Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The creative process, unwrapped

This is among my favorite all-time stories. I just rediscovered it online.

I love it mainly because I keep thinking about the writer, Walt Harrington, either assigning himself or being assigned the following: Write a story about how a poet writes a poem.

How the hell do you do that? How do you make sure you're there when the creative process is taking place? It's not like it's scheduled; you can't say, "Call me when you're being creative and I'll come right over." And even if you're with the person 24 hours a day, how do you get inside their head without your story coming off as an extended interview?

Well, Harrington did it. Read this story and you'll literally be there as a poem is born. It's a great piece.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

3 lines of thanks

We started 2008 curious about how Felix Feneon made three-line "novels" work. Then we did some of our own, did some more, and created the Year in Three Lines. To all who were in on it, thanks.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A moment with Jack Hart: Meaningful detail

Anyone who has been to a writing seminar of any kind has probably heard someone advise writers to avoid the two sins of details -- using them for their own sake, just because they're in your notebook; or not using them at all.

I just read a passage in Jack Hart's book about that second sin that hit me right between the eyes. A lot of writers keep their distance from telling details -- to the detriment of their stories -- and it might not be your fault. And if you can unlearn something all of us have been taught, you can improve your writing.

Here is the bolt from Hart's book: "Our impulse is to observe specifics, reach conclusions, and report the conclusions. ... You're doing exactly what you've been trained to do. Modern education is all about inductive reasoning -- learning how to generalize from specifics."

Nothing's wrong with that, Hart says. But that's not what you should be doing if you want to tell someone a story.

Here's what I think: We're trained as journalists to dig out information and report it. We're almost hard-wired to conduct interviews, ask questions, and report -- in graf-direct quote-graf-direct quote format -- what we found out. So in many cases, when we see behavior or hear dialogue or watch a scene unfold, we are working so hard to figure out how to connect it to a larger meaning that we miss the fact that what we're watching or seeing or hearing is itself what we need to report.

That goes for a hard-news story just as much as for a true narrative. Our training, embedded somewhere deep in our heads, tells us to write, "'I will not vote for that,' the councilman said angrily," when we should write, "The councilman slammed his fist on the table and knocked his pen to the floor. 'I will note vote for that!' he shouted."

Our skill at including context, and at connecting that behavior or dialogue to the larger meaning of the the story, is crucial. But don't deaden your writing by figuring out what the scene or the behavior means, and then blowing off the crucial details to report only that the team celebrated joyously at midfield. Tell me that the offensive tackle was crying as he and the coach hugged for what seemed like a minute as the other players shouted and held their helmets aloft.

Again: You have to unlearn some of what you've learned, or at least teach yourself to think differently, to write like this effectively. You have to believe in the power of the right detail. You have to resist the urge to dilute telling details by assigning them broader descriptions -- and leaving the detail itself out. You also have to resist the compulsion of journalists to label everything with a descriptive tag.

A correspondent recently covered the Christmas tree giveaway at Helping Hands. He called me and said he was frustrated with his piece. For one thing, he said, he couldn't figure out how to describe the people who showed up to get trees without, he felt, being condescending toward them by calling them "needy" or some similar catch-all phrase.

I told him to forget trying to wrap them all up with a word. You don't need to do it; it doesn't add anything to the story. He read me a line in the story that said something like, "Some were out of a job, some were working but struggling to get by, some were homeless." That's all you need, I said. You've just used specifics of what you found out instead of a one-size-fits-all descriptor.

Although that's not the most stirring detail in the world, it shows that as a writer, you have to be conscious of what your choices are, and savvy enough to make the right ones.

From Hart: Before a reader can get to the same place you are, "they need to see what you saw, hear what you heard, and smell what you smelled. You must share your experience, not the conclusion you drew from it."

He quotes Hemingway: "Find what gave you the emotion. Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it, too, and have the same feeling that you had."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Why do we do this? This is why.

Miami Herald editor Nancy San Martin's newsroom is being hammered by layoffs. But for journalists, as she says here, the mission remains.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Do a critique, and marvel at the no-duh quote

I'd encourage anyone who has a few minutes to read this piece (link below) from the Denver Post about the Denver plane crash, appreciate it for what it is (the reporters worked hard to get interviews with passengers) and critique it for what it isn't -- a strong narrative on what happened when the plane skidded off the runway.

It's a good way to think about stories we do -- sometimes, during a big news event, we get good interviews for a news story, but we don't get enough deep interviews for a narrative. If you can approach stories knowing what makes the difference, you'll have a better chance of getting what you need for narrative and being able to write a great story.

The paper even had the hed for that narrative as a subhead in the story: 10 terrifying seconds. Imagine what kind of interviewing you would have had to do to truly tell that story. Thinking about that kind of thing now, when nothing is at stake, helps prepare you to go for that kind of story next time you're in that situation.

Oh, and the quote? "When the engine caught fire, I knew something was wrong."


Seriously, though. Would you have even put that in your story?

Passengers recount the terrifying DIA crash - The Denver Post

A little surprise to lead you in

Read the lead on this Washington Post story (link below) on the Illinois political corruption probe.

I'm sure the writers could have described the woman in many ways -- foremost among them, as a hospital CEO, because after all that's what she does and what's relevant to the story.

But they surprised us by choosing to describe her as a human being, not as what she is in the workplace. That description, paired with what's going on in the story, really works to draw you in.

Sometimes we tend to be so serious in news stories that we can forget the people involved are human beings -- and that their humanity only adds to the story. You have to do that kind of characterization carefully, of course, or your story could come off as a wrestling match between a feature and a news story. But done well, it can work.

That said, the other thing about this kind of lead is you'd like to see the woman's human side developed in the story in order to justify its mention in the lead. The Post writers didn't really do that, so you could make an argument that they should have just let her be a CEO in the lead.

Any thoughts?

Secret Tapes Helped Build Graft Cases In Illinois -

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A moment with Jack Hart: Focus

Figured I'd start posting regularly on excerpts from "A Writer's Coach," by Jack Hart of The Oregonian.

The book breaks down the writing method and process as Hart teaches it: that writing is not something that happens when you sit down at the keyboard; it's the result of all the steps you do before you sit down at the keyboard -- getting an idea, doing the reporting, focusing the story, organizing your material before you write, writing a draft, then revising and polishing.

An important point that Hart returns to frequently: Any problem you encounter during that process is likely caused by something you didn't do well enough in the step that came before it. So if you're having a problem in one area, examine what you did in the previous step.

But here's a passage that struck me, on a topic we've talked about a lot in here: focus. (Apologies that this first post kind of starts in the middle of the process ... but I think it's an important thing to remember.

"....focus is the axis on which a piece of writing turns. Everything in any given composition revolves around it. Everything relates to it in some way. Focus emerges in the writing process, a product of the thinking you launch when you cook up your idea, take your hypothesis in hand, and set forth on your information gathering. It's a fully developed theme, the core idea that journalists often refer to as a nut.

"The main thing any writer needs to find focus is a constantly questioning attitude, a thinking process that incessantly reviews the original hypothesis as it bumps up against the real world. That's what keeps the hypothesis from turning into a bias that distorts the evidence. It's what leads to original insights and guides the search through a bewildering array of possibly related facts to find what truly matters."
To me, that last graf is describing the possibility of discovery -- and that's what makes for the best stories. You may set out with an idea of what the story is. Some reporters believe they know the subject so well before they even start that they squeeze out the idea they could learn something new. But if you allow for the possibility of discovery -- of finding something new or different than you thought was there -- that's when your story becomes fresh. And, to me, that's when it's most exciting to write (or to edit one of your pieces). And that, ultimately, is what rewards your reader.

Watch for more from Hart's book in upcoming posts.

Meanwhile ... anybody have a good story of discovery to tell?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wig wags thwart the cloaca, and more fun with words

I heard Roy Blount Jr. talking about his book "Alphabet Juice" this morning and it made me remember how much fun it is to have fun with words in stories.

He talked about the word "through," which just goes from the back of your mouth out the front with a little 'hhh' sound trailing out; and about "thwart," which gets caught up in your throat and "thwarts your throughness."

You have to figure he's having fun like that throughout the book. He talks a lot about the way words sound and the physical reasons they sound the way they do; the things words make your mouth do to get them out.

For me, it's a reminder to pay attention to not only how words themselves sound, but how people make them sound when they talk ... and to work to get that sound into our stories. People don't all sound the same. When you write aurally -- when you try to capture what makes your subject distinctive -- and do it successfully, your writing becomes fresh. What a treat for your reader.

I thought of some other times I've worked with writers and we got fun or funny or just plain interesting words into the paper.

When I was at the Carroll County Times, a reporter went to the 4H fair and came back with a story about poultry judges. She described how they did their work, including figuring out the sex of the bird. "They stick their hand up the bird's, you know, rear end ..."

"Cloaca!" I said. (Yep, the bird nerd in me coming out).

"The what?"

"Cloaca. You gotta use that word."

And she did.

A few years ago, Michelle Starr was reporting a significant enterprise piece about train-vs.-car accidents. She came across the descriptions of the types of warnings at intersections of train tracks and roads. One of them was "wig wags and bells." When I heard that, I went nuts. I told Michelle we had to get that in the story somehow; in fact, she could not write a story about train/car accidents without using "bells and wig wags." It was just too good.

As I recall, Michelle looked at me like I'd lost some brain function. And I'm thinking that my excitement made her wonder whether it was really that important to get that phrase in.

Well, it wasn't that important. But my point is: How could you resist? It's too fun, and it fit with the story she was telling.

And it made it into the story.

Anyone else have a good story about a funny word or phrase they worked into a story?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Quick, economical narrative on Illinois gov's arrest

Neat, short peek behind the scenes of the Illinois governor's arrest, put together with nothing more than some news-conference quotes and some on-scene observation:

Governor's arrest: Cars race up, footsteps, a phone rings --

Monday, December 8, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell on reporting

Gladwell, writer for the New Yorker and author of "The Tipping Point" and other books, in an interview with Goodreads. I thought his quote on reporting was useful:

Goodreads | 10 Questions with Malcolm Gladwell: "Goodreads: You're able to provide insight in a broad range of subjects. In the Tipping Point you wrote about Paul Revere and teenage smoking. Where do you get your ideas?

Malcolm Gladwell: Mostly things people tell me. The one thing I learned from all my years at The Washington Post is how social reporting is. It is really about talking to people, having people tell you things. That will always be the most efficient and useful way of finding out new and interesting things. You have to expose yourself to as many interesting people as you can. There's no shortcut for that kind of process."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Plotkin speaks

Well, that's not really news.

But as promised, here are some thoughts from Jason about how he put together this video on Black Friday:

Me: How many minutes/hours of video did you start with?

Jason: I filmed about an hour and a half.

Me: How and when (in the process) did you decide how long you wanted the video to be, and why?

J: We always try to keep our videos between 45 seconds and around a minute and a half.

Me: How did you edit that much materal down to 1:41?

J: I knew going in that I was going to time stamp the video. So when I was keeping track of what time things happened, I was able to limit each hour to the highlights of that time period.

Me: What was the story you were trying to tell, and how did that affect your editing?

J: I just wanted to show the highlights of what happens when people stay up all night waiting for a store to open up on Black Friday. The only editing problem I had was that I had more interviews I wanted to use, but that would have extended it more.

Me: Obviously, you left a lot of stuff out. Could the video have been better if it was 30 seconds longer? A minute longer? Two minutes longer? Why or why not?

J: I do agree with the theory that unless the footage is so compelling that you cannot look away, that viewers have a very limited attention span, so I was happy with the editing job I was able to do on this video.

Long-form narrative lives at the L.A. Times

Got to this via Gangrey. Talk about a story that just pulls you through ... and to be this long, it really has to grip you right off the bat and never let up. Check it out.

A quarter-century marriage to a man behind bars - Los Angeles Times

Not that the Times appears to be all that excited about the series. Just try to find it on the home page.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Interviewing kids, using as sources

This isn't exactly storytelling related (more ethics than anything), but still, I found it interesting and thought-provoking to read the discussion going on in the comments posted below the story. What are our guidelines here at YDR?

I know I generally make a parent aware that their child has spoken with or is going to speak with me and tell them what the story is about. Usually, they're OK with that. But what about controversial subjects or in cases where overbearing parents might want to edit/control what their children are saying? Is that their right? How should we handle?

I think this might make for a good in-house conversation sometime.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Now see this

Couple neat examples of visual storytelling, one on an unusual subject, one on a subject we all know and love (though no one loves it more than Jason):

  • Here's a Washington Post slideshow on a girl born with dwarfism who undergoes a procedure to lengthen her legs.
  • And here's Jason's take on overnight Black Friday. He spent the night out there, had tons of video, and edited down to this sharp piece. I'll ask Jason how he did that and have his thoughts in a future post:

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Well, here's a story from India

Figures the New York Times would be among the first to knit the story together:

MUMBAI, India — As Prasan Dhanur prepared his 13-foot boat on Wednesday evening for a hard night of fishing, he saw something strange.

A black inflatable lifeboat equipped with a brand new Yamaha outboard motor threaded its way among the small, wooden fishing boats at anchor and pulled up to the slum’s concrete pier.

Ten men, all apparently in their early 20s, jumped out.

Here's the rest.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Stories from India?

I spent some time today looking for good narratives out of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Couldn't find any. Anyone else come across something good?

I have found, meanwhile, a couple interesting things. The Mumbai Mirror, for example, is running at least two separate moment-by-moment timelines of what happened. They're under headlines ("Night of terror," for example) that might lead you to believe a narrative lurked there.

I also checked Twitter feeds for Mumbai, to see if any storytelling could be found there. Not really, although some news organizations are doing what now seems to be the obligatory "social networking feeds cover (fill in the blank tragedy)" story. And here's a blog post about it. But I don't think they're really getting what's on Twitter, at least in the case of the Mumbai attacks; or they're hyping it; or I'm really missing something.

What I found on Twitter the night of the attacks was no first-person victim accounts (might have been too soon, although if you're barricaded in a hotel with your cell phone ...), and very few if any first-person eyewitness accounts. I found a lot of Twitters that linked to CNN and other major news outlets. (Someone's 'tweet' crowed, Covering Mumbai on Twitter. Who needs traditional media? They apparently hadn't figured out what people were linking to.)

It appeared to me that Twitter was not breaking news as much as it was spreading news, or connecting people with the news -- which is still a pretty cool thing, and has promise, but it's a good step or two removed from storytelling or covering the story in any original way. I'm still trying to figure out if/how we can do some sort of productive, valuable, fresh storytelling with a service like Twitter. Jury's out. Thoughts welcomed.

In checking the Mumbai Twitter feed, I also found a 'tweet' that something like, Hung out with a friend and shopped at Target all day. Tired. Just got home and heard about the attacks. Oh, that's terrible.

Now there's something we needed to know.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

One path to great stories

The Contra Costa Times reports Bob Woodward gave a talk in California with Carl Bernstein, who noted that they were just kids when they were doing all the Watergate reporting.

"We're still kids," Woodward said. "Being a kid has to do with what's in your head, and there's a certain extent to which we still both get up in the morning and ask the question, 'What are the bastards hiding?' Because they're always hiding something."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Another fascinating take on micro-storytelling

Joan spotted "One sentence: True stories, told in one sentence."

I think I'm of two minds about this.

One, as many of you know, I like short, spare storytelling and I like to try to see if we can do it well. I think doing it can be fun, is a treat for readers and sharpens skills we need to be effective reporters and writers -- like distilling the focus of a story, choosing words carefully, making every sentence count.


Lately, I'm a little worried that so much focus on micro-writing -- and by this I mean Facebook, Twitter, story-commenting and other ways people communicate these days -- will create generations of people for whom a story is, "OMG! That bank that was robbed -- I was there 5 minutes before that! I'll never be able to go there again!" Or: "Scott Blanchard is enjoying playing Legos with his son."

Those are statements, not stories. There are, however, engaging stories behind each of those statements. But will people -- our future storytelling subjects -- be willing to tell those stories, so we can share them with our community? Or will they say, "I already told you what happened. It was on my Facebook entry."?

So -- this is admittedly picky, maybe a reflection of my mood right now -- my first thought when I looked at the "One Sentence" site was, these are one-sentence facts, or situations, or maybe even set-up lines for a standup comedian, but mostly, they are not stories.

For example, not a story: "When he said, 'Hey, beautiful,' I thought he was talking to me, until I saw the Bluetooth in his ear.'"

This, however, is a one-sentence story, I think: "I got married at 16 because I was pregnant, at 21 because I was rebounding, at 29 because I was in love, and at 45 because I was an idiot, but this time, at 56, I'm marrying for money." It has character, plot, even a little tension. Something happens in that one sentence -- the writer shows us that something is different.

We've been talking about Felix Feneon's three-line stories and doing some of our own this year. Doing that is tough enough. To take a real story down to one sentence is a challenge that isn't easily met, as I think this site shows.

And it's worth our while to remember that many people might think that's all there is to their story. We're the ones who have to understand there's more, and assemble the thinking and interviewing skills it will take to draw out those stories.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Just for fun: Cutline contest

OK, look at the guy on the right. Study him. (Look at the guy on the left and study him a little, too.)

Now write a cutline that says what the heck is going on here.

*Photo: Bruno Bebert/European Pressphoto Agency

A good, quick read, plus ...

... a couple of extras:

--Note how the writer made the first four grafs their own little conflict/resolution tale. (Which, of course, is fleshed out later in the story).

--I really like how the big payoff line is a two-word sentence.

Badly injured Iraqi boy fit with artificial leg at Portland hospital - Breaking News From Oregon & Portland -

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Oral histories from the Great Depression

So "This American Life" had another great show this week you should check out if you don't already listen to the show.
One segment of the show was devoted to remembering Studs Turkel, a Chicago reporter who spent time recording the oral histories of regular Americans. The interviews featured on the show were from a series he did for radio called "Hard Times," focusing on stories from the Great Depression.
One woman's recollection in particular gave me goose bumps. While it's more than a six word story, it really does an incredible job at summing up the emotions and anger of this era in a short amount of space. I thought I'd share:
"And then of course the war came and the Depression was cured by a war. Which was one hell of a note. And all these kids that I had, who were growing up, disappeared. And it was very, very quiet. The young were gone and some of them came back, and some of them didn't."

Monday, November 10, 2008

A continued discussion

As promised, this is an open thread for discussion of advanced suspense techniques -- the stuff that goes beyond the typical dime-store murder mystery.

We talked in Wednesday's bagger about an Esquire story that recounted a prison break. If you couldn't come to the bagger, but would like to join the discussion you can read the story here.

Even if you were at the bagger, the online version has features like clickable footnotes. I hate footnotes, but if you like them you can find them online or in the magazine version. If you don't like to read from a computer screen but are a footnote lover, come see me and I will lend you my copy of Esquire.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Imagery and meaning

Here's a passage from a piece titled "Ramadi nights," by Neil Shea, who's a staffer at National Geographic, though this story ran in Virginia Quarterly magazine. What caught my eye was the way he used the rhythms of day turning to night to capture the state of the city, and what it meant.

"It is strange, looking back. At the time I didn’t feel any shift in the balance of things, though I’m told success was unfolding around me. Zarqawi had recently been killed, but that seemed to have little effect on the violent streets of Baghdad or anywhere else. There were only a few moments when it was possible to sense or grasp anything beyond the details of getting by. In the evenings, as the orange sun fell away and bats emerged from towers of the old palaces, you could feel the precariousness of the larger story, of the battle for Ramadi. It was as though, in the softening of the light and heat, a hidden view of the landscape was revealed. Perhaps it was that with dusk came a momentary peace. But then the acid night poured in, dissolving the edges of the city and reducing everything once more to small, irreversible moments of fear and action and inaction. It was in these moments that Ramadi was won, if it has really been won at all."

Writing and editing for energy

I was going through some writing stuff from the Nieman narrative editors conference and came across a handout from Connie Hale.*

She writes about editing out 'is' and other static verbs and offers this good before/after example of a story from Wired magazine.

Before: "It is nearly noon on a cool (temperature 66 degrees), dry (humidity 21 degrees), high-desert day. The azurescent New Mexican sky hangs languidly over a flat, antediluvian landscape. It is broken to the East by the glowering granite of the Sandia Mountains and off to the North by the shimmering hills that lie past the Rio Grande River, and mount up to the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos beyond."

After: "At noon on a cool, high-desert day, the azure New Mexican sky hangs languidly over a low, antediluvian landscape. To the east, the granite of the Sandia Mountains flower darkly; to the north, the hills past the Rio Grande shimmer as they rise to meet the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos beyond."

I wouldn't point to the 'after' version as an example of great writing necessarily. But focus on what happened to the verbs, and thus to the energy of the paragraph, when the two uses of 'It is' came out.

Writers, you can learn to catch yourselves using 'is' and other static verbs, which will you write less imperially and more vividly, more in the moment. Editors, you can keep an eye and an ear out for those sluggish passages and help bring life to a sentence, graf or story.

*head of narrative program at Nieman, author of "Sin & Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose."

Monday, November 3, 2008

In praise of ordinary stories

This is a couple days late, but Studs Terkel died Friday.

He was 96. He requested his epitaph read "Curiosity did not kill this cat."

His writing is the sort I enjoy the most. Stories of ordinary people. He called it guerrilla journalism.

Here's an except from how he went about writing Division Street.
“Although there is a Division Street in Chicago, the title of this book is metaphorical … I was on the prowl for a cross-section of urban thought, using no one method or technique. I was aware it would take me to suburbs, upper, lower, and middle income, as well as to the inner city itself and its outlying sections … It finally came down to individuals, no matter where in the city or its environs they lived. Being neither a sociologist, nor a research man, motivational or otherwise, I followed no blueprint or set of statistics … It was the man of inchoate thought I was seeking rather than the consciously articulate … In no instance did I deliberately seek out the bizarre in people … Each has pertinent comments to make on urban life in the twentieth century.”

And here he explains his interviewing technique.
“It isn’t an inquisition; it’s an exploration, usually an exploration into the past. So I think the gentlest question is the best one, and the gentlest is, ‘And what happened then?'"

Saturday, November 1, 2008

On writing short

Here is an interesting piece on Poynter's web site by a New York Times editorial writer on writing short. There are two things in this piece that really interest me:

One is that the writer, Maura Casey, quotes a fellow NYT writer, Tara Parker-Pope, saying, ""Kitchen sink stories do too much. If you take on a big, unwieldy topic, you can wind up with a big, unwieldy story. Our writing improves when we try to do a little less, but do it better."

She doesn't say it, but to me, she's really talking about story focus -- something we talk about a lot in here and should probably talk about more. Your focus can move a story from mediocre to good, or from good to great.

Another is Casey quoting an NYT editorial writer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, as saying a key to writing short (and doing it well) is no transitions. I had never thought of it that way. Klinkenborg seems to say they're not really necessary in any kind of newspaper writing:

Klinkenborg, who is in the midst of writing a book called, "Several Short Sentences About Writing," believes that the need for transitions is greatly exaggerated.

"They're almost never necessary, not if all the rest of your sentences -- and your sense of velocity and rhythm and your ability to know exactly what you have and haven't said -- are functioning properly," he said in an e-mail. "Many writers (and all newspapers) think readers are stupid, and they treat them that way. They assume that readers will get lost without carefully elaborated transitions between paragraphs. Most writers are taught to worry endlessly about transition. They've been taught the art of the flying trapeze, not how to write."

I'm not sure I agree. I think you can make a strong case for well-executed transitions to help knit a story together, reinforce theme, etc. What do you think?

What does good narrative do?

Good conflict/resolution narrative asks, and answers, a central question. In this case, it is: Can the soldiers save the Afghan cook? This is an example of a true narrative that does its job.

Friday, October 31, 2008

This'll scare you

I just heard Neil Gaiman read the beginning of his graphic novel "The Graveyard Book" on XM, and now I have to get my hands on it. It's about a young boy who's raised in a graveyard by whatever/whoever inhabits a graveyard.

***(update on this post: Go here to listen to Gaiman read. He's pretty damn good. It's actually a video, but I'd suggest closing the window and just listening.)***

It's allegedly a young-adult novel, but whatever. The book opens with a killer having disposed of three people in a house and about to go after the toddler. Here is the exquisite opening, and tell me if this doesn't sound worth following to the end:

"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
"The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you'd been cut, not immediately.
"The knife had done almost everything it had been brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
"The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.
"The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly-colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done."

Serial & graphic-novel storytelling

I may be the last person to figure this out, but the New York Times' Sunday magazine has some cool storytelling -- serial narratives (fiction) and graphic 'novels' or strips that run in multiple episodes. They're here.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Good work, times 3

I wanted to call attention to some fine work in our paper recently -- stories that emphasize tone, readable writing and narrative writing as well.

Nickie wrote about a city school proposal to have 'paper-free' meetings -- by spending a bunch of money on a computerized system that wouldn't begin to pay for itself in terms of paper savings. I thought the tone of this story, particularly the opening several grafs, was just right -- not too straight, not too snarky.

Several reporters -- Teresa Boeckel, Michele Canty, Ted Czech, Mike Hoover and Rick Lee -- combined to report a story in the Oct. 22 paper about Officer Tome's death (note -- the online version is topped w/autopsy news; the stuff I'm referring to here starts in the 3rd graf), leading with an interview with city officer Kyle Hower. I'm not sure who wrote this (can someone comment and help me out?) but again, the tone struck me as just right -- not maudlin, not stiff. We feel the brotherhood of cops coming through. The story moves on from that, to cover the crash and the investigation itself, and the tone remains appropriately, not overly, somber while delivering straight news.

And again, several reporters -- Canty, Hoover, Czech, Jeff Frantz, Mike Argento, Nicki Dobo, Angie Mason and Boeckel -- combined on the robbery/chase story in today's paper. This piece delivers the hard news in the first five paragraphs, and does so in a smooth, readable way; and then, with the words, "Early Friday afternoon ..." it becomes the story of what happened Friday. That story unfolds logically and clearly. Well-done.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A great story from my hometown paper

I came across this story in my hometown paper, The Morning Call.

It's written by a friend of mine I met while I was interning there two summer ago. I thought he did a great job weaving the recent information with the historic elements.

When I asked him how he found the story, he told me the person who fixed the headstones e-mailed the paper.

I thought he turned what could have been a straight forward simple story into a great piece.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stories are everywhere

I found an awesome narrative this weekend -- in a Supreme Court decision about a drug arrest in Philly.

Here's the beginning:

"North Philly, May 4, 2001. Officer Sean Devlin, Narcotics Strike Force, was working the morning shift. Undercover surveillance. The neighborhood? Tough as a three-dollar steak. Devlin knew. Five years on the beat, nine months with the Strike Force. He’d made fifteen, twenty drug busts in the neighborhood.

Devlin spotted him: a lone man on the corner."
Update: I was talking to a friend who mentioned NPR did a short piece on this. It's a dramatic reading -- totally worth a listen.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A little bit of Jack Hart

I just started Jack Hart's book on writing, and he mentioned Tom Hallman, the Oregonian's Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. So that's an excuse to link to some Hallman stuff like The Boy Behind the Mask and the classic Life of a Salesman, and to say that you won't be sorry if you read both of those stories right now, and to shed a little light on Hallman via Hart, the Oregonian's writing coach.

Years ago Hart posted drafts of Hallman stories online, as a way of shattering the idea that there's some kind of magic to great writing that allows people like Hallman to instantly write awesome stories while the rest of us stare slack-jawed and drooling and wondering how he did it and knowing we'll never find out.

"Tom's fellow journalists were astounded to see how far the story developed over the last three drafts he produced. They, too, had been victims of the writing mystique, assuming that someone of Tom's accomplishment would spin webs of gold the first time his fingers hit the keyboard. What they saw, instead, was a damned good writer hard at work, applying his method and honing his craft.
"Tom's first draft was just that, an initial run at the story that mixed great promise with plenty of disappointments. The second draft tied up loose ends, tweaked the structure, and sharpened the character development. The third polished the language, refined the imagery, and pushed through to the final level of excellence. Seeing that progression, one editor told me, was the most instructive lesson he'd ever had in newspaper writing."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Isaac's Storm: What the author knows and doesn't know

I blogged about this book a few weeks ago, when Hurricane Ike was headed toward Galveston, and speculated it would be a good read. It was.

But one thing bothered me about it (and I've come across it at least once in another Erik Larson book, "Devil in the White City."). He is meticulous about his research; but he also will write as fact something that he has deduced from evidence uncovered during his research.

For example, a guy walking through Galveston smells manure and sawdust. There's no record that he did, no letter to a relative talking about it, or journal entry, or whatever. But Larson knows there was a block-long stable, and construction workers sawing wood to build homes nearby, thus ... the man smelled manure and sawdust.

In another case, he has his main character reading a particular story in the local paper. Again, no direct evidence that he read it. But: the story was the most prominent in the paper that day, and it was documented that this guy read the paper every day, so ... he read it.

What do you think -- is that OK in a historical non-fiction narrative? I will (possibly) influence any discussion by saying: I'd rather he establish the facts (stable existed, construction work existed) and say something like, "He must have smelled manure and sawdust." To me, you are being honest and saying, I can't possibly know this for sure, but it had to be the case.

Steven Johnson, in The Ghost Map, takes that idea a step further in a couple places in that book by saying something like, 'There's no way to know exactly what he saw walking down that street. But a block away there would have been a building ...' He puts you in the scene and suggests what may have happened while admitting he can't know for sure.


Friday, October 10, 2008

More Gary Smith -- but this is too good not to post

I posted some thoughts from magazine writer Gary Smith a couple weeks ago, taken from a New York Times story, but I have to do it again, this time from an online Q&A he did that is published on Poynter's Web site.

He is talking here about themes we have discussed in our focus on storytelling, and, to me, he is establishing ways of working and thinking that we should aspire to, particularly with our narrative stories and enterprise pieces. It's not easy, we don't always do this and we may not succeed every time out, but if we are aiming this high, we will get better, closer.

Q: How does a story's theme become apparent? What are you looking for?

Smith: I try not to look for anything too much because I might miss something that's emerging right in front of me. One critical thing to me is staying as wide open as possible and seeing what emerges and then thinking about it a lot. Thinking about what that has to say about human beings in general. There are themes that touch on universal things. That really helps to determine whether the piece is going to work or not.

When you do get into that soil that's more universal, readers then have a stake in the character because they have felt or experienced some of those things as well. Then the person isn't exotic or up in a cage somewhere. He or she is one of us and going through things we all go through, whether they're issues with our parents, how we're raised, things we're scared of, things we hunger for, things we move away for, what makes us comfortable.

Q: Journalists are taught to look for the conclusion. What I notice about your pieces is you don't feel the need to make everybody comfortable by wrapping things up.

Smith: If you're going in looking for the conclusion, then you've just short-circuited the whole journey. [You have to] trust what you find and trust the process to bring you somewhere, but not want to wrap it up prematurely at all. ...

The other thing I've found is that ambiguity is where the reality lies. It's much more honest. When you inspect yourself about what's pushing you to make one decision or another, it's usually this whole flux of things that are going on inside of you, a whole mixture of things weighing and leaning on the choices you make. It's not that clean. So writing in a way that just irons out the wrinkles and gets you more to the black and white mode of human nature is really kind of dishonest.

Welcome ambiguity and the complexity because it's a lot closer to the truth. ... There's a gold mine there if you don't try to skirt it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Pace in narrative

"To hell and back" is a first-person narrative by a Kansas University student about his mental illness.

I think he set it up well -- starts with action, uses dialogue, and, several inches in, tells you where the story is headed, with a tease to induce you to keep reading:

"I had no way of knowing then that this doctor’s diagnosis would start a year-long journey into the mental health system and the depths of hell. It would feature seven different diagnoses, 13 different mind-altering drugs, more than a dozen psychiatrists and psychologists, hundreds of hours of therapy, drug overdoses, self-mutilation, a suicide attempt, a weight gain of 140 pounds and being committed by the state of Minnesota for four months into three separate mental institutions.

It will end with one last-ditch attempt at a self-imposed cure."

I'd call your attention to the pace of the story. Basically, it barrels ahead without pause or, really, reflection; there's no rest for the reader, no time to take a breath. I think that can enhance a story or detract from it, depending on the story and the command of the story by the writer. Do you think it works here? Did you want a break, want some background; or did you just want to find out as quickly as possible what happened to him?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


We've known for a while the Jen and Nicki won national-level awards in the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors' contest, but a post on noted the announcements were just made. So figured I'd shine the light on these stories again, and note that they're definitely connected to our Year of Storytelling and the newsroom's narrative writing effort.

Great work to all who had a hand in these stories.

(The category was papers with circulation up to 75,000.)

Narrative Feature

2. Nicki Lefever, York Daily Record. “Will stem cells help?”

"Lorraine Weil stood barefoot on the cold floor of Washington Dulles International Airport with her hands clasped at her waist. She stared directly at the Transportation Security Officer who inspected every inch of her daughter's wheelchair.

The officer swabbed the handles, peeked under the quilted blanket that covered her legs and checked Shawna's medical supplies.

A $60,000 journey halfway around the world to seek medical treatment was about to begin.

It's been nearly four years since a car accident left Gary and Lorraine Weil's once-spunky middle daughter in a persistent vegetative state, unable to speak or take care of herself. The 21-year-old spends most of her time in a hospital bed or on a therapy mat in her family's Hopewell Township home.

But in April, Lorraine found hope: a neurological hospital in China that administers stem-cell therapy unavailable in the U.S." ....

Short Feature

3. Jennifer Vogelsong, York Daily Record. “Tie that binds her friendship”

"Just a glimpse of the scarf was all Joan Ellis would need to transport herself back to better times, before her father took ill and died. Just a glimpse of the large, printed square of silk, and she would feel the forces of friendship buoying her through difficult times.

At the beginning of each winter, she'd take the cherished piece from her closet and incorporate it into her wardrobe.

She gets choked up just talking about it.

The last time she wore the scarf was to a friend's house for a Christmas party Dec. 9. Hundreds of people attended the fancy event, and Ellis was among the last to leave.

The next morning, when she went to put the scarf back in her closet, she realized it was missing." ....

A&E Feature

1. Jennifer Vogelsong, York Daily Record. (“It is just you. This is it.”)

Shruthie Amin sat in dressing room No. 1 at the Pullo Family Performing Arts Center on a Saturday afternoon in late July, her lips moving silently and hands cutting small designs through the air as her teacher tugged her waistlong hair into a single, low braid.

In a few hours, the 17-year-old Springettsbury Township girl would present a three-hour solo performance of classical Indian dance for more than 500 guests. They came from four continents to see the results of her work and celebrate an accomplishment more than six years and thousands of dollars in the making.

She could feel the weight of the occasion, literally, in her hair — hair that had not been cut since she began studying dance as a little girl. It’s tradition for an Indian girl to dance with long hair. A necessity for easy performance updos. A symbol of what she has accumulated throughout the years.

As the hair grew, so grew Shruthie’s abilities, her understanding and, ultimately, her love for an art form more than 3,000 years old.

Her teacher, or guru, wove gold ribbon through the braid, pinned a gold ornament to the tail and tied a jeweled headdress across her hairline, slowly transforming Shruthie from an American-born teenager into an Indian princess.

“You are going to be fine,” the guru whispered. “Just keep going. Be calm and smile.” ..........


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

It started with an e-mail.

The subject line was, My cousin's story. A woman's Jeep had run off the road, she'd been missing for more than a day, and had been found with the help of complete strangers. This isn't some Internet thing-- this really happened to them yesterday, the text read. I think this is nothing short of a miracle and worth reporting.

Susan forwarded it to Hoover, who worked the phones to get police, the victim's mother and a co-worker.

By afternoon Mike wrote what he had, and Ted put out calls to try to get at least two of the four people who were involved in the rescue.

He got more sourcing on Saturday, and on the strength of Mike's original reporting and those new sources, wrote a strong narrative tale for Sunday 1A.

Check it out. Good stuff.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A narrative business story? Indeed

Can you write a strong narrative about a business transaction? Yes, and here's proof.

The writers have taken a significant event -- Wells Fargo buying Wachovia -- and told a story.

They start with action; about five grafs in, they pause to provide context and set the stage for where the story's going to take you; and then they resume the narrative with a line that clearly picks up the action where it left off. In this case, it's, "For Mr. Steel, the latest chapter began Thursday night ..." and off you go.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The day's news, six words at a time

A friend of Diane Tennant's wrote this column in the Lincoln, Neb. paper in which she boiled down the day's news headlines into a series of six-word sentences. Part of our writing effort this year has been to focus on short writing and what it can accomplish, so it's fun to see what someone else does with the concept.

We're still pursuing the idea of publishing some of our three-line efforts, so stay tuned ... and if you can, go into the 'threelines' file and contribute one.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Read, read, read: a narrative writing/editing book list

The folks at Nieman handed out a list of books compiled, I believe, from recommendations from the faculty at the weekend seminar. There are 28 on their list under various categories, so I'll list a couple from each category. Eventually I'll put the whole list on the rail side of the blog (or ask, and I'll photocopy it for you.

Guides to narrative writing, editing and the digital networking age

Collections of contemporary narrative journalism
Classic narrative journalism
The lives of legendary editors
Book-length narrative journalism

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The (multimedia) future

This is some fascinating documentary-type multimedia work. It's called MediaStorm, run by a guy (Brian Storm) who used to be multimedia director at MSNBC. Its mission, it says, is to "usher in the next generation of multimedia storytelling by publishing social documentary projects incorporating photojournalism, interactivity, animation, audio and video for distribution across multiple media."

Pretty ambitious, but this clearly seems to be where the best audio/visual storytelling is headed. Check out what they're doing. For example, a sound-slide called "The Ninth Floor" is introduced like this:

"In 2004, anywhere from 20 to 30 young addicts lived on the ninth floor of an elegant narrow building overlooking Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The squatters had turned the sprawling apartment into a dark, desperate and chaotic place."

Once you click on it, it will hook you like a strong narrative does.

Monday, September 29, 2008

One true thing

Now that I'm back from a weekend of sloshing and puddle-jumping in Boston -- more than 5 inches of rain in many places, just right for walking to and from the subway, and across Harvard's campus (yeah, poor me) -- and from having to have my car jump-started by AAA when it quit in Wilkes-Barre after I stopped to eat (and buy Jack Hart's book "A Writer's Coach"), here is the dominant thought that emerged from the gathering of narrative editors at the Nieman journalism foundation:

Times are tough. There's a lot of bad news going around, in everyone's newsroom. And that can throttle the effort to produce good journalism.

Don't let it. You can't let it. There's too much at stake. We have too great a responsibility to our community -- to tell the stories that are the community's shared narrative. As David Talbot, founder of, said, "A newspaper is important to the lifeblood of a city because it tells the city who it is."

You can dwell on all the reasons why it's harder to do great journalism than it was 5 or 10 or 20 years ago. Or you can acknowledge the difficulties, work to solve problems, and find a way to do the great journalism our community is depending on us to do.

Remember why you got into the business, and get back in touch with that passion. It's still there, and you can still use it, one act of journalism at a time.

OK, here's Jacqui on story editing

This, to me, is part of the pact between writer and editor on big or small pieces of writing -- anything you deem worthy of more attention than a typical daily story gets. It could be the 300-word narratives we did on the 9/11 anniversary a couple years ago, or a full-blowout enterprise-length narrative.

So even though she's titled this 'story editing,' this is a two-way street. A reporter and editor cannot reach these heights without trusting each other and working together toward the same goals.

Here's Jacqui:

"Story editing:

Engages the idea and the writer, before it engages the copy.

Deals with the soul and structure of a story, before it deals with syntax and style.

Answers the question: What is this story about? And then serves that answer.

Happens before and throughout the reporting/writing process, not after.

Transforms the reporter into a storyteller.

Is a partnership of writer, publication and audience.

Uses all the (verbal, visual and multimedia) storytelling tools available.

Requires line-by-line journalistic discipline and rigor.

Honors the writer's voice.

Thinks always of the reader."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

On storytelling

Part of editor/teacher Jacqui Banaszynski's handout today includes a way to think about storytelling that you can use even at the earliest stages of conceiving a story:

Storytelling ...
Is not just how you say something, but what you say.

Is not defined by a genre or type of writing, but by a reason for writing.

Is not written so much as it is reported, experienced, told and shown.

Is not detached and distant, but intimate, immediate and present.

Is not about information so much as the meaning of that information.

Great narrative read

Stuart Warner, writing coach at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, passed this story out today as an excellent example of narrative writing. It's about the death of a toddler, and whether prosecutors would charge the father, and what happened when the case finally went to court.

Read to see how the writer set up the tension in the overall story but also among several characters in it; and how the story keeps its focus on the choices made by several characters and what happened because of those choices.

Great stuff.

Note from Boston

I'm up here at the Nieman conference for narrative editors at Harvard. Keynote speaker yesterday was David Talbot, founder of, who is now on to other ventures, all that involve telling stories.

Someone asked if there's a future for traditional long-form journalism, i.e., narrative, whether it be in newspapers or wherever. He does, he said, because "readers do like that campfire feeling or bedtime feeling of being swept up in a great story. ... It's hard-wired in people: Tell me a story. If you can hook a reader like that over time, you really own them."

I'll try to post more thoughts from the conference today and tomorrow if I can.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

For editors (and writers too)

Tom Jenks, an editor at Narrative magazine, wrote on the death of Rust Hills, a longtime editor at Esquire magazine. His job, of course, was different than ours in many ways; the quote relates to fiction (thus the word 'literary'.) But I like the spirit of this quote, of what it says about teamwork and respect and humility:

"The editor serves writer and reader, and if the material is literary, then the task is its own reward. Right-minded editors experience themselves as fortunate to dwell at the intersection of chance, where art can occur and meet appreciation. Without the writer’s work, the editor scarcely exists, and if the work is worthwhile and if it gains recognition, then the editor may accurately say that good news for one is good news for all. Something wonderful has entered the world."

So: Help each other do good work, don't worry about who gets the credit, and take your reward from the fact that you've helped put something meaningful in front of our readers.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Words to carry with you

This from a New York Times story on Gary Smith, the terrific Sports Illustrated writer whose pieces immerse you in the story and usually blow you away. What he says about taking judgment out of your approach to a story and trying to deeply understand your subject seems, to me, to be what we should strive for in our best work:

He doesn’t gloss over anyone’s sins, but how can he muster such empathy for all of his subjects?

“I really want to understand stuff, go on a journey,” he says. “Bringing a judgment to the subject, there’s no journey.”

Even the diver whose hubris killed his wife? The moralizing coach who falsified his credentials? The teenage basketball player who committed sexual assault?

“The more they let you in, the more glimpses you get about why they are the way they are, the harder it is to see them all one way,” he says, opening up at last. “Each person’s life is a problem to be solved, and I try to get a grasp of what problem they’re solving. You’re doing stories about people who do extraordinary things, and that usually comes out of extraordinary pressures and frictions. That’s what I try to understand.”

Gary Smith links:

Blindsided by History: Fifty years ago segregationists trying to keep black students out of Little Rock Central High inadvertently broke up one of the country's greatest football dynasties.

Remember His Name: Even as a boy Pat Tillman felt a destiny, a need to do the right thing whatever it cost him. When the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, he thought about what he had to do and then walked away from the NFL and became an Army Ranger....

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How many kinds of narrative are there, anyway?

With Robb Montgomery in here yesterday talking about all kinds of narratives -- graphics narratives, voice narratives, etc. -- and us talking fairly regularly about true narrative stories, here's my take on the differences:

This is not a definition to exclude all others, but, as we've learned over the past two years in our storytelling focus, true narrative is a story with a beginning and end ... a conflict that is resolved ... a story told over time, usually chronologically, which allows the story to unfold as it actually did ... and a story that is reported so that you have the dialogue, scenes, action, tension, timeline and so on that you need to effectively tell the story.

A true narrative story is not a passage of descriptive writing, or an anecdotal lead that contains six grafs of narrative writing, or a piece of dialogue within a broader conventional story. And a true narrative story is most certainly conceived, planned, reported and written differently than news stories or feature stories or profiles or any other type of story we do.

They are emotionally and intellectually pleasing to read and experience, because human beings love stories, and in fact have used them and relied on them for centuries as a way of recording what happens in their lives and communities, of recording history, of passing on culture, and as entertainment; and because it is satisfying to have an experience in which someone you like or can identify with faces a problem you can see yourself facing, and finds a way out of it.

When Robb about other types of narratives -- say, graphics narratives, voice narratives, video narratives -- he's broadening and stretching the meaning of the word to include snippets of stories, or complete stories that aren't necessarily conflict/resolution, or layers of stories (like the text that would accompany a video.) Ideally, those 'other narratives,' say, text in a video, would not simply be for the convenience of the video's producer or just haphazardly included; the text would be written with the aim of telling in a different way, or reinforcing, the story being told by the visuals.

Robb is also talking about inviting readers/users to create their own narratives ... which can mean nothing more than information on a topic they discover by fooling around on your web site for an hour one day. In other words, he's not saying readers/web users are going to write our Sunday enterprise narrative story. He's saying that by using the info we put out, and that others contribute to our site, they essentially create a personal story.

For example, we could do Utterz at the fair and we could ask fairgoers to do them too. Then someone goes on their computer and listens to, say, half a dozen. They've just created their own personal narrative of the fair. It's not a true narrative, and it's not necessarily the story we offered them, but it's their story nonetheless.

One big thing to remember, I think, is that there is not only room for both kinds of narratives in what we do, there's a need for both. People are going to want to create their own stories by using bits of information we give them in various forms (the soldier death map, or posts on the biz blog, or fair Utterz). But people also are going to want us to make sense of things -- major events like the guy who got stuck on the spike fence, daily-life events like the woman who lost the scarf her dear friend had given her, and so on -- through storytelling. They want and need us to, in a paraphrase of something Hoover said yesterday, go out and find stuff out and come back and put it in a story to tell people things they didn't know before.

There is always going to be an audience for that.

And a P.S. -- Robb Montgomery says "the web is about small talk. Small talk leads to big talk." That fits right in with our focus on Felix Feneon this year -- essentially, the narrative story in three lines. That's one way to think about writing for the web -- make a little say a lot.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

One page per day?

Now that he's released another book, novelist Philip Roth has given us a little more information about his writing process. In an interview with NPR, the author of "Goodbye, Columbus," "Immortality," "Sabbath's Theater" and a host of other masterworks said he puts in a long days writing.

On an average day, he produces one page. On a good day, maybe three. On a bad day, nothing. And that's one page before secondary revisions begin.

That floored me. Just think about the amount of copy you produce and the rate at which you do it. Perhaps it's why he's a genius.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ben Bradlee on the future of newspapers

A shout-out for good stories during an interview with Jim Lehrer.

'I'm just so happy I'm alive'

I imagine Hurricane Ike will provide the basis for a few great stories in the coming weeks and months. Here's one from the Washington Post about spending the night in Galveston. Considering it was filed at 7:05 a.m., I think it's pretty impressive.

Joel Achenbach writes about unanswered rescue calls, British storm chasers and the release people had to sign before they could check into a Holiday Inn.

Friday, September 12, 2008

On the hurricane theme ...

I've read Erik Larson's "Devil in the White City" (serial killer loose at the Chicago World's Fair
around the turn of the century) and "Thunderstruck" (cops chase murder suspect
with help of the newly invented wireless). Enjoyed both.

On my nightstand is Laron's book on the deadly hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900.

And of course Galveston is getting hammered again right now ...

Anyway ... this is sure to be a good read, and it's in the news, so thought I'd put it out there.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Highly recommended reading

"The Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson is one of the best books I've read in some time. It's part detective story, part scientific discovery, part historical narrative about how a couple of guys in mid-1800s London figured out what was causing a cholera epidemic, and how their discovery affected science, sociology, cities and other aspects of our lives.

And it's a terrific read -- characters, cliffhangers, converging plotlines ... the whole deal.

NPR's race in York: audio storytelling

I haven't listened to this whole thing yet, but Chris Glass reports that it's great audio storytelling, in which a true story unfolds in audio, as opposed to just a string of interviews spliced together.

NPR hung out with several people in York, getting to know them a bit, and then did a series of interviews with them to examine, as the hosts say, not whether these people were going to base their vote for president on the candidate's race, but rather on the racial experiences of the voter himself or herself.

The series kind of kicks off here.

If you want to go straight to the audio, try these links for the first report and second report.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Dialogue in action

Check out Erin's story on two singer wannabes getting a crash-course in the business, and how she used dialogue to really carry the story and put you in the room with them. A sample:

Bain belted out a few stanzas of "With You" by Chris Brown.
"You have a vibrato in your voice," Duncan told her.
"Is that bad?"
"No, it makes you identifiable."

The dialogue, in a sense, is the story here. Erin recognized that and ran with it. Great work.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Great story, and story-behind-the-story

A little girl grows up neglected, left in a closet, until she's 7 years old and almost beyond hope. Then a couple adopts her, and begins to try to give her a life. Here is Lane DeGregory's story.

And here is how Lane and photographer Melissa Lyttle found the story, got the access, reported, photographed and produced the story ... and what happened when, a couple months into the reporting/photography, someone asked, 'What do you have for the web?' and their answer was, 'Nothing.' Read how they turned a negative into a positive. Great stuff for anyone who works on enterprise ... which is pretty much everyone here.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Serial narrative on N.O. homicide detectives

Times-Picayne has this running. Starts off with a lot of promise and Ch. 1 ends with a pretty good cliffhanger. Check it out.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Stephen King graphic short story

25 episodes, one a day beginning July 28. Watch them all here and deconstruct the storytelling techniques and framework of King's story, 'N,' and the techniques used in the visual telling of it.

Who the heck are these people?

I don't know who James R. Henderson III is or was, nor do I know who some guy named Lackey is or was, but I was digging through some writing handouts I'd collected and found one in which the aforementioned Lackey writes that Henderson was "a genius at tightening sentences. He would take a sentence tuned to a low G and tighten it till it pinged a double high C. ... I'd vow to write sentences he couldn't touch, but he would always improve them by taking out words."

Being able to tighten sentences, as a writer and as an editor, is a great skill to hone. It's cool to read the following examples from our friend Lackey, because it's an eye-opener on how often sentences contain extra words that can, over the course of a story, tire the reader:

Think of every sentence you ever write as a piece of string.
Think of every sentence you write as a piece of string.

After you write each sentence, take the sentence's beginning in one hand and its period in the other and hold the sentence up to determine it if sags in the middle.
After writing a sentence, hold its beginning in one hand and period in the other and see if it sags.

A sentence should sag as little as possible.
It should be taut.

It is not necessarily true that every sentence is improved when it is shortened.
Shortening a sentence won't always improve it.

But usually making a sentence shorter will make it better.
But usually it will.

And so on ... if anyone wants the whole handout let me know, I can make a copy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

This article in Sunday's NYT mag is an interesting look at quoting online commentators.

It's an issue we've all encountered with a new twist: When quoting online commentators, do you clean up typos? What about gross spelling and grammar errors?

I have often struggled with this, wondering if it's a good idea to quote these people in the first place. For example, how do I know if some of the comments were planted by PR people or the subject of the story? On the other hand, it's impossible to ignore online comments; sometimes they create a story onto themselves.

What do you think about using online, anonymous comments? When used should we correct typos and other mistakes?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Serial reader

I read the first chapter of a Washington Post investigation of the 2001 murder of intern Chandra Levy. Good stuff.

Besides awesome reporting and writing, this series has a cool online presentation that includes lots of layers (here, here and here, to name a few).

I only wish the first chapter was a bit longer. It's three Web pages; not sure what that adds up to in inches. Just as I was getting into the story it was over. I know it's the point of a serial, and maybe it's just me, but I hate being yanked away from a story like that. I'll return in 12 days and read it all in one shot.

I suppose with such a famous unsolved crime you can afford to leave readers hanging without running the risk of turning them off. What do you think?

Update: Be sure to check out comments from readers on the later chapters. They are arguing the merits of the story, whether it should be parceled out as a series and the writing style.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Strong (and short) straightforward narrative

Good conflict-resolution narrative on what happened when a guy climbed the New York Times building and called the New York Daily News to talk about why he was up there and under what conditions he'd come down.

Starts like this:

We had gotten as much as we could on the fatal fire in Sugar Hill. Six people had been shot a few blocks away, but no one was going to die.
At 1 a.m. Wednesday, my busy night was almost over - or so I thought.
Then the phone rang and I realized my night was about to get a lot longer.
The man on the line said he was climbing The New York Times Building.
"Oh, really?" I said. "Why are you doing that?"

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Two-part series and the use of photo and graphics

Wil Haygood at the Washington Post just did this great two-part series on Randall Smith and the murders he committed on the Appalachian Trail. Haygood uses a lot of the elements we've been talking about in the baggers -- dialogue, understatement, word choice, etc. In the live chat (see more about that below) he addressed how important graphics, photos, etc. were in telling the story. If you have some time check out part one and two of the story and the interactive timeline.

He also did a live chat on this morning. I was skimming through it and thought some of the questions and his answers were interesting. You can read the whole thing here.

Lincoln, Neb.: As a fellow narrative journalist, I just want to commend you for this brilliantly constructed series. They way you played with time, set the scene, described the players, etc was fantastic. Can you talk a bit about your process... did you interview Scott and Sean multiple times, or did you manage to craft these articles based on straight forward one-shot interviews?

Wil Haygood: Well, thank you. I spent a lot of time with both Scott and Sean, wonderful individuals, particularly in the sense that they allowed me to take them into this saga again. A writer is blessed if he or she has a brilliant editor. I do. Steve Reiss wanted me to explore certain themes in the piece and that, I think, more than anything, helped with pacing.

LaGrange, Ga.: This was an excellently written piece. The descriptions are amazing, and the quotes are just right for the mood Smith set himself and you set in words. As a journalist myself who could only pray for something like this, how did you come upon a story of such amazing depth with some caution involved, yet still have seemingly comfortable interviews with everyone involved?

Wil Haygood: Scott's mother and father were just great, and I think their presence during a portion of the interviews helped relax Scott. I say the same about Sean's mother.

Word choice bagger preview

Some stuff to get you thinking about word choice (plus they're just plain good reads). Eugene found the story links; I stumbled across the poem. We'll pull from these at today's bagger:

Quiet man gave no hint of violence (Rick Romell, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel):
Excerpt: He was the type of person you'd scarcely notice in a crowd - quiet, a bit on the tall side, brownish hair, glasses.
"Not in shape but not overweight - Joe Average," said his neighbor, Shane Colwell.
But Terry Ratzmann, the man believed to have opened fire on members of his congregation as they worshipped, slaying seven and wounding four before killing himself, turned out to be anything but average.

A boy who was like a flower (Anthony Shadid, Washington Post):
Excerpt: Bathed in the soft colors of turquoise tiles, the room was hushed, as the caretakers finished the washing. They wrapped his head, his gaze fixed, with red and yellow plastic. They rolled the corpse in plastic sheeting, fastening it with four pieces of white gauze -- one at each end, one around his knees and one around his chest.

During school siege, Russia took captives in Chechnya (Kim Murphy, L.A. Times):
Excerpt: It was 6 a.m. when Russian soldiers hoisted themselves over the wall, crashed through the window and broke down the front door. Their quarries were still asleep.
Shouting, shoving and kicking, the soldiers pushed 67-year-old Khavazh Semiyev and his wife into a truck waiting outside, then went back for the others -- his two sons and two nephews, his son's wife, his 52-year-old sister.
Then -- and Semiyev couldn't believe his eyes -- they went back for his grandchildren: Mansur, 11 years old. Malkhazni, 9. And Mamed, 7.

Kidnapping Grandma Braun Part I (Helen O'Neill, Associated Press):
Excerpt: It was cold the night Grandma Braun was taken, that bitter dead-of-winter cold when the countryside is sheathed in ice and the stillness is broken only by great gusts of snow that swirl across the fields and back roads, erasing footprints and car tracks and all traces of life.

Old Timer’s Day
By Donald Hall

When the tall puffy
figure wearing number

nine starts
late for the fly ball,
laboring forward
like a lame truckhorse
startled by a gartersnake,
—this old fellow
whose body we remember
as sleek and nervous
as a filly's—

and barely catches it
in his glove's
tip, we rise
and applaud weeping:
On a green field
we observe the ruin
of even the bravest
body, as Odysseus
wept to glimpse
among shades the shadow
of Achilles.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Deeper thinking

I came across this blog post by New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin, in which he talks about why journalists sometimes react to a hot story and go down that path, instead of thinking through the story and treating it more thoroughly, or even pursuing the story that's the opposite of the hot story; and how that can damage our credibility.

It's something that drives me crazy, when you see newspapers or TV scream about, say, an explosion of shark attacks in Florida, when in reality it's three people attacked in a 100-mile stretch of coastline, or some such.

For us, that kind of reaction can manifest itself if we chase a "trend" story or another hot national story and try to localize it, thinking that, of course, the same thing must be happening here. Sometimes it is, but not always, of course. Doing some thinking at the story-idea/assignment phase might help us tell better stories when these hot stories come up, because they'll always come up. Perhaps we can find a more nuanced angle, or perhaps we should be writing the counter-trend story.

The specific example in Revkin's blog entry was that two studies came out, one saying global warming contributed to more hurricanes, the other saying it wasn't much of a factor. A political scientist counted 79 media stories on the global-warming-affects-hurricanes study (the hot story) and 3 on the minimal-factor study (not the hot story). Here's Revkin:

"(There is) an institutional eagerness to sift for and amplify what editors here at The Times sometimes call 'the front-page thought.' This is only natural, but in coverage of science it can skew what you read toward the more calamitous side of things. It’s usually not agenda-driven, as some conservative commentators charge. It’s just a deeply ingrained habit. ...

"As I’ve said many times, in a couple of book chapters and talks, one danger in this kind of coverage — not accounting for the full range of uncertainty or understanding in dealing with very important environmental questions — is that it ends up providing ammunition to critics charging the media with an alarmist bias. And once the coverage corrects, it results in what I call “whiplash journalism” (coffee causes cancer; coffee helps your sex life…) that could disengage readers entirely from the value of journalism."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Gang violence in Oakland; Refugees playing soccer

Sports Illustrated had a couple of great pieces for the non-sports people like myself.

One, "How Dreams Die" by George Dohrmann talked about how street violence has gotten so bad in and around Oakland and Berkley, Calif. that kids who would've normally turned to sports as a means of escape, have given up their dreams of becoming professional athletes and given into gang life.

One youth football organizer described it as such: "It used to be that if you played sports, everyone protected you. Now it is open season on everybody. The neighborhoods are that devastated."

He starts and ends the article with Fred, a kid who's been on the wrong side of the law, but who wants to turn his life around through football. I especially loved how Dohrmann incorporated Fred's "Pledge of Success" at the beginning with a sense of hopefulness, and in the end with bitterness.

If you've been feeling like there isn't too much good in the world and there's nothing you can do to change it (what journalist doesn't feel that way?) please, please check out "Alive and Kicking" by Gary Smith. It's as uplifting as "How Dreams Die" is depressing. Smith follows a Jordanian-American who left behind her wealthy family, and created a soccer team of refugees from all over the world (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Afghanistan, Pakistan...) -- kids who had seen their families massacred, and who were struggling to fit in and find success in the states.

It's really incredible how one person (one person!) took it upon herself to adopt these kids and these kids' families to help turn their lives around. It's really inspiring (and well-written).

Both stories are reminders to me of why I need to read the sports pages more often. Consistently, some of the most compelling articles in our paper (or in journalism) revolve around them.

Jazz up your numbers

Yeah, you know if it's about numbers, it's Joan.

Check out next time you're writing a story with measurements or sizes in it.

5,000 tons of recycling collected in a certain local township? Guess what? That's 28 blue whales' worth of recycling.

Someone has driven 8,000 miles on a countrywide trek? That's 29 Grand Canyons long.

One tip - leave out the comma when you type in your number and unit of measurement. Have fun with this... comment and let me know how you put this to use!