Before I open my mouth…

It’s Joel Leslie time again. Heyoooo!

So I’ve had some people ask me about prep. Notttt the nifty pill which most of the characters I narrate should be prescribed. LOL. Narrator preparation ‘prep’. What happens before a narrator actually hits record? This was originally gonna be one single blog post… but I quickly realized I’m way too loquacious to cover it all in one go.  So here’s part one of two.
By the way I am writing this is bed…here’s my view:
sleeping dogs
Yah, you thought two wieners in my bed would be NSFW, huh?

Anyway. The question we narrators always get is “do you have to read the book first?”

The answer to this should always be YES we read the book first. One of the finest audiobook coaches in the business, Johnny Heller (imagine James Cagney playing Timon in the Lion King), always answers that question with this: “How can you tell a joke properly if you don’t know the punchline”.

If you are an author and your narrator doesn’t read the book first…


Now – full disclosure – sometimes I break this rule a LITTLE bit. If it’s a series AND it’s FIRST PERSON and I know the characters really well… particularly if I anticipate the book is going to be an emotional rollercoaster, I might not prep the later scenes TOO much because I kind of like going along the ride with the character. BUT that is only if I’m recording in my own space, not on anyone else’s time clock, and I have the luxury of pulling myself together for multiple takes if I end up a phlegmy, drooling, bawling mess.

I ALSO usually break the rule slightly in a mystery series. I prefer to not know who the murderer is (unless they are revealed early on). If it’s something that we only discover on the last ten pages, I will skip the ‘big Poirot reveal’ because I like not falling into the trap of giving away anything in my performance.  It’s a silly thing… and probably doesn’t make a whit of difference… but it’s a quirk.  That is only IF I have information from the author about characters (we’ll get to that)… If I DON’T have that info from the author then before I even get very far in the book I actually skip ahead to see who the murderer is, because I need to make sure I am assessing, as I go through the text, how to voice that person to meet their ability to perform the crime.  (If I voice a woman like Minnie Mouse and it turns out on the last page that she was a former Olympic body builder and was able to carry a body three miles, then the listener won’t buy it.  We also have to chart through all those lovely murder-mystery ‘mysterious phone calls’ which are a nightmare for a narrator (because if we voice them too well we can screw up the mystery and you’ll know it was cousin Kurt from Australia with the lisp and the stutter that was on the other end of that phone).

Anyhoo…here’s my process… and my way is certainly not the way everyone does it. When I CAN… if I am in a position of direct contact with an author, then I usually ask them for a lot of input before I start. This is how my process goes for many of the m/m titles that I do because they are usually directly contracted by the author. They are the person hiring me. BUT when you work for a major audio publisher it’s very different and you work much more independently. You usually use the publisher as a go-between with the author for any specific questions about pronunciations or the odd character question… but in general you are trusted to make your own choices and deliver a product.  That’s because they have a gazillion projects they are juggling at once, and obviously they’re dealing with artistic temperaments on both ends (author and narrator) and they want the process to be a streamlined as possible.  It makes perfect sense.

SO – if I am working directly with the author or I have an already close relationship with them then I send them a character questionnaire… I ask them a bunch of questions and encourage them to answer them for as many characters as they can handle without losing their minds. And, if I DON’T have contact with the AUTHOR, I try to answer these questions myself as I go through the text…

  1. Age. (This sounds really obvious, but you would be amazed how often it isn’t mentioned. I was doing a book recently and in the whole first book the villain read as if he was very Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones (Vincent Price-y).  Turns out that in a later book you learn the character is only 25 years old. Soooo… good to know.
  2. Ideal Hollywood casting. (I spoke about this in a previous blog). Knowing that the author thinks of someone as Maggie Smith versus Margaret Thatcher or Sean Bean versus Benedict Cumberbatch or Martin Sheen versus Tommy Lee Jones is very helpful.
  3. Where are they from? (You would be amazed how often in American books the author never actually mentions where the romantic leads are from. They are often ‘generic American’. Because I personally find voicing two dueling alpha-males can be tricky… any chance to differentiate them with regional sounds is great.  In the UK it’s particularly important… because accents change in Britain every 21 miles). In sci-fi or alternate worlds, hopefully you get a map and from there you can chart out regionalisms. In a fantasy/sci-fi title this is really useful to create the different sounds of species, planets, tribes etc.   GOT did this too (but then fell of the rails a bit). They started with Sean Bean’s real Yorkshire accent for the ‘North’ and then made all the other Stark family match that.
  4. Level of education (or their place in a class structure). Again, this is really helpful for alternate worlds or period UK books. Dialects indicate a class structure and a level of breeding.  I find this helps a lot with the parents of main characters (who often appear but are not always described in detail)… Is the hero’s Dad more Gore Vidal or Randy Quaid? Sally Field or Elaine Stritch?
  5. When you do your pre-read you have to keep an eagle eye out for anything the author tells you about a character’s voice. And very, very often that won’t happen until LATE in the book.  Sometimes you’ll get to page 256 and it will suddenly say something like “he said, in the lilting tones of his early years spent in Bulgaria”. With m/m books there are often multiple characters who ‘growl’ and have ‘deep rumbling voices’. You have to figure out a way to differentiate those guys from each other.
  6. If the author can, I ask them for three adjectives to describe each character. “Biting, bitter, officious” can make a character who has very little description on the page very clear for me.
  1. This is the weird one –but invaluable for my weird little brain.  WHAT FORM WOULD THEIR PATRONUS TAKE? In other words, what animal would the character be? Imagine that Disney wanted to produce the book as an animated film but using animals (without changing the tone – I mean simply re-casting the human roles in a talking animal form, the same was as they did for The Rescuers, Robin Hood, Fox and the Hound, Lion King, Dumbo, Jungle Book etc.) Knowing the author sees a man as a bear vs. a ferret or a woman as a cobra vs. a goose is an amazing tool for me to understand the tone they want for the character.  This is REALLY helpful for the all supporting roles in particular. I’m a very visual person and this helps me imagine a very specific energy for the various people in a large casts of characters. I recently had to voice two thuggy sidekicks. On the page there wasn’t much to differentiate their personalities. I decided one was a cockney rhino and the other a Birmingham hyena. They suddenly became very unique and totally different personalities in my mind. (When I talk about marking a script next month, there is another little trick I use when I am trying to sort out characters that written as a ‘package deal’ and always with each other.
  2. In a series: In book one if they are a minor character but will eventually have a leading role in later books that is really important to know. It affects the kind of voice I choose so it can be sustained and allow acting flexibility down the line. I REALLY need to know if they ever become a romantic lead in a further book? You would be amazed how often this can come back to bite you in the butt. It is popular right now to write what I call ‘additive series’, where the best friend in book 1 becomes the focus of the next book. And then their next door neighbor ends up the focus in book 3. If I don’t know that a minor character is going to end up having steamy sex scenes three books from now, then when you end up voicing them as Bobcat Goldthwait, I’m in real trouble down the line.

And as I said… when you are working with a publisher, usually you don’t have access to the author to ask all these questions. Some narrators love that total freedom… personally, I am way too needy and always want the author to love the result. So the further I can get into their imagination the better. And sometimes author’s LOVE this homework. Sometimes they hate it. (For instance, NR Walker’s mind just doesn’t work this way at all. It causes her major stress lol.)

Here’s one of my all-time favorites. Jordan Castillo Price gave me the most amazing description of Mark in Hemavore. I was terrified to narrate one of her books because Gomez Pugh does such a brilliant job narrating her Psychop series. But she gave me such a wonderfully specific picture of the lead character (and the book is in 1st person), that I knew exactly what she wanted (AND how different she wanted them to sound from her other books). It was narrator gold…

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The llama was the key to everything.

And, since I start Tal Bauer’s Enemies of the State Today, I thought I would show you a little piece of that…

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The Gerard Butler reference is great. Particularly because he is a Scottish actor ‘doing’ an American accent, he ends up with a really specific sound. I know exactly what that is… and it’s not generic Alpha male.  The farm hand info is great t

Again, this is just how I, weird little hyper Joel, try to figure out character. And, I should emphasize that having a background in performance and classical training, there always needs to be a huge amount of emotional work put behind all of this surface information. Master coach Paul Ruben teaches his students to take every single character seriously. You have to approach every voice, no matter how eccentric, as if they COULD be the main character in their own book. Or, as if it was a movie and you were only cast in ONE of the roles you are voicing… if you were ONLY playing the Butler with three lines, how would you play that role, honestly, on film. It can’t be about ‘listen to all the fun different voices I can do”. You can never just say ‘Oh, here I’ll use my funny secretary voice’ – but you CAN think, “how would Meg Tilly play this character?” Meg Tilly has a goofy voice, but she is also a very skilled actress. I usually love playing the supporting characters more than the romantic leads. Which is handy… because more often that not, in book 17 of the series, that random Fed Ex delivery guy who had one line will have his own book and fall in love with the grocery store clerk’s cousin from book 8.  🙂

Next time we’ll talk all about how I mark up a script to prepare it for recording. Imagine John Madden’s football arrows, but wayyyyyyy more gay.

How To Blow a Billionaire by Alexis Hall is out and Arden is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever voiced. A hilarious gay spin on the 50 Shades trope… and it’s amazeballs and snuggly and all the feels.

October by Michael Rowe.  This is a really, really cool LGBT new-adult horror novel. The characters are so beautifully drawn. Imagine if Stephen King wrote Simon and the Homo Sapien Agenda!!

Before you Break by the fabulous KC Wells and Parker Williams. The first installment of the uber-sexy Collars and Cuff’s spin-off.

Let me know what you think of all this craziness in the comments below.

PS I recently did a little facebook live video recording book 1 of Spencer Cohen for NR Walker. Some people really got a kick out of it… so if you’d like to take a look, it’s right here.

Love you peeps,


13 Responses

  1. 16forward
    16forward at |

    I love the advice you got from Jordan Castillo Price!

    1. joel
      joel at |

      Yah – i was TERRIFIED to record for her… but she was so, so great. We are doing more together and I’m really excited!

  2. Lori S
    Lori S at |

    Great post! I loved your performance in Hemavore. I’ve been thinking about rereading Alexis Hall’s book before starting the second one, so now I know what to use one of my Audible credits on instead. Thanks for the insight into your process.

  3. Sue
    Sue at |

    Another great post. And all that prep work is why we all love your work so much and why you continue to receive the accolades you so deserve !

    … nice to see Ginger has settled in and is feeling like one of the family 🙂

  4. JR Weiershauser
    JR Weiershauser at |

    It’s no wonder you are so great at narration

  5. BWT (Belen)
    BWT (Belen) at |

    ❤ Great post!

  6. SJ Himes
    SJ Himes at |

    The homework is no joke, but I LOVE filling it out! <3

  7. Lada M
    Lada M at |

    OMG! You are working on Talk Bauer’ The Executive Office series? I hope you will narrate all of them! Such wonderful and very interesting gripping reading. Got all books. Good luck. Looking forward for audio done by you.

    1. Lada M
      Lada M at |

      Sorry! Autocorrect be cursed 🙂 I meant Tal Bauer

  8. Jamaiquina
    Jamaiquina at |

    Thank you so much for this, Joel! You were my inspiration for a character in a recent novella I wrote for a client, and I’m glad I got at least some of your prep right, even without ever having spoken to you. This is fascinating, and you’ve also answered many of my questions about the process itself. There’s so much more I’d like to know, but I guess for now I’ll just follow your blog. Thanks again,…this is fabulous!

  9. EJ Russell
    EJ Russell at |

    Wonderful, Joel! (And does it help if I tell you that David in CatB is basically you? 😬)

  10. ButtonsMom2003
    ButtonsMom2003 at |

    I love listening to your voice. Audio books didn’t really work for me until I listened to you perform The Innocent Auction. I’ve now learned to appreciate other voice actors and the difference the right voice can make to my enjoyment of a story.

  11. SupernaturallyEgocentric
    SupernaturallyEgocentric at |

    All the prep work you put in explains why the books you narrate are so easy for me to lose myself in. They are complete worlds.


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