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5 Lessons from Reading My Own Book or Thinking about Producing an Audio Book?

I recently finished recording my book, Unlocked: Discover how to embrace the unexpected, for audio presentation. When I mentioned this to a friend, he asked me how I felt about it. How did I find the process? What did I learn? What was my experience? I was surprised when I realized my responses were more than I would have thought possible.

Before I get to them, a little background is in order.

I have a friend and colleague, Bob Keiper (an experienced narrator), who suggested that we do the audio recording jointly so that the book would move back and forth between our two voices. The idea sounded like fun.

Spoken words are different.

What I wrote for quiet reading does not sound the same when I spoke it out loud.

My husband and I read out loud to each other all the time. One of the books, The Lord of the Rings, we have read in its entirety out loud. It is a delightful experience. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his books to be read aloud as if the words were all poetry. The language simply flows off the tongue. My book did not. I believe it is well-written. I knew what I wanted to say, I had assembled not only the evidence but also exemplary stories, put them into a logical order, and I knew what I wanted readers to do. It flowed from my fingers onto the keyboard. (Maybe not in a continuous flow, but still.) Yet, as I read it out loud into the microphone, it was good, but it didn’t sing like Tolkien’s words. My book was not written to be read out loud. Okay, I said to myself, I’m not Tolkien and have always known that. But it was striking to recognize the difference, nonetheless.

Reading your words gives you the opportunity to express your style more clearly through the tenor and cadence of your voice.

Recording your book is not reading the pages once. You read them several times over. You want to get the words right. You want to develop the emphasis and style so that the reading is sufficient to help the listener understand what you are trying to convey. You want to read it smoothly and clearly so the listener has the best chance of hearing all of it.

At first, you read mechanically, approaching it as a task to just get done. And then you listen to what you have read and find it has become clinical. But clinical is not good enough to retain listeners.

There were some sections needing to be read up to five times until I began to develop a rhythm in my reading that reflected the conversationalist and not the writer.

If you aren’t engaged in the reading, why should your listeners be engaged in listening. Yes, the content has to attract them, but it is the style that helps to hold their attention.

I suspect that every actor who reads this will laugh and say, “Of course!”

Lesson 1: Rehearsal with an audience (even if just one) who gives you honest impressions is time well spent.

Speaking your own words adds to your own understanding.

It’s a surprise to read your own writing. You encounter ideas that you recognize but still they hit you as new, because they come with new clarity.

What really astonished me was that a sentence or phrase would actually surprise me. When you write a book, you don’t remember all the details. Well, I don’t. So, it was exciting to discover some gems hidden in the text. It inspires me to continue writing.

There are moments of pure delight as you encounter something that if it were from another writer, you would copy down as a quotation.

In the midst of reading, I would come upon a phrase that seemed stellar. I would think to myself, “Wow, I actually wrote that. Some reader might even pull it out as a quotation attributable to me.” Those were exciting moments. They are rewards for all the work that has gone into the writing of the book.

Reading it, hearing it, reading it again, hearing it again, you learn your own work at a very deep level.

Having read my book at least four times through and as many times again listening to it as I edited the file, I learned my own work at a level I never thought possible. The lessons coming at me both visually and aurally, over and over again, worked just as if I was studying for an exam. In fact, maybe even better, because I couldn’t make the excuse of doing it fast just because I already knew it. I had to carefully read, speak, and listen again and again.

Just when I began getting quite weary of all this, I was asked to be interviewed for a podcast, and I discovered the benefit of all that weariness. It was so easy to respond to any question the interviewer asked.

The brain is marvelous at remembering when it repeats something over and over again – ideas as well as movements. As I recognized this, I had to laugh at myself. I talk about practicing in my book – that it is done not for its own sake but for a larger purpose. I talk about it a lot. Did I have to learn it again for myself? I guess so.

Lesson 2: Never miss an opportunity to learn even when you think you know it all.

Speaking a book is exhausting, because the process is complicated.

It’s harder than you think it will be. Even when you plan it, there are so many things to take into consideration.

The technology is always a part of such a project. I was lucky to work with my friend and colleague, Bob. He knew what he was doing from the start and could easily tell me whether my microphone was sufficient and what recording software would make it easiest for the two of us working together. We decided on the file transfer platform to make sending files back and forth easily and predictably. I was able to get all the technical requirements from the publishers to establish that what we were using could be made to satisfy them. (At the very end, I hired a 'sound person' to do the final technical conversion to the specs.)

Then we began recording. At first, I determined to get through a whole section without stopping. After all, I know how to read, and I needed to do this efficiently. And then reality hit. I was 60% through a section, and I stumbled on a word. It’s only then I realized that I had to learn the recording software sufficiently so that I knew what I could correct in a future reading without rereading the first two thirds. Based on this, I paused every now and then in the reading knowing that the pauses would serve as markers and could be taken out in the editing process – along with the mistakes and retakes and retakes of retakes. (You get the idea.)

This was a real breakthrough for me. The multiple readings began to drop from five to three and, on rare occasion two. Never did the first read work in its entirety. I just got used to that.

Then there was learning what the publisher wanted. I decided to use ACX which offers remarkably clear instructions on how to register your book and what the technical specifications are for the final submissions. My only complaint was that I could never see the entire list of things wanted until I filled out one item and then moved to the next. The good thing about this was that I had only one thing to do before moving forward. No problem with getting overwhelmed when there was only one task at hand. As I prefer to see the big picture before tackling something, I felt a bit annoyed, but decided that I would just plow on. It worked.

Lesson 3: Take time to experiment and learn what the technology can do for you to achieve the anticipated efficiencies.

Mistakes will happen and should not get in the way of the listener.

There were two kinds of mistakes and a third mistake that never became a mistake but deserves to be here.

It is so irksome to read along and discover a typo, but it is incredibly irksome when you see a grammatical error in the text which had been reviewed by no less than 3 editors. But you can’t change the hard copy, so you just move on. But, do you record the error, or do you correct it? I decided to correct it. Having done all that, I realize only now that I didn’t notate these errors so that I could easily correct them for future versions. Drat!

And then there were the errors in reading when you substitute one word for another that would be more natural in verbal communication rather than written text. I tussled with this and decided that I would stay on the side of the listener. Use the language that would be easiest to listen to and understand. If you say, 'But that is not what was in the book', I rested on a precedent we had already set. We had discussed when and where we might need to adjust the language of the original text. You see when Bob read a part that was written in my voice, i.e., I, me, he changed the language so that the listener would understand clearly who was talking in the text. I appreciated this very much – again consistent with making it easier for the listener. So, when we began discussing how to handle the small errors in the text, we had something to build on, and it reinforced our objective to make it easier for the listener.

Lesson 4: Unanticipated consequences are always a possibility. Thinking through the anticipated ones brings forward and makes clear what’s important. What’s important guides how to deal with the unexpected ones.

Good planning is more efficient and worth the time taken.

As the two of us were working as a team, we needed to coordinate our work so that no one got confused and nothing got missed. That meant that I had to divide the text between us. I went through the entire book, marking each subsection that would indicate when the voice changed from me to Bob and back again.

As we each would create our own audio files, I then needed to bring the files together in the right order. This need led me to something for which I was and still am grateful – a file naming convention. Nothing new about that to those of us who have worked in information management even before knowledge management, but you still have to remember to do it before you begin!

We determined that each file would begin with the section name, e.g., Introduction, Chapter 5. This was followed by the number of the subsection, e.g., Chapter 5.3. Once I set this, I went through the entire text file and added the subsection numbers along with the reader’s name. We each had a copy of this file. For example, I knew that I had Chapter 5.1 and Chapter 5.3 and so on. Bob had Chapter 5.2 and Chapter 5.4 and so on. When either of us needed to further divide a subsection (such as when the subsection was really long), we just added another number such as Chapter 3.7.2 – the second sub-subsection of the seventh subsection of the section called Chapter 3.

The result was that neither of us got confused as we recorded our parts. (We even began each file by stating the name of the file as a precautionary step before we began reading the actual text of the book and removing this in the editing.) As I was the one who was doing the editing, I was never confused as I put the files together. In fact, with the file naming convention I chose, the files automatically ordered themselves in the folders – with the obvious exception of Opening, Preface, Introduction, and Signoff which put themselves in alpha order after all the Chapters. This was not a problem to sort out, however, as there were few of them and no subsections within any.

In the end, I had to juggle more than 100 files, and the few confusions that did occur were sorted out very quickly. Moreover, we never lost a file.

Lesson 5: When knowledge appears to be obvious or old fashioned, don’t ignore it. There’s usually a reason it came up in your thinking.

Will I do another audio book? Absolutely. I think I have learned the major lessons so that my expectations should be closer to reality next time. In the meantime, I’ll be posting when my book, Unlocked, becomes available on Amazon, Audio, and iTunes. Stay tuned.

If any of you have your own stories about recording you audio books, please share your stories in the comments below. I'll read every one of them. Promise.

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