When Ooligan Press chose me to narrate Cindy Hiday’s Iditarod Nights, I had a steep learning curve, a short timeline to prepare and record, and no idea what to expect from my time in the studio. Seasoned voice actors and narrators know how to make everything feel seamless, but fledgling narrators (like me) don’t have that kind of time and experience to lean on. What I did have was research.
I scoured blogs from currently active audiobook narrators, many of whom record and produce their own books; I browsed through forum threads looking for tips aimed at newcomers; I hunted down the websites of audiobook narrators I liked and listened to their sample tracks, soaking up the ease with which they worked. Two months later, I’m still no seasoned professional, but I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things that helped me get through recording my first audiobook
Know Your Manuscript
This may seem obvious, but you’ll find a range of suggestions about this if you look for them. Veteran narrators have blog posts reporting rush recordings that gave them only a day’s notice, while others insist on longer to find the cues in the book they need to give the most dynamic and accurate reading they can. Whether a character is shouting or whispering, sad or happy or scared, every cue a narrator needs is on the page, and many of them like to flag those cues in some way to help smooth out the narration.
I found marking my pages too much was distracting. I stuck with minimal notation, usually of one of the Alaskan town names I found tricky to pronounce. Maybe a word like Kuskokwim won’t throw you while reading in your head, but I can’t say how many times I had to untangle my tongue from all those k’s. Keeping an eye out for words you’ve never said aloud (ennui?) should definitely be on your list of things to do.
One last thing to consider while skimming or preparing your manuscript is how much a familiarity with the content will affect your reading. Many audiobooks are someone’s first time reading a title, and it is the narrator’s responsibility to capture that magic in some way. For me, this meant understanding the story and the main characters, having a good idea of the pacing, but not reading the full book start-to-finish. This meant that my surprise and delight and concern and amusement were genuine, and added depth to the important moments.
On my second day of recording, I had a minor revelation: I didn’t have to rush at all. This extended beyond just how quickly I was reading the sentences—which I admit I had a problem with at times—but also to how I self-corrected. While you’re reading, you will absolutely make mistakes. You’ll flip words in a sentence when they feel more natural, you’ll over- or under-articulate words you don’t normally fret about (looking at you, “often”) and sometimes you’ll mispronounce them entirely. My secret shame is that I pronounced the name “Caroline” in two different ways.
But it wasn’t until I stopped worrying about quickly fixing it that I got better. When you’re at the mic, you haven’t got anywhere to go and generally have no need to rush. Give yourself, or whoever is editing your final recording, 3-5 seconds they can work with to splice everything together as smoothly as possible, take a couple deep breaths, and carry on. You’ll feel better for it, your next take will sound better, and your producer will appreciate it.
The reason is pretty simple: until you’ve heard it on a recording of it, you don’t realize how many extra sounds your mouth makes f, you don’t really realize how bad it is. To be quite frank, it’s gross. The swallows, the lip smacks, the throat clear, the sniffle, the frog in the throat. It’s all there in the recording, and every single sound is made worse when you’re dehydrated. You’ll be doing your audio producer a major favor, your book will sound better, and your skin will probably be clearer, too.
Find What Works
Even though these tips all worked for me, they’re certainly not going to work for everyone. The best advice I can give anyone who wants to record audiobooks is to take the chance and try, then find what works for you. Take the advice that helps, leave what doesn’t, and get better with time and practice. And If you’re not sure what to read or where to start, you can try contributing to LibriVox, helping bring public domain titles to life while building your portfolio.