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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

by Terry Ryan

Tuffy's Adventures in Promotion & PR

The following columns about Terry Ryan and her book, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids in 25 Words or Less, began appearing on March 13, 2001 (#223) in Holt Uncensored:

I've always loved the story of my late partner, Terry Ryan, and her adventures writing and publicizing her book, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids in 25 Words or Less (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

Terry was an unknown technical writer who conquered her fear of crowds and cosmetics to make this book succeed without help from Oprah or a big marketing budget or a glamorous movie adaptation. A lovely movie with Julianne Moore opened in 2005 but disappeared in the midst of Paramount's takeover of Dreamworks. Terry appeared in the movie but a week later was diagnosed with terminal cancer, which took her life in 2007.

Her humor lives on in every comma of the book, however, which is why it's fun to watch "Tuff" Ryan of Defiance, Ohio, go back to her roots long after her mother's death and find renewal among the people who lined up all over the Midwest and even a few coasts to say with tears in their eyes, "Thank you for bringing my mother back to me." We used to say it all brought out Terry's "inner ham," but she probably inherited that from her mother, too.

The Terry Ryan columns began appearing on March 13, 2001 (#223) in Holt Uncensored, and the first onebelow describes how audio abridgments are made. Terry enters to show us how it's done in Part II. After that, she's the indefatigable author who learned the ropes on her way up.

Tuffy's Great Audio Adventure
(adapting the book to audio format):
Part I | Part II

Media Training in Hollywood:
Tuffy Meets the Spackle Sisters

The Home Town Responds:
Tuffy's Big Day in Defiance Ohio

The Midwestern Publicity Tour:
Terry Meets the "Knuckleheads in the News"

The Prize Winner on TV:
CBS Sunday Morning News, Part I
Part II | Part III

The Prize Winner Goes to the Movies:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V


I've listened to hundreds of audio book adaptations, and every single time I wonder how they do it:

How do the producers and the engineers and the "abridgers" (an actual term) cut a book in half for an adaptation and still keep the heart of a book alive?

How does the person reading the book at the microphone turn the pages without making shuffling noises; how do those clicks and ticks of the tongue, or nostril hair tootles and the occasional throat tickle get erased at the same time the reader's voice is enhanced?

So here we are in the deep innards of a recording studio where my partner Terry has been asked by her publisher (Simon & Schuster) to read the book about her mother for the audio version that's going to be published simultaneously in April.

To get to the studio, we descend a steep flight of stairs right into the rock base of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Since we're so close to the Embarcadero area, the huge boulders sticking out of the brick walls turn out to be ballast from the sunken remains of Gold Rush ships.

I go into this because the effect is a cavernous feel, very intimate and enclosed - one might say claustrophobic and sealed off if one were nervous about such things - but the staff is friendly and welcoming, and Terry - a bit apprehensive at this first public reading of her book - begins to feel at ease.

Gary Dominguez, our engineer, explains that in the recording biz sound studios often take on a theme or an image to distinguish themselves.

In Los Angeles, for example, the cleverly named Margarita Mix has adopted a Mexican theme, while a San Francisco studio is covered with grotto graphics in an Italian motif and equipped with a huge and complicated espresso machine.

This studio by comparison feels more like the set of a Flintstones movie, and the idea of carving something artistic out of solid rock is a motivating spirit.

The S&S producer, Elisa Shokoff, a veteran of many dozens of book recordings, greets us with such warmth and professionalism that Terry's nervous strangulation begin to sound like a voice that's ready to be recorded.

Elisa makes the point that really, the toughest part of audio adaptation - the abridgment - has already been completed. Terry's rollicking 80,000 words have been hacked to dea - condensed to their golden essence of 40,000 words, and however painful it is for any author to see the shreds of a book left to stand for the whole, the "abridger" - the term does exist - has done a beautiful job.

"It's always best," says Elisa, "when the abridger loves the book, as Sloan has." Really? She refers to Sloan Seaman, a former associate producer S&S Audio who's left the company to do abridging full time.

Really? Gad, what a horrible job, I think. Heaven knows, I could never do it. An abridger would have to be so coldly objective, so unemotional about space and time limitations for audio that cutting the text in half must be clinical drudgery - wouldn't it? As Terry's voice levels are tested, I decide to call Sloan Seaman in New York and find out how she does it. Sure enough, I've been wrong from the start. "Emotional attachment plays a big role when I do an abridgment," she says.

And here's another surprise: the most important thing for an abridger to know (and this, I am floored to realize, is the same for book critics) is author intention.

"You want to know what the author's trying accomplish with this book. You want to feel the emotional impact," she says. "Because if you feel it, so will listeners. That's what guides you when you make each 'pass.' "

The "pass" is key to a good abridgment. "When I read the book, I start crossing out the paragraphs I think can be cut, and I bracket the paragraphs I hope to keep if there's space.

"I print out the manuscript without the cuts to see how it sounds: I don't leave the crossed-out paragraphs in because just seeing them, oddly enough, would make me miss them. The narrative has to make complete sense as I keep stripping it down."

Sounds simple, but there's a little art to it. The first pass usually takes out about half the required cuts, Sloan says. Then she looks at bracketed paragraphs and starts X-ing them out. "It's a roundabout process but it keeps the author intention intact."

The process is often straightforward for nonfiction books, but things get tangled up very fast with fiction.

"It can't be much fun doing novels," I say. "Don't you just hack out everything but plot and main characters? You won't have room for character development or background or subplots or anything the author has worked to make the book full and rich and meaningful." Okay, so I sound a little baiting.

It's true that fiction is the hardest, says Sloan, especially techno-thrillers and spy stories with a lot of intrigue.

In the latter case the abridger often must cut out one or two subplots, which means roto-rootering the narrative to clear out all the references deep in the novel to characters and minor stories that were dropped.

Literary fiction is the VERY hardest. "It's like surgery," says Sloan. "Sometimes instead of cutting paragraphs you go through snipping sentences or words to make the effect barely noticeable."

Unbelievable. "Snipping" away at half the book must be like pruning every tree in Central Park so intimately that the look from skyscrapers above is "barely noticeable."

But now the fun part: Let's talk to Sloan about trends in the audio industry. For one thing, readers are getting more of the book on abridgements than ever before.

It used to be that almost every book adaptation was eviscerated (not her word) to fit two tapes (3 hours). Now most books are taped on 4 cassettes (4.5 hours) and, increasingly, CDs. Six-tape packages are not uncommon, and unabridged adaptations, which used to be available only by rental, are sold in bookstores.

"There also seems to be a move to keep the text more authentic," says Sloan. "In long patches of dialogue, some abridgers used to take out many of the 'he said,' 'she said' references. That put pressure on the actor or performer to distinguish the voices."

Sometimes - this is my feeling, not necessarily Sloan's - actors so overplayed the characters with unnecessary wheezy, gravelly, singsong or accented voices that they got in the way of the book. Music and sound effects often did the same thing. I remember turning up the volume on one thriller because sounds of helicopters in the climactic scene drowned out the voice of the performer.

Then there were the actors who tried to deepen male voices and use falsetto for female voices. These performers, I always felt, should be shot.

Sloan says that much of these histrionics (not her word) are disappearing from the audio scene. A good sign (to me) is that as an abridger she can suggest nuance to the actor. "In one thriller, the murderer thinks he's been reincarnated from the 1800s and talks in a faux British voice." It's something I can jot in the margin of the script.

And what about Terry's book? See Part II.