If you want to get to know your book, read it out loud. This is a simple lesson I learned recording the audio book of Big In China, My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing.
Shortly after my editor at HarperCollins accepted my manuscript for Big in China, I began bugging her to let me read the audio book. No one else could capture my inflections and my intentions in this first-person memoir, the very personal tale of my family's adventures and experiences during three and half years living in Beijing. The book explores my relationship with my wife Rebecca and our three kids. It deals with my struggles dealing with my father's cancer from half a world away. It details my unlikely climb from stay-at-home dad and freelance writer to Chinese rock star and the deep relationships I developed with my Chinese bandmates as we barnstormed across the country.
As publication date grew near, I got an excited phone call from my editor: "Everyone agreed that you should read the book!" she said. "I know how excited you will be."
My excitement was tempered by a slight edge of panic. I had lobbied hard for this opportunity; now I would have to deliver.
I was paired with Paul Fowlie, a veteran audio book producer, who worked with me to pick a studio close to my home where I would feel comfortable. I settled onto a stool behind curtains hung from the ceiling of my friend's basement home studio to mimic an isolation booth, a bottle of water and a cup of hot ginger/lemon water by my side, and I began reading the 500-page script.
It was a remarkable experience. After spending a year writing the book, poring over every sentence, pondering the implication of every turn of phrase, I was amazed to discover a new rhythm and new levels of meaning in my own work. It felt as if I were reading for the first time.
I often read lines out loud while revising my work, because structural or flow problems that remain blind to the eye are immediately obvious to the ear. But I had never read the entire book, from beginning to end, like this and it was an exhilarating experience. There were a few lines I wished I could rewrite. I tinkered with some lines that read wrong -- one of the advantages of an author recording his own book. I drank more water than I ever have in my life. And I finished the entire book in two days rather than the allotted three -- the same as the actor they would have hired instead of me.
I was sad to be done and looking forward to the couple of hours the following week when we would reconvene to re-record the prologue (they always do that, since everyone gets better as they go along) and clean up any flaws found in the recording. I began working with Paul on incorporating music from my band's CD, Beijing Blues. As I began to get ready for the next step -- the book's launch and the readings and appearances that would follow -- I did so with a renewed confidence in Big in China and a much deeper understanding of just what the book was and exactly what it meant to me.