I’m Allyson Johnson, and I took a rather circuitous path to becoming an audiobook narrator. First let me just say that I have always, always loved books! One of my fondest childhood memories is going to the Chicago Public Library with my mother, choosing and checking out books, then taking them home, where I would proceed to read them aloud to my stuffed animals. (As an only child, this was as close as I could get to having someone listen.) So I guess, in a way, I was a narrator from the beginning.
It wasn’t until 7 ½ years ago, however, that I actually incorporated audiobook narration into my career. After moving to New York City with a Psychology degree, I did social work for a number of years, before making a career shift into tv production. It was there that I began doing voice-over work and found a calling, of sorts. After I left television, I started working with a coach, to learn the craft of voice acting, mic technique, etc. This led to work in commercial, promo, and industrial voice-over, which I’ve continued to do for almost two decades. But I longed for opportunities that would expand my skill set…that would allow me to depict characters who didn’t necessarily sound like me.
My first books were Children / YA titles, from early readers like “Corduroy”, to a lovely series about race relations in Depression-era Mississippi, by Mildred D. Taylor. Her “Let the Circle Be Unbroken” remains one of my favorites. I also voice the ongoing Honor Harrington space opera series (a genre that is such fun to record), by David Weber. I recently had the privilege of narrating “Harmony”, a wonderful sci-fi classic by esteemed scenic designer, Marjorie B. Kellogg. And I was honored to be chosen by author Ntozake Shange to read her poetic memoir, “Lost in Language & Sound”.
When I’m assigned a book, the first thing I do is get out notecards, a pen,and a pencil (some initial choices might need to be erased later). Even in this digital age, I prefer having hard copies of my notes to refer back to. Those cards have come in handy on more than one occasion. You should see the stack I’ve compiled for the Honor series! Next I open a couple of bookmarked dictionaries on my computer. Sometimes I need foreign language dictionaries, in addition to the English ones, depending on where a book is set. You’d be surprised how many words you think you know until you actually look them up! Rule of thumb – if there’s even a chance that you might get it wrong, check the dictionary.
Once I’m all set up, I settle in to read the book. The whole book, from start to finish. It’s important (especially with fiction) to know in advance where the story is going and how the characters develop / interact with one another. I also find it essential to know which characters, besides my protagonist, are going to talk a lot. Because I don’t want to give them voices that I can’t maintain for several hours. And there are many times when an author does not indicate where a character is from, therefore what accent s/he should have, until quite a ways into the story.
My performing background is more musical than anything else. So I’ve always approached narration from that viewpoint. As I prep, I’m hearing the characters speak in my head and taking notes on any vocal traits the author gives me. There is an inherent rhythm to sentence structure, so I’m also marking places where I know I’ll need to breathe, and underlining words that need emphasis. Unlike rehearsing a play or a song, I won’t have the opportunity to go over and over a line (unless I mess it up in the booth…which happens all the time) so I find these little cues save me time. If I stay “in my head” while prepping, I can stay “out of my head” while recording.
If I stay “in my head” while prepping, I can stay “out of my head” while recording.
As I read, I’m marking my script so that I can tell who’s talking before I say the sentence. For me, this generally means writing the first letter or two of their name in the left margin. Some narrators highlight different characters in different colors, but my mind is a little more linear and a little less visual. Occasionally, I mentally yell at authors who have a predilection for creating multiple names that start with the same letter, but overall this system works for me. I like to keep two sets of notes for each book — one with character names, brief descriptions, and vocal choices, another with words and phrases that I need to look up, or ask the author about, later.
Nowadays, you can find many resources online, some with audio pronunciations (a godsend). For instance, there are sites like http://www.dialectsarchive.com/ where you can hear people speak English in a variety of native accents. http://www.forvo.com/ is useful for hearing foreign words spoken by natives. In addition, you can find all sorts of things on YouTube, like the way a “real” person says his or her own name, or how someone from a specific place says the name of a town. And I’m a huge fan of calling a local Chamber of Commerce or Embassy. The folks who work in these places are always friendly and eager to help you get their regionalism right.
Once all of the preliminary prep is done, I go back over my notes and make choices about how I’m going to do each voice. Frequently, I can simply write these down in shorthand. I don’t rehearse them, per se. But for books with lots of characters, I get out my digital recorder and read a few sentences in that person’s voice, so that I can refer to them in the session. With a series, this consistency is particularly important because sometimes you go months or even years between books. However, a listener might be listening to them back-to-back. I prefer to record with an engineer, whenever possible, to have another person’s ears helping me maintain my energy, my accents, and catching those mispronounced words that I was oh-so-sure I knew!
The hardest part of narration? Hmmm…. I guess that would be when there are lots of characters who are the same-sex, same basic age, from the same place, all speaking to one another in a scene. You have to come up with creative ways of distinguishing them, without taking the listener out of the story.
My favorite part of narrating happens in the booth itself. You know…the part most people assume narration is but that, like most worthwhile endeavors, can only happen after much work has been done. At this point, I get to sit down and do what I love to do best…tell a story. I can stop thinking about the book intellectually and just flow with the prose, living in the characters’ worlds for those blessed hours when I get to leave my own world behind. It is this experience of breathing life into the writer’s words that is the most fulfilling.
I asked Allyson a bonus question, “if she were to write a memoir, who would she want to narrate her story?” To be honest, I’m not sure who I would want to narrate my own memoir, besides…er…the obvious 🙂 I can’t really give you a specific name. But I’d want it to be one of my fellow journeymen…an audiobook narrator who’s had lots of experience recording books, who shares my reverence for the craft and art of making words sing.
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