The Story That Did Me In

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll never forget the story that did me in.

The one that slayed me and changed my career path entirely. The one that ultimately led me to quit my job as a newspaper reporter.

It was about the perfect family destroyed — shattered — by tragedy.

As a crime reporter, I had been blithely cruising through other people’s tragedies for years. I was moved and haunted by many of the stories I covered — some which caused me to drink and smoke too much — but I was still able to do my job and more importantly, I still loved doing my job.

My two close friends at the paper were just like me. We thought nothing of talking about “floaters” and “decomps” and those words were sprinkled into our ever day conversation.

Not much rattled us. Dead body? No problem.

In fact, I’ll never forget how excited I was one day to get a new copy of a homicide investigator’s manual in the mail. It was chock full of graphic photos of various modes and manners of death, including close-range gunshot wounds to the face and explosions and people crushed to death. Not pretty.

But that didn’t stop my friend C and I from taking the book to a Chinese restaurant and flipping through it over lunch.

C also had seen more autopsies at our county morgue than probably any reporter in the history of our newspaper. She was soft-spoken, drop-dead gorgeous, and fearless.

I only saw one autopsy. A guy about my age who overdosed. I can recognize the smell of a dead body to this day.

C and I were regular visitors at the morgue and I soon got a reputation at the newspaper. Every time an intern started, the editors would tell me to take them to the morgue that first week.

I wonder how many interns were traumatized by the experience? I took one young woman on a day when a young man who died in a motorcycle crash was on the slab as we walked into the room. The first thing we saw was the giant chunk of his skull that was missing at the top of his head.

But none of that bothered me. Not really.

Then I gave birth.

The flood of hormones transformed me into another person. Suddenly, everything I reported on was much too close to home.

All the evil that I had kept at arm’s length seemed to follow me home at night.

I would immerse myself in the seediest, darkest part of life and then come home to the very definition of innocence in my baby. I was having a hard time reconciling these two worlds, but then it got worse.

Right before Christmas, a mother in a wealthy suburb and her two children, who I think were less than a year apart, were walking on a beautiful fall day to get ice cream. They were on a parkway, where a wide sidewalk was separated from the road by a patch of grass.

The kids were either in front of or behind the mother when a suspected drunk driver went careening off the road and plowed into the kids, killing them both.

Not long after, the parents invited the press to talk to them in their luxurious home in a rich subdivision. I sat with other reporters in their living room and looked around at the beautiful couple in their beautiful home.

The mother, who I had imagined would be curled up in the fetal position with dirty hair and slobber on her wrinkled clothes, looked more put together than I ever had in my entire life.

She was gorgeous. Her husband was gorgeous. Without knowing their story and looking at them in their fancy home, you would think they had everything.

And yet, they had nothing. Not anymore. Some drunken fool had taken away their life.

The million dollar house was empty and hollow, haunted by memories of children playing and laughing.

Later, my editors asked me to do a story about what this couple’s Christmas was like. I refused. Or rather, I simply kept forgetting to do it.

I couldn’t force myself to call them. I knew what their Christmas was going to be like. Or at least I suspected. It was going to be a hellish nightmare, just like the rest of their days were right now.

So, I suppose it could have been any story that fall — any tragedy that struck me to the core — but that was the story that did me in. Suddenly as a mother, I couldn’t dip in to and out of other people’s tragedies anymore. I just couldn’t do it.

I had always cared about my job and cared about the victims of tragedies and tried to do them justice in the best way I could, but I couldn’t do it anymore. When I became a mother, the emotions struck too sharp and too deep for me to continue doing my job properly.

I quit my job a few months later.

But I am forever changed by my former life as a reporter. I have seen things that help me put everything into perspective.

Luckily most of the people I know live very sheltered lives. When they complain — and cry — about trivial things, I try to understand. II tell myself they don’t know. They don’t understand.

They don’t know how lucky they are. They have a little bubble around their lives. They feel invincible. And maybe it is necessary to feel that way to go on day to day.

But I know something different. I know that bubble doesn’t protect them from tragedy. Tragedy is not picky. It is not discerning. It has a laissez-faire attitude in who it strikes. There is no rhyme or reason.

That’s one thing I know.

I’ve sat in too many living rooms of people who know the same thing.

This knowledge may seem like a burden to some. And in fact, up-close knowledge of that as a crime reporter was more than I could handle as a new mother.

But with hindsight, I realize this knowledge is not a burden, but a gift.

It is a gift because it reminds me to pick my battles, put minor setbacks in perspective and to never, ever take one moment of this precious life for granted.

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22 Rules of Storytelling

 

The 22 Rules of Writing was based on tweets by Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats.

If you want to see the original graphic, go here:

http://www.publetariat.com/think/22-rules-writing

However, if you’re of a certain age like me and don’t have the best eyes in the world, I’ve included the list below in text form. xoxo

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

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Why I Unfollowed You on Twitter


So, first off let me say it is nothing personal. Here’s the deal.

Once upon a time, I joined Twitter. Setting up the people I followed was FUN. I followed my friends, authors, artists, and musicians I liked. Then I threw in a couple people from the publishing industry because I am a writer.

It was a riot. I got on Twitter and saw what my friends and people I liked were doing.

Soon, I found myself getting emails notifying me that new people were following me on Twitter. In the spirit of camaraderie, I’d follow them back. It was easy, I just hit a button in the email and it took me right to their page and I hit “follow.” Easy peasy.

But soon, I was getting so many followers that I was losing track of the Tweets from people I liked so I got a tiny bit more discriminating: Now, if they had the slightest thing in common with me (were writers, were Italian, etc.) I’d follow them back.

Pretty soon, I had followed some 34 billion other people on Twitter and yet only 500 were following me. I didn’t get it. The numbers didn’t add up. If I followed the people who followed me first, shouldn’t I also have 34 billion followers?

Something was fishy.

But then it struck me: People on Twitter are playing a game. A game that I obviously didn’t know the rules to.

I started getting a hint of this when every few weeks I would get an email in my inbox saying “ANNOYING GUY” is following you on Twitter. I figured out that if I kept getting these emails, it meant he kept following me, then unfollowing me and then following me again. What the hell?

Then, I started to get it. The game is this: follow someone so they’ll follow you. Then, once they follow you, unfollow them.

And if you’re totally psycho, like Annoying Guy, keep some diabolical master list of who you want to follow you and then keep following and unfollowing them for eternity. Or until they follow you back.

At first, it didn’t make sense. I mean who in the hell would spend that much time and be that organized that they could do something like this. Maybe there is a computer program, like a spam program, that does it for them? I don’t know, what I do know is I think it is totally lame.

I also think it is a colossal waste of time.

And futile.

I’m not going to buy someone’s book because they put out a promotional Tweet about it four times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. In fact, that is pretty much a guarantee that I WON’T buy their book because I’m completely, thoroughly and utterly annoyed by them.

What will make me buy a book? Someone who tweets freaking hilarious or interesting information. Shoot, I based a whole friendship on this. I knew Owen Laukkanen and I would be pals based on his lobster fisherman innuendos that he Tweeted. Now, we hang in person whenever he’s in town.

I will also buy a book by The Bloggess after people tweeted about her and I found her hysterically, falling-down-crying-practically-peeing-your-pants funny.

But the worst part of this idiotic Twitter game, was that I stopped getting on Twitter as often to avoid being bombarded by 34 billion Tweets from people I didn’t know saying things I didn’t care about and things I most definitely DIDN’T find to be falling-down-funny. Or informative.

I missed the lyrical Tweets from Johnette of Concrete Blonde or Tweets from my dear friends Celeste, Claire, or some of my other old journalism cohorts. So, I decided to clean the closet.

It took me about 45 minutes but I basically deleted 33.9 billion of the people I was following. I kept a few, mainly people who I had met in person or who I had some type of relationship with other than on Twitter, say fellow Sister in Crime members, and so on.

I am so relieved. Suddenly, I like Twitter again. Now when I get on Twitter, it’s like catching up with old friends.

So, in the frenzy of cleaning closet, I may have deleted someone who I have a relationship with and if I did, go ahead and let me know and I’ll follow you again. But the rest of you trying to sell your book or your soul or whatever on Twitter: well, good luck with that.

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My yearly ritual on my birthday

Every year on my birthday I listen to this first thing in the morning. If only I could get a birthday greeting from Johnette, I’d be set!

K

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Writer Interviews: Phyllis Bourne

I’m thrilled to have Phyllis Bourne on my blog for so many reasons: she’s my friend, she’s a super talented writer, she’s a former journalist (a newspaper crime reporter — can you say soulmates?), she’s stylish, sweet, has a darling Southern accent, and has some killer dimples. I love Phyllis and know you will too. Here she is in her own words:

1. Describe your writing routine and/or schedule?

Facebook, Twitter and e-mail are impossible for me to resist, so the first thing I do when I sit down to write is turn on a software program called Freedom (www.macfreedom.com). It blocks access to the internet for a set amount of time and eliminates temptation.

My workday begins at 8:30 am and ends around 3ish. I write in 30-minute blocks – 30-minutes on, 20 off. During that half hour, I consider myself banished to ‘writer’s island’. I don’t allow myself to get up from my chair or keyboard for anything. LOL! Writer’s island is also fully stocked with my favorite snacks.

Under deadline, my schedule shifts to 45-minutes on, 15-minutes off.

2. What do you do if you get writer’s block?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. However, my characters sometimes get themselves into situations that stump me. A long walk or moving my writing operation from my office to the kitchen table or Starbucks usually helps get them and my story back on track.

3. Who do you read, or recommend other writer’s read, in regards to craft?

I’m a craft-book junkie! However, the three I refer to most often are:

Immediate Fiction: A Complete Writing Course by Jerry Cleaver

Complete Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archtypes by Sue Viders, Tami Cowden and Caro LaFever

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

And I’ve recently added a new favorite to my list:

Elements of Fiction Writing – Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell

4. Who do you read for fun?

Romance novels! Whether I’m reading or writing – I can’t get enough of them. E-readers have made my romance novel habit worse, and I’m usually reading a few at a time.

5. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? Tell us about it.

In college, I was a broadcast journalism major hoping to become a television anchor. A professor pulled me aside one day and urged me to consider newspapers instead. His exact words – “because you can write!”

It was what Oprah calls an “aha moment” for me, and I’ve been writing ever since.

I went on to become a crime reporter for the Ft. Wayne News-Sentinel and later the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

6. What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

Get the best writing chair you can afford. Put the same time and effort into selecting one as you would a new car. Both your back and your behind will thank you.

7. What do you think is the most important skill to have to succeed as a writer?

Good instincts, which I believe are developed through reading, reading, reading. Critique groups and beta readers are great. However, I think your own gut is the best indicator if your WIP is on track.

8. What is your favorite food and/or drink?

Pizza and black coffee!

One evening, I was frantic trying to meet a book deadline. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d ate, slept – or even showered. If you’re a published author you’ve been there. If you’re not published yet, you will be.

Anyhoo, my husband surprised me with a piping hot Papa John’s pizza and a cup of Starbucks coffee. The man has given me flowers, jewelry and Godiva chocolates, but I’ll always consider the deadline meal his most romantic gesture ever.

9. Do you have a favorite book or movie?

My favorite book is Joan Brady’s, GOD ON A HARLEY. I re-read it at least twice a year. It’s about a woman who learns how to love herself.

Favorite movie? THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA! Meryl Streep is so deliciously mean. While I wouldn’t want her for a boss, I’d love to have her wardrobe from the movie.

10. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to share?

When Freedom isn’t blocking my internet access, I can be found online at Twitter: @phyllisbourne and on Facebook.com/phyllisbournebooks

Thanks for having me, Kristi!

Phyllis Bourne began her writing career as a newspaper crime reporter. After years of cops and criminal drama she left reporting to write about life’s sweeter side.

Phyllis’ books have received several accolades including a RT Book Reviews nomination for Best Multicultural romance. She lives in Nashville, TN where she is currently writing her next happy ending.

 

PS Y’all (as Phyllis would say) can pick up her latest book online here! or at your local bookstore!

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