Remembering to Read

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I read all the time. Twitter feeds, Facebook posts by the hundreds, forum posts, blogs, and emails. All day long, I’m reading something. It’s usually short, but informative. I take in a lot of facts, funnies, inspirations, and news.

As a writer, I’m learning to be brief. I’m learning how to write in fewer words than ever before. Learning how to read and absorb information and extrapolate facts from small blurbs and quotes. Learning how to get my point across without embellishments.

A co-worker started reading a book series that had been made into a television program. Because I knew the program, I was interested in the book and asked her how she liked them. She said it was her second time to read the series, which is twelve books long, and while she did watch the television show, the books were impressive, vastly different, and far richer than it could hope to be.

Talking to her, I realized I hadn’t read a book in well over a year. I tried to remember the last book I’d read, and I couldn’t. I tried to remember why I’d stopped reading and realized that I was “too busy” reading the quick and easy posts and tweets to spend time on a novel.

Background Image: Max Lakner/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

As a child, I would use books to escape reality and slip into worlds of magic and beauty. I would carry them with me everywhere and was ridiculed for having them. I would become so engrossed that I would skip meals and forget to go to bed on time and work the next day as if I’d spent the night drinking.

Another friend and I discussed the series of books one day, led there by discussing the television show, and she said she would send them to me. Expecting this to be a long time, I was surprised when a box full of the series arrived at my door. I eagerly took the first one and started reading. As I moved along in the first book I remembered what I had been missing.

The rich world of the written word is very different from the small blurbs we’re bombarded with each day on the Internet. I had forgotten how much fun it is to become immersed in a good story. As I’m reading, I’ll back up over passages I liked and read them again. I’ll savor a superb word, a handy turn-of-phrase, or take the time to draw the scene in my mind. I find I’m engrossed in the characters, the situations, and the world of the author.

As a writer, I find I’m also looking at it with a critical eye, too. I’ll read passages that didn’t sound right or that had an unexpected angle and go back again to try to find what was different and why. As a writer, I’m looking at what worked and why, and analyzing the word choices and differences in vocal presentations from each character.

Because it’s a series, I also have the opportunity to return to a previous book to refresh my mind on what came before. I can look at how the author got from one point to another and try to see his pattern and thought process. I look at his plot points and philosophies as they move from one novel to the next and try to guess where the next one will come in the book I’m on.

I found myself looking at what the author had to do to sell the series. How he had an idea for the first book which carried into the second and then changed drastically for the third. I lamented about his constant repeating what came before in the beginning chapters of each book… and how it’s rather annoying to read, since it’s longer each time, but I understand that he needs to do this in order to sell the book as a standalone.

As a writer, it’s important to read books and stay current. To know what is selling in your chosen field or genre and to see what new ideas are out there. You can read anything, of course, and be happy and enjoy it while still keeping the writer within happy. My editor with the Big Red Pen is happy to find a typo or a missing word anywhere, in any novel. She’s equally happy drawing a big moon, a forest, and a guy with a sword.

Keep your inner editor happy and read something. Grab or download a new novel that was released this week. If that’s too much for your busy life, there are great pieces showcased here at Toasted Cheese and many other online magazines. Heck, just pick up an old favored friend and take a trip down memory lane. Take your writing self on a little reading vacation!

Lisa “Boots” Olson is currently reading the Legend of the Seeker or Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind and is on book 10 of 12, Chainfire. (There are actually more than this and he adds them all the time.)

Final Poll Results

Toasted Cheese Success Stories: Ryan Potter

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

Seven years ago, Ryan Potter submitted his first short story, “Dale’s Night” to Toasted Cheese. It was chosen as an Editor’s Pick by Boots (me) in June 2004. This February, he submitted again, with a very interesting cover letter.

Dear Toasted Cheese Editor(s),

My name is Ryan Potter. I basically owe my writing career to Toasted Cheese. I wrote my first short story back in 2003 and Toasted Cheese published it as an Editor’s Pick (Boots’s) in June 2004. That important first published credit led to others and, eventually, a solid agent who represented my novels. My debut novel, Exit Strategy, was released by Flux back on March 1, 2010, to good reviews. I’m still writing short stories and recently completed one that I think would make a nice fit with Toasted Cheese. With that, please consider for publication the enclosed 4,500-word story, “When God Bowls Strikes in Heaven,” a tale of one memorable summer morning in the life of a suburban father and husband.

Thank you for publishing my work seven years ago, and thank you for considering my current submission. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Ryan Potter

This letter certainly caught our attention. Since this year we celebrated Toasted Cheese’s 10th anniversary, we wanted to explore Ryan’s relationship with TC and asked him to take us down memory lane.

Toasted Cheese: Can you remember how you found Toasted Cheese?

Ryan Potter: I found TC via Writer’s Digest in 2003. TC was listed as one of the best sites for writers that year or the year before, so I knew I had to check it out.

TC: What attracted you to TC?

RP: I was a new writer with no experience or publication credits. I’d just finished what I felt was my first story worth submitting. I liked how TC was so open to new writers. I wasn’t intimidated and felt very comfortable with the submission guidelines.

TC: Did you become a member of the community? If so, why? If not, why not?

RP: I did not become a member of the community, but it had nothing to do with not liking the community concept. Basically, I was having so much fun writing stories that I didn’t want to slow down for anything. Any free time I had was spent in the chair, writing as much original material as possible.

TC: What made you decide to submit that first story?

RP: Ah, that’s an easy one. That particular story, “Dale’s Night,” was the first story my wife actually liked.

TC: How did you feel about being published?

RP: Being published (“Dale’s Night” was my first credit) validated all of my hard work. I can’t describe the feeling of receiving positive feedback on my fiction from fellow writers and other people in the publishing world. It’s still an amazing feeling when it happens, and I don’t think that will ever change. That first credit gave me the confidence to keep writing.

TC: What did you do when you were told you’d be featured?

RP: Let’s see. That was almost seven years ago. I don’t keep a personal diary or journal, but I remember telling my wife right away and sharing a celebratory toast not long afterward. I’m a fairly private person, so I didn’t tell very many people.

TC: How many stories did you publish after that?

RP: Around seven to ten, I think. Again, I’m so bad at keeping records. Of course, I wrote a lot more than seven to ten stories. Some worked. Most didn’t. It’s all part of the process.

TC: When did you start and finish your novel?

RP: I started Exit Strategy (Flux, 2010) in June of 2005 and completed the first draft in September. Although it only took three months, there were several major revisions after that.

TC: Tell us a little about the book.

RP: Here’s a quick synopsis:

Looming above Zach Ramsey’s hometown of Blaine are the smokestacks of the truck assembly plant, the greasy lifeblood of this Detroit suburb. Surrounded by drunks, broken marriages, and factory rats living in fear of the pink slip, Zach is getting the hell out of town after graduation. But first, he’s going to enjoy the summer before senior year.

Getting smashed with his best friend Tank and falling in love for the first time, Zach’s having a blast until he uncovers dark secrets that shake his faith in everyone—including Tank, a wrestler whose violent mood swings betray a shocking habit.

As he gets pulled deeper into an ugly scandal, Zach is faced with the toughest decision of his life—one that will prove just what kind of adult he’s destined to be.

TC: How did you find an agent?

RP: I found my agent five years ago through one of those mass query blast sites. I’ve since heard many agents criticize that kind of approach, but it sure worked for me. However, I did my homework first and didn’t query anybody until I had a solid cover letter and a polished manuscript.

TC: I’m not familiar with “mass query blast site”. What kind of site* is that?

RP: I found the mass query service through ScriptBlaster. They specialize in screenplays, but they also offer an “agent blast” for novels.

TC: When was your novel published?

RP: Exit Strategy came out on March 1, 2010. It’s been over a year and so far it’s been an incredible experience. I’ve learned so much about the business side of writing and publishing. I feel much more prepared for future projects as a result of my experience with Exit Strategy.

TC: You’re still submitting to publications—didn’t you get instantly rich?

RP: Ha! Not quite. Even if I did, I’d never stop writing and submitting short stories. You never know when one of those short story ideas might blossom into your next novel. Actually, that’s exactly what happened with the project I’m currently finishing up (and hoping to sell).

TC: What brought you back to TC?

RP: TC gave me my start. I’ll always be grateful for that. I know for a fact that the TC story credit for “Dale’s Night” caught the eye of my original agent.

TC: I know your recent submission didn’t make the cut for the June issue—will you submit to Toasted Cheese again in the future?

RP: Yes, I have a polished story ready to submit to TC and will do so as soon as I finish the revisions for the young adult novel I’m wrapping up.

TC: What would you tell an unpublished author?

RP: Three words: Never give up. Okay, maybe that’s too cliché, but it’s so true. Find your story and write it. Don’t worry about agents and publication credits until you have the best piece of work you can produce. It all starts with your original material. Once you have a polished product, then you can start researching agents and checking out submission guidelines for agencies and/or publications.

Oh, a little about rejection. It’s going to happen. A lot. Get a thick skin and deal with it. The best way to deal with rejection is to smile, breathe, and try to learn something from it to make you a better writer. I realize you can’t learn much from form rejection letters, but if you’re fortunate enough to get some detailed feedback from people in the business, pay attention to it. These people are trying to help you.

TC: What other online sites should authors be submitting to or visiting?

RP: I think AgentQuery is the best place to start researching agents. It’s free and has an excellent reputation. Also, I make a point of checking the bestseller lists for the New York Times and Amazon weekly. It keeps me fresh on what’s selling. What else? Gosh, there’s so much out there online. Twitter is a great way to follow editors, publishing houses, agents, and writers. Having said that, I tend to use it only when I have a new project completed. The internet’s helpful in many ways, but for me it’s a huge distraction during the writing process.

TC: What are you working on now?

RP: I mentioned that I was finishing up something. It’s a young adult paranormal novel about demons, ghost hunters, and rock bands. That’s about all I can reveal at the moment! I’ve had a lot of fun writing it, so hopefully the right things will happen and it will make its way out there to the world.

Toasted Cheese looks forward to more stories from Ryan in the future, both at the site and in the bookstores.

Do you have a success story to tell? Email us (editors[at] or post it on our Chasms and Crags forum (which you don’t need to be registered to use). We love to hear how the community has helped authors!

Note: After some research at the suggested site, it’s basically a kind of “speed dating” for writers who need agents. At the site Ryan mentions, it’s a paid-for service and they send your query letter out to a number of agents (depending on cost). They also have some tips on query letters and as Ryan says, don’t query unless both your cover letter and manuscript are polished and ready. Remember you should research all agencies of this type thoroughly and understand the consequences before you pay for a service that you can do yourself for free.

Final Poll Results

Get Noticed!

A Pen In Each Hand

By Boots

Submit a story to Toasted Cheese. It can be for the current writing contest, for the next issue of Toasted Cheese, or just on the forums for feedback. Submitting is what gets your work noticed. Get to the next level and show us what you have.

Share your story of success! Email the editors ( with how Toasted Cheese has helped you move forward as a writer. You could be our next Absolute Blank interviewee.

Writing Frontiers: Steampunk

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

About three years ago during NaNoWriMo, I noticed a sub-genre popping up that I’d never heard of—steampunk. I read through the posts, which could be found in the forums under Genre Lounges and then Other Genres, and came away a little confused, but wanting to know more. I researched a little bit and found it was something I was interested in but that I wasn’t aware had a name or a culture.

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction where the focus is steam-powered devices and Victorian-like settings and themes. Steampunk asks what could happen in a world where imagination, possibility and science combine. The term is thought to have been coined by the author K.W. Jeter in a letter printed in the 1987 issue of the science fiction magazine Locus.

Steampunk has been growing in popularity over the past few years. For the cosplay inclined (dressing up or role-playing) there are many fashion sites, like Stormcrow’s Arcane Objects and jewelry sites like 19 Moons. There are YouTube serials like the League of Steam where you can watch cosplay in action. At Comic Con 2010 there was the “World’s Largest Steampunk Photo” which was documented for entry into Guinness World Records 2011. There will be conventions, including Steamcon II in Seattle, Washington, happening November 19–21, 2010 and Anomaly Con which is being held in Denver, Colorado in March 2011. In October, steampunk was featured in the Castle episode, “Punked,” in the comic strip Luann, and the SyFy online series Riese: Kingdom Falling.

Background Image: Ian Usher/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Why is steampunk growing so quickly? What about it interests readers and writers?

One theory is that as a people in the twenty-first century, we’ve become too hands-off. Today, most of us do not know, or care to know, how our devices work. We replace them when they break. In the Victorian age, we were learning how things work and how to make them work. We were interested in creating and exploring every inch of what we used and handled. We couldn’t afford to have it repaired or replaced, so we learned everything we could about it to fix it ourselves.

Another theory is that the age was more romantic and interesting. Alli Martin, a steampunk author, explained, “It’s about a feeling of limitless possibilities. That’s one reason I think it appeals to so many people; in a time when the economy is bad, we’re facing problems with overpopulation and pollution, and we feel downtrodden, we’re looking for something to bring us hope. Steampunk offers that hope as it’s looking back to a time of high adventure, innovation, and discovery.”

The pendulum of steampunk swings from historical fiction to speculative fiction and back again. There are many sub-genres, or perhaps co-genres, like clockpunk, dieselpunk, and cyberpunk. Clockpunk is set in the Baroque period when clockwork mechanics were being developed. Dieselpunk is set around World War I or World War II and uses diesel-type engines and war themes. Cyberpunk is set in a futuristic world and uses advanced science like robots and computers while focusing on political themes.

One thing I noticed is that “normal” is not a word in the steampunk dictionary. The characters, both good and evil, are larger than life—they can do anything and aren’t afraid to try anything. Impossible machines work and monsters are around every corner. Situations are dire and only the hero can save the day. Still, they’re driven by what any novel is—good writing, an interesting situation, and emotional conflict.

Where can I learn more?

Steampunk is still being formed as a genre and it was hard for me to find a lot of resources that focused on the how-to of writing it. There was one helpful article, “SteamPunk: A List of Themes,” at that focused on steampunk themes and covered a wide variety of topics. Another, “Tips for Writing Steampunk,” at Ripping Ozzy Reads, had basic writing tips that point new authors down the steampunk path.

I did find one writing community, The Steampunk Writers Guild, but it is in its infancy, so there weren’t many posts or information there—yet! The host is happy to welcome new and curious writers—and lurkers—to the fold and joining was free and easy. They will be holding Twitter chats once a week starting in December and will post the transcripts for all to read and enjoy at their site, Steampunk Chat.

Weird Tales, a magazine founded in 1923 and featuring stories of gothic fantasy, horror and sci-fi, will publish steampunk stories. They are currently closed to submissions, but will be taking them again in January 2011. SteamPunk Magazine is not currently taking submissions, but has a host of back issues where you can find both fiction and non-fiction articles about any topic steampunk in nature. Steampunk Tales offers a pulp-adventure magazine available through downloads to most smartphones and devices, as well as PDF documents, for a small charge. Authors are paid a percent of the sales and the submission guidelines are specific, so be sure to read them all. carries quite a few novels and more are being published as the genre becomes more mainstream.

It can be interesting to discover a genre that’s just beginning to set rules and parameters. Authors right now have the opportunity to help mold and shape steampunk simply by writing and sharing their stories. What is being written now will someday be the benchmark that other authors use to write theirs.

So if you’re looking to write something a little different, yet is very familiar, you might don a hat and some goggles and give steampunk a try. You might find what you’ve been looking for.

Steampunk Magazines:

Steampunk Novels & Anthologies:

Steampunk Communities:

Twitter Chats/Hashtags:

Steampunk Conventions:

Steampunk Online Movies:

Steampunk Music:

Steampunk Fashion:

Final Poll Results

Writing Frontiers: Podcast Writing

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

As writing moves into the 21st Century, new media are being explored by intrepid authors looking to showcase their voices. I’ve recently discovered a few of these and wanted to take a closer look at how the writing behind them works.

This month, I will be taking a look at podcasting. Podcasting takes its name from iPod and broadcasting. The name sums it up well—it’s like a radio show for your mp3 player, your computer or your cell phone.

Podcasts can be about anything the broadcaster would like to showcase. There are many different podcasts and settling on just one or two from a specific topic can be daunting. They typically fall into one of three categories: news and information, entertainment, and education. No matter which category you choose, there are going to be hundreds of different topics and hundreds of different podcasts for each topic. If you love something, there’s probably a podcast about it. Finding a podcast you want can be daunting, but there are many search engines to help you, including a large list on iTunes that is fairly easy to use. Other good references are PodCast Alley or PodFeed.

Some podcasts are “pay to play,” but many are free. I listen faithfully to only one of the million podcasts out there—The Signal. This podcast is about news and entertainment that in some way relates back to the television show Firefly and the movie Serenity. Everything about The Signal—the news, the music, the drama, the comedy, the articles, and the host comments—all relate back to the show and movie in some fashion.

Last winter, The Signal put out a call for new blood to add to their staff—specifically for writers and editors. Their quest got me thinking—what were they looking for? Luckily for me, they put together a segment that reviewed what kind of audio editors and writers they were looking for.

Still, I wanted to know more about the writing and the writers. How did they get into podcasting? What do they like about it? What makes it different from scripts or novels?

I asked if anyone minded if I interviewed them and Nick Edwards and Helen Eaton of The Signal volunteered. You can find biographies for both here.

I was then approached by Peter Wilson, a writer for Buffy: Between the Lines, which is a dramatic podcast based on the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer TV show. This podcast is vastly different from The Signal in format; it’s a drama that’s acted out every week instead of a news and information program. Nick Edwards had also been involved with Buffy: Between The Lines as a writer and actor there.

Below are the interview questions and answers from all three writers.

Background Image: Alan Levine (Public Domain)

Toasted Cheese: How did you get into podcasting?

Nick Edwards: Firefly. Pure and simple. My interest in the show was such after being pointed to it by fans on the Larry Niven mailing list, I went looking online for more information and one of the first things I found was The Signal and other Firefly-related podcasts. I’d never listened to a podcast before, didn’t even have an mp3 player, so I listened to a few on my computer and got hooked. I had no idea there was so much going on in the fandom and The Signal quickly became my “Firefly Fix” (I guess I started listening mid-Season 1 before Serenity came out).

Then, at the start of Season 3 in 2007, I went to a Shindig (gathering of Firefly Fans) in London. I already had met Wendy, Toni and Andrew of the UK-based Sending A Wave podcast (which I enjoyed enough to write and record an article for them reviewing Songs From The Black, the downloadable CD of Firefly fan music that The Signal had made at the end of 2006) and knew that Jill Arroway and Kari Hayley of The Signal would be at the Shindig. I had also been emailing Jill about her Dark Places project and had wanted to talk with her about that (I’d already said I wanted to be involved in this original Firefly audio drama project). The Shindig was great, and in talking to Kari and Jill, who essentially ran The Signal, I was offered the chance to join the crew. The conversation went something like:

“Can you write?”

“Yes, I guess.”

“Can you act?”

“Yes, did some drama years back.”

“Can you record yourself?”


“OK, you’re in.”

My response was along the lines of “You have got to be shitting me!”

And that was that. I couldn’t believe it. I was a fan being asked to join what was (and still is for my money) the best (and most original) Firefly-based podcast out there. Doing a few Sending A Wave shows since has also been a hoot and I am still involved with Dark Places. The Signal stuff also led to me being asked to audition for and getting the role of Spike in Buffy: Between the Lines (a whole different scale of podcasting!) and doing a few other podcast-related bits here and there. And I love it.

Helen Eaton: I found The Signal in 2006 when looking for information on Firefly on the internet. I don’t think I knew what a podcast was before then. I thought it would be fun to be part of the team creating The Signal, but I only applied to join at the end of last year because before then I’d not had a good enough internet connection. (I’m British, but I live in Tanzania, East Africa. Internet connections here are not the greatest!)

Peter Wilson: By listening to the podcast and hearing that they needed beta readers for scripts. After doing that they asked if any beta readers wanted to write anything, so I volunteered.

TC: What kind of writing do you do for the podcast?

NE: Well, I do a bit of everything now. Initially I began with feature articles focusing on a particular aspect of Firefly, which I still do as these are a staple of The Signal. This fairly quickly widened to include SciFi Review segments, where we took other shows and reviewed them, usually comparing them to Firefly in the early days. This segment gradually widened its focus and has included comedy and straight drama shows, such that we now call the segment “Broadwaves.” The other thing I took on quite early was the audio drama segment “Badger’s World” which ran for two seasons and twenty-seven episodes. I also do editorials, as well as sometimes doing the scripts for the host banter, Feedback sections and News segments (not all at the same time though!).

HE: I’ve written some articles that discuss different themes in Firefly and Serenity. I’ve also done a review of a different television show and compared it to Firefly. And I’ve written some episodes of a humorous audio drama about two inept terraformers!

PW: Script writing.

TC: How much do you write for the podcast?

NE: A fair bit. I often write an article per episode (every two weeks). When “Badger’s World” ran early on, it was an episode of audio drama every two weeks. I’ll always have some writing input as a rule (we have seven or eight regular writers).

HE: On average, one piece per podcast (which comes out every two weeks). Each piece—an article, a review or a skit—is usually about 800 words.

PW: I’ve written two scripts in the past year. That being said, there are some people that write way more.

TC: Do you write alone or in conjunction with others?

NE: Alone, but the effort is collaborative in that all articles are put up for crew review and any crew member can make edits to the article. In terms of crew editing of articles, simple stuff like typos and minor grammatical corrections are just made without needing to consult the author. We use a wiki so all changes are traceable and recoverable if something is done that fundamentally alters a meaning, say. Crits are made and generally the author goes back to make the changes if they agree with them. Authorship credit stays with the original author. We have not really had any joint pieces due to the rapid turnaround we need to maintain (two weekly schedule), but the input of the other writers and rest of the crew is very important in keeping the quality high.

HE: I write alone, but sometimes an idea for a skit comes from someone else. There is also the editing process later, when others can help by suggesting changes.

PW: I’ve only written alone, which is unusual. As a rule of thumb every script gets two writers.

TC: Do you focus on certain topics? If so, what’s your focus?

NE: Do you focus on topics? If the article calls for it, yes. I started out being given topics and going really in-depth into them, which made for good articles, but is a lot of work for a newbie. Over time though, as you learn the show, what’s been done, what works, the research doesn’t always have to be as onerous. You relax a little and learn you can rely on other people’s experiences and opinions. There’s a huge fund of knowledge within the crew that you can tap into as a primary source, which is great.

What’s your focus? Phew. Difficult question. What I’d like to hear on the show I guess. Having stared out as a listener, I know what I enjoyed on the show and so try to remember that when writing or when assigning someone else to write something. With the audio drama stuff, keeping to a format becomes important to an extent, but having fun with it and making it amusing is the primary goal.

HE: My favorite kind of writing involves looking at the themes of different episodes, comparing storylines or characters, and examining the structure of episodes.

PW: Well the topic my writing focuses on changes every time. But the focus that all my writing has in common is trying not to suck. Because if it sucks I feel like I’m letting down a whole team of people with sub-par garbage if it sucks. I write about what interests me and hope therefore it will interest others.

TC: What do you look for in a podcast topic?

NE: Well, it has to be interesting enough to want to write about it, so no articles on cutlery in the ‘verse are pending. I guess it has to be in line with the sort of things we generally do on the show. So we have various threads like “Serenity Speculation,” “Broadwaves,” “They’ve All Got Stories,” that sort of thing. But we also go out in unusual directions sometimes with the special features and editorials. Quality is the key though. We try to be as interesting, accurate, and entertaining as we can and all the writing goes through a crew review process before being recorded and edited and we are all expected to bring articles up to scratch and are free to edit each other’s work in the crew wiki we use for the purpose. So there’s no room to be precious about what you have written. (Most editing is minor stuff like grammar and readability, but sometimes major changes are needed to improve articles, so it has to be a collaborative process where the show comes first.)

PW: To be honest, glory. It makes me feel bad, but yeah. I think most people are looking for it even if they don’t admit it. I also look for constructive criticism. After the glory fades the criticisms are really the only things that help you.

TC: What kind of freedom do you have when writing for a podcast?

NE: Complete freedom (to a degree). It’s a podcast, we don’t make any money from it, people don’t have to listen to it. We could say whatever the hell we wanted.

HE: There’s a freedom associated with your words being spoken rather than read. An informal style is more appropriate and the more unnatural-sounding grammar rules can be ignored!

TC: What kind of restrictions do you have?

NE: Several self-imposed ones. The podcast is about Firefly. We will not bring real-world politics or religion into it other than for comparison purposes. We try to keep it PG-13 level, though we make no claim to be a PG-13-rated podcast. This is for adults. We’ll use the word “shit,” but generally not “fuck” or stronger (though we may imply it). You wouldn’t believe the fuss a few folk made over a promo we ran with JC Hutchins and Scott Sigler which appeared to have them both swearing like troopers, but where every actual expletive was bleeped out (though you could figure out what word it would have been). It was hilarious, but some folk didn’t like it. Won’t stop us doing it again though; like I said, it’s a grown-up podcast. (In contrast, on “Sending a Wave,” which I have taken part in, there are no such self-imposed restrictions and folk swear as much as they do in everyday speech (it’s not scripted), which is good, ‘cos I swear like a total ****.

We try to keep things “international” in that any article that starts talking about “here in the States” or “of course here at home in the UK” gets changed. We have crew (including me) in the UK and Africa as well as the US and Jill in the UK started it all off. Our listeners are from all corners of the globe, so we are self-consciously an international podcast. Hmm, what else? We don’t accept submissions from listeners (not always true, but when we have, it’s always been by invitation). And we won’t plagiarize someone else’s work or use outside sources of material without credit. (Again, unless by invitation).

What we do try to do is maintain the character of The Signal. Stuff that gets too far away from the essential “feel” of the show is not pursued, or will be adapted to fit in more with the type of segments we do. Which is not to say we don’t experiment, but other ‘casts do things like forum reviews, read out fan fiction they like, or run convention recordings in full. Which is fine, they don’t need us treading on what they do. (The Firefly podcasts do actually talk to each other and are friendly 🙂 The Signal does have a particular, quite highly-produced flavor to it. This works, the listeners like it, it works for the crew, so why dick with it?

HE: None in particular, except that for the podcast I write for, it is important not to be too long and wordy as it doesn’t fit the tone of the podcast.

PW: Well, at the beginning of the podcast season when I’m being assigned the episode I’m going to write, I’m given an overview of what should be in the episode. Most of it is stuff that I pitched anyway, so it’s not a real problem at all.

The only other restriction I can think of is that I have to watch my language as I kind of have a filthy mouth. Whilst the podcast is technically flagged for language anyway, I really don’t want to drag it down to the vile depths that I could. Beta readers check everything over before the script goes into production and they usually point out what I’m doing wrong. They really are the unsung heroes of the podcast and everything I write would be tacky and offensive without their guidance. Thank you beta readers.

TC: How do you handle writers block—can you even have it?

NE: Yes, I can get it. “Badger’s World” stalled for a while because I couldn’t see how to continue it as it was. So I didn’t. I ended it with a six-episode arc that departed from the existing format in many ways, but which was some of the most enjoyable stuff to write. Generally though, if I stall on something, I’ll leave it for a day or two before going back to it. Or I’ll ask my wife, She’s great with ideas.

HE: If the deadline isn’t close, I just leave what I’m doing and come back to it another time. If the deadline is close, I usually don’t struggle with writer’s block!

PW: For me writer’s block is just another word for video games. I don’t handle it by playing tons of video games.

TC: What other kinds of writing do you do?

NE: Um… not a lot. The Signal takes up about all the free time I have outside of work and family and sleep.

HE: Academic writing for linguistics conferences, journals, books, etc. I also write teaching material and grammatical descriptions of languages as part of my job. I write a blog-style email to a group of friends every two weeks.

PW: Mostly comic book scripts.

TC: How is writing for a podcast different from other writing?

NE: I don’t know, how is it?

Apart from work-related stuff (science, technical, reports) and doing a few things for QMX and Jason Palmer Studios (not professionally), The Signal is pretty much all I have written for.

I guess one of the things though, is having to write for the spoken word. Some stuff just doesn’t work when read out, though it may look OK on the page, so you learn to slant towards ease of reading if it’s an article. I often have to edit myself on the fly when I realize I’ve written an overly long or complex sentence for myself and get tied in knots trying to read it! With the audio drama, especially a comedy-flavored segment like “Badger’s World,” it’s more theatrical as you have to write believable dialogue that sounds good or funny or both. So that’s a whole different approach in itself.

HE: The only other kind of writing I know is academic writing—I’m a linguist by profession. The podcast writing I’ve done has been very different! The individual pieces of podcast writing tend to be much shorter than the average linguistic article. The deadlines come much faster too! It is also very different writing something that will be heard rather than read. For example, long sentences might work well for a reader, but often shorter ones work better for a listener. I can be more informal in style in podcast writing too, which I enjoy.

PW: For me podcast writing is different because there is so much work done on the episode after it has left my hands. It gets edited and then tons of people have to act out the dialogue, contributing a lot to it. It doesn’t just get posted on the internet somewhere. Instead, way more work goes into it than I could really fathom.

TC: How is it the same?

NE: Well, at a guess, you have to be able to express ideas clearly, be able to write coherently, spell reasonably well, and have a fair idea of grammar.

HE: I try to apply some of the same principles to both kinds of writing. For example, I try to be honest about the level of confidence I have about something I’m saying. Do I say “This shows that…” or “This appears to show that…”? I also try to back up any point I make, whether it is for a podcast audience or for a lecture hall full of linguists.

PW: I still manage to work jokes about Street Sharks into the script.

TC: Have you been published? Where?

NE: Only a few scientific papers and posters at academic meetings (which other folk actually wrote, just using my data: that’s actually normal practice—first author actually writes the paper, others are generally contributors and final author is usually the group leader/professor). I have written the descriptions for some of Jason Palmer’s Serenity art on his site, but that’s about it.

HE: I have had some linguistic papers published in books, conference proceedings, on the internet and so on.

PW: Yes, and I wish it was good enough for me to plug here. It’s isn’t. It’s the kind of thing where I’m embarrassed it ever saw print and I actively encourage you not to look for it.

TC: What do you like best about writing for the podcast?

NE: When it all comes together and you hear an article you wrote performed and edited well, or an audio drama piece come to life with all the other actors adding their talents. When you know that it’s good and someone else (outside the podcast) agrees with you. When folk like it (and believe me they’ll say when they don’t!).

HE: It is fun! I enjoy creating something just for pleasure and doing something very different from my day job.

PW: Well, I think my favorite thing is to just tell a story that is incredibly specific. Very few people will really care about it but the fact that I can tell it and have a genuinely interested audience is really terrific.

TC: What do you like least about writing for the podcast?

NE: The time pressure mostly. We have a regular two-weekly rolling production schedule that lasts all year (apart from short summer and Christmas breaks), so we typically produce 22–23 regular shows per year, plus several bonus shows, which may contain material that’s not up to the sound quality levels of the regular show say, or stuff that just doesn’t fit in a regular show (there are far fewer self-imposed rules).

HE: Nothing so far, but I’ve only been doing this a few months!

PW: On the flipside, that audience frightens me half to death. Nothing makes you try to write better than the fact that people will inevitably listen to your terrible, cliché dialogue. I suppose it’s really better for my writing in the long run, but it makes me incredibly nervous.

TC: What kind of advice do you have for writers interested in podcasting?

NE: Do it! It’s fun and folk will give you feedback if they like (or dislike) what you are doing. It can be very rewarding, especially if stuff you do has a resonance with listeners or they get attached to characters you have created. But do it for yourself. If you are passionate about something, you are probably not alone and there may already be a podcast you could join. If not, start your own! At the simplest level, it’s very easy, you just need to give it a go. If other folk are involved, it will improve your writing as well, as that tends to bring everyone’s game up, when other folk are looking over your work.

HE: Make sure that whatever you’re going to be writing about is something you are passionate about.

PW: If you know you might want to write for a podcast, get involved in that podcast any way you can. I started as a beta reader and advertiser of the podcast. Eventually you’ll have an opportunity to pitch an idea.

Also, there’s really nothing to stop you from starting your own podcast. You may not have a full voicecast or tons of listeners but if you like doing it, who cares? Some of my favorite podcasts have way less than 250 downloads per episode, but damn, are they good.

You can find as many podcast lists as there are podcasts. You can find them on iTunes very easily, which is a good place to start.

My thanks to the three podcast writers who volunteered to answer my questions. I appreciate their patience as my interview was originally scheduled for April and got pushed back to the end of the year.

Final Poll Results

Atmospheric Control

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

As I settle in to write this, I am sitting at a cluttered desk surrounded by a wave of papers, magazines, books, and CDs. My TV is on as background noise, set to a channel I think I can ignore. From the other room, I can hear my children singing along with the game Rock Band, as loud and as off-key as possible. All of these factors are colliding together and contributing to my performance as a writer.

It occurred to me when I started writing this article that all these things were creating a writing atmosphere. Some of what is going on is helping me, while some of it is keeping me from my goal. Successful writers can be found writing in surroundings that support their performance. It’s important to create a writing atmosphere that works for you.

Background Image: K.G. Hawes/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Let’s tackle what’s going on in my writing area as an example of what works and what doesn’t work, at least for me. You can do this yourself to find your own strengths and weaknesses. We’ll start with my messy desk.

Even in the chaos that the desk is in right now, I can tell you right where everything is on the desk. My dictionary and thesaurus are close by, as are my other inspirational books and CDs. The desk works for me because I know right where my tools are, even under all the papers and clutter. Look around your own desk a moment. Are you frustrated by the clutter? Are you uninspired by the cleanliness? Try mixing it up until you feel comfortable and you aren’t distracted by either.

I next mentioned that the TV was on as background noise. I thought I could ignore it while I did something else, but it wasn’t working. Instead, I turned on the radio in order to finish the article. Some writers can’t have any kind of sound while they work, while others use it to set a mood they’re trying to create. A colleague mentioned that she creates specific soundtracks for her stories and novels. She said it helps put her in the right place at the right time. Whichever works for you, silence or sound, don’t wait until you have been distracted several times. Start out with what you know will drive your efforts.

For me, the children were the easy part. The door to the office closes and they’re all old enough to take care of themselves. They know that a closed door means “leave mom alone.” While they’re grown now, I am still familiar with the challenges presented by very small children, since I have a granddaughter with a demanding nature. My advice for parents is to work hard and fast when kids are asleep or otherwise occupied. I worked this way when my children were young and I did manage quite a few short stories. You could also hand them off to a grandparent or to your significant other for a set period of time until the work is done. You don’t need to compromise your children or your writing, but you will need to look for, and create, writing opportunities.

There are other distractions, but my surroundings are in my control, just as yours are. If a writing session isn’t working out, try changing your atmosphere before giving up and closing what you’re working on. Even a subtle change can make a vast difference. Hey, I finished the article, didn’t I?

Final Poll Results