With the wealth of incredible short fiction podcasts competing for our earspace, the talented voices behind the recordings are the spoken-word heroes. I recently had the chance to ask Kate Baker of CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE fame a few questions about narrating, music, self care, and hats. (And if you're looking for more Kate, check out her interview Carl Slaughter over at File 770.)
You’ve narrated for many splendiferous venues of the years. In your opinion, what makes for a good podcastable story (I need to trademark that word). Dialogue? Number of characters? Sparse or verbose prose? Enough coffee in the morning?
I believe that I try to do my best with works that have multiple perspectives, but I think my strength lies in narrating stories that have maybe two or three point-of-view characters. It also helps that a lot of smaller casts rely heavy on dialogue or introspection. Intimacy plays a heavy part in that medium and it exists in a contract between writer and listener. So, even if I’m conveying the part of an unreliable narrator, I am trying to be genuine in that portrayal.
While I can appreciate beautiful and lyrical prose along with the skill needed to compose it, I find a lot of truth in stories that don’t strive to be pretentious. Ultimately, it all comes down to your particular taste in fiction. As we’ve seen in our own community, there are stories that bind us and divide us. No one really knows the magic formula for what makes a song top the Billboard charts, or what makes the perfect short story or novel. I’m just glad we have so many voices out there to cater to all sorts of reader or listener. Some may see it as a weakness, or an oversaturation of the field. Some may feel that we’re all yelling out at the same time, but maybe it’s your voice, or your words that connects with someone to let them know they aren’t alone. That’s a superpower. Use it wisely.
Also, I never liked the taste of coffee, unless it’s mixed with lots of chocolate. Enough coffee ice-cream in the morning, maybe.
A story is purchased, it’s slotted for a particular issue of CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE, and, wa-la!, it arrives in your inbox ready for narration. Take us through a podcast from beginning to end, from receiving the story to the final edits. The equipment? The programs? Sweeping up clumps of hair pulled out in frustration?
A while back, Neil gave me access to the scheduling doc so I can see what he’s contemplating for the next issue. I’ll take a peek throughout the month, silently curse him for the word count, then verbally curse him when we get on the Xbox to play Destiny. He proceeds to grow horns, gives an evil laugh, and conjures the contract I signed in blood. I’m just kidding. I signed it with tears. (insert sad laugh)
I have very little if anything to do with the final edits. That’s all up to Neil and Sean and the proofreader. If I happen to catch anything while I’m recording, I’ll send notes to Neil letting him know, but that happens rarely. A few days before the issue goes out on the 1st, I grab the link to the story, head down to my TARDIS and get to work. I work off an IPad now, which is better than wasting all that paper. While I stick to the familiar in the intro, I try to customize it a bit with the season or current events. If any of the staff are going to be at a convention, I’ll mention that along with the plea for support. Once I introduce the title, author, and bio, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I jump into the story cold and just get going. Depending on length of the story, I will be in the booth anywhere from twenty-five minutes to over two hours. The longest story took me about two and a half hours for 22,000 words. I was not having a good day, only because I could only think about how long it was going to take to edit and produce it afterwards.
Once I’m done narrating, I take a break. Believe it or not, narrating is just like any art. Your body needs a bit of time to recover. Your brain is negotiating with your voice on how to convey something while simultaneously arguing that it didn’t sound quite right and to do it again. So, I grab some tea, get some other work done, and then sit down to edit.
I started off with a Mac Mini, GarageBand, and a Blue Snowball mic, which is a great setup for Mac users just starting out. While not my platform, there is very good advice out there for PC users who’ve turned to Audacity as well. I’ve heard a lot of good sound coming out of minimal setups. Unfortunately, much to my own consternation and the abuse of my wallet, I’m a perfectionist and I am constantly tweaking things and upgrading when I can. I’ve gone from that tiny little Mac to a MacBook Pro, ProTools, and Rode NT2-A microphone. While the Blue brand serves the community very well, I am in love with my Rode.
In addition to your podcaster graces, you sing, and compose electronic music. Many voice actors consider narrating/reading characters to be akin to music, the different beats, high and low notes, finding the right pitch and breath for a character. Do you find your musical talents enhance the narrative experience and/or vice versa? Or are they two separate beasts?
First of all, I love this question and truthfully, I hadn’t thought of music and narration merging as such. Now that I think about it though, yes, you are absolutely right and thank you for the different look. I wonder how I can use that to my advantage in the booth.
Like music, a story is a similar composition and not just in the basics, but in the finer things. I think because I’m a huge fan of the genre and storytelling in general, I’ve let the words guide me instead of making the choice for the characters. Think of grooving along to a song that just moves you. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but often times it does. A well-written protagonist or antagonist will tell you how they want to be conveyed, just like a song will make you tap your foot or sing along.
On the technical side, there are a few stories which require singing and the training I’ve received throughout my life is helpful in that case. I think for those of us who are singers/narrators, we do use some of the skills we’ve learned in vocal training. Warm ups, taking care of our instrument (rest and lots of water), proper posture with shoulders back, chin up, and using the diaphragm to push that sound through the lips.
The oddest thing I’ve found in cross-over though, is how narrating for the past ten years has helping my writing. I’ve recently sold a short story that I probably couldn’t have written back when I was just starting out. When some of the greats in the field give the advice that you must read more to be a better writer, listen, but I think it infiltrates you in ways you weren’t expecting.
CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE was one of the first online/print magazines to dip its toes into the podcast waters with Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Clockwork Chickadee.” Since then, CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE now offers 6 – 8 podcasts a month and has a dedicated listening audience. What is it about audio fiction, and podcasts in particular, that appeals to fiction lovers?
Ease of use. A trusted voice. Intimacy. A lot of people have written in saying while they enjoy the stories themselves, they particular enjoy that I send them to bed each night, or keep them company on a long drive. Other times, I’m washing dishes, mowing the grass, planting a garden, or folding laundry with my listener. Some of the emails I get are so touching and my heart goes out to those who’ve found escape when needed or fought their way back from tough situations. That I’ve been a companion in the dark or on lonely roads, is such a privilege.
Let’s change hats for a minute (and you do look lovely in hats, by the way). What drove your interest in becoming the non-fiction editor for CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE? Do you forsee a future where non-fiction articles are included in, or are the focus of, one of the monthly podcasts?
*tips her hat* Why thank you.
I hate this position so damn much, but I stick with it because it forces me to stare my imposter syndrome in the face. Long story short -- Jason Heller, my excellent predecessor had beautiful things exploding all around him and followed them. Unfortunately, with the new time constraints, he had to give up the job with the magazine. Neil mulled his options after Jason’s departure and I of course opened my stupid mouth and was like, “What can I do for you?”
Yep. Neil slyly sent me his editorials and pieces to edit in the interim and I apparently did a good job, because he offered the position to me shortly thereafter. Sometimes, all it takes is someone who believes in you, when you can’t do it yourself, to make all the difference. Every time I throw my hands up in a tantrum, he’s like, “No. You are doing a great job. Stop it.” I stop it and bury my nose back in the work. I hope I’m selecting and soliciting stuff that the readers like.
As to incorporating it into the podcast. I’m not going to lie, that’s really dependent on the readers and listeners. We’ve been the slow and steady animal in this publishing landscape, adding content and features when we have the support to do so. If it’s something that is genuinely wanted, I’m hoping people will show us through donations, subscriptions, Patreon, etc. I would love to do it, but I’d have to find a way that didn’t kill me completely. I take on a lot of work already and I’d have to get some help if we found it feasible.
Back to podcasting. You’ve mentioned during the outro on numerous CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE podcasts that you couldn’t stop crying after a story. Do you consider those stories “easier” or “harder” to narrate because of the depth of emotion they evoke?
Both. It takes me time to recover if the story is emotionally engaging. If I’m slobbering all over my microphone, my nose gets all stuffy and runny at the same time, and my voice cracks. It’s embarrassing and awesome at the same time. I have actually had to go back and re-record a section on the fear that the emotion might be too much. A good majority of the time though, I leave in the original take. A good way to figure it out is if I make myself cry while listening to myself cry. Yeah, I know. Shh.
When I was first starting out, I’d spend a lot of time seeking out reviews of my work, (again the Perfectionist talking) and after I picked myself up off of the floor on many occasions, I remember one person saying they were annoyed that I cried all over the commentary. Then more people would email or ping me on social media saying how appreciative they were of the emotional punch. I am going for authentic. I am going for genuine. I am thrilled that it works for most people. As for the rest, see above answer regarding tastes in fiction. It runs the same for taste in narrations. I’m coming to understand my brand of narrating may not work for audiobooks, and I’m okay with that. I already have the best and brightest listeners in the world.
In the FILE 770 interview Carl asked about your work for the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), but what are your thoughts on the intersection of the SFWA and fiction podcasts? The EA ARTISTS flagship podcast ESCAPE POD is listed as a qualifying market for SFWA membership, but they publish the prose version of the story in addition to the podcast version. Would it someday possible for a market to qualify based on audio fiction alone? Could narrators someday apply for an Affiliate Membership after a certain number of audio books or fiction podcast narrations?
Personally, I would love to see the rules change to encourage inclusion of all forms of media and professionals. I believe we are stronger as a community when we embrace all of our talents. Many skills translate into other forms, and the pool of knowledge is so much greater when we remove barriers. This year, SFWA took an important step with admitting game writers and we already give an award to Best Dramatic Presentation each year at our Nebula Awards. From my understanding of the rules, the Bradbury Award can include dramatic works from cinema, television, radio, audio, and stage productions. Our voters tend to favor the longer cinematic works though.
Unfortunately, in my work as Operations Director, I do not set policy. While I can advise on matters, it is up to the members of the organization to suggest changes like these to the elected Board. They will shepherd it through the process.
If the Kate Baker of now could reach back in time and speak directly to the Kate Baker the new podcaster, what words of wisdom and caution might she share?
Treat yourself kindly, Kate. It’s a lot of work. Especially if you are doing most, if not all of it. From setup, to narration, to taking care of your body and instrument, to editing, to producing, it takes a lot of time and don’t underestimate your abilities to accomplish, but don’t overburden yourself either.
Don’t take on more than you can chew. It’s okay to pass on projects and people will understand if you have to say no.
Don’t read your reviews. The affirmation you seek comes from those who love you, who reach out, who ask for a hug at a convention because you made them cry in a good way. Don’t listen to the one person who didn’t appreciate your art, but to the many who’ve been there cheering you on from the beginning.