The Daring Girls Project

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So…a couple of years ago, I started narrating for a publishing group that specializes in narrating public domain books. The company’s focus has changed as it’s grown, but I’m still working on the public domain narration.

Primarily, I’m working on what I’m for now calling the Daring Girls Collection, a collection of classic children’s audiobooks that focus on girl protagonists being brave, imaginative, compassionate, assertive, and curious.

All those soft skills children need to develop to be productive adults.

I’m in the middle of an audiobook at the moment from this collection. And when so many of us last week were trying to figure out how to react and adult productively, I made the decision to continue working on that audiobook. Largely in part because I felt the best thing I could do in those moments was to continue producing books that would hopefully inspire children to choose to grow up brave, imaginative, compassionate, assertive, and curious.

All those traits they’re going to need to face whatever’s coming next without resorting to actions that help no one.

If you’re at all interested in checking them out or maybe sharing them with children in your life (or you just want to encourage the collection’s continued development), they’re all available on Audible. And I keep an updated list of them here on the¬†website.

Pictured above, In the Wild ūüėČ

Marketing Audiobooks Through Product Photography

A while back, I admitted that I’ve starting playing around with Instagram. It started off as a collection of random photos of my life, that then incorporated a handwriting challenge (I think mine’s gotten worse. Oops.), and has stretched to incorporate favorite quotes and shots of the outdoors to help break up all of the handwriting posts.

In between, however, I’ve started creating pictures featuring my voiceover work that I like to call “Audio Fiction in the Wild“. (Pinterest board. Also available on deviantArt.)

Among the Instagram accounts I like to spy on, there are a fair number of publishers, book nerds, and tea houses. I followed them in part because their pictures are cool, but I also followed them to see how they use Instagram to promote their own (or favorite) products. What I noticed was that they promote their wares with a photo that features the product in an attractive setting.

And I became curious. Could I do the same thing for my audio fiction projects?

I’ve been working on the Audio Fiction in the Wild project for a couple of months now, and the short answer is, “Yes.” Not enough to fill up an Instagram account frequently enough to be interesting. (See my other account for proof of this.) But people who see the photos do seem to like them, and I have seen the smallest shift in how well my audiobooks are doing. (It is a very tiny shift, and it mostly centers around books that don’t have their own In the Wild shot.)

So, let’s get into how I’m doing things for the moment (because this is a work in progress). While I’m working on a project, I make notes on aspects of my character or the story that might make for an interesting shot. Once I have the cover art (which is fairly early on for my own projects, but has to wait until release day for projects I work on for other people), I download it to my phone and plug in my headphones. Then, I take my notes and build a scene around my phone (displaying the cover art on the screen), and shoot several pictures (because I’m compulsive like that).

When the project is released (-ish, depending on how long it took me to get everything together), I upload the picture and caption it, complete with hashtags, to Instagram, Pinterest, goodreads, and deviantArt.

As I said, I don’t know that these pictures are having a direct influence on my sales. I don’t have access to those numbers. But I do know I’ve seen the tiniest increase in audiobook sales, and more importantly, I know that none of the publishers I work for have given me the boot over these photos. So, I’d like to think they’re serving some purpose beyond really fun photography practice.

One of the best benefits of working on this project is that I’m gaining practical experience in product photography – thinking about staging and context. And I think that’s a pretty big benefit.

Anyway, that’s how Audio Fiction in the Wild got started, and why I will probably continue working on it as long as my schedule allows.

Still the Little Kid in the Room

I studied ballet growing up, and one of my favorite things to do (when I was old enough to be in shows) was to sit at the studio door and watch the company girls rehearse. I’d watch them carefully, and then go home and figure out how to do what they did. I learned so much by copying those older girls.

Sadly, that copycat behavior did not follow me into voice acting. I suppose it can be forgiven. The little girl who spent her time away from school and the ballet studio watching cartoons never actually expected to be in a position to be a disembodied voice herself. I watched, fascinated by the optical illusion that is animation, and I listened to the voices, trying to connect them to characters in other cartoons I watched. But it was never anything more than that, because it was never going to need to be.

As I write this, I’ve been a working voice actor for five years (as of August 1), and really starting to wish I’d paid closer attention to all those cartoons. I’ve recently completed work on an audio drama where I play two of the main characters. For a girl who’s narrated over two dozen audiobooks with anywhere from a handful to nearly a hundred characters, this shouldn’t have been that big a deal. But in audiobooks, it’s understood that one person is doing everything. In an audio drama, not so much. These voices needed to be some shade of noticeably different.

I sat there, skimming scripts for moments where the two characters talk to each other to see exactly what I was in for, and thinking back over years of voice chasing and of smarting off every time I found a voice actor effectively talking to themself (or a screen actress talking to her disembodied voice). As the horrible thought that I would be engaging in that very behavior myself started sinking in, I panicked.

Memories of my past life as a ballerina kicked in, and I started thinking back more critically over all the times I could actively remember hearing someone talk to themself. (I even did some research. It’s amazing how much¬†Darkwing Duck you can watch under the guise of “research”.) I’ve listened to experienced voice actors doing it. (I still do, actually.) I can recall or re-watch them. In the strangest copycat crash course ever, my inner grown-up voice actor tried to connect with my inner younger ballerina to sort out how to get through the project.

But I survived. And while it took a bit of work to make sure I was separating the characters enough, it was fun. Of course, I haven’t made it to the episode where the characters have a conversation yet, but I’m ready to mock myself when it happens.

Creating Content: Publishing Writing vs. Publishing Audio

As we’ve been looking at each stage of the creation project in terms of my two primary creative activities, I’ve been able to break down activities into writing-specific activities and voiceover-specific activities. Publishing is a little bit different, because publishing is just publishing more often than not.

When you’re preparing to publish or release a project, you make sure the project is in the right format and the right file type, that all of the little technical issues are in order. For writing, this might be checking margins, fonts, appropriate conventions and style use. For voiceover, this might be making sure you meet all of the specs for the project (bit rate, noise floor, limits), that you’ve included the designated quiet spaces (commonly, the head and tail on the track), and that you’ve included sufficient room tone if required. Whatever you’re preparing to release, always, always, always make sure it meets the rules of the platform you’re publishing to. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief later.

For some projects, you also get to do fun things like create cover art, sales copy (be it a blurb or a project description), and metadata (creator, publisher, participants, genre, subgenre, category, etc.). Having had some experience with all of this as a writer and a museum/library girl came in very handy when I suddenly found myself doing this for voiceover projects (something to keep in mind when you’re looking for transferable skills as you’re changing fields). Again, as you’re preparing these additional materials, make sure it meets the platform’s rules, because having to re-do things when you misread the rules the first time around is a pain.

Finally, you announce to the world you’ve done a thing. Maybe you post it to social media. Maybe you announce it on your blog or in your newsletter (if you have one). Maybe you announce it everywhere you have access. When it’s your own project, you’re responsible for getting the word out into the world. When it’s a project you’ve been part of, there will probably be some line in the contract that says everyone involved has equal responsibility to promote the finished product. Either way, do your part.

This last bit is challenging because you’re going to run into all kinds of things as you start to promote a project. You’re going to come across people (some who really ought to know better) who think all of the marketing should fall on your shoulders. Don’t fall for it if that shared responsibility bit is in your contract. You might also run into people who believe just releasing something into the world will attract readers and listeners, and will suggest that promoting it will violate some rule. Don’t fall for that, either. If there’s a link to the publicly available project, get that puppy out into the world to help people find the project.

Okay, I think that’s everything I can think of about creating as a writer versus creating as a voice actor. If I’ve left anything out or not been clear, please feel free to ask me questions.

Using deviantArt as a Writer and Voice Actor

I’ve used deviantArt over the years, constantly trying to figure out how to best use it for my various creative interests. It hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve reinvented that account probably close to half a dozen times over the last ten years just trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted from the site and then again trying to figure out how to use it to show off and highlight the creative directions my life has taken.

deviantArt is a site dedicated primarily to visual artists. Photographers, sketchers, painters, sculptors, costume and jewelry designers – They can all find a home on deviantArt. There is also a corner set aside for writers and poets, but vocal artists have to be a little more creative.

Being a writer on deviantArt is really the easier part. While deviantArt isn’t necessarily geared toward writers, especially those who write chaptered or serialized stories, ¬†it does offer a space to play and get feedback. I like to post stories, vignettes, and even scraps of an idea I was playing with that I can’t find a good home for among my more serious work. Sometimes, it’s the only writing I get done in a week (or a month, as has been the case more recently), and sometimes those bits of story become the basis for voiceover and sound design practices. (I’ll post the audio to SoundCloud and then link the two together so someone finding one can check out the other.) I also like to back up writing from classes and other sites, just in case.

I also find the Journal a useful place to share posts on writing-specific topics from my blog along with craft-agnostic productivity and creativity topics. (You may have noticed I’m currently on a bit of a transdisciplinary kick. How unusual, right?)

One of my better ideas, though, came when I had to start creating covers for my stories and audiobooks. I’ve read so many books and articles on how to create a brilliant book cover, but I find it’s almost always more telling to get them out in front of people and see what the actual reaction is. So, I’ve taken to sharing covers for completed projects, giving them their own gallery so I can see my own progress (and catch any ticks I may be relying on). It’s one of the few ways a voice actor can really use deviantArt, even when she forgets to post the track covers she designs for projects headed to SoundCloud, and it’s a great way to get in some graphic design practice.

My other favorite way to use deviantArt as a voice actor, and I’ve only just started doing this recently, is to create promotional shots for my audiobooks and the audio dramas I perform in. These have really taken off on Instagram, but I back them up to a gallery in deviantArt, again so I can see my progress in developing these and to make sure I’m not getting stuck in ruts. Plus, it’s a great way to get in some photography practice.

What makes deviantArt a great place to store all of these stories and images is that you never know when some random deviant will come by and offer just the right piece of advice or well-timed supportive word on your work.

Creating Content: Editing Writing vs. Editing Audio

Some creators look at the blank slate of the creation stage and panic. Others look at the editing stage and go into hiding. We all have our own relationships with our craft and our work. In my case, I hate being asked whether I prefer creating or editing because both have their charms and their detractors. And I really don’t like being asked if it’s easier to edit written material or audio material, because it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

As a writer, this is where the fun begins. The manuscript is a lump of play-doh waiting to be twisted, rolled out, and otherwise abused until something hits the “Well…it doesn’t suck…” phase. Notes are made, outlines sometimes drawn back up, holes or otherwise weak points in the story are identified. Sometimes, scenes are completely rewritten. Sometimes, the story itself is completely rewritten. Characters are fleshed out or dropped, world details are added and removed (sometimes in the same editing session). Huge tracts of text are mercilessly cut. In one last step to guard against the trolls and grammarphiles, you then read through it a couple more times looking for those tiny details – spelling, punctuation, etc. – that can throw the more eagle-eyed reader.

As a voice actor, this is the tedious (and sometimes hilarious) part. This is where things like quality control (known in some corners as prooflistening) happen. You sit there and listen to everything accelerated to chipmunk speed (my tracks actually sound more like a little kid), waiting to hear what you actually read in comparison to what’s on the page. The mistakes can be kind of adorable sometimes, especially when your voice sounds like a seven-year-old girl. Then, you go through and clean up the file for any extraneous noises that could throw a listener. And then you get to see just how much your voice changes from day to day as you try to match yourself to fix the lines you misread the first time around.

Regardless of which medium you’re in, this phase is about building the best story you can. It’s very detail-oriented, and leaves you spending too much time wondering what’s “good enough”. It’s also a lot of time spent with your inner critic, which can be debilitating if you let it really get to you. But I’ve found that really good mistakes (and someday I’ll actually think to start creating project blooper reels) are a great way to shut down that inner critic because you remember that the work is fun.

Creating Content: The Act of Writing vs. The Act of Recording

Most creators don’t start working on a project without going through some sort of planning phase. Even those who write by the seat of their pants will have a handful of ideas, a genre, a target audience, and maybe a target word length in mind when they sit down to work. Some creators will even (deliberately or accidentally) use the planning phase to delay the phase of actually making the thing. But eventually, work begins on the project.

As a writer, this is the terrifying rough draft phase, complete with research periods, outline revisions as ideas change and grow, and however many false starts it takes to get through it. Ideally, this phase is nothing but writing, reading over notes to know where you’re headed next, and reading over the last page or so to get into the day’s writing, but some writers just can’t help themselves and edit bits and pieces as they go. (This way lies a lot of madness. We all do it at some point, but still… Use your planning phase wisely and with your own process in mind.)

As a voice actor, this is the hours of just sitting down at the mic, performing, and trying to not get into a rut. In my case, I’m often sitting there hoping like anything I’m not screwing everything up. (It’s been nearly five years, and I still haven’t really found my confidence as a voice actor. I’m told this is not unusual.) This phase is ideally characterized by just recording and then listening back to make sure you got everything correct word-wise, but it’s really hard when you realize you’ve changed a major character’s voice in a major, non-defensible way (like the character aging over the course of the project or suffering a major change within the story). But for reasons unknown, I find it much easier to stay on target with recording than with writing.

I say that I struggle with faith in my work while I’m recording, but that’s not entirely true. I doubt myself when I’m writing, too. Even when things are going well, I have give myself pep talks, remind myself that I’ve been doing this craft for a while now, and that I wouldn’t be doing it if I couldn’t do it. While my writing work is almost exclusively personal, my voiceover work tends to be for others and then I can remind myself that someone else picked me to do this work because they thought I could do it and do it well. It’s not my own arrogance at play like it is with my writing.

I bring this up because those moments of self-doubt can really hinder your work while you’re in creation mode, and I want you to know that no matter how long you’ve been doing something, it’s normal as a creator to have those little moments, and to acknowledge them and then continue on with your work. You wouldn’t be doing it if you couldn’t.

All right, next time we leave the scary seas of creating to the even scarier seas of editing.

Creating Content: Prepping to Write vs. Prepping to Record

My high school and college both had a technology class requirement, and I chose to fulfill both by taking basic programming courses. Honestly, it seemed more fun than several weeks of having basic terminology explained to me. I took three classes total. My high school class focused on teaching the basics of Turbo Pascal (because I’m that old). I did well enough in the class to pull out a decent score on the AP test. As a result, the first course I took in college was a bit of a refresher.

The second course, however, was more interesting. We spent the semester switching over to object-oriented programming in C++, leaning by first designing and implementing the project in Turbo Pascal and then learning how to design the same project in C++. It seems redundant, but what we really ended up learning was how to view processes when developing programming, a skill we could carry on to learn other languages, be they programming or markup.

I’ve written things other than code most of my life. The writing cycle is as natural to me as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Prepare, write, edit, publish. Repeat. ¬†So, when I started narrating audiobooks, it took me longer than it should have to realize it was pretty much the same process as writing, just a different medium and set of tools.

Regardless of the medium, it all starts with preparing the project.

As a writer, the moment of prep comes when an idea grows too large to be left alone any more. I make notes, writing down absolutely everything I’m thinking about. I add in notes from my Percolator (what I call my swipe file/brainstorming file). I play with ideas, eventually pulling them into an outline of sorts. (Sometimes, it’s an actual outline). If there are things that need to be researched, I take care of that…sometimes to the point of delaying the project a bit in favor of all the pretty rabbit holes. *wink* But by the time I’ve finished preparing to write a story, I have enough of a foundation laid out to successfully start writing.

As a voice actor, the moment of prep comes when the script hits my hands. I’ve been fortunate so far in that I’ve nearly always been given the full script (I always have the full manuscript for audiobooks) and have had time to sit down and read the entire thing. (It really does help.) For audiobooks, I open my notebook to the next available page and start a pronunciation guide. If it’s a series, I make a note of what characters are returning so I can pull up those reference files to reacquaint myself with those voices. If it’s an audiobook I’m producing, I’ll also write the blurb and create the cover when I’m finished reading. For audio dramas, I read the script on my Kindle, highlight my lines (bookmarking pages where my highlighter won’t work) and review my audition so I can reconnect with the voice. By the time I’m finished, I’m set up to make decent use of my very limited recording time.

Regardless of the medium, once I have my prep work done, I add the project (with detailed notes for the production process) to its own queue in GQueues, and then I add the project with a checklist of major milestones to Habitica. And then I usually go to bed so I can face the next part well rested and with fresh eyes.

The Importance of Negative Space in Audio Content

The other day, we talked about negative space in print and digital text and our need for visual breaks in order to process what we’re looking at. It’s no different with sound. You’ve probably noticed this if you’ve ever been at a concert or a sporting event. The sheer din can make you feel like you’re going insane after a while.

Sound designers and producers of audio content are aware of this, too, so they incorporate periods of silence to help offset some of that. That silence, strangely enough, is the negative space in an audio track. And while the performer or sound designer might be using that space for dramatic effect, they’re also using it to give the brain a break from processing sound for a moment so it will be ready to receive the next group of sounds.

This has two effects on the listener. First, it allows a moment of rest from the otherwise continual input of sound, because otherwise we have no real means of doing that ourselves beyond leaving the noisy space or covering our ears. Second, it allows our brain a moment to make sense of the noise. In noisier spaces like concerts and sporting events, the brain really has to work to sort out sounds from each other and figure out what to focus on and why. In quieter spaces or situations designed to help the listener, the brain has less to process and can more quickly latch onto what it’s hearing so the rest of the body can respond appropriately.

In teaching and narration, this pause also allows time for what’s been heard to be processed and added to what had been heard previously, since there’s rarely an easy way to go back quickly and re-listen to what was just heard, as opposed to reading where eyes normally jump back routinely to re-read a passage. It also helps to show how information has been organized in the listening material. A longer pause is a shift in topic; a shorter pause is a continuation of the current topic.

For some, the silence can feel annoying, but in the end it’s really there as an aid to the listener. When employed well, it can tell the listener a lot about what they’re listening to and help them sort out auditory information.

The Different Facets of Your Inner Princess

A couple of summers ago, I received an audition notice for a fantasy game that offered many female roles. The catch was that you had to create your own audition script with nothing but very brief character breakdowns. We’ll roll right past the part where I wasn’t actively writing anything beyond the blog at the time, and the fact I (still) have extremely limited scriptwriting experience.¬†I finally selected a character to audition for that was for all intents and purposes a stereotypical goddess of all things good. I figured if I had to both write and play a character, I should go with one that seemed to play to my strengths.

I have a long history of being a princess. Like so many little girls, I grew up around princess culture. I would use safety pins, beads, and costume jewelry to turn nightgowns into princess gowns. I made crowns out of whatever was handy. (My favorite were beaded pipe cleaners, a technique I learned in elementary school from watching the costume ladies at ballet.) I was an expert at turning blankets and scarves into capes and trains.

When I started playing tabletop RPGs, I tended to play characters involved in the setting’s¬†hierarchy or had that elven noble thing going for them…on more than one occasion because the GM needed a fairy princess, and I was the lucky girl chosen. This followed me into LARPing. I was the princess. Even when I was in fighting garb and lobbing spell balls, I was the princess.

And it followed me beyond that. One year, I went to the Washington Ren Faire in one of my favorite court gowns, and decided to go play in the boffer fighting arena. When I walked in, I was the only girl and the guys didn’t know what to make of me until I hit one of them. But a few minutes later, half a dozen little girls had come into the arena because they wanted to be like the princess.

Even my first voiceover job cast me as a YA narrator, which combined with my love of fantasy novels to leave me open to being all kinds of princesses.

I didn’t have to try to be the princess to become the princess. I was just a pretty little princess. But I was a pretty little princess with feminist tendencies. So, I guess I was sort of an edgy pretty little princess. At any rate, I figured that years of being a princess or princess-like in various settings were the perfect preparation for pulling off this script and this role.

I was wrong. Despite the fact my play time had been dominated by this personality type, my writing time hadn’t.

As a writer, I create characters that would never fit in with the current princess culture. They don’t want to be in charge. They’re sarcastic and independent, or fighting to become independent. If they help someone, it’s not out of any noble sense. It’s because they happened to be there when someone needed help. They’re researchers, scholars, artists, performers, martial artists, students. Not your typical princess fare.

While I probably could have drawn from my princess background to play that stereotypical goddess of all things good, I wasn’t able to draw from my action girl background to write her. Ultimately, I abandoned the audition after making a few really awful stabs at writing the audition script. It was an interesting lesson in what I perceive as my performing strengths versus my actual strengths as writer, and it actually helped me refocus my voice acting efforts toward characters that I was more likely to be able to play drawing from my own interests and attitudes.