Tell Me an Article, Daddy

Craft Lessons

Story.

 It’s a word that echoes in newsrooms every day.

“Great story today.”

“Where’s that story? You’re 30 minutes late!”

“Boss, I need another day/week/month to finish that story.”

 “Sheesh, how the heck did that story get on the front page? (This always refers to another journalist’s work.) 

And the old standby: “Story at 11.”

 We call them stories, but most of what appears in print, online, and broadcast are articles or reports, says writing teacher Jack Hart.

Here’s an example from The Guardian about the Feb. 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine:

Fierce fighting broke out in Kyiv as Russian forces tried to push their way towards the city centre from multiple directions in the early hours of Saturday, and as the Ukrainian president, Volodomyr Zelenskiy, bluntly rejected a US offer to evacuate him from the country’s capital.

Articles present information about an accident, a public meeting, a speech, a contested Presidential election, or even a war. They’re a convenient way to convey information in a clear, concise, accurate fashion.

 But please, let’s not confuse them with stories.

 A story features characters rather than sources and communicates experience through the five senses and a few others: place, time and, most all drama.

 It has a beginning that grabs a reader’s attention, a middle that keeps the reader engaged and an ending that lingers. Scenes peppered with dialogue and a distinct narrative voice drive the action.

Here’s how Mitchell S. Jackson opened “Twelve Seconds and a Life,” his Runner’s World story about the murder of Ahmad Arbery, a Black man, by three white men in 2020 while jogging through their suburban Georgia neigbhorhhod.

Imagine young Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery, a junior varsity scatback turned undersized varsity linebacker on a practice field of the Brunswick High Pirates. The head coach has divided the squad into offense and defense and has his offense running the plays of their next opponent. The coach, as is his habit, has been taunting his defense. “Y’all ain’t ready,” he says. “You can’t stop us,” he says. “What y’all gone do?” The next play, Maud, all 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds of him, bursts between blockers and—BOOM!—lays a hit that makes the sound of cars crashing, that echoes across the field and into the stands, that just might reach the locker room. It’s a feat that teenage Maud also intends as a message to his coaches, his teammates, and all else that ain’t hitherto hipped: Don’t test my heart. Some of those teammates smash their fist to their mouth and oooh. Others slap one another’s pads and point. An assistant coach winces and runs to the aid of the tackled teammate. And the head coach, well, he trumpets his whistle. “Why’d you hit him like that?” he hollers. “Save that for Friday. Let’s see you do that on Friday.”

Jackson’s story won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for feature writing. 

Journalists must be able to write articles and stories. Each has their own challenges. Articles compress events and focus on newsworthy elements. Stories connect us with the universals of the human condition. They matter because they transport us to different worlds that reveal the personal and emotional realities behind the news.  

Articles have their place, but late at night, your child will never say, “I can’t sleep. Tell me an article, Daddy!”

 No, they beg to be lulled into slumber by a story.

 Instead, in much of news writing, we provide few if any of these.

 Instead of settings, we give readers an address.

 Instead of characters, we give people stick figures: “Goldilocks, 7, of 5624 Sylvan Way.”

 Instead of suspense, we give away the ending at the beginning using the inverted pyramid, the form which presents newsworthy elements in descending order and peters out at the end. 

 The challenge for today’s journalists is to write stories, as Joel Rawson, former editor of The Providence Journal, described it, that reveal the “joys and costs of being human.”

 STORYTELLING TIPS

         •      Newspapers are full of stories waiting to be told. Police briefs, classified ads, obituaries, the last two paragraphs of a city council brief; all may hold the promise of a dramatic story. Mine your paper for story ideas.

         •      Find the extraordinary in the ordinary stuff of life: graduations, reunions, burials, buying a car, putting Mom in a nursing home, or the day Dad comes to live with his children.

         •      Change your point of view. Write the City Council council story through the eyes of the Asian-American who asks for better police protection in his neighborhood.         

•      Look for ways to drop storytelling features in your daily articles: a description, a scene, a snatch of dialogue.

Threads of Literary Citizenship: Four Questions with Elaine Monaghan

Interviews
Elaine Monaghan

Elaine Monaghan grew up in Scotland and joined Reuters’ graduate journalism training program in London in 1993. Reuters posted her to Moscow, Kyiv, Dublin and Washington, where she followed Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell for three years. She decided that moving countries every two years was a bad parenting choice and became a Washington correspondent for The (London) Times, where she also penned a column, Abroad in America. She later co-authored a memoir with CIA officer Tyler Drumheller, a behind-the-scenes look at how the Bush Administration misled the public to justify invading Iraq. Monaghan covered foreign policy for Congressional Quarterly and wrote for CQ Weekly magazine. She has blogged for Microsoft UK about the election that produced President Obama, lived in Poland for three years while her husband served as an ambassador, and worked for a progressive, strategic communications firm where her main client was Amnesty International USA. In 2014, Monaghan joined the faculty of The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington. As a professor of practice, she teaches courses in data, ethics, reporting and writing, and serves as coordinator for the school’s news reporting and editing concentration. She is a correspondent for News-Decoder, a not-for-profit news service and forum for young people, and co-education lead at the Observatory on Social Media.

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

I’ve loved reading and creating written words since I was a child. Fifteen years as a foreign correspondent, and a decade otherwise occupied in the trenchers of journalism taught me that writing takes real labor. I might have churned stories out in minutes, but it felt like it was happening in slow motion. I sweated over every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and still lose sleep over that intro that wasn’t quite right.  In my 50s, I have turned my attention to creative nonfiction, memoir and autofiction. I still sweat over every word, though now I have the luxury of time and life experience, and now I often put it back on the shelf because I think it needs to mature for at least another couple of years. Does that make me a lesser writer than when I was a journalist being read by large audiences every single day? Not at all. I think I’m a much better writer now. 

The main lesson I’ve learned as a writer is that life is not a popularity contest. Put another way, if you are committed to telling stories with words on a page, and to improving your craft no matter who is watching, you are a writer. If people read you, that’s a bonus. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

In late 2019, after five years teaching writing and reporting at The Media School at Indiana University, I enrolled in a low-residency MFA program at Mississippi University for Women, determined to make space for a writing life. I was participating in my first writing workshop when the pandemic hit. I got sick and wrote about it. That’s how I had what I consider to be my first creative piece published in 40 years.

The most surprising thing about my writing life, though, is not that I had a 40-year gap in it that was filled with writing. It’s that choosing a writing life is not really about writing at all. It’s about friendship. It’s about the people I think of as my writing family, which includes my actual family both here in the US and back in my homeland, Scotland, the friends around the world I talk to in person, by phone, WhatsApp or Zoom, people I trust enough to look at my writing – to look at me, even if we’ve never met in person, which is often the case – and to care enough to tell me what works and what doesn’t. 

The most surprising thing about my writing life, then, is that it has taught me more than any other experience what true friendship looks like, and a big part of it is service, which I see in the idea of literary citizenship.. Literary citizenship threads through my life, in friendship, teaching, learning and good neighborliness.

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

Squirrel.

I mean it as a noun and a verb. When I am writing, GReat! I am like the squirrels in my back yard running furiously up and down trees and sending acorns clattering across the roof. Sometimes they just stop and stare. Perhaps they’ve just had a brilliant idea about where to get their next stash of acorns, or maybe they’re puzzling over which tree to go to next. Sometimes they lose their grip on the acorns and they go flying. Sometimes they eat them on the spot.

Sometimes squirrels squirrel and hide their acorns in exactly the right place in the earth so they can find them later.

Some acorns get eaten right away and some don’t. The ones that get used up right away germinate fast or are damaged. The ones that get squirreled away are hardier and less imperfect. 

As I look for inspiration for stories now, it’s those hardier acorns that I go back to turn into stories with a longer shelf life. Much to my surprise, that process is immensely satisfying, even when my memories are imperfect, because when turned into fiction or autofiction, some of those hardy acorns are pretty okay.

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

I could trot out all kinds of things I remember from my Reuters training from the unforgettably brilliant George Short, RIP. Here are two.

  • When you don’t know what to write, just say what happened. (Recipe for lead-writing block on deadline. Saved me every time.)
  • Lie, cheat and steal. (In a nutshell: Pretend you want one thing from an interview when really, you want that and something else; borrow and take brilliant structures and story ideas and make them your own.)

But George would also have told me to be kind and show respect to my fellow human, and no doubt did, though I don’t remember now and it would have probably sailed over my ambitious, 25-year-old head. 

Data Journalism: Making Numbers Pop

Craft Lessons, Uncategorized

Mention the word data and many journalists look like a deer caught in the headlights. We’re word people, we say. Data is for geeks. 

That attitude denies your audience information in computer databases that reveal hidden secrets and compelling stories. It can cheat you of the chance to do the most exciting and important work in your career. 

“Data journalism matters because we live, increasingly, in a data-driven world,” Casey Frechette, who teaches and researches data journalism at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, told me. “The digitization of society means the emergence of limitless troves of information about how businesses operate; how citizens lead their lives; how governments run. In this sea of data, it’s easy to find ourselves adrift. Data journalists help us make sense of it all.”

STEP INTO DATA JOURNALISM

  1. Acquire. The Washington Post used newly released tract level census data for an interactive database that shows, by typing in your address, how the racial makeup of your neighborhood has changed since 1990. 
  2. Query. The data journalist probes the stockpile of information, looking for story ideas in spreadsheets or to confirm key facts from traditional sources, like an interview with a public official. 
  3. Analyze. Using basic math and at times advanced statistics, data journalists find averages, establish ratios and crunch percentages. Sophisticated calculations can  establish correlations between two variables, such as tenant evictions and rising rents. 
  4. Visualize. “It’s vital.” Frechette says, “to enable people to understand what data means. That’s where visualization comes in, turning statistics into interactive maps and visual worlds.” 

Wall Street Journal reporters Joel Eastwood and Erik Hinton achieved that with an algorithm to compile lyrics from the Broadway musical hit Hamilton that enabled them to show how Lin-Manuel Miranda tapped rap and hip hop’s imperfect, internal rhymes to make musical history. It’s very cool.

HUMANIZING DATA

Behind every statistic is a human being. Data journalists who don’t find them fail to connect their findings with their audiences. 

Numbers numb, according to psychologist Paul Slovic, who co-authored a 2015 study “The More Who Die, the Less We Care.” It concluded that “as numbers get larger and larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action.”  

About 700 women die in America every year from pregnancy or delivery complications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, making it the nation with the highest level of maternal mortality in the developed world. 

But how to illustrate the problem when most of these deaths are kept hidden by authorities? 

ProPublica and NPR reporters solved it by creating their own dataset of victims by scouring public posts on Twitter and Facebook and the crowdfunding sites, GoFundMe and YouCaring, and then using obituaries and public records to verify the women’s basic information. Working with student journalists from New York University, they reached out to family members.

“Lost Mothers,” the series they produced, features a gallery of 134 women who died giving birth in 2016 and 16 feature obituaries. It’s a heartbreaking example of how data journalists succeed by putting a human face on the numbers their computers churn out.

Keep Sending Things Out: Four Questions with Patrick Holloway

Interviews, Uncategorized

Patrick Holloway

 Patrick Holloway is a writer of stories and poems. He is the recent winner of the Molly Keane Creative Writing Award. He won second place in The Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and was the winner of HeadStuff Poem of the Year. He’s been published by Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly, Carve, Overland, The Irish Times, The Moth, Southword, among others. His story ‘Counting Stairs’ was highly commended for the Manchester Fiction Prize. He has been shortlisted for numerous other prizes including: Bath Short Story Prize, Moth Poetry Prize, Moth Short Story Prize, Bath Flash Fiction Prize, Dermot Healy Poetry Prize, Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Award (for both fiction and poetry) and the Alpine Fellowship for Fiction.

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

To keep sending things out. I remember when I first started, a rejection meant the writing wasn’t good, so I’d stop sending that specific poem or story out. With time I realized the importance of researching where I was sending my work. Also, being kind to myself in terms of my writing. Being tough with what was on the page but by no means taking away its worth. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

How difficult it can be. How, especially when you are not a full-time writer, you have to sacrifice other things in order to write. That can be challenging on relationships and on yourself. Difficult in terms of the craft, in terms of being disciplined and dedicated. Difficult in terms of rejections and self-doubt. Littered among the difficulties though are the joys of writing well, of surprising myself by winning some writing awards and seeing my words among those of brilliant writers I admire.

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

It’d have to be tennis-related — my other passion. Especially writing a novel now, I see it like watching a 5 set grand slam final. There are so many ebbs and flows, lots of layers, lots of backstory, tension, rivalry and conflict. The points themselves are the sentences, some are hard and fast, others full of finesse. Games are chapters. I suppose the win is getting a publisher. 

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

I think a huge shift in how I saw writing and my relationship to it came when I was in the U.S and I had a class with Karen. E. Bender. She told me after to think about doing an MFA. It suddenly made writing something altogether different, gave it stature. Also, I suppose, it gave me the belief I didn’t know I was lacking. 

Words Matter: Four Questions with Steve Padilla

Interviews
Steve Padilla

Steve Padilla is editor of Column One, the showcase for storytelling at the Los Angeles Times. Padilla joined the Times in 1987 as a night-shift police reporter but soon moved on to editing. He has edited a wide variety of subjects—including politics, international news and religion—and helped guide the Times’ Pulitzer-winning coverage of a botched bank robbery in North Hollywood in 1997. He serves as a writing coach and devotes his Twitter feed (@StevePadilla2) to writing technique. Before the Times, he was a reporter for the San Diego Union and editor of Hispanic Link Weekly Report, a national newsletter on Latino affairs. He earned his B.A. in print journalism and history from the University of Southern California.

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

The biggest lesson came early in my editing career—while serving as editor of the Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California. That’s when I discovered what I call the megaphone effect. When you’re the boss, your words are amplified, both good and bad, especially the bad.

I was chatting with another editor about a story padded with a bunch of unnecessary material and said something like “it was filled with all sorts of extra crap.” The editor looked horrified and earnestly told me I shouldn’t say a fellow student’s story was crap. I tried to tell her that’s not what I meant at all—that I didn’t mean the story was crap. I was just using that word for “stuff.” Too late. The damage was done. As I look back now, I’m grateful that lesson came so early in my editing career because it saved me from unfortunate experiences in professional settings. This doesn’t mean withholding criticism or sugar-coating everything, but ever since that day in the Daily Trojan newsroom, I’ve remembered how words matter, especially if you’re the boss.

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

There have been plenty of unpleasant surprises in my editing career, but I want to share a good one: that the writers who supposedly resist editing actually will embrace it. But this attitude shift comes with an “if.” If the editing is specific, useful and backed by solid reasoning, even the grumpiest of writers will embrace it. (Well, many of them.) Part of the issue is presentation. For example, if I find the perfect opening for a story tucked away in the 25th paragraph, I never say, “You buried the lead.” I’ll say, “This is so good we have to move it up.” I’ve never had anyone complain about that.

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

May I share two metaphors—one that fits my day-to-day duties and one that expresses my ideal? The first is coach, and not a writing coach. Like a football or basketball coach, I’m standing on the sidelines, guiding, training, cheering, encouraging, sometimes disapproving. The other image is orchestra conductor. That’s my favorite relationship with a writer. I just stand in front of the orchestra and wave my hands around, but the players make the actual music.  Both coach and conductor relate to an inspiring comment about editing I learned reading “Max Perkins, Editor of Genius,” A. Scott Berg’s masterful biography of the editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, among others. Perkins said an editor “releases energy.” Not creates, not controls. Perkins said releases. That’s the goal.

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

 The best advice I ever got concerning wordcraft—management is another issue–came from the late and legendary writing coach Jim Hayes. He said, “Put the best stuff at the end of the sentence.” Jim showed me how he could improve a sentence not by adding or deleting words, but by rearranging their order. I’m not shy about snipping or adding words. Sometimes that’s necessary. But I’ve found that if a sentence can end with gusto, that helps story organization, keeps the sentences bouncing and flings the reader into the next sentence. It’s such a simple idea but I’d never had anyone express it so simply. That was the other lesson from Jim: to offering writing guidance in clear, sentence-level terms.

Now a disclaimer, at least for journalistic writing: Yes, some sentences must end with “according to documents,” or “police said Thursday,” but the words just before those should be powerful, interesting or important. I’ve found that much of my coaching emphasizes word order and that the payoffs are almost immediate. And there’s another value to rearranging words, versus overhauling a whole sentence: it stills sounds like the writer, only better.

Craft Lesson: Knocking on Doors

Craft Lessons

Let me begin with an epiphany. In 1973, I was a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, studying for a master’s degree. One day in the middle of a lecture, my professor, Melvin Mencher, casually said, ”If you’re going to be a reporter, you have to be counterphobic,” and moved on. 

My hand shot up. “What does counterphobic mean?”

“You have to do,” he said, “what you fear.”

Mr. Mencher didn’t know it, but he had struck a nerve.

Before I went to grad school, my journalistic experience consisted of only a year on a very small newspaper in Connecticut, where I grew up. I had a big problem interviewing people, whether they were hostile police officers who wanted nothing to do with the media, or perfect strangers I had to talk to for a story whether it was at a Town Council meeting or for a feature. Knocking on doors was especially tough. Frankly, I was really scared. Scared of rejection, of doors slammed in my face, of angry shouts of, “Beat It!” Even physical violence. (I had an active imagination.)

After that day in class, doing what you fear became a sort of mantra for me that guided my career for the next two decades as a reporter and beyond as a writer, author, publisher, and writing coach. The fear—of harsh rejection and failure—has never gone away. Honestly, I had the jitters this morning hoping my visit with this class today wouldn’t suck. 

In 1994, I left the newsroom for the classroom to teach at The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida. One of my responsibilities was running a six-week reporting and writing program for recent college graduates. I soon realized that many of my students were afraid of the same things I had been as a reporter. So, I assigned them to head out onto the streets and interview five strangers. They had to get their name, address, age, and a comment on a current story. I could see the fear in their eyes, but to their credit, they did what they were told. 

When they came back, I had them answer three questions, 1. What did they learn from the experience? 2. What surprised them about it? 3. What did they need to learn next? 

Their answers were terrific. Here’s a sample. “​​I was surprised the most by the fact that I was able to get over my fears of doing the actual reporting. No matter how the writing of the story turned out, in my mind it was secondary to the fact that I knocked on all 18 doors on 56th Avenue S. I felt a little bit like an encyclopedia salesman, but I got over the nausea in the pit of my stomach by the fourth or fifth house.” That student, Steve Myers, went on to a sterling journalism career, leading investigations at  USA Today and a month ago, moving to ProPublica, the outstanding nonprofit investigative reporting group.

Many writers, working ones as well as students, experience the same fears, not only about interviewing strangers, but the entire writing process, from coming up with story ideas, pitching their editors, getting enough information, writing and revising the story, and being edited. 

But I noticed something different when I spent a year as a visiting professor at my alma mater, Columbia Journalism School, in 2009-10. More than a few of my reporting students were more comfortable surfing the Web for information, happier in front of a computer than going outside. To be a reporter. I told them, you have to talk with people, whether they’re experts or ordinary folks caught up in the news, whether it’s on the phone or the best route, in person. I love the internet, but it’s no substitute for coming face to face with a human being where they can look you in the eye and decide whether to open up. That’s the way you get great quotes and compelling details. 

“Basic reporting is not about looking things up on the Internet,’ says Carl Bernstein, who with his partner Bob Woodward at The Washington Post. helped drive President Richard M. Nixon from The White House in 1974 after uncovering his entanglement in the Watergate scandal.

 “What we need to be doing now is knocking on doors, getting out into the communities we cover,  persistence, perpetual engagement with the story, not taking no for answers,” he said in a recent podcast about his new memoir, “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom.” “Not going to easy places  like people in their offices where there are other people around and they’re liable to tell you a tale that isn’t true, but knocking on people’s door at  night like we did on Watergate.” (Learn more about their shoe-leather reporting methods in their book about reporting the Watergate story, “All the President’s Men,” later made into a classic movie.

When I would interview someone in their home, I always asked for a tour. No one ever objected. I got one when I was interviewing the widow of a man who smoked all his life and died of lung cancer as part of a series on tobacco injury litigation. She took me into her bedroom. I was scanning the room for a detail I could use. There was a small photo of him stuck into the mirror, but that wasn’t enough.  Suddenly Marie DeMilio said, “You know, at night, I sprinkle his aftershave on my pillow, just so I can feel close to him.” I had my ending and a moment I believe would never have happened if I wasn’t counterphobic and gone to her home. Certainly not something I could get on my computer. 

Journalism demands courage and that’s one of the aspects that makes it such an honorable profession. You can always tell safe stories, and there are safe stories all over the paper and all over the broadcasts. Think of a tightrope. Every day, walk across it. Who’s the one person you’re afraid to call? Where is the one place in town you’ve never been because you’re afraid to go there? It may be a poor neighborhood or the top floor of a bank. Ask yourself every day, “Have I taken a risk?”

Be honest: Are you spending too much time at your desk instead of being out in the community or the area covered by your beat? If you’re not on deadline, get out of the office right now.

People want to know how I cope with fear.

I take deep breaths, sucking in as much air as I can into my lungs, and slowly let it out. That relaxes me. I take a hot shower. I prepare, or over-prepare. I’ll record my fear in my journal and then make a point of check-in back, only to learn everything turned out okay. Some reporters drink chamomile tea to soothe their nerves

I remind myself that it’s always gone well before and of something my wife has told me for 40 years when I’ve been anxious. It’s going to be fine. She’s never been wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t face fear anymore.

Assertiveness reflects a belief in yourself and your role as a journalist in a democracy. You have the right to knock on doors, to ask questions, to approach someone for an interview, to request information. The flip side, of course, means that the person you’re asking has the right to say no. Assertiveness also demands empathy. You have to understand that you wield power as a journalist. Your press pass will get you places the general public can’t go. As a reporter, I’ve watched doctors try to impregnate a woman through in-vitro fertilization, sailed on a freighter, followed police on a drug bust and a seven-year-old blind boy through his day. 

What may surprise you is knowing that many people are terrified of journalists. Although it may be hard to believe, most people will be more afraid of you and the power you wield as a reporter than you are of them.

Consider what J. C. McKinnon, a burly, stern-faced St. Petersburg police officer, told my reporting students at Poynter:

“I carry a can of pepper spray, a Glock pistol and 51 rounds of ammunition. But you’ve got something that can destroy me: a pen and a notepad.”

When writer’s block—again, fear of failure—surfaces, my counterphobia attacks it with freewriting, letting my fingers race across the keyboard, never stopping to correct spelling or punctuation or even gibberish. Soon, something magic emerges: a coherent thought, a story idea, or an insight that I can follow and revise until it makes sense and grows into a story. It never fails.

Whether it’s talking to strangers or facing a blank screen, don’t be afraid. Or, rather, be afraid, but do it anyway. 

(Adapted from a Jan. 13, 2022 talk to introduction to reporting and writing students at Duke University taught by Stephen Buckley.)

Don’t Lose Heart: Four Questions with Madeleine D’Arcy

Interviews
Madeleine D’Arcy/Photo by Claire O’Rorke

Madeleine D’Arcy is a fiction writer based in Cork City, Ireland. Her second book, “Liberty Terrace,” a linked short story collection, was published in Oct. 2021. Her début short story collection, “Waiting for the Bullet” (Doire Press, 2014) won the Edge Hill Readers’ Choice Prize 2015 (UK).In 2010 she received the Hennessy Literary Award for First Fiction and the Hennessy New Irish Writer Award.Her work has been published in several anthologies and her short fiction has been listed in a variety of competitions, most recently the Craft International Short Story Award 2020 (US) and the Writing.ie An Post Irish Short Story of the Year 2021. She has also completed a novel. Since January 2017, she has co-curated Fiction at the Friary, a free monthly fiction event in Cork City, with fellow-writer Danielle McLaughlin.

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

Talent is not enough. You also need patience and diligence. My advice to emerging writers is to take your time, learn your craft, read a lot, try to make your own work as good as it can possibly be – and don’t send it out until you’re sure it’s ready.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

In 2010, I won the Hennessy Award for Emerging Fiction and the Hennessy New Writer of the Year Award on the same night, with my first ever published short story. It was a surreal experience. I was absolutely shocked. To be honest, I was a bit drunk as well, because free cocktails were provided at the event and my reasoning was that I might as well enjoy the night and party on, since there was no way I was going to win.

Another big surprise was to win the Edge Hill Reader’s Choice Prize for my first short story collection, Waiting For The Bullet (Doire Press, 2014).

I never expect anything. It is probably best to have low expectations. A writer’s life will also involve fallow years, when life puts obstacles in your way. All you can do is persevere. The good times will always come around again if you don’t lose heart .

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

I figure I might be a bee. I buzz quietly around my own little patch of the world, taking an interest in what’s happening and quietly going about my own business. I am small and hard-working. It would be easy to underestimate me or ignore me, and I have had to deal with all kinds of drones and several obnoxious queen bees in my time, but I’m learning not to be such a push-over. Most importantly, in the end, after a lot of hard work, I manage to produce some fine honey.

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

I once did a workshop with the late, great Canadian writer, Alastair MacLeod (1936-2014). His novel, “No Great Mischief,” won the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award). He was a truly wonderful man, both funny and wise. He said “The best writing is specific in its setting, but universal in its theme.” I think that sums up
good writing perfectly.

CRAFT LESSONS: Ten Favorites

Craft Lessons

More than two years ago, I began posting essays devoted to the craft of writing. To kick off 2022, I offer this tidy collection of craft lessons that I think best suit the needs of all writers, no matter the genre or length, or deadline. May your writing go well in the new year.

  1. Why I Write, and Why You Should, Too.
  2. Tune Out USuck FM and Free Yourself to Write.
  3. Do the Writing Only You Can Do.
  4. Eight Steps to Better Interviewing.
  5. Finding Any Story’s Heart with Five Questions and 70 seconds.
  6. Five Ways to Build Memorable Characters.
  7. Braiding Your Narrative to Tell a Complete Story.
  8. Writing with Your Nose
  9.  Best Writing Advice: A Roundup.
  10. Gulp. And Go.

Holiday wishes and holiday books

Uncategorized

Greetings!

Happy New Year! May 2022 bring safety, good health, and lots of reading and writing.

After a week’s holiday, I’m looking forward to starting the New Year by sharing new Four Questions with… interviews, Craft Lessons, Readings to Savor, and much more. Tomorrow’s interview is with award-winning New Yorker staff writer and author Paige Williams who discovers the universal by tracking the granular.

I hope the holidays brought you the best writer’s gift: books.
For Christmas, I got Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed novel “Crossroads.” I’m looking forward to diving in.

Please consider two writing advice books that I just published.  Both are available on Amazon in paperback and ebook editions through my author page or the direct links below.

Writers on Writing: Inside the lives of 55 distinguished writers and editors.  It’s an anthology of interviews drawn from two years of reaching out for Chip’s Writing Lessons to best-selling authors Susan Orlean and David Finkel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Lane DeGregory, John Branch, Diana K. Sugg and Thomas French, acclaimed poet Patricia Smith, Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Bruce DeSilva, powerhouse narrative editor Jan Winburn and 46 others that you first met here. 55 writers. Hundreds of Writing Insights. 111 journal writing prompts make it an interactive writing workshop.

“By asking four questions to 55 of our finest writers and editors, Chip Scanlan has hosted one of the greatest writing conferences you will ever attend.” – Roy Peter Clark, author of “Writing Tools”, “The Glamour of Grammar,” “Murder your Darlings.” 

“A marvelous book for writers, people who have a passion for writing, or simply, who want to become writers. Yet what strikes me about this book is that it is not just for writers only.” – The Blogging Owl 

Writers on Writing: The Journal” is a companion or standalone volume with 55 coaching tips, 55 inspirational quotes, like the ones you find here in the “Writers Speak” feature, and the 111 writing prompts drawn from the first book, along with three blank pages after each chapter. Here’s the place to start your day with reactions, stories, dreams. 

READING MATTER 

In this piece for Poynter Online, Roy Peter Clark wrote a tribute to writers who write about their writing and included the foreword to my first book, along with his Four Questions interview. 

And ICYMI, here’s my story behind the self-publishing journey that produced these two books and also provides a wealth of information for anyone considering that route to bring their books before the public.

My New Year’s resolutions for 2022: Never a day without a line. Publish more. Visit my local independent bookstore, Tombolo Books, in St. Petersburg, Fl. Support the independent bookstore in your community.

What are yours?

BEFORE YOU GO

Please spread the word to sign up for Chip’s Writing Lessons.

Interested in personal coaching? Reach out to me at chipscan@gmail.com.

Browse the newsletter archive. To find earlier issues, scroll to the end of the archive page, where you will find arrows that help you toggle back and forth between them.

Question? Comment? Suggestion? Email me at chipscan@gmail.com or send a reply to this newsletter.

May the writing go well, and may you be well.

Nulla dies sine linea / Never a day without a line

Black Lives Matter