A crowd-sourced narrative Masterclass

It began here, when narrative writer Pamela Colloff — whose six National Magazine Award nominations is a record for the NMA — asked an existential question. Her peers, a cross-section of the best in the business, responded with insight, and amazing generosity.

The thread is a crowd-sourced Masterclass on writing, but thanks to the nested replies it is also a maze — so here it is, simplified and ordered:

Related, from John Schwartz:

Draft. Get it down — THEN you can get it right. (For some reason, beginning writers seem to resist the idea of a draft: “What’s the point if I have to do it all over again, might as well do it right the first time”. Doesn’t work that way, though — you really can’t write and edit at the same time without tying yourself up in mental knots. Here:

(NB: To David Schwartz’s earlier point about focussing on chunks, a good resource to study the brick-by-brick building (See Grann and Jones above) of a book is Working Days, John Steinbeck’s journal on the writing of Grapes of Wrath. Sample entry dated June 7, 1938:

“Today’s work is the overtone of the tractors, the men who run them, the men they displace, the sound of them, the smell of them. I’ve got to get this over. Got to because this one’s tone is very important — this is the eviction sound and the tonal reason for the movement. Must do it well. I am one page ahead so that if I should go no farther I should still have caught up. And so to do it. I am not frightened of this any more. Too much a part of it, finally.”

That was his statement of intent; this is what he produced that day — towards the latter half of Chapter 5:

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects. They crawled over the ground, laying the track and rolling on it and picking it up. Diesel tractors, puttering while they stood idle; they thundered when they moved, and then settled down to a droning roar. Snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground, but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.

“The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat. …”

There’s more, but you get the idea. Steinbeck’s ‘cue card’ details what he wants to do in that section, the tone he wants to achieve and why — and then he writes along that guard-rail.

Related, there is this:

(NB: See the second point Darby makes. Writers run up against this problem all the time — they get to a portion of the narrative that just doesn’t seem to “come out right”; they end up struggling, get in a blue funk, and rue “writer’s block”. Darby has the right solution: Let the hard bit lie (block it out or leave a gap with a reminder about what you need there), move on to a different segment that is clearer in your mind and hence easier to write. Come back to the tricky bit later, when you’ve got some solid pages behind you and are feeling better about yourself). More briefly, kick the can down the road:

The first point Darby makes in the earlier tweet is on notes. Here’s more, from Issac Bailey:

Also see:

More granularly on outlining/notes:

(NB: I bang on a lot about this in my workshops. A two-step pre-writing process: (1) Start by writing, in not more than 50 words at the outside, a note on what your book/narrative is really about [“I want to write about a fellow who was two fellows”: RL Stevenson]. This is your North Star, the mental compass you need and (2) Think through the broad outline of your narrative — where you will begin and why, how that lede will flow into sense of place/scene, when your main character(s) will surface and in what context, where you need exposition and why… and put each element on an index card. Lay them out, shuffle them around till the structure flows clean, stick them up, and use them as your guide rails. And, yeah, feel free to deviate if you have to. PS: If you don’t have the working space to spread out dozens of cards, there’s are apps for that. I use this one on my tablet, and prop it up next to my laptop.)

Linked to the above is another major hurdle writers bump up against: The inability, straight out of the gates, to see the best structure. Tony Dokoupil has a good solution, Jason Zinoman makes a related point, and Rachel Synder adds a layer:

A working notebook! Every writer I’ve worked with/spoken to talks of how the book-in-progress stays with you even when you are not at your desk actually working on it; about how at the oddest times — washing dishes, walking the dog — a scene can come fully formed into your mind, or a line that exactly captures what you are trying to say… so, an ever-present notebook, and:

Rachel Monroe has a bonus tip with ref the above, and Robert Moor has examples of how the tip works in practice:

Still staying with inspirations and inspired moments, this:

(NB: You wouldn’t do a bench-press cold; same principle applies to serious writing. You don’t want to wake up, head straight to your workspace, and start where you left off till fingers and mind are warmed up a little. I used to type “quick brown fox” a few times as warm up; more recently I realised that picking a favourite book at random, opening it to some passage I had flagged and typing it out works like a charm — fingers and mind get relaxed and loose, but more to the point, there is something about the rhythms of good prose flowing onto the page, even if that prose is not your own, that puts you in a good frame of mind.)

Wright Thompson once did a riff on writing in scenes but as with all good writing advice, there is the risk of taking it too far, layering scene on scene just because you can. Apropos, Jesse Eisinger”

That’s how the pros do it: write scenes that are not just ‘scenic’ in the sense of long-winded BS about the colour of the sky or whatever, but which highlight the central characters and their motivations. See:

And, related:

It’s exactly like a movie — writing in scenes works if you know how to zoom in or out and, more importantly, when to do which, and why. The answers lie in asking yourself what you want a particular scene to do for the reader (see the Steinbeck quotes above, for an example). And staying with writing in scenes for a beat longer, see #1 below:

Short version: Feel it. Every workshop ever, when you open it up for questions, the first one you get is a wail: “How do I find my voice?” The question implies that voice is somehow external to you, that you have to go looking for it outside of yourself. When, as Katie Engelhart’s post suggests, ‘voice’ is how you react, how you feel, how you personally process all that you saw and heard and experienced and are writing about. See Andrea Pitzer’s point above, about not writing everything from 30,000 feet up, from a middle-distance perspective. To avoid that, to get close up, you need to be aware of your own feelings (that bit sounds like cut-price Deepak Chopra, but you know what I’m talking about).

Oh, and it’s ok to not write, too; to go off and do something else, related:

Speaking of which:

It’s ok to panic (a little bit). And then to harness that panic. Two related tips below, the first from Ian Frisch on finding a pace that works for you, the second from Tim Layden on buckling up for a long haul:

Alongside setting a pace you are comfortable working to, set your narrative tone early. Vide Fred Vogelstein’s point #1:

What does the reader need to see/know next? What questions are uppermost in her mind at this point and how do I clarify those? Anticipating the reader’s needs at any point is key to logical structure. Here’s Ben Coates on this crucial aspect:

Get help; get a second pair of eyes on your output (and don’t leave that too late). Caveat: Be selective in who you send your drafts to and know why; once you’ve picked your feedback loop, listen to it — even if the feedback hurts.

Alongside getting extra eyes on your prose, this from Jim Lewis. (Reading your work out loud is the best way I know of catching errors — grammar, syntax, whatever — and also identifying bits where the writing ‘sticks’, doesn’t flow smoothly.)

Here is all that you need to know, in a compact Tim Weiner tweet:

In no particular order, below, advice from pros that is golden:

PS to the above: 90% of the time, “writer’s block” is symptomatic of your either not having done adequate reportage, or your having taken a wrong tack in the narrative and bumped up against an obstacle. Listen to Nocera.

I’ve only looked at the tips relating to the actual writing process, but the thread has useful tips on when and how to write your prefatory notes, how to keep track of acknowledgments, attributions, etc. Plus, folks have been discovering, and adding to it, on a daily basis.

So, here: bookmark, and visit often. Happy writing, stay safe.

PostScript: The thread also references various tools (Evernote for collecting and collating information, Scrivener for organising, drafting, writing). In comments above, I mentioned one more: Index Cards.

Here is one other tool, to solve a specific problem: too many open browser windows. Sometimes, when researching, you feed in a query, scan the results, and open likely links in separate tabs. Problem is, pretty soon your browser has a couple of dozen open tabs and each is too small to be able to easily make out which is where. Hence, OneTab (There are extensions for Firefox, Edge, Safari, whatever).

Open all the windows you want and when you are done, hit the OneTab icon on your toolbar, and all windows fold into a neatly ordered, readable list of links. You can move things up and down, re-order them, name them with a specific subject if you need to, lock the list so you don’t accidentally delete them… This gives you the space to go through each specific link, transfer the keepers into your Evernote or Scrivener or writing tool of choice. Another tool that serves the same purpose, but stacks your windows as cards, is Get Toby.

Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s…

Where one bucket of wheat equals one candy bar

Where one bucket of wheat equals one candy bar

Paul Salopek’s (Twitter — do yourself a favor and follow along) latest post is, per usual, a gem; a brilliant-cut diamond of a piece:

Salopek is currently in Turkey. At Yelkovan Koyü, Turkey, 37°48’16” N, 38°32’28” E, to be accurate. He is at a bakal, an oasis. He writes of the man he meets there, and of the lives he encounters in this outpost that time forgot:

“We are poor here,” Karadoğan acknowledges. He is a kind man. He himself is poor. “Not everybody has money in their pockets all the time,” he says. “I buy the grain and resell it in Kâhta for a small profit.”

In exchange, the Kurdish farmers in the village obtain soap or salt. Batteries or cigarettes. Notebooks and other schools supplies. There is a brisk trade in candy—in sweets.

“It is the children’s job to clean the grain,” Karadoğan explains. “This is their reward.”

In this world that is part of our world and yet apart, one bucket of wheat = one bar of candy — the title of Salopek’s latest post. And as with much of his work, it is not the travelogue that strikes you, though his project is a travelogue spanning 21000 miles and seven years. What grips you and won’t let go is the stories he tells of the lives and of the peoples he encounters along the way. Stories that lift you out of your skin and put you inside another’s — and in doing that, both diminish you and enhances you at the same time.

Consider this lead-in to his previous post, Mother Rivers:

Coban Ali Ayhan sings like a human being in pain—like a man pouring salt into the open wound of his heart.

He bounces a wounded cry down into the canyons of the Tigris River: a blade of rusty water that saws its way through the bedrock of time. Ali’s song is a hymn to true love, which is to say, to love unrequited. It is the tale of a beautiful woman who remains blind to the longings of the singer. It is a lyric of loneliness. Of waiting. Of resignation—a form of acceptance. It is the perfect ballad for this antique river and this doomed, haunted town.

Through his posts I’ve met Coban Ali Ayhan. And Murat Yazar, who walked with Paul into what looked like certain death but turned out to be a shared cup of tea. Muhammed Sadiq Demir, the tailor who mourns a world where people no longer repair their clothes, preferring to just junk them and buy new. Ismail, who with gun in hand attempted to oppose the armoured tanks of the ISIS. Yuval Ben-Ami, Paul’s trekking partner through Israel, who would rather walk (and sing as he walked) than anything else, and who was not above leading Paul to Nazareth because there is a good hummus shop there.

“Strangers are friends you are yet to meet”

Each post in the series introduces me to strangers. And thanks to the art of the narrator, they become friends, people whose fate I am now invested in; people I care about.

There is something I print and hand out to journalism students during my infrequent lectures on narrative. It is from the introduction to The DC Comics Guide To Writing Comics. I tell the students it is the best definition there is of story, of why we write:

Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry.

Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life.

Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there.

Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space.

Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them.

Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope.

Demonstrate for me possibilities I had never thought of.

Ease my sorrows, increase my joy.

Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me.

Above all, tell me a story.

Those words could have been written for, and about, Paul Salopek and his Out of Eden Walk.

In the furnace of the sporting psyche

Last week, while I was away marking the first anniversary of my mom’s passing, Gary Smith retired from active feature-writing for/with Sports Illustrated.

Journalists (who wish they could write like Gary while knowing they never can) and readers (who wish we could look forward to a life-long supply of sportswriting with the Gary seal of quality) mourned the news.

Why is the retirement of a sportswriter that big a deal? Here is an earliest post (November 9, 2009) that attempts to capture some small part of the man’s magic:

Sport comes to us in boxes – the perimeters of our TV screens or the boundary lines of fields and courts. As much as I enjoy what goes on inside those boxes, I’ve always had the urge to bust out of them. I’ve always had the feeling that the most compelling and significant story was the one occurring beyond the game – before it, after it, above it or under it, deep in the furnace of the psyche. Conventional journalism couldn’t always carry me up to those rafters or down to those boiler rooms, so I had to break out of a few of my own little boxes as well.

That clip is from one of my favorite sports writers of all time; specifically, it is taken from the preface to Gary Smith’s Beyond the Game.

Beyond the game

Sports journalism, done right

For a flavor of how Smith writes, try these stories: The Chosen One, a December 1996 profile of Tiger Woods; Damned Yankee, the story of the man who was widely regarded as the heir to the Yogi Berra mantle until a photographer clicked a picture that changed his life forever;  Coming Into Focus, his 2006 profile of Andre Agassi;  Moment of Truth, a story written around a camera verite moment in a locker room; Blindsided by History, the tragic tale of unintended consequences arising out of segregationists’ attempts to keep black students out of an Arkansas school; and Remember his Name, the story of Pat Tillman, who turned his back on a multi-million NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals and, in the aftermath of 9/11, enlisted in the United States army in 2002 and died in action in Afghanistan in April 2004. [One of my personal favorites, though it appears to be unavailable online, is Rapture in the Deep — the story of competitive free-diving ace Pipin Ferreras and of Audrey Mestre, the woman who fell in love with him, bought into his passion for the incredibly dangerous sport, and died in 2002 while attempting to break a world record.]

The prompt for this post comes from a Joel Achenbach article I just read in the Washington Post where, against the backdrop of the internet, blogs and social media, he celebrates the craft of the extended narrative in general, and Smith’s work with Sports Illustrated in particular. From his article:

There’s endless talk in the news media about the next killer app. Maybe Twitter really will change the world. Maybe the next big thing will be just an algorithm, like Google’s citation-ranking equation. But Smith is betting that there will still be a market, somehow, for what he does. Narrative isn’t merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this.

They know that the story is the original killer app.

When Smith won his third National Magazine Award, Slate celebrated with an article on the man and his craft. An extended clip:

As for complexity: It is always easier, and generally more profitable, to sketch the world in blacks and whites rather than grays. As much as this calculus reigns on newspapers’ Op-Ed pages and in thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie reviews, it is an iron law in sports sections. From reading them, you’d think that every athlete, coach, or executive is either a saint or a blackguard.

That’s not Smith’s way. The only profile of him I have been able to locate appeared in a

Gary Smith

Gary Smith, courtesy ‘Talk on Tap’

magazine called PhillySport in 1989. (Smith made his name as a young sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News.) In it he explained his approach to the writer, Bruce E. Beans: “I’m looking at it not so much as ‘this is good, this is bad,’ as much as ‘this is just life’ and trying to understand it.”

That’s of a piece with the totally self-effacing way Smith writes. Today, most journalism that anybody pays attention to gives pride of place to the writer: his or her attitude, opinions, and/or experiences. Smith, by contrast, subjugates himself to his subjects, winning their trust and spending hour after hour with them, until he has the understanding and facts needed to write long, richly psychological pieces in which the word “I” never appears.

The O’Leary article, “Lying in Wait,” is a typical production. (Along with most of Smith’s work, it can be read as part of a seven-day free trial at elibrary.com.) First of all, it’s more than 8,600 words long, a positively anachronistic bulk in today’s streamlined, dumbed-down magazine cosmos. (Smith is now an anomaly even at SI, a magazine with a noble lineage of long-form journalism. Flip the page after reading one of his engrossing sagas—it’s like you’ve wandered into People.) But room to ruminate is necessary, assuming you’re trying to do justice to the tragic story of a human being’s fall from grace. Second, the article starts from an assumption of moral ambiguity. It’s a given that O’Leary did something very wrong, but for Smith, exploring the roots of that action is much more interesting than condemning it or excusing it.

Finally, it reads like a rich short story: not a minimalist piece a là Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, but a pull-out-all-the stops production, in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez. (In the light of recent scandals, it seems important to say that Smith has never been accused of fabrication or other journalistic sins.)

Journalism that goes inside people’s heads is a tricky proposition. In the heyday of the New Journalism, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote wrote from the points of view of Joe DiMaggio, stock car driver Junior Johnson, and murderer Perry Smith, respectively, with the assurance of Virginia Woolf describing London streets through the eyes of Clarissa Dalloway. But pulling that off requires prodigious reportorial stamina, capacious insight, and darned good literary chops. It’s much easier to take your subject’s description of what he or she was thinking and just drop it in the piece, surrounded by quotation marks. In a Smith piece, you rarely see a quote until the backstretch, when he’s got his narrative hooks into you and can afford to plunk in some background info via direct testimony.

It’s a great act, if you can pull it off — but can you? Smith spends the best part of three months working on a single story — a luxury that is increasingly rare in today’s world, where journalists are lucky if they get three hours. In his piece, Achenbach underlines the conundrum:

The sages say that we’ve reached a situation where “content creation” no longer pays. Only “aggregation” is profitable. It’s a freak variant of Darwinism — the survival of the parasitic. But obviously there will be little of value to aggregate if only rich people and dilettantes can afford to type up their thoughts.

Even the TV industry faces a serious story deficit. Those prime-time police and hospital dramas cost a lot of money to make. Not so expensive, however, is Jay Leno walking out and doing a monologue. That’s one reason he’s moved to 10 p.m., five nights a week. (The most compelling stories on TV are now those crafted by reality-show producers who stitch together a narrative of who’s backstabbing whom in pursuit of a prize. It’s all in the editing.)

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

Very expensive — but someone needs to have the vision to foot this bill, if narrative journalism of the highest class is not to die out altogether. Somewhere in the rush of ‘deadlines’ and ‘instant news’, we seem to have forgotten the journalist’s real job description — the best definition of which I once found in the preface to the DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics [at a Poynter seminar on journalism in 2003, Pulitzer winner Tom French recommended this to me as one of the best how-to books on journalism I’d ever find — and it turned out he was right]:

Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry.

Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life.

Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there.

Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space.

Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them.

Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope.

Demonstrate for me possibilities I had never thought of.

Ease my sorrows, increase my joy.

Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me.

Above all, tell me a story.

Update (May 6, 2014):

This is how SL Price, no slouch in the sportswriting business, greeted the news of Smith’s retirement:

It’s no exaggeration to say that every sportswriter of a certain ambition and age — let’s say from 20 to 70 — has had a Gary Smith moment. This is not fun. What starts as excitement soon becomes a swirl of puzzlement, awe and surprise; the frantic fluttering of pages forward and back; the parsing of sentences like so much Kremlinalia; some involuntary, half-baked blurts like, “How did he…?” and “Why did no one else…?” — and all of it leads back to you, you sorry bastard, and how you’re never, ever going to write a story like that, so what were you thinking getting into this business in the first place?

Yeah, exactly. Journalists — including but not confined to those who scribble on sport — go through that cycle, that starts with wanting to be Gary Smith, to knowing you can inhabit the same planet as him and, from that point of self-awareness, contenting ourselves with reading each successive story of his with slack-jawed admiration.

Price, in his post quoted from above, links to many of Price’s greatest hits; the one you find referenced most often is Lying In Wait, Smith’s 2002 profile of American football coach George O’Leary.

Why is this piece so good? James Ross Gardner, whose byline has starred in Esquire and GQ among others, and who works for the Seattle Met magazine, attempted to answer this question on behalf of Neiman Storyboard — and inter alia, points at the secret sauce that makes Smith primus inter pares among non-fiction writers:

We may as well begin the way Gary Smith begins – with a question, and near the end. Why is it that when you finish reading “Lying in Wait,” Smith’s 2002 profile of coach George O’Leary, you feel the impact so strongly? And by feel I mean physically feel. It will be different for everyone, but it hits me somewhere in the throat.

I do know that sensation is why, when asked about my favorite nonfiction writers, I rarely mention Gary Smith. I suspect I’m not alone. Listing Gary Smith comes with the obligation of explaining why Gary Smith. And anyone who’s been affected by his stories in Sports Illustrated – about coaches flattened by cancer, say, or an integrated high school team during segregation – knows that the pieces are hard to describe, that by the time you reach the end you’re emotionally drained but unable to articulate why. So I’ll talk about Tom Wolfe’s explosive sentences or David Grann’s knack for plot twists or John Hersey’s masterful pacing. But I’ll hardly ever refer to the guy at the top of my list, and that, I suppose, is a lie of omission.

Yeah. We often omit Smith’s name when listing our favorite writers, because it is beyond our ability to articulate just what it is about his writing that is par excellence. So we are content to toss in a few links to a subjective selection of his best work, season those links with a few superlatives, and leave it at that. This is what Ben Yagoda did in 2003, when Smith won the National Magazine Award for non-fiction. (Correction: …when Smith won one of his many NMA awards, I should have said: He has won it four times, which is a record; he was finalist a further 10 times, which is another record.) Here is Yagoda (Emphasis mine):

Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America, he’s the best magazine writer in America. The only injustice is that, outside the small world of editors who vote for the National Magazine Awards and the even smaller subset ofSports Illustrated readers who pay attention to bylines, he is a nobody.

Part of Smith’s obscurity is explained by his subject matter, which some view as having negligible importance. Yet such sports scribes as John Feinstein and Smith’s SIcolleagues Frank Deford and Rick Reilly have spectacularly higher profiles. (Reilly’s new monograph Who’s Your Caddy? was No. 3 last week on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list; Smith’s only book, a collection of articles called Beyond the Game, ranks 280,343 on Amazon’s list.) No, the real reason lies in his attributes as a writer, all of which go counter to powerful prevailing trends in journalistic writing: He favors obscurity over fame, complexity over simplicity, and humility over literary showmanship.

The New York Times headlined a 2008 piece on him The Sports Whisperer; Jon Friedman called him, simply, America’s Best Magazine Writer (and that is fair enough — after all, that simple declarative headline says all that needs saying).

Here is Gary Smith himself, on empathy and getting inside the skin of his subjects — and this should be mandatory reading for every person aspiring to be a journalist:

To become a longform writer and to kind of immerse yourself in different worlds, it’s almost like a double-railed track. Not only do you grow as a writer, but that other rail of the track is huge. Part of it is something you’re developing – some sense of self, getting a little more at ease in your own flesh and bones. So much of what happens in the interactions between you as the writer and the subject hinges on their trust in you, their confidence in you. And so much of that hinges on how comfortable you are. Any uneasiness you bring is going to cost you dearly.


As you’re walking as an outsider into these worlds all the time, how comfortable are you in doing that? If they feel your uneasiness, how easy are they going to feel about handing you their most intimate stuff to write about?

There’s almost an equivalence to that interaction, so the more they sense that you’re really there just to understand rather than judge is huge in how much they’re going to start giving … When you’re more relaxed, you listen, and you’re ready to flow with what’s being said and to hear something that’s sparking off three or four other questions in your mind. It’s because your mind is more relaxed; it’s not tense and tight and worried about getting that next question on your checklist.

Smith was once asked what he wanted his stories to do. This is what he said:

To make readers think about life and about themselves and why human beings do what they do.

PS: All these laudatory pieces I linked to above? Their real worth is in the embedded links to some of Gary Smith’s greatest work — discover, and enjoy. And while on that, editors and writers pick their favorites from the Smith oeuvre — and the result is writing gold.


The best book on football. Ever.

Thanks so much for the recommendations attached to yesterday’s query about great books on football — discovered some new titles, and new ways to put a dent in my credit card.

Meanwhile, my post on the best soccer book of all time is now up.  Thoughts?

I’m heading back to work — need to finish all there is to do well in time, so I can quit early, shop for beer and other essentials, and settle down in front of the TV by 7. Christiano Ronaldo’s Portugal plays Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast and then, on the stroke of midnight, the first look this Cup at Dunga’s Brazil.

Must confess I’m equal parts dread and anticipation about that second game. Brazil, at its best, invariably spell magic; for all that it lost in the quarterfinal to a combination of its own arrogance and the opportunism of the resurrected Paolo Rossi, my favorite Brazil team of all time [picking only from the ones I’ve seen in action, not experienced through reading and the grainy clips on YouTube] is the 1982 version. Equally, my least favorite lineup has to be the trophy-winning lineup of 2002, the year the team eschewed its flights of creative fancy for a hard-nosed pragmatism that produced results, but personally turned me off. Much pre-match punditry suggests that Brazil circa 2010 will be more akin to the 2002 team than to the earlier one led by the majestic Socrates — but one can still hope. [Oh, and while on hoping, I hope the samba in the stands is not stifled by the monotonous drone of those damn vuvuzelas].

Right — off to finish work. Be well all.

10,000 hours

Imitation is the sincerest form of study

Way back, before I even knew for sure that writing was what I wanted to do for a living, a friend who was then editor for a feature section in the Indian Express, based in Madras, interrupted a random crib about a badly written newspaper story with a suggestion: “You think you can do better? Try it!”

At her prodding, I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out just what was wrong with the story, and then rewriting it. She took my effort, ripped it — deservedly — to bits, and left me with a suggestion: ‘Everyday, try rewriting one news story, one editorial piece, one sports story, and one of some other type.’

The exercise was a drag, to start with. But comes a time when the process begins to fascinate you — looking under the hood of the piece to see what makes it tick, separating fact from hype and hyperbole, then figuring out how best to present those facts, crafting the piece so it has structure and style, so that each thought leads seamlessly from the previous one and sets up the next, each graf is a natural successor to the previous one…

Typically, I did this late at night while the house was asleep, laboring for three, four hours each day and, once a week, presenting my friend [I mentioned her by name once, in a blog post, and got an earful, so I’ll leave her unnamed here] with the results for her critiques.

She also gave me another valuable — and ultimately, time consuming — bit of advice. When you come across a passage that particularly appeals to you, she said, try copying it out in long hand. The point, according to her, was that writing out great passages helped you absorb a sense of the rhythms and styles of writing; over time, they’d become part of muscle memory.

I was skeptical. She was not amused. Have you, she asked me then, ever visited an art gallery? Have you seen budding artists sitting in front of great paintings, and painstakingly copying them? Why do you suppose they do that? Because the process teaches you about strokes, textures, techniques of the masters — and over time, such exercises help make these techniques an integral part of your own skills.

It didn’t make sense at the time, but I did it anyway. [It was fairly hard to refuse my friend — she had the habit of asking what passages I had liked enough to copy down, lately]. And in time, as journalism went from being a vague notion to a dream to my profession, I realized the value of her advice.

I was reminded of all this by Amit Varma’s latest column: “Give me 10,000 hours.”

Natural talent alone isn’t enough to make you good. You have to work damn hard, and practice damn hard. Some researchers have even put a number to how many hours of practice you need to achieve excellence: 10,000 hours.

Go read. [And if you are, like me, clueless when it comes to all things money, check out Deepak Shenoy’s latest].

Another visual, to drive home the message 🙂 And a song, to round it all off.

10,000 hours... and more

Just write

“I want to write” — those four words are one of the occupational hazards of professional journalists.

We get that all the time, in mails, in social gatherings, wherever — someone coming up to us and saying he or she wants to write, and could we please help.

What they mean, more often than not, is “I’d like to have your job — writing whatever you like, and getting published and paid for it, and having fans and all that good stuff.”

I’m not dissing those who say they want to write, and ask for advice. I get my share of those in mail, and try to respond as constructively as I possibly can. PD James however makes my point for me:

Don’t just plan to write—write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

Exactly. You want to write? Then do just that — write. Even a decade earlier, you could claim there was a lack of “opportunity” — by which you meant, no one is willing to publish my masterpieces.

Not any more — today, you can create your own opportunities. Start a blog, and use that to publish your writing, to find your voice, to test it against the whetstone of instantaneous public criticism and thus to hone it to a fine edge.

I got that PD James quote from this source. There is way more, on the related blog. And here’s a collection of 60 tips from six writers — many of them gems.

Oh, and whatever you do — don’t do this.

Have a good weekend, you guys. See you Monday.