On the road to success, it’s common to establish several milestones to reach for. These serve as little celebrations, signs that you’re making progress, and an effort to convince yourself that you haven’t made the biggest mistake of your professional life.
For myself and other audiobook narrators/independent audiobook producers, many of our milestones are the same: we mark and celebrate certain sales numbers on our royalty share projects – first 100, 500, 1000, 10000 copies sold; becoming “Audible Approved”; quitting the day job; joining SAG-AFTRA; joining the rosters of and working for the big studios; winning or being nominated for a Voice Arts Award, an Earphone, or grandest of all – an Audie.
We hit these milestones, share them on our social media pages and closed groups, cheer for each other, and generally tell ourselves that we’re doing okay.
Sometimes, though, we come up with our own special milestones. Milestones that are unique to the individual.
Today, with the release of How to Be a Normal Person, I have achieved a very special milestone that I’ve been gunning for since I first took the leap down this rabbit hole:
I narrated a book for TJ Klune.
Let me explain:
The first book I ever recorded an audition for was TJ Klune’s Tell Me It’s Real. At the time, I was still just toying
with the idea of trying this whole narration thing out, and really had no idea what I was doing (or what I was getting myself into).
Perhaps more importantly, my dad – Tommy – was in the hospital. After his visit on my birthday when he looked insanely skinny and weak, I pestered him until he finally went to see a doctor. Turned out he had a massive tumor in his colon. When it was time for him to go into the hospital to get it removed, I drove down to stay with him. At night, after he had fallen asleep in his hospital bed, I would drive back to his trailer. I couldn’t really sleep. I was terrified, anxious, scared. You see, by the time you have a softball sized tumor in your colon, it’s rarely just a tumor anymore. It was stage IV cancer, metastasized to a number of places in his body, but worst of all his liver. When pressed, the doctor finally just said to me that his liver basically was a tumor now. Meanwhile my dad was resting in blissful ignorance. At no point throughout the entire process had any doctor actually said the “C-word” to him, so he was convinced he was totally fine. I knew otherwise. I finally had to drag a doctor into the room and force him to explain it to him.
Anyway. I was scared. I couldn’t sleep. So, I tried narrating instead.
Armed with a borrowed USB microphone, a five year old laptop with a noisy fan, and a YouTube instructional video on how to build a mini soundbooth out of a plastic tub and some mattress pads, I set about recording my first audition.
As I scrolled through the available listings, opening up the audition scripts looking for something interesting, TJ’s book shot out like fireworks on a dark night.
If you haven’t read Tell Me It’s Real, here’s how it begins:
Just so you know, I don’t have a gargantuan penis.
Shocking, I know, right? Most of the time when you hear stories like the one you’re about to, the narrator is this perfect specimen of man, whether he knows it or not. If he doesn’t know it, it’s because he’s most likely damaged and needs some hot piece of ass to bring him out of his shell and to help him realize his outer beauty dwarfs his inner beauty. Or he knows he’s attractive and uses it as a weapon until the object of his lust-fueled heart breaks down that narcissistic wall with spooge and flowery words. Then they frolic off into the sunset and go live in Everything’s Perfect Land where everyone has a ten-inch cock and big balls that can create semen by the bucketful every hour, on the hour.
And I was hooked. The immediate fourth-wall breaking, the natural pacing with perfect wording, the humor, the poking-fun-at-the-tropes-we-all-love. The all of it.
For two weeks, I spent every night recording and re-recording the same audition script. (Also, trying to figure out how to connect the microphone, which side of the microphone to talk into, how to use my software, etc.)
I would do this, for hours, escaping from the hell that was my father’s uncertain future, slipping into a narrative of a normal gay guy with an average build and a regular cock who still just wants to be loved, escaping into comedy and romance and my own dreams of fame and fortune as the greatest fucking audiobook narrator ever. I would do this until the biological demands of my body insisted I finally lay my head down and get at least a little sleep before getting up and rushing back to the hospital to sit by my father’s side, tell him everything was going to be okay (even though I knew it wasn’t), and try to get the doctors to actually tell us something.
A couple weeks after he was released and I went back to my home, and a day before his first chemo treatment was scheduled, he passed away. He was sitting in his favorite chair, watching TV. His dentures, a bag of Reese’s minis, and a wooden pipe with a half-smoked bowl sat on the side table.
I never did submit that audition. Which was fine. Firstly, because it was terrible – performance aside, there is no way to make a respectable recording with a microphone sitting in a tub of mattress foam while chain smoking at 3am worried about your dad’s health. Secondly, the mess that ended up being settling my dad’s estate would soon consume my life and sanity for most of the year. Finally, because the audiobook was narrated and produced by Michael Lesley, who did an amazing job with it.
Eventually, though, I did return to the audiobook endeavor. And it worked out. After a couple initial projects, I decided to go all in. I spent over seven grand building a recording booth, getting better gear, equipment and software, getting coaching and training. And it paid off. I got to narrate Eastern Cowboy for Andrew Grey; Dark Horse, White Knight for Josh Lanyon; other awesome titles by other great authors. I took a 75% pay cut at my day job so I could have more time for narration. And I kept auditioning. I kept working. I kept getting better.
When The Lightning-Struck Heart came up on the audition list, I was all over it. And I was in love. Oh my god, that first chapter just launches you into a raucous world unlike any I’ve experienced in a book before. I made all my friends read it. I practiced voices. I spent more time on that audition than I think I’ve ever spent on any other audition ever (well, except perhaps for that first one, but that doesn’t really count).
And I wasn’t the only one. A thread started up in one of the narrator facebook groups, and guys who normally wouldn’t touch gay romance were jumping in and submitting auditions.
Ultimately, this one went to Michael Lesley. Michael, Michael, Michael. Always crushing my dreams of achieving that TJ Klune milestone, it seemed. Of course, listening to it…oh my god. How perfect. His characterizations, his pacing, his tone, his delivery and rhythm and timing. He nailed it.
And that’s the thing. When you’ve submitted an audition for a book, and that book is contracted to someone else, what you get is this generic form email that basically says, “Hey, you weren’t selected, but there’s other books to try for!” Everyone calls them “rejections” but I think that’s too strong of a word. Rejection implies an active denial. It implies that you weren’t good. That you sucked. That you are making a massive mistake in your life and you should throw away that microphone and just go flip burgers for the rest of your life.
But, this is acting. And at the end of the day, it’s not about hitting a certain degree of “goodness” – it’s just about whether or not you are the best fit. You wouldn’t cast Liam Neeson to play a high school student, and you don’t cast Derrick McClain to narrate hornless gay unicorns or average-built gay guys with a drag queen best friend.
While working to broaden my range, it’s also important to recognize my niche. I’m still figuring it out to be honest, though it seems like cops and werewolves are pretty high on the list. I think I can do sweet romances pretty well too. But what I started to fear, the itch that started shaking me at the back of my head, was that no matter how much training I got, no matter how good my equipment was, no matter how skilled my editing, I might never be a good fit for TJ Klune. I might never hit that special milestone.
Now, it should be noted that TJ’s books are by no means all the same. I mean, go on, read Into This River I Drown, followed by Bear, Otter, and the Kid, followed by The Lightning-Struck Heart and just try, try to tell me that he’s a one-trick pony. I don’t think so.
But still, his books are prone to fast witty dialogue, fierce queens, and colorful dynamic characters.
And me? Well, truth be told, I’m kind of awkward. I’m not fierce. I’m not witty. Put me on a stage or in a recording booth, and yeah, I’ll talk fluently and powerfully, but put me in a room of people, ask me to have conversations? What you’ll get is a series of bizarre nonsequitors, punchlines without the set-up, set-ups without a punchline. Weird facts and observations. Sentences that don’t really make sense out loud. My friends all love me, sure, but they also tease me. They say I’m weird. And abnormal. And strange.
Enter: How to Be a Normal Person
Of course I jumped right on that audition, because I can’t make a milestone I don’t try for, but at first I had little hope. Then I started reading. And it just…it clicked.
A little back and forth, some secondary recordings, and I had my first TJ Klune contract.
Life tried to fuck with me a little after that – a series of unfortunate events led to a domino effect of delays and excuses, and I was convinced that I was about to be fired from the project and blacklisted from Dreamspinner, which would then result in the total collapse of my narration ambitions, which would then lead to my fiance leaving me and my eventual homelessness in which I would turn to crack cocaine and malt liquor to ease the pain of my whole life falling apart because I couldn’t record TJ’s book fast enough.
Luckily, that didn’t happen. And today, How to Be a Normal Person, written by TJ Klune and narrated by Derrick McClain, is available for your listening pleasure.
And you should listen to it.
Not because of me or my dreams or aspirations or milestones. But because this book is…just…incredible. I can’t speak to my performance of it – I’m my own worst critic, kind of hate my own voice, and am fairly convinced that I’m the worst narrator in existence and the only reason I make a living is because other people are delusional and wrong and have no taste – but the writing, man, the writing. The story. The…words.
Here’s the dedication. If it doesn’t hit you right in the feels, then I’m afraid we can’t be friends anymore:
Yeah, it’s about love. And yeah, there’s pot. And yeah, it addresses asexuality. Which yeah, that means there’s no sex. (Though there are some wicked amazing hugs. And kisses. But not with a lot of movement. Just a little.)
But it’s also about so much more. It’s about being yourself. It’s about loving others who are themselves. It’s about friendship. It’s about choices. It’s about family. It’s about grief. It’s about life.
It’s….ugh. I can’t do it justice. Just go listen to it. Or read it. Or consume it however you consume stories. Just do it.
Because I promise, this one was worth waiting for.