Recently I was privileged to sit in conversation with Krys Janae, an American-Filipina author, musician, voice-over artist, actress, graphic designer, gamer and geek from central California. She has been working with author Brianna Sugalaski to bring to life the audiobook for Disenchanted (Disenchanted, #1). From our respective offices, we discussed audiobook narration, project workflow, and what exactly goes into the process of working on an audiobook.
MALORIE NILSON: Can you talk a little bit about your professional experience? How did you get involved in audiobook narration? As evidenced by the excellent audiobooks you have done, you do voice work, but does your background extend beyond audiobooks?
KRYS JANAE: Hi! Thank you so much for having me!
I lost my job in 2016, which was a huge blow since it was due to health reasons. I had no idea what I was going to do from there. In that time, I toyed with the idea of going back to school for writing. I did some soul searching for a while, and worked on my books with graphic design as a freelance hobby. One author I’d met through design told me about her series being successful as audiobooks. I didn’t know much about it since the only audiobooks I’d been exposed to were the ones on tape that my best friend’s mom would listen to when we all went on trips together. I figured it was only an in-studio gig, which meant it was an unattainable career goal for me given my situation at the time.
I’d mentioned to the client in passing that I always wanted to do something like that, or any voice work in general since it was a dream to be a voice actor. I’d kind of started narrating for a YouTube channel at the time and doing some auditions for independent animation, but it was all just for fun. Later on in our correspondence, she essentially said: Go for it! The worst that anyone can say is ‘no’ (on casting me as their book’s narrator). I was used to this sort of process, through music and theater, auditioning for projects and getting that rejection letter that they’d passed the role to someone else. Anyone in the arts knows how this can be discouraging, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. After a few missed attempts, I shelved the idea for a while.
After that, I spoke with a lot of voice actors, many of whom I look up to, and they were kind enough to give me some resources and advice. I decided to go for it again and this time I set my mind to it, which was around mid 2018 or so. It took some research on how to get started, picking up the equipment at the bare minimum with my very limited income. Luckily my step-father, who does recording of his own, saw I was pursuing this and helped me out. My parents had been kind of skeptical about it--heck, even I was--but that adage of ‘everyone starts somewhere’ really sat there in the back of my mind.
From there, I sought out auditions, did a few demos, brushed up on some character work, and eventually landed a couple of projects through ACX and a few more in other mediums like gaming, audio dramas and animation. I’ve been doing voice over work ever since.
MN: What are some of your favorite projects that you have worked on, or projects that stick out as complete fun?
KJ: Video games or auditions for them have been a blast. Early on, I’d auditioned for a mod/add-on for the game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It was a fan-creation called Summerset Isle. I didn’t have the equipment to play it when it first came out, but I searched for anyone who checked it out.
Watching people play through the content, and giving positive feedback on the voice acting in general was incredible and so very humbling. About a month or so ago, I did a new batch of lines with the same content creator, and there should be some updates on that one soon!
For gaming, not only do we have to do dialogue, but voice efforts as well – grunts, hits, cries, sighs, and all those noises that you don’t necessarily think about as the player – and those were so much fun to do, on top of the character dialogue. I’ve also become well acquainted with some animators and directors who will reach out whenever they need some voice work done in the future, which is still unreal.
When it comes to audiobooks, I’d admit being selected for DISENCHANTED has been so exciting. I had the honor of becoming friends with Brianna [Sugalski], and was floored by how much we had in common! It was inspiring and such a thrill to link up with a fellow Filipino-American author for this project. Not to mention, her remarkable book, supported by its fan base, has given me quite the challenge. It’s a brilliant tale with spectacular characters! One of the coolest things we’ve done together so far was having the opportunity to collaborate with my dear friend Amanda for a musical number featured early on in DISENCHANTED.
MN: I think readers tend to be unaware, and I know I certainly was, exactly how long an audiobook narrator can spend in the studio for any given book project. You narrated DISENCHANTED for The Parliament House Press, and we love the work that you did. What was the longest day you spent recording DISENCHANTED? How long did it take you to complete that project in its entirety?
KJ: About two or three weeks is how long it took to complete one of my shortest productions so far. The longest time to produce took about a year. The latter was because I had taken on a local business venture (in 2019), and had a rough year with personal matters. I was so grateful that the author was understanding about it. This hold up was well before I partnered up with my engineer and took a leap to work in audio full time. My engineer Daniele has helped me s o much with the editing process.
She’s also coached me through many things, from tonal correction to pacing and flow, and gave me a ton of insight on the ins and outs of production. She is a godsend and I cannot say enough about how amazing she is, with her constant support to keep me on track and power through some rough spots!
All in all, it depends on my schedule, working around life things like appointments and other obligations and of course the book content. High word count novels can be intense, but still doable in a matter of a few months for raw takes on the first go, any retakes to fix, and eventually the mastered and finished product.
As far as DISENCHANTED goes, it’s still in production. We ran into a few things that needed to be adjusted and with other projects on my calendar I’m working hard to get this finished! We’ve had several discussions about how we want to bring these characters to life, each with a distinct voice of their own. I’d mentioned that Brianna and I have gotten pretty close through the last few months, and it’s been such a blast, and an incredible journey to be working on this together. I do admit that DISENCHANTED has encouraged me to up my dialect and accent game, haha. Overall, the production is going splendidly so far, and we can’t wait to share it with you!
MN: When you record, how do you break it up? Do you read a whole chapter at a time, or take some other approach?
KJ: I set a calendar, and try my best to stick to it. With everything going on in the world right now--wild, isn’t it?-- and life rearing its ugly head to change the course, some projects shift around from time to time. On a good week, I’ll set a to-do list for the days, say (x) amount of hours (or chapters) to record, and just read. I aim to finish a handful of chapters in one session, but I take breaks to rest my voice too so I don’t sound off or exhausted in the middle of a book.
MN: What do you look for in a book when choosing to audition for a project?
KJ: I’m still considered fairly new to the voice over world, but I started auditioning for anything I find fun and compelling. Generally, the content would be in my wheelhouse, where I believe my voice would ‘fit’, but I like to step outside the box from time to time.
Personally, I love reading fantasy, PNR, UF, RH, Sci-Fi, Mystery--a huge variety of sub genres in fiction really--so I tend to gravitate toward those projects first. If it has a main character(s) I can relate to, as an RP gamer I find those to be so exciting to put myself into their shoes and be able to act out the part.
I haven’t done horror or a thriller yet, which is one of my goals. I’d love to challenge myself and expand into non-fiction or memoirs, as it’s been suggested by my peers.
MN: How do you decide what vocal tone to take for a book? What is your process behind voicing different characters and lines of dialogue?
KJ: Aside from reading the material through, that comes down to the communication with the author. If applicable, I’ll attempt to contact them and ask for any particular tone they’re looking for, if they want it directly portrayed in the audio performance or if they prefer to hear my take. At minimum I appreciate the basics, especially if it isn’t clearly written in the book: age, accent, personality, or quirk. Then I work towards implementing that when I read through.
MN: Do you have an awkward moment or mistake—whether technical or self-inflicted—or an interaction with an author/publisher that you don’t think you will ever forget?
KJ: Oh I’d have to say Daniele has a collection of hilarious bloopers that weren’t particularly awkward, just outright funny. Some of them were cut and added to a “blooper” folder, so I don’t think I’ll forget anytime soon. People think reading a string of words is simple but man, there are some tongue-twisters out there haha. I’ll have a moment of: my brain reads it right, but my mouth won’t cooperate! I think some of the bloopers are the funniest when it’s during a very steamy or dramatically intense scene.
MN: I assume that working in audiobook narration is much different than other types of acting in that you are not getting direction from a director each step of the way. Do you get feedback from authors that fills this role in a way? Or are authors generally not a part of the process once recording has begun? Is there a “Goldilocks” level of engagement?
KJ: Yes! It’s very different. From my experience on stage or camera, you have a director telling you exactly what they want to see. With audiobooks, you typically get 15 mins of content to run by the author/publisher and then everything is up to you from there. I’ve learned from my peers and mentors that the author usually doesn’t get a lot of creative direction and won’t hear the project until it’s completely finished. This also depends on the project though, and the relationship between narrator and author. The narrator can reach out for help, but for the most part it’s a lot of self-direction.
I’ve been fortunate enough to establish a few close connections with some of my authors who’ve let me take the wheel, and it’s worked out very well! On top of that, my editor/engineer helps as a coach when something doesn’t sit right or is pronounced a certain way, we work on fixing it so it flows better.
Brianna is so clear in her vision of her characters, sharing her moodboards, artwork commissions-- all the way down to the actors that she’s envisioned playing these roles! These reference tools help out tremendously, for me to find the right vibe for the setting, characters, and the motivations for interactions between them. I truly appreciate all of that as a storyteller and actor for authentic portrayal. Additionally, I know that my vocal range may not be able to hit the low, booming timbre of male roles. But with everything set out like she has, I have a good idea of how to mimic it as the narrator, to make sure they stand out.
MN: What list of helpful notes should any author provide after connecting with an audiobook narrator?
KJ: I recently discovered the use of a “welcome packet”. This tool will help the author provide things I mentioned above (age, tone, personality, etc.). It’s vital to narrators to get the character just right. I love role playing games like D&D and other brands, so I liken it to making a character sheet. Be as detailed as you like, or concise, as long as we can find that character’s voice with ease. That way we don’t run into a character who is, say for example, a young girl with a breathy voice and an accent who may be kind of timid and shy. Sometimes it’s not revealed until way later that the character has these traits, and maybe the narrator used a completely different voice.
Pronunciations are a huge deal too! I’ve seen it on the consumer side of the market, where a narrator or author may pronounce something fictional differently than they do in an audiobook medium or TV/Movie adaptation, and reviewers leave bad remarks on that alone. If someone’s name, magical spell, or creature is in there, with wording that isn’t commonplace or easily found, a guide with pronunciations is fantastic. We, as narrators, love to have those on hand to keep things consistent!
Lastly, I’d suggest being up front about the book’s content. Events, instances that may be considered controversial, or require a trigger warning... heads up in that department is crucial as well. This will ensure that you not only found the right voice, but the right person to fill the role.
It might seem tedious to write these things down and send off to your narrator, but these are a few notes that will help the production go quickly and smoothly. It may reduce the amount of retakes, or even prevent a re-casting, down the line.
MN: What type of author is a nightmare with which to work? And what type of author is the absolute dream?
KJ: Oh, well ‘nightmare’ may seem a bit harsh haha, but perhaps someone who takes t oo much of a directorial stance and wants to change a lot of things constantly? I’ve haven’t had this happen to me, but my peers have mentioned this happening on more than one occasion. Also, someone who gives absolutely no information (like feedback on the first 15 or corrections they may have caught but stayed quiet) until the very end can be frustrating for the process.
Of course, the opposite would be a dream. We all want to ‘nail it’ on the first take, but guidance in the right direction, constructive assistance and support to find that sweet spot makes the production a breeze! I’ve learned that you can criticize and critique yourself every day but you have to keep on and let the product be seen, or in this case heard, at some point. Not necessarily settling since that’s a bad way to put it haha, but compromising on a take and letting it move forward instead of doing it over and over is the best way to go.
MN: What is the biggest challenge to you personally as an audiobook narrator?
KJ: Finding the right time to record. I do have a home studio but outside noises like landscaping, construction, traffic, loud music and parties, etc... make it difficult to get a clean take. Even with the sound treatment, those microphones pick up EVERYTHING. haha
MN: Do you personally prefer audiobooks or physical/electronic books?
KJ: It depends on the mood, really... whether I have time or the desire to read for myself or be read to. However, if I have the audiobook, I’ll purchase the book too because I love to read along and support my fellow authors and narrators. So... both?
MN: I am curious for all of our edification, are there any unique routines or exercises that you use to keep your voice in tip-top shape?
KJ: I’m a musician as well (vocalist) so I’ve learned to warm-up before any long runs with my voice. Drinking a lot of water... and I mean a lot, getting enough sleep (which I’m still working on haha), as well as tea with honey helps. Combining that with warming up my voice ensures endurance, especially for long sessions. When I first started narrating I was a little out of vocal shape, as I wasn’t singing with my band or doing much speaking aloud at all, but remembering my training from my music conductors and acting directors really helped me get it back.
Also, I noticed that ever since I was in high school doing choral shows, or theater in college, and now with my band, I don’t really eat before a performance or recording session. Sure, it can make for a grumbly stomach during takes when I do early morning work, but I try my best to work around that. If I need a quick snack or something to satisfy a craving beforehand I try not to make it dairy or sugary (as much as I want to! lol) since that will mess with vocal sounds, mouth clicks and the like.
MN: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about your experience and expertise! It has truly been a pleasure talking with you, and we hope to see many more audiobooks from you in the future!
KJ: Thank you so much again, this was a lot of fun!