October 13, 2016 § 5 Comments
The first episode of Brevity’s podcast came out this week, and it’s amazing how many people it took to put together what sounds like simply a recorded conversation. As well as the author and the host, there’s also a tape-logger, who transcribes significant quotes and summarizes the conversation in between as a guide for editing; and an audio editor who removes “um’s” and makes everyone sound smarter, as well as shaping the interview and making judgment calls on what tape to keep and what to let go.
That’s the hardest part–the judgment calls. Forty-five minutes with Thaddeus Gunn became 12, and 90 minutes with Dani Shapiro condensed to 45. Thoughtful, well-spoken guests are a blessing and a curse.
If you’re working in narrative non-fiction or journalism, or putting together an essay that includes someone’s personal story or a conversation, it can be hard to narrow down what you want to keep. And if you’re the writer talking about your book or your process, it’s hard to stay on track. But there are some easy ways to get what you need, as interviewer or interviewee.
If you’re the person of interest:
- Use complete sentences. It’s much easier to edit tape, or quote you in an article, if you respond with a discrete unit.
Q: How did you get started writing?
A: My mom gave me a pencil when I was five.
A: I started writing when I was five, after Mom gave me a pencil for Christmas.
The second answer can open an article; the first one needs context, and context burns up word count.
- Have an idea of what you want to get out there, and practice in advance. That doesn’t mean “rehearse” or have a set speech, which can sound phony even coming from professional actors. But know what you care about, and while you’re in your car, or taking a walk, ask yourself imaginary questions and frame a few different ways to answer them. I was on TV often in my former profession of circus performer, and every single interviewer asked how I got started fire-eating. It was useful to have two or three clever, short, easy-to-edit answers.
- Limit your subjects. Be in-depth and meaningful about a few things rather than glib with many. Unless you’re live, they’ll edit you down later.
- Know that the interview is for you, too. It’s OK to say before you start, “I’m hoping to mention X at some point,” or “My last two interviews covered Y and I’d love to do something fresh with you–can we go in another direction?” The host/journalist wants you to be happy, because happy subjects give better interviews.
Even beginning interviewers can get good tape and good quotes:
- Allow enough time. You need/hope for at least 30% more talking time than will be in the finished piece. Your likelihood of getting that time is inversely proportional to the fame of the person you’re talking to.
- Small talk has value. It’s important to hear where your interviewee is mentally today, and listening to preliminary chat lets them know they’re being heard. They’re more likely to share things that matter if you’ve demonstrated that you value what they say.
- Shut up. It’s an old trick, but asking a question, then waiting, allows the person to frame their thoughts. Leave space at the end of their answer, and they’ll often come up with something else important. It takes everyone time to ruminate. This is good for teaching, too–leave a longer gap than feels comfortable after asking a question. Be comfortable with silence. (Practice your ‘supportive attentiveness’ face and keep it on–even in a phone call, they can feel it.)
- Ask the subject what they need. Before you start, “Is there anything you’re really hoping we’ll cover?” At the end, “Anything else you’d like to add?” Often, the best quotes and most compelling stories come when the interview is “over.”
- Be fascinated. People can tell when you’re genuinely interested. And you’ll be less nervous if you’re thinking about them. Practice this by asking strangers (in safe locations) about their lives, and trying to make them feel heard. Practice your listening face and your interview technique at parties and meals. Be the person everyone want to talk to.
- When editing an interview-based piece together, it’s better to focus on a smaller number of significant moments than to give an overview of the whole conversation. Chopping out a whole subject, or an entire set of questions, is much easier than trying to trim every section of the talk and get it all in. Leave everyone wanting more.
It helped me tremendously to rely on another person’s taste about what elements of the interview most suited the podcast. And it was way less painful to have our crack audio editor Kathryn Rose do the trimming. By the time I listened to the first draft, she’d already made some global decisions, and there were only one or two places where I said, “I miss that, can we put it back in?” If you’ve got a writer buddy to help out, share your transcript and ask them what fascinates them.
Many of us enjoy the solo element of writing. But practice your interviewing, and your own interview content. There’s an essay out there if you listen for it.
Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast.
October 10, 2016 § 27 Comments
We’re on the air! The brand-new Brevity Podcast is now available here and on Soundcloud. We hope you’ll enjoy our first episode, featuring interviews and readings from New York Times-bestselling author and noted memoirist Dani Shapiro, and Brevity author and Pushcart Prize nominee Thaddeus Gunn.
Soon, we’ll be invading the world of iTunes, Stitcher, iCatcher, and other podcast services, but for right now, we’re right here, and downloadable for listening on the go. If your fancy technical skills involve RSS feed wrangling, here’s our feed. If you’re on Soundcloud, please do follow us.
Let us know what you think—and we’d love to hear your suggestions for future guests!
Show Notes: Episode #1 People, Books and Places
Thaddeus Gunn lives in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in Brevity, Literary Orphans, and SmokeLong Quarterly. He has over twenty years of experience of writing for print, Web, and broadcast. He currently works for his own advertising and branding company, Goldyn Gunn, co-founded alongside Kevin Golden. Find him on Twitter @thaddeusgunn, and enjoy his Dear Gregory blog.
Thaddeus’s essay for Brevity, Slapstick
The writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 is Michael Arndt.
The Hemingway app (Hemingway Editor)
Dani Shapiro is the best-selling author of the memoirs Devotion, Slow Motion, and Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life. Her five novels include Black & White and Family History. Dani’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Elle, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review, and the Los Angeles Times, and has been read on NPR’s This American Life. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Wesleyan University, and is cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. Dani is a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveler.
Martha Graham’s letter to Agnes de Mille
Philip Roth’s Patrimony
Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty
Allison K Williams hosts and produces the Brevity Podcast, and is the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.
September 8, 2016 § 1 Comment
On Tuesday, I wrote about the process of pitching radio stories. What happens next? Much of that depends on who accepts your pitch (or whether your name comes out of the hat at The Moth). Here’s what some of those processes looked like for me.
The Moth StorySLAM is one of the most accessible ways to practice radio storytelling and potentially end up in a bigger show or on the air. Moth stories are told live without notes, and (loosely) on a particular theme, announced ahead of time. Just show up at a local storySLAM and add your name to the list. Ten storytellers are picked from a hat, and each one has five minutes to tell a true, first-person story. Audience teams score the storytellers (don’t worry, everyone is enthusiastically supported by the whole audience); the winner moves on to the invitation-only Grand Slam. Grand Slams are in bigger venues, and every storyteller has won a local slam.
You’re on your own for the local slams, but it helps to practice your story over and over, especially the ending. A clean, powerful ending compensates for a multitude of rambling sins! It’s also important to be inside the time limit, because laughter and mid-story applause add time. Shoot for four minutes–that also gives you time to pause for moments of emotion or laughter. For the Grand Slams, one of the Moth’s producers in New York will work with you via phone or Skype. For example, I pitched “filling the bird feeder for my grandmother right before she died,” “scattering my own dad’s ashes at a major political funeral in India,” or “being a terrible prostitute” (believe it or not, they’re all funny). Producer Jenifer Hixon helped me find the most powerful thread, and listened to me over three phone calls while I figured out how to start the story, get to the good parts quickly, and end clean.
The Moth records all stories told at local and Grand Slams, and some are selected to be on the radio–not always the winning ones, so you have a chance no matter how you score. I also tape myself by setting my phone in an inconspicuous place, so I can listen after and hear how the story went and pick up audience reactions I didn’t notice through my own nervousness. Tape also helps me shape the story into a written essay, and I’ll submit that version to print venues.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has some great story-driven podcasts. Definitely Not The Opera ran for 22 years; Love Me was an eight-episode season. I signed up for the DNTO “pitch list” at their website. Each week, an email went out with the next episode’s topic, and I submitted probably 35-40 pitches over two years and got picked up three times. Love Me sent one story call for their season, to people from the DNTO list among others, and I pitched three stories to them and sold one. For CBC shows, a Canadian setting or connection helps (I’m Canadian) but isn’t mandatory if you’ve got a great story.
Major-network podcasts often rent time at a recording studio or local public radio station near the storyteller. I taped in studios in South Africa and Florida before buying a good-quality microphone for my computer. Now I’m able to tape in any quiet location, as well as doing “tape sync”–recording another storyteller locally, while the network interviewer talks to them on Skype.
My biggest challenge was not sounding “rehearsed.” Performing live at the Moth, practicing and tightening my story had been an advantage, but both DNTO and Love Me needed a more conversational sound. In each case, I ended up telling my story once, then being interviewed by the producer. S/he asked questions and I responded with chunks of the story told off-the-cuff; then the producer edited the takes together to get the sound and style the program needed. For this type of show, it’s truly OK to have your pitch and a sense of the story rather than planning every moment out.
One of my bucket-list venues, I got on the pitch list for Snap Judgment by sending an email. They also accept many pitches through the submission form on their website. My first try wasn’t so good–I got a call from a Snap producer in response to a pitch, she asked me to think more about transformation/change in the story, and I dropped the ball by not calling her back in time (life events happened).
But last week I got an email, “Hey, I heard you on Snap Judgment!” My first thought was there’d been some mistake, maybe it was the actor from Girls, but no–Snap Judgment picked up a story I’d told on Love Me. Surprise! Another credit without doing anything!
My hope now is that since their producers have heard me tell a story, perhaps they’ll accept a future pitch.
How does this work for you, Brevity reader and first-time radio storyteller?
- Go to a story slam (Moth or any other brand) near you. Listen to what the audience loves. Listen to what you love. Think about how you’d take your powerful personal story and deliver it to an adoring audience.
- Practice pitching. It’s OK if it takes fifty–or more–pitches before a producer bites. Keep focusing on how your material fits specific shows, and tailor your pitches to suit their style. There’s no blacklist of “uurgghh why does this person keep emailing us…” so keep trying. If one show doesn’t bite, reframe your story so it feels right for someone else and pitch again.
- You don’t need to own any recording equipment to get started. It’s been convenient for me to have a digital recorder and a mic, but if they want your story, they will figure out how to tape you. That’s their job. I went to Oman last week to tape-sync and the producer set it all up–all the storyteller had to do was lock his cats out of the room. If you do enough radio to start needing equipment, Transom has great product reviews and recommendations.
Even if you never sell a radio pitch, the process of thinking about your personal experiences from different angles can help you transform that material into essays. And doing radio is fun! Writing is so often a solitary pursuit, it’s a joy to talk with a producer, hear immediate feedback, and collaborate on the shape of a story.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the upcoming Brevity Podcast.
September 6, 2016 § 3 Comments
Right now, podcasts are a thing. Podcasts about accused murderers, about science, about old Hollywood. And many, many podcasts about personal stories. Ever listen to This American Life or The Moth and thought, I have a story that would be great for that show?
You probably do.
So what’s the process? How does the story get from your head (or the essay you already wrote) to the airwaves?
First, listen to the show(s) you want to be on. Different programs have very different styles and subject matter, and the story that’s perfect for Risk! is going to be terrible for Radio Ambulante. If a program is broadcast on the radio rather than solely on the internet, they have FCC restrictions on language and content. Some shows have a presentation component, where the first step is showing up at a live show and sharing your story in front of an audience (eek!).
Then think about your story, and whether it’s right for radio. As it happens, most of the points that make a good podcast story are the same things that make a good essay. On their pitch page, This American Life says:
…each of these stories is a story in the most traditional sense: there are characters in some situation, and a conflict. These pitchers are clear about who the characters are and what the conflict is. Also: each of these stories raises some bigger question or issue, some universal thing to think about. That’s also pretty important, and you stand a better chance at getting on the air if you let us know what that is too.
Radio stories are sold with a “pitch.” Instead of sending a whole story, you craft a pitch email–it’s a lot like a query letter–and submit your idea. At Transom, a site with hundreds of resources for radio storytellers and independent producers, Ari Daniel gets even more in-depth with seven tips for successful pitches, including:
Pitching a story about a generic idea — a group of people losing money on their subprime mortgages, say — isn’t nearly as effective as finding one or two people experiencing that issue who can illustrate the broader idea.
…If there’s any reason why the story needs to be aired soon, mention that. This is called a news peg.
…Don’t worry about chasing press releases and embargoed about-to-be published studies. It’s likely that staff journalists will cover these. I like to look for stories that aren’t yet on the news radar. In fact, most of my story ideas emerge out of casual conversations.
If you’re feeling like a total beginner (which is a great place to start) Youth Radio breaks it down for teens, and it sure helped me navigate at the beginning. That page has a great interview with Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich, too.
Snap Judgment even has a handy flowchart to see if you have a story (scroll down on the linked page).
Most of the shows that accept pitches have very specific and detailed guidelines. It may be challenging to structure your story to fit their mold, but it’s not hard to find the instructions. In learning to pitch, I found two things incredibly helpful:
- As an exercise, I listened to podcasts I wanted to be on and wrote pitches for the stories I heard on the air. This helped me identify characters, conflict, bigger issue, and see how stories were structured for particular shows.
- I downloaded archived sessions from the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Each year their conference includes Getting to Yes: The Art of the Pitch, and listening to people pitch their ideas to radio producers, and the producers picking them apart (kindly) helped me understand what does and doesn’t make a story. After you’ve listened to two or three sessions, you’ll start saying, “No! That’s not a story! But if you came at it from this angle…” before the pitcher even finishes their spiel.
Another great resource on story structure is This American Life’s Radio: An Illustrated Guide. It’s a $2 PDF download, and it’s so useful an approach to “what makes a story,” I think you should get it even if you never want to be on the radio.
On Thursday, I’ll be back here on the Brevity blog to talk about the process of actually presenting and/or taping. Meanwhile, check out some pitch guidelines, and see if one of these shows is the right match for your story.
This American Life (it’s a treasure trove including sample pitches that succeeded)
The Moth (with a link to tips for telling live stories)
AIR’s pitching page, with links to many shows and how-to-pitch resources
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and has appeared on The Moth GrandSLAM, Snap Judgment, and CBC’s Love Me and Definitely Not the Opera, among others. She’ll be hosting the upcoming Brevity podcast.