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.


6th Annual Northern Colorado Writers Conference

If you’ve ever attended a conference in your given field, you probably know how empowering they are. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people where you can learn and talk shop, can feel like inspiration revelry. I landed in my element. I’ve attended other writers conferences, but the NCW is clearly the most fun (and I don’t say that because I am part of the Creative Conference Team). It’s a bit on the smaller side, so attendees are able to interact more with the agents, editors and presenters, unlike larger conferences. I will warn you, however, that that can lead to cocktail-induced stories involving embarrassing poems written in the first grade (that I guarantee teachers had a good laugh about in the teachers’ lounge), but may later create an unflattering association between you and certain female anatomy. Already, I’ve said too much.

A writer must start somewhere. For those of you wonderful people I subjected to my bad poetry (and jokes), I apologize.

The evening began with me standing in front of 120 people reading a skit I co-wrote pertaining to the conference theme, Passport to Writing. I did not inherit my father’s ability to speak in front of a crowd, but I like to think I gleaned from him, his skill and love for writing. The most I had read aloud something I’d written, is in front of five others—my critique group. My hands shook as I held the one page, my voice quivered in places, and I’m quite sure my teeth hit the mic more than once. Let’s not leave out the audience member who yelled, “Louder!” Next year, I’ll avoid the stage and the mic. (Although, I hear I’m on my way to becoming a You Tube sensation.)

The workshops are of course, much better than silly dinnertime skits. I attended several amazing classes including, How to Build an Effective Platform by agents Michael Ebeling and Kristina Holmes of Ebeling & Associates. Platform. It’s probably my least favorite word when talking about writing, but happens to be one of the most important. I learned so much from Michael and Kristina’s class, especially the importance of branding yourself—oftentimes, way before the book is even a glint in your eye. I also had the wonderful opportunity to talk with these fabulous agents throughout the two-day conference. (It was worth the restraining order).

Kristina got an earful from me about Folsom’s 93 when I had the great chance to pitch the book to her. She gave valuable feedback and suggestions and I feel as though I have a better direction now. She kindly requested the proposal (or maybe I forced it on her) and I will be emailing that shortly. I haven’t meant nicer agents than these two, and I’ll never give up hope that we will all be BFFs (regardless of what the restraining order says).

I also attended The Basics of Narrative Non-Fiction, presented by Greg Campbell, author of Blood Diamonds and Flawless. If you find yourself with the opportunity to take one of his classes, don’t hesitate to do so. I learned a great deal from Greg about storytelling, dialogue, and the arc-driven narrative. I’m anxious to get started on my copy of Flawless, and later, his upcoming book, Pot of Gold. I also sat in on a query critique class with Greg where I found out I have some work to do on my own query. (Big surprise).

Other great classes I attended: Fun with Fairy Tale Characters, Unforgettable Characters and Book Promotion. The conference ended with a relaxing and entertainment-filled (provided by Mr. Ebeling) dinner at a local restaurant where an album containing the mug shots of my 93 guys was passed around and perused through. We pointed out which ones looked like certain celebrities including Sean Penn and Wesley Snipes . . .

This was my favorite conference thus far, due to the talented people I got a chance to meet and talk with. Among them, was Dom Testa, Denver broadcaster and author of the Galahad book series. Dom gave a keynote address that was smart, inspiring, and downright funny.  I also got to talk with Justin Matott, author of several children’s book, including one of my favorites, When I was a Boy . . . I Dreamed. Ask him about his urinal story—one you probably won’t find in one of his children’s book.

I don’t want to leave out the most important person of the conference: Kerrie Flanagan, director the NCW. She created this wonderful annual event and each year, makes it better than the one before. Cheers to my roof buddy—well done.

Right after the conference, I fled to the mountains for a much-needed respite. I got to lay by a fire, sip wine, and write. What else should a writer in the mountains do? Well, that’s what this writer did. I ventured out once or twice for some fresh air though.

The relaxation was short-lived as I came home to a large stack of manuscripts that I’m judging for the Pacific Northwest Writers Literary Contest. I knew I’d be receiving quite a few manuscripts, but I won’t lie . . . I gasped when I opened the box.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the task. Having submitted to a literary contest like this in the past, I know how important this is to a writer and I hope to motivate and inspire them with my comments and suggestions. I’ll be kind, I promise. It took me two tries with the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers to become a finalist in 2008 and I owe it to a less-than-stellar critique in 2007.

I’m confident next year’s conference will be even better than this year’s and I’m looking forward to it already and to the restraining orders (a sign of a damn good conference).