Mark Terry

Friday, September 05, 2008

Still Get Nervous Sometimes

September 5, 2008
One of the things you do as a freelance writer is interview people, at least for most types of writing. Mostly this is over the phone, sometimes via e-mail and in my particular case, on rare occasions I actually go to someone's home or office or studio and interview them.

When I first started doing this I was extremely nervous about it. After you do several hundred, you get over your nerves pretty quick or you find another way to make a living.

Because my last 4 to 6 weeks have been very research report intensive, I haven't done many interviews lately and I have 2 today, the first of which I recently finished. I was nervous prior to it.

And shortly after we got started, I chilled out and got into the swing of things.

When I'm calling or contacting someone about research for a novel, I tend to be more nervous because there's a greater level of skepticism and they often have odd expectations. 

Sometimes, when corporate PR and/or corporate communications officers get involved, you as a writer have a lot more hoops to jump through because they want to make sure their message gets out in a very specific way. God only knows what it's like for investigative journalists, but I don't do that type of work, I just want information, I'm not trying to dig any dirt.

Still, it helps to be prepared.

In fact, were I ever to give a seminar or teach a class on interviewing for journalism, I would give the following advice:

1. Be prepared by doing your homework.
2. Write down your questions ahead of time.
3. Always remember to verify name spelling, titles, credentials.
4. Check to make sure the batteries in your tape recorder are working.
5. Relax.
6. Listen.
7. And keep it short. I'm a big believer in not wasting the interview subject's time. And it's a hassle to transcribe an interview that goes too long (I don't know about you, but it takes me twice the time to transcribe the interview as it took to do the interview, so a 15 min interview = 30 min transcription--if the subject doesn't talk fast, mumble or have a thick accent or the subject isn't so technical I have to keep going back to figure out what the hell they're talking about).

I can't tell you how important #6 is. If you do enough interviews, and if you use your tape recorder as a crutch like I do, it's awful easy to let your attention wander. But you really need to listen (because sometimes your tape recorder dies mid-interview) because often you need to clarify or follow-up.

And yeah, I sometimes still get nervous.

So, I was thinking about this: Have you ever interviewed someone for a novel you're working on? If not, why not?

Then I challenge you: whatever WIP you've got, find an expert, someone who does what your character does, a cop, a spy, an accountant, whatever, or an expert on some aspect of your novel, espionage, carpentry, Byzantium history, small airplanes, rock and roll, and interview them. You'll be surprised what you learn, about  your subject and yourself.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

I'm terrible at the phone. See me shudder! I seriously have to go through my pre-performance mental routine to get myself into the place where I can pick up a phone.

8:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sort of information Mary and I need for our books is easily obtained by email. When I was writing some magazine and newspaper stuff I needed to interview people, which was difficult because I hate phones. Once I actually got the person on the line and got talking it was OK but I hate making calls.I did have the opportunity to talk to some interesting people such as Jeanne Moos of CNN and Jane Yolen.

8:13 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Oops. Forgot my name on the above....

8:28 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, somehow I knew that would be your response (Mr. Anonymous, :O)

When I first started doing phone interviews it really freaked me out, but I got over it.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

Like Spy, I have a horrible phone phobia. But I have to say I got over it pretty quickly because my first interview could not have gone any worse. I stammered, I was intimidated by the expert source's credentials, he was impatient with me... when I hung up I knew that was the worst it could get. And honestly I've never had worse in seven years. But only because I prepare like crazy. :)

Oh, and I did interview one source once for my novel. He was a member of the state police and although he was very nice, I didn't really know what questions to ask (even with a draft written). That was before my freelance career so I wonder how I might do things differently now, even apart from having more confidence!

12:01 PM  
Blogger MissWrite said...

I am much better at phone, messenger, or email interviews than person. I get physically ill at the thought of in person interviews. I do them (when I am hogtied into it) but I obsess over them and turn into a basic nervous wreck anytime I have to. Your list is great though, and pretty much exactly the way I prepare as well.

Beyond all that by far my favorite interviews were for my fiction novels as most of them (not all) dealt with the entertainment/music industry and I got to meet/talk to some really cool (wild) people.

Good thing I didn't have to interview for my novel Hell's Own, that's one set of interviews that would have been 'hell' to get. (giggle)

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had to do interviews for my job (freelance copywriter), and it definitely helped to write out all my questions ahead of time. I find phone interviews tougher because you can't get a read on the person's body language.

I can never imagine interviewing someone for my fiction, though. First, I'm unpublished. How much credibility do I have? None. I'm just some schlub asking for a favor. I'm in awe of writers who don't think twice about calling their local police department and snagging interviews with detectives.

4:32 PM  
Blogger MissWrite said...

Hey, annon, seriously, don't let being unpublished keep you from it. Some of those interviews can be waaay cool, and believe it or not people (average folks, ya know, not like us nut jobs) are REALLY impressed with someone writing a book, published or not, and are really flattered to have someone want to interview them.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

Adding to what MissWrite said... I have worked with the law enforcement community for 7 years as a freelancer, and cops are some of the nicest people I have ever worked with.

Typically when you call with a request like that, the commander or media relations person assigns it to the person they think is best, or just asks for volunteers - so you probably won't get stuck talking to someone who doesn't want to talk to you. (And if you do, try another department.)

You want to try to get a "line" officer or detective rather than an administrator. Admins tend to give you more "official" responses whereas the people actually doing the job will give you more gut-level, real responses.

They can be very sensitive about how you plan to use the material, but if they know you're straightforward then they will be too. Good luck!!

5:29 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

In my experience I wouldn't let being unpublished stop you either. Most people at one time or another are intrigued by the idea of writing a novel and most people are willing to talk about their jobs, particularly if they're not being quoted. And it's interesting. I was very surprised when I visited the Medical Examiners office and talked to their toxicologist, how things were done and just how inaccurate so much of books, TV and movies were.

I ran into a guy who flew helicopters in the military and I asked him to read a section and he as glad to and he totally blew what I'd written out of the water, and I'd gotten the information off the Internet doing research and he came right out and said, "It would never get to where you want them to go, its max speed is such and such, but its fuel tanks are this big, so they'd have to refuel, and you're talking X number of passengers, so they'd run out of fuel way early, you either need it to have supplementary fuel tanks, get refueled or I would suggest they use this helicopter..."

And the thing was, I DID do my research, I did go online, but the truth is, I'm not a helicopter pilot, so it was very valuable and he was glad to help.

7:42 PM  
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