Years ago when I was producing talkback radio I learned a few things, the most important being - carry a pen around with you if you want to look busy. I still think this is achievable for all the readers and writers out there, and as such, constitutes pretty solid advice. Although I have no ideas of any greater value than the pen thing, I thought I’d suggest a few other tips from my time in radio. (Oh. And always sniff the milk in the staff fridge. You’ll thank me.)
1 – Get To The Damn Point
So – it’s nearly news time and I’m picking up some talkback calls to see if I can slip one in before the bulletin. And the person on the other end of the line is convinced of two things; firstly, that they have a fascinating story of earth shattering importance to tell me, and secondly, that I care. I might care. But I’m watching the red hand of the clock tick around, I can hear the interview about a talking dog winding up, and I can see my announcer glancing at me because she’s wondering if that call on line 1 is for her. And so am I.
Come to the point - get into your plot earlier than you think you should, because your listener (your reader) really doesn’t care about pointless details. Don’t ramble; no-one cares, and they’ll reach for the dial and see what they’re playing on FM. Get used to editing your work. Take out the flabby bits even if it’s a favourite scene or character. Even if it was as funny as hell. To you. If you don’t edit your work you’re leaving it heavy and clumsy, and your reader will start looking up cat videos. Don’t let them put down your manuscript. Don’t let them put down your book.
2 – Don’t Wait For Inspiration
You turn up to work at 5 am and the Breakfast show has just gone into the studio. You have three and a half hours to get your show up. You’ve been prepared and you have some interviews booked for after 10 o’clock, but you need around eight, maybe more, really interesting stories for the first hour and a half, and something lighter for the 10.30 slot. Get moving. Your audience doesn’t care if you’re not feeling it today. Do whatever you need to do to find stories. Go through the news, social media, a conversation you had on the weekend, an issue arisen from a recent scandal, call police media, talk to Breakfast, see what’s around. Don’t just sit there, because after 6am you can start calling people, getting their opinions, finding out if the story is strong enough, locking them in, writing the interviews. You might have time to eat some toast, you’ll probably have time for tea. But don’t gaze out of the window looking for an idea. As a writer, get writing and keep writing. Don’t wait for the perfect time, the perfect room, the perfect desk. Don’t wait to think of the perfect name for a character you may cut from the plot next week. Find your story, develop your characters. Now. Tick tock.
3 – Read
I would like to think that if you’re an interesting person you do this anyway, but that doesn’t allow for people who read boring crap, like golf magazines or websites selling handbags. You should read a lot because you have an interest in the world; in characters, in the truth, in fairytales, in other cultures, whatever. If you work as a radio producer that interest is a valuable asset, and it’s the same with writing. Ok, so maybe it doesn’t have to be reading all the time; it could be following an issue that interests you, listening to a podcast about something really cool, hearing a reference to someone in conversation or on the radio (please – not a Kardashian) and looking it up. I spent my high school years sitting under the stairs in the library reading Time Magazine (yes – I was a social giant) because the world is interesting. So read. As a writer you should read lots of fiction, obviously, but read further than that. Be the kind of person you’d like to hear on the radio, the kind of person you’d like to read about in a novel; an interesting character.
4 - Write To Deadline
Even if you’re not about to take your programme live to air in ten minutes and you are still yet to write intros and questions for two interviews, and you need to lock in the 9.20 slot sometime in the next five minutes, write as if you are. Even if you only have ten minutes to write in a day, or you carve out half an hour during soccer practice, use your time wisely. Don’t faff. Don’t wait for it to be genius. Just write as quickly and efficiently as you can; you can always come back later and sort it out, and it’s not like there are twenty thousand people tuning in to listen to every word you type. It’s just you. So don’t panic, but don’t allow yourself to cheat your deadline by checking out Beyonce on You Tube, or flicking through social media. Write. As if the news bulletin is coming through at 8.30am regardless and you wanted to fit in a quick wee before air-time.
5 – Make Me Care
When we had our editorial meetings every day to decide which stories were relevant to our listener, we always held a simple idea in mind. Do I care? If the story is about a local government issue, who is it going to affect? If it’s a traffic story, how many listeners will need to know? If it’s a visiting singer from the 80’s, do they have a couple of good stories to tell? If it’s someone from a department of something coming in to talk about something worthy and important – are they good talent? or (technical term) boring as batshit? In radio, I needed my audience to relate to the story, just as I do in fiction. A fast moving plot won’t necessarily make me care what happens to a lead character. The writers job is to make me care. Find something relatable in every character, don’t be lazy and fall into cliché; your characters don’t have to be perfect, but they have to want something, they have to feel something. And if they fail, if they win, if they fall in love – I have to care. Often I think it’s heart that makes us give a crap, not just a list of stuff in the right order. In The Drifter, I want to make you care about a bunch of old ladies, because I do. I want you to care about a silly young girl with her life ahead of her and a man with a secret who knows how to shut up. In radio, sometimes the smaller stories work because the talent is so good, because the heart is so large that people pause in their busy days and listen; really listen to what is going on in someone else’s life. And for a few moments they are there, with them. Trying on their shoes.
6 – Take A Risk
Sometimes you’re on air, and the interviewer or the interviewee says something good – and you just know you can type up a joke or a personal adlib on the slave computer, which sits with them in the studio, for your announcer to bring to the conversation. It could be as lame as hell, but it could also make someone laugh who’s having a crappy day, or resonate with someone who thought they were alone. Commercial fiction is the place where great stories get told. But maybe every now and then we could take a chance; pop our heads out of the burrow and make a dumb arsed joke, or draw on something very real and personal. People love to read exciting, interesting stories, but they probably leave them behind in the pages. Take a risk with your writing, trust your editor not to let you fall, trust yourself to pick yourself up if you do, and go ahead and do it. Drifter is important to me, and to a lot of readers who contact me because they relate to some part of it; the descriptions of the bush, the relationships between the women, the farmers who love their farms, the dogs who share their lives - and the pain of losing those we love.
7 – Don’t Powder
I nearly didn’t put this in, but I love this one. I first heard it from a female journo I adored (and was utterly intimidated by) when I first started working in radio. I’m not sure if it’s a generally known colloquialism, but powdering is crying. This wonderful journo was smart, charming and tough, and once, things were getting emotional for another colleague when she said it. It stayed with me. I’m a terrible crier. But not at work, and it’s never terminal. Writing is tough, judgement is tough, rejection is tough. I’ve certainly had my share, and I know there’s more waiting for me. The nature of the beast is that there will be inevitable disappointments for you, too, and some of them will be gut wrenching. Suck it up. Don’t powder. Or - powder - then get on with it. You’re a writer - you’re tough, too.
I seriously doubt any of that is as useful at the pen thing – but there you are. Here’s a couple more I thought I should add, but maybe they are more observations than anything.
- The hotter the star coming into the studio, the more boring they are.
- If you take a risk and put someone to air who sounds slightly under the weather off air – they will sound completely smashed once the mic. is open.
- Don’t eat anything a well-meaning fan has made for you and sent in. Just in case. (Offer it to the work experience kid if you really want to make sure.)