Future of Long Form: My online research project

Between 2012 and 2014 I created an online research project, The Future of Long Form. It was targeted towards writers of long form non-fiction. The Future of Long Form, 'explored the space between writers and readers in the new media galaxy.' I feel compelled now to add,  'of the era.' ;-)


I interviewed industry experts, reported on events and experimented with the possibilities of self-publishing with an article produced each fortnight.

Future of Long Form was recognised by the Melbourne Writers Festival, The Emerging Writers' Festival and the NonfictioNow conference (among others).

I stopped this research project once I turned my attention to researching (and funding the research) for my own manuscript (about recovery in northern Japan after the March, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown).

Rather than delete it entirely I have now archived it into this site. Feel free to read, but keep in mind that some of the content - particularly that relating to technology - is going to read as a little dated! You may find some of the external sites I reference no longer exist.

Scroll down or use tag cloud, post archive or search to navigate.

Interviews and Trauma: a part or apart?

‘It’s become quite loud in here,’ Kimina Lyall says. True. I turn my head from the wooden booth where we sit remembering my entrance to this bar less than an hour ago. I was the only patron until Lyall arrived to make us two. But now there is a din of multiple conversations. It’s apt that these are surrounding us, these conversations. The word bubbles up frequently along the stream of our discussion and it’s something that Lyall emphasises about interviewing people who have experienced trauma (and interviewing generally). ‘There’s a danger of asking questions as opposed to having a conversation,’ she tells me. ‘You go in with your questions and you end up just asking what you think you need to know rather than letting the conversation evolve.’

Kamina Lyall emphasises authenticity, honesty and a conversation when interviewing people about traumatic events. Thanks to Marc Wathieu for use of this image Graphic Conversation under Creative Commons.
Kamina Lyall emphasises authenticity, honesty and a conversation when interviewing people about traumatic events. Thanks to Marc Wathieu for use of this image Graphic Conversation under Creative Commons.

Lyall has an unusually wide perspective on the coverage of traumatic events. She was a journalist with the Australian for 11 years as both a nationwide reporter and a foreign correspondent. In 2004 (when she was the Australian’s Southeast Asia Correspondent based in Thailand) she found herself on a beach as the Boxing Day tsunami approached. Despite her own trauma Lyall reported for the Australian in the hours, days and weeks after the event. She later wrote Out of the Blue: Facing the Tsunami, a book about her experience. She’s now a Director and Company Secretary with the Dart Centre Asia Pacific (a project of Columbia Journalism School, ‘dedicated to informed, effective and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy.’ [quote from dartcenter.org/mission]).

‘The number one thing that happens when people are traumatised is that they’ve lost control. That’s what trauma is,’ says Lyall. ‘If you go to the psychological literature the trauma first aid is to allow the person to make a choice. “Do you want a glass of water? Do you want a juice? Do you want a blanket or a cardigan?”’ A conversational approach to interviews (rather than questions and answers) is more aligned with this first aid. ‘Give the person that you’re interviewing as much control as possible and remind them that at any time they can take charge, take control and talk about something that’s important to them or not answer a question,’ says Lyall. ‘Just reinforce that it’s totally their choice, that at anytime your interviewee can end the interview.’

Lyall also empowered those in her book with, ‘a 100% guarantee that they will see everything I write that concerns them.’ She didn’t promise to make changes but did promise to have a conversation if those people had any problems. ‘I think you’ve got to have the right nose and have the right motive [in deciding whether to show your interviewees your work or not]. If you’re talking to a person who’s just lost their family in a disaster then I think the benefits outweigh the risks.’

I wonder how a writer can avoid further distressing (or ‘revictimising’) someone who’s already experienced trauma went interviewing them about the event. Are there some topics that are better avoided? ‘It’s so easy for us to make assumptions about what the other person feels and then censor ourselves on the basis of those assumptions,’ says Lyall. In her experience what writers worry about may be the last thing that worries an interviewee. Reflecting on the Boxing Day tsunami she says, ‘I know what my pain point of that experience is… No one would ever guess what it was.’

Lyall also warns against assumptions around journalism itself. ‘As journalists we tend to flagellate ourselves and think that we are bad people doing bad things – going in and probing in all the wounds and just extracting it for our own selfish ends.’ She recalled one assignment about a traumatic event many years ago. Her interviewees were reluctant and she gave them the opportunity to veto her article before it was published. They not only allowed her to publish it but also were so happy with her words that they thanked her, and went on to send her Christmas cards several years afterwards. ‘For some people in some situations being published – having their story being told in a powerful truth (that’s their truth) – is a healing act,’ she says. She was glad to learn that lesson early in her career. ‘It’s not all bad providing you start with those principles of the other person in control.’

So much of a journalist’s success in ethics relates to authenticity says Lyall. ‘Sometimes as journalists we want to add drama.’ We are storytellers but we need to be careful about the words we choose. Lyall cites classic examples in phrases like brutal rape (‘Like there’s such a thing as a non-brutal rape?’) likewise tragic death and appalling crime. ‘Just be authentic,’ says Lyall. Do this in storytelling as well as interviews. ‘Be honest [with your interviewees] about what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it… If you’re honest then you can have trust. And if you’re not, then people will read it straight away.’

After Lyall leaves I sit in our booth for a moment reflecting on her words. It’s not just the conversational din of those around me din that echoes Lyall’s advice, but also it’s the idea of now being a part of a shared experience. I came here as a lone writer daunted by the prospect of interviewing people who have experienced traumatic events. I leave with a keener awareness that a writer is just a part of something much bigger.

On stories, seasons and the future of long form

‘It’s a little overcast and there is greenery on the trees – which is lovely,’ Anna Hiatt says of her New York City surrounds. ‘We’ve had the longest winter.’ As she speaks I look through my window onto a suburban Melbourne fence. Autumn leaves fall from vines in the dappled morning sun. Hiatt and I are at the end of a long chat about the future of long form. Hiatt is a freelance journalist (The Washington Post, The New York Times, Reuters and more), long form publisher (The Big Roundtable) and research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. In February she published a long form piece about the future of long form. The piece, All the Space in the World, provides a high-res snapshot of our current publishing and distribution milieu. Central to this, of course, is the influence of technology.

This photograph was taken by Anna Hiatt on Amsterdam and W78th Street in New York City, Monday, April 21 2014. You can see more of Hiatt's photography on her site: annahiatt.com.
This photograph was taken by Anna Hiatt on Amsterdam and W78th Street in New York City, Monday, April 21 2014. You can see more of Hiatt's photography on her site: annahiatt.com.

‘In the beginning was the word, a.k.a. the story,’ she tells her readers. ‘And somewhere along the way … the word lost out to the machine …’ The piece that follows explores aspects of long form publishing via five case studies: the influence of devices and publishing platforms (via Playboy), alternative venues to traditional ones (via Narratively), the appeal of interactivity (via The New York Times’ Snow Fall), amplification (via Longreads and Longform) and changes to reading habits (via Pocket).

Hiatt says that the drive to research the topic stemmed from her work at The Big Round Table where she and her editors (Michael Shapiro and Mike Hoyt) often asked themselves who else was out there and what they were doing. ‘It wasn’t from a business strategy perspective,’ Hiatt explains. ‘We were just curious who the characters were and who the actors were in this field. Basically we wanted to know who our fellow partygoers were.’ Hiatt applied for (and was awarded) a research grant from the Tow Centre. Her initial goal was to try to understand if Snow Fall (published by The New York Times in 2012) was going to be the future of long form.

In many circles Snow Fall is seen to be a turning point. The online piece (a story about skiers caught in an avalanche, written by John Branch) includes a number of interactive elements (video, animation, audio) and other graphical enhancements. It was made specifically for online consumption and (as Hiatt notes) was met with much enthusiasm. In fact Jill Abramson (who was Executive Editor of The New York Times when Snow Fall was published) proposed ‘snow falling’ as a new verb – initiating a lexicon to describe this particular type of (online) storytelling. Yet although Hiatt’s research started at Snow Fall, ‘it became pretty clear very quickly that Snow Fall (in the grand scheme of things) was just a blip on the radar.’

‘What was most interesting wasn’t in fact the intricacies of a single piece design,’ she says. ‘It was that we’re at a milestone in storytelling. It just happens to be long form.’

Hiatt’s research piece (All the Space in the World) is published online. Yet it’s a publication of words. There are no videos, no audio and no interactive elements embedded within the writing. She does include an interactive timeline, but unlike Snow Fall, this timeline is provided as a separate chapter to accompany the piece (rather than the reading).

Limited resources were an aspect of this editorial choice (The New York Times had a full-time team working on Snow Fall for months). However Hiatt also admits to valuing words over interactivity. ‘We’ve been doing this for millennia,’ she says. ‘We don’t need things to click to hold people’s attention. If we do, we haven’t told the stories properly.’ Indeed when I ask her what interactive elements she may have included in her own piece (had the resources been available) Hiatt responds by critiquing her writing. ‘I feel like any element [I nominate] would really be me saying that I just should have explained it better [in words].’

I put to it to Hiatt: pieces like Snow Fall – are they really long form or are they part-game or part-website? When does it become a multimedia event rather than just a good piece of writing? ‘I think when it starts to get into the way,’ she says. As a New York local she had both the print and electronic versions of Snow Fall available to her the day it was published. ‘I had an iPad. I was moving my hands all around it and that was really fun,’ she says. But then she put the iPad down and read the article in the paper.

Hiatt’s inclination is one that echoes my own. To me, one of the pleasures of reading long form is being immersed in the story (which, ironically, the multimedia ‘immersive’ elements often counter). If the writing is good I won’t stop for video, audio or other interactive elements. That’s not to say that these new ways of presenting information online are wrong, or have no future. It’s just that they’re different and not really what I consider long form.

‘One of the things that’s so wonderful about radio is that you can sit down and listen and you know exactly the form in which you’re going to get it,’ Hiatt says. ‘One of the things that’s hard for me about going online is that you run across a link – across a page – and you don’t know what you’re going to get. And that (for me) is terrifying. I don’t want to be bombarded.’

As I reflect on my conversation with Hiatt in the following weeks I realise there’s something in our geographical and seasonal contrasts that resonates: something in the conflicting notions of change and consistency. There will always be new growth, blossoms, warm days, orange leaves, bare branches (and even snow fall).

And there will also be stories and words.

Non-fiction picks for EWF14

One of my favourite annual booklets has landed in my hands: the program for Melbourne's inspiring Emerging Writers’ Festival. I’ve already torn out the handy bookmarks and trawled its pages for the best non-fiction picks. Here are my tips for #EWF14…  

The National Writers’ Conference (Saturday 31 May and Sunday 1 June.)

There’s no better way for an emerging writer to transition to the winter months than this packed two-day conference. I am a card-carrying fan of the Emerging Writers' Festival - thanks mostly to this particular event. I’ve been attending for several years and always learn something new. This year I’m chuffed to be a part of the line-up. These are my must-sees for the conference:

The voices on the page (Saturday 31 May, 11am) Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Jennifer Down and Livia Albeck-Ripka will talk about dialogue and interviewing skills. Considering how important dialogue is to non-fiction we’re bound to learn some super useful things from this session.

The new non-fiction (Saturday 31 May, 3pm) Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Gillian Terzis and I will be talking about how digital and the long form renaissance has played into Australian non-fiction. I’m really looking forward to chatting with Rebecca and Gillian (and you) about my favourite subject. If you can’t make it to the National Writers’ Conference I hope you’ve booked a seat at Who can tell whose stories? which is on at the same time in the Southbank Theatre (but sold out already).

Get your hands on one of these - an Emerging Writers' Festival program.
Get your hands on one of these - an Emerging Writers' Festival program.

The lives of others (Saturday 31 May, 2pm) Benjamin Law, Michele Lee, Eli Glasman and Alana Schetzer will talk about the challenges of representing others in their writing. As I move forward in my career I find this topic particularly interesting. Non-fiction writers are highly dependent on the generosity and openness of their subjects. I wonder how these writers navigate this sensitive aspect of our work.

When Australians go abroad (Sunday June 1, 12pm) Hannah Kent, Ender Baskan, Jo Randerson and André Dao. Most non-fiction writers will find themselves compelled to write about events in other nations. Let’s gather any tips this experienced cohort has.

The real live writers’ group (Sunday June 1, 2pm) Jo Case, Rochelle Siemienowicz, Rebecca Starford and Estelle Tang will conduct their regular writers’ group in our presence. I'm already  a member of a writers’ group and it’s been central to my day-to-day writing. I wonder how this group is similar and/or different to my own (awesome) group?

Me-me-me and my memoir (Sunday June 1, 3pm) Liam Pieper, Luke Ryan, Lorelei Vashti and Benjamin Law are talking, well, memoir. As someone who puts my voice into at least half of my writing I feel it prudent to think critically about this approach. No doubt this session will give me pause for thought.

Who can tell whose stories? (Saturday 31 May, 3pm)

If you’re not going to the writers’ conference I hope you’ve booked a place in this session so that you can take some notes for me! John Safran, Alice Pung, Roslyn Oades, Isaac Drandic and Fiona Gruber will talk about the storyteller’s responsibility towards the people whose stories they tell. (BTW you can learn more about John Safran’s experience of writing Murder in Mississippi in this post).

The pitch (Wednesday May 28, 6pm)

Julia Carlomagno, Sam Cooney, Patrick Lenton, Vanessa Radnidge and Nina Gibb will talk about pitching. Even experienced pitchers will get insight from this ever-popular session.

Creative nonfiction writing night school (Thursday June 5, 6.30pm)

Rebecca Giggs will be teaching a workshop that will explore writing and research techniques. Excellent value at $30/$25 for a 1.5 hour workshop.

Filibust (Wednesday June 4, 1.30pm)

Nick Keys’ session considering political oratory and rhetoric promises to be enlightening, engaging and inspiring.

I look forward to seeing you all there!

John Safran on writing true crime

‘Freaking hell, just lay out the facts simply at the start,’ says John Safran, writer and celebrated documentary maker. He’s not talking to me so much as to himself. We’re discussing approaches to long form – what he’s learned while writing Murder in Mississippi. And we’re talking on the phone – a fact that will have more resonance for me after our interview than during it. ‘There are ways to simply hook people in. You don’t have to be desperate at the start,’ he says. You don’t have to ‘top load’ the story with everything the reader needs to know. Safran piqued my interest in his writing process at last year's Emerging Writers Festival. He presented days out from submitting his manuscript and flagged the significance of a switch from writing for broadcast to writing a book. Speaking today he says it wasn’t so much of a challenge to make the change (‘I don’t find long form any more difficult,’), as it was to ‘crack the riddle of long form’. It took him a while to work out how he wanted to present his style, his story and his characters.

With crime there’s a reason to talk to people and when they talk, other interesting stories come out, says John Safran, author of Murder in Mississippi.
With crime there’s a reason to talk to people and when they talk, other interesting stories come out, says John Safran, author of Murder in Mississippi.

There are many characters in Murder in Mississippi (which pivots on the case of white-supremacist Richard Barrett and his black killer Vincent McGee) but there are three characters that drive the story forward: Barrett, McGee and Safran. The inclusion of Safran’s own voice is part of his well-honed shtick (‘People want me to do dangerous, idiosyncratic and weird stuff,’ he says). But it isn’t a gag aimed only at pleasing his fans – writing the story from Safran’s point of view enables a logic to the complex unfolding of plot turns and rabbit holes that come out of his research. It frames the narrative and frees him from a chronological retelling – allowing him to reveal aspects to the reader as they were revealed to him. ‘I’m focused on keeping [the story] pure. I try not to be tricky or clever on other levels,’ he says.

This idea of purity also informs Safran’s use of dialogue. ‘You can’t force an audience to think a character is dangerous or funny or real just by asserting it. You have to demonstrate it,’ he says. Understanding dialogue was a part of cracking the long form riddle for Safran. ‘For some reason I thought, Oh you’re not allowed to put a lot of dialogue in ‘cause your readers will think you’ve slacked off and just transcribed dialogue. But then I realised that’s how you bring characters to life.’

‘One real breakthrough happened when I started blurting into the Dictaphone all the time,’ Safran says. ‘I realised that’s a better way to write things.’ On returning to his apartment in the early days of his US-based research he would just write up notes. ‘But as soon as you start writing you’re already editing things out,’ – a process he found counter productive. ‘[When I’m writing] I somehow feel this obligation that everything has to be watertight and absolutely make sense without any holes. That’s less interesting writing,’ he says. Whereas speaking into the Dictaphone ‘I can say something where I’m leaving stuff out and I’m not quite plugging every hole – but somehow it all makes sense when you transcribe it.’ He regrets not having found the technique sooner – citing aspects of his journey that weren’t included in the story. ‘I was so paranoid that I wasn’t going to make any contact with Vincent and that was going to ruin the book…in retrospect it would have been really cool to have these bits of me really panicking in the book. But I didn’t record them,’ he says. Later he tried to recreate the paranoia and failed. ‘People like my work when it resonates as real.’

Safran recently had a short true crime piece A Town Called Malice published in The Good Weekend Magazine. I asked him if writing true crime was something he might pursue – that he might add to his shtick. ‘I’m interested in crime (at least crime when it’s as extreme as murder) in so much as it brings out the true character in people,’ he says. It’s not the mystery of the crime that catches him but how wider issues (like racism) can be explored through true crime stories. If Safran had gone to Mississippi and told people he was writing about Mississippi and racism then, ‘everything [would be] a bit of a dead end conversation,’ he says. With crime however there’s a reason to talk to people and when they talk, other interesting stories come out. ‘The crime is the perfect spine and the perfect pressure point for me to find out these other things that I’m more interested in,’ Safran says.

Long form was a new challenge for Safran but he wasn’t daunted by it. He read books by other crime and long form writers (William Burrows, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson among them). He even read a book on verbs. But, he concludes, ‘The only way you can learn is by doing things and the next thing you write is slightly better.’

Safran says that the first draft of his manuscript included a long section about his time in Melbourne (before he went to the US). ‘I spent six months going mad in my flat. I was locked up and I’d be trying to find out all this stuff on the Internet about Richard Barrett,’ he says. Research is crucial. ‘For me at least the trick is to get tons of information,’ he says. But he’s not talking about Internet or book research (which he argues would be near impossible to flesh into a long form piece).

And this is the part of our interview that resonates with me days later when I’m struggling to find an angle for this piece. For the interview I am talking to Safran on the phone and as we talk, different ‘murbles’ (read the book) and ambient sounds travel from his location into my headphones. I wonder – is Safran walking? Sometimes it sounds like he’s on a street somewhere. Sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps he’s pacing his apartment…? But we’ll never know as this was a telephone interview I did from the comfort of my desk and I can only speculate. The writing process, Safran rightly argues, ‘isn’t hard at all’ once you get out. ‘As soon as you go out there and start with your Dictaphone and your notepad you start just hearing stories,’ he says. ‘And then the story starts writing itself.’

Are the hills alive with the sound of writing?

Reading my work out aloud is a mantra I take quite seriously. Verily I have spoken the sentences you’re reading many times. I’ve shaped them from prior versions where they sounded wrong. I’ve listened for clumsy transitions and poor grammar. I speak, I read and write – cutting, pasting and retyping all along the way. The process of reading aloud has become crucial to my writing and it’s got me wondering why I do it and what exactly I’m looking for – is it for a kind of music? Writing and music can share a lexicon, says Dr Graeme Skinner, musicologist, writer, researcher and Honorary Associate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. ‘A lot of the words used to describe music are analogies drawn from literature. I often talk about a musical paragraph as being an analogy for a passage of music. People talk about phrases, and movements – a movement is a corollary of a chapter.’ But are there parallels for someone like Skinner, who knows a lot about both music and writing?

A blank page...Does music make a difference to our writing? Thanks to calsidyrose for use of this image Very Vintage Music Staff under Creative Commons.
A blank page...Does music make a difference to our writing? Thanks to calsidyrose for use of this image Very Vintage Music Staff under Creative Commons.

‘I think my sense of writing comes more directly from the tradition of writing than from the tradition of music,’ Skinner tells me. ‘However I think they’re very closely linked. For instance the basis of literature is in works like Homer’s The Odyssey – which was actually intended (or recorded from) what was a recited oral history.’

Philosopher Walter Ong speaks to this point in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy. Recording stories in oral cultures (recording them to memory), writes Ong, involved a need for musicality. Thus works like The Odyssey would have been composed through ‘thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence … in heavily, rhythmic, balanced patterns … repetitions or antitheses … alliterations and assonances … epithetic and other formulary expressions.’ (Ong, p34). In noting The Odyssey as both a precursor to (and example of) early literature, Skinner is suggesting that links to musicality linger in our notions of good storytelling – and good writing.

But it’s not just in the far recesses of our storytelling that the two can be linked. Skinner is currently doing research on 19th century Australia. ‘Most 19th century poems that were written in Australia were meant to be sung,’ he says. Readers who consider them just as poetry, ‘are really missing the point. People imagined them to a tune. That’s how they followed the rhyme scheme and how [writers wrote] them in the first place,’ he says.

Not surprisingly, Skinner’s writing revolves around music (it includes scholarly essays, program notes, and a biography of the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe). I wonder what influence (if any) this musical knowledge may have on his writerly compositions. But Skinner eschews this notion: ‘My sense of how to write comes from the fact that I read voraciously.’  He always has ‘multiple novels on the go’ and feels his writing improves when he’s reading good work.

Throughout our interview Skinner has had to explain to me (and even demonstrate on his piano) aspects of music that I don’t understand. I have never been trained in music or its theory and in speaking to Skinner I realise that the connections I’m seeking to draw are tenuous at best – that music may be far more complicated than writing.

‘If you reduce writing to something that could be reproduced as a series of sounds – then obviously it’s much simpler,’ says Skinner. ‘But you only have to see the huge libraries of literary criticism that’s written to suggest that it depends on what you call complex.’ What makes writing complex is the creation of meaning, he says. Whereas music, while physically complex, ‘doesn’t have a meaning.’ The meaning comes from the listener. ‘There’s nothing inherent in the music.’

Yet Skinner also concedes that writing isn’t just about the creation of meaning. ‘You can make meaning [as a writer] and nobody wants to read you. Writing’s also about making the sentences jump along and move elegantly, and move beautifully through space and time.’

‘I read aloud in my head but I certainly don’t read aloud,’ Skinner tells me. However he does believe there’s an element to writing in which you consider the musicality of sentence construction. At times, for example, he’ll put an adverb after a verb. ‘Because I like the sound – you’re getting the verb first and then the “ly” on the end of the adverb after it.’ He prefers not to split infinitives, ‘but sometimes if you don’t split an infinitive it sounds really limping – [you split it] in order to keep the momentum or tempo of the sentence.’

‘Maybe there is a connection between the appreciation of writing that sounds good and inherent musicality,’ Skinner says. ‘But I don’t know. Maybe some really good writers can write perfectly well without [a knowledge of] music. Certainly being a musician is no passport to writing well – quite the opposite.’

For this writer at least, that’s music to my ears.

How stories come to be

I draw a line on a sheet of paper. On one side I write the heading ‘Fiction’, the other ‘Non-fiction’. I conjure up elements of writing to categorise into each. But I find that most of the elements are transferable. A poem, for example, can cross both categories, an essay need not be entirely linear. A lot of fiction is built on the foundations of truth and a lot of non-fiction is improved with the tools of fiction. But where the two clearly diverge is in the content of the story. Fiction can be entirely made-up (or based on a mix of truth and made-up). Non-fiction must be drawn from the events of real life. A fiction writer ready to start a new story need only sit down and muse. (I don’t mean to underestimate this act. I know it takes skill.) By contrast a non-fiction writer has to find their story and the elements within it. As Lee Gutkind says, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.’

Think of your story as the Amazon; a place with complex life forms, shallows, depths and perhaps a few piranhas. Thanks to jangoertzen for use of this image under creative commons.
Think of your story as the Amazon; a place with complex life forms, shallows, depths and perhaps a few piranhas. Thanks to jangoertzen for use of this image under creative commons.

So where do we find these stories? And how do we know when we have a good story? Bill Birnbauer, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Monash University has worked as a journalist and editor for over 30 years. He says that how you find stories will depend on your genre but that ultimately, ‘You need to be curious and you need to be questioning.’

As Birnbauer notes, some writers find stories by watching the rhythms of their local neighbourhood. We can also look at local council websites, and do things like Internet searches for interesting clubs and associations. (One of my favourite stories in this category is Susan Orlean’s 2006 New Yorker piece on Pigeon Fanciers). We can also look at media reports, which Birnbauer says, ‘are not an end point but can be a starting point.’

Writers who are more prolific (journalists in newsrooms for example, or those seeking meatier, potentially long-form topics) widen their story-sourcing nets. Birnbauer says many writers check lists and hearings at Courts, and Civil and Administrative Tribunals. There are also parliamentary inquiries and committees. ‘There are squillions of lesser-attractive-to-the-media decisions that are really good stories [in these sources],’ says Birnbauer. Don’t just look at the outcomes of policy decisions or court cases like these, he says. ‘What veteran reporters and feature writers do is take those decisions, go backwards and ask, “Well how did it come to this?”’

Potential stories need multiple layers. When Birnbauer qualifies a story he considers a number of elements, ‘I start off looking at what information is realistically obtainable, what I would like to get, what I will get and what won’t I get,’ he says. ‘I’m looking for a human face, for an opportunity of observational writing (where I can be descriptive), for tertiary or secondary characters or witnesses [as well as links to] news and opinion.’ He also establishes what’s available in background documents to help better understand the person, people or issue and its history. For example documentation relating to court cases, transcripts, witness statements, company records and speeches made in parliament or elsewhere can all flesh out a story.

‘You have to start out doing pre-research research,’ says Birnbauer. ‘You have to be tough and ask, “Is this a story that I’m going to be happy spending a few weeks pursuing? Is this story worth doing?”’ In the context of long form your ‘pre-investigation’ needs to be particularly rigorous. You need to make sure that you have enough elements to make the story engaging.

Birnbauer refers to parallels made between long form pieces and a river, ‘You have deep, still waters – which is your background,’ he says. ‘Then you’ve got something that’s like rapids where the action, or the tension increases, leading to a kind of climax or highlight. And then it drops away again,’ he says. ‘You’re looking for elements that make up that flow.’

In drawing this parallel Birnbauer calls on Jon Franklin whose section on narrative in Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction bolsters this metaphor (by encouraging us to choose more complex rivers):

‘If you’re going to compare your narrative to a river, then let it be a river that rises high in the thin air of glacier-carved peaks, collecting its strengths from springs and freshets and flowing, murmuring, down mountainsides… a river that pauses there and then moves again, slowly at first and then gathering speed and broadening into shallow rapids… moving now in the company of piranhas through a noisy jungle full of brightly colored birds, monkeys chattering in the overhanging trees...

If your story is to be like a river, for heaven’s sake don’t let that river be the Mississippi. Let it be the Amazon.’ (p137*)

Sometimes a good story idea takes years to come into being. In an interview on ICIJC.org Birnbauer advises new writers to, ‘Be annoying and don’t give up.’ Knowing whether or not you have a good idea, ‘really comes down to the determination of the individual,’ Birnbauer tells me. ‘There are stories that just won’t go away in one’s mind – even if you’ve pursued an interview for a long time and been rejected,’ he says. It’s just a niggling in the back of your head.

‘A compelling story with a message that would help a lot of readers understand something is hard to let go of,’ Birnbauer says. In some ways finding stories, ‘is an intuitive feel, [a sense] that there is a story there, that’s probably in the public interest and needs to be told,’ he says.

Both fiction and non-fiction rely on plot devices to keep their readers reading. Many non-fiction writers are captured by the plot-like serendipity behind real life events – just like a trip on the Amazon river these stories can be surprising, terrifying, delightful, mysterious and more. But no matter what you choose to write about, or how you find your story, central to it all says Birnbauer, ‘is that it’s just a great yarn.’

* It’s well worth sourcing

Franklin’s book

and reading the whole passage.

Nuance and new media: the challenge of e-books

If a writer sends a message in the new media galaxy, can it be heard? It’s not as if (like the tree in the proverbial forest) there isn’t anyone listening. It’s a highly populated and active space. It’s a space that readers frequent and a space where they spend money. It’s a space, it seems, with a lot of potential for writers. Indeed, self-publishing e-books has proven a boon for many. Stories abound of humble scribes who upload a file and soon find themselves climbing the best-seller lists and being celebrated in front of packed houses or better yet, being signed by traditional publishers (as happened recently to Darrell Pitt). Previous successes in self-publishing such as Marcel Proust and Matthew Reilly are also noted (despite the fact that they self-published to print). With these inspiring stories, the low cost of access (and the high profits on royalties) it’s no wonder that many writers are launching their work online.

Bundling e-books with those of  established writers is an effective way to bring readers to new and emerging writers says O'Brien. Thanks to Rachel Ford James for use of this image Stacks of Free O'Reilly Books at Ignite Boston 5 under Creative Commons.
Bundling e-books with those of established writers is an effective way to bring readers to new and emerging writers says O'Brien. Thanks to Rachel Ford James for use of this image Stacks of Free O'Reilly Books at Ignite Boston 5 under Creative Commons.

Connor Tomas O’Brien (writer and co-founder of Tomely, a DRM free e-bookstore) says that unlike other forms of online publishing, the e-book brings a little more to writers. ‘The book has historically been purchased with real currency – so when you transfer that to the electronic realm there’s an expectation that it’s being bought and sold,’ he says. The e-book therefore, has more potential to yield an income.

In parallel with traditional publishing, entrepreneurial writers are advised to establish mini-marketing departments. They must self-promote, advertise and build themselves ‘a platform’ on social media. But O’Brien cautions against the rhetoric, ‘A lot of writers are working on the assumption that if they can build up a critical mass of followers on Twitter or Facebook (or wherever) they can translate that into sales [of self-published work],’ he says. But the problem with this assumption is that although we can measure the number of followers we have, we can’t measure how much these followers care. (Some people follow on a whim - thus their true interest is negligible – and who knows how often your followers read their social media). ‘I’ve seen people who have thousands of Twitter followers promoting their work and finding it really, really hard to sell a handful of copies,’ says O’Brien.

He believes the main way self-published writers get recognition (and sales) is via the endorsement of an established writer. ‘It’s the same in film and music. Independent musicians get the ball rolling when they are promoted by an incredibly well known musician,’ he says. Some writers try to reach new readers through paid advertising (such as Google Adwords, Goodreads or Facebook). But as O’Brien notes, ‘When you’re a writer, you’re trying to do something that’s nuanced. You’re not trying to do something derivative. It’s hard to get that across quickly.’ (Note: I’ll be publishing O’Brien’s tips on Facebook advertising in a future post).

At Tomely books are often sold in bundles (curated groupings that include work from both established and emerging writers). These are the best way for Tomely to sell the work of new writers says, O’Brien ‘The one or two authors that are well known are pulling up the other authors.’ It’s a model that echoes traditional publishing – both the editorial package, and the mix of trusted and new work.

In traditional publishing models, A-List authors ultimately fund new writers. ‘A lot of self-publishers don’t realise that most authors with [traditional] publishers don’t return what the publisher’s put in. They’re not making money either,’ says O’Brien. ‘Self-publishing is a lot more difficult than most people consider it.’

‘I don’t think self-publishing is this thing that’s going to destroy publishing and I don’t think it’s going to make lots of people particularly rich. But I don’t think the opposite either,’ says O’Brien. Like all mediums, there’s a lot in between, ‘That’s where you get the interesting stuff.’

This post was originally published 6 August 2013.

Sinking independents into libraries

There’s a quote on the Internet that is attributed to Virginia Woolf. ‘I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure,’ it reads. In order to find its source I paste the full quote into a search box, held together by inverted commas. ‘Did you mean: “I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunken treasure.”’ Google asks me. Hmmm, I wonder – did I? Be they sunk or sunken treasure, libraries are certainly the places to find them. A library’s collection policy, as Tricia Genat, Managing Director of ALS Library Services says, ‘is not just about working to the mean but also making sure that you’ve got some outliers in your collection.’

It's not so difficult to get independent treasures into our libraries says Tricia Genat. Thanks to ballina70 for use of this image Readiscover under Creative Commons.
It's not so difficult to get independent treasures into our libraries says Tricia Genat. Thanks to ballina70 for use of this image Readiscover under Creative Commons.

Where both libraries and bookshops will stock bestsellers, libraries are looking for a little bit more. ‘People are interested in all sorts of weird and wonderful things,’ says Genat. Librarians want to make sure that they’re, ‘expanding the collection to include more unusual [publications] or some new trends or different kinds of formats,’ she says.

Verily libraries provide a solid opportunity for independent publishers to get their work to readers. In contrast to being included in bookstores (which can be complex and difficult for independent publishers), Genat says that there are no disadvantages to getting books into libraries. ‘One of the major advantages for small publishers is that they’re in an open field competitively,’ Genat explains. Librarians have wider mandates and make their decisions about buying a book on a computer screen using filters based on genre, category etc. ‘When the library selector is scrolling through those titles your book has as much chance of getting picked as one from [a major publisher],’ Genat says. There are however, a few provisos.

To be noticed on the computer screen you’ll need a decent cover and a well-written blurb. ‘If you’re a small publisher and you spend absolutely no money on your cover (and it’s going up against lovely covers) then a library selector is just going to scroll past yours and not select it,’ Genat warns. ‘If the blurb that you’ve written is correct, up-to-date, informative and helpful then that’s the second thing that the library selector looks at,’ she says. If you make these elements the best you possibly can your book will be in contention for selection.

Library selectors read blogs, newspapers and sites like Goodreads. ‘If [a library selector] sees a name that pops up as they scroll through the list (ie a brand new author, a brand new publisher, a tiny publisher that’s causing a little buzz) they will [remember it],’ says Genat. The selector’s decision is only a $20 or $30 one – at times they can just order a book and see what happens. ‘If it gets borrowed half a dozen times then that’s a publisher or author [the selector] might add to the standing order,’ says Genat. She says that social media is absolutely essential for publishers in this context. ‘If it’s out there people will be reading it,’ she says. (For more on publishers and social media read this post on vertical marketing).

In addition to considering cover designs and blurbs, independent publishers also need to pay attention to things like ensuring page numbers are correct, that there’s a bar code on the back and that the book has an ISBN. ‘The physical quality is also important. It can’t fall apart,’ says Genat. Recently she had to return an order of over 30 books because of their poor quality. ‘There was absolutely nothing wrong with the content of the book. The printer just did a bad job,’ she says.

In a panel at this week’s Independent Publishing Conference Genat (as chair), Anita Cattogio (Yarra Plenty Library), Michael Mackenzie (Boyd Library) and Leesa Lambert (Little Bookroom) will share some of the joys and frustrations of putting together a library collection. They’ll discuss what a collection policy does, what’s available, what the price points are, what captures people’s attention and what’s important to have on the shelves in the context of independent publishing. (They’ll  give advice on sinking independent treasures into libraries!)

In the meantime my Internet searches aren’t confirming whether Woolf said sunk or sunken (or where she said it). I can see that the British Library are going for sunk, and I figure that’s a reliable source… but I might just need an excuse to ransack my local library this afternoon. You never know what independent treasure I’ll find.

Genat’s panel Libraries and Librarians will be held at 1.15pm, Friday 14 November at the Independent Publishing Conference.

Molecular verticality: trends in book marketing

‘I think molecular specialisation is the only way that book publishers are going to survive in something that resembles their traditional format,’ says Anne Treasure, a digital marketing enthusiast. This molecular specialisation is spawning vertical marketing – or customer / reader focused marketing. In the context of publishing vertical marketing recognises, as Mike Shatzkin writes on idealog.com that publishers are no longer dependent on books being displayed in stores and that, ‘the marketing that used to take place around store inventory is becoming digital’. Vertical marketing is particularly useful to small and independent publishers (as well as to writers). ‘It used to be that publishers would market a lot through their retailers,’ says Treasure, ‘But retailer relationships aren’t so important any more, and in publishing it’s more about the direct-to-consumer relationship,’ she says. Not surprisingly social media is one of the key vertical marketing tools available to the literary community. On social media writers and publishers can converse directly with their readers and build communities of interest. It’s quite a contrast from old school broadcasting and one that many publishers are already harnessing. Treasure cites Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Seizure as journals that are doing a good job. ‘They bring [their publication’s] personality into the social media space so that readers can get to know them as well as the writers therein.’

Vertical marketing is about publishers and writers communicating directly to their readers. Thanks to Ed Yourdon for use of this image Web 2.0 conference/San Francisco, Nov 2008 - 08 under Creative Commons.
Vertical marketing is about publishers and writers communicating directly to their readers. Thanks to Ed Yourdon for use of this image Web 2.0 conference/San Francisco, Nov 2008 - 08 under Creative Commons.

But it’s not just journals that are capitalising on vertical marketing. Treasure adds that, ‘all kinds of publishers are becoming involved in the conversations around reading, books, literature and writing (rather than just being the gatekeepers and broadcasters).’ Genre publishers – particularly romance and science fiction – are leading the charge. ‘[Some publishers are] getting to the point where whatever they publish, readers in the community will trust that it’s going to be good and something that they’re interested in,’ Treasure says. This is the vision for vertical marketing – writers and publishers producing such high quality and relevant publications, communities and conversations that readers, ‘will trust them and be willing to buy whatever they publish.’

There is a lot of noise in social media and this is one of the challenges says Treasure. But it can be overcome. ‘It’s about being authentic, about showing personality, seeing through all of the boring chatter and engaging your readers in a space where they already are,’ she says. Publishers should also take care to include and train their writers . ‘No matter how much the market fragments it’s going to be hard for a publisher to have as loyal a following as an author or a writer,’ says Treasure.

While social media is one of the major tools for vertical marketing it isn’t the only one. Treasure notes a good example of offline vertical marketing in 2013 newcomer Tincture Journal. It placed promotional stickers on street crossings in Darlinghurst (Sydney). ‘They’re right where you’re going to press the button – so you can’t fail to see them,’ Treasure says. In this respect vertical marketing is nothing new. ‘It’s marketing that has been going on for 20 or 30 years… marketing that you would see for rock or pop gigs (except that now we’re bringing it to books and literature),’ she says.

Vertical marketing has created unprecedented opportunity for the independent publishing sector in particular. As Treasure says, ‘It’s definitely leveling the playing field and it means that independent publishers have more opportunities to engage with communities of readers.’

Anne Treasure will chair the panel Vertical Marketing (with panelists Kate Cuthbert [Escape Publishing] and Mark Robinson [Exisle Publishing] at this week’s Independent Publishing Conference. Treasure's session will be held 10.15am on Friday 15 November.

On being underrated (the MUBA)

For Christmas last year Wayne Macauley’s partner gave him a t-shirt printed with the words Most Underrated 2012. ‘I don’t wear it out that often but it’s a beautiful thing,’ Macauley quips. The t-shirt is a reference to last year’s inaugural Most Underrated Book Award (MUBA) which Macauley won for his novel The Cook. ‘[The most underrated book] is a very catchy line and I think people like the idea of it,’ Macauley says. ‘[The award] got quoted a number of times afterwards in blogs and reviews and even when the book went overseas.’ As Macauley notes, the title of this award, ‘has a hook’. The MUBA, says the Small Press Network (which organises the award), ‘aims shine a light on some of the outstanding titles that are released by small and independent publishers that, for whatever reason, did not receive their fair dues.’ This year’s shortlist was recently released. It includes Fish-Hair Woman by Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press), Staunch by Ginger Briggs (Affirm Press), Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith (Fremantle Press) and The Hum of Concrete by Anna Solding (MidnightSun Publishing). The winner will be announced next week.

Readings will help the MUBA shortlisted book make their way into the hands of readers. Thanks to Snipergirl for use of this image, Readings, Carlton under Creative Commons.
Readings will help the MUBA shortlisted book make their way into the hands of readers. Thanks to Snipergirl for use of this image, Readings, Carlton under Creative Commons.

‘[Last year] there was some uncertainty as to whether this was a badge that authors particularly wanted or not,’ says Martin Shaw, Books Division Manager at Readings. ‘But most people got what it was about – it was trying to make sure that nobody got completely overlooked – which does happen,’ Shaw says.

For this reason Readings gives the MUBA shortlist, ‘the biggest blast we can,’ says Shaw. The books are being promoted online, in their newsletter and on a table in store. Last year Macauley noted a contrast between the MUBA and another award he was shortlisted for (which was announced in the same week). ‘The MUBA shortlisted winners were really prominent in the Readings Carlton store… I couldn’t see anything displayed for [the other award],’ he says. As Macauley notes the MUBA’s tie with bookshops is critical, ‘If the books are not promoted in the store then the award is great for you spiritually but not really commercially.’

Readings reported a tenfold increase in sales of the full shortlist of the 2012 MUBA. ‘[The MUBA] definitely makes a difference,’ Shaw says. ‘Now that we’re into the second year it will build up as a [list on] the best of the small press.’

For Macauley, winning the MUBA also had other benefits. ‘The book had been a runner up and it was great for it to win something. But from a personal perspective I felt like I was being recognised with an independent award for an independent attitude,’ he says. That’s something he values as a person with an interest in independent publishing and theatre. That independence is relevant to buyers too says Shaw, ‘A lot of book buyers out there are looking for something a bit different, something that isn’t massively hyped about from large commercial houses.’

Looking forward Macauley is excited by the potential of independent publishing. The old structures are being broken down he says, and new possibilities are opening up.  ‘My view of that is that we should all be brave and should never be afraid to take risks,’ he says. ‘Everyone should give wholly and utterly of themselves to their work. They should make their work in their own voice. They should make it the very best that they can.’ The thing that never changes with independent publishing, says Macauley, is that ‘we’re making art out of integrity.’

The 2013 Most Underrated Book Award winner will be announced at the Independent Publishing Conference on Friday 15 November.

Exploding the margins

There was a time some years ago when I burned with annoyance when, upon opening a library book, I would discover that a previous reader – or readers – had marked up all of the salient points, underlining key words and phrases with scribbles in pen. Little did I know that I was experiencing ‘social reading’ in one of its earliest forms. Travis Alber and Aaron Miller describe social reading as, ‘the act of reading while connected to other people, or the philosophy of reading as a connected activity, not an isolated one.’ It’s a subject Charlotte Harper (Editia) will be covering in the paper she’s presenting to next week’s Independent Publishing Conference (titled Social Reading, Long form Journalism and the Connected Ebook). I confess that my early ‘social reading’ in the library made me feel frustrated. The mark-ups denied me my earnest pursuit to form my own conclusions, to find the salient points on my own merit, and to have an unencumbered ‘first read’. Yet recently I was drawn to a library book for research and on taking the tome from the shelf I discovered that my old foe (underlined texts and comments in the margin) had become a friend. The underliner had done me a service – enabling me to more efficiently establish the relevance of the book to my research.

Enable social reading on a Kindle to see what others have highlighted and commented on.
Enable social reading on a Kindle to see what others have highlighted and commented on.

Electronic publishing has taken social reading to a far deeper level than the (often anonymous) scribblings in the margins of a book. Readers can now use their devices (such as Kindles, Kobos or apps like Readmill) to share and read in-book annotations with everyone else (functions that can thankfully be turned on or off). The geographical breadth of this electronic exchange encourages a wide spectrum of social reading perspectives. Damien Walter, writing for the Guardian, sees the benefits of social reading in a longitudinal context, ‘[I]magine reading a book published in 2013 in the year 2063. In the 50 years between now and then, dozens of critical texts, hundreds of articles, thousands of reviews and hundreds of thousands of comments will have been made on the text.’ Harper says that social reading extends to discussions about texts on social media and sites like Goodreads. ‘The readers’ discussions can form part of the book and enhance it that way,’ she says.

Harper agrees that when it comes to in-book annotations social reading can interrupt the flow and give spoilers – but social reading in the electronic space is particularly salient to non-fiction, she says. ‘[Readers get engaged and want] to continue the conversation about stories that don’t end… When they’re reading a work of non-fiction on a topic that they’re passionate about (or intrigued by) they’ll want to know what happened next – how the story continues.’ Social reading doesn’t just benefit and engage readers says Harper, it can also help writers and publishers. ‘Some of the conversations that have taken place around the book can be taken into consideration or can inspire content for new editions,’ she says.

As well as the social reading elements Harper sees great potential for long form non-fiction in the electronic realm. She cites commentators like J Max Robbins, who recently wrote that, ‘E-book singles – non-fiction and fiction pieces between 5,000 and 30,000 words – are on the cusp of becoming a significant business and may well propel a renaissance in deep-dive journalism.’ Harper also points to the success story of Long Play, a Finnish publisher of long form non-fiction e-singles that is close to making a profit within a year of its launch.

Along with perspectives on social reading, Harper hopes to provide attendees at next week’s conference with some insight into the burgeoning market for long form journalism in e-book format. She’ll cover the impact of recent events (like the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon) and likely developments for the book industry and journalists.

Harper sees a healthy future for long form non-fiction in electronic format. ‘There are more and more publishers specialising in long form non-fiction. As the number of publishers specialising and the number of books grows, then readers will become more aware of the genre and become used to factoring it into their purchasing patterns,’ she says.

Charlotte Harper will present as part of the Authors, Genre and Publishing session (1.15pm, Thursday 14 November) at the Independent Publishing Conference.

Big things and humble beginnings: The 2013 Independent Publishing Conference

Anyone in publishing knows the wonderful things that can happen in small spaces. Award winning manuscripts have been produced in back yard huts, burgeoning publishing empires started on kitchen tables and literary classics typed out clack-by-clack at lonely desks. So too this year’s Independent Publishing Conference (14 to 16 November) - for the past few months Tim Coronel, Conference Coordinator, has had his laptop perched on the edge of the only desk in Small Press Network’s office (a space he once described as a fishbowl). ‘It’s a small office which is three by three metres (if that). Like all publishing spaces it’s full of books and bits of paper and a carton of wine – which is very useful at times,’ Coronel quips. This year’s conference came together with the work of an impressive planning committee (Michael Webster, Emmett Stinson, Aaron Manion, Andrea Hanke, Catherine Lewis, Mary Masters and Nathan Hollier – with Coronel bringing it all together). It’s the second of its kind but 2013 promises new ideas. ‘We’ve made a conscious effort not to double up – not to get the same faces back again,’ says Coronel. ‘There’s probably twice as many sessions and speakers as there were last year - both days of the conference are going to be running parallel sessions.’ (ie two sessions in each time slot).

Big things can happen in little spaces. Thanks to PetitPlat - Stephanie Kilgast for use of this image Tiny Study Room #3 under Creative Commons.
Big things can happen in little spaces. Thanks to PetitPlat - Stephanie Kilgast for use of this image Tiny Study Room #3 under Creative Commons.

Coronel hopes the conference will soon become an ‘annual destination’ for the Australian publishing sector. ‘It’s the only opportunity in Australia for publishing professionals to get together like this. You can be tweeting with people and emailing people back and forth for years and never have the chance to actually meet them face-to-face,’ he says.

Both the industry and academic day programs have been shaped to meet the needs of these independent publishing individuals. There’s over 16 sessions on the topics of markets, marketing, trends, different genres, rights, distribution, reviews, libraries and all manner of publishing. Funding: from crowds to grants will feature a panel including Anna Maguire, author of Crowdfund it!, Sophie Cunningham, Chair of the Literature Board with the Australia Council and Zoe Rodriguez, Cultural Fund Manager at Copyright Agency Limited (chaired by Sam Twyford-Moore, Director of the Emerging Writer's Festival).

Earlier on the same day Charlotte Harper (Editia) will lead Business Models, a self-explanatory session which will include input from publishers at all ends of the spectrum. ‘Those nuts and bolts sessions will be very useful,’ says Coronel. ‘They’ll explore how you do it, how you run your little business and hopefully make a bigger business out of it and make it viable.’

Coronel notes that the act of publishing has become far less exclusive than it once was. ‘I think it’s getting easier and easier to publish in the most basic sense – to get your words out is simple,’ he says. To wit one of the biggest challenges for publishers these days is in finding an audience. ‘To find a paying audience is even more of a challenge and to generate enough revenue to make a sustainable business is hard. It always has been,’ he says.

Still that’s not to say that humble beginnings can’t result in big things – after all this year’s Independent Publishing Conference has been brought together by the efforts of Coronel – a solitary figure with a laptop perched on the edge of a desk.

You are your own props department

Here’s how the props department on the television series Treme recreated a vintage bottle of cognac to use in a scene: First they checked out the real deal on the Internet and then found and copied a label they liked. Then they sourced some empty bottles in an antique shop. Next, ‘we cleaned them up, and Joey mixed water and food coloring to get the right color. He found corks to put in the bottle and wax to put a seal on the top. We put it inside a box and then dusted it an aged it down.’ [sic] These words are from Luci Leary, Property Master on Treme, as told to Dave Walker of Nola.com. I found Walker’s article while researching the making of Treme (a television series written by David Simon, set in post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans). The last thing I expected in reading a story about props in a fictional television series was to be inspired about writing long form non-fiction. But Walker (and the props team on Treme) got me to thinking.

Writers need to fill their props boxes along the way. Thanks to Natalie T for use of this image Props boxes under Creative Commons.
Writers need to fill their props boxes along the way. Thanks to Natalie T for use of this image Props boxes under Creative Commons.

In as much as producing props and writing non-fiction are different there are similarities. We’re all recreating scenes and conveying character (and to this end, non-fiction writers are our own props departments). Writers are told to show, don’t tell but we can still both show and tell. Props departments can only show. That’s why they must attend to detail like the aging and dusting on a vintage cognac bottle. That’s a discipline we can learn from.

‘It’s important to us that it’s real, that it looks good, and it’s what it would be,’ says, Beau Harrison, Treme’s On Set Property Master. Verily his team breaks down every scene in a script says Walker. They create a list of the objects required then decide exactly what type of object it should be. Mobile phones for example, ‘We usually base this on the character's personality and economic standing,’ Harrison says.

The best non-fiction takes you into a story. It gives you just the right amount of detail; information that’s relevant to scene and character/s. The props team on Treme have the same job only they do the work in reverse. They must acquire objects (including personal effects) to help define their scenes and characters. And then they put all of those objects into a labeled box. Writers start with a page; with the more astute of us collecting detail (props information) about our characters and scenes along the way.

Photographs by Harrison show some of Treme’s props boxes. The character Antoine Batiste’s for example has his watch, sunglasses, keys, ID, iPod and other personal items spread across a table. Separated from the body of Wendell Pierce (who plays Batiste) these objects remind me of toys; of Barbie dolls, clothes and accessories I used to play with as a kid. Batiste may live real in my mind but in truth he’s a fiction and that’s where the work of props teams and long form non-fiction writers diverge.

As someone who spent just a few days in New Orleans over a decade ago, I find the depictions in Treme to be fairly convincing. From the series I’ve learnt a lot about the challenges the city faced in the wake of Katrina. I’ve learnt more about its culture – and things I didn’t know (like their second line parades). But I'm aware that Treme is a fiction, and that to others its fabrication might not be as convincing.

‘I know a real second line when I feel it,’ says Cheryl Austin in a news story on WWLTV.com. She makes the comment at a sale of the show’s props (following the filming of its final season). She’s a real-life resident of the real-life New Orleans suburb of Treme. She’s not a big fan of the show (any more than many doctors and nurses were fans of ER). To her it lacks authenticity.

‘Don’t make this stuff up!’ I can hear Lee Gutkind (editor of Creative nonfiction magazine) calling to us all. Indeed. The trick is to fill our props boxes as we research – one word at a time.

(Oh, and props to Dave Walker for writing an article that inspired all of this!)

Windows into non-fiction craft

There’s a woman who so regularly walks on the street beyond my desk that a part of me sees her as a colleague. When she passes she seems focused, on her way to do something specific. We’ve never spoken and have only occasionally, briefly (and curiously) locked eyes. I have no idea where she’s going to (or from), nor why. But somehow I’ve felt the need to construct a story about her – and in doing so, to psychologically bring her into my working group (albeit a part of some other ‘department’ in my ‘organisation’). Sure, I’m curious about other people (aren’t all writers?), but I reckon the driving force behind this projection is that I’m a lone (not lonely) freelancer. Just passing by my window brings her into my office. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work in a writing bull pit – maybe not a newsroom per-se, but perhaps for a magazine. No doubt all the annoyances of shared working environments would be there (office politics, smelly lunches, interruptions, noise). But there would also be that sharing of daily challenges and experiences, that opportunity to learn oodles from those around me.

Windows to craft within easy reach. My copies of Stein, Blundell and Hart (an e-book but also available in print).
Windows to craft within easy reach. My copies of Stein, Blundell and Hart (an e-book but also available in print).

Clearly, on one level I feel isolated enough to project some kind of inclusion on a complete stranger who walks past my window. But I do get daily access to great minds – stalwarts of the international writing community. The truth is, I’m pretty good at reaching out – I simply lift up my hand, stretch out my arm and grasp. There I find the three tomes on writing that influence just about every assignment I undertake.

One of my longest standing mentors has been the great editor (and writer) Sol Stein in his book Solutions for writers: Practical craft techniques for fiction and nonfiction (my copy from Souvenir Press, 2006*). The title says it all: solutions, writers, practical, craft, techniques, fiction and non-fiction. Likewise the title chapters… my favourites include Using the techniques of fiction to enhance non-fiction as well as Liposuctioning flab and Conflict, suspense and tension in non-fiction. Stein’s book has chapters on story, plot, character, dialogue, tension and point of view. Many include checklists (and where they don’t I’ve made my own). I often apply these to my words before I submit. They can flag the obvious and often overlooked – such as ‘Find and delete all the verys and quites that crept into your first draft,' but Stein also poses questions to help improve the story overall. On suspense for example he asks, ‘Can you convert any sentence to a question that will arouse curiosity rather than satisfy it?’ Hmmm, can I?

While Stein helps me work with my written words, sometimes I get stuck on establishing what my story is about. That’s when I turn to William E Blundell’s The art and craft of feature writing (my copy from Plume Books, 1988). In this book Blundell applies his long experience at the Wall Street Journal to help new writers get their stories together. The introduction describes a young reporter amid a ‘snowdrift of material’:

‘Lacking a fix on his story theme, he can’t begin to write because he doesn’t know where to start. So hagridden by angst he waits for lunch and a brighter afternoon only to find – again – that time is his enemy, not his friend.’

Sound familiar? Blundell’s book includes chapters on shaping ideas, story dimensions, organisation and editing. But the resources I return to again and again are his Noodling around checklists. In them Blundell poses questions to help get to the heart of a story (before writing and even researching). It prompts you to consider your story through questions of history, scope, reason, impact, countermoves and futures. Once you’ve answered all those questions you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your story is about (and what research is missing). And that’s just one chapter (Planning and Execution) of its 200+ pages.

Despite the help that Stein and Blundell have given me, until recently I have struggled with the concept of plot (admittedly in both fiction and non-fiction). Of all the events that unfold  in a story which ones do I choose? Sometimes these are obvious, but other times they’re less easy to find. Earlier this year I finally understood it – thanks to Jack Hart in his book, Storycraft (my e-copy by University of Chicago Press, 2011). Hart articulates the connections between events, complications, conflict, resolution, desire, story and plot. My favourite part of Hart’s book is where he draws a narrative arc and explains how to populate it with scenes, episodes, questions, turning points and the story climax. With this the events from my research can finally be shaped into an engaging plot.

So it is: the life of the freelance writer. For experience and advice we turn to great writers. As for a sense of companionship? Well… there’s always the people walking by our windows.

* Stein’s book is also published in the US by St Martin’s Press under the title, Stein on writing (1998)

Social situation, business corporation: Promoting your work on Facebook

On one level, Facebook is a social situation (a virtual place where writers can combat some of the isolation our environments bring). There we can chat, network, share ideas, research and find inspiration. But Facebook is also a business tool. It has potential to deliver us to new readers and (in the case of self-published writers) to generate sales. Navigating Facebook offerings requires some deft though – both in terms of free (‘organic’) opportunities and paid ads.

Successfully advertising via Facebook is all in the pitch says Connor Tomas O'Brien. Thanks to Big West Conference for use of this image BASEBALL Pitcher of the Week - April 12-18, 2010 under Creative Commons.
Successfully advertising via Facebook is all in the pitch says Connor Tomas O'Brien. Thanks to Big West Conference for use of this image BASEBALL Pitcher of the Week - April 12-18, 2010 under Creative Commons.

‘If a stranger pitches something to you on a Facebook ad it’s going to be viewed as spam (unless it’s immediately obvious that it’s something you will be interested in),’ says Connor Tomas O’Brien (writer and co-founder of Tomely, a DRM free e-bookstore). He’s used paid ads to promote Tomely’s work with some success. ‘It works fairly well, but when people are talking about us organically it works a hundred times better,’ he says.

The minimum daily budget for a Facebook ad campaign is USD$1.00 per day, the minimum cost per click is 1 cent. Facebook’s big drawcard is that you can target your ads to specific demographics. Facebook’s challenge is that the person you’re serving the ad to isn’t necessarily online to consume your writing (they’re there to see what their friends are up to). This advertising environment contrasts sharply with ads served in the context of searches. Ads served on Google respond to the information you put into a search. Ads served on Facebook, as O’Brien says, are more often than not, ‘some horrible, stupid, annoying interruption.’

Because of this, targeting your Facebook ads and defining a strong pitch is central says O’Brien. ‘Make it obvious that what you’re advertising is something that person will care about and explain simply why they need to care.’

O’Brien noticed significantly different responses to his paid ads promoting Tomely as a bookstore and those promoting Tomely’s book bundles. ‘The bundles did a lot better because it’s easier to understand and more shareable. You could explain it in a couple of sentences, a sound bite, “Save money. Get in quick. Get all these books,”’ he says. Describing Tomely required more nuance (read more in my post Nuance and new media: the challenge of e-books)

Consider the reaction to your organic posts before spending on a paid ad. ‘If an author can’t get an organic buzz around what they’re doing a paid ad isn't going to help at all,’ says O’Brien. An ad needs to be engaging to get picked up. ‘If you can’t get anyone to pick it up just by telling them, then throwing it in their face and paying for that still won’t help,’ he says.

And as I learned, if you don’t set up your Facebook presence properly you won’t be able to maximise organic posts.

There’s a difference between signing up to Facebook and setting up a Facebook page. Choosing the wrong one can have implications.* A page is simply a presence on Facebook that those who’ve signed up to Facebook can ‘like’. It enables you (as the page owner) to write posts, but doesn’t allow you to engage with others unless they’ve specifically engaged with you. A page is more like a platform for very limited narrowcasting.

Signing up enables you to actively participate in the discussion. In signing up you are essentially creating a personal Facebook page (which you can make into your writing-promotion page by putting all privacy settings to public). Unlike when you have a page, you can post to others’ walls, comment and engage.

If you like your privacy, you might be inclined to set up a page rather than sign up. However there’s a crucial difference between the two: when you have a page, and you post to it, Facebook doesn’t deliver all of your posts to all of the users who’ve liked your page. In order for that to happen, you have to pay money. The only way for cash-strapped writers to maximise organic posts on Facebook is to sign up.

Facebook’s odd mix of social situation and big corporation makes its a tricky forum to promote the work of writers. But you can get some benefits – and even use its ambiguity in your favour. Paid Facebook posts are displayed both in the timeline and the sidebar. ‘It’s the ones that are interspersed in the timeline that are more popular,’ says O’Brien noting the blurring lines between advertising and editorial.

‘People don’t immediately peg to the fact that it’s an ad (which is really cheeky). I don’t know if that’s a strategy that’s going to work in the long term – but for the moment it does.’

*Once you’ve set up a page in your name it’s possible to change it to a personal account - but there is a drawback. By getting Facebook to change the type of user you are you’re very likely to lose your ‘likers’ (the page equivalent to ‘friends’).

On not writing

I’m a firm believer in the mantra just write. Whenever I’m hovering in that space between writing and not writing I apply it. Just writing unlocks so much of a writer’s work. It gives you the prose and the thoughts to hone. It gives you a base. It’s a 100% improvement on not writing. But lately I’ve been just writing and finding myself nowhere. I haven’t written anything new for three weeks. I know others might think that’s forgivable but I’m quite disciplined and (for me) a three week gap is pretty bad. I generally don’t procrastinate. I sit at my desk and try to write. One of the reasons I write this blog weekly is to help maintain the discipline of writing regularly. Yet two weeks ago, when I decided I had a problem, I quietly changed the About page to describe this as a fortnightly blog.

The story is there... somewhere.
The story is there... somewhere.

Admittedly my not-writing had been on the back of a dozen deadlines and a super productive time as a Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. Initially I gave myself a few days off writing and put more energy into other things (in particular, my non-writing paid work). Yet each time I sat down to just write I found myself in the same scrabble of words and letters again. A week ago, when I was stumped by the words on my page I simply didn’t post anything. My name is Pepi and I’m not writing. It was the first time since I started this blog.

I worried about it. I tweeted about it. I talked to my friends about it. I distracted myself at the Melbourne Writers Festival. And then I just gave up on it.

Since the ancient Greeks, pantheons of literature have played with the idea of a writer’s muse. In my mind the word conjures images of maidens wearing robes and clutching musical instruments (as well as more modern versions – still women – romanticised and objectified by their writerly men). The first muses were goddesses (hence the robes and feminine overtones). So it is said that muses ‘sing’ to writers and artisans. I say piff to the idea that they’re goddesses. I think muses are our inner voices. But I do reckon they’re singing to us. We just have to listen.

All the while I wasn’t writing I could only think, ‘I’m not writing!’ One evening last week I pondered somewhat bitterly what today’s post could be about. ‘I could call it On not writing,’ I thought mirthlessly to myself. Straight away the words and images came forth. My muse had been singing to me all along.

I often find that’s the case. After I’ve done my research on a topic there’s usually an element that bubbles to the top and that’s where I start. Like in this piece on Old Time dancing in Outback Magazine. (I loved the fact that these energetic dances were occurring in the most remote places). Or in this post on Killings where I was so embarrassed by my first response to an air-kiss by comic artist Sam Wallman that I made it the centre of the story.

That’s what this period of not writing has taught me. The story is always there. The muse is always singing. It’s just that sometimes you have turn those songs upside down and inside out to get the words on the page.

At the centre of writing

I remember the moment I decided to join Writers Victoria. I don’t remember where I was, or what I was doing but I do remember noting the significance of the decision. It was the first in a very long series of steps to get me to where I am now. It was the moment I formally identified with being part of a writing community. I filled out a form. I handed over some money. I became (quite literally) a card-carrying writer. Of course the journey into writing was (and continues to be) far more complex than that – but I remain grateful for my membership. In those early years I simply read the member magazine (which always seemed to arrive just when I needed reminding of my writing aspirations). As my focus on writing has increased, so too has my appreciation of institutions like this. The membership fee has transformed from a seemingly indulgent line in my budget to a necessary (and cost-efficient) investment in my writing career. I’m always surprised when I meet a writer who’s not a member.

You're not alone when you're a part of a writer's community. Thanks to Luke Chan for use of this image Not Alone under Creative Commons.
You're not alone when you're a part of a writer's community. Thanks to Luke Chan for use of this image Not Alone under Creative Commons.

As Kate Larsen (aka Katie Keys) Director at Writers Victoria says, at the very least, membership of an organisation like this gives you access to the magazine (10 times a year), which includes articles about writing, and lists opportunities and competitions. Membership can also offer substantial discounts on courses and in some cases, books. If you equate being a member as a financial transaction there’s your rational for joining. For me however, writers’ organisations offer more than that.

‘The majority of what we do is information, advice and guidance,’ says Larsen. ‘We signpost to other people and we help broker relationships.’ Writers Victoria offers courses, workshops, mentoring and manuscript assessments. They hold networking events such as Salons and generally encourage their members in their writing pursuits. And theirs is a diverse group – as Larsen notes, ‘We’re the only organisation in Victoria that works with writers at all stages of their career from early beginners to professional, published and performing writers in all genres and in all parts of the state.’

Most every community has a writers centre. In Australia there’s one in each state including the NSW Writer’s Centre, Queensland Writer’s Centre (which also publishes the uber-useful Australian Writer’s Marketplace), SA Writer’s Centre, NT Writer’s Centre, ACT Writers Centre, Gold Coast Writers Centre and Writing WA.

Larsen is new to the director’s role at Writers Victoria and has set representation and support to all writers as part of her priorities. ‘That means acknowledging that CBD Melbourne is really well serviced so we need to be concentrating outside that. Right now we’re pushing regional, digital and our work with diverse writers,’ she says.

I remember a particular time soon after I left my fulltime job to pursue writing. The Writers Victoria Christmas party was the only one I went to. (And yes, it was the only one I was invited to!) At every event I’ve been to since my community of writers has grown one by one. Those early events were a little daunting but they’re less so now. It’s because I know, no matter where I sit, there will always be a card-carrying writer sitting next to me.