Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

[The following post appeared June 1, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the slumber of their winter hibernation, I’ve pulled our bicycles from the depths of our cartoonishly overstuffed hall closet.

Dad’s self-appointed task: wipe down the dust and cobwebs, pump some life into those tires. Sure, I’ve suffered minor injuries, like a bruised shin, but I get no sympathy from this crowd.

There’s another cost, too. When you go so many months between riding a bicycle, as we did from fall to spring, certain muscles grow dormant. Guess what? They begin to atrophy. At least at my age, they do.

In the wake of that initial sojourn, then, I know I’ll feel a little achiness in the buttocks, knees and calves. So much so, I’ve begun blurting out a new slogan to anyone who’ll listen: I ain’t gettin’ any younger.

Yet, the muscle memory is there, retained. That maiden voyage flips the switch and re-activates the muscles. Soon enough, your confidence soars until even biking with little kids feels oh so natural.

Well, writing is just the same. Neglect certain skills, watch them wither.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to write another article for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. Sorting through hand-written notes, jotted in a notepad, becomes something of a chore. I find myself procrastinating. But of course I must go through these damn notes.


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[The following post appeared Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – It’s not the daily grind. More like a monthly juggle.

Juggling projects, that is. When I “penned” the first two entries of this soul-baring, me-as-guinea-pig blog last spring (here and here), I was writing about a different book. Which I hold off on publicizing, to spare myself the shame. It’s been shoved to the back-burner, along with other half-baked projects. And ideas for projects.

Instead, teaching in Hong Kong leapt to the front-burner. It meant a golden opportunity to return to mainland China and launch the book project I hatched in Fall 2009, the first time I taught in Hong Kong. Since Slovakia is a long way from China, I knew I couldn’t visit my subjects too often. It made sense to join forces with an HK-based colleague.

So, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I pull cash from our savings and pay for a one-week reporting trip to the mainland, prior to my HK teaching stint. A train trip, two flights, nights in a hotel. Now that’s what we call in the freelance biz an investment. Will there be a return? Damn straight.

But that was just the cash. Then came the time and effort. From the time I returned home to my family in Bratislava, end of October, it took me almost two full months to complete an introduction and sample chapter. For me, a staggering 12,000 words. At 250 per page, that’s about 48 pages.

Had to do it, though. One cardinal rule of journalism, and of life itself: to convince readers, or any audience for that matter, it’s better to show, not tell. I’m only an Aspiring First-Time Author. (A snazzy title I may soon print on my business cards.) I have little to stand on, beyond those thousand-plus newspaper and magazine articles.


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HONG KONG – Last fall, I whined about how tough it was to deliver essentially the same lecture to four separate classes, over a two-day period.

Today, I scoff at 2009 me. Scoff!

I just staggered through a journalism-training equivalent of the hallowed 26.2, an Athenian marathon of teaching. Over six weeks, I cycled through 77 students, most of them mainland Chinese. Divided into 16 groups. Three times each. Forty-eight tutorials. One or two per day, every day. (Did I mention the six-weeks part?)

Not just to chew the fat about journalism. For four weeks solid, I’ve commented on their brand-new blogs. Two posts each, or close to 150. Only a wicked few plowed past the 400-word limit. Then, I critiqued each one, showing how to do it better.

That’s a lot of talking, even by my windy standards.

What made it particularly torturous – for them, too – is that I needed to cover the same journalistic points and principles for each round of tutorial. The same explanation of reporting strategy, interview technique or story structure. Accessorized with the same profound analogy or mirthful anecdote.

Sixteen times. I got sick of listening to myself. But I couldn’t shut up.

Whatever comment came to mind, tumbled out. When they had questions, even better. Tutorials are 90 minutes, but I consistently rambled on for two, two-and-a-half hours. I had the stamina of Hugo Chavez, with just as captive an audience.

If nothing else, I gained a whole new appreciation for Broadway. Evening performance every night, fine. But three matinees per week, as well? How to get the adrenaline going for each show?

Tricks of the trade, I’ve learned. There’s no business, like teaching business.

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[For introduction of the "Book-Writing Blog," please see post below.]

BRATISLAVA – Where to start writing my book, but the Foreword. (Which, um, I embarrassingly first typed onto the page as Forward. Get me re-write!)

I dove right in, from the top. Oh, what zeal! My fingers were fluttering. Until I got a few hundred words down. Then, I began “spaghettiing.” Yes, spaghetti as a verb. I first saw the term used by Jon Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction writer, in his how-to guide, “Writing for Story.”

As Franklin wrote, “Writing also involves the processing and integration of large masses of individually trivial bits of data. If you begin your story without knowing precisely where you’re going, any mistakes you make at first, any small omissions, take on added significance as you proceed. As length grows linearly, complexity expands exponentially … A story is not a line of dominoes, it is a web, and tugging on any filament causes the whole thing to vibrate.”

He’s right, of course. After 20 years in journalism, I’d committed a rookie error. It’s something I even exhort my students to do: start with an outline. Early in my career, I myself stubbornly resisted. Then, mysteriously, I’d struggle with the writing. I didn’t appreciate how an outline helps organize your material, especially to organize your thoughts – even my rather disorganized mind.

That said, I do have an outline of how this entire book will look. One thing I learned last year in approaching a few publishers is that they insist on a chapter-by-chapter description. This is too serious an industry to take the word of an “aspiring first-time author” like me: Don’t worry, I have enough for a book.

What I gleaned was this: think the whole thing through first, then show them you’ve thought it all the way through. What I failed to consider last week, though, was the necessity to outline each chapter, too.

Frustrated with my first day, I griped to my wife. She tried to help, thinking the hurdle was the Foreward itself. How to summarize a book until you’ve written it? Why not hold off with it until the end, and start now with Chapter One?

A reasonable suggestion. But I knew better. The Foreward is where my story begins. I always find it easier – and more logical – to start a story from the top. Instead, I needed to outline the Foreward: a skeleton of the beginning, the middle, the end … and how to get from one point to the next.

My fingers were again a-flutter. Now 13 pages in – and counting.

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BRATISLAVA – Last week, I began writing a book. My first book.

Since I’ve diagnosed myself as suffering the “Narcissism of Blog-Love” [see May 27 post], I can’t help but blog about my entire book-writing journey.

OK, it’s more than narcissism. When I teach journalism, I try to de-mystify the process for others, to make it more accessible. This blog may do the same for book-writing, for the millions of folks who day-dream about writing a book of their own. Yet, like me, have no sense for what it really takes.

I don’t have a literary agent. Nor a publisher. But I have a book idea, one I think is pretty good. I pitched it to a few places last year, but no nibbles. So, in this tough book-publishing climate, I put my money where my mouth is: I start writing. A few chapters to begin with, something meatier for potential agents and publishers to sink their teeth into. Most important: my wife’s on board.

I won’t divulge the topic, yet. Let me make a serious dent first. Why? I may be paranoid, but I’m not so naïve to just throw my non-fiction idea out there, assuming it won’t be swiped. Rationally, I know it’d be tough for anyone to replicate my passion for this project, or the energy it’ll require to see it through. But still! Better safe than sorry.

Moreover, for this blog, the idea is secondary to the process itself.

I love those guinea-pig columns, where a writer volunteers to sample, say, various teeth-whiteners or anti-smoking patches, then describes which is most effective, which wastes your money.

Consider me the book-writing guinea pig. In occasional Book-Writing Blog (or “the BWB“) posts, I’ll document the good, the bad, the ugly. Or, as ABC Sports once rhapsodized, “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

Learn from my mistakes! Learn from my successes!

Finally, I admit this blog was inspired by the film “Julie & Julia,” the true story of a woman who plows through 500 Julie Child recipes, then blogs about each experience. The blog was discovered, her tale turned into a Hollywood film.

Will I be discovered? Stay tuned. But if so, I see Ben Stiller as the romantic lead.

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BRATISLAVA – When a titan of American story-telling criticizes, you listen.

Narcissus, by Caravaggio

Which is why I read, and re-read, Garrison Keillor’s May 25 column, “When everyone’s a writer, no one is.” Gulp. Just yesterday, I Skyped an esteemed colleague – a journalist and author – seeking a voice of sanity: Am I going a little overboard with this whole blog thing?

You see, I’ve gazed at my blog … and fallen in love. I dub this “The Narcissism of Blog-Love.”

I’ve succumbed to the personality disorder infecting millions around the world, through blogs, Facebook and other social-network sites: like Narcissus, we delude ourselves to believe that others will marvel at the beauty of our thoughts or actions. Or at least, find them interesting enough to read about.

Hey, I have something to say about Central Europe! Read me! Look, I took nice snapshots! Click on me! Yet what if no one answers our Facebook post with a “So-and-so likes this” thumbs-up? Devastation. (That’s one of the symptoms!)

Not only do I contribute to the blog-blather, I prod my journalism students to do so as well. [See post below.]

Even if we assume that lots and lots of us do have something interesting to say, there’s too much of it. As my colleague Skyped back, “I am overwhelmed with stuff that I am actually interested in.”

This extends to the growing phenomenon of self-publishing.

“The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside,” writes Keillor. “You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.”

Perhaps Keillor isn’t referring to me. Only the others. After all, I’m writing about really interesting stuff. Would a real Narcissist of Blog-Love be deterred? Heck, no. On to my next post!

[For posterity’s sake, I'm flowing Garrison Keillor’s entire column …]


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BRATISLAVA – My blog-servations notwithstanding [see post above], I see several compelling reasons for why young or aspiring journalists should join the blogosphere.

It’s not only “practice makes perfect”: the more you write, the more it improves.

First, I consider my blog as a diary of sorts. But not the kind you stuff under your pillow. It’s a public diary. In a for-your-eyes-only diary, you can write as sloppily as you want. No worries about spelling, grammar, structure, transitions, etc. If you prefer stream of consciousness to actual story-telling, fine.

This public diary, though, requires greater discipline and higher standards. If your name is attached to any piece of writing, for anyone to read, you want it in the best possible condition. That forces you to take the writing more seriously, choose more selectively which topics may be of interest to readers, smoothe the edges, clean it up, post only what you can be proud of.

In other words, treat the Internet as editor.

Second, blogging offers you an opportunity to hone specific writing and reportorial skills. Sitting in a café? Capture color, describe the scene. Want to dabble in opinion-writing, feature-writing, travel-writing, humor? Your nine-to-five existence may not afford you such opportunities. But your blog can. I myself use mine to venture into writing styles new to me, as a career newspaper guy.

Which leads to a third benefit to blogging: a showcase for your work. Plenty of people are trying to impress editors with ideas for what they’d like to do. You, though, can show them you’re doing it. Direct them to the relevant links on your site. Journalistically, we call this “show, don’t tell.” There’s not a more persuasive way to make your case.

Lastly, if you’re out there, toiling in obscurity like me, blogs enable you to “build your brand”: This is who I am, this is what I do.

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We Bratislavers enjoyed the warming weather this week. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I read the sports pages, which nowadays are obsessed with statistics. Well, I would like to note that I myself set a career record the other day.

Not something cool-sounding, like “Most publishable words produced in a single day.” No, this is one that you aspiring journalists out there should desperately avoid: how many months I went between jotting notes in my notepad, and finally starting to jig-saw together an article from those same notes.

Ten months. Ten months!

I think my previous record was about six months, set back after my 2008 trip to Kazakhstan. Boy, do I remember how painful that was. “Never again,” I muttered to my wife, over and over.

This time, in the spirit of Vancouver, I’ve bettered that mark. Oh, I’ve got terrific excuses for why I foolishly shoved an important project to the back-burner. (The Hong Kong posts below explain a lot.)

Just know, it’s hung over me for months. I knew the bill would come due.

For those of you who haven’t gone through this before, how to describe it?

First off, I’m reading that chicken-scratch penmanship. Especially, if I’ve taken notes while walking, sitting in a moving car, or if someone is just talkin’ fast.

When the material is still relatively fresh, it’s much easier to decipher certain words. I can feel the context. The words around it trigger the memory and sensation of speaking with some unique character, in some place that 99 percent of the world’s population would consider “exotic.”

Those embers, though, start to go cold after a while.

This week, I’ve been reading through, and it’s like poking into an attic of mementos. (“Was I buying that guy’s story as he was talking?”) Slowly, I’m breathing life into those notes. I’ll also spruce them up with updated research and fresh interviews.

Those articles, produced with young Romani reporters in Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania (visited last month), will appear in the coming weeks in Transitions Online. And on this blog, of course.

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