Saturday, March 29, 2008

Overheard on the Titanic

A new way to tell stories with newspapers - and my other passion, a black Sharpie.

My favorite is "Overheard on the Titanic."

You have to see them to believe them. Check it out. I'd love to see how many of us could come up with one of these from the Daily Record.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Worth a look

Most of you know I don't have many absolutes about writing, but that one of them is never, ever use an advertising campaign slogan in a story (much less in a lead). Since I consider the use of any ad slogan to be a cliche, I liked this site dedicated to tracking (and, it hopes, killing) cliches.

I was, however, puzzled by the inclusion of words like "amid" and "allegedly" as cliches. Maybe they're overused, but not (to me) in the same league as "at the end of the day" or "on the campaign trail," which are also on their list.

Anyway, it's an interesting site to look at. What do you think?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

'The Wire' and storytelling

For those of you who missed the bagger, here are some things that translate to our own conflict/resolution storytelling:

Big open
What we can learn
A story with multiple storylines can benefit from an opening that focuses on action and propels the storylines forward and sets up the major conflicts that will keep readers going.
-Five coaches are chasing one prized basketball recruit
-Rescue crews arrive at the scene of a daunting task (a big fire, a guy impaled on a fence …)

What we can learn
When you have multiple storylines, vary the pace of action. Short scenes amid longer ones stand out and call attention to themselves, and also quicken the pace; longer scenes can be used to slow a reader down, make them pay attention to detail. Ending a scene with a tease (see below) helps push the reader through the storylines to find out what happened next.
Someone is rushed to the hospital, his life in danger (quick scenes, rapid pace). The surgeon delicately and methodically performs open heart surgery to save his life (longer scenes, more detail, aiming for total immersion on the part of your reader).

What we can learn
Know where each of your storylines is going, and break them down into parts that allow you to write scenes that move the piece forward, but don’t prematurely ‘end’ the storyline or give too much away.
Let’s say you’re following a high school team through a season. You have five main characters, each with her own conflict as the team tries to win a championship.
You will know through your reporting what each girl has at stake, what her successes and failures are during the year, and how her story ultimately turns out. So you can weave your five individual stories together, bringing them together at the end with whether the team wins.

What we can learn
This is where you deliver the info that may not be part of the true narrative, but is needed for someone to understand what’s happening. You can step away, briefly, from the true action of the story to catch people up on what they need to know and set them up for what is to come.
If you’re writing about an agoraphobic, you’ll need to deliver information about the illness. If you’re writing about two people trapped in a car in a flooded creek, you’ll have to say how they got there. If you're writing about the opening night of a new restaurant, you'll need to say how the proprieters got started.

Big close
What we can learn
You can rely on action to bring the story home. You’ve set the story in motion at the beginning, you’ve advanced each storyline to a critical point, and you’ve done all the re-setting you need to do. Now just show the reader what happens.
This is where the recruit calls four coaches to tell them no, and one to tell him yes.
It’s where the surgeon makes the critical cut to save the man on the operating room table.
It’s where the high school basketball team wins or loses.
It's where the new restaurant soars or flops on opening night.
It’s where the rescue crews get the guy off the fence, or lose the two people in the floodwater.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Ultralocal storytelling

We talk a lot about storytelling in "big" ways - awesome series and projects like Frank's story, below; packages like our fatal house-fire follow, etc.

But I think storytelling can be great in the small things, too. Of course, this is most close to my heart because of the Weekly Record, Your News and other sections that don't exactly tell the "big" stories.

That said, I'll call your attention first to a neat article on why caring about ultralocal news might make you a better journalist and us a better paper!

Then, I'd ask you to read this story about 91-year-old "Dutch" Besecker. Is it a 1A investigative piece that will win awards and garner community fame or infamy? Hardly. In fact, its only news peg was that "Dutch" sent me a photo of himself in his old car, and I got curious about the kinds of things he must remember.

But big or small, his memories are a slice a life that tells a story about a person, a place and a time, and I think it's really enjoyable!

Spitzer and the NYT, behind the scenes

Check out this piece that does the tick-tock on Gov. Spitzer's recognition. It provides a look at how the New York Times handled its own role in the Spitzer story, and in doing so provides a glimpse of some of the reporting that went on. (Note also that it relies on anonymous sources, which is problematic in terms of the assessing the story's credibility, and that's a whole other discussion we could have sometime).

Two things struck me -- one as pretty cool, the other as a critique of the story:

Cool -- the unfolding of the court appearance of those arrested in the prostitution sting was very much like how the Washington Post's Watergate reporting got started (though on a smaller scale, of course): In the Spitzer case, there was a routine court hearing, but reporters noticed that the prosecutor was the main public corruption guy. They caught the scent of something bigger and went after it. In Watergate, it was a routine court appearance until, when the judge asked the men where they worked, James McCord said, "CIA," and Bob Woodward's radar went off.

Critique -- Spitzer's wife's reaction is limited to her advice to him about whether he should stay or quit as governor. Obviously, that wasn't her only reaction to all this, and it would have been nice if the story had at least acknowledged there was a personal side to the discussions, even if the reporters couldn't find out details.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Feneon's three-lines archive

A compilation of the left-rail blurbs about Felix Feneon's three lines and what we can take from them to apply to our own writing:

3/12/08 -- Rhythm
"After a misstep, then tumbling from one outcropping to another, Rouge, a mason, of Serrieres, Savoy, who was picking herbs, fractured his skull." -Feneon
Comment: The commas and sentence lengths create such a rhythm that you can almost see poor Rouge falling and feel it every time he hits an outcropping. -SB

4/1/08 -- Understatement
"Scratching himself with a revolver with an overly sensitive trigger, M. Edouard B. removed the tip of his nose in the Vivienne precinct house." -Feneon
Comment: The first 10 words have you anticipating what will happen, and the payoff is then serenely delivered to great effect. It also, importantly, implies that the man was not gravely hurt. --SB

4/08 -- Word choice
"Weighed down with bronzes, with china, with linens, and with tapestries, two burglars were arrested, at night, in Bry-sur-Marne." -Feneon
Comment: The repetition of the word 'with' before each new item adds a sense of piling on -- of weight -- to the sentence. Without that repetition, the sentence would be lighter, just a regular sentence. --SB

5/08 -- Chronology
"Under a series of pseudonyms, a young woman finds employment as a maid and then leaves, quickly, emburdened. Her take: 25,000 francs. No arrest yet." -Feneon
Comment: He's told a story in which something benign turned into something not so benign, and told it in the order it happened, in 25 words. (Bonus on word choice: I love the use of the word 'emburdened' to describe a thief making off with loot.) --SB

6/08 -- Dialogue
"An irascible conversationalist, Convest, of Thiais, struck with an iron bar the head of his interlocutor, Milot, of Choisy-le-Roi."-Feneon
Comment: A simple thing, said with style: They were talking, and the conversation went bad. --SB

7/08 -- Word choice
"Delalande's tender feelings for his maid were such that he killed his wife with a pitchfork. The Rennes assizes sentenced him to death."-Feneon
Comment: 'Tender' highlights the brutality of the murder. Without that word -- or even with a different one -- the sentence wouldn't have quite the same impact. --SB

Friday, March 7, 2008

How I wrote the story: "Beware the chair," by Frank Bodani

Hey folks, with this post I'm starting a new occasional feature on the blog. I'll ask staffers to talk about how they wrote, photographed, filmed or designed a story or slideshow or video, and then post their answers.

Frank Bodani's story "Beware the chair" has just been honored by Associated Press Sports Editors and by the Keystones. I asked Frank to talk about an element of doing that story that stood out to him. Here are his thoughts:

"The key to writing the story, 'Beware the Chair,' was simply coming up with the idea. How do you find a feature on wheelchair rugby? How do you find Travis Oldhouser, the story's hero, so to speak?

It all came from a previous story I did in August of 2006. That piece featured a former local athletic director and football coach who was continuing a long recovery from a deer hunting accident that left him a quadriplegic. That gentleman made sure I talked to Oldhouser, another quadriplegic and inspiration to him.

One thing led to another.

Oldhouser told me about playing wheelchair rugby. I latched onto that tidbit but couldn't do anything with it right away because I was ready to start covering Penn State football again. And because rugby wasn't in season.

January -- almost five months away -- would be perfect, as long as I was patient enough and didn't forget.

That was the key: picking up on a tip from another story, storing it away for the perfect time, and then turning it into even a better piece.

When January came, and the rugby season was in full-swing, half of my battle was won.

The other half was making the piece come alive. That happened by allowing Oldhouser (though a quad) to drive Bil Bowden and I to one of his practices in Philadelphia. We talked to Oldhouser in his element, received a great insight into his life and the lives of his teammates, who all had unique stories.

Sometimes the writing isn't even the most important part of the story. "

Saturday, March 1, 2008

"All praise in varying degrees from high to extra high"

I know Scott posted a link to W.C. Heinz's obit earlier this week, but since Heinz is all I've ever wanted to be as a writer, I thought we could use a little more.

If you love sports writing or war writing or medical writing or narrative writing or just damn good writing, you owe it to yourself to read W.C. Heinz. He covered crime for the New York Sun, then the European theater in World War II at age 29, where he found the voice that anchored his copy for the next five decades.

He wrote a daily sports column, then moved on to magazine features. He wrote "Run to Daylight" -- then the best-selling sports book of all time about Vince Lombardi -- and co-wrote M*A*S*H. He was the only writer to whom Elmore Leonard ever sent a fan letter and the only writer featured three times in the anthology, "Best American Sports Writing of the 20th Century."

He pioneered many of the non-fiction techniques we pull out for best pieces: dialogue, well-drawn scenes and a strong, if understated narrative voice.

Just look at this, from a 1949 column, The Fighter's Wife:

When they came to the corner they stopped for just a moment under the streetlight. Then the turned left and started walking again.

"Who said being a fighter's wife is easy?" Lucille said.

"It's like being in the ring," Norma said.

"She fights right in the ring with him every fight," her mother said, talking to Lucille.

"That's the trouble," Norma said. "You can't get in the ring with him."

"What could you do?" her mother said.

"Well," she said, "if they put Fusari's wife in the ring."

"He just said Fusari's in trouble," Lucille said quickly.

"You heard it?" Norma said.


"I don't know," Norma said. "It's too much."

That's the funny thing," Lucille said. "Everybody seems to wait for tonight but you."

"I wait for the night after tonight."

It's like building a stone wall without mortar," he said of writing in 2000. "You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they're balanced and solid."