It’s no secret that I wasn’t really involved in the production of my first six books on audio. I dutifully submitted voice notes for the narrators, but that was as far as things went. Terrified of the books being mucked up, I didn’t even listen to them for months, until my wife gently prodded me with a “Cari, this narrator is actually very good.” On the way home from a holiday, I started to listen to A Quiet Death to distract me from my terror of flying, and I quickly realised that, yes, this narrator is very bloody good.
This narrator is Nicola Victoria Vincent, a lass who hails from my neck of the woods. A classically trained actress with twenty-plus years of voiceover and theatre experience, Nicki is adept at juggling a diverse cast and can spin an accent out of the ether at the drop of a hat. To date, she’s narrated all but one of my books, and from Alias onwards the process has been a far more collaborative one.
When Nicki signed the contract to narrate Unbreakable, we chatted about Bold Strokes letting me proof the book, as they had done with Breathe. This in itself is a bit of a no-no; authors aren’t usually allowed to proof their own stuff in case they start quibbling over the way a line has been delivered, rather than simply checking for errors. The usual process is to do the proofing right at the end, but Nicki told me that she prefers working with the author as she goes along and asked whether I’d be okay with that. Always game for new experiences, I gave her a thumbs up, and away we went.
Well, in truth, I sat and waited quite a while, because this was all ages before she was set to start recording.
Fast forward to the end of August, and I get my first sample of Unbreakable, a fifteen-minute scene from the start of the novel that introduces two of the lead characters, Elin and Grace. It’s always a weird combination of exciting and scary to hear your characters given actual voices, and Nicki and I had a short chat about Elin sounding a little too rough. Nicki reminds me that Elin has been shot in the chest and isn’t exactly at her best in this scene, and assures me she has her voice worked out for the rest of the novel. I concede the point, approve the sample, and sit on tenterhooks waiting to get going on the recording proper.
The first two chapters drop into my inbox a few weeks later, along with a note to have a listen to Detective Sergeant Safia Faris’s voice because Nicki isn’t entirely happy with it. Safia is British Pakistani, born and raised in London, and Nicki is worried about her accent. By the time I’ve listened to the chapters and spent half a night shift googling various accents for Nicki to mimic, she’s sorted everything, settled on a voice she’s comfortable with, and re-recorded all of Safia’s dialogue. We agree that it’s miles better and Safia is cute as a button: sweet and funny in her exchanges with her work partner Suds and her wife Kami. I proof both chapters using a table similar to that for proofing a book, except that this one comes with a timestamp to mark the errors. If something needs further explanation, I add a comment or an apology if I think I’m being a pain in the arse.
We settle into a rhythm. Nicki sends me chapters as she records them, together with short notes if there is anything in particular she wants me to lend my ear to. I sit with the Kindle version of the book, reading along to the text as I’m listening to each chapter. Mistakes are few and far between: the odd missed word, a name switch here or there. Safia’s police partner Suds uncaps his pen “in an unsuitable signal” instead of an “unsubtle signal.” I proof, Nicki amends, and I get the amended files back to check. The corrections are edited in seamlessly, the adjustments leaving no trace that they were ever made. The technology and the skill going on behind all this regularly blow my mind.
In the fourth chapter, numerous text messages are exchanged between the characters. Nicki records the texts in her regular narration voice, but, being familiar with her previous work, I make a note of all the timestamps in case she switches to using the sender’s voice in future chapters. It’s a job well done. Come chapter ten, she starts using the sender’s voice, and we have a chat about which is more effective. Having decided on the sender’s voice, it’s easy for her to go back to chapter four and pinpoint the texts from the timestamps I’d saved. The changes make a big difference; all the texts are from the main villain of the piece, and they’re far more chilling in his harsh northern accent.
Meanwhile on WhatsApp…
We chat in emails as we go along. I’m thoroughly enjoying every minute of this, and I tell Nicki how much fun it’s been. Her reply hits the nail on the head:
I’m glad you’re enjoying the process, it’s much better for me too, it’s good to know you’re happy with it and it’s how you want it. I worry when the author only gets to hear the entire audio at the end that if they don’t like something they might feeling that it’s too late or too much work to put it right.
Can you imagine if we’d got to the end of the book and I’d decided on a final proof that Safia’s voice wasn’t right? Would I have asked for changes, or settled because I didn’t want to make a fuss? Going through the recording together, we were able to identify issues or uncertainties and fix them as they occurred, preventing them from snowballing into something insurmountable. And, while I appreciate that not every narrator or author wants to work like this, it’s certainly been a bonus for this book and for an author who loves being involved in stuff.
The proofing for chapter 11 prompts a flurry of WhatsApp messages. I’d asked whether a quote from Suds describing how Safia’s cooking had “opened him up to a world of possibilities” would be funnier switched from narration to Suds’s voice. Nicki politely tells me that she’d considered this, but the pronoun in the quote wouldn’t make sense if he was the one saying it…
Two sets of eyes and ears on this thing are definitely better than one, and this is a good example of something that works in the text but needs a simple adjustment to make it work on audio.
As the story progresses, the action leaves London and heads into our usual turf: The North. Nicki comments that she’s far more confident now, and I realise what a challenge this damn book must have been for her – multiple southern English accents, a Pakistani lead with a Bengali girlfriend, a large cast, and so much going on in terms of emotions, action scenes, and police-type tech speak. She makes it all seem so effortless that it’s easy to forget the expertise involved, though I don’t actually ever forget. I’m constantly in awe, especially when she nails an entire chapter – everything perfect, every line of dialogue either the way I’d imagined it in my head or given a new spin that makes it even better. I leave her feedback and bouquets in the proofing tables, and take the piss out of her for repeatedly saying “say-leen” instead of “say-line.” She has no idea why she does that either, but she gets a round of applause when, third time lucky, she gets it right.
As the end of the book approaches, we come to some of my favourite scenes, I take to checking my inbox every half hour. I feel like a reader promising themselves one more chapter before bedtime. I listen to the files as soon as they come in, even when I’ve not got the computer on and I can’t proof them. My edits are few and far between now, the occasional tweak here or there, but Nicki is in her element with the big emotional stuff, and she’s sailing through these scenes. I’m genuinely gutted when it’s all over. We choose a sample for Audible and that’s that. I email Nicki to tell her we have to meet up sometime, because I definitely owe her dinner. She bargains that down to a brew, which doesn’t seem like nearly enough, so I promise to add a scone. But only if she pronounces it properly…