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Archive for June, 2015


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.

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.

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 and the iTunes Store.  And watch for NgTo’s Cowering In Place, coming late summer 2015!