Thursday, October 22, 2015

Developing Effective Interview Questions

Photo credit: asgw / Foter / CC BY
While I was still in college (eons ago), I worked for the college paper first as a reporter, then a section editor, advertising manager, and finally as the editor in chief. During that time I interviewed everyone from the police chief (because he wouldn't let his officers talk to me) to the Dean of the college. I learned a ton about developing interview questions while I was there, but as I approached the next evolution in this blog, I found myself stymied.

I want to begin a series of author interviews, but, given that I went to school (as I said) eons ago and haven't interviewed anyone for anything other than a job for quite some time, I was at a bit of a loss as to where to begin.

Being a part of the 2015 #platchal, Robert Brewer's blog pushing us in the direction of interviews was a huge help (check it out), but I felt that I wanted a little more.

I hit the web for a little down and dirty researching and here is the basics of what I found.

1: Simple

My high school English teacher used to always tell us that when we wrote stories we needed to kiss (not kiss as in smoochy-smoochy, but KISS as in the acronym Keep It Simple Stupid). In honor of her, I'll keep this list simple too . . . just three things to keep in mind.

We're not talking ask stupidly simple questions like "What did you have for breakfast this morning?"

(Well, I guess if you're a fitness blog that could be a solid question . . . but I'm not, so for me that'd be pointless)

When I say simple, I mean you need to make sure that you're interview questions are specific, meaningful, and few. Yup, don't ask a ton of pointless questions unless you want to be annoying, then I guess ask all the pointless questions you want . . . just don't ask me to be interviewed.

Most places I've read say to keep the interviews between 5 and 10 questions long. Remember that the people you're interviewing have lives and work too. They can't spend all day dealing with your questions despite the fact that you know all 55 questions are interview gold . . . like the Best! Questions! Ever! Keep in mind you might be just a little bias.

Five fine tuned, pointed questions are so much better than a slue of slop spooned out of the google fueled internet interview question generating machine.

Which leads me to my next point . . . 

2: Interactive

Not like full contact interviewing on the gridiron or chasing them down the street like some demented track star interviewer as they flee from you and your crazy notepad. People don't like that . . . How do I know? . . . eh, er . . . let's not go there right now . . . where was I?

Oh yah, interacting with people is important. *News Flash* Right?

Too often you see interview questions that are stock questions sitting in the little bag of interview tricks (especially in this day and age of internet interviewing). Email the interview questions, the other person types out their answers, then you just put that slop up there.

I have nothing against interviewing online. Email and the web have allowed us to connect and contact so many more people. That's awesome, really truly awesome. Just because the interview can't happen face to face doesn't mean it has to sound that way. Make your interview questions conversational. Provide a little of the reason, as if you were sitting down in a bar or coffee shop somewhere talking face to face. This can help you interviewee feel more at ease with the process and lead to longer, more involved answers.

You're setting a tone for the interview. Make it a comfortable one. Also, that opens up for a follow-up question or two down the line if needed.

3: Purposeful

Have a direct purpose in mind when asking for an interview. Even better, have questions already developed (or at least drafted) before asking for the interview. 

What I mean by have a direct purpose is simply know why you're interviewing who you're interviewing. If you're interviewing an author for a writing blog (as is my goal), then you want to focus on . . . *spoiler alert* writing! 

Shocking I know, but it's not always that simple. You could interview someone on their writing, writing in general, advice to writers, a specific book or series, a specific aspect of their writing . . . the list goes on. 

What you don't want to do is ask all of it (that simplicity thing again) or ask about something wicked controversial . . . like say their stance on the upcoming presidential election. You may be curious, but it has nothing to do with your blog (unless you blog about politics or some weird blog about random people's political leanings)


developing effective interview questions
Photo credit: m_shipp22 / Foter / CC BY
Looks like I accidentally I made the list into an acronym, SIP (Simple, Interactive, Purposeful). How many bad puns can I make out of that . . . let's see . . .

SIP with your interviews.
Take a SIP from the knowledge of experts.
Dip into the pool of experience and SIP.
Drink coffee, SIP your interviews.

Okay, okay . . . that's enough. I'm done. 

(Minor confession: I rearranged the list after I wrote the post to get it get the acronym, so it was kinda by accident)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Live your story!

I'm not recommending that mystery writers go out a start committing crimes or horror writers begin to worship satan.

The phrase was something that come to mind yesterday as I read yesterday's October Platform Challenge being put on by Robert Brewer from Writer's Digest. Couple that with the fact that my Daycare provider was down with pneumonia, and I was going to be staying home with my daughter. 

She hadn't slept well the night before (so neither did I), and we were both a bit grouchy for it. The thought of staying home, knowing that she would be taking 100% of my attention all day was a bit frustrating after having a total of 2 hours sleep the pervious night. (It may make me sound like a crappy human, but those who've been in my shoes know that frustrations happen with toddlers.)

And so the birth of . . .

Daddy-Daughter Adventure Day

Instead of groaning over having to stay home, I decided that we would have an adventure. Now granted she's a toddler, so adventure would be a bit of a strong word for me, but to her it was a grand adventure. 

We hiked through the wilderness (Mt. Tom State Reservation), bringing along trusty and stalwart Sir Archibald Von Foxington III Esq. (my daughter's stuffed fox) for protection. We scaled boulders (rocks) and climbed a tower that overlooked the whole world (all of Western Ma). She loved every second of it. There were times when she was scared; there were times when she fell and bruised her cheek (bad daddy); there were times when Foxy was lost on the trail, and we had to go back to rescue him. Everything was new for her . . . and through her, for me. I saw the world in a new light.


Thus I (created? used? . . . I'm new to tweeting) #liveyourstory as a reminder that writing isn't about rehashing old plots you read about. Writing is about seeing the world through the eyes of your characters (who by all rights are alive for the first time ever, experiencing everything fresh). 

I remind my students every day that writers didn't exist in dusty libraries, they led full complicated lives. From those complications came their plots and poems. It's in the dirty places of life that we find our best stories.

"It's in the dirty places of life that we find our best stories. That's tweetable . . .

And so, #liveyourstory, to me is a declaration reminding myself that when you approach the simple with the mentality of an epic adventure, you can see the plots that surround you every day. If you live your life with purpose, you will never lack a story to tell. Want to tweet this one?


Go. Get out and experience life. Tweet it. Write about it. #liveyourstory

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Worst story lines ever!

Rachelle Gardner is having a writing competition to develop the worst loglines for the worst story you can come up with. I decided to try my hand at it. 

So, here goes the worst detritus my mind can come up with at this point. (I included titles here, just for kicks.)
Photo credit: Kurayba / Foter / CC BY-SA

Ermine Apocalypse

Trapped in the frozen Siberian wasteland, a team of five intrepid ermine scatologists discover nano-technology in an ermine den setting off a chain reaction turning whoever touches it into a blood-thirsty human ermine hybrid; now the remaining two scatologists must put aside their failed romance to save the remaining ermine population and the world.

Dixie Cup Blues

A charlatan palm reader who moonlights as a stock-boy at a discount grocery store discovers he has the power to stack Dixie Cups with his mind and must come to terms with how the use of his newfound power has destroyed his relationship with the morning grocery clerk, the only true relationship he ever had.

What do you think? Best sellers, right?

Throw some of your own here in the comments (but posting here isn't the same as entering the contest, so after you post them here, be sure to go to the actual contest and post there too) . . . they're kinda fun to come up with!


Struggling to come up with your next great writing idea? Check out Story Crafter.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Story time . . .

Photo credit: Doug Beckers / Foter / CC BY-SA
Now that the cooler weather sets in, and Halloween creeps steadily around the corner, I start thinking about having fires and telling stories.

Because I'm both a writer and an English teacher, the art of storytelling has always been very important to me. So important in fact that I create a quick game to make storytelling around the campfire (or on long car rides) all the more fun.

Story Crafter

Everyone has a story to tell . . . it's only a matter of whose story is the best.  Story Crafter is a unique storytelling game that you can use by yourself to break through the scourge that is writer's block or in a group to see who is the best storyteller. 

In this competitive storytelling game, you can challenge your friends’ creative powers in head-to-head competitions or challenge yourself to get your own creative juices flowing!
Bring Story Crafter with you camping for amazing campfire tales, or take it in the car to make those long trips fly by.

This can be a great activity for a creative writing group or class or a really fun dinner party activity. 

Genre Cards

There is a total of 12 different Genre cards. Each gives a different challenge by forcing the player to think outside their common genre. This helps to expand the writer's bag of tools by helping them practice a variety of genres which may allow for some improved cross-genre writing.

Junk Drawer Cards

The 30 different junk drawer cards are split up by point value. These are random elements to incorporate into your story during the telling process. This is how you earn points in the game. The more elements you 
incorporate, and the more difficult the element, the more points you earn. 

Story Starter Cards

The final group of cards is a set of Story Starter cards. These cards give you sentences to begin your story with.  Story starters are very useful for those who may be just discovering the art of storytelling or those who are simply stuck on what to do next.

Get your copy now!

Check out Story Crafter from Broken Table Games and tell your story.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

It's all about the challenges

As you know, I'm currently involved in the October Platform Challenge over at Writer's Digest.

We're into day seven, and though I have yet to complete the daily assignment, I'll make a comment or two about it now, and complete it before I turn in for the day.

Day 6: Twitter

We were asked to create a twitter handle that was as close to our byline as possible. That being said, the same issues surfaced as did my issues with the domain. (I have a very common name.)

Luckily, I was able to at least get something close (if a bit presumptuous) . . . @eajohnsonwriter

It was the best I could do. That being said, I'm not very good at tweeting. I feel the need to come up with something sagacious. Oh well, hopefully I'll get a bit better as I go along.

Day 7: Tweet

So today, we're asked to respond to 3 tweets . . . embarrassingly enough, I hadn't thought about that. 

I figured the goal of getting your name out there was getting your own words out there, when there is really so much more to it than that.  

I'm a bit taken aback with myself that my ego (which is know to be overgrown a bit anyway) would look at twitter as a way just to get my ideas out there without paying homage to the ideas that helped me get to where I am. 

Touché, Robert Brewer, thanks for the good advice.

Next Month's Challenge

I officially went in for next month's NaNoWriMo (and even got a colleague to think about giving it a shot too). More on that to come, but until then, I'll build up that platform . . . maybe a railing would be a good idea . . . I wonder what OSHA would say? 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Update on the Writer's Digest: Platform Challenge.

So five days into the challenge and I'll say the last two haven't been that great for me personally.

Day 4: Claim your domain 

While in theory it's a great idea, in practice it's not where I'm at currently for two reasons:
<p>#1: I have, probably, one of the most common names out there. One that I share with an already famous guitarist who, not surprisingly, already owns the domain. There is also a </p>
<p>#2: Because my name is so common (middle name included) I need to find some way of differentiating myself and getting a domain that can really connect with an audience and make it easy for people to find me. That's going to take some time . . . </p>

Ultimately, I need to work on this one, but that doesn't mean that you do.

I understand the importance of a domain in the modern world where blogs are ubiquitous and easily overlooked without a solid domain connection.

Day 5: Join Facebook

Facebook is another conundrum for me. I am on facebook . . . but as a public high school teacher, setting my profile to public is a no go. 

As a happy medium, I do make several of my posts public, that way I at least have some presence there for people to find.

Just popping up a little update on the challenge . . . day 5 and still going strong, that's unusual for me.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


Photo credit: B Rosen Foter CC BY-ND
As an educator, I'm really familiar with the new buzzword drifting aimlessly through the literature. I say drifting aimlessly, because other than a couple of billboards, some articles, and some off-handed statements by administrators, most people with feet in the classroom don't use it that much. Most of my students don't even know what it means.

That's not to say that my students don't possess it, though surely some don't, but it just provides a little background to what I'm about to say.

I know, this isn't an education blog, but educators have a hard time separating themselves from their careers. The word still works here, and for what I want to talk about . . .


At about 3 minutes into Angela Duckworth's TEDtalk "The key to success? Grit", Duckworthy describes grit as:
Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint.
And this weekend, as I collect yet another rejection letter for my poetry, recover from a rather difficult meeting with my administrator, and reel at the realization that what I create at work doesn't belong to me, I need to remind myself that my goals are not out of reach.

Rejection Letters

Rejection is a very common thing in publishing. There is not a writer in the world who has tried to go through the traditional publishing world who has not received a stack of rejection letters. 
By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. (Stephen King, On Writing)
Who am I to think I'm better than one of the greats.

As a matter of fact, rejection and disappointment are an integral part of success.


My crazy family
(sorry for the blurry picture)
I just have to look at my daughter. Two years old, and running around like crazy. It's true, when she was learning to walk she fell down a lot. As a matter of fact, the very first time she took some steps, everyone around go so excited and cheered so loud that we scared the crap out of her and she refused to even try and walk for the next two months. 

Eventually she took steps again, with encouragement and prodding. With grit she got back up and stumbled again and again. 

Now, it'd be nice if she would stop every once in awhile . . . but hey, who wants to walk when running is so much fun.

Grinding it out

It's important to keep perspective. Rejection is good. It can be the catalyst that gets us moving, the court of public opinion is often the fire that burns out the impurities. 

Photo credit: wwarby / Foter / CC BY
I have to remind myself that I can't ask my students to have grit if I can't have it in my own life. I will reach my goals. This weekend is a small setback (hell, we've all had them) in a very long road. 

Time to take my own advice. If I want to be a rolemodel for my children and my students, then I need to live what I tell them. 

I need to discover my own source of grit, and if I don't find it . . . I guess I've just got to figure out how to make it.

I'm sure there's a recipe somewhere.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Let's Get Started!

The toddler and puppy

It's time for me to get started becoming a writer. Well, I write already, mater of fact I even teach writing already, but for some unknown reason I've never started a blog for writing. So here it is.

I'm going to thank Robert Lee Brewer for running his October Platform Challenge which gave me the ass in the rear to get going with this. 

So far, we're on day three of this challenge, and I've actually kept up with it (despite being insane enough to have both a toddler and a puppy who both happen to be teething at the same time). 

I'll post my first three parts here so anyone that wants to can follow along as I develop my platform. Who knows, This could be fun!

Day 1: Define yourself as a writer.

He provided a basic format to allow people an easy way to go about their self-definition. I chose to follow the format for simplicities sake. 

Here is my self definition:

Name (as used in byline): Eric Johnson

Position(s): English Teacher, high school; Creative Writing Teacher, high school; Theater Arts Teacher, high school; Curriculum Developer; Published Author as Poet; Blogger; Game Developer, Founder & Owner of Broken Table Games

Skill(s): Editing; creative writing (poetry and fiction); blogging; copywriting; problem solving; conceptualizing; public speaking; teaching; mentoring; game designing and developing; 

Social media platforms (active): Facebook; Google+

My daughter and I on the
merry-go-round at the town fair.
Accomplishments: HS letters in Acting; Eagle Scout; undergraduate award-winner in journalism at Western New England College; BS in English Literature from Western New England College with certificates in Secondary Education; MA in English Literature from University of Massachusetts, Amherst; EdD in Educational Leadership with a focus in Curriculum Design and Instruction from University of Phoenix; Published several poems in various online and print magazines;

Interests: Family (a top priority), writing (poetry, horror, & essays primarily); reading; travel; remodeling houses; hiking; camping; adventure; game design & development

In one sentence, who am I? Eric Johnson is an accidental poet living with his wife, daughter, and dog near the edge of a nature reserve, working as a high school English and writing teacher while trying to find the words (and time) to become a novelist.

Day 2: Setting your goals

Short-Term Goals:

  1. Begin publishing poetry in journals again.
  2. Develop and publish a book length (or chapbook length) collection of poems.
  3. Publish 3 short story in journals by the beginning of next summer.
  4. Finish editing my first novel The Beholder by the end of next summer.
  5. Write a creative writing textbook for my creative writing class by the start of the next school year.

Long-Term Goals:

  1. Publish The Beholder through traditional publishing channels.
  2. Finish the rough draft of Keeper of the Truths.
  3. Publish Keeper of the Truths.
  4. Develop and write a textbook for Theater Arts.
  5. Become an educational consultant on curriculum and instruction.

Day 3: Start Blogging

Well, if you've gotten to here, I guess you've found me. 

Welcome to my journey, and if you're in the same place . . . come along and start your own! Share it with me in the comments if you do!

Until then, remember . . . If you're writing, then you're a writer (publishing is another creature altogether). Don't be afraid to say it . . . sometimes that's all it takes to make it to the next step.