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Articles

Slump? Here are my 5 tips for getting out

Ever found yourself in a slump?  Like a baseball player, only in life?  It can be professional, relational, spiritual, or some other aspect of life.  The one common thing is this: at one time or another, we all will endure them.  

On a very personal note, I’m coming out of one now.  Without turning this into an Oprah episode, I’ve had a rough, year-long stretch professionally.  After an insanely busy 2013, I became a bit complacent.  Work wasn’t coming in as it had in the past.  On top of that, I developed an eye disorder that I’ve had to learn to work around.  So of course, like a lot of people, I looked the stress square in the eye and began medicating it with food.  So I put on a lot of weight, which helped a ton.  (Pun intended to enhance sarcasm.)  So I’ve had recent experience with the reality that, sometimes, I will have trouble with the curve ball that I was scorching into the upper deck just two years ago.
Over the years, I’ve taken note of a few things I’ve learned about how to get out of a slump.  Also (and perhaps mainly) I’ve observed how others successfully claw their way out.  I was thinking on this recently, and felt compelled to share what I think are five great disciplines that might help you start swinging the bat effectively again.  For the scope of this article, I’ll frame my thoughts around the actor – and specifically, the audiobook narrator.  I truly believe, however, that these practices are healthy for everyone in every walk of life.
DISCLAIMER: Since our national discourse today seems to be controlled by lawyers, I must say for the record that I am NOT a counselor, doctor, therapist, or guru.  I make no guarantees, claims, or predictions in anything I say or write.  I’m just a fella who cares about people, and want to help when I can.  Your mileage may vary, some restrictions apply.  OK…play ball.
1) Know who you are.  This sounds so easy, but there is a real tendency for us to begin defining our identity by what we do, rather than who we are.  Actors do this a lot, especially men.  Self-employed folks are also susceptible.  Self-employed actors…well, you get it.  I think it’s a wonderful practice to take a piece of paper and really spend some time.  Who are you?  I made a list of 7 “I am” statements that define who John is.  I review them frequently.  When you have a firm grasp on your true identity, you’re in a much better position to weather the storm.  This is especially true when your business hits a rough patch, as mine has.  If you fall into the trap of defining yourself around what you do for a living, professional slumps can be very deep and damaging.  
2) Embrace gratitude.  I narrated a wonderful book in 2014 about this that really stuck with me.  Gratitude is one of those things that is so often taken for granted today.  Take a moment to consider what exactly you are grateful for, and to whom.  If you’re like me, you’ll have a list as long as your arm rather quickly.  That’s all well and good – but when was the last time you expressed that gratitude?  And I’m not talking about sending expensive gifts or sending your favorite client on a cruise.  I’m referring to the simple things.  A hand written note, a fast phone call, even a text are all great ways to say Thank You.  And the great thing about gratitude is that it is mutually beneficial.  Both ends of the relationship are enriched.  One last thought – if you’re a parent or grandparent, you know it feels great when a child comes up and thanks you for a gift you’ve given them.  But how much better does it feel when that child comes up and thanks you for just being you?  Think about how that idea might translate to your professional life.
3) Invest in a prayer life.  I’ve always thought of a person being a three-legged stool: physical, mental (emotional), and spiritual.  If we take good care of all three legs, our lives will stand with good sturdiness.  But if one leg weakens too much, the stool can wobble and fall.  Of course, we all have different beliefs in this area.  Substitute the word “prayer” with “meditation” if you’d like.  Either way, a healthy spiritual life is a good thing to have when you find yourself striking out constantly.  I think this one is tied closely to item 1 above.  It is for me, anyway, because I believe that my identity is determined by God and what He thinks about me, not by my career, bank balance, or popularity.  My prayer life helps connect me with my true identity, and shores up my ability to push through the tough seasons in life.
4) Get some exercise.  Those of you that know me personally can see that I’m not great at this one – I’m trying.  But I have noticed that when I do “get out there,” I feel better – inside and out.  Narrators are often stuck inside, usually in a very small space, and required to move as little as possible (at least when we’re working!)  Next time you feel that “slump funk,” go for a brisk walk.  Go hit a bucket of golf balls.  Get your juice moving.  At the least you’ll feel better physically.  Sometimes, though, this simple practice can have a very positive impact on your entire perspective.
5) Get up an hour earlier.  I’ve heard this one from several very successful and inspiring people over the years.  I’m not totally  sure why this works, but it does for me.  I spent many years doing morning radio, when meant the alarm went off at the charming hour of 4am.  It also meant that bedtime was around 9.  So when that all ended, I was very excited.  I began to stay up late, and sleep until 7:30.  But fairly recently, I took the advice above and began going to bed at 10pm, and rising at 6am.  It’s amazing the difference it makes in my day.  Again, I’m not sure why.  Perhaps it’s just a psychological jolt that makes me feel more aggressive, productive, or like I’m getting a head start on the day.  Whatever it is, it makes me feel better personally and professionally.  Plus – and you can take this for what it’s worth – I believe that nothing good ever happens after midnight.  Discuss.
I hope these things help you like they are helping me.  Slumps are real (I’m a Brewers fan, so I know!)  But by consciously placing new disciplines into your routine, maybe you can emerge more quickly and start hitting again.  I sincerely hope you do.
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The exercise of listening

If you’re a “remote narrator” like me, it’s very likely that you work much of the time without a director.  Indeed, aside from my demos, I’ve never worked with a director.  It’s the trade-off for the privilege of working at home all the time, and never having to deal with traffic or burning your gas.

But there are options.  The great teacher Patrick Fraley developed an entire course of study on “self-directing.”  It’s a skill that more and more narrators need as the home studio grows in popularity.  Recently, I stumbled onto a simple (though time consuming) exercise that was very informative for me as an audiobook performer.  I’ll call it the exercise of listening, and I thought I’d share it here.
New or innovative?  No.  As narrators we’ve been told for years that listening to audiobooks is an important and worthwhile discipline.  But I’m going to be honest here – I don’t listen.  Not much anyway.  I just don’t have time to plug into a 10+ hour recording and do some serious, engaged listening.
I know what you’re thinking.  Just grab some snippets!  There are great lessons there!  True.  But honestly, I was seeking more of a long-haul lesson.  Something that spoke to duration, maintaining the mojo over the course of a week’s worth of sessions.  And for me, anyway, I needed to hear it in one sitting.  As luck would have it, a road trip was on my calendar.
Phoenix to Ft. Worth was just about the perfect trip for nearly any work of fiction.  But what title to select?  I wanted to hear a great story, sure – but I mostly wanted to learn something.  Hopefully a lot of somethings.  So I made a short list of narrators who met the following criteria:
* specialize in the same genres I do
* widely recognized today as a top talent
* are a fairly close match to my personal style as a narrator
I found my narrator, and a title that was also widely recognized as excellent.  I bought and downloaded the audiobook.  But for the experiment to be as informative as possible, I needed something to compare it to.  So I grabbed a book of mine that I recorded last year; one that I believed was pretty good but was received with less than, um, enthusiastic praise.  The final piece of my mobile laboratory was my lovely wife.  She’s an honest soul, and would provide great feedback.
To be clear: this was not an exercise in “just do everything he does exactly as he does it.”  I was listening for enjoyment first, and wondering if I could recognize clues in the performance that could make me better.  Perhaps, I might identify little techniques that I could apply to my world somehow.  I decided I’d listen to his book on the trip out, and mine on the return trip home.
As I write this, I’ve been home three days and I am still jotting down nuggets.  My wife Jan had an amazing list of observations from a consumer standpoint.    The vast majority of these lessons (and this is the point of all this) were old, bad habits that I’ve very slowly fallen back into.  We all have them, and our coaches and teachers have made us aware of them.  But in the course of a busy recording season, these seemingly harmless little habits can creep back into the booth, and potentially wreck a performance.
So I’m going to do two things.  First, once complete, I’m going to post my “craptacular habits list” right in the booth.  And before I open the mic each and every session, I’m going to review it.  Be aware of it.  It will make my performance better.  DEMONS OUT!
And secondly, and unfortunately much less practically, I’m going to do some more comparative listening exercises.  Which means I need to plan more road trips, I suppose.
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D-day – and what made victory possible

D-day – and what made victory possible

June 6, 1944.  It’s known as “D-day” in the history books.  The day when Allied troops did the impossible – stormed the beachheads of Normandy in France, and took the first bold step in driving Hitler backward, and ultimately to defeat.  It was an invasion that literally saved the free world.  

June 6 is not a holiday in America, and as such it often passes by unnoticed in the busyness of early summer.  But 71 years ago, the Allies, under the command of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, went for broke, and launched a mission with a very slim chance of success.  The cost in human life was staggering, as we know.  We’ve seen the movies about it.  We’ve heard the speeches.
There aren’t too many survivors of D-day left today, which is a shame.  Because just as fascinating as the events of June 6, are the events of the days that led up to arguably the most incredible military action in modern history.  The heroes who fell on or near the beaches of Normandy are heralded and honored, and rightfully so.  But the improbable success of D-day would not have been possible without cunning strategy, careful planning, and ingenious engineering.  
Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg was there, and played an instrumental role in the days leading up to what we now know as D-day.  In his amazing book, The Far Shore, Ellsberg recalls in stark detail just what it took to equip the boys who would charge those beaches, and the creativity, courage, and manpower it took to achieve one of freedom’s greatest and costliest victories.
It’s been some time since I had the privilege of bringing the Admiral’s remarkable story to audio, but ever since I learned of what happened in the days before June 6, 1944, D-day has taken on a whole new meaning for me.  As you’ll hear, a million things could have gone wrong – and many of them did – and yet the courage, genius, and never-quit spirit of the people who were there preparing on the near shore were crucial to the Allies’ ultimate success on The Far Shore.
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A conversation with author NgTo

A conversation with author NgTo

Not long ago, my paths crossed with a Boston playwright turned author who told me he wanted his work on audio, which of course made me very happy!  Little did I know what I was stepping into – a world of biting satire, hilarious comedy, bizarre characters, and a boatload of “did he really just say that?!”  There are probably dozens of ways to aptly describe his writing style, but I would simply call it “escapism.”  His very first audio novel, Unethical Therapy from a Not-too-distant Galaxy, is available now on Audible and the iTunes Store.  In it, the author takes a satirical swipe at psychotherapy and politics.  And like any good yarn, there’s an alien mucking up the works!  And I promise – the cover will make sense after you listen.  To call this book “fun to narrate” would be the understatement of the century.  Or at least the day.

He calls himself “NgTo,” and I think he’s a guy you’ve just got to meet:

John McLain: OK, I’ve got to ask. The name “NgTo” is not on your driver’s license. Where’d that come from?

NgTo:  Just something my brothers called me when we were kids. No one has a clue what it means, or under what circumstance it arrived in the world.  One of those things that come out of the mist of time, which worries me… I mean what the hell is that mist stuff anyway?

JM: Beats me, man.  Unethical Therapy From A Not-too-distant Galaxy is your first book to come out in audio. As an author, what appeals to you about the audio format?

NT: I spent decades writing for the theatre, and as anyone who has written plays knows, the script is only the beginning.  Necessary but insufficient.  It takes ‘breath’ so to speak, the human voice to bring the language to life.  In the beginning was the word, the Good Book says; and the end I’d guess is silence.  It’s what comes in-between – the breath forming the word and the word breathlessly uttering, what the f*** are we doing here?

JM: No shortage of satire in your work. Do you have a message, or are you just having fun?

NT: Life is too pretentious not to kill it with an overdose of laughter.

JM: Well, this book definitely has some, let’s say…”interesting” characters running through it. When you wrote them, especially their dialogue, did you hear their voices in your head? Because I did.

NT: Voices rattle in my head, but where those voices come from is anyone’s guess.  If from the writer, the voices are an affliction; if not, divine inspiration.  A third possibility: divine affliction.  The fourth and most probable: plagiarism.

JM: (laughs) As a narrator who appreciates good comedy, I was really struck by the many wonderful moments of comedic timing throughout Unethical Therapy. Does that come naturally for you as you write, because if so that’s really unfair!

NT: At the risk of being tribal, I’d say the comedic timing comes courtesy of my Jewish heritage.  Being on the run from your enemies, or hiding in some sinkhole because the Cossacks are on one of their annual pogroms, you’ve got to pick your moments.  A word ill-timed could get you killed.  A pause timed just right – nothing less than salvation.  Now that’s a good laugh!

JM: You live in Boston, and your stories happen there.  Anything in particular about the city that inspires you as an author?

NT: I’m a history nut and Boston is nothing if not history… history to its very architectural bones.  And given the current affairs of the country, I could either lament the loss of our Republic or laugh all the way down.  I prefer the latter and besides, laughter, not lamenting, ameliorates the vertigo.

JM: We’re working on your next audiobook together now, Cowering In Place, and Mark Greene, the hero from Unethical Therapy, is back!  Be honest – is he you?

NT: Only in the sense that we’re all thrown in the world willy-nilly and thus we are, if we’re honest with ourselves, straight foils for a hell of a Comic.  So Mark Greene stumbles through life, hoping beyond hope for a smidgeon of happiness.  That’s all of us, right?

JM: Um…sure, ok.  But it’s time to get serious.  Tell me one thing that you think will fix the Red Sox.

NT: A rain delay of Biblical proportions.

____

Listen to Unethical Therapy by NgTo today!  Just don’t do it while enjoying a beverage, unless you want to wear it.  Available now from Audible.com and the iTunes Store.  And watch for NgTo’s Cowering In Place, coming late summer 2015!

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June Is Audiobook Month!

June Is Audiobook Month!

It’s hard to believe, but June is almost over again!  Summertime is a wonderful time to enjoy great listens, what with all the road trips and long flights going on.  Perhaps that’s why we celebrate audiobooks each June.

This year, I was delighted to participate in a wonderful project called “Going Public…In Shorts.”  The project, conceived and developed by the excellent audiobook narrator Xe Sands, and produced by Blackstone Audio, is a collection of public domain short stories across a variety of genres.  Best of all, proceeds from the sale of “Going Public…In Shorts” benefit a great cause, Reach Out and Read – a literacy advocacy group.
In addition to narrating a story for the project, I had the opportunity to partner with one of the many terrific audiobook blogs, Narrator Reviews and Audiobooks.  You can read Jennie’s thoughts about the project, and audiobooks in general, there at her blog.
For full information about the Going Public…In Shorts project, click here
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APAC is back!

I’m preparing for my annual trip to New York for a great time at APAC and the Audie Awards presentation.  It’s been a great year and I’m excited to find out what everyone else has been up to!  It’s shaping up to be another busy summer of audiobooks.

June Is Audiobook Month is coming up, and narrator Xe Sands has spearheaded a really cool project called “Going Public” to celebrate.  It’s a collection of public domain short stories, selected by narrators in a variety of genres.  Look for updates, tweets, and blog posts as June Is Audiobook Month approaches!  
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A funny thing happened on the way to the Audies

A funny thing happened on the way to the Audies

It was June 5th, 2012.  We were ready to go.  At long last, the wait was almost over.  I was attending my first Audie Awards Gala.  I was a Finalist for the first time.  I had treated myself to a snazzy new bow tie for my tuxedo.  Jan and I stood in our compact, Manhattan-sized hotel room and studied the mirror.  OK, let’s go.

A man in the elevator, noting my black tie and Jan’s glitter, asked, “Broadway?”  No, I said, not tonight.  Tonight, we are heading to the 17th Annual Audie Awards.  The night had started out with precision – all of our clothes had made it to New York in great shape, we didn’t forget anything, and my shoes were even shined.  And, as luck would have it, we walked out the front door just as an empty cab was rolling up – it was even an SUV, easier to climb in and out of in fancy duds.  A quick flick of the wrist, and we were on our way down 41st Street.
“Where to?” the cabbie mumbled, and I told him.  I was prepared to answer with the address, name of the venue, even the cross streets.  I love it when a plan comes together.  After a spirited jaunt through Manhattan traffic, the taxi slowed to a stop…the intense greenery of Central Park on the left, and a very grand building at the curb.  It was immense – white with massive columns, and a very impressive bronze statue standing watch in front.  I gazed at the total displayed on the meter, tipped generously (I’m in a tux, after all) and helped Jan out of the cab.  At last – we’re here.
The wide, library-style staircase was lined with friendly ushers, welcoming us to tonight’s event.  One of them even seemed to be especially impressed with our attire – unusually so.  As we entered the beautiful antique wooden doors, we merged into a huge chamber packed with people – each holding a drink and chatting.  Two dinosaur skeletons were displayed, towering over the sea of attendees.  Another usher greeted us, gave us an inquisitive look, and said that registration was to our left.
“We’re overdressed,” said Jan.  The Audies are “black tie optional,” though I was told that there would be many who would so opt.  But as she made this observation, I too noted that we seemed to be the only ones in the room in black tie.
Nevertheless, we made our way over to the registration table.  Another usher met us there, and pointed out the signage above; A thru G at this table, H thru N at that one, and so on.
And that’s when it all began to make sense.  Because posted prominently above the “H-N” was another, very stately sign that read, “WELCOME, CORNELL SCHOOL OF HOTEL MANAGEMENT.”  Oh, jeez.
No biggie.  Feeling like we were 20 years late for the prom, Jan and I slinked our way back toward the entrance.  We spied a couple a security guards off to the side (and mercifully out of view.)  After showing them the address on our invitations, they happily pointed out the correct building, just one block down.  Down the steps we went, laughing out loud as we strolled down to the REAL New York Historical Society building, where everything suddenly made a lot more sense.
We had a grand evening, met tons of great people, posed for dozens of photos, and laughed a lot.  By the way, we didn’t win the Audie.
But as we rode back to our hotel in a cab at almost 2am, bow tie dangling following an incredibly fun after-party, I felt like the biggest winner in the world.  I had my wife of 17 years by my side, beaming with pride all night long.  I do what I love, get paid for it, and I’m really good at it.
As exhausted as I was, it took me quite a while to get to sleep that night.
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AudioFile: The Vow a “splendid interpretation…”

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”Nat Turner Pt. 1″ is an Audie Award finalist!

I’m honored to be a finalist for the 2012 Audie Awards!  The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses by Sharon Ewell Foster was nominated in the Inspirational / Faith-based Fiction category.  I’m excited for Sharon, and the wonderful team at Oasis Audio.  It’s an astounding story that even the author herself admits she didn’t expect to write.  

Now we have the long wait until June, when the winners in each category are announced at The Audie Awards and Gala in New York.  So many wonderful titles have been honored once again this year.  Plus, it will be fun to just get together with peers in the audiobook industry and celebrate!  This wonderful storytelling medium is growing leaps and bounds, and the future is bright indeed – for publishers, authors, listeners, and yes – narrators. 
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New release!

New release!

I’m delighted to announce the release of my latest audiobook title – “The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2: The Testimony” by Sharon Ewell Foster!  Available now from Oasis Audio!