The acceptance of failure

Ever since I voiced the magnificently written Little Century, the story of a young woman making her way in turn-of-the-century Oregon, I’ve wanted to highlight the debut novelist Anna Keesey. I deeply admire Anna’s writing — her clearly drawn characters, the undercurrent of tension and yearning throughout the narrative, the richly realized sense of place that is so familiar to me, a child of the American West.

My Little Century recording days moved far more slowly than usual, as I laid down a scene with dialogue between characters, and then re-recorded the lines, then took yet another turn at getting them just right. I very rarely work with such careful deliberation and fretting — I’ve found that my first impulse is, more often than not, the best one to follow in this work — but Anna’s writing was demanding. Not only did the dialogue on the page vibrate with subtext, necessitating that at least two layers of thought and feeling be simultaneously realized, but it was clear that, more than ever before, my job was to get out of the way of the text. It took very careful rendering of the work to not insinuate myself into the recording, but to do my best to disappear and allow Anna’s words to be all.

Once the book was complete, I had the honor of having an extended conversation with Anna, during an exclusive interview for Blackstone Audio. Talking as an emerging writer with a skilled and knowledgeable writer was a great pleasure, and it was meaningful to discuss our shared love of the area in Oregon in which the book is set, the writing communities we have in common, and the particularly gorgeous passages that continued to resonate for me, weeks after the completion of the recording.*

So, why has it taken me so long to feature this book, one of my absolute favorite projects? In many ways, for a very long time, I felt like I had failed utterly. I uploaded my tracks for Blackstone, and made the corrections, and sent off my invoice. At that point I am usually long into other projects that capture my attention and energy. But this book nagged at me. I wanted to start again, redo it, do better by it, and by Anna. I worried that it was not right, that instead of making the work sing, I had stifled something beautiful in it, that rather than bringing the words to life, I had diminished them, dampened their power somehow.

And then I read the review from Publishers Weekly, and it wasn’t devastating, by any means — there were many kind things said about the strengths of the performance —  but it troubled my heart. This book that I believed in and cared so deeply for, for that reviewer, at least, fell flat. For a few days I felt heartsick, and sorry.

And then Anna sent me the kindest message, thanking me for my work, and telling me how much she loved the recording, how she heard in my voice the lines she’d written, the voices of the characters, and they sounded new, and still real and true and right to her. And then I went back to the recording, and I listened to it, and I, too, believed in it. It’s not perfect — no performance is ever perfect — but even to my critical, anxious ear, the work sounded real and true and right to me, too. Anna’s story was beautiful, and powerful, and rich, and I got out of the way of it, so that the gorgeous prose stood alone, without interference.

So was the reviewer wrong? No. My performance just didn’t fully work for that listener. Was I wrong to worry so much, through the entire process, about failure, second-guessing myself and finessing the recording line by line? Absolutely not. It’s when a book is as good as Anna’s Little Century that the work of narrating becomes so challenging, requiring subtlety and nuance which may not work for everyone. Had I not cared so much about it, I would have sat down, pounded it out, sent it off, and not learned anything new about the craft of writing or the craft of narrating. So this book was a great gift, so much so that more than six months later, I’m still thinking about it. My fear of failure — failing the life of the book, failing a writer I deeply respect, failing my own expectations and standards — kept me committed through the process, and even to evaluating the recording more deeply after the project’s completion. The discovery that I didn’t profoundly fail or ruin anything was only made possible by my humble desire to do my very best possible work.

Anna continues to inspire me, to make me think about writing, and love, and devotion, and hope. She has just published a wonderful essay on the literary site Bloom, called “Keyhole,” about the acceptance of failure, which prompted me to think about her novel, and considerations of grief and failure, and acceptance. I am grateful for Anna, for Little Century, for “Keyhole,” and for the opportunity to try and fail and try and fail, and to accept imperfection as a part of the story. So that’s why, today, I share this extraordinary book with you, even with an imperfect review of my performance of it. Like Anna says in her essay, it’s time that I no longer choose “avoidance and delay over the fear of…possible humiliations.” I wish that the review had been positive without reservation, but it’s no excuse to delay calling attention to this most beautiful of stories.


Little Century


Listen to samples:


* Passages like this one:
The buckaroos often sing, and she knows why. The unpeopled distance and the careless cold weigh upon a person, compressing the spirit into a chunk without movement. Any two notes sung together press back and make a space for the tiny soul to warm up and swirl about.

Learn From My Mistakes, PLEASE!

Like most of you, I have found the summer heat to be a great challenge. My productivity in the studio has dropped in the last couple months. Even though I’ve done my best to keep to my schedule, it has been uncomfortable and difficult to work in my four by five foot booth recording booth during days with unrelenting high temperatures and humidity.

But it’s not the heat that has presented the biggest block to productivity this summer. Oh, no. It was my own lack of preparation that made my summer recording needlessly miserable.

Over the past few months, I have voiced several installments in various mystery series that I began recording five years ago, when I was a new narrator with little understanding of how to keep information organized. All summer I have struggled and been bogged down when again and again, I needed to refer to my original recording for character voices, proper name pronunciation, and dialect choices. And again and again, I have been frustrated and disappointed to find that often, I was missing crucial information.

What in the world was I thinking, I’ve wondered, as hours of recording time have slipped through my fingers. Rather than move forward at a reasonable and productive pace, I’ve had to stop in the middle of a session, purchase the Kindle edition of a previously-recorded book (of course I hadn’t kept the original PDF manuscript), search for whatever character recurs in later installments, search through the sound files for an audio sample of the character, and finally pull what I need in order to move on. In one late-night character recreation session, I discovered I hadn’t even bothered to keep the original recording, so I had to purchase the audiobook in order to get the files for a sound match.

All this lost time has meant fewer recording hours, missed deadlines, decreased income, and, more importantly, less free time to swing on my hammock. Unacceptable.

It  has really been one of the most aggravating phases of my audiobook career (made additionally unpleasant as I’ve had to listen to my very inexperienced, unpolished, newbie-narrator voice from 2007). However, dealing with challenges caused by a lack of foresight and organization has given me an opportunity to consider best practices. I thought it might be meaningful to other narrators to post the tips that I’ve come up with, and invite you to add your own. I NEVER again want to spend my time trying to find information that should always be at my fingertips, and I don’t want you to have to struggle, either. These tips are particularly helpful for recurrent characters, but I’ve also come up with some short-cuts that apply to any character in any book, whether it’s a series or not.

So, here are my tips for keeping your workflow productive, and ensuring you don’t lose your mind:

    1. Keep a PDF of the book manuscript on a hard-drive.
      It didn’t occur to me back in the day that I might need the manuscript after I’d finished recording the book. Granted, the first couple years I still recorded from paper. Keeping those scripts would have been burdensome, but since I now work exclusively with PDF’s on an iPad, there is no reason to discard a script when recording is complete. I don’t need them on my iPad, but I need to be able to retrieve them easily in the future, so they’re waiting on a hard drive, and I’ll never have to shell out $10 for Kindle edition again.
    2. Name the book folder with the series name, and the number in the series.
      When I looked in my computer files for previous books in a great series by my pal Judy Clemens, I realized that “Flowers For Her Grave” was a far less useful project title than “Grim Reaper Mystery #3—Flowers For Her Grave.” Now that I have renamed all my book project folders with series information, I can much more quickly find the right folder and keep track of where I am in the series and where I need to be.

    3. Obviously, keep a sound clip of each character clearly labelled in a Characters folder.
      (Just for the record, I learned this lesson quickly years ago, and luckily, only a couple books had absolutely no character voice match files.) In early books, I had marked character voices in my ProTools session, which was the right idea, but an  extremely inefficient means of capturing them later.Here’s another important tip: If you’re recording on an audio publisher’s proprietary system, it’s not a bad idea to ensure that you make character voices available to you in files formatted for whatever other platform you use (i.e. ProTools). If later books in the series are picked up by a different publisher and you’re not recording in the original format, it’s helpful and efficient to have quick access to character files without having to open the proprietary program in order to access character voices.
    4. Keep sound files of the pronunciations for unfamiliar words and character names, in addition to character voices.
      This is particularly helpful if the author has contrived a world with its own language. I voice the name or the unfamiliar word in my own sound, capture just the pronunciation, and label it with as much information as possible. For example, there’s a recurring character, Celestine, in Laura Wright‘s Mark of the Vampire series. When I recorded Eternal Beast this summer, I recorded the pronunciation of Celestine’s name, and labelled that file “Celestine pronunciation (CEL-i-steen).” I also took care to record other words unique or important to the MOTV world, like Paleo (puh-LAY-o), Riordan (REARdn), Impure (IMpure – NOT imPURE). I can always listen to the 2-second clip if I need to, but I know how to pronounce whatever I’m questioning with just a visual check of the sound file, and I no longer need to keep written pronunciation notes that can easily get disorganized or lost.
      This technique was in response to my dismay when I realized I could not recall how I had always pronounced Vlad in Jeaniene Frost‘s Night Huntress series. With the start of the new Night Prince series, I couldn’t for the life of me remember if my pronunciation of Vlad rhymed with “bad” or “god?” (He’s a little bit of both, after all.) I was mortified, and so grateful that one of my listener fans set me straight, so that I could jump into the work without doing a search through the last book. (This admission of fallibility should in no way plant doubt that this series is important to me, but my growing body of work includes close to 200 titles and many book series. I’m only human.)I’ve also started keeping a sound file of pronunciation for common words that vary across the country. For example, I cannot count the number of times I’ve narrated the word “aunt” in a book, and then wondered pages later which pronunciation I chose (was she a hoity-toity aunt, or a down-home ant?). If I take the time to quickly capture my pronunciation choice (I’d call that file “AUNT pronunciation”), then I eliminate time-consuming corrections and ensure that I’m not distracting the listener with inconsistency.

    5. To help with character differentiation, use the notes section in the file information (this opens up with Command (or Apple)-I, and mark the file with color, so that it is immediately apparent that the file contains information for future reference.This gives me a much greater sense of control and specificity over my character voices. Eternal Beast is another good example for this technique. I feared that all my men were sounding the same, particularly in scenes in which all the men were in conversation, and I wanted to be sure to clearly differentiate them. But especially after listening to Johnny Heller’s wonderful advice in his Publisher’s Weekly interview, I wanted to differentiate the voices not by focusing so exclusively on creating a specific sound, but by focusing much more on playing a specific character.I opened up the note section for each character voice clip and added some description that would bring me back into character as effectively as listening to the character voice clip itself.For example, Lucien is sarcastic, funny, and impulsive. He and Helo do sound alike, but Helo’s notes say that he is more laid back, wry, and has a fairly languid pace. I knew those details when I created their character, but in six months or a year, I will have forgotten them, unless I make careful notes. The basis for these characterizations are the profiles I keep in a Word document, but that document doesn’t trigger recall of voice as effectively as pairing written notes with the character sound clip. Knowing I was capturing that detailed performance information along with the voice match gave me such peace of mind. I’ll be so much more successful voicing these guys in the future, because I’ve organized and qualified my thinking.You can use the notes section for anything, including the URL to a sound file that influenced the creation of the character voice or an image file that enabled character specificity.
    6. Finally, tag the file on which you’re currently working in a color so that you can quickly move from folder to folder.
      This is such a small adjustment in my workflow, but it has saved me time and energy. My list of folders for audiobook publishers and projects is extensive, and at the end of the day, bleary-eyed and fatigued, I found I was staring at the screen, trying to stay focused on the project at hand. Now whatever publisher folder I’m currently working on is highlighted green, and my current project in that folder is also highlighted green. I never have to search down a list for folder for the right name, because my eye jumps to the only colored line. This is time- and sanity-saving.
I’m excited to continue devising additional best practices, I sincerely hope that these tips are useful to new and seasoned narrators alike. Will you share techniques that allow you to keep focused on creating the best quality work you can? What else do you do to keep your work-flow organized? Please share in the comments section.

Johnny Heller is such a gentleman

You know the feeling of hearing the voice of someone you love? For me, it’s a wonderful, intimate, comforting warmth, a fondness and appreciation for the person who sounds so much like themselves. That’s what is so powerful about the love affair between audiobook listeners and the actors who tell the stories — the listener is in relationship with the voice in their ear, and there is a powerful connection forged between the two.

Well, this wonderful interview by Adam Boretz, writer of the Listen Up audiobook blog for Publisher’s Weekly, gave me just that feeling, because for a half an hour I got to hear the voice of one of my favorite people — the one and only Johnny Heller. Johnny is a dear friend, and for the past few years I’ve been enamored with him, with his humor, wisdom, playfulness, pragmatism, irreverence, and particularly his adoration for his much lovelier half, Jo Anna Perrin. The conversation was entertaining, informative, educational, and very pleasant dinner companionship last night after I got out of the studio.

Thanks to both these gents for kicking off this excellent interview series with something special!


A Look Back at APAC 2012

The Audiobook Publisher’s Association Conference in New York is always a very pleasant gathering of friends, colleagues, and new members of the audiobook community. The 2012 conference was particularly memorable.

It was an honor to have been asked to speak about my work as a narrator and a producer in a conversations facilitated by the inestimable, elegant, generous producer John McElroy. Other panelists included my good friend Dan Zitt, Director of Audio Production at Random House, and designer and social media expert Chris Carvey.

And our great audiobook advocate and fan, Adam Boretz of Publisher’s Weekly, very kindly reported on the other delight of the day: live performances by audiobook narrators. My dear Johnny Heller, MC extraordinaire, invited me to perform, along with Davina Porter, Hillary Huber, Dion Graham, Simon Vance, Karen White, Simon Prebble, Anne Flosnik, Robin Miles, and Robert Fass.

A lovely time was had by all, as evidenced by these photos from Johnny’s far better half, the wonderful photographer and narrator Jo Anna Perrin. Don’t Dion and I look happy?