Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Adventures in Audio

So a few weeks ago when the audiobook of The Whitefire Crossing first came out, I said I'd do a post about what it was like for me as the author to listen to the audio version.  I got a bit overtaken by events as The Tainted City hit bookstore shelves a little earlier than I was expecting, but now at last, the time for that post has come.

But first, allow me the chance to celebrate (because if you can't share your glee on your own blog, then where can you?): the last few days have brought three lovely new reviews for The Tainted City.  (All of them pretty much spoiler-free, assuming you've read The Whitefire Crossing.)

You guys, I can't even tell you how happy it makes me to see people enjoying The Tainted City! I wish I could go back in time and tell my stressed little author self of a few months ago that it was All Going To Be Okay. The book will get done, the story will work, and all the long nights are worth it.

Whew, okay. Back to talking about audiobooks!  I'll be the first to admit I haven't listened to very many.  Mostly because I have a very short commute, and I prefer to exercise outdoors rather than on treadmills and such, so I don't often experience the circumstances that make them so valuable.  Also because I'm a very fast reader, and in comparison, audio narration feels insanely slow in pace.  Though that can be a good thing...I remember listening to the audio version of Dorothy Dunnett's Queen's Play, and catching all kinds of humor that I'd missed during multiple reads of the novel in print.  Part of it was that the narrator did an excellent job at portraying the different accents and imbuing Lymond's dialogue with the perfect lurking edge of sarcasm.  But a significant part was that I couldn't just zip along to the next line; I had all this time as the narrator spoke to think about the multiple layers of the conversation (and realize exactly how cutting Thady Boy's seemingly drunken observations are).

Some of the other authors in my critique group told me they never, EVER listen to their audiobooks.  That the best thing to do is to just sign the audio contract and then pretend the books don't exist, lest you listen and be horrified at what the narrator has done with your characters.  But I was far too curious to take that advice.  I mean, come on...somebody else reading my story - I had to know how it'd turn out!  Besides, I'd talked to narrator Andy Caploe via Skype and email about pronunciations and character traits and all that jazz, and he seemed like a great guy who was invested in doing a good job.

So on the way down to the RMFW conference in early September, I plugged my iPod into the car stereo and fired up The Whitefire Crossing...and, wow.  It is a *total* head trip to listen to your book being narrated by someone else. I think because (for me at least) it really brought home the idea that people out there are reading what I wrote.  Not only that, but bringing their own interpretations to the story, which may not always match mine.  Which isn't at all a bad thing - personally, I find it both fascinating and wonderful.  It makes the story feel more alive, more independent, something existing out there in the world rather than locked in my head.  Listening to Andy narrate, I had a huge grin on my face.  

How close does he come to what's in my head?  Well, pretty damn close with Dev.  Not that I heard an actual voice speaking Dev's lines in my head when I was writing them - I'm a visual writer, not an aural one. But I think Andy provides just the right air of jaded sarcasm to Dev's spoken voice.  He does a good job with Kiran, too, making his voice softer/lighter/younger sounding.  Similarly, Ruslan's voice is great, nicely deep and commanding; and Andy captures Simon's deceptive calm, and Marten's facade of cheerful good humor. His version of Cara's a bit more girly than my internal one, and Pello is a touch more obviously weaselly-sounding -  but honestly, to me it's differences like that which make the listening experience so interesting.  I love seeing the story through someone else's eyes (or hearing it through someone else's ears, as the case may be!).  It's almost like getting to spy on a reader's thoughts as they go - something I confess I've always wished was possible.

Of course, listening as the author does have its drawbacks.  Sometimes you're all, "Oh, ouch - did *I* write that clunky sentence?  Doh..."  Or hearing the narrator's emphasis in dialogue, you think, "Oh damn, I know a way I could've really punched up the emotion in this scene...why didn't I think of it when I was writing the book?"  It's also interesting to hear how the little tricks we take for granted in print don't necessarily translate well to audio performance.  Things like the use of italics to make clear to the reader that the POV character is experiencing a memory, or else mental communication rather than spoken words...yeah. No real way to do that vocally.

Or even the little shortcuts writers use to communicate emotions...in reality, when we're conversing with people, we pick up on emotional state through a whole gestalt of body language, facial expression, and tone of voice.  As a writer, you can't readily portray that all at once - so we cheat, and use either specific or poetic language to describe eyes or face or tone of voice and convey to the reader that way what the POV character is supposed to be noticing (or even indicate to the reader things the POV character *doesn't* pick up on, but the reader can).  In audio form, descriptions of body language and facial expressions carry through as in print....but what about tones of voice?  Narrators must groan when coming across stuff like, "Dev's voice was as cold as a mountain night" or "Underneath the mockery, an edge of old bitterness lurked"...because, damn. Must be really freaking hard to try and speak the line in a way that matches the text description.

In any case, my personal verdict for the audiobook of Whitefire is a big thumbs up!  Next time I have to do a reading at a convention, I kinda wish I could just play Andy's narration instead (it'd certainly solve the problem Mary Robinette Kowal discusses in her excellent advice on reading aloud, of audience miscuing when watching/hearing an author read 1st-person narration from a character of the opposite gender!).  At the very least, I plan to listen first to how Andy narrates any given scene I choose for a reading, so I can figure out how to do a better job when I must read aloud myself.  (I'm, er, not a natural performer. At all.  Readings make me horrendously nervous.)  So I'm eagerly awaiting Audible's release of The Tainted City (should be Oct 2), since I'm likely doing a reading of some kind at MileHiCon  here in Denver in late October.  Gotta listen and practice!  

9 comments:

  1. Yes, yes you do.

    How does the listening experience differ in the performance between the first person (Dev) and third person (Kiran) sections?

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    1. Oh yeah, forgot to talk about that! Dev's sections are very much in his voice - which is really cool and fits perfectly with the book, but it does mean that in some conversations it can be hard to tell which things he's saying out loud vs. just thinking in his head - e.g. the conversations where he talks about his past to Kiran (and later, Cara). In print it's obviously easy to see the (sometimes stark!) difference between what he's revealing aloud to Kiran/Cara vs. only to the reader - in audio, a bit trickier to tell.

      For Kiran's 3rd-person sections, Andy uses a much more neutral voice for the narration, which is a nice contrast to the Dev sections and conveys that same sense of distance that the POV shift provides in print. Of course that also makes it much easier to tell Kiran's speech vs. his thoughts apart.

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  2. The Whitefire Crossing is next up in my queue. I just finished A Civil Campaign.

    In my classes I sometimes require students to read aloud, just to slow them down and make them read all the words. It's a useful and occasionally amusing technique as the student reads a passage twice for entirely different results.

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    1. It's definitely useful to read aloud! I try to do that as part of my last revision pass...assuming I have the time (ha, ha). Really helpful for catching typos, repeated words, and clunky sentences.

      And how was A Civil Campaign? I'd think that one could lend itself well to audio format if the narrator was good.

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    2. The narrotor for all the Vorkosigian books is excellent.

      I'm working on a review of Whitefire for Audible. "... The narrator's precise diction makes every one of Shafer's description flow like honey and shine like alpenglow..."

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  3. I wish I could go back in time and tell my stressed little author self of a few months ago that it was All Going To Be Okay.

    But that would take all the fun out of it, wouldn't it? Today would come and you'd be like, "Oh, she was right." And then you'd think, "Why didn't she tell me some lottery numbers instead?"

    Glad you like the audio!

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    1. Good point on the lottery numbers. Though that never works out well in SFF stories...

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  4. heh, interesting. I'll listen to my audiobooks next time I have 25 hours to spare - possible before I die. Make that 50 hours if I want to compare and contrast UK vs US versions... I did listen to chapter 1 book 1 - too weird.

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    1. Would've been tough for me too except that I had a few longer drives come up soon after the book was released - that helped! I'm told there's an app that'll speed up the narration without affecting pitch/tone - might try that for Tainted City, to fit in longer bits during my 10-minute commute.

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