Saturday, December 29, 2007

What are you reading?

Who got something good for Christmas or Hanukkah? Share what you're reading here.

I'll start:

As soon as I finish "My Heart Will Cross This Ocean," by Kadiatou Diallo (mother of Amadou Diallo, an innocent man shot to death by NYC cops investigating a rape case), which I started before Christmas, I'm going to pick up "The Teammates," by David Halberstam, about a couple of 1940s-era teammates of Ted Williams traveling to Florida in 2001 to see him for what they knew would be the last time. Williams, they knew, was dying.

Also -- the links above go to my page at goodreads.com, a sharing site where you can list what you're reading and hook up with friends and what they're reading, recommend stuff back and forth, and so on. It's pretty cool. (Thanks to Jen for bringing it to our attention).

Anyway ... what are you reading that's good?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sounds like ... ?

At a writers group meeting, we discussed the difficulty of describing people's voices.

An NPR feature called Vocal Impressions is a recurring piece on "All Things Considered." Here's the blurb explaining this regular "listener challenge":

"It's where we ask you to conjure up just the right phrase to describe a handful of famous and distinctive voices.

"Our last challenge was to take on the voices of Janis Joplin, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Joe Cocker. Except for Fred, everyone got at least one chainsaw reference. The other answers are below.

"And we issue a new challenge to listeners: Describe the voices of comedienne Lucille Ball, singers Ray Charles and Cher, and actor Harvey Fierstein."

Click here to read listeners' descriptions of Joplin, Astaire, Cocker and Hepburn. One stab at Hepburn was: "'The Ride of the Valkyries' played on a saw."

What do you think?

Friday, December 7, 2007

Better interviewing

More from Jacqui Banaszynski (credentials), who was in Greensboro, N.C. the past couple days for a reporting/writing seminar. These notes are from Dustin Long, who covers NASCAR for the Greensboro/Roanoke, Va./Norfolk trio:

"She noted how so little time is spent in J-school or even in newsrooms on how to properly do an interview. Everyone says make (an interview) like a conversation. Jacqui says that's wrong. In a conversation with a friend, if you say something that makes them feel uncomfortable, you'll back off. In an interview, it is your sole job to get the information - sometimes that makes the subject uncomfortable (but you still have to work around that and get the info if at all possible).

"She said to think about the story and subject as a canoe on the river. You're role in interviewing is to steer the canoe, steer the story and subject.

"Ask more questions. For every question, you should have five more. If a source says they don't want to talk to you, come back and ask them, why. If they say something like they've had bad experiences with the press, then ask them if they've had bad experiences with you. Or even say you'll go over to their office and meet them so they can get to know you. The key is to keep them talking whatever way you can so you can possibly steer things toward the interview.

"Ask strong questions. She mentioned how the question she hates is "What was it like to win the Pulitzer?'' Her response is: "Great.'' Not much of a story there. I asked her during this who was the first person she called after she found out she won. (I figured it would be family). Instead, she first called a former editor. She didn't call her family until the day of the announcement (she knew about it the night before). She then goes into this great story about how her parents don't use the phone often unless it's for bad news.

"So, when she calls home to tell her parents, her mom's first reaction is what's wrong? Are you sure? Yes, mom. Then Jacqui tells her mom about the Pulitzer and her mom seems unimpressed and quickly mentions that one of Jacqui's brothers just got a promotion. When Jacqui says she won the Pulitzer, her mom mentions that her brother got a raise with the promotion. When Jacqui says Mom I won the Pulitzer, her mom chides her for being so self-centered. 20 minutes later after they hang up, her mom calls Jacqui all excited. "There's a TV truck in front of the house. You just won the Pulitzer!''

Point is that's a great story. It's telling of the family. Whether it makes it in print or not, who knows, but see all the information you get by asking a question (that frankly I thought was a throw-away) about who she called first after the winning the Pulitzer. Jacqui became animated as she told the story because it was one she was not normally asked. That's the stuff we have to do. Even if they're throw-away questions, you never know where they are going to lead. It's why in those Esquire-like profiles of NASCAR drivers some of the questions I ask are: "What is God, Are we alone in the Universe (and then follow up on the answer) and when was the last time you cried.'' I've gotten great responses out of those because they are questions not often asked and they lead to telling stories.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Spectacular online multimedia storytelling

"13 seconds in August" -- the Minneapolis paper's interactive project on the bridge collapse and its victims. Don't skip the intro. It's good.

Also, Zoo story: Life. Death. The Paradox of Freedom, Tom French's latest effort in the St. Petersburg Times. Maybe the best online presentation of a project I've ever seen.

Omaha massacre story, with suggested edit

From the Omaha paper, via http://www.gangrey.com/:

Deadliest Hour

The gunman in middle america
Henry Cordes: With only 20 shopping days till Christmas, Von Maur customer service workers busily folded bright wrapping paper around the gifts of eager customers.
A nearby elevator door opened.
Into the festive scene Wednesday strode Robert A. Hawkins, about to unleash the worst killing spree in Nebraska since the 1958 rampage of Charles Starkweather.
He was toting a Russian semiautomatic rifle.
And suddenly, the light holiday sound of the store's piano was punctuated by the pop-pop-pop of rapid gunfire.

I think this opening would be much stronger like this:

With only 20 shopping days till Christmas, Von Maur customer service workers busily folded bright wrapping paper around the gifts of eager customers.
A nearby elevator door opened.
Into the festive scene Wednesday strode Robert A. Hawkins.
He was toting a Russian semiautomatic rifle.
And suddenly, the light holiday sound of the store's piano was punctuated by the pop-pop-pop of rapid gunfire.

Why?

Because to me, the power of that opening lies in the simple sentence, "He was toting a Russian semiautomatic rifle." It is the moment in the story when everything goes wrong. But when you already have told people what he "was about to" do, you steal all the power from the sentence, the scene, and you dilute the horror of a normal day turning into a massacre. (Beyond that ... why do you need to rank it among statewide massacres in the 3rd graf? That is one of those historical things journalists think about but no one, ever, has thought about while they are experiencing something like that. It can come later in the story -- even if this was the lead story on this event in the Omaha paper today).

What does anyone else think? Any other edits you'd make to this, or, would you leave as is, and why?

The writing process

Jacqui Banaszynski (Pulitzer winner for feature writing, Knight Chair in editing at U. of Missouri, Poynter faculty) is at the Greensboro, N.C. paper giving a two-day seminar. A friend of mine is down there & sending me some notes that I'll post here.

The first is about the writing process. What follows, Jacqui says, is what we need to do; most of us do some of these, but not all.

1. Conceive the idea.
2. Collect the data (reporting)
3. Focus on what the story is about.
4. Organize your material.
5. Writing the draft.
6. Revising the draft.

I have talked to some of you about really keying in on No. 3 here. You could even add another step, a new No. 4, that would be do more reporting toward the focus of the story. There is not always time to do that, but when there is it will make for a better story.

From my friend's notes:

"Yes, we conceive the idea (or an editor does it for us) and then we go out and report but if we don't focus on what the story is, then how are we to know we'll get everything we need? Some people try to define what the story is in 6 words or so. Others try to do it in one or two words. Just by doing that, you're defining what the story is. Then organize your material. How do you envision the story? What are the building blocks that will get you from beginning to end and carry the reader along smoothly? That will help write the draft and then you revise it."

Friday, November 30, 2007

Neat method of storytelling, local connection

In honor of our upcoming oral history project, check out this interactive from the NY Times on people exonerated by DNA testing.

It includes our very own Ray Krone, which is neat, but what's amazing is hearing how many people in this situation were willing to describe their experiences to the Times for broadcast in their own words.

In fact, the companion print pieces in the times were relatively thin slices of the whole project. The online piece is far more detailed.

Pretty cool.

Friday, November 23, 2007

I wonder if ...

Check out this piece by a Florida Times-Union columnist. It's a tongue-in-cheek column about what a "lifestyle" column by Larry King would be like. (You certainly don't have to read very much of it to get the point).

But it got me wondering ... I wonder if the columnist was doing a profile of King, could the story have been written like King writes his columns (annoying as that is)? And that got me wondering, if you were profiling anyone who had a strong or specific style of writing or speaking, could you write the profile in that way, as a way of having your reader learn about the person you're writing about?

When I worked at the Roanoke Times in Virginia I got to know a Va. Tech football booster named Dave 'Mudcat' Saunders, or just 'Mud' (and for trivia-minded football fans, he would give you his phone number as '989-Bruce Smith/Bruce Smith). Anyway, Mud was a real estate developer who talked loud, all the time. A features reporter did a profile on him and when it came out, all of his dialogue was all uppercase throughout the story.

It made me laugh. That was Mud; she'd captured a distinctive part of his personality.

Just got me wondering about next time one of you is doing a profile, look for something distinctive about the person's style and consider how, in the story, you can bring that out.

Thoughts?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

First-person complication/resolution with a twist

An L.A. Times investigative reporter searches for his biological parents. What he finds leads to an unexpected ending.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Good story, well-crafted

This Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer story is about a soldier who promised his soldiers' parents that he would bring them back alive. And then one of them got killed, and he had to face the guy's parents. It's clear they paid attention to crafting the narrative -- the lead, the foreshadowing, the setups, the cliffhangers, the resolution -- all the stuff you want in a strong narrative piece.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Something to ponder

Heard Bob Edwards interviewing Studs Terkel, author, radio host and more, about some of the favorite stories he's come across.

Terkel talked about a Spanish classical guitarist who said he would not "play down" to his audience.

Terkel said the guitarist would not play according to what his audience did know; he would play to what they could know.

That inspired me. It seems like something we can aim for in what we do. Be optimistic about our readers' capabilities. Push them to learn new things. Lead them down a path they haven't been before.

And in order to do that, we have to do it first.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Marion Winik's visit

Couple things struck me:

She kept talking about "voicey" stories, for example, when Joan asked about columns vs. news stories. Reminded me that it's all about picking or recognizing the right story to write a certain way. Some stories can be told funny, some have to be told seriously; some can be told as conflict-resolution, some won't fit that model; some stories can take a little attitude in the writing, some shouldn't. Part of what we've been doing this year is talking about ways of writing stories that we have at our disposal so we can make those decisions.

Someone asked about her hyper-awareness of things around her that allows her to gather the details that appear in her essays. She said it wasn't that she was aware of everything, but that she was aware of certain things -- such as 'story,' i.e., the narrative of what's happening around her, the what happened next part.

And she works on perfecting that ... and you can see how it shows up in her stories. Think of two she read about people who died -- the maid and the soldier. Both stories built up to either an unexpected ending or an ending with a twist that you may or may not have seen coming.

As she said in a somewhat untethered comment: you can learn what the thing is that your mind is really greedy for, and tune in to that thing. Basically ... know yourself, and what you do well, and use that to your advantage as a reporter and writer.

Any other thoughts on Marion's visit?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Washing machine stunts and "Jungle Hunt"

Ask any of us who attended last night's Stoop Storytelling event at Baltimore's Centerstage what the highlight of their evening was. I'll bet they mention one of the two items in the title of this post.

Or maybe they'll talk about the transsexual who has her own female garage-rock band. Or the former prisoner who is an actress on HBO's "The Wire."

Yes, a few of us have become addicted to this event that brings ordinary folks onstage to tell their extraordinary stories. The only rule is the stories must have something to do with the evening's theme (last night it was "My Theme Song: The Ditties That Define Us") and they must keep their stories to about seven minutes each.

Several of us went to September's "Corpus: Stories of the Body" and at least two of us (Melissa and I) plan to attend "Holidays from Hell" on Monday, Dec. 10 (mark your calendars and plan to join us!)

The stories showcase a great crossection of society, diverse voices, perspectives, subjects. I think they're generally inspiring for anyone who feels like they're getting in a rut as a writer or storyteller. The participants use colorful language, anecdotes, snippets of dialouge, description, and any number of other important devices (probably without even realizing it).

Here are some memorable lines from last night's show, which I scribbled down in my notebook because I'm a dork:

A stunt woman (from Lithuania, I think) told us she got her start in the business by creating "an astronaut training center for neighborhood children" using discarded washers and dryers as spacecraft -- what a great line, juxtaposing two things you'd never think to put together. Toward the end of her story, she brought the image back, telling us that during one jump, she faced a concrete pad below "that did not inspire confidence, no matter how many hills you've rolled down in washing machines."

Then there was the indie rocker/ filmmaker/skateboard-company owner who started his story by telling us "I grew up the youngest of five children in a house of, I guess 7? people." When we laughed, he said "That wasn't supposed to be funny." He finished by taking us through the music to the video game "Jungle Hunt" and telling us what was happening at each spot, with phrases like: "So, what you're hearing now are the vines swinging. And -- just wait -- you're gonna hear me go under water. There it is!"

These lines don't begin to sum up how funny and/or touching each story was, but, hopefully they tempt you enough to join us next month to learn more about how ordinary people find ways to tell stories about regular life in extraordinary ways that not only hold our attention, but make us want to come back for more.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Inspiration

From Jacqui Banaszynski, Pulitzer Prize winner, former Seattle Times senior editor, now teaching with Poynter and at U. of Missouri:

"Stories are our prayers. Write and edit them with due reverence, even when the stories themselves are irreverent.

"Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.

"Stories are history. Write and edit and tell yours with accuracy and understanding and context and with unwavering devotion to the truth.

"Stories are music. Write and edit and tell yours with pace and rhythm and flow. Throw in the dips and twirls that make them exciting, but stay true to the core beat. Readers hear stories with their inner ear.

"Stories are our soul. Write and edit and tell yours with your whole selves. Tell them as if they are all that matters. It matters that you do it as if that's all there is."

-From "Telling True Stories," edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call.

Storytelling and hard news

I've talked with some of you, including those at the writers' group meeting last month, about something I want us to continue to work on, and that is marrying storytelling with hard news.

In broad terms I'm talking about a story in which you are breaking news and for which you could easily write a classic, traditional hard-news lead and story, but instead you tell a story while unmistakeably delivering the news. We've consciously tried this twice (there may be other examples out there) with both of the enterprise pieces on military death investigations. They are here (Melissa Nann Burke's "Fatal Flight") and here (Michele Canty's "Marine's death was avoidable.").

In these cases, the lede, as well as the first 3-6 grafs, are crucial, because you have to engage the reader in a story, but you are not writing an anecdotal lead, so you must also deliver the hard news without softening its edges or waiting too long to deliver.

But the body of these stories is also crucial. Ideally these stories do not, after the first few grafs, become recitations of facts contained in the report or gleaned from interviews. The facts are delivered as story, as something that is unfolding in front of the reader; they should have a sense that they are not reading an after-action report, but are watching the action happen. We tried to do that, in part, with beginnings and endings to sections and with transitions.

A focus on marrying storytelling and hard news does not mean we're abandoning the idea of a well-crafted hard-news lead and story. But I do think telling a story while delivering hard news is a high calling and a great way to engage readers on important stories.

Any thoughts on this approach from anyone? We can surely refine our efforts here. Check out these stories and let us know what works and what doesn't, and how we can do this better.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Profiles and a profile

If you enjoy good profiles, you know of Susan Orlean and Mark Singer. Someone posted their comments at the New Yorker Festival on sportsjournalists.com, and I figured I'd pass them along. I was especially interested in Orlean's thoughts on the reporting process. Who needs questions anyway?

Also, the New Yorker ran a profile of David Simon, the author of perhaps the ultimate narrative non-fiction, "Homicide" and co-creator of HBO's "The Wire." You can find that here.

From SJ:

Good friend of mine attended The New Yorker Festival last weekend, and went to the "master class" in profile writing with Mark Singer and Susan Orlean. He took notes and shared them with me. Thought they might be worth sharing with the crowd here.

In chronological order, and without commentary, here's what they said that he deemed worthy enough to write down:

-The most important thing is to be able to see the profile subject doing what it is they do. Just observe, don't ask questions.

-Susan Orlean: "I don't ask questions generally. I don't have any good questions." She said she is more inclined to figure someone out obliquely and to be around them so much that they forget she's there. It sometimes gets to the point that she says so little the subject begins to think Orlean is in over her head. She says they think, "Oh, that poor girl. She has no idea what she's doing." That's a good thing.

-Construct your reporting for a profile exactly the way you would go about making a friend. Get to know them the way you would know a person in your real life.

-Mark Singer: If you can't tell a story out of your head (because you have come to know the person so well), then you're not ready to write.

-Find subcultures, and use individuals as ways to write about these small worlds.

-Singer: "I take an insane amount of notes." He takes his laptop everywhere (including into uranium mines, etc.) and just acts as a stenographer for the conversation. It helps that he's a really good typer.

-Singer: Profiles must have a chronological spine from which things branch off. You better have a damn good reason to break that chronology.

-Orlean: "The lede has to be absolutely seductive. It's a strip-tease and you have to start with your bra."

-Orlean: She said it's surprising that she and Tina Brown are such good friends because they take exactly opposite approaches to profiles. Tina Brown's approach is to find someone interesting (like a celebrity) and tell their story. Susan Orlean prefers to find subjects
that most people would think they would never find interesting, and then make them interesting.

-Orlean said she keeps a copy of Mark Singer's book "Mr. Personality" on her desk, and whenever she's stuck she flips through it and reads passages. She uses it so much that she's on her third copy.

-Singer: "The best way to approach one of those Rolling Stone-style interviews [in which you are given 45 minutes with a celebrity in a hotel room] is to shoot yourself in the head."

-Singer said he has stopped writing celebrity profiles, because he hates them, but he told some funny stories about hanging out with Donald Trump for a profile. Before giving him something juicy, Trump would often say, "This is off the record, but you can use it."

And when Singer asked Trump what he considers ideal company, Trump said, "A total piece of ass." Singer wrote in the piece that Trump is someone who is "unmolested by the rumblings of a soul." Critics thought that was harsh and wondered how Singer could know such a thing. Singer said, "I inferred."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Reading about writing

We just got two new books for our library (thanks, Joan). They are:

"Telling True Stories: A nonfiction writers' guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University" -- edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. Essay after essay from great writers like Tom Wolfe, Susan Orlean, Tracy Kidder, Lane DeGregory, Jon Franklin and Tom French about everything from structure to ethics to editing.

"Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America" -- narrative nonfiction from Laura Wexler. In 1946, four black people are killed in Georgia, "a murder so brutal it stunned the nation and motivated President Harry Truman to put civil rights at the forefront of his national agenda," according to her Web site.

They join the other books on writing we've gotten for the newsroom this year. Here's a reminder that they're available for you to check out & read:

"On Writing" -- Stephen King
"Ernest Hemingway on writing" -- Larry W. Phillips
"Bird by Bird" -- Anne Lamott

Diversify

We've been talking about conflict/resolution storytelling in part as a way for us to do, refine and try to perfect this kind of narrative storytelling, and to make us stronger reporters, writers, editors, photographers, designers.

It's also a way to encourage people to think of stories in new or different ways, and to try those things out in print. One thing I hope everyone takes from our storytelling focus is: Don't stop here. Keep developing your skills by trying and, hopefully, mastering different aspects of your job, be it writing, editing, shooting, whatever.

Here's how Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown put it:

"Sticking with what you know is one thing, but don't stick with it the rest of your life. Go to something else. And then add that to your repertoire. That's how you develop style."

Brown, known as a blues singer/guitarist, said he played "world and American music, Texas-style." Here's a video of him with another instrument he mastered.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Want more funny?

I hope everyone enjoyed our visit from comedian Earl David Reed Wednesday. If you want to learn more on how what he does is relevant to what we do, check out this article from the Nieman Narrative Digest and this one from Poynter.

Leave a comment about how you think comedy can work in a newspaper.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Tidbits from AASFE conference

If you're interested in some of the things feature editors talked about at last week's conference in Savannah, check http://www.aasfe.org/conferences/8.html. There is some fascinating stuff here, including a podcast with Jennifer Carroll, Gannett vice president for new media content, and a video with Web pioneer Rob Curley, VP of Product Development for Washingtonpost.Newsweek.

You will also hear from Roy Peter Clark, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Pulitzer Prize winner Connie Shultz from The Cleveland Plain Dealer and author John Berendt, author of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” who talks about creating a sense of place.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Why & how storytelling works

Hey all, I e-mailed a couple questions about Stoop Storytelling in Baltimore to one of its creators/organizers, Laura Wexler. (She teaches writing at Johns Hopkins and Goucher, is a senior editor at Style Magazine and published a non-fiction narrative, "Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America.") She has some great thoughts on how and why that format works, and we can apply a lot of what she says -- for example, listening for authentic voices, bringing out a character that people will 'root for,' telling a personal story -- to what we do.

I asked her why she thought people respond to this kind of narrative storytelling. What is it about us as human beings that makes us want to hear (and in our case, read) these stories? Is it simply the suspense of wanting to know what happened? Or is there something deeper?

"I think what happens when one of the storytellers steps out onto the stage is that you have an instant protagonist: someone the audience can root for, plain and simple. As simple as that is, it's also a huge thing--writers have to create sympathy or empathy for the folks they're writing about through the language itself--and that pretty much happens instantly at The Stoop (largely, I think, because the audience is aware that the storytellers are not professionals-and that it takes a lot of courage to stand up there so nakedly).
So it's not just that the audience wants to know what happened next, it's that they want to know what happened next to the person who's standing onstage. It's personal (and actually one of our few "rules" is that the storytellers' stories have to be about them; they have to be taking action or not taking action, but they have to be the main character) and immediate. And, well, real. I mean, the person is standing before you. It's intimate and honest...and, actually, we've found that the storytellers who tell less polished stories--who tell a story as though it's the first time they're telling it--are the ones who win the most audience support.
To stand onstage and tell something you've never told before--that's a risk. That's exciting...and the audience responds to that. Not necessarily in a voyeuristic way, though that's part of it, but with the feeling that "this has never been heard before and will never be heard again." It's almost a deal that's struck: the audience offers its attention (which is often rapt, as you heard last night) and the storyteller offers a window into his life.
Along those lines, what I've heard today are that many, many people loved "the boxer"--Mike Paschall--because he talked so honestly about his fear, and because it was clear that it was costing him something to stand up there."

I asked her what thoughts do you have on how a storyteller -- in our case, a writer -- can find the form, the voice, the devices, the structure that are right for each tale? What have you seen work and not work in your Stoop steries?

"Early on, I had very definite ideas about what made a good story--basically a beginning, middle, and end with a conflict and resolution, an epiphany of sorts, etc.--but we've really moved away from counseling storytellers that way. Our one dictum now: tell the truest story you can.
Even so, people are interested in, and capable of, varying levels of truth and complexity, and so the depth of the stories varies. Last night Walter Lomax told the story he could tell at this point. Was it entirely satisfying? No. He wasn't able to offer the specifics that could get us to the place he'd been. But it was the only story he could tell at this moment. And we're fine with that--we try to meet people where they are. And we believe that our goal is less to provide 7 perfectly satisfying stories than to offer a window into 7 very different people's lives. So I guess we've evolved to being less interested in shapely stories than in catching a glimpse of who people are at this moment in time. (That may sound woo-woo, but it's true.)
Do I think all memoir/storytelling should be approached this way? No...I certainly don't approach my graduate students in creative nonfiction at Goucher in this way. But they're writing books...they're creating art. They're doing something different. With the Stoop, it's just a seven-minute short story about someone's life. I'm not sure what it is--is it theater? Is it art? Is it therapy? I don't know. Maybe it's all three...
Personally, one of my favorite things is the sound of all the different voices--how everyone is from Baltimore and yet they sound so different. They sound like who they are. I love that. I love the orality of it..."

I asked her what newspaper stories she has read that are satisfying, what she looks for in a newspaper story.

"Oh dear, this is a doozie....don't think I can do it justice. Suffice to say that I'm a huge reader of the NYT and one of my favorite stories I can think of from the past few years is the NYT Magazine cover story Barry Bearak did on the Asian tsunami (which he modeled on John Hersey's book, Hiroshima.) I also really like the work Wil Haygood is doing at the Post.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Stand-up storytelling

A bunch of us went to the "Stoop Storytelling" production in Baltimore last night, and it's very cool; I think we'd all recommend it as a night of good entertainment that doesn't cost a fortune, even if the YDR isn't buying the ticket.

As I drove home I kept trying to come up with a one-word description of what I'd seen. One word felt right: Authentic.

The night's storytellers were not performers. And they were not "sources" as we sometimes label the people we talk to. They were regular people -- a former crime-scene investigator, a boxer, a woman with ongoing health problems, a man wrongly convicted of murder -- to whom interesting things had happened. And for seven minutes (or a little more) each, they stood in front of a packed theater and told their stories to laughter and spirited applause.

When we pursue and publish those kinds of stories in our newspaper, we've really done something.

I invite those who went last night to comment here and try to capture their thought about the event in one word, and a brief explanation.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A 1A treatment

For those of you who might have missed Sunday's 1A treatment of Melissa Burke's story, "Inside, wanting out," make sure you check it out.

For starters, we began this passage with a sentence 23 words long. As the passage continues, the sentences become shorter and shorter until there is a one-word sentence followed by a four-word sentence.

This was on purpose. Our intent was to have the reader feel as though their world, too, was getting smaller and smaller through using shorter and shorter sentences, ending with the one-word sentence "Alone." Notice, too, that this single-word sentence is followed by a four-word one indicating hope and change.

We also achieved this feeling by design. Notice how the sentences, while descending in word length, are laid out in such a way that they create an arrow of sorts, pointing to the word "alone." Below is the passage written without the typographical treatment to show you how each sentence was written with fewer words than the one before.

We also were very cognizant of the rhythm in this passage, and I think the end result was amazing!

So, if you haven't seen this, please check it out.


For nearly five years, Melissa Straub didn't go a mile beyond her tidy, cocoa-brown home in the suburban hills of North Codorus Township.
Gripped by panic attacks, she'd stopped working and traveling, grocery shopping and driving by herself.
She avoided appointments, dropped out of the Bible study down her block.
Her world got smaller, the attacks more terrifying.
Family and friends were bewildered.
They came, they went.
And she stayed.
At home.
Alone.
Hoping for a way out.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Persistence, luck, danger and good reporting

Remember Earl Swift's narrative whodunit on the Norfolk mayor shot to death 35 years ago (see this post)? Here's a great tale from Lon Wagner, who edited the piece, on how Earl got the story.

I'm going to get with Earl to ask him a few things about the story to put here on the blog. If anyone has any questions they want to ask of Earl, let me know with a comment to this post.

Meanwhile, cue Lon:

"Background is this: We aim for one of these local history narratives every summer, due to the popularity of the Fever two years ago.

Last year, Diane wrote the pirate serial. We thought we were not going to have one this year, but Earl was looking into this and we thought, "well, just maybe." Key was getting access to the actual police file, or so we thought.

We thought the mayor was going to arm twist the police chief there for a while, but due to various political things around town, the mayor decided not to do battle over this and the file was out of the question. But somehow, Earl arranged to be in the room with the file and ask specific questions.

He gets a lead that the cops had actually pursued this case as recently as 2004, and we thought, "hey, that makes it current, maybe it's a two or three parter." Then Earl found out that one of the only living people in the story was a guy named Eddie "Boo" Creedle, who lived in South Hill, about two and a half hours from here.

They arranged to meet one night in South Hill, and since Eddie Boo had been convicted of various crimes involving guns and people dying, Earl said, "I'm calling you on the way IN to the interview; I'm calling you as soon as I get out. Here's where I'll be....."

So after about three hours, it was 9 p.m. and I still hadn't heard, so us couple of old guys texted each other: "You OK?" (it took me 10 minutes to find the question mark)

A few minutes later, Earl shot back: "Still at it."

Next day, Earl unloaded what he had learned: Creedle had tried to rat out his friend, Johnny Ozlin, decades earlier. Creedle told a long yarn about the supposed killer, how they knew each other, etc. We knew we had a serial, with a story that could end in 2007."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Finding stories to tell

We all run dry sometimes.

Nicki's brown bagger yesterday, on internet research, included a list of web sites that Poynter's Al Tompkins said he uses to find ideas (and if you're familiar w/Tompkins' "Morning Meeting" on Poynter's web site, you know he comes up with some pretty good stuff).

Some of the more unusual or interesting:

http://www.firehouse.com/ -- firefighter/EMT site, industry news, etc.
http://www.agriculture.com/ -- includes topics ranging from rural suicides to crop reports
http://www.mtv.com/ -- as Tompkins says, it's a quick way to stay up on pop culture even when you're not into pop culture
http://www.topix.net/ -- you can search for news by zip code
http://buzz.yahoo.com/ -- most searched-for words on the web
http://www.mouseprint.org/ -- The website, MousePrint.org, says it "turns advertising on its head by focusing on an ad’s asterisked fine print footnote rather than the headline." it has an attitude.
www.cdc.gov/mmwr -- cool stuff about bad diseases. the 'mm' stands for 'morbidity and mortality.' enough said.

If you want Al Tompkins' whole list, I can run you a copy or Nicki probably has more copies.

Tompkins also suggested using RSS feeds to put multiple sites you might use to troll for story ideas in one place -- on your Yahoo! page, or Google page, or whatever. If you're interested but not familiar with RSS or how to use it, holler.

Also, Nicki e-mailed those at the bagger a story-finding list Ted Sickler had sent out some time ago. It's here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Special guests

Hey all, we have two really cool speakers coming in over the next couple months -- a stand-up comedian and a national-level author/commentator.
Mark these dates on your calendar and try to work with your supervisor to make sure you can spare an hour, because these two brown-baggers will be entertaining as well as offering us insight into different kinds of storytelling.


Earl David Reed -- a standup comedian who also does a morning radio show (can be heard on 105.7 the X) and is a bodybuilder to boot. From his web site: "Earl David Reed's dynamic presence combined with his hard-driving wit, and improvisational style delivers a performance that leaves radio and comedy audiences breathless and always wanting more." He's here Oct. 3 at 4:30.


Marion Winik -- an author and National Public Radio commentator whose book "First Comes Love" was a New York Times notable book in 1996. From her Web site:
“Winik’s voice is so true and clear and compassionate, we’re happy to listen to any story she wants to tell.” -- L.A. Times Book Review.
“God, what a story, what a writer! Marion Winik blew me away.” -- Anne Lamott.
Marion is here Nov. 13 at 4:30.




Thursday, September 13, 2007

"I am a storyteller"

The Times-Picayune has posted a 25-minute video on its photographers and their work post-Katrina.

In the first few seconds one of the photographers says, "Deep down, I am a storyteller. And the skill set that I have to tell those stories is a camera. That's why I do what I do."

I'll bet that line hits home with our photographers. And it's a great reminder to all of us about what we're here to do -- tell our community's stories. And that we're best at telling those stories when the words and the visuals come together in full force.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Great visual storytelling

If you have not seen Jason's video on Shawna Weil, the brain-damaged girl whose family hopes a new stem-cell treatment will help her in some way, take five minutes for this excellent piece of visual storytelling.

Of note: The video opens with the mother's words, "Shawna was coming home from work ..." And she (and the visuals) begin to tell a story. If you didn't know the story ahead of time and/or had not read the accompanying story, you wouldn't know right away what's going to happen. But I think the mother's re-telling compels you to stick around to find out. And once you do, you're in until the end, I think.

The video ends plaintively, and open-endedly, which is entirely appropriate for this story.

Great work, Jason.

Worth your time

The YDR's own books blog reports that Edward P. Jones, author of "The Known World" among other things, will be speaking at Goucher College in Baltimore Oct. 15 (and it's free).

This guy is a brilliant writer, in my opinion. When I read "The Known World" I remember feeling like he had crafted each sentence for months before moving on to the next one. It's just great stuff and I'm sure it would be cool to hear him do a reading.

Friday, August 31, 2007

What is journalism?

(You can be more specific and change that to "What is storytelling?" if you like.)

Either way, check this out. It's a guide to "Journalism 2.0." I don't think it's overdramatic to say that understanding the material in here will, in large part, determine whether you're cut out to thrive in this business.

I welcome argument on that, though!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Perhaps the ultimate narrative non-fiction

From "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" by David Simon:

Pulling one hand from the warmth of a pocket, Jay Landsman squats down to grab the dead man's chin, pushing the head to one side until the wound becomes visible as a small, ovate hole, oozing red and white.
"Here's your problem," he said. "He's got a slow leak."
"A leak?" says Pellegrini, picking up on it.
"A slow one."
"You can fix those."
"Sure you can," Landsman agrees.
"They got these home repair kits now. . . "
"Like with tires."
"Just like with tires," Landsman says. "Comes with a patch and everything else you need. Now a bigger wound, like from a thirty-eight, you're gonna have to get a new head. This one you could fix."
Landsman looks up, his face the very picture of earnest concern.
Sweet Jesus, thinks Tom Pellegrini, nothing like working murders with a mental case.



That's just to whet your appetite.

Join us noon Wednesday, Sept. 5, to eat lunch and watch an episode of "Homicide," based on Simon's book, after which we'll talk about how character development and dialogue can be used to develop conflict in a story and lead us to the story's resolution.

The episode is about 45 minutes and we'll leave about a half-hour for
discussion, so we should be done in a little over an hour.

See you there.

Words and music

Just caught a clip of Jack Kerouac reading from "On the Road" backdropped by jazz piano on the Steve Allen show in 1959. Scroll down and look on the left side of the page; the video clip is only 30 seconds but the audio clip is 3 minutes or so and worth every second.

Kerouac virtually sings his writing to the beat of the music. It's captivating in and of itself, but it's also a writing lesson for us -- listen to how his syllables, words, sentences and emphasis within those sentences create an irresistable, entrancing rhythm.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A good yarn

Picked up Sunday's Virginian-Pilot while at the beach. Saw an Earl Swift whodunit series beginning atop page 1A. Check it out. Starts with a detective investigating a death; he doesn't know who the dead man is until someone in the neighborhood tells him. By the time I read the following few grafs, I was hooked:

Mears returned to the body. He saw no bullet holes in the coat, so he unbuttoned it. Saw no holes in the man’s dark blazer, so he unbuttoned that. On the white shirt beneath was a spot of red.

Lordy, Mears thought. Tonight’s not going to be so routine, after all.

W. Fred Duckworth was the former mayor of Norfolk.

And damn if he hadn’t been shot.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Good stuff flagged by me and others

  • Michele Canty saw this from AP on the Minneapolis bridge disaster. She wrote:
    "Something like this also helps us remember that good writing doesn't have to be a long-term project, and that breaking news stories can be the perfect opportunity to really shine."
  • Dustin Long, a reporter and friend of mine, sent this along -- a Seattle Times piece on a basketball coach's daughter who has cancer. What's different is that the reporter is doing a blog with regular updates about the girl. That's something new. Any thoughts? Do you like it? Not like it?
  • I saw a blurb on Romenesko about this series, which the Newark Star-Ledger says "tells the story of one of New Jersey's most notorious killers, Robert Zarinsky. It is the tale of a cunning psychopath, the dogged lawmen who pursued him and the victims who, even today, await justice." One interesting thing is that the sourcing is basically a huge footnote, their way of preserving the narrative without inserting attribution throughout the story, according to a piece in Editor & Publisher. Check it out & let us know what you think about this method.

Stephen King weighs in ...

... sort of. Buffy and Jen led a group discussion Aug. 1 on King's book, "On Writing." A couple of highlights they pulled from King's combination of technical advice and inspiration (well worth the read even for non-fiction writers):

  • "I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work." Some things King suggests you carry: Vocabulary; grammar; Strunk and White's 'Elements of Style.'
  • "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops."

I have copies of both Buffy's and Jen's handouts, which are basically quotes pulled from King's book, if you'd like a copy.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Narrative handout

If you missed the July 11 writing seminar and want the handout, there are some available in the big conference room, or see me and I'll print one out for you. It contains quotes about good narrative writing and examples too. Samples:
  • Ask yourself, "What's the satisfying resolution to this story that will make readers glad they read to the end?" -- Mike Wilson, St. Petersburg Times
  • "Nothing is too insignificant to ask about." -- Diane Tennant, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
  • "In interviews, the object is not to get quotes but to get action and build a situation." -- Jon Franklin, University of Maryland

And there are many more ....

Friday, July 6, 2007

Writer's insight on the 'Grizzly attack' story

If you haven't read the grizzly attack story , it's worth your time. It fascinated me, so I e-mailed the L.A. Times' Tom Curwen with a couple of questions. He provided some great insight into how he put the story together, from how he got the access to how he focused to the story to a lot of great stuff in between.

One interesting note: He is an editor, not a staff writer there, so he used time here and there to work on the story until he gained enough momentum that he got cut loose for about a week to finish it off.

One more note: He's jazzed by our focus on writing, saying he thinks it's critical whenever we can "to think away from the inverted pyramid and to reimagine story-telling as a vital, energetic and surprising expression that taps into readers' curiosities, interests and needs."

Here are his thoughts on the grizzly story:

How did you decide when in the story to weave in background, and how much time away from the storyline was just right?

As the question implies, backsteps are always a gamble. In the case of this story, I was lucky to have a compelling narrative -- and a simple chronology -- that could tolerate any momentary breaks in the action. I'm a big believer in delayed gratification and wanted to tease out the drama of the attack as long as I possibly could. No detail was too small to include. Each allowed me to create a crescendo in each paragraph, in each small scene, before stepping away (I think readers appreciated this too; a number wrote to comment on how it allowed them to catch their breath).
But that said, I never take readers for granted, and for better or worse, I believe they have an extremely short attention spans. Therefore, any step back has to be written like haiku, no single word wasted.

When did you decide to try to do a story like this?

I first read about the attack in an AP story that ran after Johan was discharged from Harborview Hospital in Seattle. It was a well-reported piece but just the bare-bones. At the time, I was editing the paper's Outdoors section and had just written a re-creation of another bear attack that had taken place that summer up on Alaska's North Slope, and I knew from reader response that bear stories never fail. Then, within weeks -- and rather coincidentally -- I was visiting a family member at Scripps Memorial Hospital, and I noticed a man in a halo walking down the corridor. It had to be Johan, and I knew this was my chance (a sign?).
In the beginning, I had no idea the story would have so many fascinating components. I just thought it was a bear attack, but as I got into the reporting and learned about the helicopter rescue, for instance, and the scalp surgery, I knew I had a narrative that could go the distance.

When (in the timeline of the attack/recovery) did you secure the access?

Rather than approaching Johan first, I went to the nurse in charge of his recovery. I wanted to give the family space; clearly his treatment was far more important than anything I needed. She put me in touch with the hospital's public relations manager, and after I explained how I wanted to write this story -- with an emphasis on the recovery -- she spoke with Johan and passed his phone number onto me.
Winning the trust of a stranger is a tricky business, but I was helped by the fact that other media (newspapers and television) had so inundated Johan with interview requests that he appreciated someone willing to take a slow, calm and methodical approach. As I explained how I work and how I imagined telling this story -- getting into the psychological angle of his recovery, sending him a tape recorder to capture moments and feelings when I wasn't around -- the more Johan opened up to me. I think he has as much respect for narratives as I do and realized that it was a story perfect for sensationalization (Bear Bites Man!), which he wanted to avoid that at all costs.

What, if any, ground rules did you have with Johan, the family, doctors, etc.?

When I explained to Johan what a narrative is, I told him that I would need complete and exclusive access. I was up-front with him every step of the way. I told him that I would need his medical records. I told him that I would do a FOIA on the park's report about the rescue. I hid nothing from him, and I told him that he had to be open with me, especially if there was any part of the reporting that made him uncomfortable. I explained that we would talk about it and then decide whether or not it was critical to the story.
Of course, along the way he was tempted by other magazines and mediums (Oprah, for one), but after a month or two, I was able to appeal to his conscience, explaining how the LA Times needed to break this story first and that the paper had already devoted a lot of time and money in reporting it. Fortunately, he understood and respected that agreement.

How did you get the level of detail in the story?

I was lucky. Not only was Johan very forthcoming (it became clear to me that our interviews and email exchanges were becoming a form of therapy for him) and his memory of the events completely lucid, but also everyone involved in the rescue and the recovery seemed to have the whole incident seared into their brains.
Also, my editors were terrific and played no small role helping me uncover every detail. The first draft of the story was an ungainly 15,000 words and contained a number of extra characters and characterizations (which would probably find room in a book but not in a newspaper story). We decided to scale the story back by focusing strictly on Johan's point of view. I consequently spent a day with him, allowing him to fill in as many blanks as he could. It was a smart decision. It forced me to dive deeper into his psyche, and it shortened the piece by about 5,000 words.

Can disgusting bugs teach us about storytelling?

I say yes, and I'll try to prove it on July 11 when we meet for our six-month storytelling seminar.
Time: Noon
Place: Big conference room
Food: Catered lunch of sandwiches, pasta salad, chips, drinks, dessert*
Features: Story readings, playing of songs and DVD clips from various staff members.
Plan to spend: About 90 minutes max. We'll try to keep it moving.

*I don't think the bugs are disgusting enough to kill anyone's appetite.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

'Encounters' at the St. Petersburg Times

We've linked to and read several stories from the St. Petersburg Times that have run as part of its regular feature called "Encounters" -- a story about about bugs having sex and one about what would possess someone to kill for a taquito, to name a couple.

These stories, when done well, have great impact. They are sharply focused, short, emotional, evocative and vibrant.

I would love for us to find and do more of these types of stories. So I e-mailed Mike Wilson, the editor who works with "Encounters," and asked him how they're doing it.

I asked what he's looking for in an "Encounters" story:

"I tell reporters that I'm looking for stories with compelling characters whom we get to know in depth -- even though the length limit on these pieces is 20 inches. Leonora LaPeter wrote about a woman who trains Lippizaner stallions. Training horses was her family business; she learned it from her father and grandfather. After they died, she kept it up, but something didn't feel right. Then one day she walked into the barn and the horses started to nicker and whinny and she realized that she had finally made it, that the horses had accepted her. It was a tremendously important moment in her life, and not the kind of thing newspapers usually take notice of. Which in itself is probably a good definition of Encounters: Important moments that newspapers usually miss.

"When reporters come to me with story ideas, I always tell them the same things. Encounters must be original; if TV or another local paper is doing the story, it's not an Encounter. Encounters are not news by any traditional definition. Encounters must be exceptionally well written; other things on the front page can be all about delivering important information, but Encounters are ALL ABOUT THE READING EXPERIENCE. (Forgive me for shouting.) Encounters may also be, and often are, experimental; Thomas Lake told one story that began at the end and ended at the beginning (my idea, and I'm not sure it worked even though he did it brilliantly); Caryn Baird, who collects state quarters, narrated the important details of her life, according to what was happening when each quarter was released."

I asked him what were the common threads in how reporters are finding and doing these types of stories:

"Reporters who are good at finding Encounters have a couple of things in common: They understand the distinction between traditional news and a good story, and they are able to focus closely on single person or a single interaction. Phuong Nguyen wrote a great piece about an abused woman, now in a shelter, who got a makeover. It made the woman feel pretty and dignified for the first time in years. Ben Montgomery wrote about an artist who painted a portrait of an aimless young woman and, by doing so, motivated the young woman to do something with her life. These reporters 1.) realized these were stories even though they were not "news", and 2.) didn't quote university professors or give census numbers to give their stories a patina of legitimacy and authority. "

I asked about how they vetted ideas, how they figured out what might work and what probably wouldn't:

"With regard to the vetting of ideas: Sometimes a reporter will tell me about an interesting situation that's unfolding and I'll say, "What's the satisfying resolution to that story that will make readers glad they read to the end?" If we can't come up with a good answer it's probably not an Encounter.
"Sometimes an idea just isn't completely cooked. The other day a reporter told me she wants to write an Encounter about an adult learning to swim. She didn't have a particular adult in mind; she just thought the situation had the potential for a lot of drama and tension. I agreed. But I told her the key to Encounters is in the details. These stories aren't just about dramatic situations. They're about specific people with specific things at stake. If the reporter finds an adult who is stepping into the water for the first time after dreading it for years because of the drowning death of a sibling, that may be an Encounter. But if the adult just never got around to learning how to swim, it isn't."

Not everyone in the newsroom, he said, is a fan of "Encounters." Some question its mission or purpose; and he acknowledges some of the stories they've tried haven't worked. But readers do respond. Some wonder what the paper was thinking. More, Wilson said, say something like, "I never thought I'd see a story like that in a newspaper. Thanks for making my day."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

'The salvation of newspapers'

Just above this post is the lead graf of 'Attacked by a grizzly' by Tom Curwen. Want to keep reading? Yeah, me too.

That's one reason we wanted to focus on narrative storytelling this year. Tom Curwen of the L.A. Times, who wrote the story, echoes something we talked about when we kicked off the Year of Storytelling -- that people love to read these stories, and, when the stories are well done, people will come back to the newspaper (or web site) to keep reading.

In comments to the Neiman narrative web site, Curwen said the reaction to this story "convinces me that the salvation of newspapers lies in narratives." Online, he wrote, the package got more than 533,000 hits. Of the nearly 400 e-mails he received, the overwhelming majority praised the story.

One said: "I never buy papers during the week, but your piece in Sunday's edition compelled me to buy Monday's paper to read the rest of Johan and Jenna's story."

Another said: "Please tell your editors that my entire household as well as half of all the passengers waiting at gate number 24 at the Oakland Airport yesterday were enraptured by the story, not just because of the drama but also for its spirit and sensitivity."

Gotta focus

We've talked about theme and focus of stories throughout the year. Here's a must-read post from Poynter's Chip Scanlan about story focus, and it ties in both the written word and the visual.
A teaser from Chip:

Discovering the theme is crucial to the two interested parties at polar ends of the storytelling experience: the reader, viewer or listener; and the writer, both of whom rely on the theme to produce and experience a unified story. This is what I believe.

Serial narrative murder mystery

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran this several-part piece earlier this month. Compelling story. The chapters are relatively short. How effectively do you think it is told?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The way words sound

I just posted something on my Explorer blog that, in retrospect, might be of interest to my fellow wordsmiths.

It's kind of lengthy to repeat here, so you can just click here and read it for yourself.

I often find myself thinking (probably too much) about the sound of words and sentences and why alliteration works when used well but doesn't when it's forced. Or why I love to listen to someone speaking a foreign language -- I have no idea what the words mean (and this frustrates me to no end) -- but you can hear patterns in the speech, intonation, rhythm, staccato and legato and all those musical things we don't really pay much attention to when we're worried about meaning.

Asian languages seem especially good for this kind of listening.

Does anyone else have instances where you've noticed this?

If so, please share in the comments here so I don't feel like such a freak. Thanks. :)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Crabbing show a real hook (haha)


I was pretty unable to tear myself away from the TV set last weekend when I saw The Discovery Channel's "The Deadliest Catch" at a friend's house.

I rarely turn on my TV, and I don't have cable, so maybe it's really not anything special, but I found myself marveling about how -- using material that is true and not made-up (like in the reality shows where the suspense is all fake and created for the viewer) -- they were able to present the lives of these Alaskan crab fisherman in a way that hooks the viewer (even someone like me with the attention span of a fly).

They introduce you to the characters so you feel like you know them a bit, set the scene, weave in educational tidbits so well that you don't even realize you're learning about crab fishing and the difference between opilio and king crabs.

And of course, there's the reality that any of these guys could get killed or seriously injured at any time. So many turning points and small-but-crucial decisions made for good suspense. I was fascinated.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Feel the love

OK, so I like animals and have a weird fascination with their social structure. Sue me.

But this article, Feel like telling them 'get a room,' is just about the coolest thing I have read in a long time. It gets the information out at a human level. And the reporter's word usage is very awesome - alliteration and metaphors galore.

What's funny, is that at Sue and Brad's Farm-B-Q this past weekend, I saw two horse flies doing just this amid the 20 horses and larger-than-life pig. Romantic.

So, read the short article and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Complication/resolution without the resolution

Since we've been talking about complication/resolution stories we've also talked about how some stories don't have the classic ending you need for such a structure. Here's a piece in which a friend of mine who's appeared in this blog from time to time, Dustin Long, basically immersed himself with NASCAR driver Mark Martin's team as they prepared their car for last weekend's race, with their narrow loss in the Daytona 500 still haunting them.

Had Dustin reported through the race itself, he would have had his ending. But he and his editors decided they wanted the story to set up the race, so there is no classic resolution. Yet -- and this is why I'm posting this -- the story does end. In fact I think Dustin found a pretty strong, satisfying ending for this piece -- and as writers and editors, that's what we're going for.

There are some other things he does well in the story -- in particular, most of the quotes he uses are in the form of dialogue, which I think really helps the story (any story).

Anyway ... take a look and judge for yourself.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The genius of Wayne (Tony, actually)


Tony Ryder of the band Wayne Supergenius dropped by Wednesday to share thoughts on writing, music and other stuff. Although we write in different worlds, there's a lot of crossover, such as:


  • We're always seeking to hold a reader's attention, which is part of the reason for the emphasis on storytelling this year. Someone asked Tony what makes a good story. A universal, emotional connection, he said. "...if you find that connection, that personal connection within the story or song -- If you can make an emotional connection, a spiritual connection ... that's what holds you to (the story)."

  • We're always revising stories ... sometimes briefly; sometimes we are poring over each sentence and word. Does he revise only to enhance that universal story connection, or does he get down to evaluating each word and its rhythm in the story (song)? "I don't get all James Joyce about it and labor over it word by word. (But) sometimes I will try to think of a word that actually will work better -- it means basically the same thing, but it's got a flow. A lot of it has to do with the interest in poetry. Great poets know exactly how to command you -- how you're going to read those words."

  • We know that the best stories will be the ones where we identify, and write about, the universal element, the thing that touches each person who reads it on some deeper level. Here's Tony on the universal experience: "We have a tendency to believe our experiences are unique only to us. But our experiences are really pretty universal. ... Sometimes it's allowing yourself to work outside yourself -- to make the connection with someone else's experience." He said to know there are some universal themes "that anybody is going to understand."

Thanks to so many of you for being there. Anyone else want to share what struck you about Tony's talk, or what you can take from him and apply to your own writing?



Friday, May 18, 2007

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Writers group challenge

Hey. Tom here.

At the writers group meeting on May 16, we talked about metaphors and similes. And we tried this exercise I found online. Give it a try. It's tougher than it looks, but it gets your mind working. Some of the phrases are pretty weird -- I figure that's intentional, to keep you from falling back on cliches.

Here's the exercise:

http://fictionwriting.about.com/b/a/257650.htm

Remember, don't think too much. Just write down whatever comes into your head. The idea isn't coming up with brilliant metaphors, so much as getting in the frame of mind where they occur naturally.

Anyway, this is the challenge. Take the test and post one or more of the metaphors or similes you come up with. Here are a couple of mine:

The fog plumed through gunshot holes in the car windows like tentative ghosts.

The security guard walks the lobby as if angry at the floor tiles.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sounds like...

You might have already seen this on the Poynter Web site, but I thought it was a pretty cool idea to make us think about how to show (I mean, hear) what a character in a story sounds like -- whether it be Random York Resident or John Brenner or a famous baseball player.

Check out the article at: http://www.poynter.org/content/email_friend.asp?id=122690

Anybody want to try describing what their favorite source/character sounds like? Post it in the comments so we can all enjoy!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Be skeptical

Over on gangrey.com, there are two articles that show how The Fresno Bee was fooled.

Turns out this was false.

If it sounds a little out of the ordinary... maybe it is.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Quite a find

In hunting for Jon Franklin's highly-regarded narrative about a day in the life of a dogcatcher, I came upon this story by Franklin -- one I'd never read and never heard of, even though he lectures widely and a lot of his work finds its way into writing seminars, etc.

It transfixed me; I could not stop reading it. It's creepy, poignant, disturbing and uplifting all at once.

Note how he starts immediately in a scene.

Note how he introduces a nearly intangible concept in the second graf.

Note that before you have time to dwell on that nearly intangible concept and get mad that he doesn't explain what it is, you're back in the scene. If you're like me, you're invested in the story once he starts describing the students.

Note how when the main character speaks, you might say, 'what the...?' ... but note how his response comes back at the end with a new meaning.

Note how the intangible slowly becomes tangible.

Ah, heck, we could do a whole brown-bagger on this story. Just read it. And let me know what you think.

Another success story

This one from Ted Czech, "Family dog dies a hero," in today's paper.
Note the construction -- a riveting opening scene, immediate conflict, then the line that, in 11 words, captures the heart of the story: "But, she said Tuesday, she did not take care of him."
And then immediately back to the action.
I wager a lot of people will have read this one all the way through this morning.
Thanks, Ted, for a heck of a story.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Is the media actually to blame?

I'd like to start up a discussion on something that has bugged me for some time now, but came up again in the wake of the Virgninia Tech killings. In the week after the massacre, students and others at the university turned on the media, kicking them out of university buildings and banning reporters from areas on campus. The reason - many said THE MEDIA criticized Tech's president, Steger, over the administration's response to the killings and injured students.

Here's a story on it:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070425/ap_on_re_us/virginia_tech_president

I'm confused. In the hours and days after the shooting, the STUDENTS, their PARENTS and many employed with the university called for Steger's post and questioned how he handled this situation. How did THE MEDIA become the ones behind these comments and in turn, warrant comments like this one from the AP story - "It's the nature of the press: Make the worst of any situation. That's what sells."?

Is this truly the nature of the press? How often do reporters think of "what sells" when they are reporting/writing? As journalists, do we report the "blame the media" angle, even when we know it's not true? Do we defend ourselves, such as putting in the comments from students, parents and others that clearly show THEY were asking for Steger's post, or do we just ignore it?
Or is this the usual, "blaming the messenger" thing that we see from people when we report bad news, or we ask officials hard questions about how they handled a dangerous, newsworthy situation?

Any thoughts?

Michele C.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Writer's Group recap April 27

Today our small but merry bunch talked about finding stories. The homework assignment was to come with a few story ideas from your commute to work. And let me tell you, there were a lot of cool ideas --- Here are a few:

From Nicki: She noticed a small, rundown orange stand near the railroad tracks downtown, that still sells fruit in the summer and she also wondered if construction traffic is coordinated between municipalities after finding horrendous traffic on both Rt. 30 and 462 --- her main routes to Lancaster.

From Laura: She thought it'd be cool to write about people's favorite fortunes from their fortune cookies. We talked about doing a story about spooky York lore/sites after noticing a tank sticking out of a building on the Rail Trail.

From Brad: On his drive from the boondocks to civilations Brad questioned how many working farms were actually still in the county, versus farms where people have farm animals as pets. After driving past a "cat lady" house, he wondered what the laws were on feeding cats, or having too many cats on your property. Are there any parts of the county where you can go tubing in area creeks? What could you do with a story about back country roads where people living in upscale houses are right next door to people in trailers. What's going on at Duke Assisted Living Facility since it's closed down? There's a lot of trash piling up... Brad's an overachiever, there were more on this list.

From Jeff: Take a walk around nearby Hawk Lake Golf Course and write about how nature has slowly re-claimed the formerly perfectly manicured grounds.

From Melissa: Commuter stories. Create a scavanger hunt for commuters who drive a certain route every day, to keep the trek interesting.

From me: Where are people's favorite fishing holes? I wanted to do a rural life story about a pony (that is obviously a pet) who lives with a bunch of cows, who will eventually be eaten. What is it like to have to make friends with food, and eventually lose them. There is a cross on the rocks near a creek that looks like a memorial to someone who died, what's the story behind that? I noticed a stage setup during the summer where kids in Dover Township seem to congregate, is this there first step to becoming rock stars?

The main point of the excercise was to get people to open their eyes and see something new in a place that you've driven by a thousand times. It was also to show that there are literally story ideas everywhere we turn, which is pretty exciting if you're feeling like you're in a rut. Don't be afraid to step out of your beat every once and a while to do stories that satisfy your curiousity about a certain subject --- I think we all agreed it was important to do this so you can stay passionate about your job and about writing. Reward yourself with a fun challenging story every once and a while. And if you have an idea, but aren't sure where to go with it, ask a neighbor or a couple people. We spent most of the meeting developing entire stories from a simple observation, it helped getting everyone's input.

Which leads me to my last plug: Apparantly this global warming thing is a huge story that's not going away. What can we do to localize it? Look around you on your way to work. Think about your beat. What stories could we do to show how York County is affected? There is a file called YORKGREEN just begging for ideas.

I have handouts from Wilmington a couple of years ago during a session with St. Petersburg Times reporter Lane DeGregory, about finding stories off the beaten path. They're pretty useful and will get you thinking about new ways to approach finding stories.

Finally, Jen asked me to find volunteers to lead the next two Writer's Group Sessions at 3 p.m. May 16 and 2 p.m. May 24. If you have any ideas for topics please feel free to share. That's all for me!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reporting and writing the feature story

The latest from Poynter's seminar on sports writing, courtesy of NASCAR beat writer Dustin Long:

Michelle Hiskey of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked at a session titled "The craft of reporting and writing the sports feature story.''

First off, don't worry that this is about sports feature story. It can work for any type of story or any type of feature.

She mentioned how disciplined writers do stories that, hopefully, move people.

Think of your pre-story routine as like the same pre-shot routine a Tiger Woods goes through. Tiger thinks of his shot, figures out what club he'll use and how he'll strike the ball. Think of your stories in detail before you do them (or strike the ball in Tiger's case)

What makes a profile? It's a story of a person with something at stake doing something that reveals their character.

You want to look for movement -- they're doing something.

You want to look for a moment. Think of your stories as photos.

She showed a simple shot of boxer Muhammad Ali. It was a standard head and shoulder shot. No action. Nothing exciting. That's like a one-source story that doesn't go very deep. It's just there. How many times have we seen pictures in papers that were not that exciting.

The next photo she showed was Ali up against the ropes in a fight. You saw action. You could see his face. You could see his expression to being hit. You could see the other boxer hitting him.
Well, that's like a second-level feature where your story is richer in detail, in digging deeper into a subject or issue.

Interviewing mistakes

More from Poynter's current seminar on sports writing:

John Sawatsky, a Canadian professor who also is with ESPN, where he teaches interviewing techniques, talked about some of the mistakes make in interviewing.

1. Ask a question.
Sawatsky said a question creates a demand or obligation for the subject to respond. If you make a statement, it merely proclaims something and there's no demand for a response. He showed an example from a 60 Minutes interview where Lesley Stahl was talking to Paul Newman about the death of his son. She made a statement instead of a question. Newman responded but really didn't say anything. It was weak. A question could have gotten a better response that could have been more telling from Newman.

2. Don't ask multiple questions.
How many times have we all done this? Swatsky says make only one demand. Asking more than one question is giving your subject an out. They may not like one question you ask, so they'll focus on the second question and if you don't catch it, you could lose what you were trying to get.
He showed a Barbara Walters interview with Monica Lewinsky's dad from 20/20. He did not believe Linda Tripp's tapes of Monica were real. So, Barbara asked: "How do you explain her visits to the White House? How do you explain the tapes?''
See that she asks two questions?
Well, Mr. Lewinsky responded by addressing the White House visits by saying that's where she worked. He ignored the question about the tapes and went with the response that would be safer for him. Barbara Walters gave him an out and he took it.

3. Don't put in too many topics.
A bad question is: What do you think of sports? Or can be, What do you think of politics? That's too broad a category.
Be sharper. Make the questions more precise. Keep them simple. Don't overload your questions.

4. Don't make remarks. Just ask the question.
Swatsky shoes a tape from 60 minutes where the reporter asks a government official about why the gov. was paying a company a $7 million bonus despite poor and shoddy work. That's the crux of the report.
This is how the question was phrased: 'Why give a bonus at all? If they mess up, why did they get anything? And $7 million is a hefty bonus in anyone's book.''
The problem with that is 1.) they're asking more than 1 question. 2.) By making the statement, the subject has been given an out.
The subject responded by saying that $7 million is really a small amount of money in a $2 billion a year operation. Notice that the issue of why pay the $7 million bonus -- the main point -- is not addressed by the subject.

5. Avoid trigger words.
These are words that instantly wreck an interview. Some may be obvious and some may not. Swatsky showed a tape of a 20/20 interview with a pro wrestler asking the standard question of is it fake? Well, fake is a big trigger word to a wrestler -- that's something that should be obvious. The wrestler responded by hitting the person doing the interview so hard on the side of the head, he fell to the ground. The interviewer got up and got slammed on the head again and fell again. Needless to say the interview was over.
You don't want a word to overtake the question. Be careful about word selection as you create your questions.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Seminar tidbit: Focus on sentences

Roy Peter Clark is heading a Poynter seminar for sports writers that began yesterday. A friend of mine, Dustin Long, who covers NASCAR for papers in Norfolk, Va., Roanoke, Va. and Greensboro, N.C. is there and I asked him to send along some tips ... because although the seminar is targeted toward sports writers, everyone can take something from a writing coach like Clark.

Here is the first tip, as Dustin wrote in an e-mail to me (emphasis added by me). I'll add more tips as the seminar goes along:

Take a hard look at your sentences. You want them to be powerful at the beginning and the end.
For example, here's how (Clark) improved a sentence from a story:
Original sentence (about the death of a whale in Atlanta): "They gathered and knelt around the 15-foot creature.''
Not a bad sentence but here's how to make it better:
"They gathered around the 15-foot creature and knelt.''
So, what's different? What's the big deal with changing the order of a few words in the sentence?
The revised sentence provides a more powerful image, a more powerful ending with emotion. You have an action at the beginning of the sentence, information and context in the middle, and action at the end. The action at the beginning and end of sentences make them stronger.
He said think of the end of a sentence like a gymnast finishing their routine. You want to stick the landing.

Monday at Virginia Tech

David Maraniss in The Washington Post has what promises to be a compelling reconstructive narrative of the shootings.
I haven't read the whole thing yet, but curious to know what you think about how the story deals with the classic issues of sourcing and describing scenes that were not witnessed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Blaming the victim?

The Daily Telegraph in Australia, in addition to making a giant leap of an assumption, has taken a decidedly cold tact in its lead to the Virginia Tech story.

"THIS is the face of the girl who may have sparked the worst school shooting in US history."

http://www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/story/0,22049,21576271-5001021,00.html

Certainly, different publications both here and abroad take different approaches to journalism and storytelling for varied audiences, but is it fair or responsible -- when we're still gathering critical details -- to essentially place blame on one dead victim for the deaths of all the others?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Would you say something?

On gangrey.com, user "ben" posts an interesting dilemma. Maybe I'm just posting this for Randy, because I know how much he likes to debate ethics. Anyway, this also sort of goes along the same lines of the discussion we had with Diane about holding a dog abandoned during Hurricane Katrina.

If a source with a chronic disease confided in you that he or she thought about suicide but was "too much of a wimp," would you tell someone? Several reporters post on the entry about what they would do. It's not always black and white.

A Question

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Get to the point

Deborah Howell wrote this column on anecdotal leads, and how to do them right: Readers' Plea - Get to the Point.

Confession: I love anecdotal leads. It's sort of my comfort zone. But Howell makes a point that in this information age, readers want the 5 Ws and 1 H right away. She's not saying don't do anecdotal leads, but we have to do them smart, by mixing all the necessary information in with our anecdote. She has a good point.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Famous violinist faces rush hour

The Washington Post ran this story, "Pearls Before Breakfast," about Joshua Bell, a world-famous violinist, who played for about 45 minutes at a D.C. Metro stop during rush hour. Bell, who has played before heads of state and whose tickets cost $100 for the worst seats, agreed to work with the Post for the story, by appearing as a street musician.

The resulting story is really interesting. It's kind of a cultural study on what busy commuters will do in the face of a master (the answer: Not much). It's also a profile of Bell, who is used to being received as a virtuoso by sophisticated audiences and finds himself feeling nervous and awkward in front of the Metro users.

Writer Gene Weingarten did a great job at weaving in facts about Bell, classical music and and the commuter's behavior making the piece really dense, but fascinating. There was a hidden camera at the stop, so the reporter was able to go back and review the expressions of people and their actions when passing the musician (you can watch video clips as part of the story). Weingarten also talked to several of the commuters who passed by. My favorite anecdote was from a rushed mom who was taking her 3-year-old son to daycare, and the son kept craning his neck, trying to slow her down so he could listen to the music.

Anyway, check out the story when you have some time (it's long) and share what you think.

Friday, April 6, 2007

April's writing and visual storytelling challenge

Let's take a page from Susan Orlean (see post below), who says: "I'm primarily interested in the tiny master -- a person with a tiny domain over which they are the master. I wrote a piece about a New York City cabdriver who is also the king of the Ashanti tribe in America."

April's writing and/or visual storytelling challenge, then, is to find a person who's in control or in charge of a small piece of the world, and capture that person and their world. Writers, your challenge is to do it in 500 words or less. And maybe we can do visual storytelling in both stills and video for this challenge.

Some brainstorming to get you thinking:


  • grill cook (master of the grill he cooks on)
  • machinist (master over the machine he's operating)
  • artist/painter (master over the canvas)
  • mom or dad (master of a specific task in the household)
  • dj (master over dance or the music scene at a venue)
  • kids (master of their bedroom, for example)
  • office manager (master of the office)
  • groundskeeper (master of buildings/grounds)
  • receptionist (master of the reception area)
  • crossing guard (master of the intersection)


If you're into it, see your editor and/or Scott.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Ordinary people, extraordinary stories

We often are called upon, and often seek, to tell stories about ordinary people. Susan Orlean is one of the best at writing such stories, and acknowledges the risk involved:

"Readers are initially resistant to a story about an 'ordinary' person. Persuading someone to read a piece about a 10-year-old boy who's not a 'star' is quite a challenge. All you can bring to it is your passion. There's got to be something you're trying to say. And there has to be a reason that a reader will read what you're writing. There's nothing that's obviously sexy about these stories. So, among other things, you need to write a good lead."

She talks more about leads -- and other things such as how it can be difficult to find the story in an ordinary person's life -- in an interview with the University of Oregon's Literary Nonfiction program.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Not-Good Death

Remember that guy who died in front of his TV? Nobody found him for 13 months. Read an awesome story about 70-year-old Vincenzo Riccardi in the LA Times called "He died in vast isolation."

Monday, April 2, 2007

Opening day

Baseball begins again today, but you don't have to be a fan to appreciate this piece by Charles Pierce in the Boston Globe's Sunday magazine. It's a (long) profile of Scott Boras, a controversial and effective player agent responsible for some of the biggest contracts in sports.

Pierce tries to get at why and how Boras does what he does -- why players swear by him and owners/executives often hate him. It's worth checking out, particularly for insight on how to craft a profile story around a strong theme.

It even has what might be called a subtle, short complication/resolution setup at the beginning to show you how Boras works.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Cure for writer's block?

From Terry McDonell, editor, Sports Illustrated Group:
"I got a really interesting book called 'Ernest Hemingway on Writing.' I’ve given about 100 of those away. I find that if you’re stuck on a story, you can just read around in there and find something that jump-starts you. So, it’s useful. I’m not sure what the magic is, but it seems to work for everybody that I give it to."

Anyone read this, or have it? Any thoughts? Should we get it for our library?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Six Little Words

Here is your challenge: Sum up a well-known story or a lengthy story you have written or edited in SIX LITTLE WORDS.

The idea is that this forces you to be concise and boil the story down to its essence. You have to think about what is the main plot, what is the underlying theme/truth. This is kind of what headline writers have to do, only be clever on top of it all. It's also useful when you have limited space and have to decide what to cut. You choose to cut the things that least support the main plot and meaning of your story.

Here are some examples to show you what we're talking about. Please add your own!

Three Little Pigs (Sue)
Wolf destroys house. Pigs get smart. (plot)
Weather storms by building to last. (meaning)

Ferris Beuller's Day Off (Megan)
Friends play and talk, find selves.
Life is fast. Stop. Look around.

Cinderella (Jen)
Girl attends ball, finds prince charming.
Rags to riches. True love exists.

Wizard of Oz (Jen)
Girl gets shoes, friends, returns home.
Test your limits, believe in self.

Star Wars (Brad)
His planet destroyed, he saves universe.
Lost young man discovers strength within.

While at Starbucks for our meeting, we saw a young mom with a crying toddler and made comment about it (nicely of course), which inspired me to write:

Baby cries. Mom apologizes. Onlookers smile.
Baby envy, but glad it's hers.

Then, Tom asked us to do the same thing for a rather lengthy story we've written recently. Here's what we came up with for that:

Lauxmont Farms package (Tom)
Three decades later, land dispute continues.
Sins from past trap people still.

Barbie & Tad series (Jen)
Couple wants children, gains new families.
Love, not biology, make a family.

Twins story (Nicki)
Separated, reunited, sister adopts retarded brother.
Family love prevails in trying situation.

Bodani's shark story (Brad)
Fishing captain returns to deadly scene.
Captain lures monsters while chasing ghosts.

Nicki's Noah story (Sue)
Boy suffers setbacks, laughs, cries, lives. OR Boy suffers setbacks, family laughs anyway.
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, ooooo life goes on.

Bodani's Appalachian Trail series (Brad)
From beginning to end, they walked.
Each one discovered himself on Trail.

William Penn teacher who retired to care for wife (Megan)
Man chooses love over teaching career.
Man finds true love trumps all.