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, 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

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.


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."