‘Voice’ Part I: One writer’s catalog of versatile styles

A quintet of Kim Murphy leads shows you the importance of calibrating

I want stories with voice,” your editor is saying. “And discipline. And detail. I want stories that evoke a sense of place.” And here’s the kicker: Your editor wants all those qualities in the same story.

'Voice' Part I: One writer's catalog of versatile styles

'Voice' Part I: One writer's catalog of versatile styles

If you’re looking for a textbook on this kind of versatility, here are the tops of five clips by one of my favorite reporters and writers, Kim Murphy of the L.A. Times’ Seattle bureau.

Many Times reporters claim Kim as a hero, but when you ask them why, they’re hard-pressed to express a single technique that makes her work so consistently good. And they’re right. Study the following fragments, published during a two-month period last year. They’re testimony to a two-pronged intellectual feat: (1) reducing the material to elemental simplicity, and then (2) filtering it through a voice that appreciates human sophistication and foibles. The result is a story that both beckons you and holds your hand as you move through it. It’s the work of a writer who is always in control. Five examples:

I: A nuanced labor campaign is both explained and put into perspective.

PORTLAND, Ore. — There were the child care subsidies, true. The tuition assistance and profit sharing. A median wage of $8.42 an hour, not bad for a bookstore, in an industry whose here-today, gone-tomorrow work force hovers perpetually at the minimum wage.

The booksellers at Powell’s wanted something more. More money, to be sure, but just as important, recognition that there is not so marvelous a salesperson on Earth as the one who can take a reader’s halting, fumbling inquiry, walk confidently through the stacks, climb a stepladder and produce just the volume needed–plus a couple of recommended alternatives.

The sales staff at Powell’s City of Books–the nation’s largest independent bookstore, an American literary institution and, in an age of chain superstores and Internet giants like Amazon.com, an independent bookstore that’s making money–think that’s worth something.

So it is that Powell’s 408-strong sales and warehouse staff finds itself locked in an unusual labor battle with an employer widely seen as one of the most progressive in the industry. Powell’s employees walked off the job again Saturday, climaxing a week of job actions and street demonstrations that produced the surreal specter of riot-geared police guarding the cash registers of the venerable old establishment.

The push for a labor contract at Powell’s is part of a growing move to unionize the nation’s struggling independent booksellers. Half a dozen bookshops across the country already have union labor. Here in Portland, a new generation of bottom-rung service industry workers is bringing to the table not only issues like higher wages but also a voice in management that will allow them to maintain professional pride in their work.

II: An exotic challenge is described visually and industrially–and, again, placed into perspective–all within three grafs. Notice how the short sentences underscore the drama and make it easier to communicate the complexity. Notice, too, the amount of detail that has been compressed without a hint of cramming.

BEAUFORT SEA, Alaska — Six miles out on the polar ice pack–rising out of the silent, frozen sea–stands a 5-acre island and an army of backhoes gouging a massive trench into the ocean floor. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, workers race to complete the first undersea oil pipeline ever attempted in the formidable moonscape of the Arctic Ocean.

Delay a few weeks and the ice supporting the heavy cranes will give way to the spring thaw. Hurry and the pipeline won’t get buried properly. In this region of midwinter darkness and shifting ice, an oil spill could turn the fragile ocean into a dead sea.

This is America’s last oil frontier. Until now, Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil fields had been considered the end of the Earth. That was before Prudhoe’s vast reserves began to dwindle, before technology redefined the limits of the possible. Now the boundary has shifted into this wilderness of water and ice, polar bears and bowhead whales, into which mankind always has ventured at his peril.

III. An elegant one-sentence interjection–the third graf–gives power and mystery to the saga of enviro-terrorists. That interjection prepares you for two more grafs detailing the group’s mischief elsewhere. After five grafs you’re deep into the story without a “nut graf” but it doesn’t matter. The sense of mystery is still pulling you along. Technically, the nut is in the eighth graf, which is against the rules, but the rules don’t matter here because the writer has created a charming hybrid–the news yarn–with its own logic.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Boise Cascade Corp.’s regional headquarters burned to the ground the night before Christmas. When the smoke cleared, the only thing left was a communique from the “elves” of the Earth Liberation Front, who chortled that they had “left coal in Boise Cascade’s stocking.”

“Boise Cascade has been very naughty after ravaging the forests of the Pacific Northwest . . . [and] now looks toward the virgin forests of Chile,” the message said. “Let this be a lesson to all greedy multinational corporations who don’t respect ecosystems. The elves are watching.”

Actually, the elves were just catching their breath.

A week later, they torched Michigan State University’s agricultural research department, destroying years of work on genetically engineered crops. Then they burned down a house in a new Indiana housing tract that purportedly threatened a local water supply.

More recently, the ELF claimed responsibility for vandalism at the University of Minnesota, where 800 genetically engineered oat plants were overturned. Then they sabotaged construction vehicles–“large yellow machines of death,” in ELF parlance–and sifted salt into piles of dry cement destined for a controversial highway project in Minneapolis.

They have left no fingerprints, no identifiable tire tracks, no shoe prints likely to match anyone’s feet. The gasoline mixture they use cannot be identified. Pipe bomb components have been traced to the stores where they were purchased, but no one can remember who bought them.

Their only public presence is a tall, stone-faced vegan baker in Portland, Ore., who has been called to appear before a federal grand jury Wednesday to either name the people who keep sending communiques to his ELF press office or risk 18 months in prison on contempt charges. Craig Rosebraugh, 27, already knows what he’s going to say: He has no idea who they are. And if he did, “I’d sit in jail for 18 months before I told them.”

This is the new face of radical environmentalism, which has moved beyond the simple monkey-wrenching and tree-spiking techniques of the timber wars of the 1990s. By adopting tactics of the Animal Liberation Front, known for its clandestine releases of research animals and fur-farm minks, the ELF’s intent now is to inflict as much financial harm as possible on corporations whose interests are deemed at odds with the environment.

And in that they have been very successful.

“They pick times and places where no one expects them to be,” said…

IV. Like Example III, we are again taken to the dark side of society, but this time the writer brings us closer so we can watch evil unfold. The voice is dispassionate. Like Example II, the sentences are short for observational detail and drama. Each graf brings us slightly closer, which is why we don’t mind waiting until the fifth graf for the narrator to explain what we’re watching. She gives it partly to us in the fifth graf, then with both barrels in the sixth, stacking parallel clauses atop each other to emphasize how far-afield this music is.

DETROIT — The meeting point is a gas station 20 miles north of Detroit. As carloads of people from across the Midwest cruise in, a young man in a blue flannel shirt quietly signals them to follow him.

They drive past a line of watchful police cars, through suburbs dotted with strip malls and fast-food restaurants. Finally, they reach working-class Shelby Township and turn left down a country road, where a Disabled American Veterans assembly hall advertises free admission to a flea market.

Car after car pulls in, and a parade of young men–many with the trademark shaved heads, Doc Martens boots and swastika tattoos of neo-Nazi skinheads–file into the hall. The front door closes, and the trouble starts.

Thundering guitars strike up an infernal rhythm. A call–it might be a human shriek or the growl of a bear–rises with the music: Victory or Valhalla . . . We will never surrender. And then the crowd strikes up a chant that can be heard out on the street: “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!”

Of the many underground music scenes in America, few are so forbidden that patrons arrive not knowing where the concert is. Then again, few rock ‘n’ roll bands sing anthems like “If you ain’t white, you’ll be dead.”

White power music is virtually the only kind that no radio station will play, no club will book, few record stores will stock. In an industry that seeks profits in outrageousness, it is the music that goes too far.

Even the old guard of the white supremacy movement viewed the violent skinhead culture with dismay. But now they have begun to embrace white power music, realizing that a single compact disk can be infinitely more powerful a recruiting tool than a parking lot full of fliers.

National Alliance leader William Pierce–whom human rights groups have identified as the most powerful and dangerous white supremacist in America–recently purchased Resistance Records and its accompanying magazine, setting up a warehouse and distribution center on his 350-acre compound in West Virginia.

Resistance expects to generate at least $750,000 in CD sales this year. That money, Pierce says, can be funneled into the National Alliance’s expanding political network…

V: A feature off the news: Here the voice has more emotion to emphasize the unusualness. Details in the first graf give us a sense of place. Details in the second graf give us a sense of contrast. (Note the use of three separate sentences in that second graf to clearly separate the thoughts; how many reporters routinely write three-sentence grafs?) The third graf gives us a cultural background so that the fourth and fifth grafs can reinforce the contrast between the once-true believers and the awful truth they now grapple with.

RICHLAND, Wash. — No one ever thought they’d see it happen. Not in this town, home of the Atomic Foods supermarket, the Bombers football team (with the tiny mushroom cloud over the school sign) and streets with names like Proton Court.

But then no one in this company town ever thought the company would admit it had hurt them. The company, in this case, is the U.S. Department of Energy, operator of the Hanford plutonium-making complex in central Washington. Last week, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ended decades of official denials by conceding that workers in 14 nuclear weapon plants had been exposed to harmful levels of radioactive and chemical contamination.

For years, people who talked about radioactive illnesses and safety hazards at Hanford–the backbone employer in Richland for more than 50 years–were dismissed as troublemakers or, worse yet, unpatriotic.

So when the government invited people to come to the federal building here Thursday night to talk about how Hanford had made them sick, the result was astounding: a room full–no, more than a room full, they spilled out into the atrium and an adjoining conference room–of men and women who had spent their lives measuring and transporting and mixing some of the deadliest known radionuclides.

These were not young nuclear activists, or even industry whistle-blowers. They were men in their 50s, 60s and 70s, wearing work shirts and billed caps. They were women who’d worked as secretaries and chemical process technicians. Or widows of onetime employees who’d buried husbands long before they thought they ought to have.

The government’s reversal–a move that could cost tens of millions of dollars in compensation costs–was based on a preliminary report that…

These stories are evocative and stylish, yet deceptively simple: The Flesch reading ease program, which evaluates sentence length and syllables per word, measured them at 6.6 grade level. (Most L.A. Times stories read at the 12th-grade level or higher.) The average sentence length in the examples you read was 20.3 words. (Most of us average significantly more.) Beyond the numbers is a commitment to hard-eyed storytelling without a shred of self-indulgence.

“WHAT’S THAT MEAN?” THE READER SAID, REFERRING TO…

If you have grown tired of littering up your copy with mediocre quotes, and have pledged to trim fat by using only those quotes that matter, here’s a little check you can make. Check each story for the term “referring to.” What you’ll often find is that you have used that term to explain the meaning of a quote.

Think about what an obnoxious habit that is.

You want the reader to absorb, not to think. You want the information presented fluidly, logically, as sequentially as possible. So why would you throw a piece of language at him that he didn’t understand?

Like these examples from my newspaper’s pages of 2000, with the sins underlined:

“Everybody was expecting a crash,” said Scott Bleier, chief investment strategist at Prime Charter Ltd. a New York investment bank. But “the ‘new world order’ is very powerful” as an investment lure, he said, referring to the growth prospects of technology. “It doesn’t end just because we’ve had a corrective process” in stocks.

Or:

“It is clear that there are various interests and all sorts of requests made by different interest groups, including the oligarchs,” he said, referring to the powerful moguls who wielded hefty political clout during the Boris N. Yeltsin era.

Or:

To make matters worse, Ron Iden, FBI special agent in charge of Los Angeles, said the region is the telemarketing scam capital of the nation. “The bulk of the problem comes from boiler rooms in Southern California,” he said, referring to the makeshift offices from which teams of scam artists make calls.

My newspaper used “referring to” about once every other day last year to compensate for that kind of of poor quote usage. Most of the time, “referring to” should warn you that your quote isn’t worth keeping. It would be cleaner if the three examples above were rewritten like this:

(1) “Everybody was expecting a crash,” said Scott Bleier, chief investment strategist at Prime Charter Ltd. a New York investment bank. But the growth prospects of technology are an investment lure, he said. “It doesn’t end just because we’ve had a corrective process” in stocks.” (We eliminated the “new world order” expression.)

(2) “It is clear that there are various interests and all sorts of requests made by different interest groups,” including the powerful moguls who wielded hefty political clout during the Boris N. Yeltsin era, he said. (We shortened the quote to eliminate the expression “oligarchs.”

(3) To make matters worse, the region is the telemarketing scam capital of the nation, said Ron Iden, FBI special agent in charge of Los Angeles. The bulk of the problem, he said, is rooted in Southern California “boiler rooms,” makeshift offices in which teams of scam artists make calls. (We paraphrased Iden’s quote–how often do law enforcement officers use memorable language?–and shoved him to the back of the first sentence.)

Occasionally the quote will be interesting enough to make the explanation worthwhile, like:

Hyundai’s sales philosophy was “us or the bus” before 1990, he said, referring to the positioning of its new cars as an alternative to used cars or public transportation.

Or this one, in which an ex-manager was asked if a recent poor season dimmed the chances of him returning to the big leagues:

“No, not after five good ones,” he said, referring to his having led the Houston Astros to three consecutive second-place finishes before leading the Angels to two more.

Remember what it feels like being in a conversation where somebody uses a piece of jargon you don’t understand, and what a pain in the ass it is when you have to make that person back up and explain it. That’s the conversational equivalent of “referring to.”

“ASK YOURSELF WHERE YOU’RE STANDING.”

A feature last year about two men who died in an Alaska Air crash off Ventura County, Calif., had an uncomfortable lead. The writer seemed to insert himself into the action-in this case, a memorial service-and bring the reader almost too close:

SACRAMENTO–In a way, you were fortunate, weren’t you?

Lois Rosele looks up, as if the question hangs there in the air. A spark of anger has been lit. She looks down.

Fortunate that you had him for as long as you did?

Lois Rosele is a mother. She composes herself and looks back up.

“Yes, I was lucky,” she says. She is the mother of a son. “But I expected to be luckier.”

She is the mother of a son who died in the suddenness of the sunny afternoon two weeks ago when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged, spun and tumbled nose first into 700 feet of cold ocean. Given the speed of the aircraft, the water might as well have been stone. The impact obliterated much of the airplane and its 88 passengers.

Rosele’s son, Brad Long, was among them. He was eulogized here Sunday along with his longtime partner, Bill Knudson. A memorial service drew 1,300 people, many of them prepped, as one friend said, for the biggest party Sacramento had ever seen.

The size of the crowd surprised only those who didn’t know Knudson and Long, who didn’t know about the intersecting circles of friends that Long and Knudson sat in the center of, circles that spun out from Northern California to Central Mexico, circles that included…

Did the lead have to stick you in the face of a grieving mother? Yes, says the writer, Terry McDermott:

I hate these sorts of stories. They’re cliches waiting to be written. I was stuck writing a story about two guys who died in a plane crash that wasn’t going to be published until two weeks after the crash. As a reader, anytime I see a story like this, I ask myself: Why [is the paper writing about] these guys? Why now?

These are questions without good answers. You can’t say, we’re doing the story because some editor wants it. Instead, you write something in maybe the third of fourth graf explaining that lots of people died and we picked these guys as stand-ins for the whole plane load and don’t ask us why cuz we don’t have a clue.

I wanted to find a way to avoid all that, to not give readers a chance to even ask the questions. One way to do this is to plunge them right into the middle of the story from the start–no build-up, no explanation, just bam, here you are, either read it or not, but don’t wonder why.

How do you do that?

The best purely mechanical writing tip I ever got was on how to start stories when you don’t know how to start them. It’s this:

Ask yourself where you’re standing.

You can think of it physically. Most stories are told from a distance, a thousand feet up, surveying the entire landscape, or a little closer–from across the street, maybe, in a car parked in a neighbor’s driveway. But stories don’t have to be told from that distance. If you can’t get the story to work, change the location. Look at what you have from a different distance. It’s cinematic; move the camera. (You can also change locations during a story. This can be a good substitute for writing transitions.)

Death of a loved one is an extraordinarily intimate event. So I tried to indicate that intimacy by bringing the reader very close to the action, bringing the camera in tight.

The best single thing to emerge in the reporting was the mother’s answer to the rather lame question: Do you feel fortunate to have had him as long as you did?

Since I wanted to start in the middle of this story and didn’t want the reader to be asking universal questions, I gave them this question in its place and asked it immediately and a point-blank range.

KEYS TO CHARACTER

The next time you’re profiling, sketching or simply trying to capture a character in print, consider this checklist. It comes from a late Oregon novelist named Con Sellers and was reprinted last year on WriterL, a ” literary journalism” listserv.
Age
Height
Weight
Birth date
Birthplace
Color hair
Color eyes
Scars or handicaps (physical, mental, emotional)
Other distinguishing traits (smells, voice, skin, hair, etc.)
Educational background
Work experience
Military service
Marital status
Best friend
Men/women friends
Enemies
Parents
Current problem
Greatest fear
How will problem get worse?
Strongest character traits
Weakest character traits
Sees self as
Is seen by others as
Sense of humor
Basic nature
Ambitions
Philosophy of life
Hobbies
Preferred type of music, art, reading material
Idioms used in dialog
Dress
Favorite colors
Pastimes
Description of home
Most important things to know about this character
One-line characterization

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: From NYT columnist Thomas Friedman on Sept. 25: “It is hard to trust anything after such an attack because trust is based on a certain presumptive morality, a sense that certain actions are simply outside the bounds of human behavior or imagination. That 19 people would take over four civliian airliners and then steer three of them into buildings loaded with thousands of innocent people was, I confess, outside the boundary of my imagination. The World Trade Center is not the place where our intelligence agencies failed. It is the place where our imaginations failed.

“What we know of these terrorists is that they were evil, educated and suicidal. That is a combination I have never seen before in a large group of people. People who are evil and educated don’t tend to be suicidal (they get other people to kill themselves). People who are evil and suicidal don’t tend to be educated.”