Each May, the Audio Publishers Association holds its annual conference (APAC) in New York City. I attended two years ago and can testify that it is a wonderful place for those in the industry to catch up with one another and network. There are numerous panels and workshops to attend that are rather short in length but there is just so much in the industry to cover that more just isn’t possible.
This past May, Johnny Heller hosted a narrators workshop the day before APAC, allowing for a longer event (9:30 – 4:30). Aptly titled Johnny Heller’s All Star Narrator Workshop (I think – no wait, it was actually the 1st Annual Johnny Heller Splendiforous Slambang Audiobook Workshop/Celebration Thingamabob), it featured a number of panels and coaching sessions led by Scott Brick, Simon Vance, Robert Fass, Karen White, Carol Monda, Peter Berkrot, PJ Ochlan, Jeffrey Kafer, and, of course, Johnny Heller.
Karen White had discussed romance narrations at length with the AudioGals reviewers prior to the event as she prepared a romance presentation along with Carol Monda and Jeffrey Kafer. Apparently the workshop was a huge success and Karen had a lot to share with us – so much in fact that I felt it highly worthy of an AudioGals chat.
And as we chatted, I realized we were essentially talking about the basics of romance narration and what we as listeners want and need to hear. Therefore – the primary title for this chat shifted from Chatting with Karen White About May’s Narrator Workshop to A Primer for Narrating Romance as that better describes this particular chat although the workshop covered all genres.
Chatting with Karen
LEA Hi Karen. Welcome back to AudioGals!
KAREN Thanks, I feel like I’ve been here quite a few times this year, so thanks for having me yet again!
LEA You always have great things to share.
KAREN Thank you. I do love to chat audiobooks. I’m just now happily remembering hanging out with you and talking endlessly about them (as well as a few other things) at RWA in San Antonio a year ago.
LEA Can you believe that was a year ago? I so enjoyed working with you on that presentation and just visiting when we were able to take a break. A good time although WOW, hot!
KAREN Oh, yes it was hard to keep the professional look walking through 100 degree heat to the conference.
LEA Uhh, yeah!!
LEA We’re interested in knowing more about a narrator’s workshop you participated in this last May right before APAC. Can you give us an overview?
KAREN Well, narrator and voice-over coach Johnny Heller thought it might be a good idea to take advantage of so many narrators being in New York at one time for APAC and put together a positive learning experience for narrators who aren’t brand spankin’ new, but who have been working for a relatively short time, perhaps mostly through ACX, and are just starting to break in to the major publishing market. APAC is a great conference for networking, and one can learn some useful things, but it’s hard to cover topics for the wide variety of narrators that attend.
KAREN Johnny put together a panel of experienced narrators, including myself, to be the “coaches” and more than eighty people signed up pretty quickly!
KAREN We were all together in one big room, so Johnny had each first give some “wise words” or “deep thoughts” talk about what we were passionate about as narrators. Then we each had assigned topics to talk about for a bit (mine were Social Media and Romance) and then in the afternoon each coach worked for twelve minutes (exactly!) with an individual narrator in front of the group.
KAREN It WAS a very positive experience and I think we all learned a great deal and were buoyed by the sense of community and desire to produce good work.
LEA To give our readers a better idea of the scope of this workshop, I’m including the schedule here:
BREAKING DOWN THE SCENE – ACTING ADVICE – Peter Berkrot
WEBSITES/SOCIAL MEDIA – Scott Brick
ACX AND THE EXPERIENCED NARRATOR – Jeffrey Kafer & Jason Ojalvo
ROMANCE /EROTICA – Karen White, Carol Monda & Jeffrey Kafer
ONE-ON-ONE AND/OR GROUP DIRECTION ON COPY – Johnny Heller, Scott Brick, Peter Berkrot, Carol Monda, Jeffrey Kater, PJ Ochlan, Karen White, Robert Fass, & Simon Vance
NON FICTION – Robert Fass
CHARACTER PRESENTATION – PJ Ochlan
LEA I was so pleased to see Romance garner a spot in the workshop.
KAREN Well, yes, people realize that it is a huge genre.
KAREN As you know, I polled your reviewers to get their pet peeves and wish lists for newer narrators and you all gave me a lot to work with.
LEA I saw your summary! In my Calibre size 14 font, it was ten pages of thoughts from our AudioGals reviewers.
LEA We do like to think we know what we are talking about. :)
KAREN And so much of what your reviewers talked about is applicable to all narration, I think.
KAREN The first thing I said to the group was that if you are not going to take this genre seriously and treat it with the same respect as any other, you should NOT take the work, because the listeners can hear that disrespect!
LEA I saw your comment about taking the genre seriously on Karen Commins’ blog and I believe you easily got that feeling from us. Disregard for the genre can come off as an insult to the listener. It is almost an intangible but we DO hear it!
KAREN If one does this for a living, one is going to encounter a wide range of writing skill, no matter the genre. And part of the job is elevating the less skilled writing as much as possible and not ruining the really good writing! But for whatever reason, people just assume romance writing is all the same and bad writing. I confess that I thought that, too, at one time. Before I read a Julie James book, that is
LEA I thought it once too Karen. I didn’t start reading romance until 2000 – I was actually a sort of snob when it came to reading.
KAREN So, I did talk to the narrators about some thing that were particular to the romance genre, like not only differentiating the characters clearly, but figuring out how to make your opposite gender characters “feel” like men (or women, depending on your own gender) even if you can’t sound exactly like a man.
KAREN And there was fun stuff on narrating intimate scenes.
LEA Those intimate scenes are part of your job but even we love to see the fun side of all that since some of us have a hard time with those intimate scenes!
KAREN I read this comment by Kaetrin aloud and it got a huge laugh (but I hope they got the point):
KAREN “I want believable emotion in the listen, not just in the dialogue but in the narrative. Subtle tends to work better than overdone – the text does a lot of the work. But I listened to an audiobook last week which I found really boring and part of it was that the narrator sounded so flat during the numerous sex scenes. Seriously, she’d say “I’m coming” (something the character said A LOT) like a bored McDonalds worker saying “here’s your order”. It wasn’t passionate or emotional or engaging and it put me off.”
LEA Kaetrin does have a way about saying things.
KAREN But the other end of the spectrum is when a narrator gets too vocally involved, as Melinda says:
KAREN “Please keep the bedroom fiction low key, or at least lower key than full bore ‘I’m actually in the bedroom watching you’ level. I can use my imagination even if the narrator is subtle.”
KAREN To me, the key to narrating an intimate scene is to focus on playing the action between the characters. For actors, this means that each thing a characters says is part of getting what they want emotionally from the other character. And the more specific you are about what the character wants, the more real it sounds. This allows the subtext (what he or she is really saying underneath the words) to come out in the dialogue. And, what the characters are feeling drives the dialogue as well as the narrative. The author may give you hints as to what the character’s subtext is with their inner monologue or with an attributive, but sometimes you have to make it up. Finally, I try to keep the emotions as real as possible and I think that keeps the result from feeling, uh, Peeping Tom-ish.
LEA Well, you have it there. I couldn’t articulate that sense of keeping the emotions real if I tried but you just nailed it.
KAREN Thank you! It also makes it more fun and less… weird…to be acting out these scenes all by oneself. Or with a 20 year old engineer!
LEA What were some of the other topics covered in the romance presentation?
KAREN I think the rest of the issues you all raised are applicable to all audiobook narration, actually, and I’ve seen them in other posts. Things like wooden narrative vs. over-acted narrative, pacing, distracting breaths, poorly performed accents. And something which boggles my mind – not paying attention to specific dialogue tags! That’s the simplest thing. If the writer say, “she answered primly”, then that tells you how to say it!
LEA Oh, I like this!
LEA That’s very critical when I’m listening. Don’t go wooden or all sunshine on the narrative.
KAREN But the other things are tricky to find by yourself, or even with a director if the director doesn’t know how to speak “actor language”.
KAREN Finding the tone of the narrative is about a few things – reading the script carefully and then using whatever experience you have to understand what the writer’s “voice” or “tone” is so that you can embody it. And then being as in the moment as possible when you’re recording.
KAREN But both of those things require a LOT of practice and/or very good guidance from directors and coaches.
KAREN If it’s first person, it’s pretty easy to understand that you are telling the story from that person’s POV and you should allow how they feel about the story to infuse the telling of it.
KAREN But in third person, you have to figure out how much to infuse the narrative with that kind of emotion. Scott Brick articulated it in terms of three levels.
KAREN The first was the “eye of God”, I believe he called it. Where the narrator sees all but is distant from what’s going on. That would lead the actor to be more dispassionate.
KAREN Then the second is where the narrator knows what the characters are thinking. Then the narrative voice is a little more involved.
KAREN But there’s third person narrative where the narrator knows what all the characters are feeling, too. Which happens a lot in romance titles. And that narration just demands that you deliver it with those feelings.
KAREN What’s clear is that you have to treat the narrative voice like another character and fully understand what that character’s relationship to the story and the characters is. And it might shift over the course of the story, too!
LEA Since I have written about romance audio for years now, I probably know the intricacies of what does and doesn’t work best for the listener (although we all have different tastes) and I have thought a lot about the challenges of narrating romance.
LEA I think romance listeners demand more and maybe it is that third level you just mentioned. We want to hear all of that emotion. And it makes me wonder – do we, in fact, demand more from a narrator?
LEA Even if the emotion is ever so subtle – we need to hear subtle.
KAREN I think it’s a combination of being discerning (a nicer way of saying demanding, I think) and being vocal about what you want. How healthy!
KAREN There are listeners who will listen to a computerized voice or a bunch of different volunteer voices narrate a single book because it’s free.
KAREN But for the discerning listener like you, a performance that “gets” the genre and the individual writer’s style seems important. The narrator needs to know whether the choices SHOULD be theatrical and broad or SHOULD be subtle. For some narrators it seems to be instinctive, for others it seems to take a lot of direction. Good instincts plus good direction seems to be a good combo, at least to start off well.
That said, I think we all connect more easily with some writers than others – and you all can tell when that match is good. It feels to us and it sounds to you like the performer’s voice IS the writer’s voice. When I record a Jill Shalvis book, I feel like I am so funny. Like I am making it up as I go, because for whatever reason I get her sense of humor and way of telling a story. But for other writers I have to work a bit more to find the narrative style (which means that sometimes its trial and error and I end up re-recording the first chapter).
LEA Approximately 50% of my listening time is spent with general fiction or non-fiction. I listen a LOT so it still allows me a good amount of time for romance listening. I actually appreciate romance more when I’m mixing it up like that.
KAREN For us, too, I think getting to narrate different genres is informative. When I narrate fantasy and get to voice a dragon, or do a cozy mystery and have to populate a whole town with crazy characters, that gives me a chance to play around with new things.
KAREN And the challenge of narrating non-fiction is that you REALLY have to make that author’s voice your own because that’s all there is.
LEA I can see that entirely.
LEA But here is another question I’ve wanted to pose (that works in perfectly with today’s chat) – do we as romance listeners require more differentiation of male and female characters? I’m not near as picky about this when I’m listening to general fiction. I still want to know if it is a man or woman speaking but I don’t really mind if a male narrator goes high for a female character as I would with romance.
KAREN Most listeners want differentiation because they don’t want to be distracted by wondering who is speaking.
LEA I’m okay with just a general differentiation – but I don’t require the detailed personality traits of the hero or heroine as I do in romance.
KAREN But I do think romance listeners, more than others, want to FEEL like the hero and heroine are believable.
KAREN And that means that a man FEELS like a man and a woman FEELS like a woman.
LEA And THIS is why you are so effective at narrating romance! It’s all about portraying feeling and I guess that leads back to your first romance observation in the workshop of respecting romance as we feel the disrespect?! That FEELS sorta personal.
LEA But when it comes right down to it, I just don’t require the same engagement of characters from the narrator in a John Grisham book as I do in a Julie James.
KAREN Do you think it’s also because you read/listen to romance for the emotional journey? And if the hero and heroine don’t go on that in a believable way then it detracts from the experience?
LEA I do, in fact. And I have been wanting to feature that possibility in a larger arena than just my mind! I honestly don’t know how a brand new narrator can pull off an effective romance narration unless possibly they are romance fans themselves (in the truest sense of the word – meaning romance GENRE – not a book someone thinks is romantic).
KAREN A new narrator should at the least study the genre before narrating it. All of them, really. But they don’t always teach romance in college lit courses
LEA We understand most clearly that there is a lot of misperception out there about the romance genre. The belief is that it’s all formula or sex or crying emotion. Or, heaven help us – brainless! But that judgment comes from NON-romance readers – those who have never given the genre a serious try. Oh, there is junk in the genre just as with any genre but there are extremely well written dramatic or funny or psychologically deep or otherworldly romances everywhere. Okay – that’s leading up to this…
LEA Since I have your undivided attention…
LEA Romances have hopeful endings – look anywhere – the Romance Writers Association or other representative groups and you will hear that the happily-ever-after or hopeful ending is a requirement. The hero or heroine doesn’t die. They may go through some major trials and separations but on that last page, they are together. Romance readers love the guarantee of an eventual happy ending. It’s the reason I can mix romance so effectively with non-fiction and general fiction. So, we romance listeners have a BIG complaint. Someone in the audio publishing industry just doesn’t understand the romance industry. Otherwise, why would Bridges of Madison County even be a finalist for a Romance Audie much less the winner?!
KAREN We may need a petition to go to the Audies committee!
LEA The hero dies before the end of the book! The protagonists aren’t even together all that much in terms of years and the ultimate romance sin (beside the whole unhappy ending thing) is NO adultery for the leads. How’s that for old fashioned? But that’s romance.
LEA And worst of all, for the larger audio industry? It means dedicated romance narrators have less of a chance of winning an Audie in the romance category when the Audies committee insists on including non-romance titles as finalists. And it happens year after year.
KAREN That is an excellent point.
LEA Whew – bottled up a little since the Audies…
KAREN Yes, and to get back to the narrator’s job, here’s my thought: I think there is a fantasy element in romance, but one that has to be respected. Of course life doesn’t have HEA – the real ending is that we all die eventually! But obviously there is a desire for this fantasy of the HEA among listeners. And the respect means that you don’t think, “Oh, Romance, it’s not real, so I should act like I’m in a Soap Opera.” Instead, you understand what in theatre would be called “The World of the Play” and you make everything you do as believable as possible within that world. Which, technically you should do if you’re acting in a Soap Opera, as well, but that’s a different rant.
LEA There! Perfect!
LEA We need emotion and fantasy but we also buy a LOT of romance audios.
KAREN EVERY audiobook has its own acting challenge. You just have to understand what that challenge is.
KAREN And to get back to the male/female character thing. There are technical, vocal things that people do to make themselves sound like the opposite genre.
KAREN For women to make male voices, you can add texture and/or place it in the chest resonator. But you have to be careful not to push it down or you’ll damage your voice.
KAREN And for men I’ve heard that “lightening” the sound helps, also placing it more in the face, rather than thinking of just raising the notes.
LEA Both are clearly very effective for me as a listener.
KAREN But I really think that you have to embrace THINKING like that individual person and that’s what really sells it. When I did my first romance, I kind of had my generic cocky frat guy voice and I think you can hear that it’s general.
LEA It’s definitely effective differentiation but once you are past that, it’s also all about attitude – however a narrator feeds that into the romantic leads – it’s what we have been talking about.
KAREN What I heard from this workshop in particular is that these narrators want to do a good job, and they are willing to work on it. Hopefully we gave them more to go on than simple trial and error.
KAREN So many new narrators are having to develop their craft while self-directing. And they are taking classes, but sometimes that means just a few hours of coaching, and what they take away are general ideas.
KAREN So I HOPE that the ones who do want to succeed in this genre had some SPECIFIC takeaways to apply.
KAREN Oh, and when we figured out that Jeffrey Kafer had narrated at least as many romance titles as I have, I do think that was an eye opener for the male narrators in the room.
LEA He does know his craft!
LEA Two years ago when I attended APAC (and was part of the panel you moderated), I had the sense that many of the males in the audience were surprised when I stated that romance listeners want more male narrators. Did you see evidence that more are open to narrating romance?
LEA I admit that it is a woman’s genre for the most part, but that also means women appreciate a male’s well-executed performance of a love story especially if there is a strong male POV.
KAREN I didn’t get questions from any man, but there was the sense that it’s a pleasant surprise. Honestly, most actors are always happy to hear about more opportunities to work!
LEA Are there any other details you’d like to share with us either about this workshop or APAC in general?
KAREN There are always more topics to talk about – pacing, breathing and turning down work when you think you can’t do a good job all came up at the workshop. Being present, or “in the moment” was a shared value for most of the coaches on the dais. As well as finding a way to personally connect to the text, as well as to the listener when you’re recording. For every book, there is someone out there who needs to hear it, and the narrator has to keep that in mind when working, and tell the story for that person. Hopefully there’s more than one!
KAREN My takeaway from the day was that we can learn a lot from each other – narrators can learn from what listeners want. I got so much from reading what your reviewers had to say as I prepared for the workshop. Then I learned from my fellow coaches and from questions that the students asked. And I hope that your listeners can learn from discussions like these!
LEA Since there is a significant amount of content from the Narrators Workshop that we did not cover today, what do you think about joining me here again in September so we can continue the discussion?
KAREN Sure, I’d love to talk more about narration technique with you!
I’d love to hear if there are topics that your readers want to hear more about, but three that I can think of (and we may be moving beyond this particular workshop here, but these are items that come up a lot): pacing, breathing and enunciation.
LEA Then it’s a date! Thanks for joining us today and for the promise of returning again soon.
Readers/listeners – are there romance narration topics you would like to see discussed in one of these chats?
For more about Johnny Heller’s All Star Narrator Workshop, visit Karen Commins’ blog for a great overview of the workshop – Ten Takeaways from Johnny Heller’s All-Star Narrator Workshop.
Thanks to Karen for visiting with us today and her unwavering efforts to spread the word about quality romance narrations!