Posts Tagged ‘Reading Aloud’

Recording Shades of Milk and Honey, pt 3

The dialect is definitely going much smoother when recording Shades of Milk and Honey. The first day I was covering about 7 pages an hour and my usual speed is 15.  I’m back up to the twelve range, which is still slow but at least in the realm of reasonable. It will be interesting to see how much of a reset is required after the two week break in NYC.

Last night I was faced with this sentence, which prompted me to ask, “Who wrote this?”

She went upstairs to her mother’s rooms and spent a quarter hour helping Mrs. Ellsworth with the arrangement of her pillows—which were not fluffed enough and then were lofted too high, and with the blankets which were too hot and then too cold—when she heard the front door close.

This is fine on the page and true to the period language but– what was I thinking? It is a) freakin’ long for reading aloud and b) really hard to have the last clause make sense after the aside since you can’t scan back to see where the sentence started.

Mental note when writing for something which I know will be audio later: parenthetical asides are hard.

Accents and regional variations.

One of the reasons I was cast to do the novel I’m reading right now is because I grew up in North Carolina. Of course, the story is set in South Carolina so I have the wrong accent.

Yes. Yes, there is more than one Southern accent.

To complicate matters, my parents are from East Tennessee which is entirely different from either of the  Carolinas AND I was surrounded by folks transplanted to the Research Triangle Park so while I can sound authentically Southern, it’s a weird hybrid. To someone from South Carolina it won’t sound fake, but it’ll sound like I’m from some other part of the South. Because I am.

I also had little to no accent growing up which we blame on two things, the abundance of transplants in Raleigh and a speech impediment when I was little.

See a sizable part of southern accents is the dropped R. I couldn’t pronounce the letter at all and had it trained into me when I was little. But there are things that betray my regional origin. Words that, because I don’t have an accent, sound like I’m just mispronouncing them.

Two of them, I learned when I was reading A Local Habitation. I’ve said “unfortunately” and “definitely” wrong my entire life.  Since I’m using a southern accent for this other book, I called home to find out how my folks pronounced those two words.

The same way I do, which means it is a regional variation.

I’ve always said “unfortunantly” and “definently.”  Which explains why I’ve never been able to spell either word… It also means that I should switch pronunciations depending on if I’m reading the narrator or a character. That should be fun.

Accents… they fascinate me.

WorldCon: Reading with Scalzi

Thursday at Four PM at the Hyatt Hotel, room Granite B, I’ll be sharing my reading with John Scalzi. I had a crazy hour and a half slot, which I just wouldn’t use and he didn’t have a reading so if you come you can get a special 2-for-1 reading deal.

As he says:

Right now our plan is to offer a “sampler platter” of some shorter works, done in tag-team style. I dare say you’ll have more fun at this reading than you thought was humanly possible! And possibly, more than inhumanly possible as well. I do hope you’ll join us, and will spread the word.

Note: In the Denvention schedule, the reading will be listed under my name, not John Scalzi, or some wacky hybrid name.

Reminder: I’m reading at KGB tonight

If you’ve got nothing else going on, swing down to the KGB bar at 85 E. 4th Street at 7:00 tonight to hear short stories read by Matt McHugh, M. M. De Voe and me.

Here’s a teaser of the one I’ll be reading tonight, which appears in the new anthology, The Best of The First Line: Editors’ Picks 2002-2006.

I was born Rosa Carlotta Silvana Grisanti, but in the mid-Eighties, I legally changed my name to Eve. As you have guessed in your letter, after the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland, my dear friends Dr. Watson and Mr. Sherlock Holmes suggested that my safest course of action would be to distance myself from my family.

But I get ahead of my story; I have not Dr. Watson’s gift for explaining Mr. Holmes’s methods, and I fear your wish that I relay the particulars of this strange case may be met with inadequate measures.

On the twelfth of October, 1887, I was being taken by the steamship Friesland from our home on the Venetian isle of Murano to Africa; there to meet my betrothed, Hans Boerwinkle, a man several years my senior with whom my father had very recently made arrangements. Living as we do now, in the nineteen-twenties, it is difficult to remember what a sheltered life we girls led forty years ago, but at the time it seemed natural that my brother, Orazio Rinaldo Paride Grisanti, escorted me as chaperone.

Did I mention it’s a bar? Fiction and drinks, can you ask for a better combo?

My prelimary WorldCon schedule

The planners of Denvention are really on their game. I’m not sure when I’ve known about my programming so far in advance. Granted, these are preliminary schedules, but here’s the list.

Schmoozing 101 – Wed 13:00

Survival Tips for the Beginning Writer – Wed 16:00

How to Give an Effective Reading – Workshop – Fri 10:00

I’ll also be doing the Strolling with the Stars one morning, but I don’t know which one yet.

Reading Aloud 16: The Common Cold

This entry is part 16 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

My niece gave me a cold for Christmas, so we’re going to take advantage of it to show some tricks for dealing with throat ailments. For kicks, I recorded the whole post this time. You can listen to it here OR you can read and just listen to the example clips.

Listen to Reading Aloud: The Common Cold

You’ve probably noticed that when you are sick your voice tends to get lower, right? Basically, what’s going on is this: the pitch of your voice depends on the length and thickness of your vocal cords (folds really, but that’s a tangent) Men have big thick manly vocal cords, while ladies and kids have thinner more delicate ones. When you’re sick, your throat gets inflamed, which thickens your vocal cords. They vibrate more slowly and voila, lower voice.

Let’s pause for a moment to listen to some audio, shall we? I’ll let you hear a recording of me reading Rampion with my normal voice, and then switch to one with my voice the way it sounds right now.

This is the full text of Rampion, but only listen to the first 30 seconds or so of it.

Now, this is me, today, sick. I’m trying to deliver the same read, but I’m not making corrections for the effects of illness.

Sounds like a different person, eh?

Since the cold is lowering my voice, I can raise my pitch and try to compensate somewhat. For me, it feels like I’m speaking incredibly high, but to someone who doesn’t know me, this will do a lot to bring my voice into the range of normal. I wouldn’t want to do this for long, but it’s gotten me through many performances.

So, same text but with me trying to correct.

It’s passable, but there’s a danger here. I have a smaller vocal range when sick already, and by moving my voice up in pitch, I cut off the bottom end of my range. When ill, I mostly have bottom end and then nothing until the very top end. Your mileage may vary, but try humming through your vocal range next time you are sick.

And if you are feeling frisky, take advantage of that suddenly deep voice. Everything can sound sexy with your new range. For example:

Mostly though, the answer to being sick is to rest your voice and to drink plenty of fluids. Stay away from the citrus, dairy and caffeine. But if you have to use your voice, at least you’ll know why it’s misbehaving.

Reading Aloud 15: Choices & Compromises while recording Rude Mechanicals

This entry is part 15 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

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.

Reading Aloud: Singing while sick

I have a mild cold that I picked up from the germ factories that come aboard the boat to meet the Cinnamon Bear. It’s not bad, just a scratchy throat and fatigue–although I suppose the fatigue comes from other sources. Anyway, we carol as people are boarding. I enjoy this even though I’m scantily dressed in a fairy costume. What’s interesting about the way my voice functions when ill is that I lose my mid-range.

My speaking voice drops, but usually my head voice stays more or less clear. I can’t blend the two ranges at all. Now, this is a problem if I’m trying to belt Christmas Carols, (which uses the chest voice and blending) so I dealt with it by jumping up to my upper end and avoiding the midrange. So here’s me, speaking a couple of steps lower than normal, and then singing high soprano because that’s the only sound I’ve got reliable available. It’s useful to know how one’s voice behaves when sick.

Next time you have a cold, I want you to hum through your range. Start at the low end and hum up to the high end, then back down. Now, with me, my voice drops out on the way up the scale, and then comes back again. On the way down, I have more notes. It usually happens this way for me. I’ve been able to use this to compete, perform or audition by either picking pieces that fit the “sick” range or by adapting the work that I doing.

For a reading, I pitch my narrator higher than usual, to get above my dead zone. I save my suddenly deep low end for the male characters. It’s the only time I can really do a convincing male voice. I’ve always wished I were an alto because of that. It seems like it would be sooooo much more useful for voice work.

What does your voice do when you’re sick?

Orycon workshop

I’m teaching a workshop at Orycon on reading aloud. How does this text sound as a blurb?

You may be a good writer, but reading aloud is a separate skill. In this workshop, learn to make your words sound as great out loud as they do on the page. Using both demonstration and audience participation, we will explore voicing, narration and pacing. Come with one paragraph of your own work; sample text will also be provided.

I also need a snappy title. Here are some random candidates, not all of which are from me.

    Reading Aloud
    How to Give a Reading without Wetting Yourself
    The Science of Readings
    Remember to Breathe

Reading Aloud 6: Recording tricks

This entry is part 6 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

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.

Reading Aloud 4: Cross-gender voices

This entry is part 4 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

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.

And remember that you can be subtle.

Reading Aloud 3: Narrating

This entry is part 3 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

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.

  1. 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.
  2. A period means pause and count to 2.
  3. 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.

Questions? Requests? Complaints?

Reading Aloud 2: Character voices

This entry is part 2 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

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.

Moving on.


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.

Next week, I’ll talk about narrating.