Friday, March 16th, 2012
My background is journalism, so naturally I have my own morgue.
The “morgue” in newspaper parlance are the file cabinets holding all the research materials, notes and photos that went into producing a news story. All the pieces are usually filed together in a single folder by year or story. Sometimes the photos have their own morgue. Depends on the newspaper.
Pretty inefficient, really. While a lot of those records are filed electronically now, most of it still goes down the same way because who has the time to turn scribbled notes and library research into electronic documents when you’ve got to write the next news story?
And really, that stuff almost never gets looked at again unless it’s a really big story that has repercussions years later and needs to be referenced again. Or, the newspaper runs one of those “Five years ago, Ten years ago, etc. columns.
Writers tend to have ideas folders (stuff where they put ideas they’ve had, but aren’t ready to be written yet, snippets of overhead conversations, inspiring photos, etc.) and “trunked” files: a place for those stories that were written, but never got sold for whatever reason.
I have another file I keep, my “Culled from ‘XX Manuscript'” file: this is the place where I copy and paste the stuff edited out of my manuscripts. It contains idle scenes, verbose paragraphs, misplaced character thoughts in long and short phrases.
It’s a file that makes me feel better when I’m editing: I can take all that “hard work” which should never see the light of day, and keep a record of having written it. I tell myself I’ll go back there one day and make use of it.
I’ve never, ever done so (unlike my morgue or ideas folders…)
But this past week while I was doing some major edits, I realized that that file contains a lot of good stuff even if it wasn’t polished enough — or well thought out enough — to use in the current manuscript.
It’s plenty good for inspiring ideas when you need a kick.
Here’s Your Prompt:
- Raid your ideas folder or junked stories for a snippet, phrase, paragraph, description, etc. to get your juices flowing: we’re not looking for an old idea to use here, we’re reading until you find a phrase that sparks a new idea. Find it and write.
- Kill two birds with one stone: edit something that needs to be polished. Take all those words and phrases you cut away and save them into another file. Likely, they won’t be ‘sparkers’ this early: they’re too fresh in your mind. Set them aside for a few weeks and then revisit. In the meantime: you’ve polished up some writing. Send it out!
- If you don’t have ideas folders, trunked files, or writing that needs some editing (Welcome, beginner!) pick a book off your shelf — something you haven’t read in a long time, or something you’ve never read — and open it to a random page. Read until an idea is sparked.
- If none of these ideas appeal, here area a few very short phrases from my latest edits. Feel free to use them for your own stories:
- “I’m damn tired of not getting my money’s worth.”
- So, what did he want me to do about this?
- It didn’t matter why the old man told him the story: he didn’t want to hear it.
- …stiff and away from the window…
- Chasing women was something he’d never had to do
- Convinced he could do no more for the creature than make her comfortable, he…
- The priestesses had long controlled the northern parts of the continent because of…
Photo Credit: A story about the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch newspaper morgue.
Friday, May 6th, 2011
On May 6, 1937, the German airship, Hindenburg, exploded just as it arrived at it’s destination, Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty six people were killed.
Herbert Morrison, a radio announcer on WLS Radio, watching the disaster unfold, delivered a live speech as the zeppelin went down in flames, the last line of which has been exploited in movies, television and elsewhere (often taken out of context and used for dramatic — even humorous — effect).
“Oh, oh, oh. It’s burst into flames. Get out of the way, please…this is terrible…it’s burning, bursting into flames, and is falling… Oh! This is one of the worst… it’s a terrific sight… oh, the humanity.”
Almost a thousand people waited for the Hindenburg that evening. Bad weather and rain delayed both the ship’s arrival and timely docking. A set of unfortunate circumstances: the use of hydrogen for buoyancy and maneuverability (rather than the safer helium gas), the small gas leak noticed too late, Captain Max Pruss’ too-fast landing and subsequent reverse engine thrust, all contributed to the inferno.
Reports say the spectators felt the heat of the blast nearly a mile away.
Here’s Your Prompt: Write an eye-witness account of an accident, a natural disaster, or a medical emergency. What was your first thought, or the first words out of your mouth? What were you doing when “it” happened? Were you with anyone? Were you near enough to be injured yourself? What about anyone else you were with?
Who else was involved? How did it happen? What was the ultimate outcome? Write what you experienced during the event. Don’t ignore your senses: how things looked, felt, sounded, smelled and even tasted. Include how you were feeling when the event was happening, and now, looking back on it, how you feel about it having happened.
Journalistic Prompt: Write the same story as a reporter, not as an eye witness. “Interview” others who saw what happened and relate, in their words, the most key elements of the story: who, what, when, where, why and how. Keep your own opinion out of the story, and be certain to include a spectrum of eyewitness opinions — including contradictory accounts and conclusions — to make certain the story is “fair and balanced.”
For more information on journalism, see my other prompt on the inverted pyramid style of writing for newspapers.
Thursday, December 17th, 2009
Or, How to Write Copy Like a Trained Journalist – Part 1
I spent a lot of years working as a reporter. I find writing like a reporter is perfect for writing for the Web, and in most instances, can help to bring your fiction alive as well.
Journalistic writing is characterized by spare prose (“just the facts”), with the most important information at the beginning of the piece. There are other rules, usually found in a style guide (more on that in another post), which characterizes other parts of the writing.
One facet of journalistic writing is to avoid cliches.
A cliche is a phrase or an expression that has become overly familiar through use. Two cliches should be evident in the following sentence:
The car barreled down the road at breakneck speed.
Which of the following cliches haven’t you heard?
- a note of warning
- beat a hasty retreat
- black as night
- cool as a cucumber
- dazed and confused
- flood of tears
- green as grass
- hard as nails
- in the nick of time
- made ends meet
- very much in evidence
(My original list was much longer…but it just looked silly on the page… I think you get the point.)
Cliches should never be used in a news or feature story (or fiction!), no matter how great the temptation–and temptation will beckon. (Trust me on this…it’s so much easier to write the cliche than to think up something new!)
And, there’s a reason why cliches are so popular: they’re familiar and easily understood by an audience. They bubble to the top of your thoughts when you’re considering what to write. And if you’re facing a deadline, it’s easy to rely on tired phrases to get your point across, rather than write fresh copy.
It’s much harder (not to mention more time consuming) to think up something new (especially if you’re like me. I like to dither over phrases and make them “perfect” before moving on.) But the use of cliche represents poor use of language, and in some cases, can identify the author as either inexperienced or, worse, lazy.
Appearing lazy can lose you commissions.
The problem with cliches is they make all stories sound the same:
The robbers terrorized their victims and made their escape on foot, fleeing with the loot.
So, the rule is: avoid cliches like the plague.
When writing fiction, don’t let your characters resort to cliched thought. Avoiding trite phrases will allow their personalities to develop. (And you may find that you learn more about your characters themselves if you have to work hard to make them think on their own, rather than relying on tried and true expressions to get their points across.)
When writing Web copy, keep your thoughts fresh and your words crackling. Cliches allow your reader to skim the writing, but if you use new language, your readers will actually have to think about what you write.