T. M. Camp: How I do it

T.M. Camp is an all around good egg and the author of the novels “Assam & Darjeeling” and “Matters of Mortology” both of which are available as free audiobooks on iTunes along with his latest podcast The Gospel of Thomas.

General Writing Questions

1. Before you begin writing, do you script out the general outline of plot and characters, or do you let these situations evolve as you write?
The majority of the time, I let things evolve. I spend a lot of my downtime thinking about what I’m working on, so there’s a fair amount of informal story development and outlining that takes place in the back of my head. But that’s more like rehearsal than outlining.But the story is in charge. No matter how much planning I’ve done, I invariably find that the story needs to go in a different direction, characters are doing things I hadn’t expected . . . and those discoveries are always better than what I’d planned. Also, it’s much more fun. I’ve been a playwright for about twenty years now. Writing prose is a lot like working with a director and actors. The script serves as a blueprint, all sorts of dimensions to the story get discovered when you have other minds coming together to build it out. When writing, for instance, “Assam & Darjeeling” I had my own ideas about the story. But it didn’t take long for the characters to take me much further and in different directions than I’d expected. Even to the point where characters I hadn’t anticipated showed up, leaving me to wait and see who they were and what their role would be. I didn’t know who Juniper was until the first draft was nearly finished. Looking back through the text I found lots of little clues that someone had left there, but it certainly wasn’t me (at least, not my conscious mind). Once I put them all together, it was obvious.When I’m writing — and I mean this sincerely — it truly feels like there’s more than just me working on the story. Imposing my own outline on that (on them?) doesn’t just seem a bit selfish, it also has a hint of sacrilege to it. And the results are rarely satisfying.

2. I’ve heard repetitively that writers should deal with writing as any other job. Do you have a scheduled or structured writing routine? Please detail.
I’ve spent most of my professional life writing during my day job. And then most of the rest of my free time is spent, well, writing. With a pretty busy life, kids and family, it can be tough to nail down a routine . . . but that’s certainly what I try. I write every day, but it might not always be according to a routine. Sometimes I steal little scraps of time here and there when I can — slow time at work, on my lunch break, sitting in my car outside my daughter’s ballet lesson, etc. I work in Advertising and we track out time in fifteen minute increments for billing purposes. I think that focus on productivity has helped me in my writing by making the best use of the time I’ve been given, even if it’s brief.But most days I do have a set writing time, once the house has calmed down and everyone’s gone to bed. Usually that’s around 10:30 in the evening (sometimes it might be a bit later before I can get started). I try to go for as long as I can. Because I write most of my first drafts in longhand, there’s always a point in the process where I come back to those pages and I can see myself drifting off in mid-sentence. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I could stay up until three o’clock in the morning without feeling it too much the next day. Once I got to forty, it seemed like midnight was the shut off point. Recently though, I’ve been trying to moderate my diet and schedule to get back into shape. Right now I’m edging back up around one o’clock and I’m hopeful i can get back to two o’clock.

3. What is your writing environment like? (cats, music, computer etc.) How has this evolved/changed?
When I first started writing back in junior high, I had an old Royal typewriter I’d found in a junk store. I used to pound the hell out of that thing until my dad would come in and tell me to keep it down. Eventually I inherited an electric typewriter from somewhere, which increased my speed and noise at night. It must have sounded like a tommy gun. Fortunately, my parents were pretty patient.In college, there were these things called computers that you could write on, but they were clunky things that somehow got in the way of the writing itself. Once I discovered the Macintosh, however, I was hooked.These days, I find myself using different tools depending on what the project is. For formatting reasons, I find my plays flow much better if I stay on the computer. Poetry is always pen and paper, and I’ll go through draft after draft until it feels like it’s right. Once I get the final one done, then that gets entered on the computer.With prose, the first draft is almost always done in longhand. I’ve been writing with a fountain pen for a number of years now, and that has become a big part of how I work. Longhand has it’s own rhythms that work well for me. And I enjoy the tactile action of the pen against the paper much more than the keyboard/screen. I like the subliminal effect of the ink drying behind me as I’m writing. And the ink I use (Private Reserve) has a faint, unique odor to it as well. Those things might be more than a bit fetishized for me, but they help get me there. I don’t need them to write, of course. I can quit anytime. Ahem.Music has always been a big part of what I’m writing as well as the process itself. There might be a song that stays with me or an album that serves as the perfect background for what I’m working on. On longer projects, I’ll sometimes put together a playlist. (For what it’s worth, the playlist for my novel “Assam & Darjeeling” is online here http://www.tmcamp.com/2007/03/the-music-of-chance/).Years ago I wrote a play over a period of a few months, listening to one song over and over again the whole time: Artie Shaw’s “Stardust”. A few years back, I started lighting a candle at the start of a writing session. Also incense is often burning. My writing is very much tied to my spiritual life and beliefs, so these things just feel right somehow. We have cats and I like having them sitting there, sleeping while I work. But despite what they seem to think, their editorial opinions on anything in progress are not welcome.

4. Do you write anything, or have you, that is solely for yourself? (no intention of sharing with a large audience)
Not to be disingenuous, but I feel that way about most of my work. Everything I write, first and foremost, is for myself. That other people are nice enough to show some interest and read it — well, that makes me very happy.But there are other things that aren’t likely to ever be shared with anyone else. I keep a semi-regular journal of my dreams, going back fifteen years or so. No one sees that but me, although I often find elements and images from them creeping into my writing. Sometimes one of those things is the trigger for a story, as with “Matters of Mortology”.And over the past twenty years, I’ve been adding little memories and reflections to a document on my computer. It’s very incomplete, just a collection of scattered scraps of memory from my past. It might stand dormant for months and then I’ll add a few more entries. Moments from childhood, mostly. I don’t expect it will ever be seen by anyone else, it isn’t being written for anyone else at least.

5. How has social media played a role in your writing?
When I was young, I would stay up late and write and look out my window at the night. It was a pretty lonely time but I enjoyed the quiet house, the stillness around me. And I always felt like there were others out there, doing the same. Now I know I’m not alone.I originally started exploring social media/networking with the purely crass intention that it would prove to be a good way to share and market my work. I saw these things — Facebook, Twitter — as odd little blips and fads, just more online novelties for people to waste their lives on. I’m not proud of that attitude, but it’s the truth. It’s where I started.But as anyone who knows me — online or off — can attest, my experience dramatically changed my opinion. The depth of a relationship that somehow forms in 140 character interactions astounds me. There are people on Twitter and Plurk (for instance) that I feel a real kinship with. I’m not entirely sure how that happened, but I’m very grateful for it.As I am for the community of writers out there, working late into the night just like me. The invocation of Seshat on Twitter just blows my mind, for instance. It’s like prisoners tapping out their little morse code, building solidarity and sharing tidbits of information under the nose of the warden. And it’s entirely true to say that any credit for a following or platform I enjoy as a writer is completely due to very, very nice people on social networking sites showing their support and enthusiasm for my writing and spreading the word even further. Oddly enough, that’s the by-product now and not the objective. I’m pretty glad for that shift in my own thinking as well.

Podcasting Questions

1. What type of OS do you prefer? Linux? Mac? Win? What are your machine’s specs?
I’m on a MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard and Garage Band.

2. Would you please describe your current studio? How has this changed? (What did you start with?)
My first recordings were done using an old Belkin mic. Eventually I rigged up a makeshift guard out of an old nylon stocking and a cunningly twisted coathanger. All of my recording was done in an open room, which is painfully obvious from the relatively low quality of the sound on my first recordings. Last year I finally got serious and bought a proper mic — a Blue Snowball and stand, with a professional pop guard. After looking around online, I built a recording box for myself using a plastic storage crate and some high density acoustic foam. The mic stays in the box and, I’m pretty happy with the quality overall. I got the idea from reading up on how reporters record voiceovers while on the road.I record in my office in the basement, so I still need to be aware of ambient noise. Most of my recording takes place when everyone’s gone or very late at night. Also, the water meter is in the corner of the room — so if anyone uses any water in the house, it sounds like a giant hamster is getting a drink. I’ve had to do a lot of retakes because of a toilet flushing somewhere.

3. If you were able to build your dream studio, what would it include? Be as specific as you wish.
I’m pretty happy with my setup overall. I wouldn’t might having an actual booth to record in, but that’s just a luxury. I wouldn’t mind adding another mic to the setup, though. I’m getting ready to record a few scenes from my plays, and the logistics of having another performer/reader is tougher than I expected.

4. Other than a computer, what piece of HARDWARE would you recommend to a new podcaster?
As I’ve discovered, a professional grade mic is crucial. And every amateur ought to build a soundproof box. The difference is so great that I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I have to go back and re-record “Assam & Darjeeling” this spring. The original just doesn’t hold up.

5. What have you had to learn for yourself that you wish someone could have warned you about?
Again, it’s all about the quality of the recording. I think there’s such a broad variance, that people’s standards can be pretty low. But when you hear something well done, it pushes you to want to do better. I settled for the lower hurdle early on and I regret it now.

6. What would you consider a “beginner’s mistake” you’ve either experienced or hear others making?
Apart from the quality issues I’ve been whining about, one of the big mistakes I made on my first podasted novel (“Assam & Darjeeling”) was separating each chapter into a separate episode. A fair number of those chapters are actually briefer than the intro/outro which is something else I plan to remedy with a new recording. No one’s really complained, but I imagine it’s irritating.

7. How much time does it take, once you have all the elements, for YOU to put together a 30 minute podcast? (please describe your production technique)
While I’m working on my next novel, I’m podcasting a new anthology show called “The Gospel of Thomas” which consists of different shorter pieces, mostly stories and poems that have been sitting on my hard drive or in my file cabinet for a while. It’s a way to share some of those smaller pieces that might ordinarily get lost in between the longer works.

Each episode includes a free downloadable PDF of the text pieces from the show. So my first step in preparing a new episode is to select which piece I want to use and get it laid out and ready for the PDF. Once that’s done, I spend some time sorting through what else I want to say about the piece.

I’ll usually run through that a few times before I’m comfortable enough to record it. I’ve got a long commute and I spend about two hours on the road every day, which gives me plenty of time to rehearse and polish what I want to say. I made a decision not to try and script anything for the intro pieces, preferring the spontaneous and natural approach.

It’s usually on that commute that I try to nail down what I want the bumper music to be. There’s a local music group called GeniusCar that’s given me permission to use their work, which is about 15 different albums of material at this point. So I’ve got a lot of variety to work with.

When I feel like I’ve got all the components lined up, I wait for a time when I’ll have a quiet house and get everything set up to record. The Snowball mic goes in the box and the box goes on the table in my office. I sit down in front of it and start recording. I’ll typically start and stop once or twice during a session, but I save all of it just in case I want to piece things together later. Once I’ve got the intro recorded, I move right into a reading of the story or poem for that episode. I print out the story or poem for that episode ahead of time, reading off of the paper resting on a small document stand to the left of the mic.

Everything is organized and edited in Garage Band, with each component recorded on its own track (intro, music, story, closing). I spend a fair amount of time tweaking timing and cutting out dead air. Once I’ve got a fairly strong rough cut, I’ll leave it alone for a while. Usually this means overnight and I’ll give it a listen on the way to work the next morning. If I hear anything that needs fixing, I’ll take care of that over my lunch break so I can post everything later in the evening.

I kick out a couple of different file formats (MV4 for iTunes and MP3 for RSS subscribers) and upload those to the server along with the PDF. I manually manage the XML file for the podcast, so I spend a little time adding a new listing and description for the latest episode. Once I get the files out there, I update the www.gospelofthomasonline.com website with the new listing and hit the iTunes ping address to refresh the feed.

And then I pour myself a drink.

But to answer your actual question, I probably spend two to three hours on every 30 minutes of finished recording.

Casting Questions (answer if you can)

6. As far as cast goes, what would you like to try, but haven’t so far?
I haven’t done a casted show yet, but I’m planning to do some scenes from a few of my plays in The Gospel of Thomas. I have some opinions and ideas that i’m looking forward to trying out, but I can’t really answer these from experience at this point.

General Questions

1. If someone approached you with THEIR book, and asked you to podcast it for them for a fee, what would you consider a reasonable rate per episode? (The way YOU do it)
First of all, I’d be so honored that I’d probably forget to charge them. If they insisted on payment, I’d probably ask somewhere around twenty dollars an hour. Part of that depends on how long the piece is and how much time I’d need to devote to it. It would have to be worth my while to do it, since I’d be taking time away from my own work in progress.

2. Do you podcast as part of a larger plan, or because getting your content out in some manner IS your plan?
I started with the “just get it out there” idea, but over time I’ve developed a formal strategic plan for sharing my work through a variety of formats/media. My approach to podcasting has evolved to fall more in line with that broader plan.

3. What is the nicest compliment you’ve been paid or what keeps you coming back?
I think one of the nicest things I hear is people asking where they can buy a copy of the book. That’s a real validation of all of the work I do.

I get a handful of e-mails from listeners each month. That someone took the time to listen to the entirety of “Assam & Darjeeling” (for instance) and then took the time to let me know how much they liked it, that makes my day.

4. How important are numbers of downloads/subscribers to you? Do you keep track?
I use Feedburner to monitor the activity. It’s hard to know how accurate those numbers are, but I try not to read too much into them. I think that it’s easy to make stats the only measurement of success, putting quantity over quality.

5. How important are reviews left on Podiobooks/iTunes/other venues to you?
Again, I really appreciate that someone took the time to listen and then went that extra steps to review or rate it as well. Even if they don’t express undying love and devotion for my creative genius, I always appreciate them circling back to participate in the process as a reader. I think it’s great.

6. If not answered previously, how do you read your manuscript while recording (hard copy, teleprompter, etc)?
For “The Gospel of Thomas” I rely on a hardcopy, but that’s a pretty short format. For the novels, I open up the document and read it off of the screen. One of the big discoveries I made getting “Assam & Darjeeling” ready for printing/publishing was that I’d broken up the text a great deal during the recording process — which made it optimized for reading aloud but rather difficult and disjointed to read on the printed page. I ended up having to tighten everything up again in the final draft.

Comment Pages

There are 2 Comments to "T. M. Camp: How I do it"

  • I had never thought of building a box around my mic! I was thinking of a padded box around me, but my mic would be a lot easier. Does that really work as well?

    • odin1eye says:

      Thanks for the comment! From my research and the number of people that podcast that I’ve heard speak of it, I would say it should most definitely work. If you try it, let me know, as I am always interested!

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