Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category


How About A Little Respect?

September 20, 2009

One of the first things we learned in journalism school was how to write about death. It’s a tricky subject. Most of the time, reporters are not writing for the people in their stories. They’re writing for readers. Every print reporter has had this question from a source:

“Can I read that over before it runs?”

And the answer is always no. See, if you give your sources say over what goes in the paper, you’re opening a dangerous door. One of the best arguments made in favour of reading my stories before they ran came from a major-label publicity person, representing a very, very major rock star, who told me she could lose her job if the wrong information got out, and she just wanted to confirm some details. I still said no, and I told her why: If I were to let her check the story, we would have to let everyone, and that would mean elected officials and other people over whom newspapers maintain a watchdog role. We can’t protect taxpayers’ interests if the mayor has final say over what is written about him.

But when it comes to writing about death, we know what we write is going to be saved, studied and read by people in a state of grief, so a different kind of sensibility comes into play. I know a reporter who recently wrote a compelling obit on a local person, checking and re-checking every fact and putting her all into it, only to have the desk make minor changes that ended up being major mistakes. That clipping will be a part of the deceased’s legacy for generations to come, and it has errors in it.

Which brings me to that rule I mentioned early on: never refer to bodies as people. “The body of Mr. Jones was taken to hospital” is the way we write it. This is a strange one, and I had trouble with it, but it was explained to me by a great teacher: Implying that a dead person is in any way participating in what is going on is an insult to their memory.

Of course, most of the dead people I wrote about were crime or accident victims, but the same attitude applies. These people had families and loved ones, and their feelings matter.

I just read this headline: Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan returns home. I’ve been seeing a lot more of those, especially in the wake of major Canadian newspaper chains’ decision to move away from the standardized Canadian Press style. Yes, anyone reading that would know the dead soldier didn’t get up and come home. But if there’s even a subtle chance of that misinterpretation, it should be addressed.

Granted, that headline came from a radio station website. But that’s the problem. Written news is moving away from newspapers and onto TV and radio websites (and vice-versa, as newspapers adopt video and podcasts). The old rules of style, grammar and spelling are being abandoned, and the invasion of textspeak and netLOLwhateverspeak are further tainting the language. I’m not against this. Language evolves, as I’ve said before, and so does style. But editors should take a moment, once in a while, and think about who will be reading what they write.

The cynicism that often accompanies stories about public figures should be locked in a drawer when it comes to stories about death. And that old rule about how we write about dead people shouldn’t be ignored. Particularly when writing about our soldiers.


The Dukes of Dummer

August 12, 2009

We went caving last week near a town called Dummer. I am not making that up. Apparently, last year, the town fathers considered a name change, but decided the benefits of being named for an early Irish settler (Mr. Dummer) outweighed the problems of being called Dummer. This led to great newspaper headline opportunities involving the phrases “Dummer mayor sticks with name …” and “Dummer town council rejects change …” and “Dummer residents tired of bloggers joking about them …”

On the drive home, I got to brainstorming and came up with this idea for a TV pilot: The Dukes of Dummer. This is not an entirely original swipe; Canadian television boasts a program called Little Mosque on the Prairie, which is exactly what you think it is. This is what we do in Canada. We steal.

Anyway, here’s my idea: The Dukes of Dummer is the fun and lively story of two cousins, Mo and Juke Duke, who are also brothers, because their fathers were brothers but their mother was the lady who works at the chip truck. Hey, it was the 1980s and Nazareth was playing at the hockey rink, and the brothers wanted poutine, and things got a little wild when Juke’s daddy found a bottle of Baby Duck he forgot he had.

These days, the Duke boys roar around Dummer in the General Brock, a 1989 Mercury Topaz with a picture of the Tasmanian Devil painted on the hood and a Bad Boys Club decal in the rear window. Because the doors are broken, they have to crawl through the hatchback, which leads to great action visuals.

Supporting characters include Uncle Geddy, a retired rock star who raised the boys; Petunia, their sexy cousin, who works at the chip stand owned by Boss Logg, the mayor of Dummer and owner of its other businesses, which include a bait shop and two taverns. Also in the cast: OPP Sergeant Bosco D. Cullane, OPP Constable Anos Thwaite and local mechanic Pooter, who wants to run for town council but is told he has no head for politics.

The pilot will set up the characters and explain that Mo and Juke have just returned to Dummer after a 60-day stretch in the jail for stealing a box of Kraft Dinner from the gas station in nearby Donwood. Now that they’re on probation, they’re being closely watched by Logg and Cullane. Future episodes will include plots like these:

  • Strangers come to town with nefarious ideas, only to be nabbed by the Dukes, who were suspected by Logg and Cullane of being the culprits.
  • Strangers come to town with nefarious ideas, only to be nabbed by the Dukes, who were suspected by Logg and Cullane of being the culprits.
  • And, of course: Strangers come to town with nefarious ideas, only to be nabbed by the Dukes, who were suspected by Logg and Cullane of being the culprits.

I’ve just mailed the pilot script to the CBC. I’ll let you know how this turns out. But hey, I could be heading for the big time, baby!


Book Review: Scarecrow, Michael Connelly

July 21, 2009

I never expect to be disappointed by a Michael Connelly novel. And I never have been, not since the day I picked up The Black Echo, all those years ago. I’m no great fan of detective novels or police procedurals, but something about Connelly’s epic, mystic creation, Harry Bosch, resonated with me, and I’ve stuck with him ever since. Even his non-Bosch novels — the standalones Void Moon and Chasing the Dime, Blood Work, and his masterpiece, The Poet — kicked me in the jeans like no other mainstream crime writer. His latest creation, backseat defence lawyer Mickey Haller, has pounded through two fantastic books so far, with more to come.

Over the past few books, Connelly’s worlds are starting to converge. Terry McCaleb, the hero of Blood Work (played by Clint Eastwood in the film) pops up in a Bosch book. Jack McEvoy, the reporter star of The Poet, wanders in and out of other novels. Haller and Bosch have a connection. Even Cassie Black, the rascally heroine of Void Moon, rates a sneaky mention here and there. It’s always handled well, and never becomes a what-the-hell moment; the reader believes, easily, that Connelly is writing about a connected world of crime and criminals. It works. Connelly can do no wrong, and like I said, I never expect to be disappointed.


I have just finished The Scarecrow, Connelly’s sequel to The Poet. Superstar crime reporter Jack McEvoy is back, this time serving out his last two weeks after being laid off by the L.A. Times in the midst of an economic slump that’s hurting newspapers. Where have I heard that story before? Oh yeah, it’s my life, except for the part about being a superstar crime reporter.

Connelly, a former crime reporter in Los Angeles, nails the crisis affecting newspapers in his first few pages. Brilliant stuff. Writing as McEvoy, he explains exactly why a 40-ish reporter who came of age in the 1980s is irrelevant in the 21st century, or at least why newspaper managers would think so. He said the same thing I’ve been saying in the six months since my employer told me a just-out-of-J-school kid in Toronto would be doing my job from now on for a quarter of the salary. I soaked Connelly’s words up, nodding, reading sections out loud to Elizabeth, saying “He gets it! He really gets it!”

But then it goes south. McEvoy, as he does, learns something about a seemingly straightforward murder case and before long is on the trail of an organized serial killer who uses the Internet as a weapon. After the first few random leaps of logic, I was still with him. Hey, I watch Star Trek. I can take random leaps of anything.


  • McEvoy figures things out that he shouldn’t be able to see, with the available facts. This book is told largely in first person, so we know what Jack knows.
  • FBI agent Rachel Walling, another character threaded throughout Connelly’s books, does stupid thing after stupid thing, for no apparent reason.
  • The killer uses the Internet in ways taken right from that Sandra Bullock movie, The Net. You know, like in real life.
  • Too much happens too fast. The slow buildup and creeping menace of the Bosch novels — and The Poet, for that matter — is absent here; this was written like a John Grisham book: with the movie rights in mind from Page 1, if not already sold. There’s a stupid action sequence every 50 pages or so, and we are suddenly expected to believe that Jack McEvoy would be played by Bruce Willis circa Die Hard.
  • Nothing makes much sense, until the ending, which is rushed, silly and suffers from McEvoy’s final, and telegraphed from the second chapter, deduction.

So was I disappointed? Yes. But to be honest, I kind of expected it going in, come to think of it. Connelly is really cranking books out these days — two this year, in fact — and something had to suffer. But every great writer is allowed a misstep now and then. It’s just too bad it had to be the book about the reporter, the book that started off with such personal depth for me.

I didn’t like this one much, but I quite enjoyed The Brass Verdict (the book before this one). And I can always go back and re-read Lost Light, or Trunk Music, or even The Poet again if I want to. You could, too.


Book Review: Roots

February 3, 2009

I have mixed emotions about Alex Haley’s Roots. It was a pivotal book for me, the first adult novel I read. And I related to its story in a lot of ways. My later disappointment was crushing, but I’ve bounced back a bit.

As a kid, I was very aware of my African heritage, but out of touch with that side of my family. The closest I ever got to experiencing modern African-American life was probably Diff’rent Strokes and Good Times, which tells you something about my worldview.

Roots changed all that. And it continues to affect me. I read it every couple of years, and I always find something new, some interesting corner of history to explore further.

My podcast review is here, at Simply Syndicated’s Books You Should Read.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on Roots and my take on it.


Words That Don’t Exist, But Should

December 5, 2008

Here are some words I like that don’t actually occur in the English language. As a language professional, I really shouldn’t use them. But I do, I have recently, and I will continue to do so.

  • Ridinkulous: My new favourite. “The special effects in the new Indiana Jones movie are ridinkulous.”
  • Craptastic: Veering toward overuse, but still apt in many cases. “The special effects in the new Indiana Jones movie are craptastic.”
  • Suckness: The poor quality of something. “The special effects in the new Indiana Jones movie are full of suckness.”
  • Quantum of Suckness: The amount of said poor quality: “The special effects in the new Indiana Jones movie reach an epic quantum of suckness.”
  • What The Fuckness: The presence of a certain quality that makes you stop and say “Uh, what the fuck?” “I came out of the new Indiana Jones movie with a new sense of What The Fuckness.” (Note: Despite its interrogative nature, this does not take a question mark unless it is being asked: “Did you notice any What The Fuckness?”)

Writing Good, Part 5

November 20, 2008

I have a few thoughts on punctuation.

Punctuation’s a tricky thing, and can actually affect things in a big way. You may have heard the story of the million-dollar comma, and there are many, many more like that.

I deal with punctuation as part of my work as a newspaper editor. I work in a room full of language professionals, people with diplomas and degrees (and in one case, a Master’s) who can’t figure out the difference between a hyphen and a dash, a comma and a semi-colon.

This is not to say that I’m any kind of expert. Just browse through any of the Weather Stations and you’ll find me making all kinds of errors. I’m particularly prone, for instance, to forgetting the period at the end of a sentence

But here are some easy quick fixes for you. Let’s start with the apostrophe. This really messes people up. You probably think you don’t have to add an extra s to the end of a noun if it ends in s. Let’s go with the city of Memphis, home of The King: You may think it’s proper to write “Memphis’ music scene is thriving,” but you would be wrong. It’s actually “Memphis’s music scene is thriving.”

Why? Because you pronounce the apostrophized s. Say it out loud. You’re saying “Memphis-es,” right? So it takes an extra s.

But if you aren’t pronouncing the extra s, you don’t add it: “New Orleans’ music scene is still thriving.” See how that works? It can be tricky. But I subscribe to the idea of speaking what you write aloud (unless you’re, like, on a bus or something) to see how it flows. This is crucial.

I’ll toss one more at you tonight. It has to do with semi-colons. You may have noticed that I’m a big semi-colon user; this is because I like longer sentences but prefer a mid-sentence break that goes beyond the comma. See how that worked right there? Again, this comes from speaking sentences aloud.

When I was a reporter, I was often told my copy flowed better than other reporters. My only actual problem was issues of fact, but that’s another story. But I think people said that because I wrote like a conversation, and still do. I want my copy to read like I’m saying it to you aloud (unlike Weather Station 3, where I sound like a third-string CBC rookie with a pillowcase over his head).

I’ve always thought that’s the secret to smooth writing. The punctuation will come later.