Audiobook Experiment Part 3: Progress and sh*t!

I’ve hit a major milestone in making Envy and the Geek into an audiobook: I finished a full first-pass recording! In other words: I’ve read the whole damn book aloud, into a mic. And I honestly don't think I could have done much better. Of course, there is always room for improvement, but I'm satisfied that I did my current best.

Does that mean I'm done and ready to share it with the world? Oh hell no! I have started editing (9 chapters down 16 to go!) but when I'm done with that I will still have to go back for pickups, another round of proofing, and then the final editing/exporting before it can be presented to the powers that be (aka ACX). So there is much left to be done, but the progress I've made feels substantial and I am proud of it. So there.

I have to give a shout-out to my two biggest motivators: my wife and, well, myself. First, my wonderful wife, Kristin. She's been super encouraging. She claims to actually enjoy listening to me read my books! (What?!) And since she hadn’t read Envy yet, once she started listening, she was always chomping at the bit for me to get more done so that she could hear it. That was such positive motivation. Thanks, love!


My other motivator was me, but not in the positive sense, more of the "omg l suck, wtf" sense. Unfortunately, as I read, I found things I wanted to change. Ughhhh. The plague of the self-published author. Naturally, I wanted to make the changes right away for my print readers, but there was no point in updating the manuscript until I had read through the whole damn thing enough times to get the recordings finished. So those are finished and the fixes have been made and hopefully, by the time my next convention rolls around (CONvergence in August), I will have a stock of copies that will feel more polished and shiny. (For the record, there are no substantial changes. Just a bunch of little bullshit.)


I am optimistic that—if I can prod myself into a few more super productive days—I’ll actually finish this audiobook. Fortunately, the editing is easy, if tedious. Unfortunately, Narrator-Ali is kind of an asshole to Tech-Ali. Narrator-Ali thinks “fix it in post” is a good idea. Professionals and people who are nice to the audio techs should not do this, but as I am my own audio tech, I get to be a jerk. So now my “fuck you, Tech-Ali, suck it up and edit out my bullshit” chickens are coming home to roost. But that's okay; on the bright side, I am compiling an entertaining blooper reel. Maybe I'll share it sometime. Stay tuned!





Audiobook Experiment: Learning what I need to learn

Part of any new endeavor (or just life in general) is figuring out what you know and what you don't know, and trying to plan for the things you don't know that you don't know. I knew I'd be able to nail the technical aspect of making audio recordings. Once my booth was set up I did a quick proof of concept and on my third try poking at the settings, I got it sorted out and uploaded a file that passed the ACX tech check. 

Now for the things I don't know. Namely how to be a narrator. Like, with my voice. I've been learning—listening to audiobooks, watching videos, reading tips and tricks—and practicing. I thought coming up with distinct voices for each character would be the thing that really tested me, but the more I practice the more I think "narrator voice" is my biggest challenge.

I am damn good at "mom reading," aka reading short books to children with all the appropriate emotion for Piggy in the Puddle or Fox in Socks (I rock Fox in Socks). And I even pass muster when reading longer books aloud to my kids. They laugh at the funny parts and cry when things get sad. The book comes alive for them. But when it comes to recorded narration, I feel like my natural reading voice is a bit dull and certainly too fast. No problem, I tell myself, I just have to put in more conscious effort. But as it turns out, if I think too hard about my voice, I forget how human emotions work. Then shit comes out filled with misplaced melodrama (One character DRAMATICALLY absent-mindedly rolls a chair from side to side! Another stomps off with all the fire and passion of... Eyore). 

This is going to take practice and preparation to fix, I think. I hope. So the next step is to do more marking up of the text to help me find the right emotional emphasises and then read, record, and listen, read, record, and listen, over and over until either it sounds half-decent (at least good enough to share with people who can offer critiques) or I give up. I don't want to give up. So tomorrow it's back into the booth for me. Wish me luck!

I moved a light into my booth so I can see in there now.


Audiobook Experiment - Step One: Set-up

I am taking a break from writing to try tackling a whole new aspect of the book world: narrating! I will be narrating (or at least making a good ol' college try) my alter-ego, Natalie Falkenwrath's latest book: Envy and the Geek. When working on other books, I'd recorded myself reading them, making little amateur audiobooks I'd shared with my partners. So I knew I didn't TOTALLY suck at narration. So I decided to go for it for real. And I thought it would be fun to document and share my progress as I stumble my way through the audiobook world from a new perspective. 

The first step was to create a good set-up for making decent recordings. This means the right software, hardware, and location to make a quality audio file. Luckily I have a background in audio editing from my previous life as an academic technologist, so I had a sense of what I wanted/needed. For my birthday I asked for a Yeti USB mic and my family obliged. I love this thing. I used it a lot at my old job and was giddy as a schoolgirl to finally have one of my own. I already had a decent Mac laptop so hardware = CHECK!

For software, I could have rolled with Audacity. I'm quite familiar with it from the old days. It is free and pretty fucking powerful. But my spoiled butt also got to expand my Adobe license (another birthday gift), so I now also have Audition. I'd never used Audition before, but because I know other audio and video editing software, including Adobe Premiere, it felt slick and intuitive right off the bat. And digging into it has been fun and full of nostalgia for my old career. Software, BOOM.

Now location. My house is challenging in a few ways. We have lots of wide-open spaces with hardwood floors, which is lovely but also the ass-opposite of what you want for good sound recording. And we live in the flight path of a small airport, which makes being near any window iffy at best (especially those on the top floor where my room and my partner's office are). The one room in the house with no windows is RIGHT next to the furnace/AC/etc, so that was quickly eliminated. I know a lot of folks use their closets, but I don't have a walk-in closet so that was out. This left me with the choice of settling for the best of bad options or building a sound booth. Ethan was happy to jump in and help, and in a few short hours, I had a PVC-framed, quilt-walled sound booth that fits perfectly in a back basement hallway nook between the kids' books and art supplies.  The sound is nice and dead inside. And it's cozy. Location achieved!

microphone and computer in a dark room
Sound booth Interior
("It's fuckin' dark in here.")

soundbooth exterior
Sound booth Exterior

So now I'm all set up. Tune in next episode for Step 2: Proof of Concept!



The Joy of Sharing Books

Maybe my social circle is extra nerdy, but I swear no Facebook or Twitter post gets more responses than one asking for book recommendations. And it makes sense. I mean, who doesn't love giving book recommendations? Passing on a book I loved to another person is one of my favorite things in the world. And that goes double when I'm passing it on to my children. When they were little, that meant reading them all my favorite childhood storybooks, Blueberries for Sal, A is for Annabelle, Ferdinand the Bull, so much Dr. Seus... That was a good time. The early reader stage was less fun for me. My kids weren't really into the books aimed at that reading level. Sure, they went through a bit of a Magic Treehouse phase but I was a Boxcar Children kid.

When they started getting hooked on YA it was exciting to see them excited for reading, but that category has grown and changed since I was a kid—or at least it seems to have. There are so many new YA series and I honestly had a hard time figuring out which of the books I read as a "young adult" fit that category. All I could think of was The Babysitter's Club (which my youngest has read in graphic novel form), and Nancy Drew. I loved Nancy Drew but the editions I read were of my mother's generation and they failed to catch my kids' attention (the new ones are an abomination, sorry not sorry). After that, I came up blank.

Enter Google! A quick google search for older YA came up with many more familiar titles than I was expecting. A large chunk of them are things I read in school (Tuck Everlasting, To Kill a Mockingbird). Not to say those books weren't good, but I often found the over-examination and slow pace of reading in along with the class spoiled the enjoyment of books for me. In any case, most of those didn't make it to my adult bookshelf. 

Three books the internet seems to deem YA have stood out as ones that really stuck with me (literally and figuratively) are Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, The Giver, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I've already shared the first two with my kids. The Giver, in particular, went over quite well. I hope one day they pick up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I loved that book. Some people are on the fence as to whether Ender's Game is YA. If it counts, it certainly gets a spot in my top YA list. 

But who even cares about these labels, my kids are old enough to dip into adult books! How cool is that? There are so many books I can pass along. I know they won't love all the books I loved. Neither of them are as voracious readers as I was, so they probably won't read most of them. And I know there are new books they will discover that I have never read. But hot damn, I get a kick out of sharing books that come not only from hazy childhood memories but also from more recent reads. Right now my oldest is reading Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, and that's so cool to me, as is my youngest starting The Restaurant at the End of the Universe after enjoying The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The best part is that this leg of the book-sharing journey is both new and never-ending. The number of books appropriate for them will only grow over time and the older they get the more books they'll be able to pass back to me. It's like the great circle of life... of books. And it's excellent.





Take (a few more) Shots

Anytime a book is published there are things that don't make the final print. That doesn't mean those details "don't count" or that the work was for nothing. I think the strongest stories and characters contain a depth beyond what makes it to the printed page. To celebrate the release of the third Teammates book, Full Strength, I want to share a few insights and cut scenes from the previous books. There are no real "spoilers" in the post, but there are in the linked chapters.

When making notes to my narrator on Take Shots, I said, "idk if it can come through in the narration but the contrast of how [Fitz] starts the evening so stupid with happiness should contrast how that happiness falls off a cliff, hitting all the emotional rocks on the way down." And I think that's a really apt metaphor for how Fitz's life feels in book two. It's a hard book. But that's what makes it the most important to me. And that's also what makes book three so incredibly cathartic. If Fitz ends Take Shots at the bottom of a rocky emotional canyon, Full Strength is where she starts to climb back up.

Everybody has their emotional canyons in life. And they don't usually follow the classic "Freytag's Pyramid" story-telling model that we learn in school. Life isn't set up for the exact path of Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution. Different parts of life and experience intertwine. There are deeper reasons behind our actions than simple reactions to a single "inciting incident." One thing I strive for in my writing is to show the complexity of my characters' lives. 

For Fitz, her story has three major prongs: her team, her friends, and her husband. Situations with her husband impact her team, her friendships impact her relationship with her husband, and so forth. But there are other factors that impact why she does what she does that are relegated to "background detail" status, things like her faith, her family and up-bringing, those early years with Tom when he was the boyfriend of her dreams. The first of the cut chapters I want to share takes place during Take Shots but gives a little more insight into Fitz's upbringing and early years with Tom.

Cut Chapter: Fitz's Thanksgiving in North Carolina

There's only so much a writer can cram into one book. But trust me, there is so much more behind each of the characters than makes it to the page. Here are a few random facts about Tessa you might never read about in a published book: 

  • Tessa's last name is White 
  • Her family ancestry includes Dakota on her dad's side and German on her mom's
  • Her older brother lives in the San Francisco Bay area in California and does physics research at UC Berkeley
  • Tessa grew up deer and duck hunting with her dad 
I do have a little story about Tessa's experience hunting, but it might still make it into book 4, so it's not going up here. Instead I'm going to share a deleted scene from around the same time as the Fitz one above. Tessa's story arc with her parents is one that I know has touched some of my readers on a deep personal level. And it will continue into book four, but for now, here's a bit from early on in that journey (that I'm totally not mostly excited to share because of a subtle dirty joke).

This post has gotten long enough so I will come back to Michelle and Dawn at a later date. Michelle's deleted chapter is full of fun Michelle-style rage and that Dawn's is hella geeky, so tune later for that!


To every Cat there is a season

This month has been incredibly full. The low point was when Corky, Kristin's super sweet 17 year old cat had to be put down. Pets are family and Corky was an extra special member of ours, especially for Kristin who had Corky basically her entire adult life. We're at that age, Kristin, Ethan, and I where the pets we got as young adults are now departing this world. I lost my cat Arwen a couple years ago. Ethan and I had adopted Arwen and Eowyn together when we were 22 and 20 respectively. Now all that's left is Eowyn. She's old, deaf, loud as hell, persistently attached to Ethan's lap... and she's the last of an era. 

But as some chapters of our lives come to an end, new ones begin. For Kristin and I, and the whole family really, the next chapter goes by the names Lola and River, our two new kittens. Lola is a tortoiseshell, just like Corky was. She's cute and energetic and has been trying to eat my hand while I type this post. She's Kristin's cat. River is a gray tabby whose favorite activities seems to be bolting from one room to another and climbing up into my boxspring. She's mine. 

Lola and River will never replace Corky and Arwen, but they add something to our lives that was lost when we lost our old lady kitties. And they came along at the start of our own new chapter, less than two weeks before our wedding. It seems crazy—bringing home two new kittens just days before our wedding and on the same day my third book, Teammates: Full Strength, came out. Especially when you consider we already have two other cats (the aforementioned old lady Eowyn, and our kids' cat Hermione aka The Big Fat Fluff) and a dog (Bones). But in a way, that's part of what makes it special. It's a new season for us, and I think it's going to be lovely.

See more kitty pics on Instagram @alirosesommer



Partially hospitalized... at home (and it helped!)

The pandemic turned our lives upside-down. And for many like me that lead to massive increases in mental health symptoms. When I lost my connection to friends, teammates, baristas, and bartenders who had been a part of my daily routine, it hit me hard. I gain energy from social interactions with the people I know and am comfortable with. I still had two partners at home but they work all day, and the void of losing everybody else was deeply felt. My depression went from a shadow over my shoulder—ever-present but often manageable—to a looming darkness overhead that threatened to swallow me whole. I had more and more days where nothing felt worth living for. The pain of existing was more than I felt equipped to bear. Self-harm and suicide were often on my mind. In short, it sucked hard. And it scared my partners.

Because they are wonderful, caring people, Kristin and Ethan worked to get me help beyond what my psychiatrist could give me—help in the form of a partial hospitalization program (PHP for short). In "regular life" PHP would have meant spending my days, 8-4, in the hospital and my evenings and nights at home. During a pandemic PHP meant spending that time in my room on zoom calls with therapists of every ilk, nurses, doctors, and most importantly other patients

Maybe it isn't the other patients that make the experience positive for others, but for me these people were my world. Tears are rolling down my cheeks as I try to write this post. I will write about the logistics, what I learned, and all that in the following paragraphs. Due to confidentiality I can't say very much about the amazing people who went through this journey with me. Nonetheless, I want to take a moment to say thank you to them. Thank you for your willingness to be venerable. Thank you for your words of encouragement and acceptance. Thank you for the little things—your puppies, kitties, artwork, hobbies, totally "off-topic" stories... All the things that made us more than pixels on a screen. I also want to say an extra special thank you those who've stayed in touch. Getting your texts, or even just seeing you on FB or Instagram, means so much to me. Thank, you thank you, thank you... for existing and being so honestly and wholly you. I was so goddamn lucky to have y'all in my PHP experience.

So what exactly did I do in PHP? I shared a lot. Every day would start with a check-in:

  • What is your goal for today? 
  • What might be a barrier to that goal? 
  • What is something you're proud of/grateful for? 
  • How can we support you? 
  • Would you like to take some processing time right now?

I think that it doing this sort of check-in every day in real life could be useful, if even only with yourself. I journal and through PHP I learned some tools that have helped make that journaling even more helpful to my mental health. GLAD (or the longer version, GO GLADLY) is one easy one to do and share. Basically you just write down something you're Grateful for, something you Learned, something you Accomplished, and something you Delighted in. A lot of the tools we learned were ways to be more introspective, to put words to our feelings and be aware of where we are and what we need to get where we want to be. And there were also skills—actions for self-soothing, calming, or otherwise bringing ourselves down from high anxiety. And actions for "activation," things to try and jump-start you out of that low place where depression lurks, waiting for a chance to pull you further down.

I can't say that it fixed me. It helped. It didn't cure my depression (or anxiety), but it gave me more ways to cope. One of my favorites is my deck of cards. Following the lead of one of the most amazing fellow patients, I now have a deck of cards. And on different cards are different activities. Some are calming some are activating. They include things like count your breaths for one minute, splash cold water on your face, go for a walk, take a shower, do the electric slide... Some are more useful than others and I've added to my deck since the end of PHP. It sits next to my bed and is one of the most tangible reminders of the fact that I have tools. When things feel hopeless, just holding that deck can be a comfort.

If all this sounds like hokey tricks and nonsense, I understand. I think a few years ago I would have rolled my eyes hard at some of the lessons. And I actually did nope out of a few things during the program. But I was desperate enough to try almost anything. And I'm glad I did. I wish I could go back. The program ended long ago but I still have the skills, worksheets, and friends I made there. Some days I wish I could go back so much it hurts. But missing what I had in PHP, as painful as that can be, is hell of a lot better than wishing I didn't exist at all.

I followed up PHP with an all-too-short stint in intensive outpatient therapy (basically PHP-light) until insurance got crabby ('Merica!) and now I have a personal therapist in addition to my psychiatrist. It's not perfect but it's something.

If you are depressed—especially if you think about hurting yourself—please reach out to somebody, even if it's a stranger on a helpline. People who can help you are out there. It doesn't have to be so bleak all the time. Really.