A great example of narrative journalism

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My old St. Pete Times buddy Chris Goffard has a great piece in the L.A. Times about hardcore homeless guys given a room by a charitable program and about the woman who runs the program. Chris is also a novelist, and I can’t help but see the seeds of the characters in his darkly comic crime noir novelSnitch Jacket in real-life vignettes like these. Particularly admirable is the article’s ending.

A taste:

On the streets, veteran hustlers regarded Sigler as a mark, someone whose self-esteem vanished when he drank and who could be wheedled out of cash and dope.

At the Senator Hotel, his best friend was a wheelchair-bound, brain-damaged man, Mohammed Duala, and at night Sigler lifted his body out of his wheelchair and tucked him gently into bed. “He wants to die,” Sigler said. “He’ll sit there and say, ‘I got no chance anymore. I can’t talk, bro.’”

Sigler understood the impulse. Around the holidays especially, the desire to kill himself was strong.

This is what journalism can be.
Now go read the whole piece.

 

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Pt. 3: Anatomy of a thriller’s great first chapter

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Sakey drinks bouron with fellow crime novelist Sean Chercover. Photo by Brett Carlson.

Today concludes my series of posts on how to start a thriller novel off right. We’ve been analyzing the first chapter of THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES by Marcus Sakey, which you can read online for free. In the first post, I named many of the conflicting priorities a novelist has to serve in the first scene. In the second, we looked at how Sakey works to accomplish nearly all of them in his very first paragraph.

Today, I want to talk about the real magic of this chapter — that it revolves around a fascinating idea that’s complex enough to build a whole novel around: A man regains awareness on a desolate beach, naked in the ocean and nearly drowned. He can’t remember who he is or how he got here. He crawls

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Pt. 2: Anatomy of a thriller’s great first chapter

Photo by Brett Carlson

Yesterday, I gave you some pleasurable homework: reading the free first chapter of Marcus Sakey’s new thriller, THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES. In this series of posts, I’m arguing that it’s an excellent example of how to juggle all of an author’s conflicting priorities to write a captivating first chapter for a thriller novel. I laid out those objectives yesterday in the first post in this series. Here they are again, abbreviated:

  1. Bring the main character or characters onstage
  2. Give us some some sense of who and what sort of people these are
  3. Make us care about them (like, loathe, or fear)
  4. Introduce the (a) setting
  5. Give a sense of the main plot
  6. Raise story questions that make it impossible for the reader to put the story down
  7. “Crash a plane” — derail the characters’ lives with an extraordinary, thrilling incident

Sakey “crashes a plane” in the first paragraph to yank us into the story. More precisely, he drops the main character and, by extension, the reader, into the ocean half drowned, and barely

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Anatomy of a thriller’s great first chapter

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Today’s post is the first in a series over the next few days about what makes the first chapter of a thriller novel great versus boring. I’ll point you toward a fantastic first chapter, which is online for free. It’s from THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES, the new novel by Marcus Sakey, one of the amazing young thriller authors out of Chicago who are on the vanguard of crime fiction today. I’d like you to read it and then come back here to discuss it with me. In a series of posts, I’ll break it down from an author’s point of view and tell you what I admire about it.

First, a few of my observations about first chapters of thrillers. Few places are the writing stakes so high. At every step of publishing, it’s what will get an author’s work considered or discarded. First an agent, then an editor and finally a customer

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Theme: The genius of David Simon

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First, no, “theme” in the headline isn’t a typo for “Treme.” :-)

David Simon, like me, is a former newspaper crime reporter. Unlike me, he has given birth to a number of brilliant television series. As an author, I’m always studying his storytelling to see what I can learn.

First, I definitely agree with many others that The Wire is the best television series ever made. It took us into the third-world enclaves that exist in 21st century American cities. He gave us a highly credible look at life there (I say credible instead of accurate, because West Baltimore is so outside my own experience, I have no way to know for sure — but it resembles forgotten, marginalized African-American communities I have covered in Florida and South Carolina). The Wire had great, memorable characters and lots of remarkable storylines. But over its five seasons, these all revolved around a single theme: How institutions — whether criminal enterprises focusing on illicit profits or governments and school districts ostensibly focused on a public good — exist mainly to perpetuate themselves and guard the power of those who run them, which serves as a powerful force to prevent anything from really changing. If he’d said in a pitch meeting that was what his show was about, the show never would have been made. But what a fascinating, important point.

Simon’s newest series is Treme., set in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. We’re midway through the second season now, and I’ve been searching for the big theme. I think I finally have it. Treme is about plumbing the limits of human resilience. Just how much can a human being take? We see character after character dealt devastating blows, and nine out of ten of them pick themselves up and keep trying. (One, notably, ends the first season by giving up.) Not only does this theme come through in the lives of the individual characters, but in the character that is the city of New Orleans. Can crushing poverty, corruption, a natural disaster, and a shameful response by its country actually kill one of the most fascinating, culturally rich cities in North America? I am waiting for the hammer to fall as Season 2 reaches its climax, but so far, Simon’s characters show extraordinary heart and resilience and remind us how much a human being can cope with when she has to.

Click READ MORE and tell me what you think in the comments.

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Lead with news — not process

The cardinal rule of journalism is to lead with the most important thing you have to say. I practiced it as a newspaper reporter, and I harp on it as a college newswriting instructor. So it’s not, “The North Carolina Legislature met Wednesday to consider the state budget.” It’s, “The North Carolina legislature slashed spending on public education Wednesday instead of extending a special sales tax — over Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto.” We lead with news, not with process.

This is a precept that translates perfectly to the strategic communications I create for my consulting clients. I see giant enterprises waste this opportunity every day by choosing process-oriented subject lines for marketing emails instead of using that opportunity to convey news and interest the recipient. This is crucial real estate for an email campaign, as you have about a quarter of a second to get the recipient to click to open and read it rather than delete it. The first thing we all look for in our email inboxes are notes we can delete unread.

Here are some examples of subject lines begging readers to delete the note unopened:

From: Sara Waters; Subj: Shakori Hills News
From: Dragon Naturally Speaking; Subj: Dragon newsletter
From: Sony Rewards; Subj: Your Sony Rewards newsletter for June is here

Oh goodie! I love newsletters! They are long and take a lot of time to read. Let me invest that time right now with no expectation of getting anything valuable out of it!

From: Buy.com deals; Subj:Dell Computer w/ 500GB $199.99, Star Wars Alarm Clock $24.99, SD Card $5.95, TomTom GPS $79.99, 23″ LCD Monitor $139.99,..
Woah! Way too much. It’s just a jumble of punctuation at a glance. Choose one deal (and this being email marketing, customize it to my interest) and sell me on that.

From: Captain D’s; Subj: Your Father’s Day coupon from Captain D’s
Okay, the from tells me it’s from Captain D’s; you don’t have to repeat that in the subject line. And you are underselling this in a major way. I’m thinking the coupon will be Fish and More for $4.99 or something. Inside the note, a graphic proclaims “Free appetizer for dad.” Now THERE’S your subject line. Telling me what I’ll get free hooks (I know — groan!) me right away.

And to illustrate how effective an email subject line (and sender name) can be if done well, I’ll offer a single example:

From: Barack Obama; Subj: Dinner?

The email was offering me the chance to enter a drawing for dinner with the president if I contributed to the campaign at a certain level. I know — I opened this one and read it. Click the headline or READ MORE to leave your comments

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Is Groupon-speak good writing?

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I was intrigued recently by this New York Times story about how Groupon has staked its business on the distinctive writing voice it uses in the daily deal emails it sends to members.

Though I’ll acknowledge it’s sometimes clever, more often than not, I think Groupon’s copy is terrible. It’s what you’d get if you had made the mistake of letting me or any of my equally smartass classmates in gifted high school English write it — if Google had been invented back then. Groupon-speak violates most of my precepts for good writing:

1. Good writing should get to the point, and every word should be relevant. Groupon routinely starts with the equivalent of “The dictionary defines leadership as …” before circling back around to the featured deal or merchant. Some recent examples:

–Click READ MORE to continue reading and to make or view comments.–

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My problem with “Not a problem.”

Okay, here’s my ugly yuppie Seinfeld-esque rant masquerading as linguistic criticism: It drives me nuts when restaurant servers respond to your every routine request with, “Not a problem.” Like this:

SERVER: What would you like to drink?
ME: I’d like a glass of water, please.
SERVER: Not a problem.
INSIDE MY HEAD: Huh? A glass of water must be the most routine request in the course of your day. I would be astonished if serving one DID present a problem for you. It sounds like you’re just barely keeping it between the lines today.
{server brings water}
SERVER: Are you ready to order?
ME: Actually, I think we need just a couple more minutes.
SERVER: Not a problem.
INSIDE MY HEAD: I didn’t ask if you could change my tire in the parking lot or drop to your knees and

–Click READ MORE to continue reading and to make or view comments.–

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Becoming even more like you all the time

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I ran across this fascinating talk by Eli Pariser at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference earlier this year:

It’s about “filter bubbles,” which is an unintended consequence of websites that tailor content to your interests. If Facebook senses you’re a liberal and that you more often follow liberal links your friends post, it may hide conservative friends from your news feed. Google may do the same with search results. If you don’t read a lot of world affairs and news sites, you could search with the name of a country in the news and not be directed to any stories about that news! Pariser talks about the damaging effect this can have, as you may not be exposed to as many challenging ideas or even basic facts you ought to know. Rather than growing as a person, you just become more and more like you.

This is a classic problem that mass media used to help us get over by curating the selection of material. When I was a newspaper reporter, I tried to give my readers a mixture of applesauce and pink medicine. That is, a fair number of stories that were fun or delightful or affirming to read along with some things that were perhaps hard to hear or not obviously interesting, but really important.

What do you think? Is this a real concern, or not? As media become more personalized, how can be ensure that we’re always stimulated and challenged by new ideas?

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Talent and sincerity inspire: new Sarah Jarosz album

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This is me standing on your desk until you stop what you’re doing and check out singer/songwriter Sarah Jarosz. Yes, I know what you’re doing is reading my blog. Go to Amazon’s MP3 store and start downloading her new album, which is just $5.99, and then come back and finish reading.

Follow Me Down has been out for a couple of days, during which I’ve constantly had it on repeat. Jarosz uses traditional acoustic instruments from the bluegrass (and great grandfather of bluegrass, Celtic) tradition to create immersive, precise and expressive compositions — and to cover songs by other artists in a way that makes you hear them anew.

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