CRAFT LESSON: Eight steps to better interviewing

Craft Lessons

Every day around the globe, journalists pick up the phone or head out of the newsroom. They meet someone, a stranger or a familiar contact. They take out a notebook or turn on a recording device. And then they perform two simple acts. They ask a question and they listen to the answer. An interview has begun.

Interviewing lies at the heart of journalism. It is the critical path to building an information base that produces a fair, complete and accurate story. Yet too few journalists have ever received education or training in this critical skill. For most reporters, the only way to learn is on the job, mostly through painful trial and error.

How do you walk up to strangers and ask them questions? How do you get people — tight-lipped cops, jargon-spouting experts, everyday folks who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed — to give you useful answers? How do you use quotes effectively in your stories?

Step One: Get smart.

If you want to flop as an interviewer, fail to prepare. All too often, journalists start an interview armed only with a handful of questions scribbled in their notebooks. Take time, however short, to bone up on your subject or the topic you’ll be discussing. When former New York Times reporter Mirta Ojito interviewed experts, “I try to know almost as much as they do about their subject, so it seems we are ‘chatting,’ ” she said. A. J. Liebling, a legendary writer for The New Yorker, landed an interview with notoriously tight-lipped jockey Willie Shoemaker. He opened with a single question: Why do you ride with one stirrup higher than the other? Impressed by Liebling’s knowledge, Shoemaker opened up.

Step Two: Craft your questions.

The best questions are open-ended. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” These are conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that deliver an abundance of information.

Closed-ended questions are more limited but they have an important purpose. Ask them when you need a direct answer: Did you embezzle the city’s pension fund? Are you a member of the Proud Boys? Closed-ended questions put people on the record.

The worst are conversation stoppers, such as double-barreled (even tripled-barreled) questions. “Why did the campus police use pepper spray on student protesters? Did you give the order?” Double-barreled questions give the subject a choice that allows them to avoid the question they want to ignore and choose the less difficult one.

Craft questions in advance to ensure you ask ones that start conversations rather than halt them in their tracks. Stick to the script, and always ask one question at a time. Don’t be afraid to edit yourself. More than once, I’ve stopped myself in the middle of a double-barreled question and said, “That’s a terrible question. Let me put it another way.”

Step Three: Listen up.

The 1976 movie “All the President’s Men” focuses on two Washington Post reporters investigating corruption in the Nixon White House. At one point, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, is on the phone with a Nixon fundraiser. Woodward asks how his $25,000 check ended up in the Watergate money trail. It’s a dangerous question, and you see Woodward ask it and then remain silent for several agonizing moments until the man on the other end of the phone finally blurts out incriminating information.

The moral:  Shut your mouth. Wait. People hate silence and rush to fill it. Ask your question. Let them talk. If you have to, count to 10. Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak. You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow. “Silence opens the door to hearing dialogue, rare and valuable in breaking stories,” says Brady Dennis of The Washington Post.

Step Four: Empathize.

A long-held stereotype about reporters is that they don’t care about people, they just care about getting stories. If you can show sources that you have empathy — some understanding of their plight —- they’re more likely to open up to you. “Interviewing is the modest immediate science of gaining trust, then gaining information,” John Brady wrote in “The Craft of Interviewing.”

“I am a human first,” said Carolyn Mungo, vice president and station manager at WFAA-TV in Dallas. “People have to see that journalists are not just a body behind a microphone. Even if you have five minutes, don’t rush, let them know you care.”

Step Five: Look around.

Good interviewers do more than listen.

“I always try to see people at home,” said Rhode Island freelancer Carol McCabe, who filled her newspaper and magazine feature stories with rich detail gathered during interviews. “I can learn something from where the TV is, whether the set of encyclopedias or bowling trophies is prominently displayed, whether the guy hugs his wife or touches his kids, what clothes he or she wears at home, what’s on the refrigerator door,” McCabe said. Weave these kinds of details for a richer story.

Step Six: Capture how people talk.

The most powerful quotes are short, sometimes just fragments of speech. In a story about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters traveling to visit each other, Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times used simple quotes that illustrated what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.”

“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”

Just 11 words in quotes, yet they speak volumes about the victims.

Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; it’s dictation. Put your bloated quotes on a diet. Quotations, as USAToday’s Kevin Maney once said, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.

Listen for dialogue, those exchanges between people that illuminate character, drive action, and propel readers forward.

Step Seven: Establish ground rules.

You’ve just finished a great interview — with a cop, a neighbor, a lawyer — and suddenly the source says, “Oh, but that’s all off the record.”

That’s the time to point out that there’s no such thing as retroactive off the record. Make sure the person you’re interviewing knows the score right away.

When a source wants to go off the record, stop and ask, “What do you mean?” Often a source doesn’t know, especially if this is their first interview. Bill Marimow, who won two Pulitzer Prizes exposing police abuses at The Philadelphia Inquirer, would read off the record comments back to his source. Often, he found that many sources changed their minds once they’d heard what they were to be quoted as saying.

Step Eight: Be a lab rat.

Record your interviews. Transcribe the questions as well as the answers. Do you ask more conversation stoppers than starters? Do you step on your subject’s words just as they’re beginning to open up? Do you sound like a caring, interested human being, or a badgering prosecutor? To be the best interviewer you can be, study yourself and let your failures and victories lead you to rich conversations and richer stories.

Mastering the Other Side of the Story: Four Questions with Bill Marimow

Interviews
Bill Marimow/Elizabeth Robertson, The Philadelphia Inquirer

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

On stories about a controversy or a subject of sensitivity, do whatever is required to master the other side of the story. This is especially critical in investigative stories. Not only is it the right thing to do, journalistically, but it also will prove very valuable if you’re ever sued for libel. It would be very difficult for a plaintiff in a defamation case to prove that a reporter has written a story “with a reckless disregard of the truth” if the writer has done everything possible to master and communicate the other side of the story. Equally important, once a writer has secured both sides of the story, it will lead to writing with more nuance and authority. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

Writing about how civil service exams for aspiring police commanders were compromised, I received dozens of phone calls from officers who had taken the sergeants, lieutenants and captains tests, explaining in detail what I had missed and pointing out specific test takers whose results were highly suspicious. The callers offered dozens of leads and thanked me for exposing what appeared to be a pattern of preferential — and illegal —  treatment for some officers. These stories were published just a few years after my colleague Jonathan Neumann and I had written a series about criminal violence by the Philadelphia police, and we were considered “public enemies” by the mayor Frank L. Rizzo, a former Philadelphia police commissioner. A typical call from one of the police tipsters began this way: “Marimow, I never thought I’d be calling a newspaper. Especially not The Inquirer. And especially not you. But, pal, you’re telling it like it is, and the Police Department wants to thank you.” Before ending the call, the tipster would often supply the names of specific officers who had failed the civil service tests in the past and were suddenly ranked in the top handful of more than 5000 cops who had taken the sergeants test.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be?

A Haverford Township sanitation engineer, a job that I had one summer in college for $1.80 an hour: Like an editor, I took pride in my work; I got to know my colleagues and the people who lived on my route. I’ve always tried to focus on the fulfillment of a job well done — whether making a difference through our stories or hauling trash on the streets of Havertown. In the case of my summer job, the fulfillment came in knowing that the trash was off the streets until the following week; I was getting into excellent physical condition, and I learned that everyone — especially my full-time colleagues on the sanitation crew — had great life stories to tell.

What’s the single best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?

I think the best advice I ever got about writing was from Gene Roberts, who used to say that every good story should be brimming with “color, quotes and anecdotes.” As I recall, one of Gene’s first editors at the Goldsboro (NC) News-Argus was blind, and he demanded that Gene’s stories make him see. And as with all Gene Roberts’ kernels of wisdom, he delivered it in his inimitable North Carolinian drawl.

Bill Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, has led three news organizations — The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Baltimore Sun as editor in chief and National Public Radio (NPR) as the vice president of news.    As a reporter at The Inquirer, Marimow received the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1978 for stories he wrote with a partner on criminal violence by Philadelphia police, and again in 1985, for his investigation of the Philadelphia police K-9 unit.  In addition, Marimow received two Silver Gavel Awards from the American Bar Association and two Robert F. Kennedy awards — the first, for his work as an Inquirer reporter and, the second, for his work as vice president of news at NPR.      He was editor in chief of The Inquirer from 2006 until spring 2017– with one year off teaching at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University. He is a 1969 graduate of Trinity College from which he received an honorary doctorate degree. Marimow studied First Amendment law at Harvard Law School as a Nieman Fellow.   After retiring from The Inquirer in January 2020, Marimow joined Brian Communications as a senior adviser to Brian Tierney, the former publisher of The Inquirer.

Craft Lesson: Eight steps to successful revision

Craft Lessons

When I hear the word “revision,” I think:

  1. I failed. I should have gotten it right the first time.
  2. I have no clue how to revise my story.
  3. I don’t have time to revise.
  4. Yippee! I’ve got another chance to make my story shine.

Too many writers would pick 1, 2 or 3 from that list. Many writers equate revision with failure. “If I were more talented,” they think.” I wouldn’t need to revise.”

“My editor’s a sadistic hack” they complain when a story has been sent back for revising. “He wouldn’t know a good story if it hit him in the face.”

Revision has negative connotations because many writers don’t know how to tackle that part of the writing process. It’s a shame because revision is the most important step. All writing is, or should be, revision. “It is at the center of the artist’s life,” Donald M. Murray writes in “The Craft of Revision,” “because through revising we learn what we know, what we know that we didn’t know we knew, what we didn’t know.”

 
When it comes to writing success, it’s the winning choice. Number 4 is the best choice. Successful writers recognize that revision is not failure, but another attempt to make their story better.

“What makes me happy is rewriting … It’s like cleaning house, getting rid of all the junk, getting things in the right order, tightening things up. I like the process of making writing neat.”

Ellen Goodman

For many writers, the problem is number 2 on the list. They don’t know how to revise. They know their story isn’t working, but don’t see a way out.

I know. I’ve been there and so have many of my students.

“I’m at the point in the process where I feel I have utterly failed,” one wrote me.. “(Not only that, I am a talentless hack and a fraud, etc. etc.). I can’t see what is wrong with the draft or how to fix it. Please send help.

I know how you feel, I wrote back, because I’ve been there, more times than I’d like to count, and will probably be in that place many times in the future — in the despairing trough of near-completion

I was able to offer her a solution, one I developed to help me move from draft to revision. It’s an 8-step revision strategy that I came up with as a way to push back the negative feelings I had about my draft.

I know it will sound mechanical and it is — deliberately so. At this point, writers are burned out, stressed. Their confidence has ebbed. I know this state of mind very well, and have learned that resorting to a mechanical process distracts me from my despair and forces my brain to come to my aid. It’s time to ditch the Muse and bring out the toolbox: a printer and a pen.

Writing is a journey that teaches us something new every step we take.

More than anything, revision demands distance. There are two types: temporal and physical. The first is time. When the novelist John Fowles finished a draft, he would put in his desk drawer, sometimes for months. (Try selling that to your editor!)

The other, more realistic approach, is the printout, a physical product separate from the screen where pixelated prose tends to look perfect.

To go the distance on a piece of writing, you need to separate yourself from it enough to see it with the eyes of a reader — a stranger to the text instead of the creator. In fact, you need to stop being the writer for a while and assume the role of reader.

Here’s the way that works for me.

1. Hit the print button. The first step in achieving distance is to change the medium. We see words on a page differently than those on my computer screen. A cognitive scientist could probably tell me why, but the fact remains. I find it easier to detect flaws and possible fixes on a printout than when I am staring at the electrons in front of me. Open the draft and hit print.

2. Listen up “The ear is a wonderful editor — and usually a much sharper, smarter and livelier editor than the eye,” says Stephen Koch in “The Modern Library’s Writing Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Read your story aloud, slowly, or, (my preference), ask someone to read it to you. During the reading, sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut; this means you can’t write on the draft or comment or respond, just listen.

 Koch paints an unforgettable scene in the life of Charles Dickens. His daughter Mamie “was once granted the unique privilege of spending several days reading and resting on a sofa in her father’s very closed-door study while he worked.” Normally, nobody watched Dickens at work, but Mamie had been sick, “was her daddy’s darling,” and promised to keep still.

As a grown woman, Mamie recalled her father, oblivious to her presence, begin “talking rapidly in a low voice.” Even away from his desk, he would “whisper the emerging cadences aloud,” Koch says.

“Take it from the greatest,” Koch advises. “You will hear what’s right and wrong on your page before you see it.”
 
3. Mark up. Read the draft a second time aloud, or silently to yourself, but now every time something strikes you — a criticism, a question, a change — make a check mark at that point in the manuscript. Nothing more. You’re just recording a response to something in your story. It may be something you like, something that confuses you, something you’d change or delete, or move.

By now, your draft is getting messy, but that’s not a bad thing.

The sepia image, below, is a manuscript page written by Honoré_de_Balzac, the prolific 19th-century novelist who helped pioneer literary realism, the precursor of today’ narrative journalism.

Never satisfied with his work, he was still making changes even after he sent them to the printer, which was an expensive proposition. One of his stories reportedly underwent seventeen proofs. It may look like a chicken has had its claws dipped in black ink and sent skittering across that page, but as an inveterate reviser, I find the sight comforting.

4. Countdown. Draw a circle next to every mark you’ve made. Number them. In the right margin, you’ll see an example of the method for a magazine story I was revising.

5. Remind yourself. Beside each number, write down why you flagged that word or passage. You will remember why you made the mark. For example, you might jot down, “cut this,” “check this with source,” “move this up,” “spelling,” “lead” or “kicker?” If the change is easy—deleting a word, correcting spelling, make it. Use arrows or slash marks to guide you.

6. Count up. Number the changes. Guesstimate how long each will take you to deal with each of them and write the number next to it. Five seconds. A minute. A half-hour of reporting. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m trying to make a game of it. Anything to keep me moving past the feelings of dread and despair a draft can inspire.

I love the flowers of afterthought.”

Bernard Malamud



7. Get moving. Place your marked-up draft by your screen. Open up the file and start revising. After every change, hit save (always hit save unless you use Google Docs and it does the job for you). Keep moving. Delete. Add. Cut and paste. X out each circle when you’re done. If you get bogged down on one, just skip over it and move on to the next. Move quickly. You don’t want to lose momentum. You may not be able to solve every problem in this revision. But you may the next time around, or, as I’ve found, the problem has been solved..

8. Rinse and repeat. Once you have gone through the entire list, hit print again. Repeat until you are satisfied, or you have to give up this story to your editor.  While this method is especially helpful for long term stories, there’s no reason you can’t do it on a daily deadline. While this method is especially helpful for long term stories, there’s no reason you can’t do it on a daily deadline, especially when you leave time for revision instead of wasting precious minutes trying to craft the “perfect” lead. On very tight deadlines, I’ve managed to hit print once, read the story over for problems and make changes in 15-20 minutes You don’t have time not to. 

This print, markup and revise method works because it helps furnish the psychic distance needed to address the problem you and many other writers face: I can’t see what is wrong with the draft or how to fix it.

Sometimes we can spot a problem in our writing without immediately knowing the solution. Some problems we may not be able to identify beyond a vague sense that “it’s just not working.” But we owe it to our stories to find out why. We must diagnose first if we have any hope of coming up with a good fix for the problem. And then fix it.

Sometimes we can spot a problem in our writing without immediately knowing the solution. Some problems we may not be able to identify beyond a vague sense that “it’s just not working.” But we owe it to our stories to find out why. We must diagnose first if we have any hope of coming up with a good fix for the problem.

I speak from experience. For many years, I would thrash around, bemoaning my inability to figure out why my story sucked and my powerlessness in coming up with ways to make it better. An experience several years ago with a short story changed my attitude. After producing multiple drafts, I still wasn’t satisfied but didn’t have a clue what was wrong or how to make it better.

I decided to give it one more read, marking up the manuscript whenever anything occurred to me as I read. I didn’t need to do anything more than make a checkmark or circle a sentence because when I read it again I remembered what it was that bothered me. (It was confusing, or repetitive, unclear, stilted, unnecessary) and in most cases I knew what to do about it; (rewrite it, move it, remove it).

When I was done and tallied up the marks I was horrified to see I’d come up with 113 things I thought needed to be fixed. And this for a 11-page story that had already undergone serious revision! (In fact, my wife and another writer friend had already told me to cut it out, stop obsessing, and send it off).

I decided to look at it as an exercise in revision: how long would it take me to make the changes. Okay, so it’s a head game, but at least it’s one I’m playing by myself.

It took me 2 hours and 45 minutes to make the changes. I read the new version aloud and when I got to the end I realized it was still not right. But now I saw, for the very first time, that the story actually ended three paragraphs earlier. I trimmed from the bottom, in the process ending with an exchange of dialogue that captured — and climaxed — the story in a way I’d never seen before. It was later published.

Every story can be a writing workshop, one that teaches us more about the craft. The lesson I learned is that even the most creative activity involves a certain amount of routine, even tedium. The woodworker spends hours hand-sanding a piece of furniture before applying the varnish that makes it gleam like a mirror. It may be tedious, but it’s a vital part of the process.

“Traveler there is no path,” the Spanish poet Antonio Machado says in an unforgettable line. “Paths are made by walking.”

May the writing go well.

Photo by Rebecca Matthews on Unsplash

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A benevolent machete: Four Questions with Maria Carrillo

Interviews
Maria Carrillo

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

Listen much more than you talk.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How many jobs are actually rolled into this one: teacher, coach, counselor, therapist.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be?

I  really struggled with this, so I asked my three reporters.

Here’s what I got back.

One said:  “How ‘bout a benevolent machete, cutting away the stuff we don’t know we don’t need. And at least part therapist.”

Another: Mary Poppins: Fun, firm, kind, punctual, polite, collaborative, innovative … able to wrangle naughty children (and their parents) and make them want to please you … administering spoons full of sugar with each bitter dose of medicine … with all kinds of tricks in your bag

The third: My brain headed to plants for some reason. I feel like you nourish us to grow, making the conditions best so the most beautiful plants can flourish. You trim us exactly how we need it and give us darkness or sunlight depending on how we are doing. You fertilize us with a great writing road map, clearing away the overgrowth so we can stand straight up.  Reporters can grow awful healthy under those conditions.

What’s the single best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?

A lot of things raced through my head thinking about this question, but I think the advice that has stayed with me the most wasn’t specifically about editing— in terms of handling copy — but about managing people and it came from Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maria Carrillo is senior deputy editor/enterprise at the Tampa Bay Times, where she oversees a team of reporters and works with journalists across the newsroom on ambitious stories. She was previously enterprise editor at the Houston Chronicle and, before that, managing editor at The Virginian-Pilot. She has edited dozens of award-winnings projects, frequently lectures on narrative journalism, co-hosts a weekly podcast (WriteLane) about storytelling and has been a Pulitzer Prize juror five times. She was born in Washington, D.C., two years after her parents left Cuba in exile. She now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with her husband, and they have two grown children.

Craft Lesson: The Ten Percent Solution

Craft Lessons
Photo by Markus Spiske/unsplash.com


In “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” Stephen King describes a rejection slip he received in 1966 when he was still in high school.

“Not bad but puffy,” the editor wrote. “You need to revise for length.”

The editor provided this formula:

“2nd Draft = 1st draft – 10 %”

It may sound mechanical, but it’s a useful way to trim the fat off your story.

“I wish I could remember who wrote that note…” King writes. “Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor. I copied the formula out on a piece of shirt-cardboard and taped it to the wall beside my typewriter. Good things started to happen for me shortly after. There was no sudden golden flood of magazine sales, but the number of personal notes on the rejection slips went up fast. What the Formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing.”

The Oregonian’s multi-award winning narrative writer Tom Hallman is a charter member of what I think of as the Ten Percent Solution Society.

“I really believe in being spare,” Hallman says.

“On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than 10 or 15 percent of the story,” he says. “So if it’s a 100-inch story, I always cut out 10 or 15 inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.”

As Stephen Koch advises in “The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, “If your story is 10 pages long, make it nine pages long. 20 Pages? Make it 18. If your draft is 300 pages long,  knock it down to 270. Do you have a bunch of pages— any bunch of pages— that needs work? They have not been worked on until they have been washed and pre-shrunk in the 10-Percent Solution.”

Likely candidates:

Passive verb constructions. “The mayor is planning” becomes “The mayor plans,” adding energy, saving a word.
 
Modifiers. Search for “ly” to identify weak adverbs. Replace them with verbs that communicate with power and economy. “She knocked lightly” becomes “She tapped.”

Quotes. Most speech is bloated. Trim the fat, leaving the verbatim message, or paraphrase. You’re the writer: Unless your sources can say it better than you, silence them and put it in your own carefully crafted words.

Boredom. Heed Elmore Leonard’s dictum: Cut out the boring parts. Replace bloated description with dialogue. Do you really need that long anecdotal lead or would the nut graf that follows do the job just as well? If your eyes glaze over as you read your draft, be ruthless. Slice and dice.

Showing Off. “Cut phoniness,” Koch says. “There are going to be certain passages that you put in simply in the hope of impressing people… We all have our way of showing off, and they rarely serve us well. When you have identified your own grandiosity, do not be kind.” Georges Simenon, the prolific French mystery writer, made it his mission to cut away “his efforts to impress..” His main job when he rewrote was to… cut every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentences…Cut it.”

Follow Stephen King’s lead and join the Ten Per Cent Solution Society by keeping the formula close at hand as you revise.


Lose a few words but gain many more readers.

Or better yet. Whittle away as close as you can to the formula or beyond for maximum impact.


Lose words.

Gain readers.

Riding a Ferris wheel: Four Questions with Tommy Tomlinson

Interviews
Tommy Tomlinson
Photo by Jeff Cravotta

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

It’s all about the reporting. We don’t write with words — we write with information. Every time I get stuck in writing a story, it’s because I don’t have the information I need and I’m trying to write around it. But fancy writing won’t patch the potholes. Make the extra call. Read the extra clip. When you’ve got the goods, the writing will be a whole lot easier.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How much people don’t stop and think about their own lives. I’ve written a bunch of stories where the subjects told me later that they learned things about themselves. What I’ve learned from that is that most of us spend most of our energy just getting through the day, and don’t step back to dwell on where we’re headed and why. I’ve realized that I’m not good at this, either.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I think of the job sometimes as riding a Ferris wheel. You’re in this constant loop of diving down low to the ground, then rising up to look from a higher vantage point. It’s the text and subtext — what’s happening in the story and What It All Means. I spend a lot of my time circling up and down, from text to subtext, trying to make sure the reader stays along for the ride.

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I don’t remember who gave me this advice — I suspect I learned it by osmosis from watching some very good reporters. But here’s the advice:
If you hang around people long enough, eventually they become themselves.
At first, everybody a reporter talks to is likely to put up a front — some people suck up, others are mean and try to run you off, still others are fearful about the whole process. It’s hard for your first interactions to be authentic. But not many people can put up a front forever. If you stick around long enough, you’ll see the real person.


Tommy Tomlinson is the author of the memoir “The Elephant In the Room “(Simon & Schuster), about life as an overweight man in a growing America.He is also the host of the podcast “SouthBound” in partnership with WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station. He has written for publications including Esquire, ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Garden & Gun, and many others. He spent 23 years as a reporter and local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, where he was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. His stories have been chosen twice for the “Best American Sports Writing” series (2012 and 2015) and he also appears in the anthology “America’s Best Newspaper Writing.” He has taught at Wake Forest University as well as at other colleges, workshops and conferences across the country. He’s a graduate of the University of Georgia and was a 2008-09 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.


BOOKBAG: Deconstructing the Writing Process Behind “The Sopranos”

Bookbag

One of the treasured books on my shelves is a copy of The Sopranos: Selected Scripts from Three Seasons.” published in 2002.

It reproduces shooting scripts of five episodes of the award-winning HBO mob drama, which was destination TV between 1999 and 2007, and which continues to be a long-running cable rerun hit.

 Its sterling cast was led by the late James Gandolfini, whose nuanced performance as depressive, violent Tony Soprano was peeled away by therapy with psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, achieving the impossible: sympathy for a homicidal crime boss. Gandolfini’s bravura anti-hero performance is considered one of the most powerful in television history.

Among the scripts is my favorite: “Pine Barrens”, about the hapless adventures of Tony’s underlings Christopher and Paulie, after an “errand,” aka mob hit, targeting Valery, a Russian gangster who works for money launderer Slava, goes sour and they have to dispose of his body in the thickly-wooded forest that blankets more than seven counties in New Jersey.

The pair spend a bone-chilling night in the Pine Barrens hunting for the victim who turns out to have nine lives. In this excerpt, static over cell phones between the pair and Tony lead to an elliptical hysterically profane and funny mix-up, one of the dark humor through lines that makes the series so unexpectedly appealing. Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher, said, “That episode was like a little one-act play. Like a different version of Waiting for Godot.” 

EXT. STREET – DAY

Tony walks down the street outside Slava’s, talking on his cell phone as he heads to the Suburban.

TONY

(through some static)

It’s a bad connection so I’m gonna talk fast!

The guy you’re looking for is an ex-commando!

He killed sixteen Chechen rebels single-handed!

PAULIE

Get the fuck outta here.

TONY

Yeah. Nice, huh? He was with the Interior Ministry.

Guy’s like a Russian green beret. He can not

come back and tell this story. You understand?

PAULIE

I hear you.

EXT. WOODS – DAY

Paulie clicks off, looks at Christopher.

PAULIE

You’re not gonna believe this.

(off Christopher’s look)

He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator.

CHRISTOPHER

(amazed)

His house looked like shit.

You can watch a 10-minute clip of from “Pine Barrens.”

Beside offering complet scripts that are invaluable role models for any student or practitioner of scriptwriting is the four-page introduction by David Chase, creator of the multiple Emmy Award-winning series.  In it, he reveals the writing process behind “The Sopranos,” a series that reflects Chase’s love for “the foreign films I loved as a young adult for their ideas, their mystery and their ambiguity…”

From Chase’s intro, I’ve boiled down the show’s formula, a step-by-step run-through of the journey that Chase and his fellow writers took to produce a series that ranked first in Rolling Stone’s 2016 list of the 100 greatest TV shows of all time.

1. Outline story arcs or “touchstones.”

Touchstone is Chase’s term for what journalists and many other writers call the “focus,” or theme, that is, what the story is really about. As the show’s creator and executive producer, these are his call. “The main theme of season 2,” Chase explains, is “plateau therapy — it deals with what Tony discovered and acknowledged in therapy during season one and the feelings these insights evoked.”

2. Fill in the outline.

The touchstone will play out over the season’s 13 episodes, each of which features three to four story “strands — What we call an A, B, (the main storylines) C, (a less major strand) or even D storyline, usually a comic runner.”

As a template, Chase uses “The Happy Wanderer” episode, the one where gambler David Scatino loses at high stakes poker and pays off Tony with his son’s SUV: “The A strand of the story is the spider-fly relationship between Tony and David and how they both behave according to their true natures … The B story is the relationship between Meadow and Eric Scatino (the two men’s teenage children) … The C strand is Tony finding out he has a retarded uncle, and the D story is the funeral for the father of Tony’s brother-in law.”

3. Flesh out the story

In the writing room, Chase and the show’s other writer/producers “flesh out the story for each episode, listing the ‘beats,’ i.e. scenes, for the A-D stories, one story at a time, on a wipe-off board. Each strand has a beginning, middle and end and could stand alone as films.”

That explanation helped me understand why the Sopranos, unlike almost all other TV fare, so often delivers the narrative satisfaction of a feature film, that sense that characters have reached a resolution, if not a final stop. At its most frustrating, as with the infuriating finale, episodes stopped frustratingly short of a satisfying ending.

Each episode has about 35 beats; with the main A and B strands each getting 13 scenes. The C strand gets 5 or 6 and the comic runner D plays out in “just a few beats.”

4. Cut and (Scotch) Tape

The scenes on the board are typed up and then “literally cut apart with scissors” and then “married” together with Scotch tape in the order of the complete script. “For example, a scene from story A could be followed by a scene from B, then back to A, then C and so on,” Chase explains.

Once the writers are satisfied with the scene order “aka story” the taped pages are retyped and voila: an outline that the writer, whoever he is, must faithfully follow.

5. Writing and Whacking

Scripts may go through 10 drafts, revised with notes from Chase and other producers, before they’re seen by any of the cast or crew. And even after filming, Chase may spend months in the editing room, generating “many cuts all the way to the final — which could include reordering and omitting scenes.”

“I firmly believe,” Chase says, “that the more time a filmmaker has to edit, the better a piece will be.”

What impressed me about Chase’s deconstruction was the way the process mixes creativity with mechanical procedures, equal parts brainstorming and Scotch tape. Even the most creative enterprise involves a measure of tedium. 

You can read the entire bootlegged script for “The Sopranos” pilot, the only one I could find, to see these elements at work.

Meanwhile, as fans waited for the the next episodes— Will Tony sleep with the fishes? Will Carmela run off to Italy with Furio? Will Christopher stay off smack? Will Meadow find her own mob man? Will Dr. Melfi get Tony back on Prozac and into the witness protection program?–thanks to HBO (subscription required), they can still watch reruns of all and watch as each strand of “The Sopranos’” stories weaves a dramatic experience that compelled millions of law-abiding Americans to turn a stone-cold killer into a star.

The story-behind-the-scripts is  a fascinating process, and one that I think any storyteller can profit from studying. I’m grateful to David Chase for revealing it.

Displaying a refreshing humility for someone who’s achieved such success, Chase concludes his essay by paying homage to a legendary Japanese filmmaker and an attitude about craft dedication that he clearly emulates.

 “I remember Akira Kurosawa saying at age 80-something that the great thing about filmmaking is you’re constantly learning. He was still learning, he said.”

And despite the Sopranos’ critical and commercial success, Chase said, “We’re continuing to learn.”

Holding fire in your hands: Four Questions with Jon Franklin

Interviews
Jon Franklin

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer

That it’s all about psychology . . . Yours, the reader’s, the characters’.  As time passes, literature and psychology may well merge.  Modern psychology grew from literature, after all; people forget that.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

John Steinbeck once wrote that he’d held fire in his hands, and I figured it was his right to use any metaphor he damned well chose.  Then, ten years later, I did a series of things right and, holy damn, I held fire in MY hands.  I think it has to do with focusing a lot of human experience into a small number of words.  Under certain circumstances, the writer as well as the reader can experience a momentary transcendence.
The point is that the magic is there, but reaching it requires a lot of technical skill as well as the inspirational kind.  I had not really been expecting magic.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I’m a science person, in the end.  That is, I believe in rationality.  But my sciences are literature and psychology, both of which are close to my central interest, the human condition.  After all, journalism can and frequently does become art.
All this is to say my own work is very science-like, but the universe it explores is literary.  For example, I once used a computer program to pick out the overlapping rhythms of steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
But I think I like “naturalist”, to describe me and my work.  Writing is part of the real world, and as such is subject to observation and experiment.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

 My first editor, G. Vern Blasdell, said that if you find the heart of a character and you’ll have your story; find the story, and it’ll point to your character.  Sort of like yin and yang.  Each is the backside of the other.
Vern also introduced me to the idea that modern literature is mainly a reiteration of the stories the Greeks told.  Don’t look for a new story, you’ll fail.  Find an ancient one in new clothes — they are everywhere, and they never wear out.
And then, of course, the only way you learn to write is liberal application of ass to chair.  
Did you know about a condition known as writer’s ass?  If you sit on your tail bone too long, the tiny vessels in your coccyx become occluded and die.  The result hurts, aches, throbs, sometimes for decades and sometimes forever.  That’s why Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway, among others, wrote standing up.  I discovered that when I was diagnosed with it.  Talk about hurt!

Jon Franklin is a pioneer in creative nonfiction. His innovative work in the use of literary techniques in the nonfiction short story, novel, and explanatory essay won him the first Pulitzer prizes ever awarded in the categories of feature writing (1979) and explanatory journalism (1985) for his work at The Baltimore Sun. His books include: “The Molecules of The Mind,” “Writing for Story,” “Guinea Pig Doctors,” (with J. Sutherland) “Not Quite a Miracle, (with Alan Doelp) and ” Shocktrauma, (with Alan Doelp). He spent eight years (1959-1967) as a journalist in the U.S. Navy, and, finally, as a staff writer for All Hands Magazine. He taught at the University of Maryland College of Journalism from and was then professor and chairman of the Department of Journalism at Oregon State University and director of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon before joining the Raleigh (NC0 News and Observer as a narrative writer, special assignments editor and writing coach. In 2001, Franklin returned to the University of Maryland as the first Merrill Chair in Journalism. He retired as an Emeritus Professor in 2010.

CRAFT LESSON: Uncle Oren’s Toolbox and the Value of Over-reporting

Craft Lessons


CRAFT LESSON; Uncle Oren’s Toolbox and the Value of Over-reporting

One summer when Stephen King was a young boy, he helped his Uncle Oren, a carpenter,  repair a screen door on the side of his house. 

“I remember following him with the replacement screen balanced on my head, like a native bearer in a Tarzan movie,” King recalled. Oren meanwhile lugged his toolbox, bulging with tools and weighing in at  nearly 100 pounds, “horsing it along at thigh level.”. 

‘There was a hammer, a saw, the pliers, a couple of sized wrenches and an adjustable; there was a level with that mystic yellow window in the middle, a drill (the various bits were neatly drawered farther down in the depths), and two screwdrivers. Uncle Oren asked me for a screwdriver.”

Wielding the simple tool, Oren speedily removed the eight screws that secured the broken screen and attached the new one. But King was puzzled. He asked his uncle why he’d lugged the toolbox all the way around the house “if all he needed was the screwdriver. He could have carried a screwdriver in the back pocket of his khakis.” 

“Yeah, but Stevie,” he said, bending to grasp the handles, “I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”

I thought of this story, which can be found in King’s magisterial memoir “On Writing”  today after a conversation with my friend Stephen Buckley. Stephen has had a distinguished career as a journalist; Washington Post foreign correspondent with postings in East Africa and Brazil, national correspondent and managing editor for the St. Petersburg Times, (now the Tampa Bay Times),dean of The Poynter Institute before returning to Kenya to run the Professional Development Program at the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communications, Nairobi, He is now a media consultant.

When Stephen comes back on his occasional visits to the U.S., we always try to have breakfast at Trip’s, a local diner. It’s a highlight of my year, not just because he’s a wonderful companion, but a reflective practitioner of the craft of writing.

. “I always worry that I don’t have enough material for a story so I overreeport,’ he said on his last visit. “Of course, then I have so much to wade through.”

I stopped him mid-bite.. “You can’t ever overdo it,” I said. ‘You can’t overreport or research too much.  But you can underthink. You can underplan. You can underrevise.”

Writers, my mentor Don Murray taught me, “write best from an overabundance of material.” 

When Murray was a prolific magazine writer, he filled a trash can with the reporting materials he used and if the can was full he—and his editors—were satisfied he had a solid, fully-reported story. But when he needed something else–a quote, a fact, a statistic–and had to scour the bottom of the near empty bucket he knew he was screwed. He’d under-reported.

Over-reporting played an important role in the first draft of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times Magazine essay about the bitter legacy  of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to America.  Her first draft “was more than twice as long as what ran. There were a lot of examples that did not make it in the final draft. This is part of what makes long-form, deep research really hard. You just have so much information and it’s hard, when you’re so immersed in it, to figure out the most important examples and storytelling points.” The abundance of material, winnowed during revisions, gave the story the authority it needed to make her case. It  won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. 

What Stephen Buckley thought of as overreporting was the crucial accretion of facts, details, scenes, dialogue that made his own stories so memorable. Yes, it’s a hassle, whether you’re researching a book or magazine piece, a feature story or even a deadline news account, to confront a pile of notebooks, screenfuls of interview transcripts, audio recordings and the other research materials that go into effective writing. It can be agony to realize you can only use a fraction of what you collected, 

As Bloomberg Business Magazine writer Bryan Gruley said in a recent interview, when he’s pursuing a feature story, doing the work means “looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story.” 

But that’s where the power of a story comes from. It’s the price writers pay for writing stories that have the  heft of Uncle Oren’s toolbag. It’s what goes into stories that have no holes, that are written with the strength that can come only from over-reporting, 

The Stone Wall Builder: Four Questions with Anne Fadiman

Interviews
Anne Fadiman/Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney

Anne Fadiman’s most recent book, The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir, was an NPR and Library Journal Best Book of the Year, won the Readable Feast Award for Memoir & Food Writing, and was chosen as one of The Guardian‘s Top 10 Culinary Memoirs of all time. The former editor of The American Scholar, Fadiman is also the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction, and two essay collections, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

My friend the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, who died in January, visited my writing class almost every year since I started teaching it in 2005. In her own writing, she always embraced whatever subject lay at the center of her life, however difficult or unpleasant—mental illness, addiction, breast cancer, the discovery in her forties that her father wasn’t the man she’d been told was her father. And she always wrote in a voice that sounded exactly like her: funny, bitchy, contrarian, grumpy, warm, brazen. 

She told my students to be themselves, too.

One year, when the students around our seminar table introduced themselves to Elizabeth, one of them said he came from “a suburb of Chicago.” 

“What’s the name of it?” asked Elizabeth.

“Flossmoor.”

“You don’t come from a suburb of Chicago! You come from Flossmoor! Always say you come from Flossmoor! Be proud of it!”

As we become better writers, we may become deeper, more skilled, or better versions of ourselves on the page. But we should never try to become different selves. The moment we stop sounding like ourselves, we should remind ourselves that we come from Flossmoor, and we’re proud of it.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That anyone would want to read about me. 

I spent nearly twenty years as a reporter before I started writing personal essays. I’d always assumed that my own life—both exterior and interior—was too small to be of interest to anyone but myself, so I figured I’d gain some height by standing on the shoulders of people more interesting than I was. Hence, reporting. Then, at age 40, I was stuck in bed for eight months during a problem pregnancy. I started writing personal essays only because I could do them horizontally.

The essays were enormous fun, and some people actually wanted to read them. The baby turned out fine and is now a writer.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe you as a writer, what would it be?

A stone wall builder.

I tried writing fiction in college, but I was terrible. I’m a nonfiction writer through and through. I’m decent at recognizing which stones are beautiful, and how to fit them together, and in what sequence I should lay them in order to build something that won’t fall down. Those suckers are heavy! I’m willing to grunt and sweat as I pick them up. But if I tried for a million years, I could never make the stones themselves.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

My husband, George Howe Colt, who is also a writer, once said, “The difference between a good piece of writing and one that’s absolutely as good as you can make it is all the difference in the world.”