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