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The Hack’s Guide to Narrating Audiobooks

Hacks for Hacks - sense of humor required

Warning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

I do almost all of my reading via audiobook. It’s a great way to turn a boring activity like driving or dinner with the family into a thrilling escape to a fantasy world. The surging popularity of audiobooks, combined with the fact that every artsy dilettante already has a USB microphone from their failed attempt to start a podcast, has made the role of audiobook narrator one of the most coveted jobs in literature.

As long as there are artistic professions, there will always be untrained wannabes who think they can succeed with minimal effort. And where there are wannabes, you can be sure there are irresponsible articles like this one about how to break into the narration racket. Let’s begin!

What You’ll Need

  • A good microphone and recording software. I assume you already have these (see the cheap joke about podcasts from paragraph one of this article).
  • Reading glasses. You may or may not need them, but it’s always fun to buy new equipment!
  • A British accent.

Preparation

  • Listen to lots of audiobooks. You’re probably already doing this, but even so, pay close attention to which narrators make good use of inflection and voice. Also note their pacing, particularly pauses; after a comma, the rule of thumb is to pause long enough to take a breath; after a period, pause long enough to mutter to yourself, “Pfft, I sound better than this hack.”
  • Practice reading out loud. Start with your own work, since you’ve already got the rights to it. Reading your own work is also helpful from a writing perspective—reading a piece out loud helps you catch grammatical errors and plot holes, of which you have an alarming number. The despair you feel after noticing these mistakes will add a note of poignant melancholy to your performance.
microphone and pop filter
photo by Anthony Storo

Record

  • Act natural. You’re not reading a book, you’re telling a story. You want to sound like you’re having a conversation with the listener, except they can’t talk back (and isn’t that what every writer wants?). But you can’t do that if you sound like you’re reciting words from a piece of paper; you need to internalize the story. Good narrating is acting, so just do what actors do and memorize the entire manuscript ahead of time.
  • Develop distinct voices for each character. These should be mapped to voices you’re already good at. Me, I’ve got like five voices, including the one I like to call “family dog.” Any narrator who happens to have written the column you’re reading now will tell you that five voices is plenty. One trick I deploy during the writing stage is to never write a book that has more than five characters in it, but you can get the same effect by making all your characters generic and forgettable.
  • Edit out the bad parts. Sure, performance is fun, but if you’re starting out as a narrator, you’ll also have to edit your own audio. Editing takes the awkwardness of hearing your own recorded voice and spreads it over many, many hours of tedious work. You’ll become highly attuned to your every vocal tic, as well as all the gross sounds you inadvertently make with your mouth. The nice thing about audio, however, is that you can just delete all the stuff that sounds bad. Why, you can even delete the entire project if you want! Just putting that out there.

What are your narration tips and tricks? Make your voice heard in the comments!

About Bill Ferris

After college, Bill Ferris left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.