stay wilderness then, would it. As the Eagles say, 'You call some place Paradise - kiss it goodbye.'

Although the wilderness included visits to some 12th century villages, which imprinted visual reminders of the world in my novel, I took the week off writing. Before I left home I'd written 33,500 words, approximately a third of the predicted novel length, up to a major change in place and viewpoint, and so a good moment to pause.  Pauses are important to me. Characters, events, scenes and snatches of dialogue stew in my subconscious, float past my brain at 3am wake-ups, and slot into place with what feels like pre-ordained rightness.

While making a temporary appearance in the modern world, I've browsed the news to see what's going on in the book world and to check up on anything I should be doing with  the fourteen books I've already published. It looks like the turn of 'Someone to look up to' for a little publicity. I was interviewed for the magazine of the Pyrenean Mountain Dog Club of Great Britain after the Editor had read the book and - big sigh of relief! - loved it. The article will be out in Mid-May and some copies of the book are being raffled at the Pyrenean Fun Day on July 15th. All good news for Sirius, and just talking about the book brought it alive for me again.

Motivated by this, I wondered what else I should be doing for my books and a chance comment from a friend sparked off a new train of thought. He told me he doesn't read books any more; he only listens to them while walking the dog and doing the chores. A discussion on the ebook format being unsuitable for poetry came up with the same suggestion; audio books.

Before you rush off into the bathroom with your laptop, headphones and free recording software, you might want to consider my experiences. I've recorded two of my books, confident that decades teaching English gave me the necessary skills. Wrong again.

I recorded 'Snake on Saturdays' for 'talking books for the blind' in a  professional studio, with a patient technician operating every single switch and button. All I had to do was read my own novel. Easy, huh? After all, if I bored my previous audiences they tended to destroy the furniture - or each other - so I know how to project my voice, pace the story, bring the dialogue to life, to read as an actor would read. So why was it so difficult?

1) No audience. Reading in a vacuum is just plain weird. I react to my audience, play to the gallery, respond to their involvement, or lack of it. My lovely, patient technician quickly realised this and gave me the 'listening expressions' that enabled me to read.  For the record, I'm even worse with making videos. I was once asked to 'talk to camera' in a programme about an educational project. I'd been fine while I was teaching and the camera was turning. I said 'I don't talk to cameras.' The only way they could get what they wanted was for a film-maker to stand behind the cameraman, nodding and pretending to be interested, so I could talk to him.

2) I would usually read for a maximum of half an hour, and that stretches listeners' attention. To make the most of studio - and my - time, we worked for 2 hours. It was like swimming a mile. You start off with energy and enthusiasm, then you know you've only done 0.1 of the time and you'll never make it; then you settle into a continuous state and your right brain allows you to just carry on carrying on; then, near the end but not near enough, you know you're flagging and you're not going to make it. And the last stretch hurts.

The average novel takes 12 hours to record, depending on how fluent a reader you are. I work more effectively for 1 hour than I do for less or more but if there are practical constraints like studio time, you don't always have a choice.

3) Mistakes matter. In a library reading, if I sneeze mid-sentence, who cares. In recording a book, I've stuffed  not only that sentence but 5 minutes of precious time. The lovely, patient technician has to rewind, find a suitable pause, cue me in and re-record seamlessly. Every umm, err, sneeze, sniff, hesitation, misread word, makes more work. Why did I write all those clever streams of consciousness? Why did I write dialogue with never a 'He said' for pages? Why did I use so many big words?!

4) Sex. Swearing. Everything you wrote in gritty detail and that you would not choose to read aloud to a class of adolescents, or to your mother, for different reasons, you are now going to commit to tape, evidence that could be used in court. You try not to imagine some dodgy man from your past playing you as his book at bedtime. You feel like a porn hotline.

There are writers who need to say 'fuck' in the first minute of a reading. I've been to poetry readings, weighed up the performer, and had bets with friends as to how long it would take to reach the f-word.

There are writers who wouldn't ever even write the word, never mind say it.

And then there are writers like me, who'll use the word that fits the writing, any word, but are selective about what they choose to read aloud. I once shared a reading with a young author who'd written a savage and beautiful valleys novel, but who hadn't realised he couldn't say the words in his chosen, very explicit, passage, while seeing his mother sitting in the audience. He coped by staring fixedly at his Editor throughout his reading.

5) Visual conventions. Why did I do all those *** for time passing or change of viewpoint? Do I say 'Star star star'? Does a big pause do the job? And what about italics for thoughts? Do I whisper the thoughts?  And 7. on a new page is obviously a new chapter but it's much clearer to say 'Chapter Seven' when reading.

6) I don't listen to audio books. My entire experience of audio books is limited to 'Postman Pat', 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings'. I don't want to sound like a jolly grandmother, nor like a schizophrenic cast of thousands, complete with sound effects. I have vague memories of stories on BBC Radio 4 but that was a long time ago. I need to listen to the competition.

So you are now fully prepared to record your precious work? Not yet. I told you I'd recorded two books. The problems of recording 'Snake' were nothing compared with recording 'A Pup in Your Life', where sex and swearwords were replaced with veterinary vocabulary; where fancy fictional structure was replaced with non-fiction formats like bullet-points and illustrations; where there was no patient technician, just me, plus some free recording software, headphones and an inadequately soundproofed room. Now I think back, I did record swearwords - every time I sneezed/the phone rang/the dog barked and I had to backtrack and re-record. Luckily, I had a good Editor and I am told the recording is perfectly acceptable in quality but that brings me to my last problem:-

7) I hate the sound of my own voice and am totally incapable of playing and listening to something I've recorded, so I just can't edit my recordings.

Having considered all this, I am not going to rush into recording my fourteen published books. Part of being a modern writer is getting to grips with the technology and my first step will be to turn 'Snake', already professionally recorded, from audio-tape to modern format. I will then take that through all the publishing stages. I need to choose a platform for my audio-books, which means research and checking up on what's out there, and what other authors think of it.

With any luck, I will have excuses not to record a book for another year or two, at least. I could pay an actor to do the job but I keep being told 'People like to hear the author's voice'. Meanwhile, the 12th century comes first until this novel's finished, and I'm off back into it. Having survived another attempt on my life, I'm off to suffer some more subtle betrayals that I won't even know about until everything I say seems to confirm my own guilt. Now that's something I enjoy doing.

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