Monday, July 29, 2013

Stealing a Scene in Alpine, Texas

Michael Hall
He wore faded blue jeans, an unbuttoned plaid shirt over a crisp white T-shirt, and a pair of Keds-style sneakers, the latter a kind of low-top once an obligatory fashion statement for every all-American boy back in the 1950s. Today, in many parts of the fashion world, Keds are about as rare as Studebakers or DeSotos. Yet, if you can find them, they remain sensible shoes to wear, especially if one lives in blue-state Austin. He had found them. He wore his Keds with panache as he headed to his place at the front of the room, an impish grin spread across his face.
“Welcome to the seminar,” he said. “I’m Mike Hall, senior editor of Texas Monthly magazine. We will be dealing with long form journalism for the next five days.” We already knew that, of course, because he was the reason why we found ourselves seated in front of him. Our group of thirteen people constituted a baker’s dozen of writers who had come to Alpine, Texas to hear him say that. We would be his students for the week in a Writer’s League of Texas workshop held on the campus of Sul Ross State University.
Those of us seated around his seminar table had already spilled much ink in our respective writing careers, in some cases achieving wordsmithing success well beyond novice levels. His students for the week had authored books, served as magazine editors, and regularly wrote non-fiction articles appearing in academic journals, mass-distribution periodicals, and newspapers including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and most of the major ones in Texas.
Mike grabbed a magic marker and began writing on large white poster paper attached to an easel. He diagrammed in detail the structure of an article from the March 2013 issue of Texas Monthly he had written about bicyclist Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace. He dissected the essay with a brain surgeon’s precision as he peppered us with observations about how he worked. “All good long form journalism, “he explained,“ starts with a scene. Articles are like movies, they have to be written as if readers are seeing them in their heads. Good magazine pieces are composed of blocks, each of which should have a scene.”  He stressed that the “nut graph” is the most important block of the story. This is the part of the piece that contains the main point of the article, stated concisely and clearly. "Any questions?" They came quickly and steadily for the next hour.

Light Cummins reading at Front Street Books from his seminar
article as edited by Michael Hall
This set the scene for an intense week of writing, editing, revising, and rewriting. We found new ways to say old things, while we learned how to smile in the face of "upend editing," which constitutes a thorough rearranging and restructuring down to the heart of the matter. A successful upend edit can deflate a writer's ego much like a pin against a balloon. Nonetheless, we happily took upending in stride and pressed on with vigor. We discussed up and down for five days the ins and outs of long form journalism. We talked a lot, laughed a lot, thought a lot, and wrote a lot. Mike Hall edited a lot. He taught us how to write scenes. And,  in the process of all this, he stole the scene himself in our estimation. There was only one disappointment: his seminar lasted for one week, not two.

Click here for the Writer's League of Texas

Click here for Michael Hall's March 2013 Texas Monthly article on Lance Armstrong