I’ve been thinking about discussing reading aloud for a while now and John Joseph Adam’s recent post about Harry, Carrie and Garp brought it to mind again. I know it seems like reading aloud ought to be self-explanatory, but I’ve heard a lot of authors who should not be allowed to read their own work.
I used to compete in Interpretive Reading back in college. (It was a branch of the debate team.) What with that and the radio theater, I know a couple of tricks about character distinction and such which might be helpful for those folks who have readings scheduled with book signings, or who want to record something or who just want to read aloud to their kids.
The first place to start is with your selection. When you pick a story or an excerpt from a novel, make certain that it is something that is suitable for being read aloud and fits your voice. So, what makes something suitable?
Primarily you’re looking for a small cast of characters. The more characters you have, and the narrator counts as one, the harder it will be to vocally distinguish between them. Unless you’re Mel Blanc, four characters, including narrator, is probably your safe upper end. (This will vary, obviously.) Within that cast, it will be easier if your characters are disparate in terms of type. For instance, a woman and a man are easier to distinguish than two women.
Secondarily you want a self-contained scene, so that the audience gets a beginning, middle, and end, even if it’s part of a larger whole. Now, if you are doing a reading to sell your book there is something to be said for ending on a cliffhanger, but make sure that it’s really a cliffhanger and not just a random stopping place.
Thirdly, language that lends itself to an almost onomatopoeic sense. Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories were written specifically to be read aloud. He uses rhythm and onomatopoeia to make really dynamic sentences that are just plain fun to read–he’s also writing for children. But an extreme example is sometimes useful, eh?
Really, what you want are words you can linger over and play with. Read this out loud and try to bend the words. “He jogged to the train station, three blocks from his house.” There’s not a lot you can do with it.
On the other hand, “…they ate wild sheep roasted on the hot stones” you can do a lot with. “Hot” for instance isn’t a true onomatopoeic word because hot makes no sound, whereas “sizzle” does. Make sense? But it’s a word that you can twist in a lot of different ways.
Try saying “hot” thinking about the following definitions and make the word mean something different each time.
Try the same thing with “wild,” which is a great word.
So, you’ve found a selection with a small cast of characters, in a self-contained scene, with an almost onomatopoeic sense. Those are stories that will sound good read aloud, but are you the right person to read the story? Does it suit your voice?
If it’s a first-person story, you really, really need to be the same gender as the narrator or your audience will have a hard time getting past the audio cues. Even in third person story, you need to be aware that the narrator voice will often echo the thoughts of the Main Character, so picking a section where the gender matches will be easier on the audience. There are people who can get away with cross-gender roles, but it’s not easy. Know your limits.
Next week, I’ll talk about some ways to create character voices that don’t sound hokey. Feel free to ask questions.
The human voice is very flexible and we’ll look at the ways you can manipulate it. Remember though, that the voice uses muscle and you can strain it just as easily as an ankle. Pay attention and stop if anything hurts.
Your basic tools are Pitch, Placement, Pacing, Accent and Attitude.
Pitch is fairly self-explanatory. To check your range, hum from your highest to your lowest note. Of that, you probably mostly use the middle when speaking. While it can help color a character, it isn’t a good idea to rely on pitch alone to distinguish between characters, simply because you use more than one note while speaking.
There are several resonators which affect the tone of the voice. Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your nose. Now hum through your range again. As you do, you’ll feel your chest vibrate at the low end and your nose vibrate in the upper middle. These are both resonators.
The facial mask has several other resonating cavities, which you mostly notice with a sinus infection. Ever wonder why you sound nasally with a cold?
You can move the voice from the front of the mouth to the back of the throat. Broadly speaking Russian tends to be at the back of the mouth while British English tends to be very forward.
I will now attempt to explain how to do this without being able to demonstrate. (Oy. Why did I think this was a good plan.) Okay, start with the nasal resonator, because it’s easiest to find.
-Hold your nose, say, “Nnnnnn” and try to get your nose to really buzz.
-Now remove your hand and try to talk, keeping your voice as nasally as possible. Use the phrase, “What did you say?” as your experimental phrase.
-Try adjusting the pitch while keeping the nasality.
A little bit of nasality can be used to make a “brighter” sound.
Next we’ll move to the back of the throat. Open your mouth in a yawn. Let your soft palate rise. Try to talk. Does it feel like your voice is at the back of your mouth? Again, play with pitch. Placing your voice at the back of your throat can make a “darker” sound.
Next, we’re going to move a series of consonants from the back of the mouth to the front. As you do this, pay attention to where your voice feels like it is during the “aaaah” portion of each consonant sequence. It will be subtle.
The series runs like this. Guh, guh, guh, guh, Gaaaah, Kuh, kuh, kuh, kuh, kaah, (I’m not going to write them all out, I’ll give you the consonants and you can figure out the pattern.) G, K, D, T, B, P.
Reverse it, moving from Puh to Guh.
Try saying our test phrase, “What did you say?” at each “location” in the mouth.
Roughly, and very loosely, that’s placement. I’ll talk about other aspects of placement when I discuss how to create specific types of voices like children and older people.
This covers everything from how quickly a character speaks to the types of rhythms they use. Is their voice quick, but fluid or is it staccatto. Slow and halting, or does it drawl?
Note: Generally speaking, always speak slower than you think you should when reading.
You can tell on the phone if someone is smiling, right? Technically, it’s a combination of the things we’ve already talked about, but fundamentally it’s about attitude. If you know your character, you’ll know how they speak.
Take the phrase, “What did you say?” Say it as if you are angry. Now, curious. Disbelieving? Great. Now say it like you’re a parent and a kid has just talked back to you. That is attitude. Attitude is your friend.
Chances are, this won’t be something you need to deal with. If you do have a character who has an accent for God’s sake, make sure you can do it convincingly. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone butcher an accent, it will destroy the credibility of your story faster than you can say “Run fer the hills.” There are a lot of tapes that deal with learning accents for actors. If you’re going to do it, do it right.
So, those are the basic tools. The nice thing about character voices is that you can be fairly subtle. Most of the time the Attitude and Pace will be enough. If you can affect Placement, that’s even better. What you are looking for is a voice that is distinct from the other voices and appropriate to the character. Of course, which of these tricks you use for each voice depends on the character for whom you are speaking.
Still, there are some basic types of voices, so I’ll talk about how to make a child’s voice as an example, and then later talk about aging voices and cross-gender voicing. A lot of this will be useful for other voice types.
The natural impulse for people is to shoot up into falsetto for kids’ voices. The trouble is that it alters the placement of your voice so much that it sounds ridiculous.
In singing one speaks of the Chest Voice, Middle Voice, Head Voice and Falsetto. Each of these resonates in a different place. Most people speak with their chest and middle voices–this includes children. So when you raise your voice too high to match a child’s pitch you move it into a different place.
The human voice uses a number of different muscles to generate sound. Generally speaking, the longer someone’s neck is the deeper their voice will be. So a child, with a short neck is also going to have a higher voice. In addition to the changes that happen at puberty, this has a huge impact on the pitch you hear.
That said, we respond tone as much as pitch. So to make a child’s voice, raise your pitch a little, but don’t try to do a literal match with kid.
The next thing is resonance. There are different resonating cavities that simply don’t develop until you’re an adult. To make a child’s voice you need to kill the resonance in your voice. Part of that happens by raising up to a head voice, which gets you away from your chest resonating cavity. Next, keep your soft palate down. And now try to make certain that you aren’t resonating in your nose, which you can do by pinching your nose. (Remember those exercises?)
You also need to add a tiny bit of aspiration. Aspiration is what happens when you allow more air to pass through your throat than is needed to produce sound. Remember the scene in My Fair Lady when Eliza is learning to pronounce her Hs? An H is an aspirated sound. People will also say something sounds “breathy” Think of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday.” A little bit of aspiration helps make the voice sound less supported and younger.
Finally there’s the pronunciation. This is going to change depending on how young your child is, but in the under-10 camp things to listen for are more pronounced dipthongs and softer consonants.
Great, but what if there’s a piece with more than one kid? Remember Attitude and Pace. You can also still adjust placement by making one voice more or less nasal. Or having a voice that is breathier than the others. Again, with this or any character voice you don’t need to push far to make it distinctive.
With all voices, the main thing to focus on is telling the story, if a character voice prevents you from conveying emotion don’t use it.
Narrating is at once the easiest part of reading aloud and the hardest. It is the easiest because you don’t have to worry about character voice or distinction–or do you?
You do. That’s why it’s one of the hardest parts. The narrator is a character in your story and is the one that needs to connect to the listener. The voice needs to be distinctive enough that when you say a line of dialogue and then return to the narrator, the audience recognizes the voice. At the same time, it cannot distract from the story by being so distinctive that it overshadows the words.
The initial instinct is to use your own voice. This is a good instinct, but I’m going to suggest that you use a specific form of your natural voice. When we’re talking, there’s a number of different shadings that happen with our voice most of which have to do with Attitude. Your voice changes, subtly, depending on whether you’re talking to your mother, your boss, your lover, or answering the phone.
Your phone voice is a really, really useful voice. It will probably sound professional, fairly neutral, and slightly more modulated than your hanging-with-chums voice. You know the one I mean, right?
So let’s take that voice out for a spin. I’m going to give you a chunk of text to play with from Ray Bradbury’s The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl. Read this silently first.
William Acton rose to his feet. The clock on the mantel ticked midnight.
He looked at his fingers and he looked at the large room around him and he looked at the man lying on the floor. William Acton, whose fingers had stroked typewriter keys and made love and fried ham and eggs for early breakfasts, had now accomplished a murder with those same ten whorled fingers.
He had never thought of himself as a sculptor and yet, in this moment, looking down between his hands at the body upon the polished hardwood floor, he realized that by some sculptural clenching and remodeling and twisting of human clay he had taken hold of this man named Donald Huxley and changed his physiognomy, the very frame of his body.
Here are very rough, basic rules to start with.
Speak slower than you think you should. As you become more familiar with text you will naturally speed up. This is the first time your audience has heard the words. You should be painfully slow, in your own ears.
A period means pause and count to 2.
A comma means pause and count to 1.
Go ahead and read through it, just thinking about that.
Now, the fun stuff.
Each sentence has a word or phrase that is the most important thing in it. Take the first sentance of the second paragraph. “He looked at his fingers and he looked at the large room around him and he looked at the man lying on the floor.”
What’s the most important thing here? “the man lying on the floor.” Underline it, so that when you get there you put a slight emphasis on it. Now in that phrase, what’s the most important word? Man? That would be my bet. So a slight line goes underneath it, but you don’t want to do too much or you’ll break the rhythm of the sentence.
Placing emphasis can be as simple as putting more stress on that part of the sentence, the same way you put more stress on the accented syllable of a word.
There’s a simple exercise to make you more concious of using stress in a sentence to change the meaning. Say “The ball is on the table.”
Now I want you to answer each of these questions with the same sentence, changing only the emphasis of one word to answer.
What is on the table?
The ball is on the table.
What is the ball on?
Is the ball under the table?
The ball is not on the table, is it?
There are other ways to do it as well. You can use a vocal tremor, a dimenuendo, a crescendo, tempo, aspiration or a dozen other tricks. The key is to decide how your character, the narrator, feels about the moment. Remember Attitude? Go through this block of text and mark the attitude that you think your character feels. The deeper the penetration into the POV character, the more attitude your voice should display.
Bradbury uses the word “looked” three times in that sentence. The echo of the word can be powerful if it’s used right. Take a minute and think about how William Acton feels about each of the things he’s looking at. Perhaps the emotions could be wonder, disorientation and horror.
Another section to pay special attention to is this bit, “he realized that by some sculptural clenching and remodeling and twisting of human clay”
The verbs “clenching” and “twisting” are particularly visceral. When I was talking about words that were almost onomodopaeic, I meant words like this. When you clench something it doesn’t really make a sound, but you can manipulate the word to create a vocal description of it. If you tighten your throat–clenching it–the sound of the word will change. Find words like these and see if you can wring the vocal description out of them.
So read that chunk o’text again–after marking it–and see how much emotion you can get out of it.
What we’ve done with this exercise is gone from an emotionally neutral narrator to an emotionally invested narrator. There are times when each will be the most appropriate choice. Remember when I said about each sentence having a word that’s the most important in it? When you are using these ornaments try to pick only one per sentence, otherwise it’s like having a superflity of adjectives. It’s very easy to tip from emotional investment to verbal pyrotechnics. Make certain that you are making choices that advance the story.
Cross-gender voices are a tricky business. Even if you can really do a convincing cross-gender voice–and I know folks who can–the fact is that in a live reading, people know there’s one person doing all the voices. There are two ways cross-gender voices can throw people out of listening. It’s really bad, and embarrassing, or it’s really good and shocking that a female voice is coming out of a man’s mouth. Either way, the listener drops the story for a moment.
This is like a turn of phrase that’s really stunning in a story. You stop reading for a moment and think, “Wow, that’s lovely.” That may be true, but the story has stopped, right there. Same thing with voicing. Any time you make the listener stop to think, you’ve injured your story.
The point of doing different voices is to make it clear who is speaking–it’s not to make it sound like there are fifty people sharing the stage with you. If you really want it to sound like there are completely different people, hire some actors.
Now, with that said, you also want to use your voice to enhance the character and to help paint a picture in your listener’s mind. Even when I’m doing same gender voices, I tend to “lighten” my voice a little to make it more feminine.
But, besides the “audio picture” I’m trying to paint, part of the reason I do that is so that when I do male voices, I’m altering my voice to a similar degree.
Let me use a visual analogy. If you are watching a cartoon, you don’t think about the fact that there is no texture in hair or clothing. But, as soon as the animated character wanders onto a digitally rendered lawn, the fact that you can see every blade of grass is jarring. It makes the grass look unreal, and the character look unreal. They don’t and shouldn’t live in the same universe.
With voicing, if you want your cross-gender voices to sound real they must live in the same universe. So if you’re a guy and you’ve got to do a female voice, then don’t use your “natural” voice for a male character. Color your male voices to the same degree that you color your women’s.
First of all, know that not all microphones are created equal. There is a huge, I mean, huge range in what they are designed to do. There are some basic things that you can do to enhance performance in a recording though.
Sibilant and plosives.
An “s” is a sibilant sound. Plosives are any sound, like a “p” which involves a puff of air. Both of these can turn up in a recording. You’ve heard it before, I’m sure, and it’s annoying because it betrays the artifice of the recording. We want to listen to it without being reminded that the speaker is not in the room.
A professional studio will have a windscreen in front of the mike to help control this. A windscreen typically looks like an embroidery hoop with black pantyhose stretched over it. (In fact, I think that’s what they are…) But even with a windscreen you can still have overly pronounced sibilant and plosives. Fortunately they are easy to avoid.
The easiest way to describe it is this. Face the microphone, then hold your index finger in front of it. Blow gently as if blowing out a birthday candle. Now turn your head just far enough that you can’t feel your breath on your finger. Your voice is still going to be captured by the microphone, but your breath will pass by it.
The tricky thing about a recording is that you want different dynamic levels, but you don’t want different dynamic levels. Huh? It’s simpler than it sounds. When you are listening to someone if everything is at the same dynamic level, no matter how interesting the subject matter is, you will tune them out. It’s the way we are wired. I mean, people are still basically animals so we’re still wired to listen for predators. Which means that once we’ve identified a noise, we push it to the background so we can continue to listen for predators.
So to maintain an audiences interest, you have to vary your sound and yes, your dynamic levels. BUT a sudden change in volume will cause two problems. You will make your listener constantly adjust the volume of the recording as the listen, because let’s face it, almost no one listens in a quiet room anymore. But the more immediate problem is in the studio when you over power the microphone.
The microphone is like a very sensative ear. If you shout suddenly, you will hurt it. So, depending on the volume leap you can rock back on your heels or turn your head. Pretending to shout is not nearly as effective as just backing up and shouting. Yes, an audio technician can correct your sound levels, but it is different.
Handling the script
This isn’t a high-faluting acting lesson, this is just about what to do with the pieces of paper. Don’t hold them in your hand unless you really like the sound of rustling paper. If you are in a studio, there will be a music stand in front of you. Position it so that you can see it easily, preferably in that sweet spot where you won’t breath on the mike. Fan the pages out like cards, so you can just lift them across to show the next one, without having to turn them. And here’s really trick from Sam A. Mowry: When you turn the page, do it in the pause between sentences. This way, if the page does make a noise, it’s easy to edit out.
It happens. If you are being broadcast live, just keep going and don’t look back. But, if you are in a studio, stop. Pause. Go back to the beginning of the line and begin again. With that pause it will be very easy to cut the offending section out in editing. It is harder if you start mid-sentence because chances are that your read will not match the way you started the sentence.
You know in the movies where the actor only has the headphone over one ear? There’s a reason for that. You need to know how things are coming up on tape, but you are more used to judging your own voice in the air. So, it’s a matter of personal preference whether you wear them over one ear or both, but for heavens sake, use them.
Questions? I’m sure I’m leaving out lots and lots.
I forgot to mention a couple of my favorite tricks, which work nicely with a microphone. If you drop your volume and lean into the microphone then it will sound as if you are right next to the listener, whispering in their ear. This can have a wonderful effect to distinguish between “asides” and dialogue. It can also create a real intimacy with your listener.
Listen as I demonstrate.
Another handy trick is left-right balance. This isn’t a reading thing, but a post-production effect that can do a lot to create the idea of different speakers even with only one voice. When you record something with multiple characters, read the whole thing straight through, for pacing doing all of the character voices.
Then go back and read each piece of dialogue individually. Do all of a character’s dialogue in one go, then go back and do the next character. Besides giving you a more consistant vocal quality for the characters, you can separate them into left and right channels. Most people choose to leave the narrator in the middle. It does a lot to distinguish between characters. But it will add a lot of work to post production.
If you have time, do multiple reads so you can select the best take for each line.
If you listen to my Rampion I read the narrative three times and each of the character dialogue breakdowns twice. The characters are separated into different channels–this does mean that the file will be larger to download. For downloads I could have saved a lot of space by keeping it mono.
In puppetry we say that breathe carries the emotion. The only time a person notices another person breathing is when it’s important, when it’s carrying information. The simplest example is what happens when you look at someone lying down. You automatically notice if they are breathing, to make certain they aren’t dead.
But there are other things that breath comunicates. If you see someone, whose chest is heaving then you know that he’s just exherted himself. Laughter is a form of breath. And how many characters do you know who have gasped in surprise. The quality of breath indicates how someone feels.
When you are performing a character this is good to remember, but it’s also important to remember when you are speaking as yourself or as the narrator. If your breath comes rapidly, you will convey an unconcious sense of panic to the audience. So let’s talk about how to breathe while speaking.
This is a fairly mechanical way to remember, but it is where I breathe and will help your reading in general. Breathe after every period. If it’s just a quick catch breath, then you’ll convey a sense of urgency so think about whether that’s appropriate. Besides improving the flow of oxygen, it will force you to pause after periods which is generally a good idea.
Really, what I’m asking you to do is to inhale before beginning your next sentence. It’s something you do naturally when you speak or act, because your brain a) stops to gather its thoughts or b) knows how much air you need for the next sentence so it catches it.
The period acts as a stop sign. While you are in that tiny space between sentences, read ahead quickly with your eyes. You’re cueing your brain on how big of a breath it needs to take.
You are also setting the emotional tone for your piece. A thoughtful passage might have longer pauses, while a shorter one will be more clipped with less space for breath. You know when you’re writing an action sequence and reach for the shorter sentence? In part you are doing that because it gives the impression of faster breaths. Allow me to demonstrate. I’ll read the same passage with even breaths and then again with faster ones. Naturally, this affects pacing in general.
See how much the tone changes by picking up the tempo?
So, unless your fiction is full of spine-tingling thrills, remember to breathe. In some ways, you can think of that space between sentences as the space for thought. The more the thought changes between sentences, the more space you’ll want to allow for it.
And really pause for a couple of nice good breaths at section breaks. Not only do you deserve the oxygen, you also are cueing the listeners that things are changing.
Of course, in an ideal world, this would only be for cold readings. You will have practised this at home and will have built the breaths in. In fact, when you are preparing your manuscript for reading, you can use the singer’s mark for breath. Put an oversize apostrophe anywhere you know that you really need to take a breath for the emotional content of the piece.
And deep breath before you go on stage, just to get rid of the tension.
Now. Here’s a special treat, just for Jason. One more way that breath can change a reading.
Vocal fatigue is something you’ll have to battle when you’re doing a book signing or working a convention. The voice is created by a set of muscles and it can wear out. There are a lot of things you can do to keep it in good working order, and a lot of things you can do to hurt it. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of normal behavior that’s damaging to the voice.
The same things that make it a diuretic will dehydrate your throat and, combined with overuse, contribute to losing your voice. (This includes tea.)
Water is your friend.
Citric acid drinks–like lemonade–can cause your throat to generate mucus to protect itself. This will make you sound froggy and can lead to coughing.
Pineapple juice is your friend.
If you want a vitamin C boost, go with pineapple juice. It’s not a citrus. If you are already mucusy from a cold then try hot pineapple juice to help break up the mucus and soothe your throat. (It’s good, but you’ll have to try it to believe me)
To create a whisper, you constrict your vocal cords and force air past them. It’s sort of the vocal version of a mute on trumpet. It’s one of the most fatiguing things you can do to your voice.
Subvocalizing is your friend.
It’s really just talking very, very quietly. You move your mouth, as if you are speaking and only let a little bit of air out.
The constant stress of speaking can just wear your voice out the same way that running a marathon can exhaust your legs. Right…but what can you do?
There’s a couple of answers to this one.
Vocal rest-When you feel your voice getting tired, stop unneeded chatter. We’ll pretend you’re fabulously successful and on a multi-city book tour. Wait until after the book-signing to call home, and then keep the call short. Don’t give in to the temptation to read your story outloud five times before your big reading.
Drink plenty of water-Like an athelete, you need to keep your instrument hydrated.
Pitch control-I can do a hundred pushups if I alternate it with other activities. Moving your voice slightly, very slightly, up or down can get it out of the area that is suffering the most fatigue. (Next time you are losing your voice, hum through your range. You’ll find that certain places are fine and others seem to be non-existant.)
Finally, learn proper breath support. I highly recommend taking an acting class or singing lessons to learn to project.
What do you do when you make a mistake, or cough, or have to clear your throat, or take a drink of water?
I know that a person can take a break when recording a reading, and one can take a drink then. I also recall readers for the talking books for the blind making mistakes and just saying something like, ‘Excuse me,’ and moving on. But would you re-record the mistake?
We’ve been talking about two different types of reading aloud here, for a recording and for a live audience. The beautiful thing about recording is that you can always re-record the mistake. It’s better to give a clean reading, of course, but you do have the option of fixing it.
The beautiful thing about a live reading is that the mistake isn’t recorded and likely something that your audience will forget. Also things like, coughing and taking a drink of water, aren’t mistakes at a live reading. They are just part of it being live.
In both cases though, there are things that can go wrong that you can avoid or minimize.
Stumbling over a word.
What to do.
In the studio, pause. Go back to the beginning of the line and start again.
In a live reading, it doesn’t matter. Just continue on as if you meant to say it that way. Chances are your audience didn’t hear it, or will have no memory of it by the time you reach the end of a reading.
Chances are that your mouth has gotten dry, particularly if you stumble more than once in a paragraph. Pause. Take a drink of water and start again. In a recording, it’s easy to edit that pause out. In a live reading, your audience will understand.
It’s also possible that you aren’t thinking about what you were saying. Seriously. You might be thinking about the words, but not what you are saying, as in, not the whole sentence and the idea it conveys. Or you might be thinking, “Dang, I sound good,” or “Do they hate me?” or “Who’s that hottie in the second row?”
It might also be the first time you’ve read it outloud. While there are occasions where one needs to read something cold, it’s always better to get the mistakes out at home.
When speaking in a normal context, you might struggle to find the next word, but you rarely stumble on a word. Let me use an analogy from my artschool days. A group of us were bemoaning that we could draw a person but not a straight line. My teacher said, “That’s because you are looking at the line, not at where you are going.” It turns out that if you put a pencil down at the starting point, and look at where you need the line to end, your hand will naturally go there. But when you stare at the line itself, you lose all sense of context and meander. When speaking, you need to always be thinking about where you are going or you will get lost in the minutae of the words. Does that make sense?
Here is the original raw recording of an excerpt from Danger Planet by Brett Stirling, in which I stumble a lot. This is a cold reading, so you’ll hear me stumble because of unfamiliar words (in particular Venusopolis) then you’ll hear me stumble because I’m thinking about “Hey, I said it right that time!” You’ll also hear dry mouth and decisions to change character voices or the intent of a line-reading. Because I know that I’m recording, I’m stopping after bobbles that I would let slide in a live reading. Normally, I would also have read the text beforehand and figured out how to say Venusopolis.
Here is that excerpt in which I’ve cleaned out most of the mistakes.
What to do
Everyone does this from time to time. If I am recording someone else’s words, I’ll stop and rerecord the line. If it’s my own, I make a note and change it in the text later. Chances are it will be easier for my readers as well. Live? Doesn’t matter, just keep going. If you look back at it you will stumble on another word.
What to do
This is a live audience thing and differs from person to person. Your hands or knees might shake. Your voice might crack. You might get sweaty. None of these matter. The only things that will affect the reading are the things that will distract the audience by making them worry about you.
You can’t stop your hands from shaking, but you can avoid holding single sheets of paper. The paper will amplify your shaking and take it from being something that is annoying you into something that the audience can see. I like reading from books or binders so that I have something with more mass to hold.
Does your voice crack? Slow down, take deeper breaths and drink more water. When you’re nervous, there’s a tendency to rush so you can get it over faster. Remember, none of these people have heard the story before. They want to be there. Slow down.
You know, I don’t know why a reading provokes the fight/flight response in people, but I do know that nerves are basically an excess of adrenalin. For some reason, your body thinks that it either has to escape the tiger or kill something. But you don’t, you just have to read out loud. Before the reading, walk around, and try to spill some of your excess energy. Do deep breathing, so that you’re getting the extra oxygen that tension is making your body need. For some people, distractions work well, for others, focusing on the reading by practising helps. Mileage varies. Mostly, slow down, drink plenty of water and remember to breathe.
You’ve honed your voice to be a well-modulated wonder. Now you have to get in front of people and actually read. In some readings, the author remains seated. Some, they stand. What should you do?
Well, it depends on venue, the story and your own preference. If you’re in a small venue with an intimate story, you might chose to sit to be closer to your audience. A large venue, you might want to stand. Those are choices that you should make before arriving at the venue so that you can practise in that configuration.
Back in college, I used to compete in Interpretive Reading, and while not everything is appropriate outside of competition, there are some very useful tricks which can enhance your reading.
Preparation of reading material.
My preferred reading format is a small black binder or a copy of the book/magazine in which the story appears. The nice thing about using the book/magazine is that it makes it easier for them to recognize and hopefully buy. The downside is that it’s often heavy.
You may want to print your story out in a larger font, and insert the pages into the book, essentially using it as a binder.
Highlight your character’s dialogue lines with identifying colors. (Kaj in green, Grete in pink…)
Place an oversize apostrophe at places where you know you need to breathe, particuarly the places you tend to forget.
A squiggly line under the words you need to emphasize.
Bookmark the first page.
Artist’s white masking tape or rubber band the pages, which you are not reading, together so they don’t fly around.
Write this, don’t improvise it on the spot. People have an unfortunate tendency to repeat themselves when speaking extemporaneously, besides, you’re a writer. Make it as short as possible and make sure it’s in the same general tone as your story. In other words, don’t be funny and then dive into post-apocalyptic horror. You should also memorize it and practise it until it sounds as though you are speaking off the cuff.
Keep your book closed while giving the introduction. When you finish, lift the book and open to the first page. If you’ve marked it, it will open easily. This provides a clear signpost to the audience that the story is beginning.
Pick a point on the back wall to represent each character. When you speak for that character, you look at that point on the wall. This, in addition to your voicing, gives your audience instant cues to who is speaking. This is especially handy in rapid exchanges. It also means that you get to use their “eye contact” with other characters to add another level to the performance. Your narrator gets to play the field, but should mostly stay in the middle.
Decide the area of focus for each character when practising at home. When you get to the venue, pick the specific focal spot. I use stains on the wall, a knot in the panelling, a word in a poster… you get the idea.
You can also use focus to indicate a change in scene. At a scene break, look down, take a pause, and then look back up again to a different section of the room. It’s subtle, but it will help prepare your audience to shift to the new location with you. It’s called signposting.
Okay, don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that you get all into heavy acting. You are reading, not doing a one-man show off-Broadway. But, subtle shifts to body language can help your audience identify character and add another level of emotion to your performance. This is one reason that I like working with a black binder, it means that I can free up one hand for gestures.
Say you’ve have an older character. Try adding a very slight stoop to your reading of his or her lines. Soften the stance of your ingenue.
Say your last line. Hold the focus for a beat. Lower your head. Close the book. When you lift your head, your audience will clap. Do not rush this, no matter how much you want to run off stage.
You may not choose to bow, but please, if you are going to, learn to do it right. Tuck your head when you bow. The audience is thanking you and complimenting you at the same time. A bow is both the “you’re welcome” to the audience and thanks for their praise. To keep your head up, a) makes you look like a duck and b) is like fishing for a compliment. It’s like saying, “I really was good, wasn’t I?”
The depth of the bow depends on the formality of the event, and the level of the ovation. Chances are, that a simple head tuck and slight incline will do you. But honey, if they stand for a reading? You bend way over at the waist and thank them for the courtesy.
In competition you’d just tough it out, but in a live reading, you can have it standing by. The best places to drink are at scene breaks.
Okay. At some point, every SF story on the planet is going to hit some handwavium. You know the thing I’m talking about, that magic point where you just have to make stuff up in order to cover the gap between what is possible and what you think might be possible sometime in the future. On the page, it can be fine, but then… then you have to read it outloud.
John Scalzi pointed out this clip, which provides the most beautiful example of speaking handwavium with confidence. Watch it and then we’ll discuss.
Okay, first of all, it’s very, very, funny. Second, although this goes way over the line into absurdity, the fact is that even though his words make no sense, at all, by using tricks of pacing and emphasis, he creates the illusion of meaning. The actor’s name is Mike Kraft and he writes and performs industrial training videos. If he used just one of those phrases in an SF story, you’d totally buy it. So let’s see if we can apply what he’s doing to an SF story.
For instance, he’s giving the made-up words no more weight or emphasis than the real things. Look at your sf story. The technobabble words in it are everyday words to your characters so you should treat them as such. At the same time, Mr. Kraft is also using hand gestures, sign-posting and phrasing, to give clues to what words mean.
Hand gestures aren’t an option for audio fiction, but some of his other tricks are.
Signposting, at its simplest, means that he changes the direction in which he is looking when he changes direction of the speech. You can also do similar thing by pausing before beginning a new thought.
Which is really part of phrasing. Notice how he’s using a pause for emphasis here, “Such an instrument, comprised of Dodge gears and bearings, Reliance electric Motors, Allen Bradley controls, and all monitored by Rockwell software is [pause]Rockwell Automationâ€™s retro-incabulator.” It lets you know that what’s coming next is important. He pauses again in the next sentence before each of the “significant” parts of the encabulator.
He also uses emphasis, (which means that he gives a slight punch to certain words by using speed or volume) such as “panendermic simi-boloid slots of the stator. Every seventh conductor being connected by a non-reversable tremi pipe to the differential gurdel spring on the up end of the grammeters.”
Back in Reading Aloud 1: The Basics we talked about twisting words that had an almost onomatopoeic quality to them. Mr. Kraft does some of that, but not a whole lot because it would be inappropriate for his character.
He’s also using good old-fashioned stage presence to pull this off. As the character, he believes that each of these words makes perfect sense because they are all part of his character’s world. Watch his hands; his character knows what each item does.
Your exercise for today is to try and read the transcription of this clip. Then I want you to find the most convoluted handwavium in your own fiction and see how real you can make it sound.
The tricky thing with reading a story written in the first person is that your narration has the same voice as your main character’s dialogue. There is a simple trick for differentiating when your POV character is narrating and when she is addressing someone else.
For the narration, think, “I am having an intimate conversation in a quiet room.” For the speaking voice, think “I’m talking in a public space.” Without having to do anything fancy, you’ll cause a slight shift in the tone quality of your voice. That sort of shift can serve as a clear marker for which is which.
You’ll want your narration to be more emotionally invested than in most third person stories, but
besides that, it’s pretty much the same as handling any other story.
Yes, it’s a short lesson this week. I’m building a Polar Bear.
Next Friday, I’ll be traveling back to the U.S., so I have an assignment for you.
Download Audacity, which is a very easy (free) digital editing program. Pick one of your short stories and record it using all the things we’ve gone over with these lessons. Then comes the fun part; if you send me the link, I’ll give you a critique.
As noted last week, I’m not going to post this week. Now, I asked you to record a story yourself. If you did and would like comments on it, paste a link into the comments of this post.
Meanwhile, I’d like to offer you The Time Traveler Show #9 Halloween Special, which has an interview with Sam A. Mowry, director of the Willamette Radio Workshop. Sam is an immensely talented voice actor and talks about what that’s like. He also reads Jack Vanceâ€™s When the Five Moons Rise. Not only is this a chilling story, it’s also a fine example of character differentiation, cross-gender voicing and an emotional invested narrator. Go listen and tell me what you think.
In John Scalzi’s The Sagan Diary, I ran smack into that difference. Scalzi asked me to read the preface, which he wrote as if it were a memo, in addition to chapters which were written as if Jane Sagan were talking.
The preface, though undeniably well-written, was not meant to be read aloud and at times seemed well-nigh unto impossible. Consider that the final cut of the chapter is five minutes, but the raw tape is nine minutes long. Here’s a sample of what the session sounded like.
Yeah. Staggering, isn’t it. That was the worst of them, and this is something that I had practiced before going into the studio.
Let’s look at what’s going on here.
The only data of ana–[stumble. I was expecting the emphasis to fall on a different syllable because in several of the previous paragraphs I had read “analysis.”]
The only datal– [I was focusing on analytical, and moved the L forward.]
The only data of analytical note are Saganâ€™s notation of The Third Bat–[I thought, Yay! I got past analytical, and then saw “Provence” and didn’t prep for it.]
The only data of analytical note are Saganâ€™s notation of The Third Battle of Provence and the Special Forces retrieval [stumble] of the Bat– [The first stumble was thinking ahead about Baton Rouge, and the second stumble is that even with thinking ahead, I still didn’t prep for it.]
The only data of analytical note– [Damn. Analytical again.]
The only data of analytical note are Saganâ€™s notation of The Third Battle of Provence and the Special Forces retrieval [stumble, but I’m trying to bull my way through it] of the Baton Rougeâ€™s [stumble, still trying to fight through] ill-fated Company D, about which of course we have a wealth of information, thanks to all the BrainPals that encounter sent our way, and a
discussion of her relationship with prisoner of war named Cainen–[On the page, Cainen was at the top of the new page, and I wasn’t properly prepped. I could have bulled through because I hadn’t actually mispronounced it yet, but I knew how many other mistakes were in that one so I gave up.]
[pause to say the words that keep tripping me up.]
The only data of analytical note are Saganâ€™s notation of The Third Battle of Provence and the Special Forces retrieval of the Baton Rougeâ€™s ill-fated Company D, about which of course we have a wealth of information, thanks to all the BrainPals that encounter sent our way, and a discussion of her relationship with prisoner of war named Cainen Suen Su, whose stay with and work for the CDF is classified but otherwise well-documented. [hurrah!]
Now some of those stumbles are because of words that are not of English origin. Provence, Baton Rouge, and Cainen Suen Su. It’s not that the words are hard to say in and of themselves, it’s because they require different mouth shapes than one uses with most English words. Plus, “Rouge’s” is just plain hard to say gracefully.
By contrast, Scalzi says that the Sagan chapters were written, “to reflect to some extent how someone might communicate with themselves in their own brain, and specifically what I think Jane’s internal monologue would be. This includes, for me as a writer, a focus on the flow of words, which I tried to make less like dialogue or conventional storytelling and more like a person remembering events and commenting to herself.”
These had a natural flow so even though the sentences were complex, the words led very naturally from one to the next. Chapter 8, which is about eight minutes long, was read in one take. I think there were two internal pickups, both of which were for performance. Swing by Scalzi’s site to listen to all the chapters.
So,the lesson to take from this is that when you are looking for a piece to read aloud, actually read it out loud as part of the selection process. If you stumble a lot, chances are that you should look for a different cutting. The other thing to learn from my mistakes is that when you are in a public reading, keep going and don’t look back. If you think about the mistake you’ve just made, chances are you’ll make another right away.
When Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press asked me to read Kage Baker’s Rude Mechanicals, I was delighted, because I love the Company stories. I was delighted until I started reading the manuscript and realized that the point of view character was male. I skimmed forward, just looking at dialogue. Most of the characters were male.
I don’t mind doing some cross-gender voicing, but generally avoid it with the POV character, because I think it is confusing for most listeners. I agonized and then emailed Bill and told him that I thought he should hire a male voice artist, because that would serve the story better. He disagreed, and since I really wanted to read it, not much arm twisting was needed.
As I read the entire manuscript, instead of skimming, I realized why he wanted a female narrator. Ms. Baker uses direct address to the audience in a couple of places, so while the narrator stays with Lewis, it is clearly a separate narrative voice as opposed to an extension of Lewis. Know what I mean? So choice number one, was to have a female narrator.
This left me the freedom to pitch the narrator up, above my natural speaking voice. I also chose to make it very feminine to contrast with all the boys running around.
For Lewis and Joseph’s voices, I ran into some trouble. Joseph has more speaking time in some scenes than the narrator. Now, in the stories, Joseph is described as a bass baritone. Clearly, I wasn’t going to achieve that naturally, so we had to look at compromises.
Lewis was the less vocally dynamic of the two, so placing him at the bottom end of my range was easy; I didn’t need a lot of room to hit his emotional levels since he’s a steadier character. Joseph, our bass, on the other hand is very volatile and he talks a lot. I found that I could either nail the character or the pitch, but not both. When I pitched him down, he wound up sounding angry and dangerous, because of the audible effort involved in keeping my voice low. It doesn’t sound strained as if I were going to hurt myself, but the strain is nevertheless present as a tension that was inappropriate to the character. Most troubling, he wasn’t funny. Joseph is very funny in Ms. Baker’s story.
So after recording a test chapter with a lower Joseph, we decided to go back to the higher one because, aside from the pitch, that voicing was truer to the character.
It is true that we could have pitch-shifted my voice to get it to the right range. The software to do that now is good enough that if the voice is heard out of context, it’ll pass as real. However, in the context of the other voices I was generating, the pitch shift was obvious. Why? Because there’s this thing your brain does with a familiar voice, called psycho-acoustics, which basically waves a flag saying “Wrong! Something is wrong!” It’s a complex series of things that involve overtones, positioning, and other technical things that you have no idea that you are processing, you just know that it’s wrong.
To demonstrate, I have three clips for you.
The final Joseph choice.
Me, lowering Joseph naturally.
Joseph, pitch-shifted down 10% from the first clip.
See, even down 10% he doesn’t sound like a bass, but he sounds weird. The weirdness is even more apparent if it’s in the context of an entire chapter of natural voices.
The pitch-shifted Joseph, in context.
With all the other voices that are obviously generated by me, pitch-shifted Joseph sounds like someone else and is jarring. Given those choices, we went with the first voicing, feeling that the characterization was stronger there.
At some point, in a reading, you’ll probably have to face a similar choice and I think that you should go for the voice which will give you the most emotional range and be truest to the personality, even if you have to sacrifice some of the physicality.
(Tor Books – July 14 2020) Mary Robinette Kowal continues her Hugo and Nebula award-winning Lady Astronaut series, following The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon. The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and […]