‘Prewriting’ from three perspectives
How to get more out of those moments between the last scrawl in your notebook and the first stroke at your keyboard
In April, I asked you to pledge 15 minutes a day toward getting better, and gave a you a bunch of suggestions to choose from. (“The 15-minute workout,” April 30) This week, try steal an extra 15 minutes during your prewriting process–between your reporting and writing stages–to refine the way you answer the obvious but essential question: What is my story about? Why the hell did I decide to do this story? Where did I wind up?
This question, however you ask it, needs to become a natural extension of your writer’s personality. To to get you going, here are three individual perspectives on prewriting. The first suggests you create a formal oral stage, especially on longer, more complex pieces. The second gives you a list of helpful conceptualizing and organizing techniques you can try, and the third shows how focusing harder on a specific variable–in this case, sentence length–can pay off.
I. The importance of giving good oral
Sportswriter David Wharton was ready to write a piece that felt cinematic, shifting from New York to New Mexico and concluding in L.A.. It was the story of a University of Southern California basketball player who came from a poor New York background, and a woman in New Mexico who salvaged him. In preparing to write the piece, David went to a book on film technique for inspiration. Before he talks about what he learned, read the top sections of his story:
The trip from New Mexico takes seven hours of driving, flying, then more driving. She comes every other week to watch a young and struggling USC basketball team.
”Her?” an usher at the Sports Arena asks. ”That woman is in her own world.”
Diane Taylor stands just under five feet tall. She is middle-aged and suitably dressed, a gold cross hanging from a gold chain around her neck. She always sits behind the bench and everyone knows her by the odd-looking stick she carries.
The size of a cane, it is covered with bells and bangles, and there is a cymbal attached on top. It is the kind of contraption a fan might rattle after dunks and three-point baskets.
”My boombah,” she calls it. And once the game begins, Taylor pounds that stick.
She pounds it on the floor, hard enough to startle people sitting nearby. She pounds it for reasons that have little to do with basketball.
People wonder about that woman.
From there, the story moves to the other protagonist, the player:
His voice settles between a whisper and a growl, his eyes half-lidded, as he tells his story. Elias Ayuso starts long ago, long before he became a sharpshooting guard for the Trojans, running the court with the jangle of the boombah in his ears. He was 8 when he left Puerto Rico with his mother and brothers and sisters, on their way to becoming another immigrant family in the South Bronx.
”The guy who lived below us, he had some problems with drug stuff,” Ayuso says. ”I don’t know if he owed money or what but they wanted to kill him. They threw a firebomb into his apartment.”
It was late at night and Ayuso was watching television with his family.
”The hallway was nothing but smoke,” he says. ”We couldn’t take the fire escape so we got everybody and we covered my little brother’s mouth and we just ran down the steps.”
They lost everything. People from the next building brought out old clothes but the best they could find for Ayuso was a blouse and baggy pants.
”They dressed me in girlie clothes,” he says.
The next few years, as his family drifted through shelters and low-rent hotels…
That second section soon ends with Ayuso drifting into trouble, and then proceeds to the third section, where Taylor and Ayuso will intersect:
What does it take to save a kid? What can salvage a child who learns to connive and brawl the way other children learn to brush their teeth and do their homework? Before Taylor attempts tries to answer the question, she has a story of her own to tell.
It goes back to a Pennsylvania mining town called Carbondale, where she was a little girl from an Irish-Italian family as big as it was poor. There wasn’t money for a doctor’s visit when she fell ill and she recalls coughing so loudly on the street that two well-dressed women stopped. to watch.
”Go home,” one of them said. ”You’re disgusting.”
Decades later, the 49-year-old woman clenches her hand into a fist and says, ”I remember thinking that no one would ever treat me that way again.”
The memory made her tough as nails, fiery as her red hair. It….
Eventually, Ayuso winds up in the New Mexico town where Taylor has settled. The story describes how she helps him get to USC and continues her commitment to him.
Some stories require no nut graph or statistics, no quotes from experts. They are tales, pure and simple. The moment I heard about Elias Ayuso, I figured he’d make for that kind of story. As a teen, Ayuso robbed and stole on the Bronx streets. When his brother and friends were killed, he got scared and talked his way into a program that sent him to a foster family in New Mexico. He saw it as a way to stay safe, nothing more. But he ran into a feisty woman who set about trying to change him.
As I gathered information for this yarn, I found myself telling it to colleagues in the office and friends around the dinner table. And that was how I decided to write the piece, as a blend of oral and written storytelling. I then stole a trick from scriptwriting guru Robert McKee.
In his book “Story,” McKee suggests writers outline their screenplays step by step, each scene briefly described on its own index card. With the outline complete, the writer tests his idea by sitting down with a willing listener and reading it aloud.
We’ve probably all done this with full drafts of articles, but his exercise comes much earlier in the process.
”If a story can’t work in 10 minutes, how will it work in 110 minutes?” McKee writes. ”It won’t get better when it gets bigger. Everything that’s wrong with a ten-minute pitch is ten times worse on-screen.”
His method is, of course, far more involved. He has theories on what makes for a good scene and how stories should progress, all of which makes his book worth buying, even for writers, such as me, with no intentions of attempting a screenplay. But for the purposes of the Ayuso story, I focused on the act of testing my outline.
In many ways, it was the same as reading a draft. When the story moved, my words snapped one after another. When the narrative lagged, I felt uneasy. My kind listener was there to reinforce these perceptions, to tell me which parts of the tale interested him most or not at all.
At the end of an hour (my first try, it went a little long), I had a feel for my priorities. I had a grasp on the story early enough to direct both the reporting and the writing.
I’m not sure the exercise translates to articles on issues or institutions, but it sure helped with a good old-fashioned tale.
II. Thirty tips for finding the focus
Don Murray, a much-admired writing coach, first offers 16 strategies for those moments when, as he puts it, “the reporting is done, but what do all these notes mean?” Murray’s drills for finding the focus of the story include Dave Wharton’s oral strategy (#4) and begin with my favorite question:
1. Answer the question “What’s the story about?”
2. State the single dominant meaning of the story in one sentence or less. It may be changed by the experience of reporting and writing.
–The statement should not be a label, such as “War.” It should be a title that limits the subject, helps the writer focus on it and may even establish the voice with which the piece will be written.
–The statement should have what Virginia Woolf called “the power of combination.” It should contain the tensions within the story: “They had to destroy the village to save it.”
–It may help to list the elements of the story that relate to the statement. Everything in the story must advance that single meaning.
3. Rehearse this statement of focus, in your head and on paper, while working on the story.
4. Tell an editor or a colleague about the story, to hear what you say about it.
5. Draft the end of the story, to give yourself a sense of destination.
6. Draft the lead of the story, to reveal the direction and the voice of the story.
7. Free-write, as fast as possible, a discovery draft or discovery grafs, to reveal the meaning and the voice of the story. They can be any part of the story as long as they reveal tone, mood, voice. Am I sad, joyous, incredulous, detached, warm, cold? Do I smell earth or engine oil or chalk dust?
8. Listen to what your voice is telling you about the meaning of the story. The intensity, rhythm and tone of voice often reveal meaning.
9. Put down what the reader needs to know about the story. How will this story serve the reader?
10. Form is meaning. Try on different approaches to the story, such as narrative, profile, inverted pyramid, interview, problem-and-solution.
11. Rehearse the story, in your head, and on paper, to hear what the story means.
12. Look at the story from different point of view.
13. Focus in writing may be achieved the way focus in photography is achieved: by adjusting the distance. Zoom in close, stand way back; move back and forth until the story comes into focus.
14. A revealing detail may give the story focus: Look for the significant detail that reveals the central meaning of the story. That detail may be a fact, a quote, an action, a scene, a name, a face, a place, an act committed, an act not committed. Look for the image that reveals–the specific that controls the vision of the piece.
15. Look for the anecdote (the little story or parable that combines character, dialogue, action and place) that reveals the significance of the story–that shows rather than tells the reader.
16. You work for a newspaper. What’s new?
Murray follows that up by offering 14 solutions to the next, and often more vexing problem: Once I figure out what the story’s about, how do I order it?
1. Ask the questions the reader will ask, and put them in the order they will be asked.
2. Decide on the information your reader needs to know, and the order in which the reader needs to know it.
3. Give information in the lead that makes the reader ask a question. Answer it with information that sparks a new question. Continue until all the questions are answered.
4. Draft as many possible leads–a dozen, two dozen, three dozen–as quickly as possible.
5. Pick a starting point as near the end as you can.
6. Seek a natural order for the story: narrative, chronology, inverted pyramid, problem-and-solution, follow-up, a visit with the protagonist, a walk through the place you’re writing about.
7. Draft a lead and indicate three to five main points and an ending.
8. Draft many endings as quickly as possible. Once you know where you’re going, you may see how to get there.
9. Diagram the pattern of the story.
10. Write an outline.
11. Write out the thread that holds the story together.
12. Clip together the notes on each part of the subject. Move the piles around until you discover a working order.
13. Play with the key revealing specifics to see what pattern they form.
14. List all the items in the story down the left side of the page, and then move each important item into one of three columns, labeled “beginning,” “middle” and “end.” (Draw arrows or number the items.)
Here’s how this kind of prewriting thinking plays out in real life: Jesse Katz had long wanted to profile a famed Mexican ranchera singer named Vicente Fernandez. But by the time he did it, Fernandez had suffered a tragedy: his son had been kidnapped. Now there was a problem: two competing themes. Would adversity make the story stronger, or messier? The published piece was a long, magazine-like piece that successfully shifted back and forth between biography and the father’s odyssey of trying to find his son. Jesse recounts the struggle for balance:
Writing about Vicente Fernandez presented me with two competing challenges: (1) It had to be intimate and intricate enough to satisfy readers well-versed in his life and music, and (2) it had to be simple and universal enough to lure readers who had never heard of the man and cared little about his music. As human misfortune has a way of doing, the kidnapping of Fernandez’s son last summer provided me with the dramatic device I needed, a narrative that helped bridge the gap between his mostly Latino fans and the Los Angeles Times’ predominantly gringo audience.
From the beginning, though, it was a delicate balancing act. Too much kidnapping and you end up with a long, long crime story. Too little kidnapping and you end up with a long, long feature. The trick (which eluded and haunted me during most of the writing) was to parcel out the kidnapping just right, setting the action in motion and then stepping away, heightening the tension and again digressing, back and forth, until the story reached its denouement. In the best scenario, the kidnapping would be like a thread; it would keep the suspense alive while also buying me time to weave in Fernandez’s biography, the history of his music and other explanatory sections that might otherwise have derailed the story’s momentum.
My first decision was where to start. Do I explain who Fernandez is and why he is important, then introduce the crime? Or do I start with a blow-by-blow description of the crime, then introduce Fernandez? Either way, the answer would set the tone of the story, signaling to the reader just how much weight should be put on the kidnapping. My solution was to combine the crime with the music–that is, to introduce the kidnapping in the context of Fernandez’s life as a performer. Would he cancel his next show or would he sing? How could he go on? How could he not? By setting it up that way, I was able to get the drama rolling, without turning the piece into a crime story. The kidnapping was relevant only to the extent that it revealed something about Fernandez, and about Mexico.
I also made a decision, early on, not to reveal anything about the kidnapping’s resolution. I did not say whether Fernandez’s son was alive or dead, free or captive. I did not indicate how long he was held or whether a ransom was paid. At the end of my introduction, I just left Fernandez hanging, wondering if and how his son would be returned. I suppose there was something gimmicky about that–and it never could have worked if the details of the crime had been widely known in this country–but the withholding of information did help maintain the forward march of the narrative and ensured that I would have enough kidnapping material to parcel out later on.
Even with this forethought, I labored to find the right balance. In my earliest drafts, I gave too much weight to the kidnapping; Fernandez–and why he is somebody we should care about him–got overshadowed by the gory details. Not only did this leave the piece feeling hollow, but I thought it was unfair to him as a subject: We essentially ignore the man for his entire career, then acknowledge him only when he is the victim of a crime. In later drafts, I overcompensated; I wove in so many background and perspective grafs about him and his music that the thread of the kidnapping got lost. Not only did that leave the piece full of dead spots, but it felt dishonest: I had left the kidnapping unresolved at the beginning and I had an obligation to the reader to come back to it sooner and more often.
In a frantic, eve-of-deadline gambit, I tried something I had never done before. I printed out the whole thing, all 24 pages, and laid it out on my living room floor. Then I took a pair of scissors and began cutting out the kidnapping sections. I imagined them to be the fuel that sustained this marathon of a story. Too close together and it combusts; too far apart and it runs out of steam. I ended up spending several hours juggling those pieces, paring down some sections, beefing up others and, in a couple of places, creating entirely new sections. It made me nervous–my story was literally in shreds–but the ability to visualize the physical distance between the kidnapping passages turned out to be the tool I needed.
I was finally able to see the story unfold, measuring its pace with my eyes, not just my ears.
Here is an excerpt from within the body of the story:
…Vicente Fernandez is Mexico’s greatest living singer. Four decades after his start on the sidewalks of Guadalajara, he inspires the appellations of a Sinatra or an Elvis: El Numero Uno. The People’s Son. El Rey, King of the Mexican Song. On stage, he wears an embroidered sombrero, an engraved pistol and a skintight leather cowboy suit. His sideburns are long and his mustache is narrow. His music is called ranchera, the folk anthems of the rural heartland. Backed by a mariachi of violins, trumpets and guitars, he embodies Mexico at its most romanticized–the Mexico of horses and maidens and tequila and cockfights, of honor, love, heartbreak, survival. Since 1966, he has released 54 albums, all in Spanish, and sold more than 43 million copies, nearly half in the United States. Invisible to much of America, even to much of Southern California, he is as revered in this country as in his own, embraced here by a parallel nation of expatriates.
The 20,000 fans who paid $37 each to see Fernandez in Pico Rivera last May surely would have excused him–if they had known about the kidnapping of Vicente Jr. But Fernandez was determined to keep it a secret. His motivation was partly pragmatic. The captors had warned him not to do anything that might alert police. By his own nature, though, Fernandez was not inclined to cancel: he needed to perform, to tap into the mystical bond he shares with his fans, his gift to them and their gift to him, a lifeline that, now more than ever, he could not bear to lose.
”Whoever did this took the most important thing in the world from me,” he said at the time. ”I’m not going to let them take the second-most important thing.” Coming from another singer, that might be dismissed as show-biz bluster. But Fernandez, like his music, operates on an epic plane, without irony or artifice. He speaks with an ear to posterity, taking the bromides of an old-school entertainer and infusing them with the weight of proverbs. ”The people,” he would explain later, ”shouldn’t have to suffer for me.”
So, on Memorial Day weekend in the equestrian grounds of Pico Rivera–and, later, in Dallas and Miami and Minneapolis and San Diego–Fernandez strode onto the stage like an ageless toreador, pride and poise concealing any twinge of weakness or doubt. He is not a large man, just shy of 5-foot-8 and slim enough to slip into 31-inch jeans. Before each show, hunched in his wool Aquascutum of London trench coat, he looks almost fragile; his eyes are dark and his cheeks sunken, his pallor that of a hotel room. But in his suede traje de charro–the uniform of the singing cowboy–the metamorphosis could not be more sudden or complete. His chest inflates. His shoulders elevate. His jaw snaps to attention. He compares the sensation to being wrapped in a Mexican flag, custom-made and hand-stitched by his personal tailor. Some outfits are spangled in antique coins, others in gold filament. The leather comes from the hide of unborn calves.
As soon as Fernandez opens his mouth to sing, an even more remarkable transformation occurs. His speaking voice, a fixture of dozens of grade-B movies he starred in during the ’70s and ’80s, resembles a bullfrog’s, raspy and tight. But once the horns break into a rollicking two-step or the strings signal a mournful waltz, Fernandez’s throat turns into something round and buttery, revealing a baritone of operatic dimension and control. It is instantly recognizable, thick and rich and smooth, embellished with tremors and tears, guffaws and whimpers, bending and cracking, from aching falsettos to swaggering roars. He has never taken a singing lesson and has no patience for warmup routines. He scoffs at lozenges, sprays and teas. His only trick, he likes to say, is that he sings from the heart: in mid-song, he will stop the music and drop his microphone, the purity of his voice–unamplified and a cappella–turning the crudest arena into a cathedral.
III. Think about improving or altering a single technique before you begin typing
Read the top half of sports columnist Bill Plaschke’s column and watch how his determination to radically vary the length of his sentences contributes to his evocative style. The number of words in each sentence is shown in bold type at the beginning.
20 From the moment he stepped into that foreboding land between Slauson and Vernon, David Meriwether just knew people would point.
7 He just knew there would be stomping.
7 He just knew there would be chants.
22 Monday afternoon, amid the dusty haze of history that hangs thick in the legendary Crenshaw High gym, David Meriwether was proven right.
2 And wrong.
24 When he was introduced as a junior guard for the Crenshaw High basketball team before the first official practice, more than 1,000 students pointed.
7 While cheering and whooping and high-fiving.
19 When he ran to the court to join the state’s most celebrated high school basketball program, there was stomping.
6 As everyone danced on the bleachers.
18 And yes, by the time he walked into the blue-and-gold embrace of teammates, there were chants:
4 ”Milk! Milk! Milk! Milk!”
26 Leave it to a bunch of silly teenagers to compose the perfect nickname for this rich, refreshing break from our city’s tired sirens of conflict.
16 Meet David Meriwether, the first white male basketball player in the 30-year history of Crenshaw High.
8 The students have, and they overwhelmingly accept him.
7 His teammates have, and they like him.
13 The coach has, and he thinks Meriwether has a chance to be good.
29 ”This is cool,” Meriwether said Monday, bouncing off the shoulders of buddies, posing for giggling girls, looking at home in a place as foreign to most whites as Mars.
2 Yeah. Cool.
26 To understand the importance of the enrollment of a single student in a high school of about 2,760, it should be understood who doesn’t enroll here.
2 Whites don’t.
13 You can literally count the number of them at Crenshaw High on one hand.
4 David Meriwether makes four.
21 During his first two weeks of school, he was consistently bumped in the halls by gang members and questioned by classmates.
Ask Bill what he’s trying to accomplish and he puts it this way:
Like many journalists, while I report with my eyes, I write with my ears. One way I attempt to keep a good rhythm is to vary the length of my sentences.
Sometimes, as crazy as it sounds, it’s as if I try to turn my 25-inch story into a drumbeat.
Looooong sentence. Short. Short. Looooong sentence. Short. Short.
It’s never that structured, of course. But that’s sometimes how it works out.
I think in these weird terms because I always read my stories aloud to myself as I’m doing the final edit before I send them in. I want them to ”sound” interesting.
Most of us would agree that one long-winded discourse after another is not interesting, whether you are hearing it on a podium or at a party. I’m thinking, why should it be different in a story?
I don’t think this means you have to also break up those sentences into different paragraphs, the sort of one- and two-word graphs that my readers have chided me about. Sometimes I think I use my short paragraphs as a crutch, relying on typography to provide drama that my writing may lack.
You can vary sentence length within long paragraphs and, for me, it’s just as effective. As long as I keep the beat.
Normal stories often can’t sustain such radical changes in pace, but even if you throw the reader just one change-up within a single story, it gives the writing more power.
Consider this paragraph from the middle of a routine story about a Marine shot to death at a bus stop while home on leave. (The words-per-sentence cadence is 7/4/3/22/6/3/7.):
There, Giovanni exchanged stares with another teenager. Glowering led to words. Words led to punches. Giovanni had the upper hand, witnesses told police, when his opponent backed away and reached for a zippered binder he was carrying. His hand emerged with a gun. He fired once. Giovanni crumpled to the sidewalk, mortally wounded.
Now, I can hear some of the legal-affairs and environmental and governmental writers in the audience saying defensively: “What the hell does this have to do with what I write about?” Co’mon–you know. What Bill Plaschke does, you can incorporate (less often and less dramatically) into any story. You guys and gals whose stories average 28 words per sentence will be amazed at the clarity you achieve if you force yourself (and you will have to force yourself, at first) to create 8- or 10-word sentences every other paragraph–no matter what the topic is. It will make you use two (or three) sentences instead of one. It will make you throw away some of those dependent clauses and 13-word explanations that you set off with dashes.
Take a look back at Dave Wharton’s feature about the basketball player and his mentor: The section you read averaged less than 14 words a sentence without sacrificing a lyrical flow. The key is alternation: a 25-word sentence, a 6-word sentence and an 11-word sentence get you that 14-word average. Should our environmental stories average 14 words a sentence? Pretty tough. But suppose we determined we’d cut that 28-word-per-sentence average down to 22? A cadence of 26/12/27/10/31/16 gets you that. (Which reminds me of the old city editor who called over a young reporter known for his wordy writing, handed the reporter a box full of tiny pieces of paper with black dots and said: “These are periods. Start using more of them.”)
The key is to think a little bit more about how you want to sound, not just what you want to say. That tempers our determination in complex stories to cram facts into each sentence beyond the capacity of the structure to tolerate them, or the reader’s capacity to understand them. Pay, for starters, 20% more attention to the rhythm of your words before you start typing. Think about your story as a piece of music, not just a lyric sheet. Pay a little more attention to the drums.