This week’s column is going up late partially because I had a big task this past week — making notes on my science fiction/zombie apocalypse novel The Panama Laugh for an audio narrator who just finished recording the book for Audible.com.
The narrator of the audiobook is an actor named Andy Caploe and he is a complete bad-ass. He was awesome to work with. He liked the book and wanted to make sure he got the characters right. To my — wait for it — horror, I realized as I dug down into the text that there were a hell of a lot more characters than I ever remembered writing. Because I’m that sort of writer, almost each and every one was kinda, you know…weird.
In short, there are lots of characters in this damn book, and every one has twitches. There is, of course, the main character. He’s Dante Bogart, a wisecracking California ex-mercenary and internet-famous viral video star who talks like his namesake was resurrected for a cameo in a Quentin Tarantino movie and was none too happy about it. There’s Dante’s best friend, Van Fish, an orchid-growing Sasquatch of a man with a bestial growl, who will rabidly lecture you on alien abductions if you’re not clever enough to fake a heart attack. There’s the woman they both love, Trixie Ferguson, MD, a former Peace Corps volunteer who will lecture you on how your failure to recycle that plastic spoon shows your grotesque disregard for children with cleft palates in Botswana. She will continue to do so even if you fake a heart attack; she’s a doctor, you see, and has learned how to make you feel bad about reifying First World privilege while she’s giving you CPR. Apparently they cover that in certain med schools nowadays.
Those three are just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally dozens of other characters in this behemoth — and “behemoth” is going pretty far, since it’s only 300 pages. I guess you’d say it’s kinda dense with the weirdness. There’s Alei, the native Kuna kid who learned how to speak English by watching Van’s bootlegged ’30s and ’40s crime movies and old VHS copies of The Sopranos. There’s Virgil, the decaying Christian patriarch of a sleazy pirate interdiction and military consulting firm that has become a de facto apocalyptic private army geared-up and ready for the End Times. There’s Luke, his son, who wants to turn Dante into the next Cara Hartmann. Then there’s a whole crew of hacktivists living in the San Francisco Armory, each of whom has dialogue rendered with particular tics that I heard in my brain when I was writing the thing.
How the hell does one person put all these voices on virtual tape? More importantly for my purposes, how does one writer come up with a way to describe them to a voice actor?
Lucky for me, Andy came up with a lot of his own ideas. He’s done videos for the likes of Funny or Die, so the book’s comic, zany, over-the-top nature appealed to him, and he just seemed to click with it. But he really wanted to make sure he was “true to my vision,” as they say. The novel came out almost exactly a year ago, so I’d mostly forgotten just how completely FUBAR my “vision” was. I’m still not entirely sure I was the guy who wrote this thing.
So, then, what did I take away from that experience? What’s my advice for how to mark up notes for an audio narrator? And in particular — because this is Write Sex, after all — how does one do that for erotica?
Well, the best answer is that you work with an actor who “gets” your work. This is one thing when you’re talking about horror/science fiction, even with a novel as weird as The Panama Laugh . With erotica, it’s even more important that the narrator is someone whose voice works for the novel or short story. In the case of Andy, he was both eager to hear my ideas and happy to wing it when he needed to. That winging it can go horribly wrong when you’re talking about erotica, however. In one case — quite a few years ago — I’ve had audio narration of my work done in which a voice actor took a work of mine that I found deeply erotic and sensual and made it totally not work for me. At the same time, other people listened to that narration and found it smokin’ hot. On the other hand, there was a pseudonymous story, also some years ago, where I found it agonizing to listen to the audio version not because of the narrator, but because of my own writing. Sometimes hearing stories read aloud makes you realize how many clunkers you’ve left along the way. The narrator was a lovely actress with a wonderful delivery and a hell of a smoky, sultry, provocative voice that I found supremely sexy. It was my writing that sucked. (The good news is that nobody who heard it seemed to agree with me).
The person who has recorded my erotic fiction more than anyone is Violet Blue, whose podcast Open Source Sex has featured several erotic pieces I’ve written, plus one story set in The Panama Laugh‘s universe that I wrote specifically for her because the character was based on her (although, admittedly, a her I never knew). She made a number of significant changes to the text, which I gave her full license to do — because I knew, having written a character inspired by her, that there was no way Violet wasn’t going to nail it. She did.
But then, she’s also nailed the audio narration on every erotic work of mine she’s podcast — partially because Violet and I are highly sympatico when it comes to our thinking on what makes good erotica.
For the erotic essence of a sexy story — or, for that matter, the terrifying essence of a horror story — the task of rendering story-to-audio is very much dependent on the chemistry between the work and the actor. The author may have input into that, in much the same way that some screenwriters may be consulted by actors. But they’re usually not, and that can sometimes be a good thing. Ultimately, on matters of character and voice, it is the actor, not the author, who is going to be delivering these lines. Writers would do well to trust the actor’s craft.
That said, it’s also helpful to remember that an actor is only as good as his or her tools. The more details you can give a voice actor on WTF you were thinking when you wrote the thing, the more likely it is that their vision will match yours. This is especially true because of the economics of audiobook production. Whereas actors even in relatively low-budget movies may take weeks or months — part time — to think about their roles, audiobooks are produced pretty fast and furious. Recording audiobooks is a particular (some would say “peculiar”) skill, and one that some people have a knack for and others don’t. Quality voice actors get lots of gigs and need to lay down tape pretty quickly. The more shorthand you can give them, the better.
Some other things that are critically important if your work has any of these elements — which The Panama Laugh does, but most of my short stories do not:
- Foreign phrases should be sounded out if the narrator doesn’t speak that language. You can record your own short MP3s with the proper pronunciation, or direct the actor to such pronunciations online.
- Character names should be sounded out if there’s any ambiguity about who they’re pronounced. My character “Van Fish,” for instance, is named “Evan Isaiah Fish.” It is, however, central to the weirdness of the character that he pronounces his own name “Van Fish,” like “Van Beethoven,” as if he were Dutch nobility. Just one of those things, and probably not important to most readers. But it’s important to me, and so it was important to my narrator…and thus it was important to Andy, aka Vox Dante.
- Place names should also be sounded out. This is important for names from foreign languages, but there are lots of other examples. For instance, I realized late in the process of marking up The Panama Laugh — after Andy had already started recording — that most people from the San Francisco area would know that “Gough Street” is pronounced to rhyme with “cough,” not with “dough.” Most people from outside the San Francisco area — and even some within it — would not know that. Luckily, Andy knew this, but he might not have. My narrating character is supposed to be from the area, so pronouncing it like “Go” would have been a significant factual error — small, perhaps, but now that you mention it…
- …tiny factual pronunciation errors in the text can drive a listener crazy. I listen to a lot of audiobooks — literally hundreds thus far since I got my first MP3 player, and a few dozen before that. Factual pronunciation errors are very common. I listen to a lot of audio about the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and Russia, so there are plenty of place names that are mispronounced or pronounced with incorrect regional variations in books I’ve listened to. But then there are the truly egregious mistakes. One audiobook I listened to about 19th and early 20th century hunting in Africa had a British narrator who apparently didn’t know anything about guns. He mis-rendered the rifle caliber .30-’06 — possibly the most common game hunting round in history, and certainly so in the U.S. He called it “point-three-oh, point-oh-six,” which made my skin crawl every time I heard it — and I heard it a lot in a history book about hunting. It’s pronounced thirty-ought-six, and ABSOLUTELY NO ONE would ever pronounce a weapon’s caliber as point-such-and-such.
- Technical terms like thirty-ought-six may not show up in erotica, but other pronunciation quirks certainly do. In addition to listening to a lot of audiobooks, I’ve attended hundreds of erotic readings over the years (and read my work at probably sixty or seventy of them).I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people reading erotic work — or delivering talks about human sexuality — pronounce “clitoris” with the accent on the middle syllable, rather than the first syllable. It’s “CLI-tor-is,” as far as I’m concerned, though Wikipedia lists “cli-TOR-is” as an acceptable variation. At least in the United States, 99% of the people who know what one is — or at least speak publicly about it — pronounce it CLI-tor-is. If your narrator is pronouncing it cli-TOR-is, I swear, I’m not going to complain. Frankly, I could give a damn; pronunciation quirks spice up an audio work. But both the author and the narrator should know why it’s being done. Mispronouncing something because you don’t know how to pronounce it will inhibit the professionalism of the production.
- The same goes for all technical sexual terms, as well as slang terms, which vary hugely by region. In a famous episode of the television show Angel, David Boreanaz sarcastically refers to a purported scene of BDSM and references a “safety word.” He meant, as you probably know, “safeword.”
- That said, sometimes you can go down a rabbit hole in trying to find out how to pronounce something that very few people will know how to pronounce in the first place. In The Panama Laugh one of the terms that crops up is “cachinnation,”a neurological term for pathological laughter. We eventually figured out how to pronounce it, but it probably wasn’t that important that it be perfect. The number of neurologists listening to the audiobook of The Panama Laugh is probably going to be small.
That’s about as much as I have time to spin at the moment, but I want to leave you with one final thought:
Writing for actors is a skill that screenwriters and playwrights spend their whole lives learning. In being a novelist or a short story writer, no matter what your genre, you would do well to learn some of its elements, whether or not you’re writing a story that ever gets recorded for audio.
Thanks for listening!