by Jeremy Szal
Obviously, not every story is suitable for podcasting. Some of the best tales ever penned may fall flat when translated over to the world of audio. In saying that, there are some things you can improve on, not just for a podcast, but for your writing overall. Here are five tips that should help you inch your way up and out of Dante’s nine circles of Hell, otherwise known as the slush pile.
Tip #1: Brevity
We’re talking short stories, so obviously you can’t afford to be lavish and extravagant, filling your paragraphs with endless descriptions of your character down to the shape of her skull. Don’t confuse this with length. I’ve seen flash fiction less condescended and more convoluted than some novelettes. It’s all about quick strikes to the yarbles, not slow, sluggish punches. Your short story can be touching the lengthy side, but it can still be moving at an incredible pace, not bogged down by weighty language and fluffy and mushy dialogue. Don’t try to squeeze a long story into a tiny one—you’ll just damage the material in the process. Instead, choose your words carefully. Give your work as much depth as you can without spilling overboard.
Tip #2: Don’t Play it Safe
As a writer, you’ll be bound to upset people with your fiction (I’ve received hate mail in the past). It’s inevitable. Writing is not an activity for people who value security. Worrying about what other people may think of the fiction you write (or what genre, for that matter) should not be your primary concern. In fact, it shouldn’t even come into the equation.
Don’t let political correctness censor or dampen your artistic integrity. At the same time, don’t go out of your way to upset or offend anyone, because you can sniff those stories out from the other side of the galaxy. But I do encourage authors to push the envelope and see what they can accomplish without fear of upsetting a blogger. Don’t be afraid to write from an alien perspective with a truly warped view of the human race. Don’t shy away from killing off or maiming your characters. Don’t restrain yourself from creating moral gravity or making your protagonist commit atrocities. I want to see more people take more risks and see what they can cook up. Don’t be afraid to shake up the recipe a bit and experiment. (Note I will not be held accountable if your kitchen goes up in flames.)
One only needs to look at the work of Mark Lawrence and his ground-breaking series The Broken Empire. Jorg, the first-person protagonist, is a complete and utter psychopath, depraved and sadistic. But this allows him to provide this world with a monumental amount of complexity and depth. It gives us stunning, darkly poetic prose that’s fresh, gritty and laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. The books pull no punches and don’t allow themselves to shy away from the raw brutality of life. That’s the fearless writing that I want to see. The journey may be difficult, but the reward is ever so bitter sweet. And better yet, it lingers in the throat for a very long time.
Tip #3: Solid Prose
This is just as important and perhaps is the most significant when it comes to podcasting fiction. You need spectacular yet recognizable language. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel. Traditional storytelling mechanics are always favored above semi-pretentious experimental approaches that your English teacher fawned over. Listeners are not interested in listening to long, lavish paragraphs of nothing, however beautiful they may be. And while we’re at it: a big no to phonetics. Anthony Burgess may have been able to do it in A Clockwork Orange, but it doesn’t mean that you can. You’ll tie the narrator’s tongue in a knot. Stick with the basics of good storytelling and compelling prose as opposed to trying to push the English language to new and unfortunate places. If you feel the need to do that, then I invite you to grow a mustache and march down to the nearest café with a rusty typewriter in hand, charging one coffee per poem.
Oh, and while we’re at it: no 2nd person. I mean this. Seriously. Just don’t.
Tip #4: Strong Character-driven Stories
This is a winner every time. Stories where the characters are the main driving force are compelling and reinvigorating, especially when it comes to science fiction. Fleshed out and captivating characters can make the most absurd of worlds seem real and ground the reader in the most bizarre of alien planets. It allows us to have a connection to this world we otherwise might not have had. It’s one of the reasons why the omnipresent perspective is so rarely seen in science fiction and fantasy. People want to be drawn into these worlds, and a well-written character is the conduit.
At the same time, make sure there’s a plot as well. If your character is a war veteran and a psychopath living in an overcrowded city ruled by self-righteous alien dictators, he can’t very well be plodding around his apartment, drinking herbal tea and staring out the window, contemplating philosophy and his life. No, he’d be out in the rain-drenched streets, looking for trouble. Except trouble finds him. Strong characters and a robust story go hand-in-hand. Take advantage of his. Let the character guide the reader through the world. Whether it’s in 1st person, 3rd, or even switching from multiple perspectives (I rarely recommend this, because in a short story, especially in a podcast, this can be very jarring and confusing. If you fairy dance the point of view like a ballet dancer on hot coals, then you’ll lose the narrator and the listener), seat us behind the character’s eyes and let the plot unfold.
Tip #5: A Good Podcast Narrator
Unfortunately, this one is out of your control for the most part. But a brilliant narrator can make all the difference in a story. It’s all about marrying the right person to the right narrative. Some narrators are better suited to doing gritty, visceral fiction from the perspective of a hardboiled war veteran who frequently doles out harsh curses. Others may find their place combining strong character voice and multi-layered dialogue. Some work best when reading beautiful prose and tight, evocative language. There are several things to take into consideration, and finding the best narrator for your story can be tough nut to crack. There’s no definite answer. I always read the story with a narrator style in mind, then try and match it up with the best suitor.
I cannot stress how important this is. The right podcaster can either bring a story to life in all its glory, or kill it off and leave it half buried in the mud.
Bonus Tip: No Polemical/message Fiction
In journalism, one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In fiction, one should never let a message get in the way of a good story. This might be obvious, but if you’re going to pen a story, the point of it should be to tell a story. Not provide a ham-fisted political argument that damns anyone and everyone except [insert random perspective here]. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t work with themes and topical subjects. 99.99979% of fiction does, but they interweave the fine threads of themes and issues into the story. It’s fine if a story has a message, especially if it doesn’t drag down the story along with it. But straight up, undiluted “messages” told in the form of a story? Nope.
Listeners want to be thrilled by your exquisite command of the English language, your deft ability to juggle character and plot, your meticulous crafting of alternative worlds and your down-to-earth dialogue and the believable characters who voice them. They don’t want to listen to a political/religious sermon as they drive to work or be told how evil a group of people are or have some “fact” hammered into them through explicit, preachy dialogue. If they wanted that, they’d pick up a newspaper or go to Tumblr. Podcasts aren’t the place to push an agenda. Again, this doesn’t mean don’t work with themes or controversial topics. By all means: do so! But no story’s existence should be to stuff an opinion down the throats’ of listeners.
Jeremy Szal is the assistant editor for Hugo award winning science-fiction podcast StarShipSofa. He has worked with many best-selling, award-winning authors, such as Peter Watts, Robin Hobb, Ian Watson, Adrian Tchaikovsky and more, helping to bring their work to life in audio. He is also a writer, having sold more than twenty-five short stories and nonfiction publications to various magazines, anthologies and journals. He has also received an Honourable Mention from Writers of the Future, and his short story Heart of Steel, published at Every Day Fiction was nominated for the 2014 Parsec Award. Find him on Twitter @jeremyszal or at http://jeremyszal.wordpress.com/