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.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Show & tell

Jeff Frantz' column today on York Catholic's girls' basketball team does more than perfectly capture a milestone in the girls' lives by using their dialogue. It also is a classic example of showing, and not telling, something that is at the core of the story.

As you'll see, the team's coaches had a great feel for how to run the team's last practice. But Jeff never writes that -- never even comes close to writing that. He simply puts you at courtside, lets you in on a little conversation between the coaches, and writes about what they do and say. You have not been told what's happening; you've seen it happen, experienced it.

Great storytelling.

Kudos, Jeff.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Ira Glass on the tube

There's a few things I can't live without each week. One is the hour-long podcast of "This American Life," which is usually available for download each Tuesday here.
Now host Ira Glass and his team have moved from Chicago to NYC to produce a TV version of their engrossing narratives. Glass has been making the news-show rounds.
Last week, he did an online chat for readers. This week, he's in the Arts section (login required) of the New York Times.
Unfortunately, the TV show "This American Life" debuts Thursday on Showtime. Who has Showtime?
Nevertheless, the stories in the first episode of the TV show also appeared on the radio show, so I won't be missing too much this first round. Happy listening.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Little People

OK, so maybe I only like this project because the people are tiny and I feel connected to them somehow, but I just love this project. It's kind of fun to make up stories about these little people. Check out the pics and you'll see what I mean...

Little People - a tiny street art project

22 words

Tired of writing weather stories? Try writing this story, like Diane Tenant did, and see if the editors think we took the easy way out!

Winter weather marches on

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Krakauer wisdom

At our writing seminar in January, Lon Wagner said a couple of times, "Writing is hard."

Indeed. Here is Jon Krakauer (author of "Into Thin Air" among other things) talking about Antarctica, but he could just as well be talking about writing (or really any other challenging job we do in here):

"There is this paradoxical sense one has of feeling very small in this huge and threatening landscape. Yet when you feel like you're holding your own, there is a tremendous satisfaction that comes with this—that you can cope with this and you can appreciate it, that you can survive and prevail if you just approach it with some humility and some forethought and keep your wits about you."

To read the whole interview, go here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

My writing contest entry

In case you took a look at the challenge I posted about below and wondered which entry was mine (you probably didn't!) Cube contagion

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The story of a life -- in an hour

Last month Megan, Nicki and I saw LeCount R. Holmes Jr. portray Frederick Douglass (left) in a one-man show at Penn State-York. Holmes has distilled Douglass' monumental life into an hour.
Part of how he's done this is clear during his performance. For example, he takes a key Douglass quote --
"We create our present by the influences of our past. Our past has been created and it can never ever be erased."
-- and repeats it several times, using it to link ideas and themes in Douglass' life.
After the performance (and later, as a follow-up, in e-mail), I asked Holmes for more specifics on how he chose what to put in and leave out in order to tell Douglass' life story in an hour -- because we do the same kind of decision-making when we report and write stories. He said after studying Douglass' life, he "started writing and created a story to support his speeches."
So, Douglass' public words became the spine of Holmes' story.
In the e-mail, he elaborated: "You look for common threads of consistent messages in the speeches. During my presentations I have been able literally to put myself into Mr. Douglass' shoes so to speak. I find myself thinking like him.
"I also think his messages became a fabric of our society beginning with the Civil War, and are with us right to the present.
"The consistent messages are important for me to weave into my presentations."
I asked Holmes for examples of what he'd left out of his performance (given that we're often faced with the same decisions in our writing). Holmes said he does not mention that Douglass founded several newspapers (he does mention the most well-known, the North Star) and that he once was thrown off a train because of the color of his skin.
Any thoughts on how Holmes' work can apply to ours?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Looking for a challenge?

Probably some of you are familiar with Worth 1000, which is known mostly for its online Photoshop and photography contests.

They also run what they describe as text contests, where anyone who's registered (it's free) can enter the latest writing challenges. Almost all of them are fiction-based, but it's a good chance to try something new.

For instance, here was a recent challenge:
The rules of the game are thus: Write a story in which one of the characters is ill. (Not deathly ill, no deadly diseases, no long suffering illnesses. This is strictly about a character who is temporarily sick.) Think inFLUenza or the common cold. From humorous to serious is acceptable for this contest. From the whining child with a bell, to the executive who is sneezing his way through a major presentation, to the couch potato who can't find the remote that he/she is laying on.

Keep in mind that profanity is not acceptable. All entries must be in accordance with our text rules and guidelines. As always, quality is a must. You will have 7 days for this contest, so make your submission count.

Word Guideline: 700 words.

You don't get to read any of the entries until the submission deadline passes; then, you're encouraged read and rate them all. Contest winners (determined by vote results) receive virtual trophies and "credits" good for the entrance fees to future challenges.

I'll post a link to my entry in the "illness" contest once submissions end. Meanwhile, here are a couple of neat text and image contests that are now finished. It's a different kind of storytelling, but definitely a creative one.

Locked away (text)

Spoons (photoshop)

Office supplies (photography; obviously, I loved this one.)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A new look

I found this story on, which is a site you should all check out as much as you can. Diane and Lon mentioned it when they were here. Anyway, I think this story, told by a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, is an amazing way to tell the story of charity, and what exactly it means.

The "character" is anonymous, but I don't think it lessens the story in any way. Her story could be any story of someone abused. And the theme of her long hair, which her husband never let her cut, could be anything. It could be the short skirt a boyfriend doesn't let his girlfriend wear, a phrase an abusive parent doesn't let his or her kid say. This story really spoke to me and reminded me why we should never stop caring or thinking of others. I'm an emotional person anyway, but it really brought a tear to my eye.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Sue's tree story

When I read Sue's awesome tree story, it reminded me of something Anne Lamott says in her book "Bird by Bird." She is talking about reasons to write. "You are going to have to give and give and give, or there's no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and giving is going to have to be its own reward."

I think that's what Sue did here. She was out at the park for a fun afternoon, ran across this odd tree and listened to her broccoli (if you don't understand, read the book). She wrote a powerful story about a tree because she had to. She didn't know if it would be published or not. And, honestly, that didn't even matter to her at the time. The reward was in the writing itself. She wrote the story because she had to write the story. She had no choice. And it's a story that's about so much more than a tree. It's about life -- good and bad, happy and sad. It's about all of us having a need to leave a part of ourselves behind, a mark that says "We were here."

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Telling a story in few words

If you haven't already, check out Sue H's The Carving Tree (just click on the big tree picture at the top of the page that comes up.)

While you're there, check out some of the other great stories told on that page. Many were published before our "year of storytelling," but there's some great work to be seen.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

"Bird by Bird" handout

Hey gang, if you were unable to attend today's brown bagger on Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" book, I have some extra handouts. Just stop by my desk to get one. A special thank you to everyone who attended. I get really jazzed talking about writing, and I really appreciate all of your viewpoints. Lets keep this year of storytelling going strong. You're all awesome!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Storytelling with sound

Anyone listen to "This American Life" with Ira Glass? Here are a set of videos in which Glass talks about storytelling.

Next Brown Bagger

Just a reminder that at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday we'll gather to discuss Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird."

Monday, March 5, 2007

To keep in mind ...

When Diane Tennant was here in January, she mentioned being "aware" of the possibility of complication/resolution in case it's there.
Here's how Ken Fuson does it:
"I probably do look for ways to follow that stucture in a lot of my work, simply because I really do believe that you need that for a true story, one with a beginning, middle and end. Jack Hart says that unless you follow that structure, you're writing a feature or an article, not a true story.
I also think it's the best way to keep a reader reading. Because, essentially, you're presenting a little mystery. Something is going to happen. What is it?
Is the team going to win the game?
Is the boy going to get the girl?
Is the family going to be rescued from the burning house?
Those are the kind of questions that people want to know the answers to, so they keep reading. So when I get an assignment or come up with an idea, I generally ask myself if I can follow this structure.
And the first question you need to ask is: Who has the most at stake?"

There's more to this; I sent it out in an e-mail about a month ago. See me if you want it and don't have it.

Roy Peter Clark's serial narrative kit

From Roy Peter Clark on Feb. 21:
Let's say that you run into a great story on your beat. Perhaps you are covering immigration and learn of the mysterious death of a border patrol guard. Or you are an outdoors writer who learns about a dramatic rescue of fishermen lost at sea. Or someone in your town wins the state's biggest lottery and decides to use the money to take a group of impoverished school children on a trip around the world. It's a big story, all right, by any definition. But how will you cover it? In occasional episodes in conventional news style? In a long Sunday project? Or perhaps in a serial narrative?
Read Clark's guide to writing a serial narrative.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Emotion, cheap shots, storytelling and ethics

A while ago I sent an e-mail linking to this story from the St. Petersburg Times about a teacher who committed suicide in a public place. I asked what you thought of the way the writers presented the story, and particularly the ending.
That started a great discussion about how well-written and well-reported the story was, and about whether the ending was a superb stroke of emotion or a cheap shot that shouldn't have made it in the paper.
Some highlights:
  • There is dogged reporting and solid writing going on here, for sure. I think it's a good stoyr that obviously started as an investigative piece and then became a quicker-turnaround on a suicide. Some of the major ethical dilemmas here were obviously muted by the fact that you can't libel the dead.
    Here's one minor wet-blanket comment on a strong piece: The final sentence works. It's powerful. But it needs attribution, in my mind. Even something like "About six children saw his body hanging, witnesses said." would not have been any less powerful. (Chris Otto)
  • I'm kind of curious about the wife. It said she received the (I'd say distrubing) text message from her husband on Friday, but she didn't report him missing until Sunday. You could almost do a narrative about what she was doing in between the time she received the message and when they found him ...The ending was certainly powerful, but almost Hollywood powerful. Like that is how the movies would portray how a newspaper would do the story... J. Jonah Jameson anyone? (Sue Haller)
  • For me, the ending crossed the line well into opinionated. A way existed to end that story just as powerfully without passing judgment on the guy (I mean, c'mon, clearly the writer is saying he was a bad guy for what he did).
    It might even have worked for me if the second-to-last graf about what he put on his job application was moved up to the section where his wife talked about how he loved his job. That way requires a little more intelligence on the part of your reader, I think, to put those pieces together, but I don't think it would have felt like such a judgment on the guy that way. (Amy Gulli)
  • I'm not a writer -- just a newspaper reader and I'm baffled about this push for tear-jerker type "news" stories in a newspaper.
    Because I knew there was something to look for in the ending, I might not have been paying attention to what I was reading in the early paragraphs but I had to keep backtracking to grasp the issues, e.g., the day the text message was sent, the day the wife reported her husband missing, the cause for an investigation, the result of that investigation, the cause for another investigation.
    In the end, I didn't like the story.
    (Jackie Shrader)
  • Sorry, man. This is the totally wrong take on this type of the story unless its a second-, third-, or later day.
    All the elements fit. But the ending is the lead:
    On his job application, Stephan Brown said that his greatest pleasure in teaching came from knowing he had a positive influence on a child's life.
    Sometime over the weekend, the Seven Springs Middle School science teacher, under investigation for alleged "inappropriate electronic communications" with a student, drove to the Trinity YMCA and hung himself on the ropes course.
    Six children saw his body hanging there Monday.
    Then go into the explanation of the allegations, his wife, the dog etc. Why bury the most gripping part of the story at the very end? That goes against everything I'm hearing about readers' shorter attention spans. (Rick Lee)

Any other thoughts?