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A Five Part Serial Narrative About HS Football

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by KVV, Feb 3, 2007.

  1. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    KVV -

    Again, this is a terrific piece of work. You deserve to be praised up one side and down the other for its ambition and execution, for its heart and for its intelligence, for its elegance and empathy and clearheadedness. A really fine piece of writing and reporting in all regards. Congratulations.

    I guess what I'll chip in with today starts with the questions I've quoted above.

    1. There's a nut graf in every story, whether we admit to it or not. It's only a question of how the thing gets done. I think the voodoo and the craft in longform narrative are in how you shell the nut. I find that sometimes a single sentence, rightly done, can explain everything about the 16,000-word story to follow. As simple as "Here's what's at stake, to whom, and why." Perversely, there are 800-word stories so complicated they can't be explained except by devoting half the story to exegesis and bookkeeping.
    For me the nut question here is one of dissonance more than anything. You've got this immense, gorgeous story - a magazine feature in almost every regard - running in a newspaper. Right there you know you're going to have to finesse the lede in such a way as to satisfy the editors' imperatives about
    clarity and exposition. Newspaper editors, also skittish in general about series, feel they need to launch the thing with an audible bang in a direction the reader's likely to follow. Hence the prologue, which is kind of leaden.

    In short, given those factors, I'm not sure you could have done it any other way than how it was done.

    Having said that, though, I'd have tried this: When they come to you and say "We need a nut," you say "Fine," but ask for another day to rewrite your first 500 words. You open the story in scene, as you did, in the meeting room. Open, though, with the quote. Like this:

    "THIS IS THE KIND OF [EXPLETIVE] I'M TALKING ABOUT!" the man in the chair barks, thrusting a meaty finger in the direction of the television. His voice climbs an octave in frustration."RIGHT HERE! THIS [EXPLETIVE]! WE TEACH YOU TECHNIQUE, AND YOU DON'T USE THE DAMN TECHNIQUE!"

    A dark high school classroom, and 35 stone-faced teenage boys fidget in their seats, their eyes fixed on the blue glow of a television. A football game, recorded in the rain with a shaky, hand-held camera, fills the screen. Up front, squatting in his chair, a 38-year-old man with a large belly and a scowl on his face holds a remote in his right hand. His large, brown eyes burn with anger. When he speaks, his South Carolina accent echoes off the classroom's concrete walls, so loud, at times, it sounds like a hammer striking metal


    This week in mid-September, just like every week, young men's lives are at stake. This is a story about...

    This is the first sentence of your nut graf now, and a fair place to drop a hundred or two-hundred words on what we're about to read.

    I'm not sure they'd have gone for it, but this is what I'd have tried.

    Continued Below:
  2. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest


    2. I think chronology is the probably only way to organize this story for a newspaper. In a magazine you might be able to argue for outlining the story by character, or by the story arcs of different kids - but in a newspaper a straight-up chronology makes the most sense. The only way to ensure that the editors give each piece its due, however - meaning no telescoping of two days down into one once you hand the piece in - is to get them to agree to it from the very beginning. M, T, W, Th, F, S. Six parts, with the epilogue as an integral part of the last day. Or W, Th, F, S - with lots of the backstory rolled into the W, Th installments. Four parts. Whatever you agree on, though, before you embark, is what you deliver. That way you know going in how to organize your story. It also gives you leverage if the editors lose their mud at the last minute and you need to argue.

    3. I think a week of research suited this piece wonderfully. I liked the immediacy of it, and the snapshot nature of "Here's this specific moment in time." Any more than that, and you're looking at a book - or at least a story too rich and complicated to tell in the available space.

    That said, it's completely up to a writer to sustain or compress the story. I've done 13,000-word stories on the events of a single weekend; and have compressed the life story of a 90-year-old man into the same space. You write the story for the space you have to tell the story, I think.

    And a final thought for the morning - along with the hope that we get some further comments on this wonderful piece. I agree with The Jones that at a few points in the story I wanted to see you cut loose a little, and give us some of the writing and thought of which you're clearly capable. Nothing overwrought or showy, mind, but a little poetry when and where called for.

    But we can take that up in greater detail after some other folks weigh in.

    Thanks again for posting this, Kevin.
  3. RedCanuck

    RedCanuck Active Member

    Nice piece. I've just started introducing longer narrative into our paper - I did a full day with the referees at a minor hockey rink on the weekend, but kept it to about 3,500 words. I don't think it had the depth this has.

    Indeed, I think the narratives are compelling reads - and more often than not, especially with the Internet age, this type of writing will sell newspapers. They provide an excellent amount of depth that you couldn't do in most other formats.

    Like jgmacg, I agree that chronology is probably one of the best ways to organize a series and make it work.
  4. KVV

    KVV Member

    Gentlemen, thanks so much for your comments. I'll try to address them all, and throw out a few more general questions not specific necessarily to this story.

    One of the reasons I picked this school is because, at the time, the gubernatorial elections were coming up. One of the major issues during the campaign, which was waged between the incumbent governor and the mayor of Baltimore, was education. The governor and his people were very quick to point out (some would say rightfully so) how godawful Baltimore city schools are, and wanted to blame some of this on the mayor. The mayor would often point to rising test scores and progress in some schools, but you never really know how much of that is true because with No Child Left behind, it has become easy (and some would say necessary) for schools to simply teach the tests and juke the stats. To me, what was getting lost in this constant bickering was the actual kids. A lot of the people who live in the surrounding areas of Baltimore look at the city with scorn, but because of crime, few ever really venture into East or West Baltimore to actually know anything about the people who live there. As a sports writer, I always felt somewhat left out around election day, so I started thinking about how I could write a story that had sports as the backdrop, but deep down, was really about Baltimore city. I picked Edmondson high school because, in addition to having a good football team, it wasn't one of the absolute worst schools (if you can believe that), and it wasn't one of the best. It was just a typical inner city Baltimore high school, and its problems are not unique. One of the things I liked about it (and one of the things that both the coach and the principal were thrilled about after the story ran) is that it showed people the good and the bad. They said that prior to this, the only time they saw the news media is when something went really well (a state championship!) or when something went pretty bad (a shooting, a drug deal, a fight). They wanted people to understand the struggle some of these kids face without making it seem like Baltimore city is Sarajevo. And because the kids had rarely been written about, they didn't resort immediately to cliches. After a few days, they clearly understood the larger issues I was interested in, and some of them (Tariq especially) had a lot to say about them. (This entire series, really, could have focused on Tariq, because a lot of what we talked about never even made the article. It was too difficult to fit into the format I chose.)

    I think it would have been interesting to chose a terrible team in a shithole school, and the issues of violence and poverty would have been that much more obvious, but the paper had written about that some previously (we did a great series on two high school kids who were essentially homeless), and I also wanted to show how, despite what we read and hear sometimes, coaches like Dante Jones can make a difference through sports. Newspapers tend to overlook inner city narratives sometimes because they think they'll be too hard to do, or reporters are afraid to go into "the ghetto" to find those stories, and maybe as a result, there is a feeling in places like West Baltimore that the paper only shows up when people get killed. There's distrust. I guess as I got into the story, I thought maybe it would be important to show that it's not always the case.

    My feeling was, win or lose, there would be a story there. In some ways, I think the story could maybe end with the kids linking arms and shouting the word TEAM, and that may have been where it ended if they didn't win the state championship later (which forced me to rethink the story, and shadow some things differently throughout). I guess if you spent a season with a team and it simply didn't work out, you'd just have to weigh your options if there was something salvageable. Bissinger has said several times that he went down to Texas for FNL, he had no idea what he was going to really write, and then when Boobie blew out his knee, he realized there was a much darker story unfolding. I guess, though I really have no idea, that you figure it out as you go.

  5. KVV

    KVV Member

    The reason I settled on the day-to-day structure is that I kind of wanted the reader to experience, at least in theory, what I knew so well from playing football in high school and college: The building tension of a week of a big game. Things are always light and fun at the beginning of the week, but as the game gets closer, all kinds of stress and anxiety creeps in. And for these kids, it wasn't just winning and losing. It was stress about their futures, and stress about losing their friends, schoolwork, etc. Serials -- from what I've read from the Poynter people and from what an old editor, Jan Winburn, (one of the best in the business) told me -- need to have one driving engine throughout, and they also should have questions, cliffhangers and even a few twists along the way to keep you hooked. You want to read more because you want to know what happens at the end, kind of like a book. The day-to-day thing seemed like the most logical approach to that. If I could have stayed for the entire season, it obviously would have been different. In fact, if it were still a serial, the entire week I spent with the team, including the loss, might have been Part I. The only thing I really worried about in focusing on one kid each day is that I worried that by the time you got to the fourth kid, you might have completely forgotten about, say, Sterling. Perhaps that could have been done simply by shifting the point of view, and I could still have shown them interacting with one another, but the managing editor was adamant that each part have a theme. At several points, I was worried that he might try to cut out characters entirely, and so I came up with the idea to group Sterling and Kyle together (because they both saw football as a chance to get away from violence or poverty, and because they had dreams of playing in the NFL), and Tariq and Dionta together (because they both wanted something else from football, be it an education or acceptance). That helped Part II and III have structure, and helped them feel different from one another.

    The writing stuff, and sections where I might have stretched my legs, was the toughest part, and I want to be careful with what I say here. I had some great editing on this project, and it would not have come together like it did without a lot of frustrating, challenging and productive editing sessions. My editor, and the managing editor, probably saved me from myself many, many times by cutting stuff. But in the original draft, there was, well, more poetry. Some of it was probably really bad lyrical language. I know that. But some of it ... I felt like it wasn't eliminated for overwriting as much as for taste. That's fine. I'm not upset (now) with how it went down, but during the process I did get extremely frustrated a couple of times over various "safe" edits, and a couple times I wanted to pitch my entire computer out the second floor window. It's hard, as a young writer, to know when you should fight for something, and when you should defer to other's judgment. Some writers, having built up credibility over time, can get stuff in the paper I probably cannot. That's just a fact.
  6. KVV

    KVV Member

    Some things I did fight for, and a few, I did win. And to be honest, this story probably would have retained more of those things had it run in the sports section, where I do have more credibility. But with a lot of editors involved, and a hell of a lot of real estate needed to get this story in the paper, I had to stand down and hope that the subject matter would be good enough to keep people reading. I think I was also really trying to be conscious of not overwriting, since that seems to be what people bitch about most often here and elsewhere. But I guess my question is: How do you stand up for stuff you really like, and how do you deal with it as a writer if your story has been trimmed down (not length-wise, but style-wise) so much that it starts to feel like you've lost your voice?

    A good friend of mine who I went to journalism school with, someone I even asked to be in my wedding, said he was going to be brutally honest with me after reading this. "I didn't like it that much because it doesn't have your voice in it," he said. I'm not sure if he was right or wrong, but it did make me think hard about whether that was true. I tried numerous times to eliminate adverbs based on Chris' advice, but they simply kept getting reinserted. At some point, I relented. I wonder if I should have fought harder. Freaking adverbs.

  7. KVV

    KVV Member

    jgmacg, I really do like the way you've re-imagined the lede. I really do like beginning stories with the kind of powerful quote, because I do think it thrusts you right into the scene. I'm not sure I could have done anything to convince them to dump the clunky prologue, but that might have come closest. One particularly frustrating day, I was exchanging text messages about the story with a friend, and he told me something similar. State a theme, and trick them into thinking it's a nut graph. The narrative editor and I sort of tried to do that in this section (below), but by that point, I think the men in charge were convinced it needed a prologue regardless.

    Here is one more point for debate, since it ended up being one of the bigger fights I had over the story. Ultimately I won, but not without a major struggle. The opening to part 5 begins with Sterling and Kyle sitting on a concrete ledge, overlooking their crummy high school field, six hours before the game. They're talking about flying a kite. I thought it was a really nice moment, and that it reflected the innocence of these kids. It was one last moment to take a breath right before this epic game was going to be played and remind you that these are just kids, despite the fact that they have to deal with death and violence, and in the very next scene, they're prancing around screaming and shouting, pretending to be Ray Lewis.

    Well, some editors did not like the kite scene at all. They wanted to see the game. Now. Enough of the build up, they said. It's been four days of foreplay. There was the feeling that we should start part five with Sterling screaming and talking shit, right at midfield, thrusting you into the action.

    I dug my heels in, rewrote it somewhat, and ultimately won (after three hours). I felt that beginning the story at the game, while compelling, was ultimately too similar to things I'd seen and read before. I'd never seen kids talking nervously about kites. I liked quiet intimacy of the moment. Was I wrong? A friend of mine said the kite thing was his favorite part in the whole serial. But that doesn't mean we were right.

    Here is the scene again. It's slimmed down from its original version, which I thought was better, but it retains most of what I wanted.

    Although it doesn't reflect it, in the actual hard copy of the paper, there was a line inserted by the designer after this scene, sort of like the kind of scene break you see in magazines, which I thought helped separate the two. I do like how some of these stories read, and I am proud overall of how it reads, but the pictures and the design really, really helped bring it to life too, so a little something is lost by reading it online.

  8. I agree with your friend -- the kite scene was the lasting image I took from the entire series. It was a fantastic example of showing that these are kids we're reading about. I'm glad you won this battle.
  9. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    I would have died for the kite scene. That had to stay, and it had to stay where it is. No way part five should have read anything like just another gamer. For me, that worked for two reasons. One, it got across the nervous tension we've discussed. But two, it lended a kind of innocence to those kids. I mean, kite flying is about the purest thing you can do. Man, I shudder to think of that section disappearing.

    On the adverb front, I'm a little harsh on them. And I hope I never said anything to make you think that a story was bad if it has adverbs in it. Christ, The Great Gatsby is littered with adverbs, and it's a beautiful book. And I've used them before (for me, that's like admitting to diddling a kid). But I laughed a little everytime I came across one, because I could picture your ears steaming. In the end, they don't take away, but they don't add, either.

    The example that stuck out for me was, and maybe it was Sterling, but somebody "smiled slyly," I think it was. But because you're a good writer, and because you'd set up the character and scene so well, I knew exactly how that kid was smiling without the help. It's almost like adverbs are footnotes, just to make sure we know what's going on. If you're worried the reader isn't sure what's going on, however, then you probably need to go back and look at the rest of the story.

    Again, Kevin, no worries there. It's just an interesting discussion for me. (Alma and I once got into it pretty good over adverbs. There really isn't a right answer there.)

    As for editing, there's always a balance there, I think. My editor has saved me from numerous gaffes. I almost never dig my heels in over anything. But because of that, he respects when I do. There's that old saw about cutting your favorite line from a story, because it's in fact the worst one, but I don't believe that. I think most writers have a good ear for their own voices. I'll also say that sports sections tend to be freer than news sections, and that probably worked to your disadvantage on the poetry front; magazines are freer than newspapers; books, it's up to you to keep from hanging yourself. I don't think your editors hurt you here, Kevin, but I think they've kept the story from reading entirely like your own, or at least how it might have read in another venue. That's just the nature of the beast. Hell, I'm still impressed that the Sun allowed you to do this, and that they employ a narrative editor. Those are happy signs. It's interesting to hear about that process, though. If nothing else, it says that everybody cared about this story.

    Let me say again, by the by, that it's great work; I'm not picking at it at all. I just love talking about this shit, is what it comes down to.
  10. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    "Pity the poor adverb," he said dejectedly.

    In my own work, an adverb is almost never my first descriptive choice. They're weak as modifiers, scan awkwardly in a lot of cases and do little practical good, arriving as they so often do at the end of a sentence or bit of dialogue.

    In fact, let me paraphrase our own Paraphraseable Jones from another thread by way of example.

    "I'll find you and kick your narrow Canadian ass," the boyfriend said angrily. Nothing strictly wrong with this, but it says little and does almost no descriptive work.

    "I'll find you and kick your narrow Canadian ass," said the boyfriend. You could hear the guy's neck bulging. A perfectly vivid descriptor, because I now see the boyfriend.

    Better to add an apt description or comparison that arrives where and when you need it in the sentence than to fall back on adverbs.

    Being descriptive isn't a matter of "overwriting." It's a matter of finding the best way to convey the richness of the world in the context of the piece. It can be a single, simple word.

    Overwriting is a valid strategy too, sometimes, but generally gets a bad rap and requires a great deal of skill to harness.

    As a shameless overwriter I prefer to think of the phenomenon as "under-reading," but that's just me.

    Oh, and count me in on the kite scene, too, with this caveat - I thought the transition from the scene in the stands to the game was a little awkward. It's very hard to do what amounts to a camera cut in a prose piece. In fact, I think the end of the kite scene might have been a good moment for a very brief, thoughtful aside from the writer. Sometimes transitional moments like that, especially the quiet ones, are the best place to hide your poetics.
  11. mmorrow213

    mmorrow213 New Member

    I read it, but I didn't have to ... anything in the Sun is good.
    Nice stuff.
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