So, if you’ve read my last reposted newsletter article, “What’s Stranger than Nonfiction?,” you’ll remember that I talked about the oddity of loving a show or story that belongs to a genre we normally hate, and how, like choosing a partner from outside our usual preferences or denying one from within, the difference between what we love and what we don’t comes down to individual characteristics, not genre. We may happen to like more things within a genre than not, but that isn’t true of everything, and it isn’t true of the reverse. If we judge what we like by the individual, not the group, we can discover more gems in our field of choices. That’s what I’d said more or less.
You’ll also remember that the topic came about because I wanted to talk about my love for Stranger Things, a show about ’80s kids versus D&D monsters in Small Town, Indiana (actually, Hawkins). But the funny thing was that my intention for that message had nothing to do with genre. I originally wanted to talk about “the sounds of Stranger Things.”
A bit of a stretch, right?
So, even though I eventually topic-dropped a note about its sound, I’d never really made a relevant point about it. Whatever my intention that day, the bigger theme would not go ignored. So, we ended up with a long discussion about how awesome of a show Stranger Things is and how much I was looking forward to watching the new season, which debuted this past Friday. [Editorial Note from the Future: “In May 2022.”]
Sometimes that happens in the writing life. One topic morphs into another, and the next thing you know, you’re writing a two-parter just to get back on track. All part of letting the idea speak, not forcing an agenda.
Now, whether I got to watch the new season this weekend is a point that I’ll keep as a mystery for now, but I did want to return to the topic of sound.
Human beings have five core senses in which to draw in information, and one of those senses, sight, is often used to the point of exhaustion and we just need to rest our eyes.
At what point in a day do you usually find yourself in bed with your eyes closed and an ice pack on your head? For me, it can be as early as 2:00, depending on the day.
But needing rest for my eyes doesn’t mean I need rest for my brain. I mean, sure, sometimes it does, but often I just want to reduce strain. When I reach that point, I like to tap into another of my five senses, sound, and find a podcast to listen to until I fall asleep. Sometimes I’ll listen to that podcast with the intention of falling asleep.
Now, I mean no offense to podcasters. I don’t find their discussions boring. In fact, I often want to hear the whole thing. But I’ve grown accustomed to drifting off about twenty minutes into a podcast (if I’m lying in bed while listening to it), so I just expect it now, even if I try my hardest to stay awake. And, yes, I can hear you saying, “Then don’t lie in bed! Sit in a chair.” Problem with that is that I stop listening to the podcast and start thinking about how much I’d rather be in bed. The problem, I think, is that their voices are just so soothing and I’m so easily exhausted.
You know what I mean?
You hit PLAY on the podcast episode, listen to the opening musical number (often a mix of corporate melodies and dental music), and wait for the mellow podcasters and their casually optimistic voices with that tinge of mid-afternoon deadness to announce their arrival, and then we’re off to the “lively” discussion that works like Novocaine on the brain.
It’s a winning formula for achieving rest. Podcasters have a monopoly on entertaining my dreams. (That’s another interesting phenomenon, by the way. Ever have an outside voice narrate your dreams for you? Fall asleep to a podcast or newscast and you’ll see what I mean.)
Audiobooks can have a similar effect, but they employ a different type of voice. If, say, I wanted to “read in bed” by listening to an audiobook, I could. But unlike the podcasters having a casual conversation, the audiobook narrator puts on a performance. A good narrator might even understand that his or her “captive audience” is doing something else while listening, and that something else could just as easily steal the listener’s attention away. While getting distracted away from a podcast doesn’t always lead to missing anything important (sometimes it does, of course, but it’s often easy to figure out what you’ve missed if you drift off for a few minutes), drifting off from an audiobook can mean having to backtrack and re-listening to the important points because all points are important. Like algebra, if you miss one part, you’ve missed all of it.
This, of course, is best experienced with a book that comes with a lively narrator. But what if you don’t have a lively narrator who “voice acts”? What if you have a plain narrator who merely “reads out loud”? Or, here’s one worse, what if you have a narrator who isn’t even human?
Have you heard of a new technology called auto-narrated audiobooks? This would be the arena of the nonhuman narrator.
Last year, Google Play Books announced a “new” technology to its authors that converts their e-books into audiobooks by letting Google’s sophisticated AI voices scan the text and vocalize it. The only thing the author has to do is to choose the most appropriate voice and assign it to the book, then modify any internal content that the voice might mispronounce, as well as adapt the book for suitability for audio audiences.
Its purpose is to give authors who might not have access to dramatic actors (mainly due to how expensive it is to hire one of these professional narrators) a chance to compete in the audio market.
In May 2022, I decided to join that crowd of penniless authors who just want to catch a break see if my short story Shell Out would make a good candidate for this program. So, I made the conversion, and now anyone can listen to it for free.
Would you like to hear it? It’s just an hour and 23 minutes, and the Google narrator is pretty good.
Just pretty good.
But the book is free, and it might be the perfect thing to help you sleep tonight. Nothing against Shell Out, of course. It’s still one of my favorites from my personal bibliography, and most people who have read it and given me feedback said they’d enjoyed it. But it’s a book narrated by a robot. If anything, it’ll clarify what makes the book exciting: the writing or the narrating.
If you do give it a listen, be sure to let me know what you think. And tell me if you’d like me to turn a few of my other books into auto-narrated audiobooks. So far, I’ve just limited my library to a single-book experiment, just to see if it’s even worth it.
Again, check it out if you’re curious. And as usual, leave me some feedback if you do. It’s a coming-of-age short story about a college student who’s gone to war with his wallet. I suppose you’d want to know that before investing your time into it. So, there you go. It’s a comedy of errors. And fun. You should listen to it. Hopefully, you’ll like the android’s performance.
Note: This article was written for my May 2022 newsletter (Part 2), which I normally make exclusive to subscribers. If you enjoyed the updated version of this article and would like to see more from me, please consider subscribing to my newsletter by filling out the form in the side panel (or below, if you’re viewing on mobile), or visiting my official newsletter signup page. As a bonus, you’ll get access to Read My Shorts, Volume 1, a mini-collection of short stories about corporate blunders and occasional revenge that you can’t read anywhere else.
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