Kozumikku Sandā - Interview #6 | StoryGusto

Please introduce yourself to Kozumikku Sandā readers.

Hello, and thank you for having me on your blog, it’s lovely to be here.

I’m a writer and audiobook creative based in the North of England. I love to cross genres and experiment with form and expectation. I work hard to place narrative elements into my red hot crucible and cast unusual but satisfying tales. This is because I’ve got an eclectic skills base. My interests range from Sci-Fi to Shakespeare and to Sondheim. From the get-go I’ve always been a beautiful round peg, never quite fitting comfortably in square holes - that’s the story I tell myself anyway. And for me, stories are at the heart of all that I do; that and sound, particularly, of course, music.

My writing leans a lot on dialogue. This is strange because in everyday life I don’t like to talk a lot, and I much prefer listening. I also like to be as inclusive as possible, since we live in a massively diverse world, not just of white, middle-class blokes. Everyone should be visible in fiction. I’m also a stickler for consistent story logic. Even if events aren’t run-of-the-mill for our regular world, in the realms of a given story universe, for the people living there, they should be immutable and commonplace.

When I was growing up, Science Fiction meant everything to me. It was a genre of endless possibility, of intrigue, adventure, intoxicating thought experiments and a dazzling inventiveness. Even now, when I choose a film or reach for the remote, it’s always Sci-Fi I turn to - and with streaming, there’s a constant buffet of starships, aliens and portals. However, the human condition, especially in this pandemic and with the political situation in the UK, rides high in my thoughts (more recently the turmoil in the Ukraine). I subscribe to the belief that when a person comes into contact with a work of art - for that’s what I believe I’m making - then the person should come away in a better state than prior to the union. Not in some gimmicky, didactic and preachy way, but by virtue of alchemy at play in the interaction between the work and the recipient.

You’ll know it yourself. You’ll play a game or listen to a song or see a visual piece of art and think, “How did the artist even conceptualize that? It's awesome. Sublime.” And feel in touch with something higher.

High minded this may be, I know. But one tries, one tries. I’m at the start of the journey.

My output is held under the Super Catchy Audio brand name and presently I have a collection of 12 stories in ebook and audio format entitled Pinch Points. The ebook is perma-free on subscription to my newsletter, or I’ll drop a link here if you want to check it out. There’s also a children’s book in ebook form, Billy’s Trombone Adventure. This is a reworking of a kid’s book I wrote many years ago. The title sounds kind of twee, but I’m pretty pleased with the result. More than pleased, in fact.

The last two years have seen me completely change direction from teaching full time to being my own boss. I think I’m much kinder to myself. And much less stressed.

There’ll be quite a lot happening in the next couple of months as I’ll be putting out Fatal Errors, a collection of novellettes and novellas. And I’ll be editing my first novel, 5-Wires. For anyone who likes lots of interesting characters and weird shenanigans set around the clubbing scene, this one’s for you. And for anyone who likes gangsters and pretty nasty gore then there’ll be Play Fight, my second novel, to look forward to, later on in the year.

With digital tech I’m able to take story and narrative to new levels of sophistication and subtlety. It really is an exciting time to be creating.

Do you need training to do voice narration?

This is a most excellent question. I’ll come clean, I’m not voice trained, and neither am I recognized as an actor or a voice actor. I wish some days that I was, so I’d have real and figurative muscles to pull upon! That aside, the skill I do have in spades is the willingness to learn and to persevere. In short, grit.

I’ve also been on stage and on the radio, so that has helped. I’m able to focus-in on what forwards the story. I also spent many years telling stories to my students using the conventions of the oral tradition, i.e from memory, embellishing and refining for each audience. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting a spontaneous round of applause for a tale well told.

No, I don’t believe you need training to do voice narration, But I’m sure it doesn’t do any harm, either.

The difficulty is in realizing the full possibilities in a piece of writing: subtle changes of emphasis, tempo, diction, colour of timbre, use of breath, dynamics (careful with these as one wants to keep recording levels as standard as possible); all these must be used to deliver the story to maximum effect. No one wants to listen to a boring, drawling monotone or high pitched, grating shriek. Specialist training can only assist with the development of these skills. For me, however, I have the time and inclination to get busy improving myself. Though, never say never!

There’s a world of difference between doing a half hour recording session to that of a five or six hours narration session. This is where the experience and technique, I believe, would come in enormously.

My voice does get tired after a while, and narration requires huge amounts of concentration to read accurately and responsively to the intended meaning of the text. Just like playing a musical instrument or singing, I take care to guard against fatigue. Making myself comfortable, adopting good posture and using warmups helps to preserve the quality of both my voice and my mental focus.

I admit that I regularly make a rod for my own back by writing lots of characters, and all from wildly different backgrounds. Fortunately the use of notes and a good memory for the formation of my mouth and face helps.

Can you recommend any techniques to help your voice carry well?

Voice narration is usually carried out in a booth or an acoustically treated room, so there shouldn’t be issues regarding how well it carries in terms of audibility. This is in direct contrast to theatre actors, who need to worry about ensuring they can project to the back of an auditorium without amplification. There are apocryphal stories of Joy hn Geilgud being able to whisper clearly to the back of the gallery. The big bug-bear of narration is that of stray noise and the capture of good quality audio. There are many sonic contaminants which must be reduced to get good results: traffic and street noise, the workings of white goods (freezers and heating or aircon) - even tummy rumbles.

Without getting too technical, I use a good quality, but not extortionately priced, condenser microphone with a pre-amp through a fixed state recorder, so I don’t get computer hum. The room I use is pretty good acoustically, with few hard surfaces, and it faces a field, so there’s no traffic noise. I stop recording when a train or plane dares to move anywhere within earshot, or one particular girl gets excited about her hockey shot. I use a tablet so there’s no rustle of paper, and I take care not to wear any clothing that will rub or make noise. I also make sure Smudgee Cat is out of the way and happy. One always needs a happy cat for good recordings!

Much good work can be achieved under a duvet with moderately priced microphones plugged into a laptop. The days when one needed a huge budget for equipment and a treated room are long gone. Long, long gone. You will still need to know what you’re doing in terms of process and some limited technical details, but the cost of narration in real terms is small. However, the investment of time is huge - the editing process, quality control and mastering are where the rest of my time and energy goes.

To look after one's voice, I warm it up before I use it. Most of the methods I use sound horrid: humming whilst changing my vocal pitch range, tongue twisters, consonant vowel combinations such as ‘Mee-Mii-Mow’, really extending and elongating my face and muscles, and tongue work - moving it deliberately. Oh, if you’re going to try any of this, don’t forget to relax your shoulders (get in those gentle head rolls and chin tucks) and breathe from your diaphragm. Relax - always relax. Nothing should be forced. Absolutely nothing.

Do you think that AI voice narration can become mainstream?

Yes I do. It will come very, very soon. It’s an inevitability. Like many complex tasks that are cognitively demanding, narration is ripe for AI intervention.

The production of an audiobook is extremely time consuming and requires a great deal of concentration to do well. For example, War and Peace, Tolstoy’s masterpiece, is 587,287 words long. This is 61 hours and 6 minutes of listening time. A person paid to read this - just read - would take just shy of 9 days at 7 hours a day. Consequently, the production process would have to be at least a month of an actor’s time; probably two, or maybe even three. If the text can be rendered from text to audio in mere minutes - depending on the computing power available, to produce a listenable quality product, and where the listener can get the basic auditory information to follow the story and plot - then it’s going to be done. It’s going to be a lot cheaper to do than hire that actor, studio, sound engineer, and proof listener. Presently, no major platforms sell AI manufactured products (voice talent has been vocal on the matter), but what’s to stop someone coming in and providing this, if there’s a demand or potential demand? Once the door’s opened, there’s going to be a stampede.

So why am I not worried? Why am I not jumping up and down on my soap box with my megaphone? I’ll tell you: because it would be pointless, utterly pointless. And unnecessary. And here’s why: at least in the short and medium term, there’ll be annoying errors made in these products. Pronunciations will be incorrect, the tone will be wrong for the intended meanings and context, characterisations will be laughable, and the pacing will be nonexistent. There will have to be a form of coding underneath the text to guide the AI; as in music, where there are additional directions further to the bare notes for it to make the system really, truly musical. There will have to be extra guiding elements at work. A human will have to go through the text and the audio to pre-correct it and align it, and add in the nuances for the AI to bounce against. This will be a skilled job and perhaps more interesting than sitting in a booth with headphones and a dog clicker. (N.B. the dog clicker is to make a clipping trace on the audio so mistakes can be edited out - do you think Stephen Fry reads without making any errors? Think again, it’s all stitched together to make it look effortless, like in TV and movies. [Someone else does the clicking for him, though, I’m sure!])

The other benefits of AI are that one will be able to choose many voices, from celebrities to those of loved ones or even the departed. For instance, if you take recordings of your beloved grandma, feed it into the AI, and you can later curl up at bedtime with a cocoa and have her read you the latest romance novel, or your uncle read the latest thriller. Who could resist? And all at a great value price point. And that’s just the demand side.

On the production side, AI will mean that every Tom, Dick and Harry will be able to write a book and have it transformed into audio. If you thought there was truckloads of garbage when POD and ebooks could be made by all and sundry, then just wait for the splurge of AI audiobooks!

I’m not a big fan of some big corporations and their ways, but the temptation to cash in is going to be far too great for them to resist. They’re rubbing their hands as I write this.

And when the AI gets very, very good, so the casual listener can’t tell the difference, there will be those who will say they can hear the difference, and demand an artisan product.

I think there’ll be an initial dip in demand for real people narrating books, but it will come back.

There may well be a hybrid form, with the bulk being done by AI and some bits by a human.

Presently, the nuances of performance are beyond the ability of AI, but who knows what is around the corner? I’m optimistic that there’ll be a place for humans in a largely non-human process.

What do you think is a common misconception about voice narration?

Hmmm. Another great question. I haven’t canvassed others’ opinions, and can only go with what I felt before launching my new career; also by reflecting on what I know now compared with before. I think the largest warp for me was regarding microphones. I thought I needed the most expensive, prestigious microphone to be a true professional. The truth is that moderately priced microphones do very well, and that treating a room to eliminate noise is the best way to ensure good recordings. Each mic has its own peculiarities, and each artist will have his or her own preferences, but as with musical instruments there is a law of diminishing returns. One pays progressively more for smaller increments in quality. I play the trombone to a high standard. I’ve played instruments that cost as much as a good secondhand car, but currently I play on one which cost £200 brand new. It does the job just fine. Would I like an all singing, all dancing one for mega bucks? It’d be pretty neat (they look impressive). But if I hid behind a curtain and played my cheap one and then an expensive one, they’d both sound equally good to most people.

The other greatest error I made was in thinking narration would be a smooth, linear process; that I’d just read and record. That is far from the truth. There are lots of stops and starts. It’s much more like shooting a movie than acting out a play.

Is the writing process very different from the narration process?

Yes, it certainly is, in that the narration process is much more confined in a creative sense than that of the writing. However, having said that, I’m starting to experiment with different forms of narration - use of 3 tones, recitative, changes in speed, sound effects, overlapping of voices and sound treatment. Who knows what will work? When I’m writing, I have all the usual writing headaches of getting a first draft down, checking that the elements work together, that the story is well structured and clear for the reader, that it is beautifully told with no typos or grammatical errors and that it’s engaging, follows tropes or deliberately breaks them. I use a hybrid technique of planning and pantsing, i.e. plantsing. The one thing that does work well is to read the work aloud - this informs my later vocal treatment.

Sentences that work from a mental reading angle often crumble into swill when read aloud. Although what I’m writing isn’t poetry, it has to have bounce and rhythm and a logical and pleasing sense of movement. I use multiple passes and have to put the text ‘to bed’ for a while to gain fresh eyes later, as I can’t afford an editor or proofreader at present. I also have to strip out polysyllabic words and some constructions, as I write in a convoluted way naturally (some people say I talk that way too!); yet readers don’t want to wade through my writing treacle. The narration process benefits from my previous work on clarity. I now deliver a performance or set of performances that communicates the story effectively. It’s arduous work and brings with it different frustrations. It’s much more logical, like the latter formatting processes of the writing process, as there are set technical steps one must go through in order to produce a finished result.

Both are very satisfying, but for different reasons: the writing - to see one’s imagination splashed on a page; and narration - to construct the illusion of being a storyteller with a perfect memory. To just read would be dull. The reading in my room, even though it's in snippets, must be a performance, otherwise, it’s dead meat. As I say, it’s like making a movie - very fragmentary.

How do you come up with descriptions for your characters when writing?

I don’t describe my characters overtly. I give the reader enough information for them to fill in the blanks. I hint and hint and sketch. I don’t go in for that business of ‘she raised her perfectly manicured hand to her Patrician chin and twitched her sharp nose in disdain before glaring at him with such intensity that her aqua blue eyes flashed like … blah, blah, blah.’ In terms of coming up with my characters, I like for them to have a distinct background and backstory, some of which I unpack for the reader, some of which is just for me to know in order to render them effectively. As I write, they often settle into patterns of behaviour with each other, just like real world humans do. They can’t be coerced into doing things that are against their character. They, like real world humans, can be endearing, or a pain. But the mental image - that’s left for the reader to conjure from a few scraps.

What risks have you taken with your writing that have paid off? And what are you doing presently to push the boundaries of your writing?

It’s still early doors for my career. I’ve a bunch of books and stories scheduled for release later these two quarters. I think after they’ve been released for a while, then I’ll be in a much healthier position to reflect upon my successes and failures from many different points of view: sales, critical reception, commercial success, ‘Wow!/stupidity’ standpoint and my own personal satisfaction.

I certainly think it’s important to take risks. And I believe I’m taking them.

My first book, Pinch Points, is a collection of short stories, and I think it’s fair to say that - apart from a few notable exceptions like those by Stephen King, Jeffrey Archer and Ted Chiang - these don’t sell particularly well, and certainly don’t chart best sellers lists. I just wanted to be sure I was able to technically produce a book.

I’m presently taking risks by not writing in recognised genres. My difficulty is that I don’t really like reading genre books; I like to skip around a lot. As I stated earlier, I was mad for sci-fi literature, but felt it had run out of oomph as a genre. Maybe I’ve loved my love of it to death. I like quirky, offbeat books that defy categorization. A book I keep returning to time and again is The Lie Tree by Francis Hardinge. Is it a children’s book? Is it a coming-of-age story? Is it horror - a murder mystery? Science Fiction? Whatever the hell it is, it’s a damned good book!

In terms of risks, I regularly find myself breaking the fourth wall. Ever since I read The French Lieutenant's Woman, I find that I can’t help but try to deliberately prick the membrane of the author/reader divide. This forms a large part of my novella Write a Line for My Salvation, where the reader is asked to do just that.

I’ve also started writing a Space Opera in second person, playing around with possibilities I’d never really considered until very recently. I’m also writing in second person with the reader as ‘you’, so whoever’s reading assumes an identity in the story narrative.

Writing is an exercise in prolific choice making. What’s happening? To whom? How? Why? Can it be simplified? Can it be sped up, slowed down, milked? Then one gets into dangerous water? Is this the best version of the story? What else could have happened with this material? Are the characters satisfied with what they’re being put through - do they yearn to be employed in different versions? The answer to the last question for me at present is, yes. I’m also writing several versions of the same story. Not just A versus B testing, but really different versions. When I was a kid and Star Wars came out, there were red and yellow novelised versions of the story for different skills of reader. (Don’t worry - I couldn’t read fluently enough at that stage to take advantage of these). We also had those decision books. If you think the hero should fight the monster in the labyrinth, turn to page 59! Songs and music have many versions of the same thing - why not books? Why not find a really great paradigm and really give it a good run for its money??

Have you ever killed off a character your readers loved? Have you ever killed off a character you loved?

I’ve only killed off one main character so far, but it was very necessary. I’ve recently had the opportunity to kill off quite a few people in Play Fight, but I found that I gave many of them a reprieve when crunch time came, because I couldn’t bear the thought of a world without them. So, I admit it, my writing suffers from a lot of red shirt-itis. Only minor or secondary characters get bumped off. As I write more novels and the series start racking up, then I know I’ll have to make some tough decisions.

I was pretty shocked when I killed off this main man, but the needs of the others, the plot, and the tone of the story required that he needed to go, despite my being fond of him and him being a relatively nice guy.

The good news is that in lieu of death, at least in Play Fight, there are some grizzly injuries. Chisels anyone? Power tools for you, Sir?

Much more tragic for me is the loss of an idea or the loss of any thread that pulls a reader through the story.

You see, as a writer hoping for some commercial success, one has got to hook the reader with plum mysteries and magic promises. These come with a price tag attached. Later in the story, one has to transmute these into other mysteries and promises, or one has to explain the mystery or make good on the promise. This continual trade for the reader’s attention has got to be satisfactory for the reader to a, continue reading the story, and b. make the reader come back for more. The downside for the author is that these myriad hooks take creative energy and resourcefulness in generating them: setting them up, ordering them and making sure they work. Every time one is carefully placed and traded, for me, the process shaves off a slice of my soul.

Why a newsletter and not a blog or author website? Are these considered to be essential?

I’m still at the early stages of my authoring and creative journey, so I’m still currently trying to figure out what works best for garnering an audience, retaining them, giving them what they want, and becoming financially viable as a business entity - otherwise the production line stops. Oh, and also what is fun. I don’t want the means to feel like I’m engaged in hard labour for the sake of it. However, I do recognize there are parts of the process that are more enjoyable than others, but in aggregate, I want it to be joyful and meaningful.

I have a website and blog, and have set up the means to distribute newsletters. It would be career suicide not to have an online identity/presence and the means to signpost potential fans to my works. I’ve seen marketing done in a myriad of different ways.

For me, being honest, I’m still dabbling and finding my way. There are so many platforms and so many ways to be discovered, it can become bewildering. And expensive in terms of time and resources.

My first objective though, is to have a worthy body of work to promote. I constantly imagine that I’m running a quality grocery store. Even with all the best adverts in the world, if I’ve only one potato, then I’m not going to get much business. (It’d have to be a helluva potato, right, guys?!)

I’ve spent time designing and building a basic marketing funnel with a perma-free book supported by a newsletter system, but I’m starting to think that this model is probably past its sell-by-date. I worry that some of the basic assumptions were right in the past but are wrong now. I worry that free stuff is not read, that it just sits there gathering electronic dust. I worry that series are seen by potential readers as nakedly blatant ways to extract more cash. I worry that we - I mean creatives and independent authors - are being encouraged to actively compete against each other to provide rents to a massive number of digital platforms (competing for eyeballs and clicks) and are consequently losing out. Despite how one views traditional publishing, the one thing that is undeniably true, is that there is an economy of scale at work, one that the majority of indies cannot match. I worry that algorithms are labouring systems that nobody understands and nobody can effectively police. And those who can game the system need huge amounts of cash, power and resources to do so - far beyond the means of the average Joe on the street.

The solution is: we need to come together and pool our resources; make our own platforms and chase readers as packs, not individuals. I also think that truly original, good quality, worthy material will get through, otherwise I wouldn’t be bothering.

I think videos and podcasts currently trump blogs. Sorry, as you’re obviously reading this! Attention spans are dwindling and flashy visuals are gaining ground at a clip. Videos are more immediate and consumable. And podcasts are easier to digest than reading for snippets of commentary.

I think newsletters were a good idea, but having connected with a bunch of authors online and having examined my own feelings about them (newsletters, not authors!), and considering the amount of time people have, and their and my inclinations, I think bulletins like this are on the way out. This is a sea change that has crept up on me.

We’re surrounded by so much stuff. Who has the time to read everything?

People, not data fodder.

Off the top of your head, who would you give a shout out to?

Oh, it’d have to be my wife, Amanda, who’s so supportive and lovely, plus my children – little tinkers, all, the great and good of #WritingCommunity on twitter, particularly @ChrisRYoung02, @AAshtonWriter, @VanirlM and @GattoTheCat, and, of course, my readers and listeners and all those who enjoy and champion what I do.

Are you on social media and where can your fans interact with you?

Please go to www.supercatchyaudio.com to find out all about me and what I’m up to. It has links to my books and audio and other paraphernalia. If you want to interact on twitter, I’m at @storygusto. I can be emailed at [email protected]

It would be great to read any feedback and find out what your readers think and feel.

For a copy of permafree Pinch Points in ebook, please use the link: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/ft6c3bshlc 

So… what’s next?

I have a saying on my wall above my desk: ‘Finis coronat opus. The finish crowns the work.’ So, I need to finish what I set out to accomplish: to publish Fatal Errors, 5-Wires and Play Fight. But shushshsh - can you keep a secret? There’s a new collection coming together, Funny Buggers. And for those of you who can’t sleep, there’s a musical version of Pi coming out on audio. Yes that’s right, Pi, as in 3.142 etc. Also the new novel.

But first, I must finish what I start. It’s so easy to write….