Saturday, May 17, 2008

The William Hung of his time?

You might remember William Hung, who rode one of the worst American Idol auditions to that bizarre sort of fame that the world confers on spectacular failures these days.

Well, today's Wall Street Journal has one of those unexpected good reads that are so fun to find. The tone seems just right for the subject matter, and he makes use of a pretty good quote. Here's the beginning of Alistair Macdonald's story:

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- Like many poets, William Topaz McGonagall struggled for his art. Against all odds, and despite evidence to the contrary, the former weaver spent more than two decades in the late 19th century trying to prove he was a literary genius. His recitals attracted crowds that came to mock, heckle and throw rotten fruit at the man who was known as the world's worst poet.

On Friday, though, at an auction house here in his birthplace, Mr. McGonagall was having the last laugh. In a tangible expression of how his work has come to be valued since his death as a pauper in 1902, an anonymous buyer paid £6,600 (or $13,200) for 35 broadsheets of his original poems -- a large chunk of Mr. McGonagall's oeuvre of about 200 works. The price put him in a league with some of Britain's most famous authors. It was $1,200 more than was bid at the same auction for a collection of Harry Potter first editions signed by J.K. Rowling -- and much more than a set of first editions of Sir Walter Scott, a wildly popular writer during Mr. McGonagall's time.

"Despite his ability to massacre poetic metaphor, his taste for banality, a weak vocabulary and his tortuous rhymes, his popularity has outlived many of his then-respected contemporaries," said Alex Dove, a specialist in books at Lyon & Turnbull, where the auction was held.

The auction reflects the unique brand of celebrity that has fallen upon Mr. McGonagall.

For the rest of the story, Google the poet's name and click on the WSJ story. Otherwise you get caught up in the WSJ's "you must subscribe to get the rest of the story" pitch.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Choose your words carefully

Eugene wrote a story in Monday's paper using a news release and one interview. Because of his use of strong verbs -- tilting, spat, prodded, grappled, for example -- and other description, the story had more life than it might otherwise have had. It's an example of why word choice matters, even if it's in a short daily piece.

How did he come by those strong verbs?

When Eugene interviewed Richard Sullivan, the man who was attacked, he was standing in the doorway where Sullivan's cousin, the alleged attacker, had stood hours before. Eugene asked Richard to act out what had happened.

When Richard moved his hands in a certain way to imitate the clash, Eugene thought of wrestling, and thus, "Sullivan reached for the shotgun and grappled with his attacker ..."

When Richard showed how he went for the gun, Eugene thought first to say he "pushed" it away, but chose instead "...tilting the mouth" of the gun because Sullivan described the action as more instinctive than intentional, so "pushed" seemed too strong and "tilting" seemed right. (I would add that when I read "tilting" I think "tilting up," whereas "push" could be in any direction.

When Eugene described the gun going off, he first wrote that it "let out a round," then thought of his description of the "mouth" of the gun and chose "spat" to go along with that.

Those kinds of choices, in any kind of story, make for stronger writing. There are many examples of this in our paper, and I salute anyone who puts this kind of thought into picking just the right word for what you're trying to say.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Storytelling on a map

This is fiction, but check it out and you can see how we could use it, or something like it, to tell a true story.

Imagine a police chase rendered like this.

Imagine a feature story about a well-traveled pro baseball player rendered like this.

Imagine a story about a relief mission to New Orleans rendered like this.

Other possibilities....?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

See the story

I'm reading this book on the Stasi, the East German secret police. I'm pretty well toward the end, and the other day I glanced at the blurbs on the back cover, where people who praised it said it was a "gripping narrative" and mentioned the writer's "linguistic brilliance," stuff like that.

It occurred to me that, although it's a decent read, the former AP correspondent who wrote it is not a brilliant writer, and his book is neither particularly gripping (except in one or two spots), nor is it in any way a narrative.

But that got me thinking about narrative and storytelling in the context of this book.

Big chunks of the book are sourced through a Col. Wiegand, a major dude in the Stasi who soured on Communist East Germany when the politicians tacitly supported Arab terrorists operating within the borders because they were attacking "imperialist" America and its interests; Wiegand eventually defected with tons of documents the East never wanted the West to see.

So, had the author chosen, he could have written a narrative -- he could have told Wiegand's story from a beginning point to an ending point. In Wiegand's personal story of loyalty to the Communists, a distinguished secret police career, growing disenchantment, outright disobediance of orders and ultimate defection, the author could have brought out pretty much everything about the Stasi's operations over the decades.

Some things would have had to have been left out -- the things that couldn't tie directly to Wiegand, or be tied to his endeavors through the history of the Stasi, for example -- but he would have had a story.

As it is, it's not a bad book -- it's a comprehensive history of what the Stasi did.

But it points out that even when you think you are writing about an issue or a broad topic, you should go through the process of asking yourself: Within this topic, is there a powerful beginning-to-end story that will illuminate the issue or topic? Is there a single episode that could do that job? Is there a compelling story about a single person you can also use to show the bigger picture?

Try to see the story within the story. That's where a lot of great storytelling lives.

Friday, May 9, 2008

E-mail story

Mike Hoover sent an e-mail to the metro editors yesterday, relating what he'd found out about a cat up a tree. It read, in part:

"The cat is down by trailer No. 98.
She, the cat is trying to get down.
She is screaming her head off. It is dehydrated and crying for help.
It has attracted our whole darn park. There are 30 trailers there all
... I spoke with Lower Windsor Township Police Chief David Sterner. He said it is unsafe for police to climb the tree. With liability standards, fire department won't do handle the cat.
Sooner or later when the cat gets hungry enough, the cat will come down.
They can call a tree services with experience tree climbers. You don't know if the cat has rabies. Someone can get bit.
The cat is an animal. It has claws. It will come down eventually. He has never seen a cat skelton in a tree."

We all thought he'd practically written a cool story in that e-mail. After he tweaked it a bit, he came up with this.

It's not smashmouth journalism. It's not going to change the world. But it's a story with a nearly intractable conflict, told in a tone and voice that's appropriate for the subject matter. In other words, it' s a nice piece of work by Mike, something that has a place in each day's paper, and something we can learn from.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Veering close to six-word mania

You might be aware of Poynter's contest for a six-word motto for journalism.

Roy Peter Clark noted it had roots in a book called "Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Obscure and Famous."

An excerpt courtesy of provided this beauty from Sebastian Junger ("The Perfect Storm," among others):

"I asked.
They answered.
I wrote."

For journalists, that's great. But it probably can't beat this gem from someone (Lesley Kysley) whose name I don't recognize:

"Mom died, Dad screwed us over."

A story in (less than) three lines

In our year of focusing on Feneon and his three-line "novels," Nickie reminds us that Hemingway was once bet to write a story in six words, and called it his best work:

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."