This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Feeding the Bulldog

            Yesterday I emailed to Santa Clara University a 600-word article I wrote based on an interview with a finance professor who has been researching why central banks in developing nations have been accumulating a high level of international reserves (a catchall term for foreign currency and other financial instruments with broad global liquidity). Today I email them the invoice. It’s what I do for a living.
            If you’ve been reading this blog, it would probably strike you that central bank foreign reserves wouldn’t be a primary area of interest for me, and you would be right. It’s a subject I don’t know much about, but in some ways that makes me a good person to write about it for a general audience.
            That’s because once it’s explained at a level where I can get it, I can then write it so that a reasonably educated, but not academic, audience can understand it as well when it appears in the university’s publication. It’s sort of the academic version of Willie Stark’s political dictum in All the King’s Men: “You gotta get your message down so low that even the hogs can get it.”

Once a Journalist, Always a Journalist

            In a sense, it was my two decades of working at a daily newspaper that qualifies me for this sort of work. In the movies newspaper reporters are always chasing scoops and doing all sort of muckraking, often at great risk to their lives and careers. Nice work if you can get it, but in real life, the newspaperman’s lot is a much more prosaic one.
            Most of what newspaper reporters do, even at big name papers, is compile a lot of information, evaluate it, throw out the unimportant stuff, and reduce the rest to its essence, typically in a few hundred words. Doing that anywhere close to right requires skill, experience, a mind that makes connections quickly, and an initial period of tutelage by a wise mentor. Sadly, there are very few wise mentors left in the business these days.
            Another considerable part of the journalist’s trade is taking a report that has been written in the jargon of a certain tribe, figuring out what it really means, then rewriting the gist of it in plain English. If you’ve ever had to read a raw police report or an environmental impact report, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you’re lucky and should do everything you can to preserve your innocence.

Does It Translate to Fiction?

            An obvious question is whether or not this type of training is helpful to someone trying to write a novel. Earlier in this space, I addressed that question in detail, but one point I’d make is that it certainly could be of help to someone writing mystery fiction.
            That’s because the genre depends on puzzles, surprises, and the details coming together in the right way, as well as upon the reader being able to follow the complexities of a story. Much more than the author of so-called serious fiction, the mystery author needs to constantly be asking, is this making sense?
            When I was writing my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, I tried to think of Ward Bushee, my first managing editor, who was a stickler for clarity and accuracy. Reading over something I’d written, I’d say, WWWA, or What Would Ward Ask? If I got the answer to that right, the passage probably worked. If I didn’t, well, too bad Ward isn’t with us any more to work it over with his pencil.