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William Blundell–Art and Craft of Feature Writing

The art and craft of feature writing

By JOE GRIMM
Detroit Free Press
Recruiting and development editor

For a two-day engagement, William E. Blundell brought the live performance of his book, “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing,” to the Detroit Free Press.

Blundell played himself; the cast included an assortment of imaginary friends and pet peeves. In one scene, Blundell had drinks and talked story with the intelligent, interested and totally imagined friend whom Blundell writes for — and who reels him back in when his writing gets gassy and bloated.

In another scene, Blundell nearly came to blows with his mean alter ego, who jabs Blundell mercilessly with questions and challenges to write leaner, cleaner copy.

Blundell’s toughest lines, though, pilloried his pet peeves:

“I’m a strong opponent of outlining. It’s deciding in advance what the story will be, and then just bolting the whole thing together like something out of a hardware store. Tortured transitions are the mark of an outlined story.” … “The anecdotal lead is a plague on newspapers. It is half destroying our business.” … “I believe that one of the things that is ruining our stories is the presence of way too many people saying way too many banal, stupid and unnecessary things. We’re not writing research reports; we’re writing stories.”

Blundell has a plan, as well as peeves, and you can read the plan in his book. Let’s meet some of the peeves.

ORGANIZATION

Blundell really does believe that there is an art to writing, an art that

William Blundell
WILLIAM BLUNDELL

precludes good writers from outlining where the story will go. He prefers to do the reporting and then begin writing — the lead need not be there yet — and to ask the creation, “Story, tell me where you want to go.” This is the art, he says, and a question that our minds answer subconsciously as we sift and organize the raw material of the story.

In truth, the story’s organization should have been taking shape as the idea was refined, the reporting conducted and the conclusions analyzed.

Blundell, who spent 30 years swinging back and forth between writing and editing gigs, is exasperated with writers who say they can’t get anything done until they have their lead. He says they have the least organized stories.

He organizes stories around a main theme statement that may or may not later turn out to be the lead or the nut graph. This statement is hatched at the idea stage; it might evolve through the reporting, it might not. It organizes the story.

In a general way, he organizes stories along the lines of what he calls progressive reader involvement:

Stage 1: Tease me, you devil. Intrigue the reader. Get them to invest a little time in reading the lead.

Stage 2: Tell me what you’re up to. OK, enough teasing. I’m here. Now, what is this story really all about?

Stage 3: Oh yeah? Prove that what you’ve just said is true. Show me. This is about 80 percent of most stories.

Stage 4: I’ll buy it. Help me remember it. Make it forceful. Put an ending on it that will nail it into my memory.

ANECDOTAL LEADS

Newspapers use way too many anecdotal leads, Blundell says. “We are seduced by the lead,” he says. “We have the idea that this will turn a frog of a story into a prince.”

It won’t, of course.

Blundell has three tests to see whether an anecdotal lead is right for a story. If it flunks any of the three, it’s wrong.

The first is simplicity. If the anecdote requires explanation, it is too dense or complicated for a lead. Save it for later.

Next is theme relevance. The lead anecdote must illustrate the central point of the story. “But it’s the best thing I’ve got,” wails the writer within. Don’t use it. It sends story and reader off in the wrong direction, and will make the reader feel misled.

Finally, to lead the story, the anecdote must have intrinsic interest. It must be good all by itself. “If you put the lead on an index card and took it out to Woodward Avenue and asked people to read it by itself, would their eyebrows go up? Even by a millimeter?” If not, Blundell says, don’t lead with it.

If we’ll be using a lot fewer anecdotal leads, what should we write instead?

PEOPLE and QUOTES

Writers know that full reporting means going to more than one source. The problem, Blundell says, is that we want to show all this hard work to the reader, and we include everybody. “In the end, only blood relatives of sources will read the story, and some of them will only say they have,” Blundell says.

He compares stories crowded with superficial sources to a stage jammed with actors who speak just one line each.

In his book, Blundell writes, “A good writer is merciless in deciding who gets into his piece. Each person must have a story purpose or be excluded; scores of sources may have been interviewed, but that’s the worst reason for putting them into the story. … As the number of characters diminishes, those remaining loom larger in the reader’s mind. They become more than talking heads and begin to take on identities of their own. The storyteller wants this to happen and works to advance the process.”

Quotes, too, are better pruned and pared: “favor the short and sharp over the long and dull, and trim the statement down to its nubbin of meaning.

Written by bsmietana

October 20, 2009 at 4:11 pm

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Keep it Simple:

When in doubt, simplify: Worried you’re not using the right words? Use simpler words. Worried that your sentence isn’t clear? Make a simpler sentence. Worried that people won’t see your point? Make your point simpler. Nearly every writing problem you have can be solved by making things simpler.

This should be obvious, but people don’t like hearing it because there’s the assumption that simple = stupid. But it’s not true; indeed, I find from personal experience that the stupidest writers are the ones whose writing is positively baroque in form. All that compensating, you know. Besides, I’m not telling you to boil everything down to “see spot run” simplicity. I am telling you to make it so people can get what you’re trying to say.

Ultimately, people write to be understood (excepting Gertrude Stein and Tristan Tzara, who were intentionally being difficult). Most people are, in fact, capable of understanding. Therefore, if you can’t make people understand what you write, most of the time it’s not just because the world is filled with morons, it’s also because you are not being clear. Downshift. People will be happy to know what you’re saying.

Written by bsmietana

October 20, 2009 at 3:49 pm

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Scalzi: On Writing

1. Yes, You’re a Great Writer. So What.

Let’s be clear on this, so there’s no confusion on that matter: No one cares that you’re totally the best writer ever. They just don’t. Because while people want their writers to be many things, “the best” isn’t usually one of those things. Readers want you to be entertaining. Editors want you to have commercial appeal and not be a pain in the ass to line edit. Publishers want you to fill a hole in their production schedule. Book stores want you to stimulate foot traffic in their store. None of that inherently has anything to do with being a great writer. If you can do one or more of these things and be a great writer, nifty. If being a great writer keeps you from doing these things, well, pal, expect to be deeply underappreciated in your time. Somewhat related to this:

2. I Don’t Care If You’re a Better Writer Than Me.

Because why should I? Yes, words drip from your pen like liquid gold skittering across the finest vellum ever pounded out of a lamb. Trees weep with gratitude that their deaths afford you the paper upon which you will cast your thoughts. That’s very nice for you. Meanwhile, I’ve got my own books to write, projects to develop and clients to make happy. Your preternatural ability to weave filigreed musings into deathless prose impacts my life not at all.

I of course accept your superiority to me in the great hierarchy of writers — clearly, confronted with your brilliance, how could I not? I just don’t care. Unless you intend to spend all your time trying to thwart my career because you can’t bear to contemplate my muddy work sullying the field of endeavor over which you float, carried by the angels, simply as a practical matter what you do and what I do will have very little to do with each other.

I suspect my feeling here will be echoed by other writers. Be as brilliant as you want to be, friend. Just don’t expect the rest of us to look up from our toil to stare agape as you waft by. And somewhat related to this:

3. There is Always Someone Less Talented Than You Making More Money As a Writer.

Why? Because life (and publishing) is capricious and cruel, that’s why. Some fat bastard has been rewriting the same book for the last 25 years, and each “new” book is even more of a pointlessly smudged photocopy of his last book than the one before it, which in turn was a smudged photocopy of the book before that. And after his thick, retarded lummox of a book is planted in its own stand-up display smack in the middle of the store’s primary traffic pattern, the author is going to take that money, buy a gorgeous house on Lake Tahoe with it and use the excess cash to charm smart, pretty, ambitious girls and boys to have rampaging sex with his flabby, liver-spotted body while he watches Nick Jr. on his 83-inch high-definition plasma television. Because he can. Meanwhile, you’re lucky if a single copy of your achingly beautifully-written trade paperback, for which you were paid barely enough to cover three month’s rent on a bug-infested Alphabet City 5th-floor walkup, is shelved spine inward in a forgotten limb of the bookstore for a month before its cover is amputated and sent back to the publisher as a mark of abject failure. Welcome to the literary world!

Just remember when that happens that someone else’s retina-blindingly gorgeous manuscript — which is so much better than the tripe you write that you hardly deserve to know of its existence — lies neglected in a slush pile at a publisher, to be pawed over by a summer intern with as much taste in books as a heat-addled aardvark, before being returned 15 to 22 months after it was submitted. Yes, that’s right: You’re one of the lucky ones.

Written by bsmietana

October 20, 2009 at 3:45 pm

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My rules.

The adverb is not your friend.

Put two unrelated ideas together and see what happens.

Omit Needless Words.

Subject. Verb. Object.

Tell Mom.

Keep Following the Story.

Do something.

Say something.

Read.

Written by bsmietana

October 19, 2009 at 4:23 am

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The Rokia Experiment: Why One Person Matters

Here’s a pop quiz. Read the following two paragraphs and see which is more apt to tug at your heartstrings:

A) Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl who lives in Mali in Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed and educate her, and provide her with basic medical care.

B) Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. Four million Angolans — one-third of the population — have b

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October 19, 2009 at 4:07 am

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Shitty First Drafts

Now, practically even better news than that of short assign­ments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do–you can either type or kill yourself.” We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning–sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the char­acters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go–but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

I used to write food reviews for California Magazine before it folded. (My writing food reviews had nothing to do with the magazine folding, although every single review did cause a couple of canceled subscriptions. Some readers took umbrage at my comparing mounds of vegetable puree with various ex-presidents’ brains.) These reviews always took two days to write. First I’d go to a restaurant several times with a few opinionated, articulate friends in tow. I’d sit there writing down everything anyone said that was at all interesting or funny. Then on the following Monday I’d sit down at my desk with my notes, and try to write the review. Even after I’d been doing this for years, panic would set in. I’d try to write a lead, but instead I’d write a couple of dreadful sentences, XX them out, try again, XX everything out, and then feel despair and worry settle on my chest like an x-ray apron. It’s over, I’d think, calmly. I’m not going to be able to get the magic to work this time. I’m ruined. I’m through. I’m toast. Maybe, I’d think, I can get my old job back as a clerk-typist. But probably not. I’d get up and study my teeth in the mirror for a while. Then I’d stop, remember to breathe, make a few phone calls, hit the kitchen and chow down. Eventually I’d go back and sit down at my desk, and sigh for the next ten minutes. Finally I would pick up my one-inch picture frame, stare into it as if for the answer, and every time the answer would come: all I had to do was to write a really shitty first draft of, say, the opening paragraph. And no one was going to see it.

So I’d start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible. I’d write a lead paragraph that was a whole page, even though the entire review could only be three pages long, and then I’d start writing up descriptions of the food, one dish at a time, bird by bird, and the critics would be sitting on my shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters. They’d be pretending to snore, or rolling their eyes at my overwrought descriptions, no matter how hard I tried to tone those descriptions down, no matter how conscious I was of what a friend said to me gently in my early days of restaurant reviewing. “Annie,” she said, “it is just a piece of chicken. It is just a bit of cake.”

But because by then I had been writing for so long, I would eventually let myself trust the process–sort of, more or less. I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be, with a self-indulgent and boring beginning, stupefying descriptions of the meal, lots of quotes from my black-humored friends that made them sound more like the Manson girls than food lovers, and no ending to speak of. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.

The next day, though, I’d sit down, go through it all with a colored pen, take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft. It always turned out fine, sometimes even funny and weird and helpful. I’d go over it one more time and mail it in.

Then, a month later, when it was time for another review, the whole process would start again, complete with the fears that people would find my first draft before I could rewrite it.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Bur­roughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained.

Quieting these voices is at least half the battle I fight daily. But this is better than it used to be. It used to be 87 percent. Left to its own devices, my mind spends much of its time having conversations with people who aren’t there. I walk along defending myself to people, or exchanging repartee with them, or rationalizing my behavior, or seducing them with gossip, or pretending I’m on their TV talk show or whatever. I speed or run an aging yellow light or don’t come to a full stop, and one nanosecond later am explaining to imaginary cops exactly why I had to do what I did, or insisting that I did not in fact do it.

I happened to mention this to a hypnotist I saw many years ago, and he looked at me very nicely. At first I thought he was feeling around on the floor for the silent alarm button, but then he gave me the following exercise, which I still use to this day.

Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won’t do what they want–won’t give them more money, won’t be more successful, won’t see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft.

A writer friend of mine suggests opening the jar and shoot­ing them all in the head. But I think he’s a little angry, and I’m sure nothing like this would ever occur to you.

Written by bsmietana

October 19, 2009 at 3:58 am

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Ann Lamott.

Operating Instructions.

Bird By Bird.

Written by bsmietana

October 19, 2009 at 3:55 am

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