Welcome back to the Filak Furlough Tour 2023-24. The second stop of the day was kind of a fortuitous bounce for everyone involved. A friend reached out to ask if I could do a Zoom call for her class because a trip to a local TV station had fallen through and she was hoping to do something fun for her students.
(Clearly, I think she drastically overestimated my ability to replace the joy students would have felt from a visit to a TV station. It’s also safe to say they likely would have felt even more joy if she just cancelled the class for the day than had them put up with me. Still, I love her positivity…)
We managed to thread the needle perfectly and wedge her class in between the two others that day, so off we went to stop number 2:
LEWIS UNIVERSITY: Romeoville, IL
THE TOPIC: Basics of writing a story (plus a free-for-all open forum)
THE BASICS: We talked a solid amount about the basics of writing, including the idea of how to assemble a story. One of the key things I think students need to understand is that a lot of the writing is in the reporting phase, so it’s always worthwhile to be alert when it comes to your time in the field.
In many cases, when I’d use the expanded inverted pyramid, I’d be listening to someone and think, “That’s my bridge quote!” Or “That’s a perfect closing!” Being aware of those things can make your life easier. Also, you should know what your general background paragraphs will look like after you do your research but before you go to an event or start working a story. Therefore, it never hurts to bang those paragraphs out in advance, which cuts down on your time on deadline and helps you focus on the new stuff in the lead.
We also talked a lot about how to kind of “jump start” your writing and writer’s block. I explained that writing isn’t always a linear process, especially when you’re starting out as a journalist or when you’re working on a bigger piece. The key thing is to get content out of your head and onto your screen.
Sometimes, I’d just start chucking wads of paraphrase-quote pairings into a file, because I knew they had value somehow in the story or I thought the quotes were too great not to include. Then there were times where I would be doing book stuff and I’d write and write and write and then BAM. I’d hit this wall and not be able to keep writing on that topic or that subhead, so I’d hop somewhere else and start writing there.
I also realized that certain things made it easier for me to write, like where I’d be writing or what I’d be listening to or even what I’d be wearing. Knowing your own writing approach is a huge help to putting yourself in the best position to avoid writer’s block.
LINKS FOR MORE: Here are some things I’ve blogged about that fit with this and how to help you with your writing and more:
- A random Filak-ism on how writer’s block can hit you
- A look at how the paraphrase-quote structure can help you and what to avoid in it.
- Some thoughts on using the Holy Trinity to do some solid lead work
BEST QUESTION (PART I): How long does it take you to write a book?
BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: It varies a lot based on how well I know the topic, the audience involved and how engaged the publisher is. In terms of my recent run with SAGE, the shortest was about a year.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: In looking back at this, it’s about a year to do a new edition for something I’d already written. Also, the shortest I ever took to write a book was three weeks, when my editor at the time did the “So… Did you finish the workbook that went with this?” thing, only to realize she’d never signed a contract for said workbook. I agreed to do it and make whatever deadline she needed, which turned out to be three weeks. Yes, it was only a workbook. No, I don’t ever want to do that again.)
The longest it took me for a book was five years, but that was a special case of insanity that might or might not still work out. Each time I have to do a book, I put up a giant Post-It note with chapters and deadlines and such so I don’t lose track of whatever I’m doing or have done.
BEST QUESTION (PART II): Where did you come up with the idea of personalized baseball bats for gifts?
BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: This goes back to my time in college with my friend Tony, who ran the yearbook. Since he had the personality of a garden weasel, he didn’t have much of a staff when I joined as a sophomore who hadn’t completed a single journalism class. Still, in less than three days, I managed to get promoted to managing editor, I think due to his lack of options and our shared desire to drink as much soda as possible.
I asked Tony what the difference was between being the editor in chief and being the managing editor. He explained that the EIC was the face of the franchise, the person responsible for external image work, the person who set deadlines and such and basically was the guy who had to make the final choices on everything.
The managing editor’s job was to walk around the newsroom with a baseball bat and say, “So… Where’s the story you promised me?” He then handed me a baseball bat.
When I told this story years later to a kid I was recruiting for the ME spot at the Advance-Titan, she jokingly turned down the job, saying, “I don’t have a bat.” So I bought a bat for the newsroom and when she graduated, I had learned how to do woodburning, so I did a personal bat for her. Over the years, the bat became kind of the prize for doing the scut work that came with the ME position.
Since people seemed to like them, I kept doing them. At one point, I offered one to the SAGE rep who was most successful in getting my first reporting book out to the public. About a week before the annual convention, my friend Staci called me up and asked if I could do three bats, as the competitive nature of the sales force was turning this fun little gimmick into “The Hunger Games.”
I did the bats and the folks loved them. After the event, a rep came up to her and asked, “How can I earn a bat?”
I just like the idea that it’s neat, it’s fun, it has a nice backstory and it’s not something you can buy at a Dollar Tree. It’s a nice way for me to thank folks.
ONE LAST THING: During the discussion of book stuff, we were talking about how getting to know what helps you write well, where I disclosed that I had a long-standing playlist on my phone that really just helped me zone in. Immediately, the kids wanted to know what was on it, so I kind of read some titles.
Professor Tracy Hemmingway asked me to provide it so they could listen to it during their next writing session. Well, here it is, although I’ve flagged a few titles in red, which means you either want to skip these or make sure you’ve downloaded the “clean” version from the iTunes store or wherever. I take no responsibility for whatever happens if you listen to this without headphones.
NEXT STOP: University of Delaware