Sunday, April 27, 2008

Polish, polish, polish!

An editor told me recently he's been inundated by stories that aren't finished.
In the freelance world, an unfinished story is a liability to the writer. The more work the editor has to do to it just to get it to useable, the less likely the writer is to continue the working relationship with that editor. Of course, with freelance, you generally get more lead time because they realize you have other work to work around.
But in the daily newspaper business, unfinished work is bad. With deadlines looming, an editor is forced to either get the writer to finish the piece, or to finish it themself, or to shelve it and disrupt the front page. Or let it run rough.
The writer may protest "But I finished the piece! I even ran SPELLCHECK."
I'm here to tell you that like the AI commercial says, just because it looks done doesn't mean it's done.
Every writer has their own writing routines. But whether you put your byline on first or last, there are several steps without which your journalistic steak doesn't have its AI on. It's not even cooked.
1) Read it aloud. Does it make sense at this point?
2) Is everything in the right order, or do you need to do more cut-and-paste. I don't mean chronological order -- I mean, does it FLOW? Or is it all jerky, lurching from one paragraph to the other like a drunken tale?
3) Is there any duplication that needs to be eliminated?
4) Are quotes correctly attributed and introduced? Names and titles spelled correctly?
5) I recently noticed a piece that had a "there" where there should have been a "their." Any of those?
6) Do you go on and on and on? Would a shorter story be better?
There are other polishing routines. Here are some of the main ones.
Remember: polish, polish, polish!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A story is like Thanksgiving Dinner

I see the newspaper stories I write as Thanksgiving dinners. Little, journalistic, Thanksgiving dinners. Made of words.
The problem with producing stories day in and day out at most small daily or weekly newspapers is that your editor (especially if your editor is you) needs a lot of stories. Like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, if ad sales are going well, the publication is an ever growing thing with a growing need. "Feed me!" Of course, it's a limited analogy because the demand isn't for flesh but for words. But I digress.
So you need to crank out stories. Instead of pitching a fit about "quality" and using the lack of time for the excuse to produce work that's less than ideal, why not subject yourself to the discipline of cracking down and producing what's needed and then some, day in, day out. C'mon. It will be fun. It will be like swinging three bats in preparation for the big baseball game.
So back to the Thanksgiving dinner analogy.
When you make the feast, you use the stove, the oven, the fridge, the sink, the counter, the cutting board, the microwave. But not all at once. There are a lot of little pieces to the meal that must be set in motion in their times in order to be frozen, thawed, mixed, boiled, baked, sauteed,chilled, set, nuked, warmed, heated, garnished, displayed -- all to get on the table at 5 p.m. on the dot.
When you make the story, it's the same. You will make contacts, make calls, go to meetings, interviews, research online, email, transcribe, put in order, delete extraneous material, pick a lead, edit, polish, read aloud. Garnish.
If we rely on the mechanics of writing, go through the motions, get just enough, slap it together, it might be a meal, but it won't be Thanksgiving.
We must not overlook the final steps: put in order, delete extraneous material, pick a lead, edit, polish, read aloud. Garnish.
And we must learn to do it fast, because although it's like a little Thanksgiving, in reality, it's like a cow.
No matter how well we milk it today, we will just have to get up and milk it again tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

As Good As It Gets: Voice, Persona, Personality

In the movie, As Good As It Gets, Marvin Udahl, the main character played by Jack Nicholson, has a persona (grumpy, difficult, eccentric, OCD) that is very different from his voice (think more Nicholas Sparks.)

Asked by an emotional woman how he writes women so well, he said something akin to "taking away all reason." Grumpy guy who has figured out how to write for an emotional market, that's all.

When I first read one of Nicholas Sparks' books (after seeing two of his movies) I cynically concluded here was a guy who had figured out how to make millions by making people cry. Book after book.

However, after reading Nicholas Sparks' autobiographical piece, Three Weeks With My Brother, and seeing how acutely affected he was by a very difficult upbringing and through life challenges presented to him as an adult (which I completely understand) I do get how his work seems to be written with every raw nerve exposed. I have since concluded he is definitely an emotional kind of guy who feels things deeply -- or at least his persona is of that kind of person.

The persona he presents autobiographically is very like his voice. He comes across as just as empathetic and emotional and heart-on-his-sleeve as his writing.

I don't know him personally, so I don't know if his persona is really what his personality is like when he is alone or with his family -- but I have no reason to think it's different than he presents in his autobiography.

There's a debate on about the difference between persona and voice. There can be a difference -- or they can be very closely related.

Shyness and journalism

Anyone who sees me in action taking pictures at an event or interviewing people would probably tell you there's no way I'm a shy person. I can be as charming or even gregarious as I need to be.

However, without a camera or a reason to be there and talk to people, I am as reluctant as a wallflower. Except, of course, when overwhelmed by curiosity, which seems to be a genetic thing with me. Even as a kid I would interview people -- without realizing that was what I was doing.

While journalism is no antidote to shyness, and the crippling variety (of shyness, not journalism) requires more than a pen and paper in hand to cure, I wouldn't recommend ruling out journalism just because you're shy.

If you're functionally brave -- okay when you have a task to do -- there's no reason to let self-consciousness keep you from becoming a writer. As long, of course, as you have your other talent ducks in a row -- curiosity, expression, the capacity for accuracy, and the other things needed to be proficient.

The other thing is, if you're uncomfortable asking difficult questions, you can always do the kind of writing that doesn't demand them. There are plenty of opportunities out there for stories that don't involve digging for dirt, looking under rugs or any other of those "unpleasant" and investigative metaphors.

While some of us are news buzzards, able to sniff or spot a story from a distance, others are simply builders. Like robins or songbirds, basically there to do uplifting things like sing songs and build nests. There's feature writing for newspapers and profile writing for trade publications, for example. Takes all kinds.

Here's a link to an interesting blog by Cary Tennis of Salon about someone who's grappling with shyness in journalism.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Einstein for writers: The research is the horse, the story is the cart

We know the horse must come before the cart. But when it comes to journalism, what is the cart and what is the horse?

Does the lead get typed in first, and then all that follows supports that lead? I say not for me, it doesn't. I've talked about this in my Story Process blog.

Even when I'm on assignment to cover a new Whole Foods store in Pasadena, which you might think is pretty cut and dried, my lead isn't set in stone. Only after I've done the research, in this instance, do I discover that it's two stories, the largest of its kind and that people will ride an escalator up with their cart on a cartilator beside them. The lead becomes not that it's new, but the way it's unique. I've managed to stay within my editor's parameters for the assignment, which was to cover the opening of the new Whole Foods store in Pasadena. But, like Sinatra, I did it ... My Way.

You never know what will bubble up. Look at a detective at a crime scene. If he goes in with a pre-set lead, and endeavors to stick to it, to prove what he has been told or supposes to be true, he will ignore every clue that tells him about anything bigger or different. Certitude squashes curiosity.

Albert Einstein said this: "A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be."

I say as writers, we need to do the same thing.

Einstein is also credited with these gems that apply well to the art and science of writing:

"Here areI have no special talent. I am only passionately curious. "

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?"

"Never lose a holy curiosity."

"The important thing is not to stop questioning."


(For more Einstein quotes, check out BrainyQuote here:

I appreciate fellow writer Mike Strong's input on a recent blog of mine where I talked about my writing process. (See the post and his note here:

"I was shocked to see your writing style, not appalled, just shocked because it had never occurred to me to do it that way! I'm like your friend: lead first. However, I'm not committed to that lead. If I begin writing and I realize that the lead doesn't support my assertions in a story or what I'm writing clearly shows me that I've got the lead wrong, it's time to redo. My lead is much like your byline: it's a flag to plant...but your friend needs to listen her story and not be committed to her least that's how I handle it. You're method is appealing in cases where I have sooooo many notes and I can't see the forest for the trees. Came across your blog on MediaBistro...interesting stuff!"

Bird by Bird

One of my all-time favorite books about writing is Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird.

This isn't about that.

Recently, I found myself describing myself as a "news crow," followed up by a little "CAW!" noise. While it strikes me, in retrospect, that this is the odd behavior I might expect from an eccentric great-aunt, I have to own up to being both eccentric and a great-aunt, and a great aunt to boot.

And I am a news crow. This is a syndrome borne of years of enterprising writing, nurtured by the benign neglect of editors who realized that if left to my own devices I would indeed come back with a story of some sort. Not unlike the crow who is constantly waylaid by sparkly-looking items he sees while flying from one place to another.

Neal White is one of the editors who has made a major contribution to my inner stylebook as a writer. With a bemused grin, he tells other writers that I could go to the grocery store and come back with three story ideas.

I have to admit this is my precise business model as a writer. Okay, it's not that precise.

Alas, I am hopelessly journalistically ADHD, and have learned while taking notes on one story to take other story ideas that come from the same notes and circle-and-star them so I can follow up later.

And there's the standard final handshake line which so often leads to other stories: "Thanks again for talking with me. And if you get any other story ideas, let me know."

But I will say, from personally observing gifted writers I know, the Crow model isn't the only way to go. There's the News Buzzard, for example -- the writer who can smell something rotten in Denmark (thanks Shakespeare) from a long way off, and who will circle around patiently and do the homework until finding the perfect moment to get the goods.

More writing birds to come.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pop Quiz: What do you do??

Pop Quiz: Your editor sends your 550-word piece back to you. It's now 410 words, and in your view, considerably "mangled." Instead of being better for the edit, it has new rough edges that weren't there before. What do you do?

Shaving off word count is not something writers always get to be the ones to do. If there are true rough spots, I point them out. "It appears to need a comma HERE" and "It looks like the 'and' that got edited out may need to stay in." I have done this a couple times because busy editors doing the trimming may themselves leave "rough spots."

However, if it's something fairly arbitrary or just based on your preference (say you like the word 'huge' better than the word 'large') get over it -- it's the editor's discretion, and they're writing for their ears, not yours.

With a little luck, you will learn to write with that editor's ear in mind and have a long and fruitful relationship. To get there, calling into question their general judgment won't help. I wrote for a nursing publication, and regretted what had to be done to my copy to make it conform to their style. C'est la vie. They were fabulous otherwise. This has happened a couple times -- welcome to ze big leagues.

If you withdraw an edited piece prior to publication, it should be because it's really horrible and will completely embarrass you as a writer.

As another writer pointed out recently, once you've done enough work (for this publication and others) you won't mind the loss of the clip and can leave it out of your portfolio if it really sticks in your craw.

Friday, April 18, 2008

How important is persona for a writer?

Asked recently how important persona is for a writer, I gave the question some thought.

There are the writing eccentrics, those larger-than-life people. Hemingway, the brawling, safari-clad, hard-drinking Papa. Dashiell Hammett, the guy who knew life's seedy underbelly: I picture him in a fedora, for some reason. The wistful, reclusive, gifted poet -- that's Emily Dickinson, and a host of others like her. Anne LaMott is the snappy, sassy, brilliant, earth mother. Truman Capote -- kind of fey, a little ruthless, hugely committed to his own work, probably a hoot at parties. Dorothy Parker -- luminous in her vicious circle, tart-tongued always.

These are all writers I consider to have personas. By them, I'm a bore.

However, in my small fishbowl world of regional/community journalism, my personality has become completely enmeshed with what I do. Some love it, some don't. C'est la vie. C'est moi!

And no, my persona isn't French ... I start from a place of genuinely liking almost everybody, and let them prove me wrong from there.

It's how I approach my work, and how I get so many people to talk to me, to call me, to let me get their picture. And if you haven't guessed, it's not that of a hard-bitten cynic -- but I know some hard-bitten cynics who that approach works for.

I will say that while you're honing skills and getting experience, persona is not necessarily non grata, but it's no substitute for hard work and competence. If those things don't come first, then you're pretty much a buffoon with "a deplorable excess of personality." (Quick, what movie did that come from?)

Albert Einstein could get away with never brushing his hair because his work was brilliant.

I'm not having such a great hair day myself. I think I'll wear my fedora.