Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Ruth Redman, The Audiobook Narrator

8 June 2020

Special Guest Post by Ruth Redman, The Audiobook Narrator

I am an Audiobook Narrator. I work from my home studio, accepting projects from Authors who have a chance to listen to my voice on uploaded voice samples which can be heard by Authors and Editors seeking ‘the right voice’ for their manuscript. It is my job to turn text into sound, to open up access to a work to an audience preferring to listen rather than to read, using my voice to communicate the material accurately and engagingly. Above all, I want them to keep listening.

I say ‘my studio’. Actually for me at the moment that is a somewhat grandiose term for the converted wardrobe which serves the purpose for now. In a spare room in my house, painstakingly soundproofed with eggshell foam and padded with fabric, this little booth is my place of work. Measuring no more than 1.5 metres in each direction and illuminated by a small angle poise lamp it is the hub, the control room and the office all at once from which I conduct my work.

I spend many hours in this little padded cell, talking apparently to myself, working my way through page after page of material, keeping the engine running with sips of water here and there, emerging for breaks or a change of scene from time to time. There is no commute involved, of course, which is nice… the trek from kitchen to spare room taking seconds out of the day but there is no doubt that the job involves a full day of work. It is not just reading a story….

To have become an Audiobook narrator I have embarked on a journey. The learning of new skills, the acquisition of the right equipment and the development of a working practice in which I am accustomed to working entirely on my own; self-reliant, self- sufficient and self-disciplined has taken time, effort and not inconsiderable expense. 

My background and training as an Actress means that reading a text is something I am comfortable with. So is creating character and communicating mood, tension, suspense etc. The need to make sure that that reading is recorded cleanly, sounding professional so as to pass muster for the distributors of Audiobooks on the other hand is (was) way out of my skill set…It requires me to be not only a performer but a Sound Engineer a Proof reader and Editor as well. It is of course possible to ‘farm out’ components of this process and many do.

Once I have accepted an invitation to narrate a work, the first thing I have to do is to read the whole book. More than once. It’s important to know the direction of travel of the plot, to meet and find out about the characters and to be familiar with the overall ‘arc’ of the story. It’s no use just being a few steps ahead of the reader… that’s too much like the blind leading the blind. They , the listeners will be taken by surprise at times… It is important that I am not.

Being prepared means looking in detail at the locations, the events surrounding the characters and in many cases driving their actions and responses, and of course the characters themselves. What clues has the author provided to describe them? What motivates them, how do they express themselves and how do they speak? 

Any regional accents need to be researched and adopted in performance and finding ways to depict characters vocally without any kind of visual help means making decisions about the way they talk… Are they young or old? Kindly and patient, or fierce and overbearing? Decisions I make need to be turned into vocal ‘portraits’ which not only differentiate them from other characters in the same scene but which mean that they are recognisable when they turn up later in the story. A vocal choice needs to be repeatable and above all, engaging for the listener.

Katherine Tudor Duchess’ by Tony Riches is a book I narrated fairly recently. In it there were several scenes between Katherine and Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife. When speech is attributed to two women in a conversation, both called Katherine (or Catherine) it is important to find ways to make sure the listener can tell who is speaking… requiring me to find different ways to use my voice.. variations in pace, tone, pitch and the way they breathe for example. 

A character may appear early in a novel and not make a re-appearance until much later on… I need to keep track of them and how they sound…Keeping them in a kind of Audio library to retrieve and refer to so they sound the same each time they appear in the story is essential. (Before I learned to do this I spent many ‘happy’ hours trawling through previous scenes trying to find and re-create those voices…Certainly an example, never to be repeated, of learning through experience.. and that was whilst narrating a novel which contained 75 different characters.)

Of course, being an Audiobook Narrator is often fun. You are cast in all the roles at once, you are the director and free to make your own artistic choices. It is a chance to play roles you would never be cast in were the decisions solely down to the way you look, as is the case in other areas of performance. In ‘Katherine Tudor Duchess’ I was a young princess, a tyrannical King, A scheming chancellor, numerous children, embittered and manipulative politicians, and so on and so forth…. The list is enormous. Actors love to find ways to create character and tell stories and the narration of a text provides an excellent platform for that.

As I said earlier, the Narrator needs to be happy working alone. Of course that isn’t completely true. The dialogue between Author and Narrator is important. He or she has chosen you for the qualities you bring to their work and trusted you to bring it to life. The characters and stories are filtered through you but remain theirs at some level, so for them to feel happy entrusting their creation to you means that they are likely and welcome to comment. 

Some Authors take a light touch approach, others like to make directorial comments from time to time. Each situation is of course different. As with any other artistic creation, each person contributing to it works alone, yet is part of a ‘company’ whose collective endeavours produce the end ‘performance.’ Audiobook narrators are no exception to that. 

We are all in different places when we do our bit… The Author from his or her study, me in my sound booth, the Producer in the office… wherever they are, potentially even in different parts of the globe (the previous author I worked with would message me from her office in Tasmania) but the finished production, ultimately, is connected, finally being shared intimately by a voice telling a story in your ear.

Ruth Redman
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About the Author

Ruth Redman is an Actress and Audiobook Narrator. She narrates from her Home Studio. She is a trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and works in Theatre, Film and Television in addition to her Narration work. Visit her website for more information, and find her on Twitter @ruthredman12

Listen to a short excerpt, narrated by Ruth Redman:

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US
Audible and iTunes

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