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Short feature column

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by ccraker, Dec 7, 2007.

  1. ccraker

    ccraker Guest

    I know this isn't a true column, at least according to some of you, because there is no opinion. But let me know what you think. I probably should have talked to the Reagan County coach, but I came up with this idea rather late in the day and turned it around pretty quick.

    When a football game is finished, there is supposed to be loud cheering.

    When the final horn sounds, bands are supposed to break out in the fight song and fans sometimes storm the field.

    In Alpine on Friday, the Fightin’ Bucks upset the Reagan County Owls 39-32.

    Instead of wild cheering from the faithful masses at Jackson Field, there was dead silence.

    With this victory also came defeat.

    Alpine needed to beat Reagan County by nine points to advance to the Class 2A playoffs. Instead, the Owls earned the final playoff berth.

    “It was dead silent,” Alpine coach Shad Hanna said. “No bands playing, no fans cheering, no anything. Both teams were losers that night.”

    In sports, there always is a winner and a loser. That is how games work — except when situations like Friday happen.

    “It was so strange. The whole game I knew we had to win by nine,” Hanna said. “Every time I looked at the scoreboard, I felt like we were losing, even though we were ahead.”

    Alpine came close.

    The offensive line blocked better than it had all season, the wide receivers ran great routes and quarterback Moises Estrada threw for 385 yards.

    But none of that was enough to get Alpine back to the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

    “When that game was over and I look up there and we won by seven and I got kids crying and I’m on my knees,” Hanna said. “I walked over to shake their coach’s hand, and (Reagan County) was down and upset ’cause they just lost a game.”

    There was another way Alpine could have advanced — if Ozona had upset Kermit. Hanna found out that wasn’t going to be a possibility at halftime. The Yellowjackets went on to win 48-7.

    So, Hanna did everything he could to try and get his team back to the playoffs.

    He had his team attempt two-point conversions after its first four touchdowns — and they converted all four.

    He used onside kicks.

    He went for first downs on fourth downs.

    Alpine came up short, so now the Fightin’ Bucks must try to bounce back next year and win early games in district so it doesn’t come down to a points system or hoping other teams lose.

    Then, athletes in Alpine won’t have to hear that strange, stony silence like they did on Friday.
  2. dustin_long

    dustin_long New Member

    A few thoughts.

    First, good idea to take a look at this situation for your readers. A couple of questions to consider.

    1. If you didn't cover this game, then why didn't the reporter who covered it write about this angle for the next day's paper (I get the sense this is a day or two after the game based on your note)? If this game meant so much, I'm hoping your paper staffed it.

    2. Ask yourself the value of holding the story a day longer to get the reaction from the other team. If you think there might have been more, it might have been good to hold it another day to get some more information and detail.

    You want to give the reader the most complete story possible. Always keep that in mind.

    Also, I'm sure every preview story stated why one team had to win by so many points. This piece only says it had to be done. You need another line or two stating that it was a three-way tie or so for the last playoff spot and why points mattered. Give me all the details. Even if it's in other previous stories, don't assume everyone has read every story. A line or two isn't going to kill your story. I'm guessing the tie-breaker is points scored. Or is it point differential? Either way you could have a good story for next season -- if it's points look at the issue of schools needing to run up the score on opponents or if it's point differential are teams scheduling weaker non-conference foes to win by big margins and help them in such a case. Those are stories that might work well with your preview stuff next season.

    It would have been nice to have had a player or two mentioned -- or at least to have talked to a player or two to get what the feeling was like after the game. The coach gives you some good stuff, but I want a bit more. I want to hear what the kids have to say. What about a senior when he finds out he'll miss the playoffs by two points and, thus, just played in his final high school football game? Since this seems to be a follow, I'd want to know if some of the kids you would have talked to felt bad the next day. How long did the disappointment linger? That's emotion. That's some of what can drive a strong story.

    Those are a few things to think about as you look at other such stories. Keep it up. That you recognized it was worth writing about is a good sign. Now, figure out how you can make the next such story better.
  3. ccraker

    ccraker Guest

    dustin - I appreciate the feedback.

    We did not staff this game, mainly because Alpine is 2 1/2 hours away from where I work in Odessa.
    This was my column that runs Tuesday for Wednesday, so it was about five days after the game happened.
    You are right, I should have gotten a kid on the phone and I could have because the coach is cool, but I guess I got a little too happy with the quotes he gave me - because they were some good ones.
    The point differential thing was tough for me because it is so damn confusing and I didn't want to waste a paragraph explaining what the hell was going on, but I am sure I could/should have explained it better.
    Anyway, I appreciate the feedback. Thanks.
  4. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    cc -

    I like your central theme here - the silence, the shock - but I'm not feeling it as deeply as I might. Because, I think, the piece right now sort of occupies the middle ground between informational gamer and moving feature on the nature of injustice.

    That one team lost a shot at the playoffs based on nothing more than bookkeeping - while the other team lost in fact and yet still moved ahead - strikes me as the kind of bureaucratic unfairness we all struggle against every day.

    I guess my advice then, such as it is, would be to take a more determined stand on the feature side of things, and try rewriting this (in the future, of course, and as a personal exercise) as a very brief reported essay on the nature of injustice.

    Just a thought. Hope this broadens your interpretation of the piece.
  5. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member


    As others have said, it's a solid piece. The idea definitely works, and as jgmacg said, I like the idea of beginning with silence. There is often literary beauty in moments of silence and stillness. I imagine you were somewhat limited with what you could do in terms of space (and perhaps time) but if you were to reimangine this piece, I think I might suggest doing whatever you could to grab more detail. Hanna is clearly the source of most of the info in this piece, but as dustin said, how about his players? Coaches are rarely scene setters, so here is one thing I sometimes ask when I'm trying to reconstruct scenes I did not witness, "Coach, can you pass along the phone numbers of three or four of your players so I can try to paint a picture of what it felt like to be there?"

    One good thing to get in the habit of, even when writing short columns or features, is to overreport like a madman. Grab as much info as you can, and then sift through and pluck out your best stuff. Even if you're limited by space, it will give your pieces that extra zip.

    Also, here's one thing I wondered while reading this: Was there any kind of last second scramble for points? You start with the most compelling stuff -- the silence -- but now take us backward a few minutes. Did Alpine have some last-second fourth down they couldn't convert? A hail mary that fell short? They must have been trying to get points right to the last second, so put us there. The coach might break it down for you, and he might not. If he brushes it off like "Oh there were lots of plays we could have made" that's where other sources come in. Maybe the quarterback can take you through a few plays and the pressure they felt knowing, even though they were winning, that they'd lose if they didn't score again.

    It's obviously a much different piece, played at a different length, but here is some reccomended reading:

    Last year Eli Saslow of the Washington Post did a story about a running back breaking the national record for yards and touchdowns in a game. He did witness the game, but pieced together something a few days later. Check out the number of different people he interviewed, and how he wove together the question of sportsmanship with scenes from the huddle and a few telling details about what was happening.


    Your piece was obviously something short, and probably because of time and space it couldn't be that ambitious, but you can definitely read from this and see some techniques you can use next time for a story you personally didn't witness.

    Hope that helps a bit.

    Thanks for sharring your stuff.
  6. ccraker

    ccraker Guest

    First off, I assume your advice is more centered around a longer piece, which is fine because I think it is a good application.

    So, the way I read what you are saying is I should/could have gone more into how this is an example of the injustices that these kids will face later in life.
    The injustices that will occur at work and college and as a citizen and how this game is either an example of that or training for how you deal with what will happen.

    Am I reading that right?

    So, how would I have gone about writing about that? Obviously, as Double Down stated, I should have done more reporting (which I think I get out of the habit of when I am doing a shorter piece like that, though a co-worker pointed that out in hindsight as well), but what kind of questions do you ask the kids?

    I think this could be an interesting topic to discuss and am just curious to hear some thoughts about a way to approach this story, especially assuming it could have been longer (and it probably could have been, I just wrote it pretty short. I think I could have probably doubled it, but I didn't do enough interviews, so it was short).
  7. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Sometimes I just come right out and tell athletes: I'd like to be able to put the reader in your shoes as the clock is winding down. Can you walk me through what it felt like? Were you feeling rushed? Was the sideline panicky? How strange was it to keep looking at the scoreboard, see you were up by seven, and still feel like you were losing? What was the bus ride home like? Did anyone cry? Was it hard to shake hands? Did it even feel like a victory at all? Did you notice the silence after the game? Did any of the kids on the losing team say anything to you? What was their reaction like?

    (Now that I re-read the piece, I notice that the team that Alpine beat -- the Owls -- earned that playoff berth. I guess I sped right past that the first time. That makes it even more interesting, and that their reaction might have been even more important to get. The team that won, in the end, lost. And the team that lost, in the end, won. That's where you maybe shape your story a bit.)

    As for what jgmacg is saying, I think the main point he's making here is that the story lacks some intensity because it's not quite a feature and it's not quite a column. If its a column, then it needs to have more of your voice in it, and that's where the nature of injustice stuff comes in. How does deal with a loss that's the result of a statistical quirk? What does it say about the rest of the things life throws at us? Rick Reilly wrote columns like this quite often at SI, railing against injustice, and it was something he did quite well. Your situation isn't exactly the same, but did you see this Reilly column from a few weeks ago? Read it again and pick up on what makes it work: the reporting, obviously, but also Reilly's "voice." He's railing against the unfairness of it all, and he's personalizing it by focusing on the coach who passed away. If you really want me to care about Alpine, personalize this story. That might take a lot of reporting, but that's what good stories require.

    (I struggle with this sometimes too; I don't report enough because I don't get a lot of space anymore, and so talking to three people is good enough when talking to eight people would give me much richer material. You won't always be able to do it, but strive to exceed the standards of your publication with every story you do. The people I know who are the most successful always managed to push themselves, even when "good" would have been good enough.)

  8. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    That Reilly piece from last month was the first thing I thought of. And while I don't think the Alpine circumstance carries the same sense of injustice, it provides a good example of a way to take this story.

    So, I would approach it the same way that Reilly did -- although I wouldn't write it with that much intensity; his "voice" sounds like a pissed-off but eloquent Billy Madison -- by asking the coaches and players specifically about that tiebreaker.

    Put yourself in the Alpine coach's shoes, calling plays. Was the "9 points" even a factor in their pregame preparation? Was it a focus during the game? Was it a focus during the fourth quarter, specifically the final few minutes? Was there a sense of urgency to score just one more time? How did that feel, being up 7 on the scoreboard and knowing it wasn't enough?

    Of course, talk to the Reagan coach, too. How did he feel while he was losing the battle -- but knowing he had still won the war? What does he say to his team after a loss that should have meant more than it did? How does he think he would have felt if he were on the other side of that?

    I like DD's idea of "over-reporting," especially for shorter stories, where every word counts more. Again, while I wouldn't advocate using the same type of anger that Reilly used (I think injustice works better without sarcasm and name-calling ::)), he quoted three people in his column and likely talked to at least three more (probably a couple more players and Means.)

    You framed the story well. But you stopped short, where you should have pushed on. I don't think it has to be an existential piece about injustice, necessarily, but it needs a few more details and reax from your sources. That's where the reporting comes in. Talk to a couple players, talk to the opposing coach, maybe talk to someone from the state association about the rule itself, etc. It's a good story, and it's told well. But it could've used a little more legwork, that's all.
  9. ccraker

    ccraker Guest

    That was a very fine piece of writing there and I see what you are saying about over interviewing. He obviously talked to both coaches, the running back and the captain from the losing team.
    I wonder how many other folks he talked to?
    Anyway, what's more important in this story the writing or the reporting or both?

    Also, you said at one point about if this is a column using my own voice more. I guess my thing is this, I tend to write feature columns during football, but how do I inject my own voice into them. I feel like I am just telling a story and the only difference between a feature and a column for me is being able to be a little more free in praising or shredding the focus of the story.
  10. dawgpounddiehard

    dawgpounddiehard Active Member

    Finding your own voice is not easy. After reading this, why not turn it into an opinion column and go after this rule that they had to win by nine points to get into the playoffs. To make it worse, the team they beat got it.

    Also, you said you got good quotes from the coach so you didn't think about getting a player. Still talk to a player in this instance. You many not use his quote, but he may describe something that you can use in your piece... did he slam down his helmet, did he cry well into the night, was he pissed off... etc.

    It seems like there are numerous angles you could have taken with this information presented. What you have was probably enjoyed by the readers and even developing this angle shows promise. It was good, but wasn't a home run.
  11. Some Guy

    Some Guy Active Member

    Only thing is, I don't think there's much to the "injustice" angle (if that is, indeed, the word you want to use).

    The team didn't advance because of a tiebreaker. It's a good story. There is some great drama inherent there. But I think it would be wrong -- and a little overboard -- to act like this team somehow got screwed. They should have taken care of business so as not to be in the position that a tiebreaker keeps them out of the playoffs.
  12. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    SG -

    There's Injustice and there's injustice. That's why I stipulated "bureaucratic unfairness." That a team wins a game but doesn't advance in the playoffs based on a points-total formula seems to me the same sort of petty, officious absurdity that bedevils each of us every day. It's the football equivalent of frequent flyer blackout dates. Yes, those are the rules - but the rules are stupid.

    It's not apartheid, certainly, but it's arbitrary and unfair, and an apt reflection of the world we've chosen to make for ourselves.

    And even if we're writing about high school football, columns and features need to take a wider view of that world to really succeed.
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