Today book narrator, author, and voice-over artist Dawn O Watson shares her insights about book narration with SDP author Sahar Abdulaziz and how she lends her voice to the spoken word. When Dawn’s not busy at her computer or narrating a book for Audible, she’s a professional dog trainer and owner of Brother of the Wolf, LLC.
Sahar: I’ve read that when a person listens to something, both the left and right brain activate, and whether we read or listen to a book, the actual processing of the information occurs in the same areas of the brain. However, it has been said that audiobooks develop greater empathy in the listener. While I enjoy all formats [reading from a physical book, eBook, and Audible], I can attest to experiencing a special connection to a novel when I listen to a talented narrator. Why do you think audiobooks are taking off the way they are?
Dawn: I believe audiobooks gained popularity because as we near the end of the pandemic, folks are heading back to work and playing the recordings during their commute to make the trip enjoyable. Depending on the book, people may put on headphones and use audiobooks as a substitute for watching television, to “tune out the world,” calm down or escape reality.
Sahar: How did you get interested in audiobook narration?
Dawn: I began by offering to read eulogies!
Sahar: Eulogies? I just snorted my tea—not the answer I expected.
Dawn: You’d be surprised how many people want a trusted friend to memorialize a loved one, not to mention removing the pressure off the person(s) mourning to perform.
Later, I read my books to friends and was told my voice and expression were good. My voice has been described as “warm whiskey,” so I knew it was marketable. It was a natural progression from there. Besides that, I often read to my children when they were very young, and they seemed to enjoy it, so I continued to read to others throughout my life. I even read to my dogs!
Sahar: How do you decide what novels to audition for, and is there a genre or type of book you prefer to narrate?
Dawn: I like to audition for books that feature accents. I’m also fond of several authors’ works, including Sahar Abdulaziz!
Sahar: Why thank you—the feeling is mutual. I enjoyed working with you on our two book projects. You were a consummate professional who made the process fun and educational. You mentioned accents. How did you ever learn that, and which accents have you mastered?
Dawn: I listen to accents on YouTube and have become proficient at many regional U.S. accents such as southern (Louisiana, the Carolinas, Texas, Georgia, and Alabama (they are all slightly different). I also do Australian, German, Eastern European, BBC British, Scottish, and Cockney, to name a few!
Sahar: What do you think is the best part of narrating audiobooks?
Dawn: The best part is staying at home, working from my studio.
Sahar: I say that about writing, as well. I do my best work in sweatpants. Other than location, what does narrating bring to your table? What is it like to get into the characters’ heads you didn’t create but are expected to embody?
Dawn: I enjoy starting off by doing a ‘cold read.’ That means I’m recording as I read the story for the first time. This method lends an edge to my voice that is absent if I have already read it, then read and recorded it.
Sahar: That’s what appealed to me about your voice, that edge you mentioned, and it grips the listener and keeps them locked in the moment.
Dawn: Exactly. It’s a strange way to go about it, but it helps me make the conversation and action in the book feel like it’s occurring at that moment.
Sahar: Besides having a great-sounding versatile voice, where did you learn the technical aspects of the job, and can you tell us about your recording process? Where do you record? and prepare? What do you do once you receive the manuscript from the author? Do you use a particular strategy to keep the characters straight?
Dawn: To start, I write everything down: characters, accents, voices, etc.
Sahar: On a chart?
Dawn: Not exactly. I identify their characters in a notebook. I’m a copious note-taker, giving each character a unique personality with my voice. Sometimes, an author will describe the character, but I extrapolate it in my notes. The characters come alive for me that way.
Sahar: Great method. Your idea?
Dawn: I actually learned everything from my son, who is a musician, composer, and sound engineer at several venues in Philadelphia. He has been performing and doing technical work since he was 13. He’s an excellent teacher; I’m proud of his expertise and patience!
He got very excited when I told him I wanted to learn this new skill. I had been working for a family as an assistant and was having a rough time of it. Both my kids were happy to know I would find joy in working from the comfort of my home.
Sahar: I have enjoyed working with you on two audible novels, The Secrets That Find Us and As One Door Closes. The goal was to record a chapter or section mostly error-free, but as we know, stuff happens! What do you do when the stuff hits the fan, and how often do you have to re-record something?
Dawn: I’m especially eager to please my favorite authors, and the author is the boss for me! Although I rarely need to re-record, it’s always an option. When I do, I listen carefully to the author’s critique so that their characters come alive.
Sahar: What book genres have you narrated so far?
Dawn: Murder mysteries, psychological mysteries, anthologies, travel, post-apocalyptic stories, and futuristic, to name a few.
Sahar: Is it okay to ask what’s the funniest error you ever made while narrating? Do you keep a blooper reel or steal the laugh for yourself?
Dawn: I once caught a last-minute blooper right before sending the file to the author. In it, I faintly heard myself say, “What a bunch of baloney!” Thank goodness I heard it! (—No worries, it wasn’t one of your books!)
Sahar: Wink-wink. — But that brings me to another question. As a book narrator, what would you want authors wishing to get their books narrated to know about the process to make your end of the job smoother? What can they expect from you during the narration process?
Dawn: When I go into a contract with an author, they can expect my complete devotion to their project. This is my “day job,” and I work 7 days a week at it, even on holidays.
When authors offer me a job, and I accept, it would make my job as a narrator easier if they understood how they want their characters to come across: snarky, confused, neurotic, etc. Several times I’ve had authors who trust me with their characters, knowing I’ll do them justice.
There must be mutual respect between the author and the narrator so the narration can proceed without drama. Some newer authors have tried to instruct me about how to do my job (‘You put a breath in there. We can’t have that. Remove it.’) The only drama should be in the book, not between the author and the narrator.
Sahar: Have you ever recorded anything that recorded that left you chilled? Emotional? Laughing?
Dawn: I’ve recorded many that move me. I believe my emotions come out in my narration. A troubling topic can affect me for a long time. Also, as an animal lover, I won’t audition for a book where domestic animals die. Remember, I asked you?
Sahar: I remember that, and recall retorting with something like, “No worries. In my suspense, thriller novels, only humans perish.”
On a serious note, how do you handle narrating difficult or complex scenes? I know as a writer, if I have had to describe a gruesome or heartbreaking scene, I need to physically shake it off.
Dawn: I do the same. I try to whisk the story out of my mind until I sit down to record some more. Generally, I’m straddling two books at a time—an author for whom I’m under contract and a book I’ve authored that works well in audio format.
My little secret weapon? I have short-term memory loss, so I often forget the chapters almost right after they’re recorded and mastered. However, a few weeks later, they will pop into my head, and I become upset all over again.
Sahar: Do you find doing children or men’s voices challenging?
Dawn: All voices except my normal speaking voice are generated by changing the pitch on my equipment. I work with several DAWs. (digital audio workstations) to help me achieve a flawless end result. The sound quality, pronunciation, and pitch must be perfect, so I rely on several applications to assist with that.
Sahar: I can’t imagine the strain this takes on your voice. How long can you record before you rest your voice?
Dawn: I generally record two hours a day, but each chapter can then take about an hour to edit or master.
Sahar: I cringe, listening to my voice. Do you enjoy listening to your narrations?
Dawn: It’s necessary to listen to my narrations. Over time, I’ve become accustomed to the sound of my voice.
Sahar: What’s the biggest challenge about narration?
Dawn: The biggest challenge is finding work. There are 22,000 narrators on ACX (Amazon) alone!
Sahar: Then how have you gotten your name out there besides auditioning? Word of mouth? Marketing?
Dawn: I’m fortunate that the authors of the books I have narrated have been very generous with providing blurbs on social media. Other than that, I promote on LinkedIn and Fiverr.
Sahar: Dawn, before I let you go, what advice would you give to someone interested in audiobook narration?
Dawn: Hmm. Be ready to market. Narrators, like authors, need to self-promote; no one will do it for them unless they hire an agent.
Sahar: Is there anything people would be surprised to learn about the narration process or audiobook narration in general?
Dawn: Regarding the narration process: Some authors can be highly demanding and must fully understand that voice acting is an intricate procedure that must not be rushed. The process is time-consuming, and some narrators become obsessed with every nuance of the work. Not everyone is suited to this work, but, it’s still fun and rewarding for me.
Suspense writer Sahar Abdulaziz is the author of twelve books––including, But You LOOK Just Fine, The Broken Half, Tight Rope, The Gatekeeper’s Notebook, Unlikely Friends, Devoted Friends, Unexpected Friends, and her latest 2022 release, Forever Friends. Most of her work is in realistic fiction: psychological thrillers, suspense, and satire. She writes about characters facing complicated life challenges and is determined to tell their stories, eager to put pen to paper to share their compelling accounts. Honors include Women Under Scrutiny Anthology, Speak Up Talk Radio Firebird Book Award, The Daybreak Press Award, Fofky’s Reader’s Choice Award, and Monroe County Community Media Expression Award.