Writing

I’m not naming any names or spoiling any books, but here’s a plotting tip from a longtime reader: If you want us to be surprised that one of your characters is a bad guy, don’t have him quoting Friedrich Nietzsche the first time we see him.

It’s not subtle foreshadowing. It’s giving the game away.

Last week I blogged about Kip Esquire’s pie-in-the-sky wish to be a reporter or a commentator for a news organization. Kip has no direct experience in that area, but as a blogger with a background in law and finance, he’s not totally unqualified. I’m sure he realized it was unlikely anyone would make him an offer, but he put it out there anyway, just to see if anybody was interested.

That got me thinking about whether I have any similar aspirations that I could appeal to my readers to help me fulfill. It would have to be something that met all three of these criteria:

  1. It has to be a real stretch for me—Not just learning a new programming language or getting some better blog stats, but something really new and challenging.
  2. It can’t be so much of a stretch that it’s out of reach—I have no chance of becoming a rock star, movie director, Navy Seal, or stand-up comedian.
  3. It has to be something I can solicit on this blog—I’d like to be a celebrity photographer, and it’s not impossible that I could become one, but no one’s going to read about it here and offer me a job.

It took me a while, but I think I’ve figured it out: I want to write a book.

I’m not expecting anyone to offer me a book contract, but maybe someone out there has been thinking of writing a book and is looking for a co-author—someone to bounce ideas off of and take up some of the writing load—or maybe just a contributor to do some piece of the job.

Here’s what I bring to the table:

  • My writing experience consists of this blog, a few news articles at the Chi-Town Daily News, writing software documentation and proposals on my day job, and one professional sale to The VAX Professional magazine.
  • I helped as a reader on Philipp Lenssen’s 55 Ways to Have Fun With Google.
  • I’m not a professional photographer, but I can take a decent photograph.
  • I am a professional software developer.
  • I’m half-way decent at doing research on the web.
  • My education and job experience includes a bit of math, a bit of science, and a bit of engineering.
  • I’m located in Chicago.

If you’re a software developer who wants to write about some new technology, I could write or test the example code and help you write the book.

If you’re a photographer thinking of writing a book about your craft, I know enough basic photography that I won’t be totally lost helping you with the text surrounding your images.

If you’re a scientist or engineer with a plan for a popular book (or maybe an introductory textbook), I can probably understand the subject well enough to help you explain it to people.

If you have an idea for a book about the war on drugs, civil liberties, free speech, criminal defense, eminent domain, free markets, or any other subject that interests me, I probably know a little of the background, and I’d love to help if I can.

If you want to write a book about something in Chicago, I’m right here in the Windy City, and I can take pictures.

So if you like the way I write on Windypundit, and if you’ve got an idea for a book, and if you think I could help you write it, my email address is in the sidebar. Think about it.

As the end of the year approaches, I’ve been cleaning up my backlog of unpublished posts. I often start to write about something and then discover that I have nowhere to go with it. I’ve deleted most of those posts as there’s no way to salvage them.

Sometimes, however, I just have trouble finding enough time to write, and the story behind the post goes stale before I get anything out on the blog. I delete some of those, but some of them I save for later if I think I’ll be able to use them in response to another story. (E.g. my speculative post about gay evolution.)

Then there’s stuff like this. I started to write this post in September 2007 and the story went stale. I like it as far as it goes, but I have no idea what to do with it. Here it is, exactly as I found it:


I’m with Whoopi, at least as she’s quoted here.

“He’s from the South, from the Deep South … This is part of his cultural upbringing,” Goldberg said of the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, whose recent fall from grace has been one of the most stunning in the history of U.S. sports.

“For a lot of people, dogs are sport,” Goldberg said on the show. “Instead of just saying (Vick) is a beast and he’s a monster, this is a kid who comes from a culture where this is not questioned.”

I’m not in favor of dog fights, but it’s silly to pretend that this is some bizarre flaw in Vick’s character. Dogfights are held all over the world and have been for a long time–long enough that many current dog breeds appear to be the result of breeding for better fighting.

Goldberg’s comments were denounced by Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, who disputed that dogfighting was a cultural fixture of the South or any other region.

“To suggest that there is some ethnic group or racial group or regional group that finds this acceptable is just not accurate,” he told Reuters, adding that public opinion polls show opposition to dogfighting “is a universal value in America.”

Obviously not. Otherwise we wouldn’t be uncovering interstate dogfighting conspiracies.

Lots of illegal things are also cultural fixtures: Prostitution, back-room card games, smoking pot, under-age drinking, sports betting, 4th of July fireworks, off-the-books household employees, speeding, cash purchases at flea markets, buying out of state to avoid sales taxes…stop me when I get to something you do.

Also, gay sex, at least if you try to do it in a public restroom. Which brings me to


That’s as far as I got. Obviously, I had something to say about the Craig business, but what? What connection did I see between illegal dog fights and gay sex in public bathrooms?

The Chi-Town Daily News is a web-only newspaper focussed on local coverage through citizen journalism. That means they depend on people from the neighborhoods to report on stories from the neighborhoods. Or, to put it another way, they’re hoping they can get people to write for them for free.

Since I’ve been writing for free on Windypundit anyway, I thought I’d give it a shot. Ever since I got comfortable writing online, I’ve been wanting to try some real journalism. I’ve done some original reporting here—that is, not just commentary on somebody else’s story—but it was still written in the style of a blog, not a regular news story.

The Chi-Town Daily News just ran my first-ever real news story, under the gripping headline “NW Side businesses hit by graffiti vandal.”

It’s not much of a story. The Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) includes monthly meetings between police and residents in every one of the city’s 279 police beats. Also called “beat meetings,” these are a chance for police and residents to exchange information. They’re also a chance for curious reporters to find out what’s happening in the neighborhood.

Last week I was at the meeting for Beat 1624 (Irving Park to Montrose, Cicero to Narragansett) and the big topic was graffiti. I took some notes and wrote a story about it.

It’s not terribly well-written as news stories go. I didn’t manage to find telling details or record any great quotes. It’s just a straight summary of what people were talking about. The paper’s editor removed some unnecessary details and then re-wrote a little to flow around the missing pieces, but the posted story is still mostly what I wrote.

Why bother? Well, meeting stories are the bread-and-butter of news coverage. Not very exciting, but a good way to start. I may be an unpaid volunteer (I’m trying not to think of myself as the world’s oldest newspaper intern) but I’m planning to get something out of this.

The Daily News may be small and online (and cheap) but it’s not just a multi-author blog. It was founded by a fellow named Geoff Dougherty, who has 14 years in the new business, including stints at the Miami Herald and the Chicago Tribune. It’s not the most formal of news environments—we have beer and pizza at the meetings—but it’s the real thing. I can learn something from it, and there are several things I want to learn.

First of all, I want to learn how to write for an edited publication. Here on Windypundit I can say whatever I want because I’m my own editor and publisher. It’s great fun, and I think I’m getting better at it, but it’s a different kind of skill than writing to fill someone else’s needs. Among other things, when you write what someone else needs, they’re more likely to pay you.

Second, I want to learn the basic process of journalism: Preparing for an interview, asking questions, taking notes, spotting quotable phrases.

Third, I want to learn the careful writing process of a journalist. Despite all the blogger triumphalism about the mistakes of mainstream media, real journalists have an admirable technique for keeping track of the details of a story.

Fourth, I want to learn some investigative skills. I want to learn how to negotiate the maze of government offices and find the one that will tell me what I need to know. I want to develop sources who will tell me interesting things.

During one episode of the 70’s television show Lou Grant, investigative reporter Joe Rossi (played by Robert Walden) was explaining why he had become a journalist, and part of what he said stuck with me. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like “I like to find out interesting things and tell people about them.”

I can completely understand that. It’s part of what I’m trying to do here at Windypundit. Although the objective reporting style of contemporary mainstream journalism is probably not the the best way for me to say the things I want to say, I expect the Daily News to teach me a lot of skills I’ll be able to use here.

And maybe I’ll write a few interesting stories.

Continuing Ken Lammers’ concerns with how to distinguish restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, I have a little bit to add to what I said earlier.

I’ve checked several more writing handbooks, including the Harbrace College Handbook, the Little, Brown Handbook, the St. Martin’s Handbook, and The Careful Writer. (My editions are not as current as those to which I’ve linked.) All agree to a preference for using which to introduce only non-restrictive clauses, with the degree of preference ranging from “better” to “usually” to “some writers prefer,” but none of the handbooks is as firm as the Strunk and Whiteexcerpts I quoted earlier, and certainly none of them set forth an absolute rule.

The Careful Writer has this interesting note:

There are writers who have the notion that the relative that is colloquial[…],whereas the relative which is literary. That is a mistaken idea. Jespersen has put his finger on one cause of the error: “Who and which reminded scholars of the Latin pronouns and came to be looked upon as more refined or dignified than the more popular that.” To this day there are those who seem to feel that which is more stately.

I imagine the writers of Virginia’s statutes prefered the stately and Latinate which to the common that.

On the other hand, all these handbooks (and the Chicago Manual of Style) agree that non-restrictive clauses are always set off by commas.

Ken Lammers needs an English language expert for an appeal he’s writing. The argument is about the meaning of a statute, so I imagine this problem could have been avoided if the Virginia legislature had worded their law a little more carefully. Instead, someone’s freedom may depend on how restrictive clauses are supposed to be introduced in sentences.

Update: I did a little research.

An excerpt from the “Misused Words and Expressions” chapter of Strunk and White:

That. Which. That is the defining, or restrictive pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive. See Rule 3.

The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage. (Tells which one)

The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage. (Adds a fact about the only mower in question)

Ths use of which for that is common in written and spoken language (“Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.”) Occasionally which seems preferable to that, as in the sentence from the Bible. But it would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision.

So it looks like Strunk and White agree with the judge as a preference, but acknowledge that actual usage is less precise. Note the presence of commas. There is more about this in Strunk and White‘s Rule 3:

3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

[…]

Nonrestrictive relative clauses are parenthetic, as are similar clauses introduced by conjunctions indicating time or place. Commas are therefore needed. A non-restrictive clause is one that does not serve to identify the defining antecedent noun.

The audience, which had at first been indifferent, became more and more interested.

In 1769, when Napolleon was born, Corsica had but recently been acquired by France.

Nether Stowey, where Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is a few miles from Bridgewater.

In these sentences, the clauses introduced by which, when, and where are nonrestrictive; they do not limit or define, the merely add something. In the first example, the clause introduced by which does not serve to tell which of several possible audiences is meant; the reader presumably knows that already. The clause adds, parenthetically, a statement supplementing that in the main clause. Each of the three sentences is a combination of two statements that might have been made independently.

The audience was at first indifferent. Later it became more and more interested.

Napoleon was born in 1769. At the time Corsica had but recently been acquired by France.

Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at Nether Stowey. Nether Stowey is a few miles from Bridgewater.

Restrictive clauses, by contrast, are not parenthetic and are not set off by commas. Thus,

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Here the clause introduce by who does serve to tell which people are meant; the sentence, unlike the sentences above, cannot be split into two independent statements.

So, although there is a rule regarding the use of that and which, the rule is not as firm as the use of commas to set off the nonrestrictive clause. I would say that the use of commas is definitive. Actually, the definitive test is whether the sentence can be split into two independent sentences, but I think that’s what Lammers is trying to prove: That the statute’s language does not allow for the sentence to be split, as evidenced by the use of punctuation and relative pronouns.

If I had to make this argument, I would argue that the commas are the definitive indicator, and that which is sometimes used to introduce restrictive clauses in flowery language such as the Bible or, presumably, statutes. Since Strunk and White is practically the catechism of modern English writing style, my argument would probably convince an English teacher, but I don’t know if it will help with a judge.