Writing advice from authors – delivered via podcast

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Finding the New Yorker Fiction podcast felt like stumbling upon a private classroom, just me and three incredible instructors: the story’s author, the author reading for the podcast and Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor. On a monthly basis, Treisman invites authors in to read a short story of significance to them that appeared in a previous issue of the magazine. The back catalogue is free on the site and on iTunes and it is a trove of terrific writing.

But the beauty of the podcast is the conversation Treisman carries on with the story readers. They delicately pick apart the story’s structure, what’s happening and why, what links that might have to the author’s own life. Sometimes Deborah even throws in a tidbit about what it was like to work with that author, or what changed in the editing process. I’ve learned a lot from those podcasts.

Here, Monica Ali dissects Joshua Ferris’ Dinner Party, which is such a sly, smart story. This is a story with an unreliable narrator, and it’s so well done. It’s great to hear them discuss how he builds our understanding while never letting up on the narrator’s POV.

Karen Russell talks about the surreal appeal of Mavis Gallant‘s “From the Fifteenth District,” a ghost story that says a lot about what it’s like to live with longing and regret. There’s a lot to learn here about how to ground magical realism, and personally, I love the image of Gallant as a journalist, dreaming in a cafe about what she’s always wanted to say about Parisian life.

Gary Shteyngart gives Lorrie Moore’s Paper Losses the treatment. It’s a story that blends humour and heartache, and builds so much empathy and connection with its tiny details. She’s a master of showing, not telling.

John August & Craig Mazin are both working screenwriters with a ton of credits. (John adapted “Big Fish,” which remains one of my favourite rainy Sunday afternoon type movies, just an incredible work of whimsy where words and pictures are married so seamlessly.) For years they’ve been giving free advice over on their podcast Scriptnotes. It’s worth becoming a subscriber and picking up the memory stick of their back catalogue. A few favourites:

I refuse to listen to the outtro on this episode with Lawrence Kasdan, the genius behind Raiders of the Lost Ark, because I don’t want it disappearing from my listening list. It is an amazing discussion, about coming up in the business, building character, keeping a story going. Kasdan is so humble and gives advice to the hosts like they’re good sons that he wants to set on the right path. It’s so good, trust me.

The beauty of this episode on Treatments & Outlines is the documents that come with it: examples of John and Craig’s work on past and current projects. It’s worth a listen to hear Craig discuss how he broke the story for Identity Thief. Put it in your podcast feed – week after week, they deliver, even if it’s as simple as discussing stories in the media and how they can spawn movies or TV, and especially for the “Three Page Challenges” they offer, in which they offer critical feedback on a random selection of submitted material.

The Writers Guild of Canada produces “Writers Talking TV,” a rotating cast of interviewers and working screenwriters in Canada. Aubrey Neal adapted “Forty Words for Sorrow” into Cardinal, a six-part series that ran on CTV here in Canada. The book, by Giles Blunt, has a pretty unique POV shift half-way through the story. The story features an investigation into the police officer wrapped around the case they’re trying to crack: the disappearance of marginalized kids. Neal has some good things to say about adaptation, and how to illustrate what’s happening with characters internally.

Pilar Alessandra is a writing coach in LA, and has a huge catalogue of episodes with all kinds of writers, many of them screenwriters, but also novelists, graphic novelists, even set dressers, costume designers and police consultants. She clearly has a really diverse network! I’d recommend starting with listening to her interview with writing coach Corey Mandell (epi 412: Cashing in with Corey), in which he talks about why television has moved into a golden age and breaking down what makes some of our favourite TV characters so compelling.

Backstory is a digital magazine edited by Jeff Goldsmith, and it’s heavily promoted on the accompanying podcast, “Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith.” But that’s what the fast-forward button is for. This is a terrific podcast for writers, because Jeff gives a lot of room and asks a lot of tough questions about how stories come together and evolve before finally reaching the big or small screen. This interview with Inside/Out’s Meg LeFauve is a knock-out. Listening to it, something clicked in my brain about story climax, crisis and resolution. It’s brilliant. Same with this episode about Zootopia, which made something click about theme. (Whenever you’re feeling your project may never find its legs, give a listen to this extended interview with Margaret Nagle, about getting The Good Lie made. Wow.)

And then, of course, there’s national treasure Eleanor Wachtel, whose interviews on Writers & Company delve deep, deep into the author’s backstory, process and thoughts about writing and the impact of their work. She and her team do their research and her interviews are invariably wide ranging and in-depth. This conversation with Michael Ondaatje is one of my favourites, probably because he is one of my favourites.

(Photo courtesy of Pexels.com)

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