Friday, September 24, 2010

Explanation fail

 You know how when experts give you a quote filled with jargon that you then have to turn into plain English if your reader has any hope of understanding what the person is saying? Mashable (apparently) attempted to do that when writing about yesterday's Facebook outage. Here is how the writer broke down what FB's engineer said:
 Johnson said the downtime today was caused by “an unfortunate handling of an error condition” involving an automated system designed to verify configuration values in the cache and replace invalid values with updated values from the persistent store.
What the ...? Does that mean anything to anyone? Granted, Mashable is a tech blog, and is probably read by tons of code-people who would ask what's wrong with me that I don't understand that. But to many people, that makes about as much sense as:
 Johnson said the downtime today was caused by “an unfortunate handling of an error condition” involving an ignoramus procedure designed to populate refrigeration cathedrals in the atmosphere and rejigger concomitant T-shirts with differentiated threads from the fiery earth.
 Couldn't Mashable have just said: Facebook said it ran a program to update information in its database, but something went wrong and too many computers tried to fix the problem at once and it crashed the system.

 I'm sure that's not exactly what happened ... but that's my point. The way Mashable wrote it, I don't know any more about what happened at FB today than I did yesterday.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hardcore investigative narrative

I've been reading this series from the L.A. Times called "Project 50: Four walls and a bed" about a program that inverts the usual theory about helping homeless people: Instead of working with the homeless to get them off drugs and help them get a job, then get housing, this program gives the homeless a small apartment in hopes that will help them overcome whatever else is wrong in their lives.

Christopher Goffard clearly did a mammoth amount of on-scene reporting for this, and you can imagine the tower of information (if not literal notebooks) he had when he sat down to write.

I admire a few things he's done here, and I think there are lessons to be taken and applied to many of the enterprise pieces we do or strive to do. These are things that you will hear about in many writing seminars, and I'll bet most if not all of you have heard them before. But it's important to see them in practice, and to try to deconstruct how they came to be the way they are:

1. There is a four-graf nut graf in part 1. But it fits seamlessly into the storytelling because of the transition from the scene, and because part of it is rendered as questions ... the very questions that led to the creation of the program, and the very questions the writer is telling you he's going to explore in the story. He's married investigation and storytelling here.

2. In any part after part 1 of a series, you have to clue the reader in to what's going on -- either to remind someone who read part 1 yesterday, or to introduce the story to a new reader. Look at how Goffard does that in part 2: A two-graf scene to open, a recap graf, then back to the subject in context of the whole project:

 To rescue the 50 people deemed most likely to die on the streets in skid row, Los Angeles County had a pragmatic plan: Give them an apartment and all the help they'd accept, requiring little in return — not sobriety, not meetings, not psychiatric drugs.
 Livingston and a handful of others posed the most extreme test of Project 50's premise. Merely living among others, with a modicum of structure and social rules, was proving a steep demand, considering what accompanied the hardest cases indoors: untreated mental illness and ferociously solitary habits formed by decades in the city's dope dens.
"If we can succeed with him — oh, my goodness," said the program's director, Carrie Bach. "If we can do him, we can do anybody."
 Scene-setting, intro of main character, tie-back to narrative story and establishment of conflict in the current story -- all in five grafs. Pretty good stuff.

     3. This is, as I said before, really an investigative piece at heart, but it never feels like one. It feels like a story. As it should. 

If anyone else reads this (or has read it) let me know what you got out of it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

When feedback zigs instead of zags

Whenever we write, whether we admit it or not, we want to know what people -- could be your editor, could be your source, could be your reader, or any/all of them -- want to think about what we wrote. I started thinking about that this afternoon after I dug around in a couple of notebooks I've used whenever I've gone to a writing seminar and came across some interesting thoughts from Jan Winburn, the great editor formerly with the Baltimore Sun and more recently the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (though I'm not sure she's still there).

At the '99 Nieman narrative writing conference, she talked about a couple of serial narratives the Sun had done. One was on a woman who survived two bouts with cancer and the death of a child, before her illness progressed and she had six months to live. The story was about how she wanted her baby to know who her mom was. Reaction for the first couple days was negative, then turned more positive as the series went on.

And she talked about Ken Fuson's piece on the high schoolers putting on "West Side Story" -- which remains one of the most enjoyable pieces of nonfiction I've ever read -- and she said that the reaction to that was pretty much the same: some negative, some positive.

I'm not saying that's a universal response to narratives, but when readers respond like that, why do you think that is? Do you have stories about reaction like that to a piece you did? What did people like or not like about your piece? How do you deal with negative reaction to a story you believe in?

Monday, September 13, 2010

In case you're going to the UK in February ...

I added a couple of feeds to this blog in the past couple days, one of them being anything tagged "storytelling" in I saw this and thought it was cool: There's an event called "The Story" in London on Feb. 18.

It bills itself as "a one-day conference about stories and story-telling ...

"The Story will be a celebration of everything that is wonderful, inspiring and awesome about stories, in whatever medium possible. We’re hoping to have stories that are written, spoken, played, described, enacted, whispered, projected, orchestrated, performed, printed – whatever form stories come in, we hope to have them here.

"The Story is not about theories of stories, or making money from stories, but about the sheer visceral pleasure of telling a story."

 I don't know. This event may have to become this blog's unofficial mascot or something.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

9/11 storytelling

Did anyone come across any strong storytelling related to the Sept. 11 anniversary? I didn't have much time to scour sites for good stories, but I did come across this audiovisual explanatory piece by the New York Times on how the World Trade Center memorial is taking shape, what will be there, what it means and how it's all being put together. Really good stuff.

If you came across any good storytelling today, please share.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Character sketch in reverse

A book of essays on sports by David Halberstam includes a piece he wrote in 2002 about getting an interview with Ted Williams, legendary as a hitter, fighter pilot in WW2 and fisherman, and for a loud, profane, over-the-top personality.

To capture Williams' character, you might craft the piece around it, for example, using description, word choice, tone and all those tools to give the whole piece the feel of being of Williams; or you might devote a couple of strong grafs near the top to a character sketch and let Williams' dialogue and actions flesh it out.

But in this piece, Halberstam does something fantastic: By careful use of the language and of sentence construction, he creates a formal, reserved, almost high-society world that Williams then crashes into without grace or finesse. Williams is the bull; the story is Halberstam's china shop. It's characterization in reverse.

An example:

My appointment with Mr. Theodore Williams of the Islamorada, Fla., Williams family had been agreed on well in advance, though we had not yet talked to each other. That is normal in matters of this gravity, and our earlier arrangements had been conducted through intermediaries.
My representative had been Mr. Robert M. Knight of Bloomington, Ind., who, in addition to being my occasional appointments secretary, is coach to the Indiana University basketball team. Mr. Knight, on occasion, has had troubles with members of the press himself, and was almost as celebrated as Mr. Williams in this regard. ....
I arrived well in advance at the motel where Mr. Williams would call on me, and I was told he would come by at eight the next morning to summon me to our meeting. The motel itself was not exactly memorable. Simpler America, vintage 1950s southern Florida, I would say, if architecture were my specialty, which it is not. But I do remember that the cost of it for the night was roughly what the cost of orange juice is at a hotel in the city in which I live, New York.
At exactly 8 o'clock in the morning there was an extremely loud knock on my door. I answered it, and there was Mr. Williams, and he looked me over critically and then announced, ''You look just like your goddamn pictures.''