You have to speak for the book…but what if it doesn’t speak to you?!

It’s another Joel Leslie monthly blog post!  Thanks guys for all the comments… it’s super cool to hear feedback and it gives me great ideas for more chit chattiness.

Winter greetings! Except, I’m in Florida, so my booth is still pretty warm and squishy…

my booth is hot

In the past week I’ve had the awesome chance to meet audio fans and folks who enjoy my work live and in person. First, I was invited to a book club meeting in Lakeland (about an hour away from me) to chat with a great bunch of gals who had read Victoria Sue’s Alpha King (also known as “the book in which Joel gives birth”). We talked a lot about audio and I did a reading from Victoria’s 2nd in the series which comes out any day now, The Alpha Prince. It was really fun, and BTW if you ever want to get your book club friends on the audio train, try reaching out to a narrator who lives in your area and see if they might pay a visit. I was thrilled to be asked.

Then, the other night I had the chance to meet one of my favorite audio reviewers. Whenever I was giving away ARC audio copies, Dee always wrote the most insightful reviews…and now she’s even reviewing on openskyebookreviews. She was in town for a conference and so we got together for dinner. She has listened to soooo many of my books and was so sweet that I felt like I was a Cumberbatch or something!

Anyway –  During BOTH of my ‘in the wild’ interactions with audio addicts this week, the same question came up…

“What do you do if you’re narrating a book you don’t connect with?”

And, before answering the question, I thought “thank GOD I have a topic for this month’s blog!”

What do you do?

Well – first of all, I’m really lucky. I have a TON of incredible authors that I now have ongoing relationships with, and they fill a lot of my schedule with writing that I love. And, I’m starting to get to a point in my career where I’m in enough demand (thank you listeners!!!) that I can be choosy about the titles that I take on.

But sometimes, there are challenges. For me, if I’m doing my pre-read (and btw if a narrator ever tells you they don’t read the book before they start recording, RUN AWAYYYYYY), and I I’m not immediately itching to jump in the sandbox and play, I work to figure out what’s causing that reluctance. At our dinner, Dee said “every book you do, it always sounds like you love the material”. And that meant a lot to me. Because it’s like going to the cheesecake factory – you know ALLLLL the cheesecakes are gonna make someone’s tastebuds have an orgasm. But, the carrot cake cheesecake I LOVE makes my husband wanna heave. And I have to find a way to LOVE whatever cheesecake I’m eating. Or reading… or… you know what I mean.  (It’s midnight and now I want to go to the Cheesecake Factory. Womp womp).

Anyway –  this is where I am actually grateful for Goodreads (I know, I know). And, trust me, Goodreads reviews of my narration have once or twice made me want to join a monastery just to take a vow of silence and never speak again for the apparent good of mankind… BUT… for a narrator it can be wielded as a tool for good.

Here’s what I do: If I’m not clicking with a book, I will often go down the Goodreads Rabbit Hole of Death and read reviews of the book with which I’m struggling to connect. (I hear you say, Joel, why don’t you prevent yourself the need to emotionally loofah yourself like Ethan Hawke in Gattica and just look at Amazon reviews. Because, sadly, for this particular purpose – blunt reader opinion with no-filter is useful. Scary…but useful). And often I learn a lot about how to tackle the material.  Sometimes I’ll find a bunch of glowing reviews that make it really clear that something might not be my cup of tea, but other people LERVE IT. And those reviews will share why they feel that way. They’ll identify which character makes them melt (good for me to know so I don’t voice them like Urkel) or what scene made them squee or some other aspect that helps me know where I need to be working harder to connect. I’ve worked on books for which I’ve learned there is a rabid fan base but in a genre that wasn’t my personal favorite. And reading those affectionate reviews for the series helped me discover what fun it to bring something to life that people really loved. (In this case many people described it as a guilty pleasure – and that kind of helped give me the freedom to have more fun with the characterizations… to ‘embrace the Telemundo’ if you will).

Andddd, the reverse is true… sometimes the brutally critical reviews can be a huge help to me. People will identify what pulled them out of the story or what didn’t work for them. Then I might just get a sense of where I need to try and bring something to the story that can help. If you are running an obstacle course, it’s great to know where the hurdles are, right? I recently recorded a popular m/m book by a super talented author. In reviews there was one character that seemed to really rubbed a percentage of readers the wrong way. His manner of speaking, they felt, seemed incongruous with the contemporary period because it was very, very formal. One reviewer said it was like they were reading the back of a British Tea packet.  People loved the story, loved the world-building and loved the other lead…but some folks were just driven nutty by this one character. And it’s a series.  And I was gonna be voicing this guy for a LONGGGGGG time. So – I knew THAT was my hurdle. I contacted the author and asked (very carefully) about where the choices for his speech stemmed from. It turns out there is a perfectly jaw-dropping explanation in a later book in the series. But, of course, we don’t know that book one. And my job is to make people listen and love it enough that they WANT book two. So, I crafted my characterization of this guy in a way to make him reluctant, vulnerable and as awkwardly endearing as I could to OFFSET his cold, officious manner on the page. His lines, if delivered with the boldness implied by the phrasing alone, could only emphasize the problem. We based his voice on Stephen Fry who is well spoken, articulate and elitist but one of the most WARM and LIKEABLE people in Britain.  He’s a snob, but somehow his snobbery and intellectual superiority to 99% of the universe is terribly endearing. He has a benevolent, saint-like patience for us lesser mortals. That helped me. I also added a Hugh Grant-y kind of slightly hesitant way of speaking. The lines don’t just fly out of his mouth clipped and confident. It was a struggle for him to communicate…so even though he spoke in a superior manner, I was working to show there was some kind of psychological barrier which dictates his word choice. Language, for him, is a shield… a protection. But… If I hadn’t done a little detective work and realized it was something some readers found distracting on the page I might have just fallen into the trap.

Another example…. I probably am asked to do more than my fair share of BDSM books (hey, everyone deserves their flavor cheesecake). Recently I was voicing a book and one of the MC’s just made me kinddddd of uncomfortable. I don’t have a great deal of experience in that lifestyle, but for some reason I had a hard time liking this particular dom. A lot of people loved the book. But some people felt the same uncertainty that I did. It was really good to know I wasn’t alone in that response. You can’t please everybody all of the time – so one or two people not giving the book a resounding rave isn’t an issue. But, if I’m your narrator, one of them can’t be me.  I have to find a way to bring him to life with love. So, I talked to the author (who luckily I adore… and I totally trust to know more about this world than I do). I think it simply came down to the fact that I am not personally immersed enough in the dynamics of BDSM to know what is and isn’t kosher. What is an acceptable level of nurturing psychological pressure to move beyond your limitations. How much ‘tough’ can you have for it to still be ‘tough love’ and not ‘manipulative jerkface’?  And, I suppose it’s kind of like playing a doctor on TV when they randomly have to ask for the “B932 scapula to bypass the left corduroy artery valve thingy connected to the knee bone”. They know that some medical consultant approved the script in their hand and assured them that particular medical procedure wouldn’t cause the patient to explode. Or whatevs. So, once I knew where this Dom was coming from, I just worked really hard to make him as likeable as I could and give him the kind of voice that the listener could trust as much as his sub did. I went for warm and buttery rather than alpha sand-paper-growl.

So, lovely listeners, I guess when you have a tricky book, it’s kind of like acting a murder mystery. In a mystery, even though all the actors (except one) KNOW their character is innocent, they still have to make acting choices that can be both plausible on second viewing (once the audience already knows the story), BUT that will lead a first time audience into feeling suspicious of them. Because a mystery doesn’t work if you don’t think there are multiple potential suspects. Otherwise it’s not…um…mysterious. Sometimes, if a narrator learns there is a little crack in the foundation we can get in there and add a little extra bracing.

And that’s a good day at the office.

And then most days I might screw it up completely. Just ask Goodreads 🙂


PS if you’re in the holiday mood, I do have a couple of narrations that you might enjoy:

Home for the Holidays by Joe Cosentino
Foxe Den by Haley Walsh
The Festivus Miracle by Kim Fielding

Let me know what you think of my late-night ramblings and I’ll choose a reader and gift them their pick.


14 Responses

  1. Lori S
    Lori S at |

    Thank you for sharing. It was very interesting. Love your narration!

  2. Didi
    Didi at |

    Thank you for sharing your thought with this interesting post, Joel. I don’t consider myself an audiobook reader (having only listened to a couple of books) but I do wonder about this. 🙂

  3. Andrea W.
    Andrea W. at |

    This was a fascinating read! And now I want cheesecake too…

  4. Trix
    Trix at |

    As a listener who can’t always articulate why some stories don’t hit for me, this was really fascinating! (And I wonder if there’s an Urkel fetishist or two out there who would LOVE you voicing a character like his…)

  5. Terri H.
    Terri H. at |

    Great job with all the research! You always provide an entertaining performance, and it’s obvious how much effort you put into it. I’ll buy audiobooks from trusted narrators like you without needing to hear a sample. I’m so glad you’re doing these posts now. 🙂

  6. Kat
    Kat at |

    Not only do i love hearing your audiobook performances, I also love your blog posts.
    This was great. Though I’m sure not all narrators are as thorough as you, it’s great to get some insight into the process.

  7. Petronella Ford
    Petronella Ford at |

    “Goodreads rabbit hole of death” Joel wins the internet for this!!!

  8. Beth Knipple
    Beth Knipple at |

    Joel I must admit I don’t follow, (stalk) narrators other than you. Maybe if I did I would become a cheerleader for them too. But with your explanation of the research you put in before even stepping into your studio I can see why the stories you do come alive in my mind as I listen.

  9. Annika
    Annika at |

    A narrator can easily make or break a book. But there are a select few that can truly make a book come alive, and you are one of those few. I just love listening to your narrated books, they never disappoint – not once. You always know you’re in for a great ride when you pick up one of your books. So thank you for all those wonderful hours we’ve spent listening to you.

  10. susana
    susana at |

    Thank you for such an interesting post, Joel. I never thought reading the reviews, both the good ones and the bad ones, could be so helpful to work with the difficult characters. Anyway, I love your job, you make every single book I’ve listened performed by you a really unique experience

  11. Leigh Wallace
    Leigh Wallace at |

    I like the “story behind the story”, so I like to read author’s blogs, narrator’s blogs, etc. The story didn’t just BAM! magically appear; it went through a process to get to where it ends up and I like to see the process. As a reader, it gives texture and flavor to the story. As a writer, seeing how someone else got there helps me see mine way more clearly in my own work.

  12. 16forward
    16forward at |

    This was a fascinating post…as are all of those whenever a narrator and/or author share their process. I love seeing inside the minds of creative people! When you give us the names of those you model your voice after…such as Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry…we can even go into YouTube and get a visual/auditory of characters in books! Anything to enhance the experience. Happy Holidays!

  13. ButtonsMom2003
    ButtonsMom2003 at |

    I love this post and I love your audio performances.

  14. Jovan
    Jovan at |

    This was a wonderfully insightful post. I’m amazed by your dedication to the work the authors put out and their fandom. Didn’t think I could love you more!


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