So You Want To Make A Fiction Podcast?
June 28, 2021
I started my first podcast, Lost Terminal, exactly a year ago, and I have now published four, ten-episode seasons, four patreon-exclusive special episodes, and shipped dozens of shirts and posters to fans. This post contains everything I can think of to help you do the same.
Part 0: Podcasts are FANTASTIC.
They’re almost as simple as a blog to produce, but allow you to present your story or information in a much more evocative and personal medium: Voice, sound, and music. Additionally, and unlike something like Youtube or Spotify, you retain total control. All you need, essentially, is a website to host MP3s, and an XML file that tells people where those MP3s are. There are plenty of services that will do this for you for a few dollars a month (I use Spreakerhttps://spreaker.com ), but that’s what it boils down to: No gatekeepers, no monopolies, no algorithms.
When you think of podcasts, you might think of the million talking-head interview or discussion shows. That’s not what I’m going to talk about here. For those to work, I think, you need a very different set of skills. I am going to talk about FICTION podcasts. Drama. Radio plays: Scripted, meaningful, careful, stories. Think Welcome to Night Valehttps://www.welcometonightvale.com , Within the Wireshttps://www.nightvalepresents.com/withinthewires , or Moonbase Theta, Outhttps://monkeymanproductions.com/moonbase-theta-out/ .
This essay is in two parts, a case study and a summary of what I’ve learned along the way.
Part 1: A Case Study
In July of 2020 I was burnt out. I took a week off from my job to get my head straight, and by thursday of that week I had decompressed enough to start thinking properly. I realised that I could make a really great fiction experience using the technology I had developed to make a few of my music videos, such as my cover of Want You Gone, by Jonathan Coulton, the Portal 2 credits songFans of Lost Terminal may notice that I used the same drum pattern for the credits at the end of the episodes! :
The look of this 80s scrolling text on a CRT REALLY inspired me. I could make something retro, but futuristic! And so I started brainstorming what would become my podcast, Lost Terminalhttp://lostterminal.com .
Working Within My Constraints
I had the seed of an idea: A computer that communicated through a text terminal. I’d never seen anything like that. But what of the story, and of the world? I had never done something like this before, so I took stock of my experience, both good and bad:
- I’m a music producerhttp://oat.sh/namtao-spotify , writing music and, probably, sound effects would be possible
- I love public-speaking, so I could voice whatever I write, and
- The scrolling terminal video method was ready to go
- I have no video production experience
- Nor much story writing experience
- And I’m not a very emotional person - could I even write impactful stories?
So I put these constraints together to build the setting of a single-person-narrator, who speaks to us through a computer. The character would use text-to-speech, so we can’t hear his environment, so he would be an A.I. - that would release me from recording sound effects as a typical radio show would include.
Also, and I must get a little personal here, I realised that my non-neuraltypical condition, autism, could be turned into an asset, not a liability. Though I feel very under-qualified to talk about emotions and mental-health issues, I do feel uniquely qualified to write about a computer who is slowly understanding human emotion. You gotta work with what you’ve got!
I started with these constraints and wrote and recordedWith a TERRIBLE microphone! a 5-minute pilot episode of a little satellite talking to us from orbit, shopped it around to my friends, then re-wrote it and published, with my partner Lucy recording some credits promising that “Lost Terminal will return next week”. There was no going back now!
Part 2: What I have Learned Along The Way
A summary of my advice in the next few sections is simply to write for yourself. Write the stories you, or perhaps your younger self, want or wanted to hear. It’s much easier to know what will be well-received if you are both audience and author.
Genre and setting
First, you must choose a genre, which is often closely linked to the setting. This can be anything from sci-fi to satire or horror. This is the canvas you will frame your story on. In many ways, both the genre and setting are unrelated to the story and themes you want to explore. Star Wars could be rewritten in Renaissance Venice and it would have just the same message of hope and rebellion.And, as a bonus, it would still have cool swords! Choose a genre you are familiar with; choose one you like.
As well as the setting, also consider the way you present the story in terms of narration. There are many options for you to consider:
- Present tense or past tense?
- Will you have a single-person narrator, or a full cast of voice actors?
- How about bespoke background music?
- what of sound effects?
We must all work to our constraints. If you’ve got enthusiastic and talented friends, you’ve got a ready-made cast! Recording will be more complicated, but you will manage. However if it’s just you with a microphone in your bedroom, that’s also fine.
My recommendation is to understand your constraints and let them shape the setting. Some of the best and most influential stories are told by a single person whispering in to a microphone - and you can always add more people later! The most important thing is to START.
Themes and topics
This is what your story is REALLY about. Not the location, not the framing, not even the story and charactersThough you could write a character-heavy exploration story, I suppose? Not my cup of tea . The BIG THEMES your characters explore within the framing of the world are what you will be writing about mostly: Environmentalism, class struggle, slavery, mental health, the meaning of art, the meaning of LIFE. The topics are the reason you want to write. The topics are the reason you NEED to write.
The topic and themes should get you out of bed in the morning. They should make you proud of what you write, make you hunger to learn more about it, so you can better distil that information down into your work; and here’s the most important thing: To leave people richer and better for experiencing your story.
It’s OK to start with a simple story concept or a character concept that you think is fun, but that won’t keep you going. As you’re writing your first draft or pilot episode, look for the themes and topics that are creeping in to your work. Your brain won’t let you write about anything else. Seize them.
You may know how to write a story, you may not. When I started writing Lost Terminal I certainly didn’t. But I have good news for you, if you believe Kurt VonnegutIn his lecture On The Shapes Of Stories https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ there are only 6 stories in the world.
- Rags to riches (a story that follows a rise in happiness)
- Tragedy, or riches to rags (one that follows a fall in happiness)
- Man in a hole (fall–rise)
- Icarus (rise–fall)
- Cinderella (rise–fall–rise), and,
- Oedipus (fall–rise–fall).
Write one of these if you are having trouble coming up with your ownThe Guardian has more on the subject at https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jul/13/three-six-or-36-how-many-basic-plots-are-there-in-all-stories-ever-written - it doesn’t matter. As I said before, the real impact isn’t the plot arc, it’s the themes of your podcast. Sure, it’s fun to have a cute satellite protagonist, but the deep themes will be what people come back for again and again.
How to write, according to Neil Gaiman, is that “You sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”
Writing to the regular schedule required by a serialised podcast can take two forms:
- Write it all beforehand and record to your schedule.
- Write it just in time to your recording schedule.
Though the former is more relaxing and safer, I’m going to argue you do the latter.
Like many of us, I struggle with getting things done. When there are no deadlines other than those I create, it seems like I can finish my projects whenever, which of course actually means ‘never’. There are tools and projects that helped me in the past, the only novel I’ve ever finished was because I committed, very loudly and publicly, to NaNoWriMo, and smashed 1600 words into my laptop every day for a month. Though I’m very proud of what I wrote, I don’t think the pace is sustainable for a podcast, and I certainly didn’t have fun. I recommend a much more sedentary 500 words per day. This allows you, if you like, to have a 20-minute podcast completed in one week. My schedule, for your interest, is simply:
|Tuesday-Friday||edit this week’s episode, and write next week’s episode.|
|Saturday||Record this week’s episode|
|Sunday||Edit audio and music.|
|Tuesday||Do it all again|
I get up early and do this before my day job. It only takes an hour, and means that I give my best, most focused time to my project. Some of you will be night owls and can do this at night, others have busy lives and can only spare a lunch break - choose a schedule that works for you.
You can bunch those up and record a whole season of them, or as I’ve said, you could release them straight away. Why would we subject ourselves to this hectic schedule? Motivation and feedback.
Motivation for me relates to the thrill of FINISHING something. “But what if I’m not finished editing” I hear you cry. I have good news: The work is never finished. As Bill Condon says, simply, “No piece of writing is ever finished. It’s just due.”. So, you get it as good as you can do, and then you record. The act of recording, of speaking the script out loud, is a huge advantage that book authors do not always have. It’s a great check, in my experience, and errors are corrected either consciously or unconsciously, while speaking.
Feedback is VERY USEFUL, espicially when you’re starting out. If you keep your script to yourself, you’ll never improve. If you get an editor, you’ll have two heads to improve it. But releasing it to the world for comment will get you 1,000x that. You also might find aspects of the story people pick up on that you didn’t even notice. Maybe they love the background character you put in for just one paragraph - Time to give that person their own arc!
And, of course, positive feedback and praise is very motivating.
If you, as I recommend, record and publish early episodes before later episodes have been written, you may worry about how to guarantee continuity. While I made some small mistakes in my pilot episodeSee if you can spot them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3bDE9kszMc , both factual and plot-related, no-one cares. Not ONE person has pointed out the errors. They have, I imagine, forgotten them under the weight of subsequent episodes. This happens all the time, to professionals in every industry, from TV shows to movie series. You can even, and this is another advantage of retaining ownership of your mp3s, CORRECT THINGS AFTER PUBLICATION! I’ve only had to do this once, where I somehow duplicated a sentence and didn’t pick it up in editing. It’s such a relief to be working in a forgiving medium.
Allow yourself leniency in the pilot for small errors. You have to, otherwise you’d never get the damn thing out the door!
But, for the rest of your story, you must plan.
A good friend of mine, Neil MurtonDo buy his wonderful book of 100-word stories here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Magpie-Tales-Mr-Neil-Murton/dp/1500287849 , gave me some advice when I was starting out:
Knowing the destination is a big help when planning the trip.
YOU. MUST. PLAN.
Once you’ve chosen your plot arc (or chosen one of the 6 plots) write it down in a table, and sketch out for yourself what happens for each of the plotlines in your series (there can be overlapping plots). My advice for this is to start at the end, the resolution, then the start, then the mid-point, then fill in the details.Dan Wells has a great video on his take on story structure you should watch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcmiqQ9NpPE
That’s it! Those are all my secrets!
Here’s a dump of the tools and services I’ve used (chosen for PRICE mostly, but they also work well)
- http://Spreaker.com - podcast publishing.
- Cool Retro Term - this is a fun old-fashioned CRT-themed command line for mac and linux. Saved me doing any complex video FX for the videos.
- OBS - Open Broadcaster Software, fantastic screen and camera recording/streaming software, which I use for capturing the terminal
- Lightworks - very inexpensive video editing software, I chose this because it’s professional software that supports Linux. I’m ALWAYS happy to support companies that make great software for linux! Works on mac and windows too, of course.
- Bitwig - my digital audio workstation, all my music is produced using this. If you know about Ableton, it’s an Ableton clone, half the price, and works on Linux.
- RØDE Procaster - microphone. Every podcaster needs a nice mic to whisper into! And this one is a modern, good-value broadcast-quality mic.
You should also check out the podcast Start With This, from the creators of Welcome To Night Vale, both which were a HUGE inspiration.