Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lane DeGregory interview

Nieman Narrative Digest folks quiz Lane DeGregory, who just won a Pulitzer for feature writing (for the feral child story), on her story about a guy who was on the plane that went into the Hudson and how he got back on a plane.

It's a quick read and worth it.

Narrative Digest : Interview

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Making of a Rescue: 17 Minutes of Terror

Nieman Narrative Digest posted this (link below) with a note that it was the type of story that would normally have begun, "A four-year-old boy was rescued yesterday after the car he was riding in ..." etc.

True enough, though to be fair, this is not a next-day news story, as is made clear at the end. But I think the point to take from this is: Any time we run on a breaking news story that involves drama like this, and we cover it as a straight news story, we can go back to that story days later and re-tell it as a narrative if we can get the right sourcing and if the story's worth re-telling. And those types of stories are great reads.

The Nieman folks point out that it's really well organized, going from character-to-character and development-to-development, and that does seem like the strength of this piece.

For my taste, the first 3 grafs of the 2nd section make a good point but might be a bit overdone. I'm curious to hear what others think.

Narrative Digest : Notable Narrative : The Making of a Rescue: 17 Minutes of Terror

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Golden sources in narrative

Pat Abdalla flagged this story from that recounts the events leading up to the car accident that killed a young California Angels (sorry, I'm not calling them by their legal name) pitcher named Nick Adenhart.

Pat noticed with interest that the reporter used text-messages and Facebook updates as sources.

The story starts with a scene at the hospital after Adenhart has been pronounced dead; then goes back to 12 hours before the crash, and works its way forward as a narrative. The Facebook and text updates quoted certainly help drive the narrative and give the story specifics it might not otherwise have.

We've talked at different times about those "golden sources" for true narratives -- somebody's journal, an official entry log of events, a videotape of an event from which action can be described -- and you can certainly add Facebook updates, Twitter, text-messaging, all that stuff. The key is to verify that the posts actually were made by the person you're writing about. Once you have that confirmation, you have a valuable source for your story.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jacqui on better story focusing

Key things I took from Jacqui's videoconference this afternoon, and there will be more later on some of these (and by all means, add your thoughts here, or do your own posts, whatever ... let's help each other out).

But anyway, these will definitely be some of the things I'll be working on in terms of how I do my job and how I can help you do yours:

--Recognize that you have a writing process (see April 7 entry), things you do or habits you have that help you write. Realize that you can control it more, and when you do, you will help yourself become better.

--The story idea, or 'generating plan' as Jacqui referred to it, is not the story. But it doesn't mean you can't discuss possibilities. So, make two lists:
  • What do I need to know? And how am I going to find out? These are the basic points your story must cover.
  • What do I want to know? And how am I going to find that out? This is the question that opens up possibilities for deeper stories, including narrative and investigative pieces. Make sure you get the basics to be able to write the basic story. Pursue, either for daily or longer-range, the story that arises from answering Question 2.
--The best things an editor can do is to ask the right questions: not how long the story will be, whether there's a photo with it, etc., but what did you find out? what are you missing? what are you worried about? what's the most interesting thing? how would you tell the story in 3 grafs?

--Use budgetlines as a tool and, she says, even as a weapon. Budgetlines can seem like makework to please an editor who's staring at the daily or Sunday budget (and they do serve that purpose too) but they can help you distill what your story's about, help sell that story to editors and the copy desk to ensure it gets treated right; communicates with photo and design; and essentially allows you to talk to yourself about your story. If you can't write a decent budgetline for your story, Jacqui said, you probably don't really know what it's about.

She suggested also checking out the two-sentence story and six-word memoir sites online as interesting ways to think of how to write a strong budgetline.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A high-tech look at Sleepy Beauty

At the features staff meeting today (April 15, Tax Day!), Buffy got everyone's creative juices flowing with a writing exercise about the different ways we communicate.
She challenged everyone to take an excerpt from the classic fairytale "Sleeping Beauty" and rework it with more high-tech forms of communication.
Here's a segment of the original tale:

At last, however, to her own and her husband's inexpressible joy, she gave birth to a daughter.
As soon as the palace guns announced this event, the whole nation went wild with delight.
Flags waved everywhere, bells were set pealing until the steeples rocked, crowds tossed up their hats and cheered, while the soldiers presented arms, and even strangers meeting in the street fell upon each other's neck, exclaiming: "Our Queen has a daughter! Yes, yes -- Our Queen has a daughter! Long live the little Princess!"

Here's how Kara rewrote the segment with a modern twist:
As soon as the Queen's Facebook status changed to "I have a daughter!" an RSS feed alerted the YDR newsroom to the news.
An update was posted on the YDR Web site, an e-mail alert was sent out and all the commentors in the land left well-wishes for the royal family.
Later in the day, the queen tweeted about how well the baby princess was sleeping. And a poll was posted on the YDR Web site:What should be the child's name?
* Aurora
* Princess Me No Wanna
* Sleeping Beauty
* Mara
Aurora was chosen by the online voters, and so began the story of Princess Aurora...
Take a crack at it yourself and then share your own high-tech fairytale!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Harry Kalas and inspired writing

Jeff and I were talking about Harry Kalas. The death of a baseball play-by-play announcer would not seem to rank among the most meaningful things in life, but somehow it does. I said, one of us in here ought to write something about why this matters.

Then Jeff told me to read Chris Otto's piece on 1A today, and when I did, I realized that someone already had -- beautifully.

I am having trouble finding Chris' piece online, so right now, and perhaps fittingly, you'll have to read it the old-fashioned way. Pick up the paper.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Best read with a drawl

A friend of mine from our days in Virginia called me this afternoon and just started reading me lines from this column by Ray Cox of the Roanoke Times about opening days in Baltimore and other venues: Chilly April baseball brings back memories.

We laughed, because Ray Cox is Ray Cox -- smart, observant, wry-witted and in love with the English language -- and it all comes through in what he writes. And as I said in the title, he's best read with a drawl, because then you're hearing him, too.

A sample:

"A saloon or crab joint was never too far from any inbound route. A trained nose could locate one, or both, usually in seconds, often in the same building. The suds-unlicensed places might consist of nothing more than a fat guy in an apron, a newspaper-covered table (the latest Baltimore Sun sports page had already been read) and a pile of steaming crustaceans."


"One recollection that won't lapse: Looking Cal Ripken Jr., in the eye for the first time in person. All I could think was how grateful I was never to have looked into a gaze like that from across a principal's desk.

Isn't that awful? Bad conscience. I'm sorry for it, too. The gentleman doesn't deserve that."

Ray pushes the language around to right near the point of overwriting. But, having worked with Ray for several years in Roanoke, I love this stuff.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Note on April 22 bagger

I'll bring this up at Amy's bagger tomorrow (the 8th), but:

Part of Amy's bagger will focus on the writing process, that all writers go through: You have an idea, you report, you focus your story, you organize your notes and your story, you write, and then you revise.

When Jacqui does her videoconference April 22, she plans to work with you on how you determine the focus of a story and how you organize your notes. She may ask some of you to explain your writing processes, and likely will drill down to a few "organizational/structural blueprints" that you can use in different writing situations.

So keep that in the back of your mind as Amy goes through the writing process and forensic editing.

Monday, April 6, 2009

'Brevity's Pull'

This was in the Sunday NYT. It's a thought provoking read about the resurgence of the short story. Brevity can get dumped on at times (just think of all the Twitter jokes you've heard), but almost all our greatest novelists excelled at it.

The best parts of this NYT review are at the end. It recognizes changes that are going on in our industry and the publishing world but manages to find a bright spot in it.

Here's my favorite line:

The death of the novel is yesterday’s news. The death of print may be tomorrow’s headline. But the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The only way to understand America

So I caught this interview on NPR with Evan Wright, the author of "Generation Kill," about his new collection, "Hella Nation." You get to learn about fun stuff like eco-warriors, extreme alienation and Barely Legal magazine.

Toward the end, Wright said TV news gets America wrong because essentially, it shows a fake Main Street. Just listen.

Since I heard this, I've been thinking a lot about how we frame stories and how often we settle for the standard description of a town or an occupation. If nothing else, let Wright remind you that nobody fits the mold.

Update: Videoconference workshops with Jacqui

We're solidifying the schedule and topics for the storytelling workshops with Jacqui Banaszynski, as well as some baggers Amy and I are going to do. Check the left rail under 'Coming up' for dates, times, presenter and topic.

Note that the first two are:

April 8, 4:30 p.m. -- Amy on the writing process and "forensic editing."

April 22, noon -- Jacqui on a deeper look at focusing and organizing, and how a conversation between reporter and editor can help.

We've set this up to be an integrated year-long schedule of workshops aimed at practical reporting/writing/editing skills: Amy or I will do a bagger; the following month, Jacqui's video workshop will drill deeper on some aspect of what Amy or I talked about. We've staggered the times between noon and 4:30 to give those who work early or late a chance to be in at least two sessions with Jacqui.

Jacqui's goal, she said in an e-mail as we were working on this, is to "provide real tools on very focused topics" so that you'll leave the session with concrete and practical things you can apply to your work.

It's gonna be great stuff, an opportunity few newsrooms will have.

As always, if there are some specific things you'd like covered in these sessions, let me know and we'll try to work them in.