If You Can’t Make Them Read it, Read it to Them

IMG_3250As a writer on the internet, I want people to read my work, but I don’t want to lose their attention. That’s why I do audio recordings. My philosophy is this: if I can’t get people to read my stories, then I’ll read my stories to them.

If this is the age of multitasking, then why fight it? People should experience my words the way they want to. On a long road trip, as they chase the horizon. On a woodland trail full of leering shadows. On an elliptical machine, skiing in place.

If you can’t give me your undivided attention, then I’ll take what I can get.

This is for writers who have done everything to get new readers, and are willing to try to get new listeners instead.

Preparation

You don’t notice all the noise pollution in your life until you try to record an audiobook. Close your eyes before you start recording. What do you hear?

There are things that you can control: the ceiling fans, the air conditioners, the vibration from your phone against the coffee table.

There are things that you can’t control: The birds chirping just outside your window, the subwoofers thumping on by, the car alarms wailing into the night.

My cat, Mala, likes to rub her nose against the microphone while I’m recording. My voice is her cuddle cue. The moment I start reading she emerges from the blinds, leaps over my shoulder, and steps on my crotch. Then she swings her tail into my face. She’s shedding, which means her fur sticks to my stubble like Velcro. Her fur bonds to my chap stick and I’m stuck trying to spit it out.

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The sound of the cat enjoying herself for even a millisecond, provokes the dog’s jealousy. Scully runs up to the couch, paws at my knee, and howls at the ceiling.

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Mala knocks the microphone to the floor where Scully can gnaw on the cord. I confine them in the bedroom where they can work out their differences. Apart from Scully feasting on the contents of Mala’s litter box, they’re quiet.

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Lock up your pets.

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Parents, make sure your children are heavily sedated. Put warm milk in a caulking gun, run them down, and apply a liberal dose.

Limit your distractions. What the microphone doesn’t catch, you will. Every time someone runs up the stairs you’ll loose your place. Every time someone stomps down the hall you’ll trip over your words. Every time someone flushes a toilet, you will hit your head against the desk.

PRO TIP: Do not let anyone sit in on your first recording sessions. Not unless you want them to hear you let out a string of obscenities whenever you mess up, and you will mess up a lot.

With your pets corked, your kids in comas, and your lovers out on long walks, you’ll be ready, but this doesn’t mean there won’t be noise on the track.

Execution

The worst noise pollution will come from you. Every time you draw breath, it will sound like steam shooting from a tea kettle. Every time your lips smack, it will sound like you took a bite out of three bananas at once. Every time you adjust your seat, it will sound like you lined your couch with whoopee cushions.

You could invest in a pop filter. It’s a rig you can latch onto the microphone to catch all those phantom P’s and hard S’s. You could make one yourself. I’ve heard that pantyhose wrapped around a coat hanger will do the trick. I for one don’t have the pantyhose to spare, so I use something else.

Two words: NOISE GATE. If your recording software has one, use it. If you’re on a Mac, open Garageband, create a new document, choose VOICE, and click the lowercase ‘I’ icon in the lower right. Then go up to the EDIT tab in the upper right. Turn NOISE GATE on. I set mine to negative 35 decibels. This will vary depending on how deep you breathe. Play around with it until you find something that works for you.

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Revisions

Reading your work aloud will tell you a lot about how it flows. If your tongue keeps twisting, if you keep wiping out in the middle of run on sentences, you’ll have to make some revisions. You’ll start to see the value of shorter sentences. My background in spoken word poetry has taught me a lot about choosing my words carefully. You’ll have to choose between the most evocative word or the easiest one to pronounce. You’ll be hyper aware of how many syllables each word uses.

I’ve started my morning recording sessions only to diverge into a day of edits. This is why I recommend you start with your shortest pieces. Poems are good, because you can keep rerecording them until you achieve perfection.

PRO TIP: if your recording software has a metronome, slip on some headphones, and use it. You want your reading pace to be consistent.

If you find yourself stumbling, even after your revisions, try these fixes.

Make a copy of your document so you can alter the format to make it easier to read aloud. Choose a small font and enlarge the page 500%. Trust me, there’s a method to my madness. This way you can read as much of a sentence as possible without having to find your place on the next line. If you have the time, give every sentence its own line just like verses in a poem. Space out the dialogue. Color coat the quotes to match each character.

PRO TIP: If you’re afraid that you’re mispronouncing a word, highlight it and have your computer read it aloud to you. If you’re on a Mac you can set OPTION and ESC to trigger the computer’s reading voice.

Don’t be afraid to try new inflections while you’re reading. Just remember that questions end with upwards inflections and statements do not, unless your character is a valley girl, in which case its upwards inflections all the way.

PRO TIP: Before giving a character a crazy accent, find one of their longest lines of dialogue. Read it and see how long you can sustain their accent. If it slips, then you better tone it down. Trust me, it’s no fun to have to rerecord a day’s worth of dialogue because you thought you could fake a British accent.

(Everyone wishes they looked like Benedict Cumberbatch. I just want to sound like him.)

Conclusion

When it comes down to brass tacks, my audio shorts get more hits than my text entries. This blog will come out, a few people will get this far. Later, the audio version will come out and several thousand words will be condensed into a few minutes of information. That tiny wave form is not as intimidating as this long scroll of text. More people will hear it than they will read it.

With my first novella, I couldn’t find a beta reader to save my life. Everyone told me that they started, but then something shiny had caught their eye, and they ran off to follow it. It’s hard for your audience to gage the length of a text file. I had to make print outs to get anyone to read all the way to the end.

With my audiobook Terms and Conditions, I got complements from coworkers I didn’t think knew I had a website. They downloaded the file and saw it was only one hour and thirty minutes long.

They must have figured, “What the hell? I’ll give it a few minutes and see where it takes me.”

That’s the best you can hope for. If you can persuade a crowd of people to give you a moment, you might just wow a couple of them.

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6 thoughts on “If You Can’t Make Them Read it, Read it to Them”

  1. Thanks for the tips, Drew. I’m keen to start experimenting with voice recordings. Like you say, it adds another dimension, texture, the temptation to click and linger a little longer.

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  2. I have found that reading my writing aloud (without recording myself because that’s just a nightmare) really helps me in the editing process too. It’s amazing how different something sounds in my head compared to out loud. It really does help me adjust the flow of my story so I’m not trailing off over a cliff of words or hitting a confusing wall of “what the heck was I thinking here?!” Great post!

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  3. Great info! I also like to read my work aloud during revision. Though I’m not to the point of recording audio versions of my work, I am experimenting with vlogging and have encountered many of the same issues discussed here.

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  4. Hey! No wonder I dig your vibe! Spoken word folks are some of my favorite people. 😉 I’ve recorded poetry this way and maybe one story, but I hadn’t thought about blog entries or doing anything more regularly. I might consider it. I’d just have to make sure I had decent equipment. Though, really, my iPad isn’t half-bad with recordings.

    Is there such a thing as an audio beta? I just know that I sound totally different to myself than I do to other people and maybe that would be weird for readers? I’m not terribly self-conscious, but i’d hate to turn someone off with a recording when I feel like it’s the words and not my voice that should matter.

    Thoughts? Thanks for the tips!
    ~A23

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    1. It’s not a bad idea. I treat audio recordings a lot like first drafts. I’ll record one and come back to edit it a few days later, hearing the recording with a fresh set of ears. The thing to consider is just how much free time you have to refine a single recording.

      I’ve done ten takes in the name of perfectionism and then gone back to the original. Sometimes it’s best to get your art out into the world and just move on to the next thing.

      The more I share online the more I realize that quantity matters.

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