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July 21 2011

16:57

July Editors’ Roundtable No. 2: The New York Times probes a murder in South Africa

For the second Roundtable of July, our editors looked at “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man” by Barry Bearak of the New York Times. Bearak has spent the last three years as co-bureau chief of the Times’ Johannesburg bureau, and his June 5 story investigates the death of a young man at the hands of a mob in the beleaguered settlement of Diepsloot.

Our editors didn’t read each other’s comments as they wrote or see the email conversation between Storyboard and Bearak about his narrative. (We’ll publish that Q&A tomorrow.)

For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

On using the first person:

Journalists tend to have strong opinions about whether we should put ourselves in stories. Some support first-person reportage depending on the circumstances; others suggest they’d rather dine on dung than appear anywhere in a piece of work, despite the fact that first-person presence has a solid history and an important place within the craft. Whenever I give a little quiz asking students to match short first-person passages to the author, even practiced journalists are surprised to find the writers are Dickens, Orwell, Gellhorn, Didion…

In the right situation, readers connect powerfully to story via the personal pronoun “I.” A writer should deploy the “I” as carefully as a surgeon chooses a scalpel. The device itself lends nothing without legitimate intent. To me, first person works in Barry’s piece for three reasons:

It isn’t gratuitous. The narrative/personal quest depends upon use of the first person and especially upon the author’s relationship with Golden, a trusted source and keeper of the pivotal crime-scene video.

It allows for authoritative class contrast. By revealing details about his own lifestyle Bearak puts less fortunate residents’ economic circumstances – and the larger societal issues of law and order/mob justice – into a more intimate context than readers would’ve read in a depersonalized account.

He keeps the spotlight on others by remaining a minor character and keeping a respectful distance. While the author’s journalistic quest clearly drives the narrative, being present in the story allows him to bear witness in a quiet but powerful way and to authenticate what otherwise would have been a secondhand account of a horrific event.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

On structure:

Structure is one of the peskiest challenges facing writers. Once you move past the basic (and backwards) logic of the inverted pyramid, questions of order and placement plague rookie and veteran alike. What stays in? What comes out? What goes where? Constructing a complex story can be like building a jigsaw puzzle of multiple dimensions, with images on all sides, ill-fitting tabs, no edge pieces and no box cover picture to follow.

In “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man,” Barry Bearak does the most sophisticated thing a writer can do when confronted with that complex puzzle: He gets simple. Not that his story is simple. Far from it. Bearak leads us through more than 7,500 words, takes us deep into several distinct and difficult subcultures, introduces us to more than a dozen characters, weaves between present and past, and includes both intimately detailed narrative and sweeping social context.

It would be instructive (and fun, in a word-nerdy way) to diagram Bearak’s entire piece.  Lacking time and space for that, I’ll note these points:

Chronology is the core. That’s what I mean when I say Bearak gets simple. He starts in a searing moment that puts us in the scene and sets the stage for everything to come. After two paragraphs of narrative he pulls out into some establishing context. Then he quickly returns to the narrative through the first long scene, ending with a cliffhanger. But after that, the piece builds along a fairly straight chronology. We are pulled into the story in the same way Bearak was ­– through the video of the murder – and then follow him step by step as he tries to untangle the thicket of questions and characters he confronts. Pay attention to the places where Bearak uses a fairly direct time stamp to hold the story together: “… each day, widening the arc of our meander.“ “Within a week, Golden and I had become a marked pair.” “One recent Sunday afternoon…”

A quest drives the story forward. That’s true of any gripping narrative: The writer sets up a core question, then spends the rest of the story answering that question. (This is different than a story’s core meaning, or theme.) What makes Bearak’s story a bit different is that the quest is his. We are taken along on his search for answers. (A literary friend once told me there are only two storylines in all of human history: A stranger comes to town, and a man takes a journey. Bearak’s story encompasses both, and he is both the stranger and the man on the journey.)

Narrative is woven rather than broken. In complex pieces such as this, one successful approach can be a “broken narrative”– a structure that goes back and forth between narrative or action scenes and contextual or expository scenes. Bearak takes that foundation and makes it more elegant by weaving context directly into the narrative.  He slips a line or two of geography or history into the running story. As I read, I imagined a French braid with strands constantly being worked over, under and through. If you re-read the piece just to see how characters and their backstories are introduced, you’ll see that braid. Bearak is able to pull off that intricate weave because the core chronology is straightfoward and strong.

Characters are clearly identified. It’s tough for readers to follow this many characters in a piece. Yet we never lose track here because Bearak remembers to provide some brief reminder of who each person is. That’s just one of the ways Bearak answers the readers’ question when the reader needs the answer.

The story comes full circle. The chronology drives relentlessly forward, following Bearak’s quest. It ties together – is made whole – by ending where it began, with the boy who fingered the murder victim. This is also a tried-and-true structural device. But what makes Bearak’s use of it so stunning is that he comes back to Siphiwe not where the story started, but where the story took Sipihwe – to a place of defiant and inevitable despair. As such, Siphiwe was able to speak for the much larger defiance and despair of a country and a culture.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

On a sense of place:

Barry Bearak knows that evoking a sense of place isn’t just a matter of presenting a background landscape. He uses carefully selected sensory details – sights, sounds, smells – and movement to transport readers to South Africa.

“Put me there,” is a simple way an editor can encourage writers to think about the sense of place. The writer can provide context to the story by showing, rather than telling. She can also create a mood that permeates the story – anger, joy, sadness.

Bearak does this sparingly in his murder story. That’s important, because, at least in this story, we don’t want the plot to slow down and linger too long. Let’s pay attention to Bearak’s sketch of the South African township. We hear music; we watch women pinning laundry and storekeepers brushing away flies; we smell garbage and sewage; we learn that some of these areas have bureaucratic names like Extension 1 and Extension 2.

The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia. In a few blocks, the pavement of Thubelihle gave way to hard-packed dirt and stones. A busted pipe had gone unrepaired for months, and the escaping water cut a trough in the ground that now carried a stream of garbage and sewage. The odor was bracing, but there was open air ahead, a large, marshy field that separated Extension 1 from the squatter camp in Extension 2…

What we see is that life goes on under some outrageous conditions. And we get a hint about why these conditions are a factor in the violence. People are curious. They don’t see things getting any better. They start to follow a mob. Who knows how ordinary people will act as the mob grows violent?

Bearak uses a second sketch to show the economic disparity in South Africa, the wide gap between the townships and the gated communities with beautiful names.

I live in much different circumstances, renting a house in the Dainfern Golf and Residential Estate, one of dozens of gated communities built in a city overwrought about crime. The perimeter is fortified with high walls topped by electrified wire; guards patrol the landscaped roadways and roundabouts. Houses are large, and many front entranceways are ornamented with waterfalls and fish ponds…

He’s also showing us this place because he wants to be honest about his comparatively (and understandably) sheltered life in South Africa. He may not be able to fully understand what life is like in the townships, and he’s being straight with us about that. He uses a sense of place not just to set a scene but to help define and explain the dynamics of his story.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

On keeping the reader engaged in a depressing story:

Everything about the subject of this piece – a mob in a crime-ridden squatter’s village randomly settling on an innocent man to vent their rage – screamed “Don’t go there,” and yet, go I did. Why?

Or to rephrase the question: When a writer wants to explore unremittingly depressing material, how can he keep the reader’s attention and deliver something that feels like enlightenment rather than a fist to the face?

Bearak accomplishes that here, through what I would call “elevation.”

I mean this almost literally. The reader is raised to a great, almost godlike height and allowed to view these hideous events as if from a mountaintop. Every piece can be seen in its relation to other pieces. What seems nasty and brutish on ground level is still nasty and brutish, but from the mountaintop it plays out on a scale so grand that the meaningless becomes meaningful, and the horrific becomes tragic. It’s the difference between watching a slasher film and Macbeth.

A word of caution for those of you who may want to try this at home: It is impossible to make a reader feel as if she is getting the Big Picture unless the writer has gotten there first, with full focus and resolution. It requires a mastery of the subject so complete that every detail, every factoid and quote, snaps into place.

But even that’s not enough. The writer has to find the right voice, the voice that communicates a buffering distance without sacrificing any of the intense reality. This is what Bearak does superbly here.

From the very start, he speaks in sweeping statements that never stray into overgeneralization. The central antagonist is “a bad boy wanting to become a worse boy,” and “an unlikely guide to lead [the growing mob] into their dark work.” These sentences are simultaneously simple and mythic, like those in a fable.

That same calm certainty continues throughout the piece, making the tale unfolding seem like the most natural course of events in the world, instead of a living nightmare. That works because, seen from the mountaintop, evil IS a natural part of our world; it has prime causes and immediate causes, and it flows downhill like a creek becoming a river. Consider this introducing paragraph that stays focused on the flow, even as it elevates to get the longer view:

A few men lifted him onto their shoulders so that the crowd, already in the hundreds, could see him better. Then an older man, wiser about these things, said to put the boy down. More than likely, they were about to kill someone. No one in the mob ought to be too conspicuous.

Elevation is again expressed by the impressionist dabs of paint with which the context is painted:

The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia.

“Good music playing over bad radios” is classic, an observation wrapped in a description, and like any precise yet poetic observation, it becomes a metaphor for the larger reality. The elevated distance in the perspective is expressed time and again in word choice. When the mob emerges into a field with a busted sewer pipe, the odor is described as “bracing,” an obvious understatement that communicates the idea that living with filth is simply something to be endured.

Bearak is constantly choosing precise understatement over hyperbole. Notice the low temperature of the language when he places the immediate in the context of the general:

Mob justice is not uncommon in Diepsloot, and most often it involves the swift capture of a supposed criminal, the villain there to beat up, to stone, perhaps even to wrap in a petrol-soaked shroud. But this undertaking was something entirely different. The vigilantes had walked a long distance on a hot day in the uncertain pursuit of unspecified thugs — all on the word of this talkative boy.

The elevated view allows us to watch these horrors unfold and see for ourselves how a quest for vengeance and some kind of justice so effortlessly turns into simple thuggery. Note how Bearak refrains from labeling this transition point, but lets our Olympian ability to see inside the perspective of the participants do the work. Pay attention especially to his use of the word “despicable” in the following:

Siphiwe led the way, back along the dusty paths between the shacks to the edge of the marshy field. The spaza shop was locked, and though empty of people, it was actually well supplied with soft drinks, biscuits, beer, toiletries and paraffin. The mob nevertheless busted through the walls, and Siphiwe rooted around in a back room, collecting for himself two pairs of sneakers, a Nike track suit and a nylon jacket. The shop was set ablaze, again to the noisy approval of the crowd, though this, too, seemed scant retaliation against murderous thugs. Where were those despicable people?

“Elevation” does not mean glossing anything over. To the contrary, it means being able to look at things with the unflinching, unblinking acuity of an eagle’s eye. Note the calm tone, the accumulation of simple words and sentences that seduce us into watching, instead of turning away, as a very uncomfortable truth about the nature of human beings plays out before our eyes:

The video shows Farai already on the ground, using his left leg to try to block the blows of a man swinging a heavy piece of wood. Others are pelting him with rocks from behind and hitting him with sticks. At this point, it is still possible to imagine the young man’s escape. He can speak; his movements are spry; there is barely a smudge on the lilac of the shirt. But by the next scene, he is sapped of strength and badly injured. His frantic efforts to get away have failed, and he has landed in a filthy, water-filled ditch. As he crawls out, his hands groping at the dirt, a man in blue pants kicks him in the chest, and Farai flops backward with a splash. Some in the crowd, including children, scoot around to get a better look.

The video then jumps ahead. Farai is again on dry ground, lying on his back, seemingly near death but still breathing. Blood is leaking from his head. He barely raises his left hand, and this trivial movement somehow becomes a cue for the beating to resume. A man wearing a white cap wallops him seven times in the face and neck with a plank, the assailant’s arms reaching high to amplify the force of his swing.

—-

Check back tomorrow to read our interview with Barry Bearak. Or take a look at some of our previous Editors’ Roundtables.

Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

May 05 2011

15:17

Ben Montgomery explores a mystery: “This is a story about grief”

Yesterday our Editors’ Roundtable looked at “When a diver goes missing, a deep cave is scene of a deeper mystery,” by Ben Montgomery. An enterprise reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, Montgomery was a 2010 Pulitzer finalist with the Times’ project “For Their Own Good,” which we featured on this site. He talked with me by phone about his latest story while the editors were in the midst of making their comments on it. As a new part of the Roundtable process, we’ve also invited him to respond to the editors’ comments at a later date.

How did you first hear about Ben McDaniel, and at what point did his disappearance become a story?

In late February. I’m trying to read the papers out of the Panhandle, large and small, because of my work on Dozier [School for Boys] and also because there are places along Florida’s hidden coast that are untapped. There’s very little news coverage, and what’s there often gets overlooked. It’s golden for someone like me who has the freedom to go up there and do work. I caught a small story in, I think, the Jackson County paper.

McDaniel’s family, Patty and Shelby, had announced a $10,000 reward, and the story was about Edd Sorensen, who in fact is in my story. He’s a pretty fantastic recovery diver and cave diver. Sorensen had told the local paper that this was dangerous – basically, “I can understand them wanting to find their son, but they’re going to get someone else killed by putting up this money.”

I immediately recognized that this was a pretty fantastic story, and that if the material held up, it could be really great. You have a mystery, first of all; the guy went in and hasn’t been seen since. Hanging onto that mystery, you have some really interesting human conundrums: the grief of the parents and friends, and the risk for the cave divers.

Pride was involved as well, for the divers who’ve gone in and come out empty-handed. They’re saying, “Look, take our word for it. Trust us. We’re the best of the best, and Ben’s not in there.” They felt like the McDaniels’ insistence that Ben was in there was sort of an insult to them: “They don’t believe us. We’ve told them, and now they’re putting up this reward.” There were strong feelings of hurt and embarrassment as well on the part of the divers.

So it seemed like this whole mess of emotion swirling around this great mystery. I kind of held onto it for a little bit. I think I brought it up at one of our weekly meetings, just to see how people would react to it and whether they would have the same reaction that I did, which was “Wow, this has real potential.” I heard that out of the people in the room, so I took the opportunity to go out and do some real reporting.

How long did you take to report and write the story?

I was working on some other things at the time. I’d say probably I took a trip up there for three days. And then maybe another four or five days on the phone back home, reporting. And maybe four or five days writing. So two weeks, 2 1/2 weeks in all.

When you sat down to write, you had this material – I don’t want to ruin it for any readers – but when you sit down to write, you have a mystery without a simple solution. How did you approach structuring the story?

That was cause for great anxiety in the beginning, because I had the ambition to find Ben McDaniel myself. That was a real desire. I was thinking, “Maybe if I talk to enough people, I can find this guy.” Or at least find some evidence that he met his demise or that he still exists. That was the mindset that I went in with.

Three-quarters of the way through the reporting I was like, “I still don’t have an ending. I don’t know where he is, and people are still going to be disappointed if they read this story and then get to the end and there’s nothing to tie it up. It’s still as much of a mystery as it was in the first section.”

So driving back from the Panhandle, I called a friend, Michael Brick, who is down in Austin. We talk about stories a lot. I kind of called to hear myself tell him the story, to see where it went. We had really bad reception. Because of the spotty reception, I had to be brief. We kept getting disconnected. And so each time I would be like, “Forget all that. Dude’s missing. I don’t have an ending.”

And at some point I started to think of this story in a different way: This is a story about grief and how the dominoes fall when a man goes missing. And that helped, because then it became not a story about Ben specifically, but a story about all the people left behind to try to solve the mystery. Then it was just thinking about the story through that prism. Because there’s no ending with Ben, it gave the rest of us the ending.

You focus on Emily. Did she give you that ending herself?

Gene Weingarten sent me an email yesterday, and I think [Tom] Shroder may have put him up to it. Weingarten loved the ending, and he was wondering if that was mine, or if I just went there.

It came from her, but I felt like quoting her there would have screwed it all up. She is thinking very seriously about diving into that hole to see for herself if Ben is in there. She’s an open-water diver, and it takes a long while to get cave-certified. She’s thinking seriously about saving up the money to get cave certified and to go down in search of him. That came at the end of our talk.

We were supposed to talk at 7 on a Wednesday night. We had a hard time getting in touch. Our conversation wrapped up about 11:30. So 4, 4 1/2 hours on the phone. She and Captain Hamilton and Ben’s parents, they all entertain these theories. They’ve entertained some really wild theories: “Could he be in witness protection?” “Could his ex-business partner have followed him to Florida and killed him?” But after they run through the theories, it all circulates, and one theory leads to the next.

Near the end of our conversation, she was going back and forth about whether Ben had the capacity to commit suicide through going through the hole, or whether he had the capacity to leave and put everybody through this incredible grief. She was saying, “If only we could see down in that hole, then we could rule that out as a possibility.” It struck me to ask, because she had mentioned that she was a diver, “Have you ever thought of going down there?”

She said, “Yeah, I sure have. I know it would take a lot of money, and I know it would take some time, but that’s a serious part of my thinking right now.”

When I heard that, it gave me that – I don’t know how to articulate this, but there’s a spot that I hit sometimes in reporting… It’s like I have to stand up. It’s almost a mix of anxiety and happiness and sadness, these things that typically exist on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. But I felt that, and the light came down on me, and I thought “That’s perfect.” If the possibility exists that Ben went through the hole because of his brother, then the possibility exists that she’s going to go through the hole and pursue Ben. It just felt like the right way to end the thing.

So you realized that was an important moment right then?

When she said it, when that came out of her mouth, I thought, “That’s the end of the story.”

I noticed that midway through the story, you start throwing out questions. There are no questions asked in the first half, but the second half has 13. It’s an unusual approach to writing a mystery narrative.

That’s news to me, that there’s such an extreme change. I do know that up to a point, we know exactly where Ben was leading up to his disappearance. We have an unlimited amount of facts about the days and hours leading up to that dive. And after that it’s eight months of questions. So it’s not surprising to me that the story changed in that regard, because the rest of the story can be one giant question mark. It’s just a matter of handing it over to the readers to entertain the same questions that I had and the same questions that Ben’s family and the people trying to find him had.

Did the story change drastically in the process of writing or editing it?

The one big change was really just a matter of adding a line of the section about three-quarters of the way through the story that solidified the idea that if Ben was grieving his brother’s death so much that he abandoned this life, whether purposefully or with disregard for his own safety, if he went through the hole to deal with that grief, then it’s the same kind of grief that might bring Emily into that hole.

I wanted to make that as clear as possible without being ham-fisted. And so I added a line about something his parents had entertained and said, maybe not directly but close: maybe Ben wasn’t running from something; he was running to something. I wanted to put that thought in the readers’ minds before I hit that beautiful monologue that Chuck Cronin delivered about why people go into these crazy caves, and then sort of bring it down with the powerful ending that belongs to Emily. So it was just a matter of adding that line.

I overwrote the thing, which I always do, I think the first draft might have been 6,000 words, and it ran at 3,400. It wasn’t Bill [Duryea, my editor,] who cut a lot out of it. It was just me trimming a lot of stuff and removing the scaffolding – a lot of self-editing. And I had turned it over to some people, which is not uncommon, for general thoughts.

I got some good advice from Jon Jefferson, who’s half of the writing team of Jefferson Bass. He regularly makes appearances on the New York Times bestseller list for a series of books called “The Body Farm.” He writes with the guy who started that body farm at the University of Tennessee, Bill Bass. Jon just has a way of applying fiction techniques to nonfiction that I’ve come to appreciate. He offered some feedback and some good advice.

You mentioned overwriting. There are so many approaches writers take to organizing their stories, from meticulous six-level outlines to just sitting down and starting. How does overwriting fit in with your approach?

I outline, so I had an outline. I knew where I wanted to go. It’s weird, because the overwriting is not the excessive use of adverbs for me. It’s including too much information, stuff that might be unnecessary distraction. For instance, the first draft included the theory that Ben could have gone into witness protection, which is something his parents were leaning toward for a while. I reported that out, and figured out they don’t do that. The federal government doesn’t fake death to protect people. And beyond that, there’s nothing in Ben’s history to suggest that he may have needed to go into witness protection.

That theory was pooh-poohed, but I included it in there, because I thought readers might have the same question themselves. It was just four or five paragraphs going down that rabbit hole, and then shutting that idea down. So going back to trim, it seemed unnecessary. I thought, “I’m not sure people will make that jump, and if they do, that’s OK, I’ll just disregard it in its entirety, not even bring it up. It’s not going to hurt the story.”

There were a couple paragraphs in the first draft about why north Florida has so many underwater caverns. I talked to a geologist at Florida State University to set the scene a little more, including this chunky bit about how these caverns are formed over the years. I was trying to teach people about geology that I was curious about. And then I thought, “There’s not a place for it. I want it to be really tight.” Even if it’s 3,400 words, I want it to read like it’s 20 inches. It’s a lot of cutting and stripping away everything that is unnecessary.

Anything else you’d like to say about the piece or about narrative journalism more generally?

I find it so incredibly useful, beyond the editors who work at the St. Pete Times, to have a team of people who aren’t going to bullshit you, who don’t mind taking a look at what you’ve written and giving you feedback. I think I sent this [Michael] Kruse, Konrad Marshall, who is in Australia now but is a great feature writer. Wright Thompson read it. Jon Jefferson read it. And each of them had a different thing to say about it, like “in this part, I think you should go here.” “I need you to establish better the dimensions of the cave at the restriction.”

This is before I even turn it over to Bill. At the point that I feel like I have a solid draft, I want feedback from people who aren’t reading it for grammar mistakes or for style and spelling. I just generally want to know “How did this story make you feel? How could it be better?”

Some of it you use, and some of it you disregard. I don’t know if I’ll ever turn in a story that I feel might be important without having distributed it to a few trustworthy friends to offer feedback early. I want to make that a regular part of this process, because I found it to be really useful.

That’s a new part of your process then?

It’s not totally new, but I think I probably sent this to more people than I have before. Normally, it’s one or two. Kruse is my regular go-to guy for feedback; we talk stories all the time. But sending it to five people? At first I thought that everybody would say something different, and it would confuse me. That’s not the way it went at all. Everybody did have some different thing to say, but I found it all useful.

May 04 2011

15:02

May Editors’ Roundtable: St. Petersburg Times dives into missing man mystery

This month, the Editors’ Roundtable looks at “When a diver goes missing, a deep cave is scene of a deeper mystery” by Ben Montgomery of the St. Petersburg Times. The story, our first newspaper narrative for the Roundtable, tells the tale of Ben McDaniel, who disappeared at Vortex Spring in August of last year.

Each month, we talk to the reporter who wrote the story while the editors pass around their comment sheet. The editors write about the piece without hearing from the reporter; the reporter talks about the piece without knowing what the editors will say. Tomorrow, we’ll post our interview with Montgomery, but here, we offer our editors’ take. Comments appear in the order in which they were made. For full bios on our editors, see our January post announcing the Roundtable.

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

There are so many things to like about this story. For starters, it’s nice to see a piece that is essentially straight chronology, from beginning to end. You watch it play out as it happened, and you know what the people in the story knew at the time, so you’re trying to figure out the mystery as they did.

I love how patient Montgomery was with this story. (Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Montgomery’s, and he works with a close friend of mine.) He introduces the situation, you meet all the important characters, and he keeps probing. Montgomery never rushes. He helps the reader to understand what the divers are looking for and what they see or don’t see (strong reporting there), and he builds up the frustration – for the parents and the sheriff and the girlfriend. He walks through every possibility – accident, foul play, escape, suicide. You start to want answers as much as the people who are looking for the diver.

I do think there are a few places where Montgomery reaches and didn’t need to. For instance, he says that at 6-feet-2 and 220 pounds, the diver was hard to miss. That doesn’t sound like a particularly large man to me. And boy, he went too deep – no pun intended – when he waxed about what exists at the end of the line.

Maybe it narrows to nothing, or maybe it opens to another chamber, another world, a far away place that few believe Ben could go.

Narnia?

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

About two-thirds of the way through this piece, I thought, “Uh oh  he’s not going to tell me what happened.” And while this is brilliantly reported, and beautifully written, I wonder if a slightly different focus would have helped the reader feel less dismayed when they realized the answer to the mystery was not forthcoming.

Montgomery is very strong at building tension and momentum. He is great with details – the chat board messages, the crisp list of dangers of cave diving (“the silt can blind”), the 10-inch hole (though that should have been mentioned only once, not twice). He can turn lovely phrases. (Such as, maybe Ben “ascended into a new life” And the strong last line.) And he has the mechanics of pacing, and pivoting, down very well, ending each section with drama and at a point where I absolutely must read on.

But since the mystery remains a mystery, it seems to me that it would have helped to have a stronger driving question than “what happened?,” since that question is not answered. One suggestion: Perhaps focusing on Emily Greer would have worked – since she ends the piece, and she sort of represents hope and the future and the possibility of eventual resolution, she might have been cast as a stronger character throughout the piece, which could document her journey from happy girlfriend to bereft girlfriend to determined girlfriend.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

Ben Montgomery is a top-notch writer because he is a top-notch reporter. His precision with details brings authority to his storytelling. To see that, read the first section closely. You learn about the temperature and weak breeze the day Ben McDaniel disappeared; the temperature of the spring; what McDaniel was wearing; the fact that he was testing his equipment and jotting in his dive log before he went for the dive; the words on the warning signs at the mouth of the cave.

I also admired the reporting Montgomery must have done to understand the history and dangers of cave-diving – and to be able to describe the mouth of the cave, the narrowing tunnel, the gate and the tight spots.

I agree with Laurie: Montgomery’s challenge here is that the diver’s disappearance remains unsolved. I’m not saying we should avoid telling stories with unsolved mysteries. But, in order to approach a satisfying end, the storyteller needs to discover some other resolution, large or small. Maybe Montgomery’s point is that, when we lose loved ones (especially those who disappear without a trace), we’re left with holes that we can’t fill.

I would have encouraged Montgomery to frame the story even more so from McDaniel’s parents’ or girlfriend’s vantage point, and then figure out what epiphany they might have experienced. Perhaps it’s enough to say that, living with that terrible loss, they committed themselves to making sure the diver would not be forgotten.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

What I like most about this piece is the simplicity, the almost “Dragnet” accumulation of short, clear sentences that patiently lay out the forking maze of a conundrum, pursuing one possible line of explanation after the next, only to reach a blank wall every time. I disagree that the failure to come up with a solution, to answer the mystery, is a failing. In fact, I think it is the whole point of this piece, and I think Montgomery realized that and then set out to write precisely about that – the lack of a reasonable explanation, no matter which way you turn; the way there are things in the world that defy logic and refuse explanation.

There were a few times when he got too enamored with the poetry of his writing. He pulls off a great moment and gets at something real:

Every time you challenge yourself, every time you overcome your fear of the dark and tight spaces and death, you resurface more alive, born into a new world. The air smells cleaner. Food tastes better. Sex is sweeter.

Then he follows it with a line that’s pure pose:

Who knows what exists at the end of the line? Maybe it narrows to nothing, or maybe it opens to another chamber, another world, a far away place that few believe Ben could go.

Unfortunately, he steps off a cliff at the end when he says of the girlfriend:

She’s been thinking lately about what it might look like down there in the dark. She may never get over this without knowing what’s past the last restriction. She dives, not in caves, not yet. But she could. She’s much smaller than Ben. She could fit.

This is either really her thought, that she wants to go past the last obstacle, in which case he erred badly by not saying so explicitly. Or, she has no intention of doing that, in which case he was being dishonest.

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

My own full disclosure: I once participated in a three-day writers’ conference in the wilds of southeast Georgia with Ben, who’s a mensch and a fine musician in addition to being a fine writer. Like Maria, I’m a fan of his.

The story is deeply reported and beautifully written, but I agree with Laurie and Tom that it didn’t overcome the problem posed by the unresolved mystery. Ben might have attacked the problem head-on, foreshadowing it early and then writing more about the agonies of unexplained disappearances, perhaps in place of the purple passage Maria cited. As it is, the what-happened-next approach builds our anticipation and can’t help but leave us disappointed when we realize we won’t find out what ultimately happened.

Couple of quibbles: The chronology in Memphis was a little fuzzy to me – when did Ben’s business and marriage go kablooey, and when did he reconnect with Emily? – and I missed a general description of Vortex Spring, which I couldn’t quite picture: What does it all look like, where is the dive shop, etc.? Still, the story grabbed me. The writing is spare and vivid, the pacing just right, and I cared about the characters. Great work.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

Montgomery weaves a tale that lures you ever forward to learn what happened next? That is craft, not trickery. Pay special attention to foreshadowing and cliffhangers.  Montgomery plots this as a movie, setting up the core character and suspense, then hopscotching from scene to scene, leaving bread crumbs along the trail: warning signs at the cave, jimmied gate lock, abandoned air tanks.

Study the reporting for depth (broad cast of characters), detail (dollars in the wallet, name of the dog), precision (size and shape of the cave and the bodies worming through it) and creativity (gin-clear water). Great writing is born of great reporting. Montgomery reports.

Flaws:

The story is unduly long. Basic redundancies could have been excised with a squeegee edit.

Too many confusions. What triggered call to cops? Did Ben go through the keyed gate when the other divers saw him disappear? When did the girlfriend enter his life?

Ending. Casts story in a new light with a late-appearing and underdeveloped character.

This is a good yarn about an unsolved local mystery and the people caught up in it. That should be enough (though, alas, that might be a hard sell to editors these days).  But it overreaches, forcing the mystery into a morality tale. Dial back the gothic (especially a lot of the soul-searching lines, which tip from show over to tell) and let it be what it is: a mosaic of people connected by and unable to shake this mystery.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

Love the topic and the possibilities the writer had with this piece. It contained some nice reporting and writing. I think it could’ve been stronger with, as Laurie said, a recasting. The writer takes the expected path by focusing on Ben; had I been his editor I might’ve drawn him out on Emily’s story in hopes of locating the piece, and Ben’s life, around her. Because as it is, I come away feeling like I never knew Ben at all. By focusing on Emily (assuming she agreed to it) you’d have opportunity for actual action – and you’d know the end of the story, even when you didn’t know the end of the story.

As I read the piece the second time, I wanted to get my editing claws on it, which is a weird sort of compliment. So I did a line edit, which I’m offering to the writer. But to summarize: I admire the idea and the attempt and love the writer’s clear dedication to reporting and to the storytelling craft. I look forward to seeing what else he’ll do.

Check back tomorrow to read our Q-and-A with Ben Montgomery, who talks about how and why he chose his ending and the importance of having a group of readers you trust. And if there’s a particular piece you’d like to see dissected by the Roundtable, send a link for the story to contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org. Stories must be already published, available online and strong enough to stand some tough love.

March 03 2011

20:25

March Editors’ Roundtable: Mother Jones looks at rape in Haiti

The narrative for discussion in the second installment of our Editors’  Roundtable is “Welcome to Haiti’s Reconstruction Hell” by Mac McClelland. Appearing in Mother Jones earlier this year, the story was written after a visit in 2010 to survey the island’s post-quake recovery efforts. Clara Jeffery, one of two editors-in-chief at Mother Jones, edited the piece.

The narrative for the prior Roundtable was one in which several reporters fed material to the writer, who had to synthesize it at a distance. This time, we thought it would be interesting to give our editors a piece in which the writer doing her own reporting was an intergral part of the story.

We’ve also done a Q-and-A with McClelland about how the article came together, but here, we offer our editors’ responses to the story. Comments appear in the order in which they were made. We asked judges to note what they thought did and didn’t work in the piece, and to explain why. At the end are some of their suggestions for additional reading. (For full bios on the editors, see our January post announcing the Roundtable.)

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

What works for me:

The descriptions – of rapes, of tent cities, of snatches of conversation. The details inspire a visceral reaction. At times, it’s hard to keep reading, and yet, it should be, given the subject matter. I can conjure up sights and sounds and smells. It feels foreign, like much of the Third World, but also familiar, like the Gulf Coast after Katrina. What a horrible combination.

The writer’s voice – I’m not always a fan of a writer becoming a character in her own story, but here, it’s quite effective. I can relate better to her personal experiences than to what’s happening in Port-au-Prince. She is the outsider looking in, feeling fear and revulsion, as most Americans would. As a woman, too, she is particularly vulnerable, and that draws you closer to what life is like for Haitian girls.

What I would have approached differently:

Story needs a stronger narrative thread. Essentially, the author is the central character, and we follow her from place to place. She introduces us to individuals along the way who are surviving in hell. But the story feels patched together, not woven. A scene here, an anecdote there, some personal moments. It should have felt more like a journey, obviously to underscore the despair in Haiti, but also to build toward a call to action. The story should compel the reader to want to keep that 10-year-old from being raped.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

What worked for me:

The power of McClelland’s piece lies in the detailed, ground-level interactions she has with people in Haiti. We come face to face with the hell of reconstruction not through abstract policy arguments, but through action and dialogue. McClelland describes this scene: One woman “gets frustrated at some point while I’m asking questions and says, ‘We meet white people, and white people, and white people.’ She starts raising her voice, and two of the other four put their hands out to calm her, literally holding her back, but smiling knowingly. White people make promises but nothing ever ever happens, she says.”

As I read this piece, I couldn’t help but think of the sexual assault of CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, and the ensuing media coverage. It takes courage to venture into dangerous territory and write from first-hand experience. So I admire McClelland for that. And I admire her instinct to put herself in the story – to show not only her vulnerability and fear, but her realization that while she can escape the chaos, many of the women she writes about cannot.

What I would have approached differently:

I agree with Maria that the story needs a stronger narrative thread. I think what would help in this area is a stronger set-up – a stronger first section. I’m led to believe that the story is going to be focused on rape in the Haiti camps – and I want to learn more about that. But the story begins to lose its focus, moving away from the rapes, toward other reconstruction problems.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

Three strengths to learn from:

Effective use of first-person. McClelland didn’t make the story about her but used herself to force me – the safe American who can’t really grasp the enormity of horror in Haiti – to experience a sliver of it by sharing her own: puking in her mouth, spitting out the taste and smell of shit, getting blind drunk at night, being too afraid to open her hotel window despite the heat. First-person can be incredibly powerful when it doesn’t turn the light on the reporter, but uses the reporter as a brighter light with which to see.

End-of-section gut-punch lines after long, dense passages. How people sleep standing up so they won’t “wake up drowning.” That “there are no trees” in Cesselesse and “when it rains, the gravel floods.” That the 10-year-old would not be the youngest rape victim – by eight years.

Authority that allows compression and depth. McClelland’s knowledge is obvious and lets her dense-pack backstory and context so readers get an immersion into the issue rather than just into description and emotion.

Editor’s tweak:

Even stronger and more varied pacing. The overall style of long, dense, multi-clause sentences made for a harder-than-necessary read. More important, it allowed some essential information to get lost in the thicket.

A less-abrupt ending. It was powerful as hell as a metaphor, but came on too suddenly.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

The best thing about this piece: the raw, shocking, powerful honesty of this phrase in the opening: “they kept her on the ground and forced themselves inside her until she felt something tear, as they saw that she was bleeding and decided to go on, and on, and on.” Note that it is made up of 32 words, 26 of which are one syllable, five of two syllables and just one of three syllables. That such horror can come from such simplicity just about says it all.

(The lead isn’t perfect. The gang rape is prompted because she “tried to intervene” in another attack, but the writer fails to give any detail about what had to be a very dramatic moment that revealed an enormous amount – the nature of the attempted intervention itself.)

Unfortunately, the spare power and drive of the narrative begins to waver, and then the writer falls into a trap that has snared many a young foreign correspondent: getting caught up in the drama of her own reportage. There are multiple instances of this, but the most egregious is when she says of a man she meets, “he’s not the kind of rich Haitian man who … tells me at the bar I should have sex with him because he’s the nice sort of guy who loses an erection when a woman starts to fight him off.”

She means it as a reference to general attitudes about rape, but I doubt the writer’s encounters in hotel bars have much to do with the barbarism of rape in the refugee camps.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

Yes:

1. McClelland reveals a problem I didn’t even know existed on such a horrific scale.

2. Reporting the reality of desensitization adds an important contextual layer: “…I really can’t imagine someone not getting raped under those circumstances, no.”

3. Lovely nuggets (“The tarps are being torn from their tethers by the gusts” and the entire graf that begins “But ‘tent’ isn’t accurate either.”) plus smart authorial restraint. “At 10, she wouldn’t be the youngest reported rape victim from the camps. Not by eight years.” is powerful for the way she backed into the information, for the inclusion of the word “reported,” and for punctuation after “camps.” The “Not by eight years” made me shut my eyes in sickness.

Hmm:

1. Technically, this piece isn’t a narrative; it’s a news feature. I’d be interested to know whether the writer envisioned a narrative. Because to write narrative one must report for narrative. A bit of planning, even mid-reporting, could have generated the focus the piece needed.

2. Closer line editing could’ve moved the language closer to precision. “It only rains for 10 minutes” should be “It rains for only 10 minutes.” Cliché radar could’ve helped too. I flinch at a “sea of” anything (in this case tarps) but also “reduced to rubble,” etc. Small edits can charge even the simplest sentence, such as the one ending the amputees section:

As written: “Yeah, that’s a problem,” he says.

Arguably more powerful, for the beat it contains: “Yeah,” he says, “that’s a problem.”

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

I agree with the comments about the story’s many powerful scenes – the gang rape, the squalor of the camps, the skinny guy frantically searching for a cop to help him fend off thugs – and about the courage of the author in going to Haiti to report under such trying and dangerous circumstances. Much of the piece is vivid and shocking and will stay with me for a long time.

I also agree that the story needs a stronger narrative structure. I was never quite sure where the author was leading me; the article has an unfocused, anecdotal quality. Beyond that, I felt that the author’s intrusions in the narrative sometimes undercut its strength. Speculating about Alina’s motives for trying to stop the rape (“Maybe it was because she has three daughters of her own; maybe it was some altruistic instinct”) interrupts a scene of harrowing power; the comment “easy as pie” is jarring after “gangs of rapists slice through the sides of tents all over the city to steal a woman”; and the joke about “My Heart Will Go On” undermines the paragraph on water-related health problems.

In general, I think the first person should be used sparingly in journalism. There are compelling reasons to use it in this story, but some of the author’s experiences are digressive – the opening to the cocktails scene with Mike (“He likes me because … I like him because …”) serves no discernible purpose – and occasionally they give the impression that the article is less about conditions in Haiti than about the author’s reactions to them and about her adventures in the country. I think a stronger hand in editing could have helped her avoid that.

The ending is very effective: the mud oozing between the tiles, the distressing “not by eight years,” people shaking like the earth during the earthquake. Strong stuff.

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

I like:  The way she writes with great confidence and authority. Her almost novelistic approach to the lede, especially the way she gets inside Alina’s head. (“Too many to count.” “Until she felt something tear.”) Her lovely way of tucking facts into sentences, deftly, and explaining acronyms without bogging things down. First person and present tense, which make the story unfold for me in real time; I feel like I’m learning things at the same time the writer is. I love some of her tidy, wise sentences. (“Tension is the only thing being built.”)

I’m going to disagree with those who say the story needs a stronger narrative thread. I thought it worked well, leading me, confused, increasingly more and more horrified, from place to place, seeing Haiti through McClelland’s eyes, smelling it and tasting it. The story was about what is going on in Haiti, but it also has the secondary theme of the cluelessness of America, even the do-gooders (like Sean Penn) who send money and think they’re helping. And so McClelland’s reactions stood, for me, as the reaction of America.

I also love the tight passion that fills this story. (“And if you, white girl, think you’re going to be useful…”)

Tweaks: I admit to getting a little lost in the Mike section, not clearly understanding who he was, exactly, and I think the ending could have been stitched in more deftly. It has a great closing quote, and I was glad to bring the story back to Alina and the rapes, but it felt tacked on in haste. With massaging, she would have gotten there.

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

The strength of this piece lies in the scenes. In its strongest moments, there is a precision to the placement of elements, a logic to the order of things. The opening draws power as it follows one character along a clear simple line, chronologically, never crossing into hyperbole.

As a whole, the story loses that precision. There is a narrative thread – the writer’s journey – but that thread feels circumstantial. In a narrative, keeping the reader focused takes planning. The reporting here led to multiple cities, multiple characters, and multiple issues. The writer has to think hard about how to introduce those elements, how to move smoothly from one to the next, and which to leave out.

In a grueling grad school narrative class, Jon Franklin drilled us on the 5 orienting threads that keep readers from getting lost. I failed the class, but I remember the threads, sometimes in the panic of a flashback. Time. Place. Character. Subject. Mood. The more frequently you shift these elements, and the more of them you shift at one time, the more confusion you create. This story loses its way when it jumps from character to character, place to place, acronym to acronym too abruptly or without reason. It becomes particularly jarring when it loops through time, instead of sticking to the simple chronology that tells us where we came from and where we are going.

Like many long narratives, this one does it right in the tight spaces, but loses control as the frame expands.

Additional reading suggestions from the group:

Tom Huang recommends Tracy Kidder’s book on Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” as well as Kelly McBride’s Poynter column about the Logan story and the media’s coverage of sexual assault.

Tom Shroder recommends David Finkel’s “Exodus: One Woman’s Choice.”

Stay tuned for the next installment in early April. In the meantime, if you have a piece you’d like to see our editors dissect, please send it along to contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org. The story has to be already published, available online and strong enough to stand up to tough love.

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