“Less is more”

I especially learned this about a week ago when I served as interim editor (the regular editor was on vacation) and laid out the paper. What happens when you have a 600-word column in a slot where it needs to be 500 words? Or how about an 800-word article where a 600-word article will fit?  Your options center around that adage from the venerable Strunk and White: Avoid needless words. While it always hurts for writers to say goodbye to words they’ve fallen in love with, it’s actually a lot more painless than what you might imagine. First, look over the piece and see if a big chunk can be alleviated by ridding the story or column of any needless information. Anything that falls under “who cares?” or “this is great info, but it’s just not important enough to warrant keeping.” After you do that, you can look over your words and see where you can condense and tighten. “He considered the fact that Johnson’s idea had validity” could become “He considered that Johnson’s idea was valid”. “The meeting will be held tonight at 9 p.m.” could become “The meeting’s tonight at 9 p.m.”

This lesson makes me think of a science fiction novel I tried to read. Fascinating, but unbelievably boring in parts. There were sections where the novelist takes 15-30 pages to describe alien flight in the sky where maybe 10 would’ve sufficed. It’s the same in movies: pacing. Creativity and story telling are nice but you have to consider when the audience has the point.

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Do you always have to write about what you know?

Is that an overrated principle about writing fiction? I recently showed an in-progress short story about abortion to friends of mine. One told me to focus on writing what I know.

Not to say I’m him, but I recall that Stephen King has written both Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, even though he’s never been on death row or even in prison.

I think the solution is this: write about what you know but also leave open the possibility of writing what interests you. If what interests you is outside your realm of expertise, then consult an expert and interview them.

If, for example, I were to write an article about an African-American man with an amazing penchant for repairing decrepit vehicles back in Texas in the 1930s, I’d speak to these people–my father, a retired mechanic, a man named Steve who has an auto shop and is literally a walking encyclopedia when it comes to engines, and perhaps African-Americans or historians who can give me insight on what it was like being black in Texas back in those days.

A Day in the Life of a Reporter

Sometimes I wish people could see what we do at the newspaper on a daily basis. I love the job, but there are times (especially when we’re on deadline) when things can get extremely hectic. In fact, just today the editor had to kill an article and replace it with something else. While we were in the process of laying out the paper.

Still, there are those who will wonder why we didn’t publish this or get that in. Simple: sometimes things fall through the cracks because we’re given notes or things while we’re in the middle of juggling 10 assignments at once. Sometimes it comes down to too many stories already and not enough space for it all. Think of it like taking a gallon of milk and trying to pour it into an 8-ounce glass. What will happen? Most of the milk will overflow and spill out.

My new best friend: digital voice recorder

It’s an RCA RP5120-seen here:

digital-voice-recorder

What I like:

1) It’s a digital voice recorder, which makes it infinitely better than audio tape.

2) I can store lots and lots of stuff on it, and I hope to be able to upload audio files to my computer.

3) It has lots of cool options that I’ll have to learn to use.

What I don’t like:

1) It’s a .voc file that has to be converted to .mp3. This can be a pain in the neck.

2) It goes through batteries quickly. Very quickly.

3) It has a clock and date function that sometimes have to be reset when changing out the batteries. That’s a pain, and to me, the functions are unnecessary. That’s what my watch and dayplanner are for.

Overall, I’d give it a B.

New look to blog

I’ve been looking at the designs offered by WordPress and decided to try out this one for two reasons: the layout looks clean and it has a pen in the header. No, it doesn’t appear to be a Papermate, but it’ll do. I do wish the header had buttons for my pages, but for now we’ll see how this works.

Websites for writers

I’m always on the lookout for them, and found this fascinating blog. I contribute to it sometimes, both under my real name and sometimes not. It’s a great place to go to read about the status of newspapers and the thoughts.

Free From Editors is a reminder to me that though I love my job as a writer, I have to be vigilant regarding my job. The journalism market’s not exactly steady. If you don’t believe me, visit a freelance writing website and see just how little clients want to pay you to work your butt off to put out good articles. To me, it’s comparable to asking a mechanic to replace your car’s head gasket for $25.

After he finishes laughing half an hour later, he’ll tell you no.

Long day at work

With the editor up north deer hunting on a vacation, I got to serve as interim editor this week. Whew! It truly is a fun experience trying to take a gallon of information and fit into a newspaper issue that’s the size of an eight-ounce glass. Most of Monday was spent laying out the newspaper on Pagemaker and then Tuesday making corrections.

One thing that nailed me…after layout was done I realized we’d forgotten to put in the weekly academic achiever. Oops. I wonder if parents will call and complain.

Still, a very exciting, educational week.

Getting someone on the record for an article

For the past few weeks, I’ve written a short series of articles about a former teacher facing legal action. First article dealt with her facing tenure charges, the second article about her appealing them (which was to be expected and is routine) while the third was about contempt charges filed against her.

Because the teacher had worked in the city we cover but lives outside of our jurisdiction, I’ve been writing the past few articles and have been sending them to a reporter/editor of one of our sister papers for them to print in their edition. So, this past week I received info that the teacher allegedly made inappropriate remarks in court. One source of my colleague confirmed it, but declined to go on record. So, the day we were laying out the paper I made phone calls until I was able to get one court official to confirm the story.

Whew!

It was one of those last-ditch things: if the court official had declined to comment, we likely would’ve had to hold the story.

This is the exciting game in journalism: building a list of sources who are willing to give you “anonymous” tips about things going on and who might be willing to provide you with some crucial information and developing solid relationships where you can get this information that might be inaccessible to other writers.

Pseudonyms

I suppose, with a name like Richard Zowie, those reading this blog would assume that that is a pseudonym, my nom de plume, my pen name. Believe it or not, it isn’t. It’s my real name. It originates from Germany, where my great-grandfather’s surname was Zahnweh. Around 1912, when my grandfather was an orphan, it was changed.

As far as pen names go, I’ve used a couple in my lifetime. One was for a column where I wrote about a very sensitive subject (sorry, would rather not say when or where). In satire, I like to write under the name C.F. Twob (based on a nickname a college friend gave me). As a Christian whose literary tastes vary, I’ve thought that it might be good at times to use pen names if writing in different genres. After all, if a person’s known for being a comedic writer, such as Mel Brooks, would anybody take a horror novel seriously if it was written by Mel Brooks?*

Names I’ve tossed around include homages to places where I’ve lived (such as my birthplace, West Monroe, Louisiana) and to places where my ancestors were from (such as Kent, England and Mötzing, Germany).

*Mel Brooks, a comedic filmmaker perhaps best known for Blazing Saddles, actually was an executive producer on the drama The Elephant Man. Knowing people would see his name and think the movie was a comedy or satire, Brooks selflessly chose to take his name off the film’s credits.

 the late Sebastian Paul Zowie, was born Sylvester Sebastian Zahnweh, the son of a German immigrant. For reasons we still don’t quite know, around 1912–when he was five–his name was americanized.