Friday, December 21, 2012

Journalists in Newtown: The human story

Visual journalist Chris Dunn brought this magnet back
 for her editor, Eileen Joyce. It's on the side of Eileen's desk,
 and is a visual connection of the YDR's newsroom to Newtown.
The York Daily Record has sent several staffers to Newtown, Conn. to help the New Haven Register cover the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting there. They've encountered some anti-media sentiment, but, as they have approached their difficult jobs with sensitivity and humanity, they have also found a welcoming community.

 And they have written about their experiences:

All too often, I take the “get-in, get-out” approach to journalism.
I get it done, crank out the story, and move onto the next thing.
I don’t ask people about their days or their plans for the holidays.
But you have to in a situation like this. You have to be kind, be human.
You have to show a genuine interest in the things people are saying and put the notepad away. Tell them you wish it never happened.

I’ve been back in York for a full day now, and normalcy is not a thing yet. I went into work today to do some paperwork and participate in the holiday potluck and secret Santa gift exchange, but it all felt strange and foreign. Jeff and I are planning a weekend trip to Philadelphia — which had been our original plan for last weekend — and I mean to bake Christmas cookies, but it’s hard for me to focus on anything.
And yet, I was there for only four full days. I neither knew nor met any of the victims’ families. I never set foot inside a funeral service or wake, and I met only one person who personally knew a victim.
How or whether the people of Newtown and Sandy Hook will fully heal, I’m not sure. But I can say this: It is a strong, close-knit community, and even in a time of immense sorrow, the people are among the kindest, most polite I have ever met.

I started Wednesday covering Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung’s wake. The anxiety quickly disappeared after the first two people I interviewed thanked me for covering the story.
Everywhere we turn, my colleagues and I are confronted by gracious souls. Last night, one of the cleaning women at our hotel thanked YDR reporter Rebecca LeFever for her efforts. A psychologist staying here offered her services if anyone on staff needed grief counseling.
There is much more insight in each of these posts. All of them are well worth your time.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Denver Joe Arridy was the happiest man on death row - Westword

Just finished this. It's worth a look.

via Pocket

You've probably never read a novel this way

Fans of action-driven narrative storytelling should check this out. Buffy has broken down her novel into tweets. Should be quite a ride:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The deer hunter who shot 'Pink 23': Letting the story unfold

I like what Teresa Boeckel did with the story about the hunter who shot "Pink 23," the doe that escaped from a farm where chronic wasting disease had been discovered.

She started the story at the moment the hunter spotted the deer, and let the story unfold at a natural pace, to the point where the hunter realized that it was "Pink 23." And then Teresa used three short (and decreasing in length) sentences to describe the hunter taking out the deer.

Nicely done -- and a much better read than what would have resulted with some other possible approaches to the story.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Spielberg at Gettysburg on Lincoln, history and justice

Steven Spielberg gave the keynote address during Dedication Day at Soldiers' National Cemetery at the Gettysburg National Military Park. At the beginning of the clip, Stephen Spielberg thanks the men and women serving in the armed forces today. At 2 minutes he talks about keeping company with Lincoln's ghost, and how, if he misses Lincoln, he can just call Daniel Day-Lewis and ask him to tell a story. At 5:10, Spielberg talks about the importance of history, memory and justice.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ever seen something like this?

Here's a new one: A story (a review, actually) that is 100 percent questions.

It definitely works for me -- although it goes on and on. You might feel like the reviewer's point has been made about halfway through or so, and the rest is the reviewer making sure you know that he ate (or tried to eat) a lot of stuff.

Anyway ... can you think of any other types of stories for which this approach would work?

The reviewer, Pete Wells of The New York Times, explains how he did the story in this post on Poynter.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

'I need to keep writing'

YDR managing editor Randy Parker called our attention to this blog post at a meeting the other day. It's by a member of our staff, Stacia Fleegal, about giving birth to her son almost three months before the due date.

Randy said it was a compelling read. He was right.

Monday, October 8, 2012

I read something this morning and felt like I'd received a gift

I read a lot. And I read a lot of personal writing -- essays, columns or first-person accounts of something or other, stuff like that.

And I like to think that I recognize honesty in that type of writing, and can gauge when someone's going through the motions, or trying but not really getting there, or unreservedly opening themselves up and standing before me, the reader.

But every now and then I read something that makes me realize I give a lot of writers a pass. I read something that is so bracing, so true, it's pleasantly startling. It is a gift from the writer.

This morning I read Steve Navaroli's column, "Taking a break to battle cancer." Steve, a YDR sports staffers, writes columns as part of his job. But he's never written one like this.

I know Steve as part of our staff here; he's universally known as a good guy. I don't know him well personally.

But I know him better now. Through his act of writing, of honesty and with a perfect sense of an emotional moment, he gave me that gift.

Thanks, Steve. Count me among those looking forward to your return.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book collects best work of young writers

Ah,well. This is a book you'd want to pick up or download: A collection of work from "The Next Wave" of literary journalists.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Quiet video for a quiet subject

In the sometimes-less-is-more department, I give you this video from Kate Penn on Darnell Rias, the former Marine that she and Mike Argento have been following as he rebuilds his post-war life. Rias suffered a broken back and brain injury in Afghanistan, and has PTSD, but he is moving forward by going to college and getting his own apartment.

Rias is quiet and soft-spoken, but you can hear a lot inside his words. Kate's video is quiet, too, and paced to let you hear Rias' determination and hope.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Storytelling without a classic 'nut graf'

Many times -- most times, perhaps -- we write stories so that early on, they deliver a strong "nut graf," or the answer to the reader's question of, "Why am I reading this?" That nut graf can take various forms: It's constructed differently in a straight news story than it is in a feature, for example.

But Ashley May wrote this story, about people who live at a motel, a little differently. As we worked on the story, we talked about wanting to tell a story without that classic, anchoring paragraph. Our reasoning: It wasn't a news story and wasn't a trend story; it's a human story that's happening in our community. We wanted to lay down enough markers early in the story to make it clear what readers would be getting, but we wanted the story to develop without the classic nut graf.

But copy editor Dan Rorabaugh, on his first read of the piece, felt like it didn't deliver enough on what the story was about or why a reader should care to read it.

His points were good. So Ashley and I talked, and worked on meeting Dan halfway -- we tried to strengthen those markers to make sure the reader knew why the piece was worth reading, and hint at what they'd get out of the story.

Read the piece and let us know how we did.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Writing short: It's about what you say

That is so true. I think when we talk about inch counts for stories -- I'm mostly thinking about projects or enterprise pieces, but it really holds for any story -- reporters can interpret that as quality reduction: If I could write 10 more inches, or 20, or 30, my story would be that much better. But if I can only write x-amount, my story's only going to be so good.

There are reasons to write longer, sometimes. But Murray's wisdom, as Clark notes, tells us it's not about the space you use to say something, it's about what you say in that space.

Friday, September 14, 2012

And then, every once a while, you get a letter like this

The YDR newsroom, like every newsroom, is used to taking criticism from readers. 

But sometimes you get a letter, even a short one, that reads like a bouquet of flowers.

 A little while ago, we got this one:

"Dear Sir,

I just wanted to drop a note to let you know how much I appreciate the York Daily Record and the articles that I read every Sunday. Each one of the writers does a wonderful job at description within the articles, bringing the reader into the story.

Keep up the wonderful work,

Emily Hack
Thomasville, Pa."

We try. And thank you kindly.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Good reads: A next-day news obit shines

I'm not sure anyone does a next-day news obituary story like Mike Argento. I'm thinking of this piece on the death of York community activist Dorrie Leader, reported and written in a day.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Fiction, one episode at a time

There's something really intriguing about this idea: A publishing house that delivers works of fiction to your e-device one installment, or episode, at a time. It's called Plympton and they're running a Kickstarter fundraising project. They're doing it, they say, "for the future of reading."

I feel like this would be more fun that having the entire National Geographic issue show up on my Kindle Fire (and mind you, I love NG, but it's a tough read on a 7-inch tablet).

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A song's story

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Visual storytelling: The day in photos at Penn State coach Bill O'Brien's first game

The Daily Record/Sunday News is reporting on a new era in Penn State football in a million ways -- among them, of course, visually. Here are collected images that, if you were to look at no other coverage of today's events -- could tell the story by themselves.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

An ex-Marine reflects: Two stories in one

As part of the national online project American Homecomings, photographer Kate Penn and columnist Mike Argento are following West York's Darnell Rias for a year as he builds his post-war life.

Recently, Kate and Mike went with Rias to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Rias welcomed home his good friend, Lance Cpl. Harley Philhower.

Because I'm working with Mike on the text version of the story, Kate's video is always fresh to me. I'm always fascinated at how a writer and a visual artist work together-but-separately -- they're on assignment together, so there's a teamwork aspect to it, but neither wants to tell exactly the same story as the other.

In this case, Mike's story focuses on the (mild) suspense of Rias meeting Philhower, exchanging scenes of anticipation with background that fills out the military friendship part of their story. Kate's video has the reunion, too, but it left me thinking about how wistful Rias is when he's talking about his time in the Marines (even when he talks about feeling like he had to cut his hair to go back to Camp Lejeune).

They are complementary pieces, each of which tells an important part of Rias' story.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Poynter, Roy Peter Clark introduce an app to help writers

For those of you with iPads, this is pretty cool. And the way it's structured seems intuitive to how you think when you're writing (and/or how you would ask for help).

Thursday, July 19, 2012

War books

I mentioned to Mike Argento, who's writing a great narrative following a West York Marine as he rebuilds his post-war life, that I was reading Sebastian Junger's book "War" and how great I thought it was.

He asked if I'd read "Generation Kill" by Evan Wright. I hadn't. I had said I liked the way Junger connected the experiences of the soldiers he was following to broader themes -- men at war, fear, courage, and so on. Mike, who had just started to read "War," said that was fine and he liked Junger's book too, but he liked that Wright's book was all story -- it kept you in the moment.

Of course, both ways are effective. Several times, Junger uses his subjects' experiences to work up to cliffhangers, from which he departs to write about the larger issue. You're fascinated by his exploration of the issue and you keep reading to find out what happened after the cliffhanger.

Wright's way, as Mike noted, just delivers the story, keeps the writer out of the way and lets you bring your own interpretations. I'm sure I'll find that out soon, as "Generation Kill" was waiting for me at my desk this morning, a loaner courtesy of Mike.

Do you have a preference for how to tell a narrative similar to these, or how you prefer to read one?

Bonus for this post: Trailer from the documentary "Restrepo," which Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington produced after their tour with the same soldiers they covered in "War":

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Profile captures link from movie director's roots to his latest film

A friend of mine passed along this L.A. Times feature on Adam Shankman, director of the film 'Rock of Ages.' The piece captures the nostalgia that's partly responsible for Shankman, who directed 'Hairspray,' taking on another rock musical.


Filmmaker Adam Shankman is posing for a photographer on the corner of San Vicente and Sunset at 10 a.m., trying to give his best rock 'n' roll face, though he readily admits his edge is as sharp as a butter knife. "Yeah, I'm so rock 'n' roll," says the man behind populist movies including "Hairspray" and "The Pacifier" but who's perhaps best known as a judge and choreographer on Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance." "I'm a little Jew from Brentwood."
A moment later, a drug-addled homeless man puts his arm around Shankman. He wants to join the photo. Shankman brushes him off as gracefully as possible. "Dead cockroaches and a meth addict," he says. "What a great way to start the day."
Despite the bleak reality of the Strip, Shankman, 47, has a deep fondness for the boulevard. To him, it's not just the place that launched the Doors, made pink-Corvette driving Angelyne the first reality superstar and was home to the famed Tower Records — it's where he came of age in the late '70s and early '80s.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Finding an ending when the ending isn't obvious

Houston Schwartz watches as his father, Matt, gives him Tylenol.
This package by YDR staffers Leigh Zaleski and Chris Dunn is one of the best art/story packages we've published this year.

There's a compelling storyline, evocative photography and writing that deftly navigates that space between maudlin and clinical.

From the opening of the story:

Matt Schwartz sat in a mahogany rocking chair in his mother's basement in April, leafing through a 3-inch binder of medical papers.His son Houston, then 5 months old, lay next to him under bee-and-teddy-bear mobiles in a light wooden crib. A bag of formula hung beside the baby on a metal IV pole and fed him through a tube directly into his stomach. A scar on his chest marked where his ribs were cracked during two open-heart surgeries.
He weighed 8 pounds 4 ounces, half of what he should for an infant his age. Breathing tubes clung to his face. A glowing red light, taped to his left foot, monitored his pulse.
A poster on the wall detailed how to give an infant CPR.
Sunlight and signs of spring peeked through a small window, shining life on Houston in the dim room lit by two fluorescent bulbs.

One of the challenges of the story was how and where to end it. In many cases, a story like this ends when the child dies or is cured (even if temporarily). In this case, we knew neither of those were likely to happen during the time frame we had set for our story to run.

So, Leigh wrote an ending that showed Matt Schwartz pulled between his desire to do everything he can to keep his son alive and the knowledge that at some point, he will have to stop. Once Leigh had that ending, there was the question of: How do we give people the very latest information on Houston and Matt? We settled on the epilogue -- spare but, we hope, in keeping with the emotion of the piece.

IRE conference links, plus a new blog to check out

This post is a two-fer: You get links to resources from Investigative Reporters & Editors' recent national conference, and you get to check out former YDR staffer Melissa Nann Burke's Tumblr blog.

 Looks like she started it a couple weeks ago and already has a bunch of interesting stuff on there, a lot of it writing-related.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

'Dragged by the claws of civic duty ...'

Lauren Boyer and I started by wondering how people deal with being blindsided by victory when they find out they've been elected, by write-in votes, to a position they never intended to fill.

We ended with this probing look at this vexing political problem:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why did this simple story about an apology become so much more?

If you haven't read Tom Hallman's story in The Oregonian about a man who tried very hard to apologize to a teacher for something that had happened years earlier, please do. It's a great story. It's emotional and it will resonate with everyone who reads it in a very personal way.

Here are some great thoughts from Maria Carillo, a great narrative story editor who is managing editor of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, about what makes Hallman's story so good, via Nieman Storyboard.

From Maria: "Tom's story ... has a level of intimacy that we should strive for as journalists. What stops us?"

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pleasures of a different kind of writing

I'm writing a story memo.

It might seem odd, but this is actually one of the best parts of my job, mostly because of everything that came before it -- the idea, the reporting, the talking with reporters -- and what will come after it -- the revising and the hard work that will produce a great story.

But I also love it because doing a story memo makes me think harder about a story, and about the people who are working on it, than I do at any other point in the editing process.

I usually do them only for big projects, or when it feels like writing one would help the story get to where it needs to be. Any editors out there do story memos? Any reporters like/hate getting them? Why?

Friday, May 4, 2012

What I learned: Frank Bodani on rolling with the unexpected

Frank Bodani's column about former NFL star Rosey Grier grieving for his deceased wife was part of an entry that won second place in sports columns in the Keystone Awards competition.

The column starts in an unusual place: The opening moments of conversation after Rosey returned Frank's call when Frank was at home. Here is Frank on how that came about:

In writing about Penn State legend Rosey Grier, I was reminded again about not losing candid reporting moments in your story, if possible. Rosey returned my call several days later, and out of the blue. It caught me by surprise, and so I ran with that. I used our reactions to each other, our conversation, to help tell my story and make my point.
And since this was a column, I hoped doing that would also lure readers. Here was a conversation with a man so many people idolized or simply knew for so many exploits. Someone they had forgotten and could remember again.
I wanted people to relate to Rosey now, so I just let the conversation flow. I didn't get in the way.

Friday, April 20, 2012

What I learned: Bill Landauer on letting sources talk

We've all heard that interviewing tip: In conversation, human beings are uncomfortable with silence and often will say something to break the silence. Here's how that played out for Bill Landauer, who worked with Teresa Boeckel and Sean Adkins on Are we ready, which won first place in investigative reporting (Division II) at the Keystone Press Awards.
During the Are We Ready project, I learned from Teresa Boeckel the importance of letting someone talk in an interview. I've never been sure if it's just instinct or if she's aware she's doing it, but when Teresa asks questions afterward she just stops talking and stares at the subject for a few moments, even at the end of a conversation. People like me are quick to want to insert language into an uncomfortable silence, but as we interviewed our local emergency team, Teresa stopped talking, and eventually someone would restate something they'd said, but in a more clarifying or telling way.
What other interviewing tips to you have? (And check out all entries in the "What I learned" series.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What I learned: John Hilton on avoiding cliches

YDR staffers who won Keystone Awards learned about everything from blending in to dealing with roadblocks to having difficult conversations with sources. Religion reporter John Hilton's story about the result of a fire at a local church was part of a Thanksgiving-day series on people who were thankful even though they'd lost something or experienced a difficult time. It won first place in special projects in the Keystone Awards.
This story came about soon after an exercise on trite writing in which the entire newsroom participated. We were shown a photo and asked to write 150-200 words in the most trite phrases we could produce. Competitive as I am, I was determined to win the gift card at stake. And I can admit now that I cheated a bit, searching the web for trite words and phrases to boost my entry.
I didn't win the gift card, but I gained a new insight into predictable writing. To this day, I am thinking about that exercise with every story I write. I force myself to try new words and phrases and to avoid the tritest of the trite. Sometimes the results are rejected by an editor, but it's still a good learning exercise.
I love John's effort to avoid cliches even if it means trying a word or phrase that doesn't work. Why settle for writing the same old stuff everyone else is writing?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What I learned: Bill Landauer on observation

Bill Landauer's story Doc rodeo won honorable mention for personality profile in the Keystone Press Awards. (Jason Plotkin's art was pretty dang good, too.) In another installment about what YDR staffers took from their honored work, here's Bill about what he learned while doing that story:
 The Doc Rodeo story reinforced why often as a reporter you need to just shut up and keep your eyes open. Most of that story came from watching, not from questioning. Doug Olle, the physical therapist, had access to the ring that Jason and I didn't have. We were allowed to hang with him on the sidelines, but we couldn't go into the ring. So we interviewed him first for a few minutes, then ran around trying to keep up with him, running in and out of exits and dodging bull calfs to watch him watching the riders. We could chat with him, but he was busy. Hours into the rodeo, he seemed to forget we were there, so after he sewed up a guy's mangled chin, we got to watch him talking shop and relating to the cowboys on a personal level, which was what we were hoping for.
 Observing and taking good notes, and then deciding to use just the best of those descriptive notes in your story, is a key to excellent work. (Plus, it can give you good material to use if your subject isn't talkative, or if you don't have a lot of time together). Anyone else have a good story to share about how observation played a role in a story?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What I learned: Kate Penn on sound

More shared wisdom from York Daily Record/Sunday News staffers whose work was recently honored in the Keystone Awards. Photographer Kate Penn won first place in the video storytelling category for her video "Equine smile restoration." From Kate:
This video reinforced the knowledge that sound really drives video. "Equine Smile Restoration" features the sound of grinding horse teeth, whinnies and coaxing. These sounds layer with the subject's smooth voice telling his compelling story of being laid off and changing careers. This video reminds me that if you slow down and take the time to capture compelling audio, the story can tell itself. Also, people love weird animal stories.
Maybe that last line is all you really need to know about this one. But seriously ... you can see how Kate's attraction to the sounds she encountered, and her decision to use that sound to help build the video, paid off. What sensory things do you encounter in your work that you can use to help tell stories?

What I learned: Chris Dunn on blending in

Photographer Chris Dunn won second place in the photo story category of the Keystone Awards for Football fanfare. Here's her insight, adding to our collection of what our staffers learned from working on their winning entries. From Chris:
Shooting a photo package about one Friday night football game at West York meant I had to “embed” myself with the football players, the cheerleaders, the fans, the coaching staff, the marching band, everybody. Photographers have to be able to blend in effortlessly and gain enough trust from the people they’re photographing. So covering all these aspects of the game and the before-and-after was a good exercise not only in trying to show what a high school football game demands of everybody involved, but also in having to work with a lot of people in not a lot of time.
I'm always amazed to hear photographers talk about becoming inconspicuous, given that they're usually draped with equipment and often right in the middle of whatever they're shooting. What tips do you have for blending in?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

What I learned: Leigh Zaleski on finding connections

Latest post in an effort to collect and share some wisdom from staffers whose work was recently honored in the Keystone Awards. Features reporter Leigh Zaleski won first place in the feature beat reporting category. Her beat entry: Food. From Leigh:
People have various connections to food. Other than sustenance, it might be their passion, livelihood, heritage, joy or enemy. On this beat, I sought to draw such connections, looking deep to find meaning and understand what role food played in each story. I learned that while details in stories are different, people share similar relationships to food. Being aware of and striving to portray those relationships helped me to become a better storyteller.
 I love the thought process that began with "other than sustenance..." and allowed Leigh to think about -- and then find stories about -- how food means different things to different people. Who else has a beat or a topic they cover that offers such opportunities for connections?

What I learned: Erin McCracken on difficult conversations

Third take on what our staffers learned from pieces they worked on that recently won Keystone Awards. Erin McCracken won first place in the feature story category for Fighting to conceive, about an obese couple trying to have a child. From Erin:

I learned to navigate uncomfortable conversations. I had to ask the Flickingers about their weight, menstrual cycles, sexual history, etc. At times, they were hesitant to answer. But at our first meeting, we agreed on why the story mattered: It might help the Flickingers find a solution and/or help others with similar struggles. When things got dicey, I reminded them about that goal to shift their focus from what they were sharing to why they were sharing it. 
Great advice to anyone who struggles -- and if you're in this business, you inevitably will -- to help people feel  comfortable, or at least willing, to share the kind of sensitive, personal information that resonates with readers. Anyone else have any success stories like Erin's?

Friday, April 13, 2012

What I learned: Sean Adkins on roadblocks

Second installment from our staff's Keystone Award winners on what they learned. Business reporter Sean Adkins was part of a team that won first place in investigative reporting for "Are we ready?" -- a look at evacuation plans, and their weak spots, for Three Mile Island and Peach Bottom nuclear power plants.

One of the most difficult tasks in telling a good story is weaving hard facts together with a strong narrative. Even more challenging is to persuade sources to give you important information amid the backdrop of a national story.
     We started reporting the "Are We Ready?" package weeks after the Fukushima disaster in Japan.  Initially, my nuclear sources were quick to point out that such a crisis befalling either Three Mile Island or Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station was remote.
      Once those interviews were in my notebook, those same sources appeared a bit skittish about speaking any further on the subject.  My guess is that they were simply waiting for that particular news cycle to expire.
   In one case, a source took issue with the fact that I reported, at the time, emergency sirens surrounding one of the nuclear-powered plants did not have a battery back-up. That source questioned why I hadn't focused on the most positive aspects of a recent meeting that found favor with the plant's operating record.
    The information about sirens made it into the "Are We Ready" package.
    Would my source have been more accepting of my reporting/questions if Fukushima had not taken place?   I don't know.  Maybe.
As I recall, Sean (and Teresa Boeckel and Bill Landauer, the other reporters on the project) kept going back to sources until they got what they needed. Persistence pays.

What I learned: John Clayton on trust

 The York Daily Record/Sunday News won 22 Keystone Awards in judging announced Thursday; many of those were writing/reporting awards, and by many different staffers.

I asked those staffers if they'd tell me, in 50-75 words, something they learned about storytelling (or generally about writing or photography/visual work) as they worked on the piece that was honored; or how they are trying to be better storytellers now than they were a year ago.

I'll share them on the blog as they come in with the hope that they create a kind of online roundtable about what we can learn from doing great work.

 Here's sports reporter John Clayton. He won first place in the sports story category for Stand strong, a profile of William Penn football player Anderson Novalin, who grew up in Haiti.

To me, this story reinforced the importance of trust. Anderson had seen some awful things in Haiti -- dead bodies, people being killed, etc. -- and he had to trust me before he was going to share them. I had to put in time ... Anderson was pretty shy during our first sit down. But over time he opened up, and I was able to get the important events/scenes that made the story work.

 An excellent point about earning the trust of the person you're working with to help make a story deep and true. Anyone else have a similar experience to share?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

David Sedaris on writing: ‘Write every day ... with a pen that’s shaped like a candy cane’

Bestselling author David Sedaris is coming to York Tuesday, April 17. He’ll read and talk about his writing at 7:30 p.m. After the program, he’ll sign books and chat with fans. Get details and tickets.

Sedaris got his big break in 1992 when he read his funny holiday essay "SantaLand Diaries" on NPR. Since then, he’s written seven books and short story collections. If you’re a writer or possess a sense of humor, you should read some Sedaris, if only to study his style.

During an April 3 phone interview, I chatted with Sedaris about his career and experience living abroad. Read the interview. But the conversation inevitably turned to writing. (You can’t fault me for trying to get some free advice!) Here is some of his (serious and playful) advice:

On voice:

Sedaris started writing when he was 20, mostly through diary entries. He said it was where he developed his voice. His humorous observations became the subject of many of his stories. Sedaris said he tries to maintain his voice regardless if he’s writing a book that millions will read or just jotting down something in his diary, which, for now, only he will view.

"I would die if anyone read it," he said of his diary. "I said to (my boyfriend) Hugh, ‘If I die, you can read it. There is nothing in there I haven’t said to your face at one point or another.’ "

On self-editing:

Like many writers, I sometimes spend way too much time analyzing a word or sentence. Sedaris said he’s even more meticulous. His pet peeve is repeating words. He tries to vary his phrases. He said that during his speaking tour this spring, he’ll probably spend a lot of time reading his new stories aloud in his hotel room.

"My editor says I’m being too hard on myself," Sedaris said. "I want to perfect these stories."

On giving advice to aspiring "writers":

Sedaris said he meets a lot of people who "decide one day that they’re going to be writers." He gets letters and clips from college and high school students. Sometimes, they claim to be in the Sedaris style.

"I’ve never written the word ‘gonna,’ " Sedaris pointed out. "(With) beginning writers, it’s so clunky ... and unbalanced. That’s normal. One thing that beginners don’t understand is that there is a rhythm to it."

Sedaris said that his biographical stories are probably not any funnier or weirder or better than anyone else's.

"There are 35 years of writing behind it," he said. "I think maybe that’s one of the differences."

Everyone starts somewhere, Sedaris said. He added that if he goes back to read his early writing he would "never stop throwing up."

Sedaris encounters even more people who want to pump him on information about how to become a famous, published author. That, too, makes him queasy.

"There is such a difference between wanting to write and wanting to get books published," he said.

Read, read, read:
"People who write have to read other people’s writing," Sedaris said. If not, he added, "you can’t grow. You need to know what else is out there."

His recommendation: "Write every day and read everything you can get your hands on. Write everyday ... with a pen that’s shaped like a candy cane."

Sedaris said that if you find a voice you like, experiment with that style. But don’t try to be a carbon copy. He said that he loved Raymond Carver’s use of short, simple sentences.

"I got his book in the library and I thought, ‘I can do this,’ " he said. "Oh, God. It’s so much harder."

Sedaris said that when he edits early drafts of stories, he can tell if he’s been reading a strong stylist like Joan Didion.

"(I became) aware of how good I wasn’t," Sedaris said of his writing. "I had things to compare it to."

On realizing his passion:

In his late 20s, Sedaris attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"I met people who were actually profoundly talented at visual art," he said. "I realized ... I’m a hard worker, but I’m not really talented. These people think about art every moment they’re awake. And I think about art for 45 minutes every day. I thought about writing the rest of the time."

Saturday, April 7, 2012

'Is this your first Kinkade?'

Some things just blindside me. For example, an artist named Thomas Kinkade just died. This was apparently big news. And in one of the stories, I read a line that said it was estimated that a Kinkade painting was hanging in one of every 20 U.S. homes.

I'd never heard of the guy. 

So naturally, when a Susan Orlean profile of Kinkade from 2001 showed up in my Feedly, it became my lunchtime reading.

What a reward. Orlean's use of detail and dialogue creates a profile of Kinkade before you actually meet him in the story. And when you do meet him, she lets him characterize himself with long, interview-y quotes that might not work were they not set up so well. 

But the greatest parts, I think, are Orlean's descriptions. A gallery, she writes, is set up to make you feel like "you had entered Thomas Kinkade's world, where it is always a dusky autumn evening in a small but prosperous English town."

 Kinkade paintings, she writes, are difficult to tell apart "because their effect is so unvarying -- smooth and warm and romantic, not quite fantastical but not quite real, more of a wishful and inaccurate rendering of what the world looks like, as if painted by someone who hadn't been outside in a long time."

 Of Kinkade himself, she writes: "If you see his paintings before you meet him, you might expect him to be wispy and pixie-like, but he is as brawny and good-natured as the neighborhood butcher. He has the buoyant self-assurance of someone who started poor and obscure but has always been sure he would end up rich and famous."

Go read for yourself. It's time well-spent.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What to believe?

I'm a big fan of This American Life. I didn't hear the Mike Daisey episode and I haven't listened to the TAL retraction of it that's all over the news right now.

But I just read this piece in Poynter that, in one sense, raises questions that could hold TAL accountable for its work, and in another (especially the last line), seems to come right up to the edge of accusing TAL of passing of fiction as fact.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Instant fiction reading list

I thought this was cool. Ryan Sholin (@RyanSholin on Twitter) asked Twitter followers for modern classic fiction recommendations. Then he turned the responses into a list via Storify.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Podcast: Ben Montgomery and Michael Kruse of Tampa Bay Times talk about narrative storytelling

Good stuff here via Kevin Pang of the Chicago Tribune and his writing podcast. He asks Montgomery and Kruse questions like, "What interests you," and "What makes your story radar go off?"

Friday, February 17, 2012

A workplace tale in 3 post-it notes

Discovered in the lunchroom. We've all been here at some point, haven't we?

Creative storytelling in a routine situation

Events like news conferences, unveilings, groundbreakings, check presentations and the like are big deals to the people involved in them, but they are usually only marginally newsworthy, if at all, in and of themselves. 

In other words, for example, if the project that people are breaking ground for really is a big deal, we don't want to photograph and report on several people holding shovels and lifting up the first scoops of dirt; we want to report and photograph the project work itself. 

So, watch the video that goes with this story. It's great creative visual journalism from Jason Plotkin. He goes to a news conference about a project, at which a new sign is to be unveiled, and he tells the story of the guys who have to take the tarp off the sign. The result is great fun -- in no small part because the guys totally played along. 

It's a classic example of how to tell a fresh story out of a routine news event.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Writing that makes you swoon

This has to be one of the best passages of writing I've read in long time. It's from Chris Jones' piece in Esquire about the Zanesville, Ohio guy, Terry Thompson, who let his exotic animals loose and then killed himself. Just the precision in the reporting and writing is amazing here, especially in the middle paragraph of these three.

The story starts with the landowner next door Sam Kopchak, who went out into his field to get his horse Red in for the evening, and first saw Thompson's horses acting strangely, then saw a bear chasing them, and then:

Now he approached Red, reaching out with his bucket of water, calling to him gently. Red nosed in for a drink, and Kopchak got a rope on him. He put down the bucket and began to lead his horse back toward the barn. He'd covered maybe twenty or thirty yards, Red bouncing a little, pulling at his rope, when Kopchak suddenly felt a shiver go over him. "I can't really explain it," he says today, "except to say that I felt like I was being watched." He looked back toward Thompson's band of horses; the bear was pushing them north, toward the highway. Then Kopchak saw the lion.

It was a male African lion, with a great golden mane. "It was just enormous," Kopchak says. The lion was to his left, feet rather than yards away, pressed against that thin wire fence. It was lying flat on the grass with only its giant head lifted up, and it had been watching Kopchak walking down the hill. The lion was looking dead at him. Kopchak let out a breath and fixed his eyes straight on his barn, still more than a hundred yards away. He made two decisions: He would not run, and he would not leave Red. He would walk, as calmly and as steadily as a sixty-four-year-old retired schoolteacher being watched by a lion could manage, all the way back down to his barn.

Kopchak looked back only once, and the lion returned his stare. It had also risen to its feet. The fence had seven strands of wire strung between its wooden posts; the lion's back ran parallel to the second strand from the top. Kopchak continued to walk down the hill. Each push into the mud felt slower than the last. Finally, he opened the barn's big sliding doors and stepped inside with Red in tow; he closed the doors with a clang and felt his shoulders slump a little. He put Red into his stall, and he reached into his pocket for his cell phone. Reception wasn't good. He stood in a corner of the barn closest to the house, and he called his mother. He told her that he was inside the barn, and that there was a bear and a lion outside the barn, and she needed to stay inside the house. She also needed to make a phone call.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

I think I've discovered my new favorite writing blog

It's not a how-to or tips blog, or a blog that links to great stories. "Letters of Note" says it "is an attempt to gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos.

So far, I've read one from a freed slave responding to his ex-master's job offer, and one from E.B. White responding to the ASPCA when it accused him of owning an unlicensed dog.

It's really interesting writing that you might not come across unless someone like Shaun Usher was finding and collecting them.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How do you set up a narrative? Like this

This is an old story I came across the other day, but I wanted to pass it along because it has one of the best opening sections I've read in a while. "The Accused," by Paige Williams, starts at that one vital moment in time, and ends by ushering you into what the story is really about.

Monday, January 30, 2012

'Whiskey Robber' about to be free

If you read "Ballad of the Whiskey Robber," you'll know what this is about. If you didn't, you gotta read it. Great, great book. GREAT book.

P.S. Since I couldn't embed the tweet with a live link, Julian Rubinstein is here on Twitter if you want to follow his tweets about Ambrus.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When sourcing comes grudgingly, if at all

The Boston Globe's Sally Jacobs obviously had a tough time getting people on the record for her profile about Cathy Greig, longtime companion of accused mobster Whitey Bulger. I thought her treatment of that fact was interesting; it begins in the story's 19th graf, so, fairly early, and it's used as a way to help paint the portrait of Greig:

Yet there is one tradition that remains largely unaffected by the tide of change, and that is the code of silence that has long prevailed in Southie. At least it remains the rule for some when the subject has anything to do with the infamous Whitey. Bulger is securely locked in the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, his criminal empire is long gone, and many of his former associates talk and write freely about him without apparent consequence. But many in the neighborhood, and even some who no longer live there, still don’t want to say a word about him. Or about Greig.
High school classmates of Greig’s abruptly hang up the phone when asked about her. Class officers, who still live in the area, brusquely turn away. Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan, who was a member of the class of 1969, declined to be interviewed. Those that are willing to talk about her insist that their names not be used.
“Are you kidding? Nobody wants to talk about her,’’ said one Southie resident who attended school with Greig.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fairly well-known writer, name of King, talks about where ideas come from and other stuff

Semi-gratuitous post about Stephen King, since I'm a sucker for pretty anything he does and have posted about him several times here.

Anyway, this is an interview from The Atlantic in which he talks about ideas -- getting them and managing them -- and other writing topics.

Most startling to me was a quote that, when I thought about it, could apply to any big writing project, and really serves as a piece of inspiration: "I never started a book that I expected to finish," he said. "Because it always feels like a job that's much too big for a little guy like me."