Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men

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Writing Short and Compelling Nonfiction

The other night I attended a lecture by author and journalist, Greg Campbell. Greg is the author of Blood Diamonds, Flawless, and Road to Kosovo. I first met Greg earlier this year at the Northern Colorado Writers Conference where he presented a workshop on writing narrative nonfiction. Since then, I have tried to attend every one of his classes or lectures because he’s such a master of nonfiction. For this particular lecture, Greg focused on a journalistic approach to short nonfiction, having been in that field for many years. Greg’s book-length narrative nonfiction is certainly something to marvel at—he knows what he’s doing. Flawless was probably one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read in a long time—it’s fantastic.

Tuesday night’s lecture focused on writing short, yet compelling nonfiction. To define short, we’re talking 800 to 1500 words; 2500 at the most. Anything shorter, it’s tough to get too “compelling,” but nonfiction at that length, is typically newspaper articles—so you need just enough room for the facts. It could pose a challenge for me considering many of the stories in my book will have to be between 300 and 700 words. I’m up for the challenge.

The following are pieces of sage advice from Mr. Campbell. (I paraphrased) Take notes.

Know your audience. This isn’t just your readership. When it comes to short nonfiction, knowing an editor’s specific style is the first thing to consider. For example, USA Today and The New Yorker may have the same readers, but the types of work they publish is very different. Know your editor first.

Know your story. What is your story? And what makes it important? How does it differ from other published stories on the same subject?

Become a storyteller. Write your story in a letter to someone who knows you well. Tell them your story how you would in a conversation. The recipient will be able to tell you where it doesn’t sound like you, where the holes are, etc.

It comes down to voice. You can either put yourself in the story or not. You have to decide if it’s necessary. Can the story and its characters speak for themselves? If you have a message, trust your reader to get it without beating them over the head with it—it’s distracting.

Responsibility to get it right. It’s a no-brainer; get your facts correct. And forget being “objective.” Be fair and accurate. Greg stresses the importance of knowing enough about your topic to defend it, because you may just have to.

Blog a lot. It’s great practice. It’s that simple.

Greg Campbell’s Top 8 Rules for writing short and compelling nonfiction

8. Jump in with both feet; don’t go wading out. Open with a scene from the middle of the story. Drawing the reader in may require starting somewhere other than the beginning.

7. Use really good quotes—and lots of them. They create mile markers in your story, and what’s not compelling about a good quote?

6. Be declarative when you write. Take out the “he said” and replace it with “he thought.” Taking out the attributes puts the reader into the heads of the characters.

5. Pay attention to word selection. Pick words you actually use; that are colloquial, conversational, the way you would speak. Avoid jargon and using “favorite” words. Throw in some well-played metaphors and similes.

4. Pay attention to sentence selection. You can be “colorful” but don’t do it randomly. Plot them out and make sure they are a part of your vernacular. They need to settle into the background, not take center stage.

3. The inverted pyramid. So picture an upside down pyramid in your mind. The top third is the newsworthy stuff. The middle are details, and the bottom is background/filler. That’s your typical newspaper article. For a bit longer nonfiction, overlap another inverted pyramid on the bottom third of the first pyramid. That’s where you hit the reader with another surprise. Greg called them “electric shocks.” Add another pyramid. These “shocks” keep your readers interested throughout.

2. Find a way to wrap up the story by bringing the reader back to the beginning. This a common technique good journalists use to remind the reader where they’ve been. It brings them back full-circle and shows them that you constructed it that way instead of writing it willy-nilly.

1. Write with confidence! Greg couldn’t stress this enough. This comes back to knowing your topic inside and out. Complete mastery and clarity of the topic establishes you as an authority on the subject which will give you confidence to write about it. And confidence = compelling.

So there you have it. Check out Greg’s blog and learn about his forthcoming book on medical marijuana, out next spring.


Why Back Matter Matters

First of all, you may be wondering what in the world is back matter. Well, it’s all the stuff following the main text of a book that usually consists of the index, epilogue, afterword, etc. I recently attended a workshop at the Northern Colorado Writers Association about back matter, taught by Natasha Wing, a children’s book author. Natasha routinely includes back matter in her books; anywhere from an activity or lesson, to maps or a glossary.

As I learned in the class, back matter is ideal for nonfiction, particularly, historical nonfiction like Folsom’s 93. In the course of researching for the book, I have accumulated nearly 900,000 words of notes. Obviously, it will need to be molded into a readable, coherent form of nonfiction, but what happens to the fascinating stuff that doesn’t make it into the book? If you’ve been a regular visitor to my site, you already know that I’ve shared many of these things on my blog. But there’s so much more.

I plan to have sidebars throughout the book, but that still is a fraction of what I have. I’d like to talk about Folsom’s cemetery, Folsom prison today, the Folsom Prison Museum, and the current status of the death penalty . . . to name a few.

Back matter consists of, but is not limited to: maps, bibliography, photographs, afterword, appendix/addendum, author notes, epilogue, acknowledgments, index, timeline, and glossary. These give the reader an opportunity to learn more about the subject matter and all in one place. It authenticates you as a researcher and as a professional; that you are an expert in your field. According to Wing, it also increases the value of the book, which is always a good thing.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to include everything that I’d like to in Folsom’s 93. So any leftover Folsom tales and tidbits will be found on my blog. No matter what you’re writing, keep everything! You never know when it can become back matter that matters.


Art-Inspired Writing

Earlier this week, I ran a workshop at the Northern Colorado Writers on how art can help inspire a writer, whether it’s a story idea, character sketch, poem, or flash fiction. I grew up with a love for writing and art and found myself as an art major in college. I also owned and operated a greeting card company for ten years. You could say that I’m trying to make the most of the right side of my brain and I hope to someday get back to a children’s book that I’ve written and illustrated.

Monday’s workshop featured the artwork of Jim Fronapfel, local Fort Collins artist who works mainly in pastels. As the Visual Designer at the NCW, I get the amazing job of finding local artists to display their work in our studio. The moment I saw Jim’s work, I knew it’d be perfect for this workshop. He has this uncanny ability to capture something about his subjects, something that just tells a story. Myself and each of the participants picked one of Jim’s pieces of artwork, and we wrote for 20 minutes. Brave attendees then read what they wrote, followed by Jim describing his own inspiration behind the canvas.

So how do you spot the story in a piece of art?

The Mood. Artists often convey the mood through texture, technique, and color.

  • Texture is the actual surface of the work, or the way the work is represented.Can you see actual texture or is it simulated?
  • Technique shows how a piece of art is created. Does it look quickly drawn?Rough? Or smooth and soft?
  • Color can depict the mood of piece of art. This is often subjective where the same color canmean something different to different viewers. What do the colors say to you?

The Time Period/Setting It may not be obvious what time period the work is depicting. If you can put the subject of the work into a certain setting, such as the Depression, would that evoke a story? Does it help while doing a character sketch?

Find the Genre. Historical fiction? Young adult? Thriller? Poetry? Romance? Horror? Can you see several potential genres in the same picture?

 Online Art Resources for Writers

Art Project by Google:  Explore museums without even leaving your home. Google brings several galleries, including the National Gallery in London and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to your computer. Like giving you a street view of your neighborhood, Google does the same of the inside of galleries. View the art as if you’re actually sitting in front of it.

 Art Resource: This site allows you to browse through thousands of pieces of art. Type in a subject matter and the results could yield hundreds, if not thousands of story-inspiring art.

Jim Fronapfel’s site, of course! Click on the image under “Other Works” on the right hand side and you’ll be able to view over a 100 different works of Jim’s that are sure to inspire an essay, poem, character, or story.

While we wrote, Jim spent the time creating a masterpiece on an Etch-A-Sketch:

All I’d be able to do is a really cool set of stairs . . .