Curious Rat

1 Year of COVERED — What I’ve Learned in Podcasting

This article originally appeared on Medium on October 15, 2015.

One year ago, I started this thing. I did it in part because I wasn’t satisfied with the other things that were out there. Some were recorded book club meetings, others talked to authors about their books, but not their processes, and other others talked to those authors about their processes, but not their books.

I wanted a little from each column and I figured I’d take the age old advice found in that mangled Ghandi quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Okay. I did. This is my change. I hope you like it.

But I didn’t set out to change the world. I didn’t even set out to change podcasting. I just wanted to give other aspiring writers like me another way to learn from the people whose pictures grace the backs of books. And on a selfish note, I did it so I could learn as I honed my craft, to bring myself a little closer to seeing my own novels on a shelf one day.

So, what have I learned over the course of this year? Quite a bit.

1. Care Begets Care

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on “the state of podcasting”. It wasn’t exactly widely embraced. Some people read it and understood where I was coming from. Others, well, did not. It was more a commentary on the state of tech podcasting, which I had been heavily invested in, but now, save for one show, I no longer bother with.

At the time, I’d said this:

I’m astounded at the number of so-called “professional” podcasts that leave the audio issues and “Are you there?”-s in the final recordings. Do we need to hear 15 seconds of dead air because Skype crapped out? Is every last word on a particular topic valuable, or can some of it be trimmed to tighten up a show?

Harsh, but it’s why I take extra care with my show. It’s MY name up there. “COVERED with Harry C. Marks.” That means something to me, so when I’m done recording an episode, I give it the time I believe it needs.


Each episode takes roughly an hour to record and that’s for two reasons.

  1. My time is valuable and I don’t want to edit two hours of rambling. That’s time away from my family, writing, eating, etc..
  2. My guests’ time is valuable and I don’t want to keep them from writing, marketing, their families, eating, basic hygiene, etc…

Also, having a set length of time to record allows me to prioritize which questions I want answered during the call.

Once the conversation is over and I’m left with my self-doubt, I begin to edit, which can take anywhere from 2–3 hours. Here’s what I pull out:

  • Dead air
  • Audio hiccups
  • Irrelevant conversation
  • A question/answer that doesn’t fit the theme of the conversation
  • “Umm”s and “You know”s

Not everyone will do the last one, but when I hear them on any other show, it’s all I can hear for the duration. If it bothers me, I know it’ll bother someone else, so I try to remove as many filler words as possible. I can’t always get them all, but I do my best and I think it helps.

Does COVERED sound like an NPR show? I don’t think so, but that’s what some people think of when you talk to them about heavy editing. “Oh, you’re trying to make it sound like radio,” they say.

Maybe. Radio has been around for a long time and we’re seeing its effects in podcasts like Serial and The Allusionist. One thing is certain: listeners have told me they love the show, its pace, and how clean it is. That makes my doing it worthwhile. They appreciate the effort that goes into each episode — the preparation, the combination of pre-written questions and organic conversation, and the post-production. They care because I care.

2. Don’t Sweat the Kit

If you want to start a podcast, you do not need a $250 mic and all the other doodads other seasoned podcasters might have. I started this show with a $50 Blue Snowball and a $6 pop filter. My equipment now is a little better, but not much.

I edit in GarageBand. If you don’t have a Mac or you want to try something else, Audacity works fine. You can even record a show with an iPhone headset and a voice recorder app.

Anyone who tries to tell you podcasting “costs $100 to get into, even as a hobby, even for beginners. The end,” is someone from whom you should run away. Far, far away.

Instead, read this.

3. It’s an Interview, Not a Monologue

I mean, sometimes it’s a monologue, but when I have a guest on, that’s their time to shine. I brought them on so I and my audience could listen to their experiences and expertise. It would be rude of me to hog the conversation and even ruder to expect my audience to listen to it, so I cut myself heavily out of each episode.

I’m there to pull information from my guest I think would be worthwhile to listeners. Ask a question, get an answer. Rinse, repeat. I’m not there to share war stories or drone on about my kid or my own writing (though it does come up on occasion). I’m there to listen and learn and I like to think with each episode I learn to listen a little better.

4. Don’t Just Read What You Know

I read a lot of literary fiction (because I write it), as well as mysteries, classics, graphic novels, and non-fiction. I don’t read a lot of romance. In fact, I hadn’t read any romance prior to my interview with Megan Erickson. Then I read more in preparation for my interview with Brighton Walsh and I’m once again diving into the romance pool to get myself ready for my talk with Ginger Scott.

Had I not recorded those shows, I never would have read their books. I don’t have anything against romance, I’m just not a fan of the genre. It doesn’t tickle my wicket, so I read other things instead. However, I’m glad I read their books because they taught me quite a bit. Pacing, the different ways a sex scene can be written, how to make the reader root for a character right away — all either taught or reinforced and demonstrated wonderfully in books I otherwise never would have picked up due to their genre.

A good writer writes what they know. A great one writes what they research.

5. Some Stats

I have recorded: * 15 episodes (one was the book club syllabus, which I don’t really count) * 13 guests * 9 women, 4 men, meaning 69% of my guests were female

I didn’t go into this show with an agenda. I didn’t set out to prove anything. I simply wanted to talk to other writers about their writing and it just so happened most of my guests were women.

That’s awesome! Publishing and the media surrounding it often skew toward the white male author. If my little show can give writers who would normally go ignored by the industry a little boost, then I’m super happy. I’m always thrilled when a listener tells me they went out and bought a copy of a guest’s book based on one of my interviews.

But I’d like to expand those numbers. I admit my stats also skew white. I’d love to talk to authors of other races, sexual and gender orientations, and walks of life. Everyone has a story. I want to hear them all and I want my audience to hear them all, too. I’m going to do my best to broaden this show’s horizons going forward. I can do better.

6. A Well-Seasoned Show

Remember when I said:

Is it just me, or does seeing “Episode 537” in a podcast’s title bother anyone else? Why not give up the numbering convention entirely or adopt a “season” naming structure for episodes?

Man, I was angry back then, wasn’t I? Yeesh. That guy needs a swift kick in the feel-bads post haste.

However, angry me was onto something. Serial wrapped up one season and is working on the next, and with this post and my latest episode marking the one year anniversary of the show, I figured now would be as good a time as any to draw the line at the end of the first season and the start of COVERED: Season 2: The COVERING.

Julie Wilson will be the last interview of season 1. Ginger Scott will mark the start of season 2. You will never hear me introduce the show with, “Welcome to episode 647 of COVERED.” It’s overwhelming. If I’m a listener just coming into the show, I’m thinking, “Yikes, I’ve got 646 episodes to catch up on!” I feel like breaking the show up into seasons makes the idea of a large number of episodes more palatable.

What’s Next?

Hopefully, a lot. I’ve recently upgraded my recording equipment to a Blue Yeti on a Rode PSA 1 swivel mount. Just sitting behind it makes me feel like a real-life radio host. It’s kind of surreal.

And as you can see, COVERED has a new home. We’ve flown the coop over at Fiat Lux and now we’re on our own. Don’t worry, nothing happened between Ben and I. Long story short, Ben’s working on some projects of his own that are not podcast-related and he figured it was time to let the network go. I want to thank Ben and Lorenzo for working with me get COVERED off the ground, for giving it its first home and really helping me grow the show into what it’s become.

And special thanks to Lorenzo Guddemi at Nacht Sound for the amazing work he puts into getting each episode ready for production. I record and edit, but the show sounds as good as it does because of Lorenzo. If you’re looking for that added oomph for your own podcast, check him out.

Oh, and before I forget, let me thank EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. MY. GUESTS. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even be here. Same goes for the listeners, and the Twitter followers and — oh, sorry, the orchestra is playing me off. AND THANKS TO MY MOM AND DAD, MY DOG SKITTLES, MY TAILOR, THE LADY WHO SELLS ME MY MORNING COFFEE…

As for the future of COVERED? I’d like to do more book club episodes. I’d like to talk to a more diverse group of authors as I mentioned above. I’d also love to do a roundtable panel with several authors at once, maybe at a convention where I could make a live show out of it. With video!(?)

I’ll probably never have the subscriber numbers some other shows have. I’ll never be a part of an exclusive sponsorship network, or even a podcast network (again). That’s totally fine. I have several hundred dedicated listeners eager to hear an author they might not have heard of before talk about their book and if that results in a few more sales for them, then I’ve done my job.

I’d love it if my Patreon page saw some love. Hosting isn’t cheap, especially when combined with the cost of the books I buy for each episode when an ARC cannot be provided. Even a dollar a month from a few listeners would go a long way.

Also, I’d really appreciate more reviews in iTunes. Finding a podcast in iTunes is like looking for a diamond in a room full of rock salt and the more reviews we get, the better chance we have of getting discovered by new listeners.

So, thanks for listening! I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard and if you haven’t…well…I’m sorry I failed you. I’ll try to do better. If you do enjoy the show, tell your friends, tell iTunes, tell your grandma — your grandma is totally into podcasts, right? Of course she is. Your grandma is awesome. And remember, don’t judge a book till it’s COVERED.

How Many Notebooks Do You Really Need?

There’s a certain group on Facebook for a certain kind of people who love a certain kind of pocket notebook. That’s “Love” with a capital “LURRRRVE”. Fans of Field Notes notebooks — and I don’t mean the casual perusers of art store shelves and online retailers. I’m talking about the people who hunt for lost editions like the last albino girafficorn in Africa — can spend hundreds of dollars on mulitple copies of a specific edition, or, in extreme circumstances, for one hard-to-find set. This is their thing and they let their flag fly high and I say good for them! We should all be passionate about something.

I like Field Notes. And Word notebooks. And Story Supply Co. notebooks. And Baron Fig notebooks. And almost any other kind of notebook I can get my hands on. I’m not here to denigrate someone’s collection or hobby, nor their choice in notebook. If this is your version of stamp collecting or obtaining plaster casts of rock stars’ penises, then keep on keepin’ on. I’m not here to judge, though I do wonder how you explain the latter to your in-laws.

My issue is not with collecting because everyone collects something at some point, right? My issue is with hoarding. We all know the signs. Stacks of blank notebooks we bought with the intention of filling with our wildest dreams and our most creative fictional feats and the occasional grocery list. These perfect-bound and saddle-stitched ghost traps of potential were meant to inspire us, but instead they just keep looking at us. Staring us down. Asking us why we haven’t picked up that pencil or fountain pen and started scribbling down our life’s work. I know I have a boxed set of the Field Notes Workshop edition notebooks sitting on my desk waiting for my delicate flourishes to tickle their pages.

Maybe our handwriting isn’t as florid as a Founding Father’s. Perhaps our ideas aren’t good enough to grace the smooth pages of a notebook named after a painful, temporary loss of vision due to overexposure to the sun’s UV rays. Or maybe we like the idea of an endless supply of notebooks in case we get up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night with the next Great American Beach Read rattling around in our heads and we don’t want to be stuck wondering why we didn’t order 47 packs of the ruled editions instead of the dot grid. Sorry, I can’t get behind paper that looks like a template for hair plugs.

Whatever the reason, no amount of shrinkwrapped three-packs are going to make you more creative. The words don’t come easier because you have more places to put them. That’s on you and you can do it in a Mead composition notebook or a Moleskine. It does not matter. Think of it this way — would that $1,000 pack of butcher blues linked at the top be worth more if Stephen King had written the first draft of Carrie in them? Probably. Now, what if you had been the person to use them and went on to such great success? Would they have remained better kept in your desk drawer or on some shelf?

I’ve stopped purchasing notebooks until I’ve filled the ones I already own. Call it pragmatism. Call it a lack of storage space in my house. Call it wanting to pay my mortgage on time. There’s only so much joy you can get out of looking at an unopened pack of notebooks before that joy is replaced with longing. Longing for stories untold and lists un-checked, for ideas and phone numbers and ephemera that whips across your face like a blizzard as you go about your day.

A notebook should be valued by the words with which we fill it, not by its edition or availability. Paper is a commodity. Good ideas are not. A notebook isn’t worth more because it’s rare. Its value should be dependent upon the life it’s led.

I have a little joke I like to tell: What do you call an unsharpened pencil?


What do you call an empty notebook?

Penciling in a New Passion

In the early days of the internet as we know it, before the whole world had the ability to instantly flash-mob a hashtag and drive a person into self-inflicted witness protection, small communities cropped up around myriad topics. Books, sports, kayaking - you name it, there was a group of new joiners and old hats ready to type about it.

And then the world became the internet. The few resident experts in an IRC chat room soon became whispers in the arenas of Twitter and Facebook, where everyone was now an expert. Everyone was a curator, or an artisan, or a homeotelepathic gluten whisperer who prefers coffee roasted in the basement of an old beer bottle factory no more than five miles away and exactly 47 hours prior to being hand ground by an ex-nun and filtered through an unused cloth diaper into a mason jar. You know, the real way coffee is meant to be consumed.

With so many “experts” on a particular hobby or lifestyle, how is someone new to know where to look? That’s where I found myself a year ago when I abandoned the toxic waste processing plant 1 known as “tech blogging” for something simpler. As an avid supporter of analog tools and stationery, I dipped my size 13 toe into the waters of writing implements. I had no interest in blogging about them. People with far greater talent than I had already cornered that market. I simply wanted to graduate from Bic ballpoints to something better without taking out a second mortgage on a limited edition Mont Blanc.

I started by listening to the Pen Addict podcast. Brad Dowdy is a man who doesn’t just know pens, he knows how to make something daunting, like choosing an ink or a beginner fountain pen, seem as simple as choosing an Applebee’s appetizer. His shows tend to be grounded in single topics for discussion rather than rambling about anything and everything under the paper sun, so learning something new is as easy as devoting an hour or so to an episode. The Pen Addict podcast seemed like a small mountain I had to climb in preparation for Kilimanjaro and it’s a step I’d suggest anyone take before diving into the pen pool wallet-first.

From there, I checked out sites like Ed Jelley’s blog and S.B.R.E. Brown’s YouTube channel, and eventually found my way to dedicated pen stores, such as Pen Chalet and JetPens. JetPens has been as big a help as Mr. Dowdy in my education. The people who run it seem as interested in helping current customers as they are in acquiring new ones. Since I bought my first Pilot Metropolitan long ago (a stellar pen at such a low price), I’ve been tweeting them questions about converters and inks and even penmanship tutorials and every time, they’ve come back with advice and products to genuinely help me find what works for me. I’m never sold more than I need.

On the graphite side are the pencil enthusiasts, such as Tim Wasem, Andy Welfle, Johnny Gamber, and Caroline Weaver, who’ve also been instrumental in broadening my horizons beyond the old reliable Dixon Ticonderoga #2. The Erasable Podcast, much like the Pen Addict, took me to school from episode 1, revealing an entire landscape of pencils from all over the world. Bullet pencils, Blackwings, Generals - and sharpeners. So many sharpeners, from hand-cranked Classroom Friendly machines to one-holed wonders. And again, those who’d established themselves as experts in the field were ready to guide me and others toward the tools they knew we would love.

That’s what I’ve come to truly adore about this community - and it certainly does feel like one. No matter how green I may feel when looking to upgrade my pen or try a new notebook, I don’t hesitate to ask. I’m never made to feel stupid or like a “n00b” for asking the difference between nibs or graphite hardnesses. And with shepherding from the blogs and podcasts listed above, I’m starting to understand what I’m looking for in new additions to my collection. Furthermore, I’m not looking to amass a collection. I’m interested in acquiring those few special pieces that make my fingers twitch with anticipation when I open my bag. The ones that draw a smile out of me when I twist them sharp or post their caps.

I recently purchased a Lamy Al-Star fountain pen in copper orange with a medium nib. I love its design and the way it feels in my hand. Simple. Clean. The color looks like something pulled from a car’s palette, like a modern General Lee made pen. And it writes so smoothly, I actively look for things to write so I can use it.

I also made a point of picking up a bottle of Diamine Autumn Oak ink, which, as expected, has the orange patina of fallen leaves in October - a true schooltime color I’m happy to use all year round. I never thought I’d enjoy colors that deviated too far from the blue or black spectrum, but the more reviews I read, the more I’m drawn to deep purples and smoky grays.

So, here’s to the inky ones. The writers. The sketchers. The Field Notes hoarders. Thank you for your patience and your tutelage. I am grateful and I look forward to passing on what I’ve learned to another who might begin as I had in a state of overwhelming confusion. It’s nice when you find the right tool at the right price. It’s even better when you find the right people are only a few clicks away.

  1. It doesn’t actually clean the waste. It just churns it into an even thicker paste that erodes the soul of the reader and turns the writer into a shell incapable of expressing any emotion other than a smirk as he excoriates a new gadget he’s only used for three days. 

My Growth as a Writer

Trees grow. So do tumors, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with likening my writing to a cancerous mass of cells. Others might be, however…

I’ve been querying my third novel, LUMINOUS, for the last several months and in the rejections I’ve received, I’ve noticed something different from the last two books I queried: feedback.

Whereas before I’d send a query letter via an email pigeon, only to have it turn right around with a, “Thanks, but no thanks,” wrapped around its ankle (and those certainly still hit my inbox), today I’m seeing more personal notes. Phrases like “smart sentences,” “strong project,” and “very interesting,” are making their way into my rejections, proving something is different about this book compared to the first two I wrote.

It’s not hard to see what changed—I did. I got better. My writing muscles strengthened. I have a storytelling six-pack where used to reside a keg of naive optimism. And that came about from a simple trick I learned while reading a bottomless pit of articles on writing:


That’s it. That was the big trick. Every morning on my train into New York, I read, and every morning for two hours in a Barnes & Noble cafe before work, I wrote. What struck me as I read was how my brain processed the prose. I used to read only for pleasure. I’d wander into the woods of a plot and set up camp for a few days to breathe in the fresh air. I still love living in books, but now as I wander among the trees, I stop and admire the flowers growing between them - the turns of phrase, the metaphors, the carefully structured sentences. I read to learn as much as I read to escape. My forest is more lush than I once thought.

My observations have paid off, too. When I go back to read my first book side-by-side with my latest, I can see the cringe-inducing difference. I might as well have been hopped up on Benadryl and mushrooms while I queried that first novel because that never should have left the desk drawer. I was hopeful and stupid. I was going to be the one to break the rule of first novels. Mine was not only going to be published, but it was going to define a new era of literature and—

You can stop laughing now.

LUMINOUS, however, is what happens when a writer finds his voice. It’s what is born of voracious reading and near-paralyzing fear of failure. LUMINOUS is the book I always wanted to write. It’s proof of growth. The story is tighter. The language is cleaner. I imagine it as the final project of a class taught by Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Anthony Breznican - a class I still worry I failed, but one in which I got a few points more than I did the last time I took it.

Reading is everything. It’s almost more important than the actual writing. I absorb the books I read and in turn churn my stories in my mind to thicken them up. To make them richer. And I don’t just read the literary powerhouses to enrich my writing. I read genre novels to observe pacing and romance and action. I read bad books to know what not to do. I read award winners, award losers, and books that wouldn’t be allowed within 50 feet of an awards stage.

Read everything. Read fiction. Read nonfiction. Read short stories and novellas (where some of the best world building and pacing happens because there are limitations for the writer to overcome). Pull it all apart and sew it back together again and use that to nurture your craft.

Growth is necessary for a writer. It’s natural. A writer who doesn’t grow is a writer no one wants to read, for if a writer doesn’t grow, the stories he or she tells don’t grow, either. And who wants to read a malnourished, neglected story? I know I don’t.

Literary Links for March 16, 2015

Chuck Wendig:

Nobody is good enough to tell the stories and ideas inside them. I mean that sincerely. The ideas in my head are shining beams of light, perfect and uninterrupted. And when they finally exist on paper, they end up fractured and imperfect — beams of light through grungy windows and shattered prisms, shot through with motes of dust, filtered up, watered down.

But sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes, a beam of light is still a beam of light no matter how diffuse it is, no matter how dirty the light, no matter how filthy the floor is that it illuminates. And when it’s not enough, you keep on trying until it is.

My books never come out the way I envision them and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean the doubt ever goes away, but I’m glad my feelings are also experienced by successful writers. I don’t feel alone in my failure. It makes me want to keep going, to get better.

Lincoln Michel for Electric Literature:

An appreciation of readers as diverse individuals with different tastes should be a basic tenet of criticism. Instead, it’s common for critics to imagine that their aesthetic preferences are the reflections of “readers” or a special class of readers—“serious readers,” “imaginative readers,” “brave readers,” or some other ill-defined category—whose views truly matter.

I don’t judge anyone for the books they read and love. Any critic can hoist his elbow patches upon a desk and tell a reader he or she is wasting his time enjoying “un-literary” books. The job of a critic is to make us ask questions about a book to better understand it, not dismiss it for its genre or because it’s “for kids.”

Literary Hub:

There is more great literary content out there than ever—but it is scattered across the Web. Literary Hub brings it together in one place, a go-to daily source for all the news, ideas, and richness of contemporary literary life. With the help of its partners—a cross-section of the best in contemporary literary publishing—Literary Hub will feature original and curated content about books and the people who write them, read them, love them.

I signed up. Seems like a great way to catch up on my literature-related news now that I stopped using RSS altogether.