Matt Sumell’s short stories have appeared in the Paris Review, McSweeney’s, One Story, Esquire, Electric Literature, Noon, and elsewhere. He is the author of MAKING NICE (2015) which received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, was praised as “Sharp and funny…offers up unexpected scenes of deep and sorrowful humanity,” by the NY Times Sunday Book Review, and was chosen by Buzzfeed as one of the Best Literary Debut of 2015, Bustle as 2015’s Debut Books Too Good To Miss, and Fiction Advocate as one of The 10 Best Books Of 2015. MAKING NICE has been optioned by WB for a TV Series. Matt was also picked as a 35 OVER 35 (Thirty-Five Debut Authors Over Thirty-Five). He is a graduate of UC Irvine’s MFA Program in Writing.
Smith Henderson’s fiction has been anthologized and published in Best American Short Stories, Tin House, American Short Fiction, One Story, New Orleans Review, Makeout Creek, and Witness. He was awarded a 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award in fiction, and a 2011 Philip Roth Residency in Creative Writing at Bucknell University. His short story, “Number Stations” won a Pushcart Prize and a finalist honors for the University of Texas Keene Prize, where he was a Michener Center for Writing Fellow. Smith is also the author of the debut novel Fourth of July Creek (Ecco), a 2014 New York Times Notable Book. It was the winner of the 2015 John Creasy (New Blood) Dagger Award and the 2014 Montana Book Award. It was also a finalist for the 2015 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the James Tait Black Prize, the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Ken Kesey Award for the Novel, and the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction. The novel also made the longlists for the 2016 International DUBLIN Literary Award, the Folio Prize, and the VCU Cabel First Novelist Award. The book appeared on the Best Books of 2014 lists for The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Kansas City Star, and Book Riot and Powell’s Book Store. An accomplished screenwriter, he is a staff writer on the “The Son” for AMC and co-wrote “Dance With The One”, a 2010 South By Southwest Narrative Prize Finalist.
Dara Resnik graduated the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC in 2003, and attached Amanda Bynes to her Peter Stark thesis script, Sydney White, which sold to Universal and Morgan Creek, who released the movie in 2007. Her feature writing credits include 2008’s Legally Blondes, a made-for-DVD spin-off of the MGM Legally Blonde franchise, as well as several projects still in development. She has spent a decade writing and producing television on Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Pushing Daisies, Mistresses, Castle, Jane the Virgin, Shooter, and Amazon’s upcoming I Love Dick from Jill Soloway. Her pilot, Lethal, is in development at Universal Cable Productions (UCP).
Making a name for yourself at one of the country’s top on-air storytelling shows can be almost impossible! But Davey Kim went from college DJ to Snap Judgment producer/sound designer with his tenacity, love of great tales, and ability to hunt down tense, breath-taking tales. Davey’s work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, The World, The Dinner Party Download, Weekend Edition, Re:Sound, KCRW’s Unfictional and KPCC. Atlantic named one of Davey’s stories one of the 50 best podcast episodes of 2015. Even with success, Davey still searches for honest, incredible stories. In this interview, we discussed his journey to the airwaves.
Davey will be teaching a class on Radio Storytelling (4 Wk) at Writing Pad San Francisco starting Wednesday, 11/30, where you’ll learn everything you need to know about creating great stories for radio or podcasts. Until then, let’s get a little personal with Davey.
1) Let’s start off by talking about how you got into radio. Would you mind telling us a bit about your background and how you navigated the soundwaves to get places like APM’s Marketplace, NPR’s Weekend Edition, and Snap Judgment?
My first radio gig was with UCLA Radio. I was a music DJ then and wasn’t actually interested in radio professionally. I was just a musician who simply liked the idea of sharing cool (but not so cool anymore…) music to anyone who would listen. Plus, I got to sneak in some love song messages to my then partner…
Anyhow, from there I met the business reporter for my local NPR member station (KPCC) at a bar and asked if I could volunteer at the station. During that stint I was able to work with an editor to produce my first freelance piece. I remember taking an extended bathroom break during a midterm to listen to the piece live. From there I was hooked. I got another internship with The Dinner Party Download, which happened to share the same building with Marketplace, which ended up being my third internship (I was not their first choice btw, their original pick had forgone the position and I was the quick fill-in).
When that was over, I was very lucky to land an internship with NPR’s Weekend Edition in DC. Three months in, I was hired by Snap Judgment. I honestly don’t know why I was hired by Snap. I’ve been here close to three years now and everyday I still walk into the office open-mouthed and wide-eyed because Snap Judgment was my dream job. It was actually one of the first NPR shows I ever listened to. You could say that I hustled and networked like hell along the way, but I think it ultimately comes down to preparation meets luck and opportunity. Mostly luck.
2) What are your top three favorite podcasts right now (other than Snap Judgment)?
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of 2 Dope Queens, If I Were You and I Brew My Own Coffee. But I am also a big fan of Limetown, Slate’s Political Gabfest, the NPR staples and seven dozen other shows…
3) Your episode “Unforgiven” was listed on the Atlantic’s top 50 podcast episodes of the year. They said that your portrayal of an unlikely relationship between a widow and the wife of her husband’s killer “pushes [Snap Judgment] to new heights.” It’s true. It’s the sort of episode that makes you audibly gasp in public. How do you find such intense narratives, and what is the process of designing a piece which does them justice?
This story started off with a stray thought in my head…I wanted to explore what it was like like to confront, and in my story’s case, befriend, your lover’s murderer. So I spent two weeks researching every kind of story on this tragic and twisted scenario possible. I ultimately came across Kathleen Murray Moran’s story on her website. I won’t give the story away, but it is unlike any other befriend-the-enemy story you’ve ever heard. The interview was the shortest and longest three hours of my life. I spoke to her remotely while I was in my kitchen and I don’t think I flinched an inch. It took about a half hour for Kathleen to warm up to me, but once she got going, the story told itself. Required minimal editing and scoring.
4) Ok, Davey. We *have* to bring up the time that you got an entire shoulder (was it shoulder?) tattoo and then proceeded to go directly into teaching a class. It’s the stuff of Writing Pad legend. How do you manage to go from long hours in the studio, to tattoo salons, to competitive bike polo, to teaching amazing classes at Writing Pad?
It was a full half sleeve that took about 15 hours over the course of two days…I think I have a high pain tolerance? I’ll credit my many years of competitive running, unicycling and biking. Ohhh who am I kidding…that killer red bell pepper hummus kept me going strong. And I guess you can say working with a fabulous class motivated me as well.
5) We know that you’ll cover this more fully in your class, but would you let us in on one thing that Snap Judgment looks for in a story to air on the show?
Tension. If there wasn’t any palpable tension or rising stakes, why should I care about this story?
6) What advice would you give to DJs, hosts, and everyday avid podcast lovers who are hoping to break into the field of radio production?
Make sure you listen to every single podcast and radio show related to what you are interested in producing. There are so many shows out there now that your content must be one-of-a-kind in order to be heard. And make sure to always take extra batteries for your recorder!
7) What is the most memorable piece you or a member of your team as worked on?
I worked on a story called Chin-Kyll and Bo-Ok: Across the DMZ. It’s about the story of what happens when you are reunited with your North Korean sister for the first time in over five decades (via webcam). This story was personally relatable because my grandmother was separated from her brothers during the Korean War and has not heard from or seen them since. I also enjoyed this story because it’s not a typical happy reunion story that you see on TV. It has dark unexpected twists and turns that catch you off guard. I also used my parents as voice actors…which was a very novel experience because before then, I had never heard my parents speak to me in English.
8) Would you walk us through the process of a radio piece from story scouting to final touches? How many interviews do you conduct with a subject? How long is the original tape? How much time do you spend on editing/sound design?
1. Research and Pitch.
2. Interview (2-3 hours). Some stories don’t make it past this step, for various reason. Sometimes the story doesn’t turn out the way you expected or the ending is not satisfying or the the interviewee is not a good talker.
3. Produce a very rough version of the story and get edits from one colleague.
4. Incorporate Edits.
5. Play it for the group and receive more edits. I would say roughly a quarter of our stories do not make it past this round…many tears are shed.
6. Pickup Interview (2 hours)
7. Produce a more complete version of this story
8. Few more rounds of edits
9. Story gets handed off to a sound designer
10. Story gets aired! Pat yourself on the back. Repeat.
9) I know you will cover this in class, but could you give us a sneak peek into some techniques which make stories successful on air?
Radio stories must have a conversational feel! The easiest way to check for this is to read the story aloud while writing it and ask yourself, do I talk like this in real life? For example, no one uses the word iridescent in day to day speech. So please do not use it. I am tired of NPR reporters using that word…rawr.
Thank you so much, Davey! We’ve got A LOT of podcasts to listen to now! We can’t wait for your Radio Storytelling class. Sign up before it’s sold out!
Breaking into television is tough. Staying there is even tougher. Three decades? Nearly impossible. Enter: Karen Hall. Since her time as a staff writer on MASH in the early 1980s, Karen has written for sitcom (ROSEANNE), political drama (THE GOOD WIFE), and crime (BROTHERHOOD). She’s mastered longevity. She’s mastered versatility. In this interview with TV Writer Karen Hall, she discusses her long career.
Karen will be teaching a fully-conferenced live online class “Intro to TV Writing” (7 Wk) at Writing Pad starting Tuesday, 10/18 where you will learn everything you need to know about TV writing fundamentals and crafting a great TV series. But until then, here’s a little bit about Karen.
1) Would you start by telling us about your background and how you broke into the biz?
I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old. My first grade teacher made the class write stories. I told her that I didn’t know how to do that. She said, “Write three sentences and make something happen.” (To date, some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received.) I did that, and I loved the feeling. And I discovered that I was good at it. So, I had a laser focus from then on. I was extremely fortunate to have had some truly gifted writing teachers, and they are why I was able to succeed. I had originally planned to major in English (Creative Writing) and write novels, but my advisor and I did not love each other (interesting story – I’ll tell you if you take my class) and I switched to playwriting. When I was ready to graduate, I decided that I wanted greater job security than Broadway could provide, so I moved to Los Angeles with the intent of becoming a television writer. I met Alan Alda through a class I was taking and he liked my writing, so about a year later, when MASH was ready to hire a new staff writer, he recommended me. I went in and pitched ideas and they gave me a freelance script. They were very happy with it, so I was off and running.
2) What are the top five scripts that all aspiring TV writers should read?
I recommend scripts for writers to read based on what they are working on or would like to do. I tell them to read pilots because that’s what I think they need to be writing right now if they are trying to break in. For sitcoms, I recommend reading/watching the pilots of Friends, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Frazier, and The Big Bang Theory. For half-hour one-camera: Pilots of The Wonder Years, The Office, 30 Rock, and Arrested Development. My favorite one-hour pilots are The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. I also really like the Bloodline pilot and The Night Of pilot.
The great thing about wanting to write for television (or any media, really) is that a wonderful and inexpensive education is out there to be had: I learned everything I knew, before breaking in, by studying what the people who went before me had done. But then, I was learning when there were no great writing classes like the ones that Writing Pad provides. I would have killed for that opportunity!
3) During your 1980 debut on “Eight is Enough,” what was the most crucial thing to learn?
I was very lucky because I had a great mentor, my playwriting professor Louis E. Catron (whose books are available on Amazon) and our class was set up in a way that taught me both how to write and also how to take criticism from my peers. (Writing Pad’s classes are set up the same way.) Being able to get feedback from my fellow writers was really valuable because television is such a collaborative effort, and I learned early not to take criticism personally, and how to use it to make my writing better. One thing that I did not learn from my classes (because they were for playwriting and not for television) was how to structure a television script. It’s something that most beginners don’t seem to learn from watching television and it can be taught in a way that gives beginning writers a big advantage over their competition.
4) You’re a script cleanup pro. What is your most dramatic example of a script revision?
Well, as a showrunner I’ve had to throw scripts out entirely and do a page one rewrite in 24 hours, complete with all new stories. That’s about as dramatic as it gets. I typically check into a hotel, hide, have people bring me food, focus on the script and nothing else. It can be done, when you know what you’re doing.
5) What is the most valuable piece of advice that a writing mentor has given you?
It came from my sister, who is also a television writer/producer (Barbara Hall, currently EP of Madam Secretary). I was in the early stages of writing my novel and I was calling her constantly to talk about it. One day, having had enough, she said, “Just shut up and write the damned thing.” It not only worked for the novel, but I have internalized it and every time I find myself complaining about writing instead of actually writing, I hit myself over the head with it.
6) What was the writers’ room like for women in 1980?
I can only speak to my own experience, and I was so young then, it has always been hard for me to separate how I was treated because I was young from how I was treated because I was a woman. I can tell you that there were a lot of requests for me to wear dresses and sit across from the mirror, which were made in jest, but not really. One thing I remember well is that the first 20 minutes of every morning at the writers’ table would be talk about sports. As a result, I became a lifelong sports fan. I had to start watching sports and learning about sports, so I wouldn’t be bored out of my skull for the first 20 minutes of every day (I bore easily and I can’t stand to be bored, which turns out to be a good trait for a writer) .
7) How television writing evolved over the last 30 years?
The changes in the form of technology have been mind-boggling and they have been constant and fast (Writers have also listened to 30 years of “the technology is in its infancy, you can’t share in the profit yet” but that’s another story). When I started, there were just the three big networks and everything was “appointment TV” because there was no way to record a show and watch it later. A show didn’t have to be something like Game of Thrones to be a “water cooler show.” It wasn’t difficult for a show to get attention. In the course of 30 years, telling someone what I do for a living has changed from “I LOVE that show!” to “I’ve never heard of that.” I really don’t like that part of it.
I like it when everyone is sitting around the campfire, listening to one story that they will all talk about tomorrow. On the other hand, the sheer number of shows has created a great advantage for writers because there are now so many jobs for them. Choosing to be a television writer is not as outlandish as it was when I broke in. In fact it’s a very pragmatic career choice right now. As far as the storytelling itself, the basics of telling a good story haven’t changed since Aristotle wrote The Poetics. I do like that part.
8) You’ve been in the game writing longer than the average screenwriter. What’s your secret?
I actually know the answer to this! Again, I have my mentor, Louis Catron, to thank. He started his classes by teaching students the importance of writing from a credo. He harped on this and made us actually write our credos. This gave me an early sense of the importance of “self as source” that I think it responsible for the longevity of my career. It is impossible to guess trends and figure out what “they” are going to be buying this year. But if I ask myself what I’m going through, what my friends are going through and what people really care about at present, I can come up with ideas that I’m excited about writing (so I don’t get burned out) and touch something in people because they are universal.
That’s a deep well from which to draw, and so far, I haven’t reached the bottom. I think it has also been important to be versatile, to be able to write many things. When I was on MASH, I remember people declaring that comedy was dead. And it was starting to limp. So I went from there to Hill Street and I have jumped back and forth between comedy and drama, long form and short and everything in between. I always take a job if it’s something I haven’t done yet, though these days that’s hard to find!
9) From political dramas to sitcoms, you’ve written it all. How do you cultivate versatility?
Like I said, I push myself to do things I haven’t done yet. Right now I’m working on a lavish 16th-century mini-series set in Spain and a British movie that is a cross between Emma and Atonement. Those are both things I haven’t done yet. I push myself to say “yes” when it’s something I’m afraid of doing. One thing I have to say, though, is that versatility has a lot to do with talent. If I hadn’t been born with a sense of humor, I wouldn’t be able to write comedy. So a lot of my versatility has to do with things over which I had no control. But there is a lot about being versatile that can be learned, and it’s smart business practice. If you are a versatile writer, you have a much better chance of finding a good job.
Thank you so much, Karen! We’re all one step closer to writing our first eye-catching pilot. We can’t wait for your Intro to TV Writing class. Sign up before it’s sold out!