This episode is all me talking about what it was like to create and host Cabbages & Kings in 2015. Lots of gratitude for my listeners, identifying areas for improvement, and thinking about what might happen in 2016. No discussion of books. I talked about my reading in 2015 over on The Three Hoarsemen podcast.
A few links:
A not-quite-transcript is below. These are the notes I read and occasionally ad-libbed:
Navel Gazing 2015
Here’s a year-end wrap up podcast. This isn’t about my reading. I did an episode of the Three Hoarsemen where I talked about that. Short version - I adored Grace of Kings, Fifth Season, Black Wolves & Sorceror of the Wildeeps, while being able to see flaws in a couple of them. This is a podcast where I look back at what Cabbages & Kings is and where I’d like to go in 2016. What I’m trying to do, what I’ve done so far, what went well & poorly, and where the show might go in the future. If you don’t want that episode, bail out now, and I’ll be back in 2016 with plenty of new episodes where I talk about books and stories.
What am I trying to do
What went really well
Where is there room for improvement
What cool stuff could I do with a podcast in the future?
What am I trying to do
I started Cabbages & Kings on the theory that there are a lot of science fiction & fantasy podcasts out there, but there’s a kind of disappointing sameness that I felt left a hole for (among other things) a show that focused readers talking to readers about books, with minimal chit-chat and an editor at the least cutting out fumbles and uhms. And I figured I could make that.
It’s worth saying right here that this isn’t either unique or necessarily a “better” format than others. Friends hanging out talking about what they love is basically a genre in and out of science fiction and fantasy: look at For Colored Nerds, Fan Bros Show, or the Accidental Tech Podcast. In the genre space, I love inviting the ladies of Fangirl Happy Hour and Galactic Suburbia and the Gentlemen of The Three Hoarsemen into my ears every few weeks just to sit & converse for a while. Arguably Cooode St. is a similar format podcast. I think the best Writing Excuses episodes are not only tighter than Cabbages & Kings, but usually inspiring and insightful even listening as just a reader. I know that Sword and Laser has created a community around their reading experience, and I think Mahvesh Murad is a fascinating interviewer whether or not I’ve heard of the author she’s got on. I’m also periodically reminded how many podcasts there are out there that I don’t know about. So Cabbages & Kings isn’t an attempt to be the “best” science fiction and fantasy podcast out there, just fill a hole I saw.
According to my slightly more aspirational vision statement: Cabbages & Kings is an attempt to create exactly the podcast that I want to listen to. I want a podcast that makes science fiction and fantasy readers smile, pump their fists in recognition, and pause to consider a new idea. I want an excuse to work out ideas that are in my head and to interview a diverse group of other thoughtful readers. Cabbages & Kings is my attempt to contribute to the speculative fiction conversation in the format that I love the most.
With Cabbages & Kings I hope to focus on books and stories that I love to read, and the experiences and reactions of other readers. All of this in under 30 minutes per episode, ending with a nostalgic look back at a favorite book.
So, basically - I hate blogging because I get bogged down when trying to write words. I want to put a focus on the reading experience that readers have, and I’d like to talk about books in a way that can both gush about what we love and also apply a critical eye. I’ve found that the critical reading I like the most teaches me something about how to approach any new book or media, and I hoped to create some of that.
What went really well?
I’m going to take a moment to cheer for a moment! I put out 22 episodes in the 34 weeks between May 13 and the end of the year, not counting this one. That’s pretty cool!
I really, really enjoyed having Ethan on to talk about Ancillary Justice - I think we got at elements of the ways Artificial Intelligence and Identity are handled that I didn’t see discussed very many places, but apparently there’s a philosophy class using Ancillary Justice to talk about those very topics, so clearly we (by which I mean Ethan) saw something interesting there.
Troy Wiggins has been on twice - the podcast that we did with Khaalidah on The Fifth Season was a highlight of this year, and certainly in the first few months, our discussion of his history with the genre was one of my favorite episodes.
Talking Short Stories with Nick Mamatas was great, and the discussion of folklore with Mike Underwood was fun to do & seemed to touch a few people when it came out.
I was expecting to enjoy having fun & interesting people come on the podcast to talk about books. I was not expecting just how enjoyable it would be. Podcast recording evenings are some of my favorites. Getting a message out of the blue from Maureen Speller (who’s writing in Strange Horizons I’d recently discovered) letting me know very politely that I’d missed the point of the Buried Giant (which I confessed to at the time) and could we talk about it led to an almost two hour conversation, two of my favorite episodes, and a deeper appreciation of the book which is really the point of so much of this! You may have mixed feelings about the endless discussions of Grace of Kings, but for me, sorting out my thoughts about the book has been delightful. Plus I got to actually talk to Kate Elliott about the book (episode to come), and will hopefully get a chance to go over some of the themes with Ken Liu once I’ve finally put out the whole series of deep dives. So anyone out there thinking of starting a podcast - you get an excuse to ask your heroes and/or the smartest people you know to talk about your favorite topics for a while. It’s pretty awesome.
Where is there room for improvement?
So - I’ve put out some episodes I’m really proud of. I’ve gotten to have the thrilling experience of talking about fascinating topics & books with amazing people. Have I emphasized enough just how cool that it? It’s awesome!
There’s something Tobias Buckell said a while ago on Twitter that I keep going back to (and I’m quoting from memory here, so hopefully getting the spirit if not the words) - that he hopes to be able to look back at his writing from 6 months ago and see flaws in it. That’s a sign he’s improving as an author. I haven’t listened back to many early episodes, but even week to week I find that when I listen back to the episode, I can usually see room for improvement. I tend to think about four areas where the show can get better. One is guests & topics which I’ll talk about more in a minute, but three are basically production related:
First, there’s the actual interview. Do I hear my guest. Am I giving them space to talk & gather their ideas when that’s what’s needed. Can I listen and follow up on an interesting track. If there’s something *I* don’t understand, can I push them to be more clear? Notably, I had my mom to talk about middle-aged women as protagonists early on and was so invested in how *I* read (looking at worldbuilding and seeing the protagonist as an opportunity to reveal that world to the reader) that I didn’t really do a great job with the interview. (I’ll note that there’s a Rocket Talk episode with Kate Elliott & Emma Newman that touches on middle-aged women in genre stories which is worth listening to and which touches on some of the same topics). Listening back to the Ancillary Justice episode, I also didn’t really follow up on the most interesting things Ethan was saying. Live & Learn. I don’t think I’ve done a really a great job on any interviews yet, but I have at least learned to pause when I’m uncomfortable or confused & pursue a better line, or keep the guest talking. Editing afterwards ... Luxury! Luxury!
Quick aside - in the Three Hoarsemen episode I was on at the end of the year with Andrea Phillips, the guys and Andrea did a really good job of pulling back threads that had been mentioned earlier and either building on them or questioning the premise. They heard each other, applied those statements to their experiences, and looked for common ground or interesting differences. It’s a skill or an art or something that I’m still learning the knack of, but at least I hear it sometimes now.
Fine, so I’ve got an interview. How do I present it to you listeners? I’m not good at sticking to a time limit during the interview, so I’ve often got over an hour of audio that I’d like to turn into a 30 minute episode (which is about 28 minutes of content, and usually the significant book at the end chew up 1 to 3 minutes). I’ve been working on putting together a story structure. That was there in the first of the two Buried Giant Episodes as well as the comics episode that just went up. Ideally, I’m able to set up the interview with a story of who the guest is, what we’re going to talk about, and what the story of the interview is. Something like: After mostly reading prose fiction, I tried out a comic, and the experience was Exciting! and there were some similarities in the experience but there were important differences between the two media! This, ideally, gives you a hook to tell you why you care about the episode & what you’re listening for.
I’m cribbing here extensively from a pretty neat podcast that Jessica Abel is putting out to support her book Out on the Wire: Storytelling Secrets of the Modern Masters of Radio, which has been really helpful in thinking about how to put out a podcast.
Brief aside - the terrifying thing about doing heavyhanded editing is that I’m taking the words of someone I was talking to and trying very hard to understand and elicit responses from, and then I’m rearranging those words. And that means there’s the possibility that I’m misrepresenting them. Or missing something they thought was really important that I thought was less important. That’s already happened once (fortunately the guest took an early listen, something I offer everyone who comes on and suggested a couple tweaks), but if the best unanticipated surprise is the sheer joy I’m getting from having an excuse to sit & talk books with amazing people, the scariest unanticipated piece of this is taking other people’s words in my hands and doing something with them.
So, thing 1 that I can still improve (that sounds so much better than stuff I’m often sucking at) is getting an interesting interview with my guest. Thing 2 is shaping the audio I’ve got into a story that’ll keep you engaged and set up the key moments or insights from the story.
Thing 3 is actual post production audio. Making sure that things aren’t TOO LOUD or *too soft* and that the guest and I sound similar and transitions aren’t really ragged and all of the other stuff that you can do to work with audio to make it sound good. Despite growing up on NPR, Cabbages and Kings is never going to be something like Radiolab. I know I’ve had some moments that sound pretty awful, though. The Eye of the Tiger corny audio experiment was … a corny experiment. Was it awful? I only discovered compression (which helps make soft stuff louder and loud stuff softer) recently - before that I was balancing every second or two manually and that led to some really weird volume shifts. Truncate silence has also been a good tool to learn. I’m pretty sure I’ve still got a lot to learn about audio production. Problem is my preferred podcast client (shout out to Overcast!) does some silence truncating and audio leveling, plus I listen at about 1-and-a-quarter-speed (there are way too many great podcasts out there - 59 unlistened-to-episodes at last count.
So, good audio? Bad audio? I probably couldn’t tell you. I am going to order a pop filter, though. And hopefully in 2016 the basic “two or more people are talking to each other and it should sound like they are having a conversation without distracting background noise and plosives” will get better. If anyone has advice on the technical aspects of getting better audio, please, please let me know.
OK, so, there are the three pieces of “interviewing people”, “making you the listener care about the interview” and “making the actual sounds good”. All of those can be improved. I’m pretty sure I have improved all of these since the early episodes, and still has a way to go.
Now let’s talk a bit about who comes on the show and what we talk about. I’m a pretty firm believer that the conversation is richer and better when many people from many backgrounds are talking. Episode 16 includes a bunch of us talking about how we got into science fiction & fantasy and making fun of my notion that reading Tolkien and then a bunch of Tolkien-clones from the 80s and 90s is the cliched way to engage with the genre. (Show notes will be full of links if you want to follow any rabbit holes).
“Diversity” is sometimes a buzzword that hides as much as it obscures, but looking especially over time at the race, gender, and other backgrounds of the people I have on, as well as the topics we’ve chosen can be illuminating. So lets look back at the year:
In 2015, I put out 22 episodes before this one. Two solo episodes & twenty with guests. Ethan, AFishtrap, Troy, and Maureen were all on twice.
So 16 guests. 8 guys, 8 women. No one who identifies as genderqueer as far as I know.
4 who weren’t white, and they were all black and american
3 guests not in the US - one Canadian, one British, one american living in Germany
One thing I’m trying to do is get out of my usual Twitter book discussion bubble. 6 Guests didn’t come on because I follow & chat with them about books on Twitter, though some of them are part of many of the same conversations I am.
That gender parity was actually a pleasant surprise. All of the other numbers make we want to have a show that pushes to talk to more people outside the US, outside my comfortable Twitter bubble, and more people from historically marginalized backgrounds. I’ve got a stake in the ground this year. We’ll see how things change next year.
So, what’d we talk about -
Broadly speaking, we had some general discussions about reading history and common interests, like worldbuilding with Anna and small presses with Shana, focused discussion on specific topics like Short Fiction with Nick and Folklore with Mike, and then deep dives on specific books - The Fifth Season, Grace of Kings (sorry, there’s going to be more of this next year), Ancillary Justice, and The Buried Giant. These deep dives took up 8 of the 20 episodes with guests. Of the four books we went deep one, 2 were by women and two by men, and Ann Leckie was the only white author.
The show right now *feels* to me like it’s heavy on in-depth book discussion, mostly because I let those get out of control and have so much great stuff to run. It’s a bit light on themed discussions, though there have been more of those recently (the discussion of Saga & Comics, Folklore and short fiction). In my head, I’d like to be getting about a third of the episodes to explore a theme or subgenre while referencing a few different exemplars, about a third going deep on a book (hopefully revealing some more universally applicable critical approaches) and about a third a grab bag of other reading experiences, and I don’t think I’m there right now.
I’ll note that I interviewed 4 of the 5 white guys who came on the show about an in-depth topic - Nick on Short Stories, Aidan on Cover Art, Mike on Folklore and Carl on Queer Romance in the genre. All of these were really good episodes (in fact, Mike’s folklore episode consistently comes up when I ask people about what they’ve liked), but in contrast to the “general background” discussions with Troy and Akil, or the more back-and-forth dialog on worldbuilding that Anna and I had, there’s a trend that white guys come on to be experts at a thing. That’s something interesting to notice that I’d like not to see when I’m doing next year’s roundup.
OK enough navel gazing about who talked about what. What am I thinking about going forward?
I have a bunch of interviews done & waiting to be edited. An avalanche-load. A heavy mountain. A wince-inducing pile. It’s a little terrifying. I’m coming close to the sense that I have a process for these interviews - I listen to them, make notes, pick out key quotes, figure out the structure, then piece them back together. This process worked well when talking Saga with Parrish, so hopefully it’ll carry me through this batch & going forward. Content isn’t a problem. Figuring out a schedule I can keep is.
So is finding guests. Especially finding guests outside of Twitter, outside the US, outside the usual suspects you might hear elsewhere. Maybe even guests who don’t share my political ideology but do share my love of this genre. I’ve got a lot of room to find interesting people whose voices I’m not hearing right now. If you are one, please let me know - there’s a contact form on the website, or send an email to email@example.com.
I’d also like to try an experiment with putting together a show that doesn’t require an interview. Skipping the logistics of getting 2 or 3 people together means a back-and-forth is harder, but there’s less chance of talking over each other and no need to navigate timezones. There’s a new link on the website: cabbagesandkings.audio/wisdom-of-the-crowds with hyphens between all those words (oh just check the show notes), where right now I’ve got a bunch of questions up about Dune because 2016 will be the 51st anniversary of it’s publication so this is the perfect time to do a Dune retrospective. Pick a few questions, answer them by recording your voice in the voice recorder of your choice. Share the audio via email, dropbox link, google drive or whatever else you please, and I may include the audio in an upcoming episode.
This doesn’t have to be crystal-clear NPR quality audio. I’d suggest not recording outside in the wind, but talking into a phone headset that you’re not nervously playing with and moving around as I so often do would be fine. If you want to get fancy, real professional NPR reporters cover themselves up with coats or hotel sheets to record on the road. But record the audio & send it in. I’d love to hear what you think of Dune and put together an episode with wisdom gleaned from my listeners.
I’m also often without a memory of a treasured book to close an episode, so if you’ve got one of those, let me know.
Other experiments that may come - there’s a new show called Pilot where Stephanie Foo of This American Life puts out a single episode of something that *could* turn into a full podcast - a bunch of starter ideas. It got me thinking about what some of the other sounds missing from the genre podcasting sphere might be, so I may be trying a few things, including possibly a week or so of running very short morning bulletins. We’ll see.
I’ve toyed with the notion of running reviews on the site. A crazy idea since I mostly don’t understand the point of a review, but I try to remember that “I don’t understand” can be an opportunity to learn, so maybe if I have smart people write & read reviews of books, I’ll get the point. Maybe?
I’d kind of like to edit two other people talking about something, so take me the interviewer out of the equation. If you’d be interested in that, let me know.
I’d like to be reading more short fiction next year, so maybe I’ll figure out how to incorporate that into the podcast. We’ll see.
I’ve been hoping that after 25 or so episodes I’ll at least see a bit of a plateau. It’s comforting to think of Tobias Buckell’s “looking back & seeing room for improvement means I’m getting better”, but right now it also means that I kind of sucked at some aspects of this podcasting gig when I started. Hopefully sometime soonish I’ll have to actually work at getting better because I’ll have swiped the low-hanging fruit of awfulness. Then again, Parrish mentioned something about finding your stride around episode 100, so maybe I have a longer slog ahead of me.
Regardless, starting Cabbages and Kings this year has been an incredibly fun and rewarding experience. I’ve had people contact me out of the blue because they liked what I was making & wanted to talk about books. I’ve got an excuse to talk to readers I respect and authors whose books I admire. Apparently people in Australia, Israel, and England all listen to the show, so that’s pretty cool! I have this awesome art of a cabbage with a crown on its head that looks badass and not like a destructive meteor anymore which was draft one. I’m really enjoying this. I’m really enjoying this in large part because every once in a while someone stops by the contact form or twitter to let me know that they’re listening & enjoyed something. I think I’ve only dropped the ball on a guest once, sorry about that. I’d love to hear from you. I’d love to hear what you like about the show. I’d love to hear what I can do better. I’d love to talk to you about this genre. If you’re listening now, you’re either somewhere without access to your podcast player controls, or a pretty dedicated listener, so let me know what I can do better.
Next year will hopefully have a look ahead at reading plans, a discussion of representation within the genre, an episode on Uprooted, more Grace of Kings, quite possibly an episode on The Just City if I can bring myself to finish it, and hopefully a whole lot of other things that I can’t anticipate right now. No navel-gazing until the end of next year, though.
I’ll close the episode by recommending two short stories. From early this year, Malon Edwards’ Half-Dark Promise in Shimmer magazine, set in an alternate Chicago and a girl with a steam-clock heart who needs to get home through the half-dark. Beautiful voice and use of dialect, and Sunny Moraine’s “Eyes I Dare Not Meet In Dreams” about women who’ve been fridged returning just to watch us. I’m not much of a horror reader, and I don’t know that either of these are really horror stories, but they’re tense, wonderful, and well worth a read. When I dive into short fiction next year, I’m hoping to be able to discover gems like thse on my own.
Thanks for listening. Tweet me, email me, rate me on iTunes? Is that something people actually do? Recommend a show that you enjoyed to a friend who reads science fiction. And if I don’t have an episode that friend would like, tell me why not, or tell them to come on the show.
Happy 2015, and hoping 2016 will be even better.