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!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

More 1st person in a story

This from Lon Wagner of the Virginian-Pilot, a really fun read about a big-time guitar collector and his stories. Lon uses first person just in a couple spots. Do you like it, or think the story would have worked just as well done another way?