When I arrived at RT17 in Atlanta this year, one of the very first things I did was check in on the handy-dandy app they provide to keep you up-to-speed on all of the happenings. There’s a comprehensive list of events and scheduling reminders and a whole slew of other useful info. There’s also a social thread, where you can post pictures and commentary in a Facebook-like fashion. It was on this thread that I spotted a chick sporting a shirt that read “Narrators Give Good Aural.” How’s that for a perfect pun?
You know I’m a words girl, so I had to stop and start a conversation with the group wearing said shirts when we ran into them on the way to a panel. One thing led to another, and here we are, interviewing a trio of very talented narrators. First up is Karen White, whose name I’m sure some of you will recognize from her work with Jill Shalvis, Rebecca Zanetti and my personal favorite, Julie James. Karen is going to discuss with us some of the more technical aspects of narrating. Thanks so much, Karen, for taking the time to talk to us!
Please introduce yourself to the class.
Hello, my name is Karen White and I am an audiobook narrator. I’m not the same person as the well-known author Karen White, but I have written two books and am working to get them published.
What’s your book background and how did you get started narrating?
I have an MFA in Acting and worked in the theatre for many years. At my wedding, a friend told me about a woman she knew who recorded audiobooks up in Seattle. That woman was Kate Fleming (aka Anna Fields), and Kate gave me some pointers that led to me working as an editor for Dove Audio in Beverly Hills. After a few months of that, I was hired to help run the new Books-on-Tape studio in Los Angeles, where I continued editing and started directing, casting and narrating (as well as answering the phone, etc.). After I had my kids, I cut back to narrating and directing on a freelance basis, and stopped editing, which honestly, I was never terribly good at!
Explain for us how an author would select you to narrate their work. Do you narrate a section for them as an “audition?”
I work primarily for publishers. More and more, authors are (wisely) getting narrator approval in their contracts, so more and more we are either asked to record a 5-minute “sample” (this seems to be a sort of polite way to avoid calling it an audition) or the publisher will send them a sample of similar books I’ve recorded. I do work directly for authors, and usually in that case, they have listened to other books I recorded, and that’s why they reached out to me.
How do you prepare to narrate a book? How many times do you read the book? Do you make notes about characters?
I read through a book (in PDF format) and highlight all kinds of details using the app iAnnotate, including details on all the characters and names/places/words that I don’t know how to pronounce. Then I make notes on all that, organizing the details by character, so that I have a full profile on each one including appearance, accents, and any description of how they move or speak.
I’m a firm believer that nothing reveals an author’s skill like hearing their book read aloud. You get a much better handle on their technical expertise when you HEAR their words. Would you agree and why?
It’s hard for me to say because when I read, even for pleasure, I “hear” the book in my head. I’ve always been that way. My theory is that, akin to Howard Gardner’s theory about multiple intelligences, we also have different imagination/sensory intelligences, meaning that different people have their imaginations connected up most strongly to different senses. For me, it’s always been aural and kinesthetic, but not so much visual. So many people talk about “seeing a movie” when they read, or listen to, or record a book. But I don’t, really. I hear it, and feel it in my body.
That said, I think that reading a book aloud definitely reveals things in the writing that reading it with your eyes does not. Technical things like inadvertent word repetitions and more artistic things like whether dialogue sounds like people actually talk.
Explain the narration process. Is it just you, sitting in front of a computer and reading? Do you record in a studio environment? What kind of equipment do you use? What software programs are used? Do you upload your audio files digitally, or do you send in hard copies?
This has all evolved over the 18 years I’ve been doing this. When I started out, I had to commute to a studio and would work with a director. About 7 years ago, I created a (very primitive) home studio. Now, I work in a studio my husband built (an old friend of his designs recording studios and drew up plans for us based on the ambient sound in the space) that is wonderfully quiet. I use ProTools software and a bunch of other equipment that I honestly don’t understand (my husband is a sound engineer for TV and film, so he covers all that). I used to have to burn the files onto a DVD and mail them in, but now everything is uploaded digitally.
How does the editing process work? I assume you re-record certain portions? Is your narration edited only for accuracy of rendition from the written word, or are you asked to re-record sections to change your emotional response, tone, etc?
I record using what’s called “punch-in” editing, meaning that when I detect a mistake or want to do something over for artistic reasons, I click the cursor at the spot I want to cut in, then when I hit record, I hear the previous 2 seconds and can jump in at the appropriate moment. (For an example of how this works, check out my blooper video – when I’m waiting, that’s me listening to the words that come before.) So when I send in my files, they don’t have any extraneous takes. A proofer then listens to the whole thing while reading the text and marks any mistakes. Then the producer sends me a list of those and I re-record the “pickups” or “corrections.” It would be very unusual to ask a narrator to re-record for artistic reasons. Budgets simply don’t allow for that extra time. As home studio narrators are self-directing as well as narrating, we are given that artistic latitude. Some titles do have the budget to hire a director, and in that case, the director helps make creative choices on the fly.
When narrating different characters, do you change your tone of voice, and if so, how do you maintain a consistent tone for the character throughout the book? When changing voices while narrating, do you record all in one take, or do you break in between character voices? How easy is it to change your voice while recording?
Differentiation of character voices is an important skill – listeners tend to get quite frustrated if they can’t tell who is talking. People have different techniques for doing this. For me, it’s a combination of having an inner picture of each character, and then placing that person in a specific part of my body and vocal apparatus. Sometimes I even tilt my head or angle my body in a certain way. I often use descriptors based on Laban movement analysis to help make a character’s rhythm and attack more specific. When I first record each character, I copy a snippet of their dialogue and save it to replay for reference – invaluable for smaller characters and when I have to record books in a series months or years apart!
Playing multiple characters in a scene is one of the happy challenges to narrating audiobooks. I think it was narrator and director Robin Miles who described it as playing tennis with yourself (including running back and forth from one end of the court to the other). When I get into a flow of that back and forth, it probably looks a little strange, but it’s so much fun.
Quick and Dirties
Favorite book to be read aloud to you as a child
I honestly don’t remember being read to, I think because I started reading at four. I do remember reading the Dick and Jane books aloud to my mom.
Sex scene that made you blush the hardest while narrating
The first time I recorded a sex scene was at Deyan Audio studios in Los Angeles – Julie James’ Just the Sexiest Man Alive. I was working with a 20-something engineer, who thankfully I couldn’t see when I was recording. But when we took a break after that first one, it was a little awkward. That’s when I blushed.
Scene that made you giggle the hardest while narrating
Although I get most of the laughing out on the prep read, I think I was still giggling when recording the scene in Rumor Has It by Jill Shalvis, where the hero catches the heroine listening to a steamy scene in an audiobook and then she tries to claim it’s for her book club!
Scene you’d never, ever want your parents to hear you narrating
Well, none of the sexy times scenes, naturally. But the leopard shifter sex scenes in Christine Feehan’s Leopard Series are pretty dang intense, so they would be at the top of that list.
Narration work you’re most proud of
Well, they are like one’s kids, you have to love them all. But I am quite proud of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. I had to learn how to say a lot of Korean names and words, which was not easy. More importantly, the author is a journalist and does an amazing job of taking facts about North Korean refugees and turning them into stories, so I had great material to work with. All that combined with the fact that this is information that we should all know makes it one of my favorites.
Your dream narration gig
I feel like the whole gig is my dream come true – getting paid to read books! But I’m particularly excited about a title I’ll be recording later this summer because it’s by a writer who has become a friend: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash. I met Wiley a couple years ago and loved his first two books. He told me last year that he’d been thinking about me narrating the book he was finishing up, and I found out a few weeks ago that I got the job. I’m in the middle of the prep read now and it’s a gorgeous book. Beautiful writing, fascinating history – it’s based on the true story of a young, single mother who was pivotal in organizing mill workers in NC in the 1920s – and full of my home state accents! Can’t wait to get started.
Your dream narration partner
Karen White has been narrating audiobooks since 1999 with more than 300 titles to her credit. Honored to be included in AudioFile Magazine’s Best Voices and Speaking of Audio’s Top Ten Listens, she’s also a two-time Audie Finalist and has earned multiple AudioFile Earphones Awards and Library Journal starred reviews. She also directs and produces audiobooks, working from her home base in coastal NC. Karen is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA.
Publishers Weekly says of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, “Karen White delivers a stunning reading, her character interpretations are confident and well-rounded, and she forges a strong bond with the audience.”
The AudioGals say: “Once again, Karen White’s dead-on delivery enhances an already A+ level story.”
Open to US only: One Audio CD of A LOT LIKE LOVE by Julie James
Kisses,Tags: audible, Karen White, narrator, Nikki