Writers’ Virtual Interviews: Leverage Your Team and Talent
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of authors have learned to deal with professional obligations via the cruel miracles of online technology. We’ve all become Zoom proficient and surf-savvy, sometimes against our will, turning the lockdown into a lifesaving whirl of virtual signings and workshops and luncheons and book clubs.
On the one hand, the isolation gives us loads of time to glue our butts to the chair and crank out words, but the isolation and insulation are real and uncomfortable. And though the pandemic has directed so many eyeballs to the web, there’s a real power to connections and authentic social engagement for colleagues and fans who have felt cut off from their genre community. While we’ve been kept apart for the whole world’s health and safety, podcasts and interviews have flourished.
Anything that helps people feel connected has garnered disproportionate attention and enthusiasm, natch.
So as it happens, this lockdown revived an old trick I use whenever I am working on cross-promo with a colleague. To be honest, I worried the advice I’m suggesting today is too obvious or too ubiquitous to be of much value, but I also know that folks under pressure sometimes skip the basics. So at the risk of teaching trout to swim and sparrows to fly, I’d like to talk to you about the easiest way to put together a successful promotional interview. Even if you use this technique before, hopefully I can throw a couple of cool tools into your bag of tricks.
When it comes to promo,interviews offer a perfect opportunity to highlight your selling points without sounding like a monomaniacal jerk. They can also create rich territory for reader crossover and market expansion, so long as you’re willing to juggle a few brands, personalities, and egos. We all have books to sell and we all have stories to tell and an interview affords a perfect opportunity to do both.
Unfortunately, sitting down face-to-face happens pretty rarely in our industry. We’re all scattered and those moments when we find ourselves in the same ZIP Code, the time is too precious to waste on a formal confab with a microphone aimed at our gobs. The truth is getting everyone together is the biggest hurdle. That’s why interviews interest people: they’re difficult to schedule and tricky to navigate.
BUT… thanks to the miracle of online workflow, collaborative documents and virtual office software allow colleagues to create an interview environment with relatively little stress and no obstacles. So long as you both have access to a computer, tablet, or smart phone dazzling interviews are possible even if your schedules never align.
That last factor is key. All of us have crazy calendars. All of us face deadlines and distractions which make lining up our daily agendas a Sisyphean task. Happily, the one thing we all know how to do can create the illusion of exchange, continuity, and direct conversation even if we cannot ever participate in an interview at the same moment. This can work with a journalist and you, a crosspromo buddy whose launch overlaps, or a group of authors discussing a topic.
Setting Up Your Virtual Interview
With most interviews, all the participants have wacky schedules and no wiggle room, so the first thing I do is create a document shared with all of the parties concerned. This can be done in GoogleDocs, Dropbox collaboration, Microsoft Office sharing, or virtually any project management software which allows multiple users. Out in the Muggle world, this software helps teams of professionals can cooperate on a single project when it’s most convenient and logs their efforts on the fly. That same functionality works perfectly for authors who need to bend space and time so they can all sit at the virtual table together.
I’ve used this method for media blitzes, book launches, and cross promo; in fact Heidi Cullinan and I do an upbeat series called the Sweet Spot for HEA/
Once your team is assembled and the basic thrust and tenor of the interview has been established, each of the participants can pop in and out of that document whenever they have a free moment or a cool idea. Often I will salt in several loaded questions and observations relevant to the subject which I know will give the other folks stuff to respond to in a cool way. And if I think it’s appropriate I will insert bracketed placeholders for potential lines of inquiry and exploration which they can pick up or discard as the wind takes them. This serves two functions it allows me to talk about the stuff I find interesting in a way that inspires me, but it also allows everyone else to do the same organically. No one dominates the discussion. No one’s schedule creates a problem. No one cracks the whip. No one gets left out.
Because we’ve set a topic and the deadline right up front, all the participants can dip in at their convenience. Sometimes one person may have a lot to say and that will kickstart the interview. Sometimes everyone just has vague notions and general questions and we need to slot them together in the document to see where the interesting friction and tension hides. The important thing is that we do it in the document as a cooperative group. The conversation we’re having is actually happening, it’s just happening over chunks of unconnected time and then stitched together as a single conversation because we are all genre writers who know how to create the illusion of an organic discussion. We are using our craft to help our careers. Yay!
Recipe for a Successful Online Conversation
There are several things you can do to stack the deck in everyone’s favor.
- Be clear: Post clear expectations and deadlines posted at the top of the document so everyone knows the goal and the stakes. No one need be confused about the task at hand or when it must be finished if all that information is right up top visible the moment the document is opened.
- Make recs: In practice, I also love to reference books, authors, and themes I love so I will often add a list of possible shout-outs as hyperlinks to the bottom of the document from which any of the participants can harvest as the interview progresses. Any time a likely rec or reference jumps into your head, slug it in down at the bottom, so that if the conversation stalls or anyone needs a quick bridge, that raw material is waiting. That list can save a ton of time and headaches down the line when you’re scrambling to finish and need a quick reference or recommendation.
- Color Code: Assign different colors for each participant so you can keep questions and comments straight; I use this color coding for their names in the interview back and forth and to tint the text of any commentary inserted for later deletion. This is less fussy than it sounds because in essence this virtual interview operates like “track change” edits which have to happen on the fly. People will make tweaks, have questions, think of references, offer suggestions and without some way of tracking that sidebar commentary, everyone will get confused quickly. In practice what I’ve always done is had each author choose a color for their digressive insertions so that whatever parenthetical observations they make are identifiable and deletable once the comment has been digested or addressed.
- Share focus: As a bonus, color coding the “speakers” has the added advantage of making sure that the interview is balanced among the participants. It’s very easy to look at the distribution of colors and see if anyone voice is dominating the conversation. When it comes to interviews, domination and grandstanding is no bueno. If you think of a cool observation or zinger that works better in someone else’s virtual mouth, suggest it, with the knowledge they may pass. Help keep the conversational ball rolling the way you would when writing a scene. Because you are writing a scripted scene…dramatizing a discussion for popular consumption.
- Get chatty: Don’t be afraid to actually talk to each other if the opportunity presents itself. Buddy up on those rare moments when two or more people wind up working on the document at the same time. Many collaboration platforms include a chat feature which will keep chatter out of the interview document itself. That’s great for housecleaning and it also allows you to work more quickly when the stars align and your availabilities happen to overlap.
- Stay safe: Protect all that work! Make regular backups of the document as it evolves so that in the event of tech failure, good material doesn’t get lost and any drastic changes can be undone if necessary. I’ve actually written long unusable responses for an interview which became the root of an entire blog post or article. By saving those backups as we all worked together, I was able to go in and mine my input for the stuff that wound up on the cutting room floor. Waste not, want not.
- Get smart: One of the great benefits of virtual interviews is that everyone gets to sound like themselves but also polish their thoughts properly. There’s a phrase in French, l’esprit d’escalier, which means the “wisdom of the staircase.” It’s the thing you wish you’d said at the party, but you don’t think of it till you’re standing on the stairs headed home. As much as possible, genre author promo should be staircase wit. Use your natural ability to write compelling, emotional conversations to create the kinds of interviews that move and inspire people. WRITE your promo so that it does a proper job for you. No one should sound fake or forced, but you do want to sound authentically terrific.
- Wrap up: And as the interview coalesces, and everyone has had their say, read and revise the entire thing as a single written conversation. You’re writers! Look for pace and rhythm and emotional sweep. Allow for interjections and affectionate banter if it’s appropriate. Protect each other’s voices so that everyone is heard and sounds like themselves. Keep things warm, engaging, and organic. This shouldn’t sound like an essay, but rather a jolly exchange between talented colleagues. Bear your audience in mind when it comes to things like humor, complexity, jargon, and topic. And finally, share the good bits. If there are generalized zingers, wisdom, warm insight, or cool facts native to the discussion, aim to sprinkle those across all the speakers so that the discussion doesn’t turn into a self-involved star turn with a bunch of supporting players. That sense of positive gracious professionalism is infectious and your audience will appreciate it deeply.
For any of you who may be leery of interviews or cross promo, I’d point out that one of their greatest benefits is sharing the burden of promotion and audience expansion. For one thing, interviews take a lot less time than blog posts and other promo standbys because it’s not the “1–2-3-Me!” Show. They demand less effort and involve more people who can help get the word out.
But wait there’s more! By involving your colleagues and sharing the focus, you automatically sidestep some of the obvious self-interest and self-involvement in any promotional situation. Likewise, by boosting the signal of books and authors you admire, you help their careers and the genre as a whole. That’s a win-win-win-win.