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.