Saturday 23 August 2008

"I narrate podcast fiction," he said (repost from other blog)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I've contributed my voice to various fiction podcasts. My latest is a reading for Transmissions from Beyond, the podcast of TTA Press, who are posting stories from their three main publications, Interzone, Black Static and Crimewave. I narrated "Lady of the Crows", a story by Tim Casson from the first issue of Black Static. (It may have been Black Static's inaugural issue, but the magazine has been going a long time under its previous title of The Third Alternative.)

Regular readers might also know that I've narrated my own short fiction on my podcast The Rev Up Review, and my own first novel The Plitone Revisionist, available for free at

I've learned a few things over the past three years of narrating fiction. The main thing is that I never want to do it live. My raw audio is painful to listen to. For a 30-minute reading I typically record maybe 45 minutes, including pauses to turn pages,
cough up my gutsclear my throat, or for second, third and sixth retakes. Thankfully we have such applications as Audacity and GarageBand to allow meticulous editing of the raw source, which, with care, can turn something amateurishly halting into a smooth, professional-sounding production.

Audio fiction comes in several flavours. There's the straight reading, with no sound effects, minimal attempts at accents, and maybe some intro and outro music. This is the kind of production I favour, though I've experimented with special processing for telephone or computer/robot effects.

Next there's the enhanced reading, with more sound effects and perhaps some guest voices. This is a kind of half-way house, and requires careful judgement to get right, otherwise it can sound cheesy. Global decisions have to be made regarding sound effects, and stuck to:
"There was a knock at the door."

[FX: sound of door-knocking]
Should the sound-effect come before the words, or after, as above? Or should the words be omitted? Or the sound-effect? Tricky decisions, because getting it wrong can mean the listener is wrenched out of the fictional world, which is the last thing an author wants. Any enhancements to audio fiction should be aimed at increasing the listener's immersion in the story. Anything that draws the listener's attention to the production, the writing, the voice - in fact to anything that isn't the story itself - is to be avoided.

Enhanced audio fiction is also a great deal of work, requiring co-ordination of guest voices, unless your guests are all assembled together for recording (which would require considerable co-ordination in itself). If guests are recording separately and sending their audio files, there's the added complication of differing audio levels, background noise, pacing, etc. An excellent example of such a production is Tee Morris's podcast novel, Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword, though I have to admit I don't feel my own contribution to it was particularly effective.

Finally there's full-cast audio drama. This not only takes a lot of work, it also requires total dedication from everyone participating, whether they're all together in a 'studio' or recording separately. It can be done successfully, and has been: Second Shift, Children of the Gods, Decoder Ring Theater, to mention just a few.

But even the simplest audio fiction requires important decisions at the outset. Just how expressive should the narrator be? How important are accents? My next question should reveal where I stand on these questions. Have you ever read a book written entirely in dialect?

In school our English teachers often read to the class during lessons. I remember one teacher who was extremely expressive, virtually acting his way through the text. It was good narration, in its way. But we had another English teacher who read to us with a very flat voice - practically no expression at all. For me, such a flat reading was much closer to reading the book myself. Straightforward fiction in print rarely has stage directions separate from the text; the 'action' of the story is conveyed in words, and words alone.

One aspect of podcast fiction that may have a bearing on why enhanced audio fiction is popular in the podosphere, is that much podcast fiction is science fiction, and many podcasters are fans of graphic novels. My comments in the previous paragraph do not, obviously, apply to graphic novels (which is a type of fiction I know very little about).

Even if my own preference is for unembellished readings, I acknowledge that audio fiction is not, and never can be, the same as printed fiction. There are clues on the page that cannot be transferred unaltered to the audio version. There are also aspects of printed fiction that go virtually unnoticed on the page, but stand out glaringly when read aloud. One example is speech- or dialogue-tags. Often the layout on the page will indicate who is speaking. "He said" and "she said" will reliably indicate who said what. When narrating, a slight change in voice will do the same, but usually the tags will still be needed. I've noticed several podcasters, however, leaving a lengthy gap between the speech itself and the tag, enough, even, to take a breath. Personally I find this detracts from the narration. Why I should find this distracting was a puzzle, until I reflected on how I normally read printed dialogue (other than when narrating). I realised that the speech tag is taken in by the eye at the same time as the speech itself. The 'who' is apprehended simultaneously with the 'what', not separately. That's why, in my own narration, I tend to close up the gaps between the dialogue and its tags as much as possible.

I've long been a fan of BBC Radio Drama, and of the BBC's fiction readings, many of which are virtually permanently available (if you count the unending repeats) on BBC7, and I've therefore modelled my own narrations on the BBC's output (and that of Oneword Radio, before its unfortunate demise earlier this year). While Martin Jarvis has many fans of his man-of-a-thousand-voices style of narration, I prefer to follow narrators like Alex Jennings, Paul Rhys and Nigel Anthony.

Who would you follow? Want to try? Stay tuned!