The Good, The Bad, And the Messy
Okay, I'll admit it. I'm writing this newsletter on a Wednesday afternoon after logging exactly 1 hour and 36 minutes of billable work this week.
It's not that I don't have any work to do. There are definitely things on my trusty Post-It Note To Do list.
It's just that I'm so damn tired. Last week, we finally dropped the final episode of Believable: The Coco Berthmann Story
. And if we're being perfectly honest, I feel like I have earned a lazy day … or three.
Originally, this project was supposed to be a six-episode narrative series, produced over six months. But the story turned out to be much bigger than any of us had imagined, and we ended up with a 10 and 1/2-part serialized narrative, that took a full year to produce.
But as one particularly problematic source for this particular podcast would say, this newsletter is "a non-negotiable." So please grant me a little grace as I pour myself a glass of rose and take my little laptop to the backyard – where I will sit in the late September sunshine and run through some of the lessons learned from working on such an overwhelmingly "intense" project.
(We try to avoid the word "crazy" when discussing the Cocoverse, for reasons you will definitely understand if you've listened to the project.)
| |I forgot to take a photo while sitting in the backyard, so please enjoy this lovely stock photo of a mostly sunny day from Ritam Baishya on Unsplash.
Before we dive into it...an announcement!
It turns out I have a lot to say about making a serialized narrative. So our next Narrative Beat workshop will be all about serialized narratives.
How to find them. How to pitch them. How to report them. And my favorite subject – how to structure them. Scroll all the way down to the bottom of this newsletter for details.
Or…just click on the link below.
Okay, we're gonna into the good, the bad, and the messy of the podcast, I promise.
But first...let's do the numbers!
<cheerful pizzicato music>
Each episode of Believable is between 35-73 minutes long, so that comes out to somewhere around 8 hours of narrative storytelling.
I estimate that we recorded approximately 65 hours of interviews with more than 50 on-the-record sources. Plus, we had conversations with at least a dozen additional people who decided not to go on the record.
And that's not to mention all the people who declined to be interviewed or simply ignored our calls, texts and emails. In total, we reached out to well over 100 people for this podcast, and still only scratched the surface of people who had been harmed by Coco.
We sifted through more than 1000 pages of Coco's emails, Facebook messages, texts and social media posts, many of which were collected and shared by our sources.
I personally reviewed every podcast, TikTok and YouTube video that featured Coco and was still available online as of September 2022.
In all, we gathered at least 10 hours of archival sound from more than 40 separate sources.
Oh and don't forget about the hours upon hours of nat sound we gathered during reporting trips to Las Vegas, Utah and Germany.
So..yeah. It was a big project. And there are a lot of things we did right, some we did wrong, and some that were just plain messy.
So let's get into it.
Okay, not to be totally biased, but the best thing about this project was working with Sara Ganim, a journalist who is absolutely unflinching in her pursuit of the truth.
She made all the awkward phone calls. Asked all the incredibly awkward questions. And insisted on talking to everyone she could, long after I started begging her to stop because we had more than enough material to fill all 10 1/2 episodes.
She's also a reader of this newsletter. So…everyone say "Hi" to Sara!
I'm assuming that none of you are going to have the pleasure of working with Sara on your next, big serialized narrative. So I'm gonna focus on the next best thing that you totally can do – no matter your budget or staffing situation.
Storyboard, Storyboard, Storyboard
Very early on, based on what we already knew, I created a Trello storyboard that mapped out six episodes.
And boy, that baby was ROUGH.
There were still huge parts of the story we did not know yet. Important people we had never heard of. And events that wouldn't be unveiled until much, much later.
At first, all the storyboard really did was split the podcast into themes. But that was so, so helpful as we were trying to wrap our heads around this really complex story.
And then, every couple of weeks, as we were collecting interviews, I would revise the storyboard. After about five months of work, we realized that we had eight episodes, not six. And just a few weeks after that, we realized that we needed 10 episodes to tell the whole story.
(The 10 1/2th episode came much later. Just weeks before launch.)
Often, a storyboard is just a collection of story beats. Make a card for each important moment in the episode. And then play around with the order of those story beats to find the structure.
But I tend to use storyboards to track more than just story beats. I also use them to track the reporting process.
So each episode column started with the same 8 details. The bare minimum I needed to know to be able to wrap my head around where we were in the reporting process.
Driving Question – What is the most important thing we're going to learn from this episode? Generally not something factual, like, "What was Coco's birth name?" Instead, it was something thematic, like, "Why did it take so long for Coco to get caught?"
Scenes - What are the big, important moments we can bring to life in this episode? Where will we go deep and immerse the listener in the story?
Sources - Who have we already interviewed for this episode?
Still Needed - Which interviews do we absolutely need, in order for this episode to work?
Nice to Have - Who are the additional voices we are pursuing for this episode?
And then, before I let myself worry about the beat-by-beat story structure, I put the "big moments" in..as placeholders.
Cold Open – What's the most compelling anecdote or idea to start us off? Hopefully it's something really engaging, that will pull the listener in and get them set up for what's to come.
A-Segment Return – I'm a big fan of doing a complete reset after the Cold Open. So, the Cold Open ends with something like, "This is the XYZ Podcast. And here's the name of this particular episode."
The thing that happens next needs to be equally intriguing and exciting as the start of the whole episode. So I gave it its own place on the Trello board.
(And yeah, none of this terminology is really standardized. So you might have heard "Act 1, Act 2, Act 3" instead of "Cold Open / A-Segment / B-Segment." I truly don't care what you call these things. The point simply is that you need to think about how you want to start each of these segments. Because each of them is a chance to pull the listener in and make them pay attention.
Ender - It was really important to me that the end of each episode pointed toward what was coming next. Especially since we knew this podcast could not be strictly chronological, we wanted to make sure we had some connective tissue from episode to episode.
But we also wanted Coco to be really bingeable. We wanted people to keep listening. And so, we planned the endings of our episodes as carefully as we planned the beginnings.
I am my mother's daughter, which makes it really hard for me to talk about negative things. It was drilled into me from the beginning that we should always focus on the positive.
But if I were to talk about the one place where I really f-ed up, it would be this:
Always cite your sources.
So, early in this project I realized that I needed a timeline. And it couldn't be a traditional timeline, where you could simply list important moments by date.
Many of Coco's lies were based on some sort of truth. And the only way to figure that out was to lay out the truth and the fiction, side by side, to see where they lined up.
There were really four timelines.
1. The timeline of Coco's story, as she told it in the media.
2. The timeline of verified facts.
3. The timeline of when and how Coco's story was debunked by others.
4. The timeline of Coco's media appearances and fundraisers.
So, I built a big, beautiful, color-coded timeline. Red for Coco's claims. Black for verified facts. Blue for other people's reporting. And orange for Coco's media appearances and fundraisers.
(Orange was important, because she continued to raise money long after parts of her story had been publicly debunked. So I really needed to track that.)
And I'll admit it...I went way down the rabbit hole on some of this.
There was one particular episode of Law & Order: SVU that Coco claimed to have watched with her older sister, Anna. And – as the story goes – after watching the episode, Coco and Anna realized that the things that were happening in their home were not normal.
So, okay. It's pretty easy to find the date that episode was released in the U.S. That's readily available on IMDB. But…Coco grew up in Germany. So what day was that episode released in Germany?
This is important, because Coco says her sister, Anna, was murdered by her parents. So…if I could prove that the episode was shown in Germany after the alleged murder, I would prove that Coco is lying.
But…as near as we can tell...the date the episode aired in Germany actually didn't matter. Because Anna never existed.
Yeah…total rabbit hole.
So, Problem #1 was that I spent precious time investigating details for the timeline that never really came into play in the podcast.
But there was a much bigger problem with my timeline.
It had errors.
Okay, look, we were juggling a lot. Errors are bound to happen.
But I did not cite sources on the timeline. I did not include links, or footnotes, or, really, any sort of indication as to where I found the information.
This became a huge headache later, when I had to go back and find my source for every single detail on that god-forsaken timeline. It took forever.
And, because I was working on a project rate for this project, all of those extra hours came directly out of my pocket.
There were so many things that were messy about this project, I can't just pick one. But this newsletter is getting really long. So let's treat this as the "Lightning Round."
File Structure – Oof. None of us expected this project to be so large. And when we started, we didn't establish a formalized structure for how to save and label things.
We were constantly uploading things to the Google Drive or the Dropbox and then forgetting where we put them. What a mess!
So, yeah, it sounds totally dorky and not the kind of thing you want to do when meeting talented, new coworkers and starting an exciting, new project. But establish a file system. Write it down. Make sure everyone's been briefed on it.
And then … enforce that system as if your life depends on it. It's your only hope.
Descript Setup - We used Descript as our transcription tool and also to create rough assemblies of our episodes. After each episode was assembled, everything was pulled into Pro Tools, edits were finessed and sound design added. That part went pretty well.
What went horribly wrong was file management. Descript suggests that you create a different project for each episode. This is helpful, because when a project gets too large, it starts to fail.
And when Descript starts to fail, it all goes bad, bad, bad.
But this whole "make a new project for every episode" doesn't work for enterprise projects.
How am I supposed to know which interview is going to be used in which episode?
What do I do about interviews that are used in multiple episodes?
What about episodes that include so many different interviews (I'm looking at you, Episode 9) that putting all of those interviews in a single project would likely cause that project to fail?
So yeah, I have no answer for this problem. Maybe our friends at Descript can advise?
If there is a way to complete an all-consuming project like this without losing your mind, I haven't discovered it yet. The only thing that I really have to say about that is…take breaks.
I have another all-consuming project starting up right now. And at some point, it will take over my life.
But right now, I have a team of very well-qualified reporters working on collecting interviews. And I'm just gonna let them do what they do best, until it's time for me to get more deeply involved.
This newsletter has gotten REALLY long, but – as you can probably tell – I have a lot to say about making a serialized narrative.
Hence, our next Narrative Beat Workshop called…
"How to Make a Story … in Multiple Parts."
Date: Saturday, November 4, 2023
Time: 1-3pm Eastern
And a little reminder...
Teaching is one of the ways I make money. But, as always, I want to make sure these workshops are available to everyone.
So, if you cannot afford the cost of this workshop, please reply to this email and let me know. I always save at least a few slots for those who need free or discounted tickets.