Saturday 14 June 2014

Focus on the Deck of Cards

Today I attended Karen Stiller's Continuing Class "Non Fiction Basics".  It was a real treat!  First of all, she gave us cookies -- I knew I'd picked the right class.  She drew a comparison between baking a tasty cookie using just the right ingredients and composing an excellent article, using just the right "ingredients".  By the way, the ginger sparklers were tasty.

Karen gave us each a black and white photograph.  More freebies!  The picture showed a deck of cards sitting on a table in the kitchen of a cottage.  While everything in the background was a bit blurry, the deck of cards was crystal clear.  When Karen took the photo, her point was to show the class that when we write an article, we need to focus on a specific angle, just as her photo focuses on the deck of cards.  When we brainstorm, we should think of ideas.  An idea is something like, a story on poverty in inner city Canada.  But the idea needs to be narrowed down to an angle.  The angle is how Jane and Finch in Toronto is stopping poverty in its tracks through art programs.

How do you choose a topic?  Most people say "Write what you know".  However, Karen says "Write what you don't know".  By that she means, pick a topic that you don't know much about.  And then find the experts on that subject and interview them.  With enough research, a unfamiliar topic becomes much more familiar.  Plus, as Karen suggested, when you write the article you can come at it from "the ignorance angle". You become the reader's stand in.  

Karen gave us a booklet full of magazine articles like "Farley Mowat, Last of a Tribe", a piece about the author who had just passed away,  and "The Real Cowboys of Pincher Creek", a piece about a rodeo in southern Alberta and "Childhood's End", the 2000's  answer to Benjamin Spock.  We were asked to do an "article autopsy" on each of them to determine what made them solid examples of journalism.

Karen said that if we were to remember one thing about her class it was that any good journalist needs an outline.  They don't just sit down and free write.  They interview and network.  They research both at the library and on the Internet.  And when they have more than enough information, they sit down at their desk, lay all of their information before them and start to organize it.  Finally, it's time to write.

Karen compared a well written article to a "beautiful symphony".  When all the instruments come together in a well organized manner, magic happens.  So too with a magazine or newspaper article.  So whether you're Mozart composing his symphony or Karen baking her cookies, aim for perfection.  The result will amaze your readers.

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