Howdy – It’s Joel Leslie again with my monthly ramble.
Happy New Year! I hope your holidays were tryptophan-tastic!
I don’t have many visual aids for you this week, so here’s a totally unnecessary picture of our new puppy 🙂
Her name is Princess Ginger Snap. And last night she learned that jumping on the treadmill with Daddy is a poor life choice. Anyhoo…
I touched on this a tiny bit in my last blog, and I think it’s such an interesting topic that I thought we might explore it a bit more. Actually… to be honest… I was going to talk about how I break down a script and take you through that process, but then I realized that I was going to be posting screen shots of a book that I’m doing for Scholastic that actually hasn’t been released yet so I basically could have been put in narrator prison for giving away massive spoilers to the interwebs. So… that one’s on pause.
So – reviews. Since you’re reading this on a review blog, I’m sure you’ve already heard this a MILLION times… but reviews… good, bad, in-between are invaluable. If you love a particular author, the greatest way you can thank them is by leaving reviews on amazon (for print) because it helps their visibility enormously. If it’s on audio, we really, realllllyyyy appreciate the review being posted on audible (rather than goodreads or somewhere else) because audio listeners tend to shop ON audible… not through Amazon’s main site. So – leave a review and a fairy gets it’s wings. Or rather, this fairy gets to narrate another book.
I’m on a couple narrator facebook message boards (yes, they sometimes have almost as much drama as the m/m community lol), and every so often someone will post about being upset about a bad review and then it will start this whole discussion about whether or not people should read their reviews. And some people are like I NEVER EVER READ THEM. And I think they’re nuts.
I’ve been super fortunate. Reviews have been kind to me. From AudioFile Magazine, the most influential mainstream review of audiobooks for our industry, I’ve been awarded three Earphones Awards from their critics (it’s kinda like a Golden Globe). On Audible I’ve received 6,175 five-star and 1,820 four-star reviews. I’ve done 130 books. And (cuz I KNOW you were wondering this)… 122 one-star stinko reviews. Before you think I sat there and counted, I have an app that charts them. (Okkk, before that, I sat there and counted… but NOW I have an app). So that’s less than one person per book thinking I narrate worse than Bobcat Goldthwait gargling battery acid. And of course, those one-stars still sting… Thoughhhh I’m positive I have a troll who actually buys a lot of my books just to give them one star… (It’s TOTALLY Greg Tremblay.) But – still… sometimes people think I just suck.
Case in point: If I get one bad review out of fifty good ones, then that’s a matter of that person’s taste. I got one really bad review and was so intrigued that I went and looked at their other reviews and how they had rated other narrators. It turned out they had given narrator Davina Porter 3 stars for Outlander. THREE STARS???? Davina Porter is, like, my IDOL. She is a freaking genius. So if that person thought she was, and I quote “not bad”, then I felt a wholeeee lot better being dissed. It’s like ice cream… everybody prefers a certain flavor. Maybe you ONLY like vanilla and I’m spending my entire career trying to be… well… glitter unicorn strawberry ripple with sequined gummy bears rainbow sprinkle extravanganza (I’m a minimalist). I could be the best damn version of it out there… Haagen Daaz Select Limited Edition glitter unicorn extravaganza… but you would stillllll hate it. (BTW my husband only likes vanilla ice cream. We are considering seeing a marriage counsellor about it).
I perform books. I don’t read them. And that’s not to everyone’s taste. But the narrators who influence me and have made me love this art form (Jim Dale, Roy Dotrice, Davina Porter, Katy Kellgren)… they bring a book to life. They play all the characters. They create a cast of voices. They make a movie in your ears. And some people like that, and some people hate it. In fact, now when I record the little intro at the beginning of an audio book I don’t say “narrated by Joel Leslie”. I say “performed by Joel Leslie”. And that’s not an ego thing. It’s my version of a trigger warning. (Watch out… here comes acting!) And some people don’t like that style. My goal can only be to continue to strive to be the best narrator OF that style that I can.
But. When there is a pattern… if there is something recurring in the feedback you get from listeners, I think you’re crazy to ignore it. To just stick your head and the sand and say ‘haters gonna hate’. If you’re getting a lot of reviews saying the same thing, then, if you care about growing as an artist, take heed. Example: When I first started narrating there were a couple of reviews that I read that were really bothered by my ‘halting’ delivery. One person said I sounded like William Shatner. I realized that my approach to 3rd person narration was the issue. I was approaching it like an actor living in the moment… discovering each and everything line by line. That works in dialogue because no one is talking for 8 hours straight at you in a play or a movie. So, I had to learn to adjust that. I had to accept that the 3rd person narrator often KNEW more than the character… or already knew where the story was going. There is still discovery – you have to live in the same mindset as your hero – but you don’t deliver the narrative exactly as if it were a character’s dialogue. And, voila… I took that on board and…no more… reviews… saying I… sounded like… William…Shatner.
When I first started narrating m/m I had a kind of a hang up that my voice didn’t have that classic heroic masculine sound. And I pushed – way too hard – to make my more alpha characters sound like that. It didn’t work. People thought it sounded false…because it WAS false. So I learned to do two things… make those characters sound resonant and more vocally full rather than try and push my volume way lower. AND I started becoming more careful about the kind of books I would audition for or accept. I don’t think I’m the go-to guy for “All-American Special-Ops-Seal-Team-Alpha-Force-Biker-Quarterback-I’ve-Never-Kissed a Dude But Now I will Cuz it’s Tuesday And You Smell Like Leather” books. I can do them…but they stress me the heck out and they take me way longer to figure out. (Weirdly, military-types are way easier for me to do when they are British). Plus, I think every gay male narrator (and author) has a learning curve to understand that LGBT fiction has a different market than m/m fiction. You have to learn who your audience is, LISTEN to them, and strive to give them the best you can. I don’t think you can be a great narrator of romance if you don’t listen to the audience and pay attention to what other performers they really respond to. And you can only learn that… from reviews. Or stealing someone’s iphone and looking at their Audible app…but that seems like a lot of work to get a good cross-section.
There was a point about a year and a half ago when I was getting quite a few reviews saying that I sounded older than my characters should. I mean, I’m not 18, but I’ve never had a voice that people would describe as ‘growly’ or ‘gruff’. And I really, really wanna do more Y/A. I knew something was up…and I didn’t wanna end up sound like Wilfred Brimley narrating gay smexy times. I was scared I had vocal nodes… I had tubes stuck down my throat… it was a whole thing. And eventually it turned out I had silent reflux (“the reflux that can also be a professional mime”). It can really aggravate your vocal chords. I ended up having surgery and was ordered to give up soda (apparently drinking 2 liters of diet coke a day is bad for you. Who knew?) But if I hadn’t had that feedback from listeners, and I hadn’t given it credence… I might not have known to address it.
So I read everything. Even the goodreads message board person that said, literally, “Joel Leslie has ruined so many books I love” (whoever you are… sorry…I owe you a muffin basket).
The really, really, really bad ones can also be a badge of honor. One of my narrator mentos, who is one of the most successful guys in the business (he’s narrated over 900 audiobooks) once had a review that said “I’ve never wanted to punch a narrator in the throat before”. So…it comes with the territory.
I’ve also learned that the old adage is true… you’re only as good as your material. If you look at audible reviews they break down ratings for ‘story’, ‘performance’ and ‘overall’. Almost ALWAYS my five star reviews for performance are almost exactly the same as those for the book. Sometimes you get reviews that say that the narration made the book better… and that feel fantastic. But in terms of average listener response… if someone thinks the book is ‘meh’, they are gonna rate my performance the same way.
And then of course there are the great reviews. And they make us roll around feeling warm and fuzzy like a cat in a sunbeam. They matter so much. You guys become our heroes. We fan-girl over YOU. I actually went on a whole Scooby-Doo mission to track down a reviewer who consistently took the time to review my work so that I could tell her how much something that she wrote meant to me. And good reviews can teach me a lot as well. When I read comments about my stuff that say “This is the kind of book Joel Leslie was born to narrate”, not only does it feel good…but it helps me learn where to focus my attention and what kind of material to pursue. Narrators who do LGBT work are exceptionally lucky because of all the m/m blogs that do audio reviews. The narrators who focus on other indie genre are begging for people to review their stuff. We have it soooo good. And… most of all… reviews that you write on Audible can make the difference between there being the support to do record the second book in a series or not. Taking the time to write about something that WAS your unicorn extravaganza is the greatest payback you could ever give. And I owe you TWO muffin baskets.
I didn’t have a ton of m/m releases this month…(next month there are a BUNCH).
But there is a big one! Jack of Thorns by Amelia Faulkner JUST released.
It was a really cool series to work on and it has me switching between UK and US narration in alternate chapters which is super fun.
my first m/m dual-narration project (with Bruce Cullen), Strong Enough by Melanie Harlow and David Romanov is out and I loved the character. I get to be a totally adorable Russian guy and the book is lovely… so if you’re in the mood to hear me only HALF the time, check it out.
And – I can’t tell you enough how much your comments below mean to me. It’s so great to hear from you all and get great ideas for more chit chat.