Polishing Your Instrument: Your Voice


(photo: Pete on Flickr, public domain)

Last Friday actor and writer Alex Adams led an informal seminar for local writers on reading their fiction aloud, effectively and entertainingly. He described ways to create meaningful vocal variety and illustrated his points with excerpts of recordings created for “Selected Shorts.” As an avid reader of audiobooks, I appreciate how much a reader contributes to the impact of a tale.

Alex writes specifically for live audiences and regularly presents his stories and sketches in various venues in New York. As a member of the writing group I belong to, he helps us get ready for our own much less frequent public readings (see yesterday’s post about the benefits of reading your work out loud).

Over the years, he’s developed a method for marking up his copy that helps him achieve the most effective read. By practicing the marked-up copy numerous times, these vocal changes become as integral to the piece as punctuation. He suggested that authors mark up the copy they’re going to read to indicate:

  • Pauses. Alex uses a check mark in the places where a brief pause will allow a moment of dramatic tension, time for a joke to settle, or the chance to take a breath—you don’t want to run out of air!
  • Pacing. You may want to read some passages—for example, explanatory words and phrases—more quickly, and others—such as the introduction of an important new character—more slowly. “Change-of-pace” is synonymous with preventing monotony!
  • Emphasis. He underlines critical words and phrases one, two, or even three times to make sure he gives them the attention they need. You can emphasize words by rising volume or pitch or both.
  • Special attention. He circles words that are important, need very clear articulation, are easily misunderstood, or that give him trouble in practice. Taking the trouble to say a few words extra clearly helps it stick in the listener’s mind.
  • Dialog. While amateur readers don’t need to go overboard in trying to mimic various characters’ speech, some differentiation helps the listener know who’s speaking. Jessica Woodbury in Bookriot recently complained about audiobook readers (male) who pitch the female characters’ voices too high and make them all sound breathily the same. This is not only unnatural, she says, but “They become inferior characters in the telling of the story.” Alex edits his manuscript to look more like a play script so that, as he’s reading, he doesn’t lose track of which character is speaking.
  • Freestyle. Any additional annotations meaningful to yourself and the piece you’re reading.

Alex’s presentation made me think of audiobooks that exemplified his points. One is Herman Koch’s The Dinner, narrated by Clive Mantle, a story in which the first-person narrator is deeply jealous of his successful brother. Because of the way Mantle always carefully articulated the brother’s name—Serge Lohman—loathing just dripped off it.

Another good example (and another terrific book) was Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, narrated by Oliver Wyman. At first I thought the reader wasn’t doing much, but he grew on me, perfectly capturing the main character’s puzzlement, sadness, hope, fear. This book isn’t about a larger-than-life hero, it was Billy’s ordinariness that made it so heartbreaking.

In total contrast to these insightful narrations, imagine my bafflement when I listened to a post-recording interview with Ralph Cosham, audiobook reader of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries. He said he likes to discover her books along with the listener. As a result, he never reads them before sitting down in the recording studio! Totally winging it may work for him, but the rest of us have to practice in order to mine the rich possibilities inherent in our own voices.

2 thoughts on “Polishing Your Instrument: Your Voice

  1. Thank you so much for your concise and very thoughtful review. You get an A+ as a student. You not only took in everything I said, but added some very good and original thoughts of your own. Now I want to get my hands on those Books On Tape that you referred to.

    As to the woman who complained about men going up on women’s voices too much,
    remember what Stacey Keatch did when he read The Snows Of Kilamanjero…he went down on the woman’s voice and made her more viable and kept the serious tone of the story intact. Women’s voices can be low, even lower than men, like Lauren Bacall.

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