Lately I’ve been listening to the Australian Writers’ Centre podcast. Backwards. I don’t mean that I’m playing each track in reverse, like a teenager from the seventies trying to find satanic messages in Stairway to Heaven. I’m listening to the episodes in reverse chronological order. I’ve got a reason for this, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The podcast is called So you want to be a writer, hosted by Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait. Each episode runs for around an hour as the presenters chat about developments the world of writing, publishing and blogging.
Every week they cover a mix of industry gossip, interesting literary links and helpful books for writers. There’s also a ‘working writer’s tip’ in response to listener questions, and an interview with somebody fascinating from the biblioshpere.
“they offer insightful commentary and analysis with a hard-earned dose of reality-check thrown in”
The podcast feels like listening in on a lively conversation between bookish old friends. Both women are knowledgeable and experienced, and their banter often has me chuckling. From what I gather, they each honed their craft in the cut and thrust of glossy mag journalism before going freelance. So they don’t just rehash the week’s news — they offer insightful commentary and analysis with a hard-earned dose of reality-check thrown in.Valerie comes across as a delightful word-nerd with a love of Latin and a penchant for punctuation, but also a feisty passion that shines through in her entrepreneurship and fondness for cage fighting. (Yes, you read that right.) In addition to working on her freelance writing and non-fiction books, Valerie is also the National Director of the Australian Writers’ Centre.
Allison often plays the straight woman in response to Valerie’s quirkier app picks or grammatical treatise, but she never fails to convey a kind of commonsense warmth and practicality. She runs an online book club, has an active blog packed to the gunnels with useful advice for writers, and in between freelance gigs managed to author an acclaimed middle-grade fiction trilogy called the Mapmaker Chronicles with its own loyal following. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Allison is the Community Manager for the Australian Writers’ Centre.
When two women with such a wealth of experience and industry knowledge get together to talk shop, you’d better believe it’s worth paying attention. And the chemistry between Allison and Valerie is so genuine and engaging that the experience is as enjoyable as it is informative.
“When two women with such a wealth of experience and industry knowledge get together to talk shop, you’d better believe it’s worth paying attention.”
But why am I listening to the podcast backwards? Why not just start from episode one and work my way forwards? At first it was happenstance. After listening to the latest installment I scrolled down, adding episodes to my Up Next list as I went. But as I listened to them I started to notice something interesting.
Each episode opens with the pair talking about what they’ve been up to over the past week, and before they sign off they mention what they’ve got coming up in the week ahead. By accidentally listening in reverse chronological order, I was hearing the outcome of the week’s events before the anticipatory chat in the previous episode. There is a sort of frisson in knowing how something is going to turn out for past-Allison or past-Valerie because I’ve already heard future-Allison and future-Valerie discuss it.
I realised I was experiencing something David Baboulene talks about in The Story Book. He calls it a knowledge gap. In fiction terms, I had prior knowledge of something one of the characters didn’t. Like when the blonde in a horror movie takes a candle down into the basement, but you already saw the guy in the hockey mask sneak in through the basement window. Knowing what’s coming makes each creak of the stairs and flicker of the candle that much more excruciating.
Of course, there are other kinds of knowledge gap. One character can know something other characters don’t, which leads to a delicious tension the reader experiences vicariously. The male lead in a romance novel is crushed when he overhears his would-be love interest declare undying love to another man, but in the next scene we discover she was helping an actor friend prepare for an audition. For the rest of Act II the female lead wonders why tall-dark-and-handsome has grown cold to her, but we readers know and it drives us crazy. Why can’t they see they’re made for each other?
I’m actually layering some of these kinds of knowledge gaps into my current manuscript. I’d like to elicit the same frisson in my readers as I experienced when I began listening to the podcast backwards. As an exercise in spotting knowledge gaps, I’ll keep going backwards until I finish episode one.
Of course, you don’t need to listen to So you want to be a writer backwards. But I strongly recommend that you do give it a listen.