Category Archives: Free Reads

New, Handier Way to Read Ella’s Story!

You’ll recall that I had to wrap the ongoing installments of The Complete Writer into PDFs, after the publishing a series of chapters maxed out WordPress. All things considered, I decided that was pretty cool. It allows readers to go straight to the content that interests them without having to unravel a roll of electronic toilet paper to find it. How, one wondered, would that work for Ella’s Story?

One does not read a piece of fiction for the same reason, though, that one reads a nonfiction book. Fiction, outside the sticky confines of a literature course, is read for pleasure, to pass the time of day (or night). There are no subject headings into which to divide a recitation of facts or advice. This is a challenge when the noveloid is really a kind of telenovela, a genre whose authors invent on the fly.

It struck me, though, that I could gather ten chapters of Ella’s Story at a time into a single PDF. Then let the E.S. page run the next ten, one at a time, until enough installments accrue to build the next PDF.

Yesterday I published Chapter 22 in blog format. So that presented enough material to create “Part I” and “Part II”: two PDFs containing the story as published so far, and then some. The PDFs, I put online last night.

Once I get to Chapter 30, I’ll take those new 10 pages off the E.S. page, post them all together in a single PDF (“Part III”!), and…so on to infinity.

As it develops, this will be a huge improvement for the reader. With the contents of each 10-chapter “Part” listed on the E.S. page and no more than 10 new chapters posted there, you’ll be able go straight to where you left off, rather than having to scroll endlessly to pick up the story.

Try it! You’ll like it!

Ella’s Story. Chapter 22 *FREE READS!

Ella’s Story follows people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story

22

The tick-sized intercom pasted to her left bicep vibrated, a signal to get her attention. From Syo, on the security guard: Rysha had arrived at Skyhill’s front gate.

Having managed to coax about half of Tabit’s soup into Darl, Ella was carrying the dishes back to the manor house’s basement kitchen. Now she hurried along, popped in, and found Lior and Tabit working over the stoves and counters, where they were preparing dinner for four dozen staff – give or take. She dropped the tray on a counter, thanked Tabit for her work, and ran back up the stairs, headed for the main floor.

The intercom buzzed again: Talat.

“We’re still in Cinnora,” he said. “Dorin gave us enough money to cover dinner. All right if we eat here and come in a little later?”

He gives you enough for dinner, so you’re honor-bound to spend it? She flew in the ground-floor service door and raced up the hallway toward the central atrium. “How much later?”

“We’ll be back by curfew.”

“How about before curfew? Make it by first moonrise.” That would bring them in around fifteenth hour. Curfew shut everything down at seventeenth hour – after Wilig’s bed-time. She’d need to remember to tell Wilig’s parents, whenever they came in for dinner.

“All right. We’ll probably get in before then.”

“Let me know.”

She bounded into the entry hall and took her place next to Essio – another of the guard, scheduled to relieve Chadzar, his boss, after the kaïna was safely deposited inside the house. Dita joined them, a small bag of gear in hand, and the three formed a straight, identically uniformed line to one side of the entry. Shaban stood ready to open the heavy double doors when the mistress arrived in front.

Shaban gestured over a wall pad so it would read his embedded ID chip. “Lights,” he murmured, and glow panels in the vestibule and an adjacent tall-ceilinged reception room came on. A fountain burbled, calming, into a pond occupying a corner of the entryway. Against another wall, a willowy tree held court over mounds of multicolored, leafy plants. He took up his position next to a panel of windows that looked out across the broad, fern-covered meadow in front.

“And…here they be,” he announced when he saw Rysha’s vehicle float under the portico, settle to the ground, and release its passengers.

As the two walked up the shallow entryway steps, he opened the door. Chadzar, a large, snow-hued Michaian, his hair, eyebrows and even his eyelashes so blond as to appear white, took half a step in ahead of his mistress, glanced around, and nodded a greeting toward his colleagues. Ella never failed to feel a twinge of amazement at the grass-green eyes, though she’d seen them every day for…how many years? Fifteen, yes?

He stood aside. The empress of the known universe glided into the room. Smoke-blue she wore, as always: hereditary badge for the absolute ruler of a dozen civilized worlds, several score developed satellites and asteroids, another several dozen planets whose cultures had not advanced enough to be worth contacting or that had not sprung from the seed of the Mother World, and some uncountable number of outposts where organizd civilization had yet to develop among ancient Varnis’s far-flung offspring.

Yes, fifteen years, just about. Not so long after the Kaïna Djitti slipped away in her sleep and left this Rysha to grow by instinct and by blood into her place. Her little girl, as Ella came to think of her, now a lithe, dark almond-eyed creature, surely too delicate to own such power. Two layers of fine, silken fabric drifted like mist around her, one white bordered all the way around with a violet band, the second the faintest green. Green and violet, the House of Delamona’s colors worn over a blue body suit, very much like the ones all her slaves wore. Rather a nicer fabric, though, Ella knew.

Chadzar lifted a hand in the car’s direction and it rolled away to park itself inside its stable.

The waiting staff bowed their heads briefly when she entered, as custom dictated. First to step forward, Ella unfastened the long jade-colored outer tunic, slid it off her mistress’s shoulders, and folded it over an arm. Rysha smiled and gave her a hug. She looked tired, Ella thought: more than her fill of roundabout palavering, no doubt.

Shaban took the translucent tunic while Ella and Dita accompanied their mistress into the private sitting room off the entry foyer. The two guards stayed behind, so Chad could pass along whatever Essio needed to know before he took over his boss’s shift.

Rysha sighed with evident relief as she collapsed into her favorite overstuffed chair.

“Long day, hm?” More of an observation from Ella than a statement.

“Oh, my! Some people never tire of arguing.”

Ella knelt beside her to replace tight-fitting brocade shoes with a pair of soft leather sandals. Shaban, having put away the shimmering tunic, began to prepare a drink at the serving desk.

“The usual, madame?” he asked.

“Good. Fine.”

Ella felt the tension in Rysha as, briefly, she massaged each foot and ankle. Dita unpacked a collection of containers and combs and brushes. By the time Shaban delivered a ruby-red mug full of icy intoxicant, Dita was pulling out pins and clips, unwinding and unbraiding and untwisting the complicated ceremonial hairdo, and gently combing each newly loosed lock straight and tangle-free.

In private, Rysha’s shiny black hair fell below her shoulders. In public, though, the kaïna wore a distinctive, very elaborate hair structure that marked her as who and what she was, part of the symbolism of her authority. To construct it took special training, such as Dita had been given – it wasn’t something Rysha could put together herself. Today’s diplomatic meetings required the full costume. Sometimes, Ella reflected, it must take as much patience to wear the robes and the crown as it did to weave them.

“How was your day, dear?” Rysha asked Ella.

“Good enough, my lady.” Ella rested on her knees beside the chair. “It’s been quiet.”

“And our new man? How is he making out?”

What to say? “He’s been having a hard time of it, madame.”

“Ah. He doesn’t like it here?”

“Doubtful if he understands where he is. They…the blacksuits seem to have let him go a little too soon. He’s pretty much out of it.”

“I see. Can we handle it? You and Dorin, I mean?”

“Well. Yes, I think so. He ate a little this afternoon. There’s really nothing to do for him, other than let him rest and keep him warm. When you come right down to it. He’ll get better.”

“I expect. But meanwhile…it’s extra work for you two.”

That would be why we’re here, no? Ella nodded. After a pause she spoke again, in Samdi: “Kananei…” – My lady…

 This was a gesture whose meaning Rysha took. She glanced in Shaban’s direction: “Would you leave us for a moment, please?”

A quick bow, then he ushered Essio and Dita out the door.

Hkal?” Rysha spoke Samdi – the elite variety – almost as fluently as she spoke Varn. Yes, what? Part of her upbringing involved learning all the Empire’s major languages. The conversation proceeded in Ella’s native tongue.

“Is something going on somewhere? That we’re not being told about?”

Rysha gave her a sharp look and raised a finger: hush!

They could be heard inside the Kaïna’s private quarters? This was new to Ella.

“Eliyeh’llya, give me your hand.” Ella responded by offering her right hand. “No. The other one.”

Rysha tapped the back of her own left hand and spoke a single code word, one Ella had never heard. She repeated this with the passkey chip in Ella’s hand, then ran the back of her own hand over the back of Ella’s.

“We have five minutes,” she said. “Now: why do you ask, dear?”

“Well…” What to say to avoid getting anyone else in trouble? “I just wondered why…they told Dorin the reason they put him out on the market just about straight from the cooker is that they had a lot of criminal offenders to process. But…what kind of crime wave would max their facility, madame? Unless it was an uprising, no?”

“Mmm… That certainly could be.”

“Michaia again?”

“No. There’s unrest on Idaemas just now. In Odambra Nation.”

“Oh, my.” Odambra was the largest Idaemasan industrial center. “Is it very serious?”

“Any sedition is serious, Eliyeh’llya. So, yes, it’s serious. But we have it under control.”

“I see.” This was not the best of all possible developments. “So…what about Tabit? Will she…no one will bother her, will they?

“She and her husband are being watched. But then…everyone in service is watched, no?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Ella felt her heart in her throat. And apparently Rysha sensed her distress.

“It’s all right, Eliyeh’llya. We know Tabit can be trusted – she’s been away from Idaemas for two decades, for heaven’s sake. And she’s never shown any interest in politics. Has she, to your knowledge?”

“No, my lady. Never.”

If she had, Ella wouldn’t dream of saying so.

“Can we let it drop? I’ll tell you or Dorin if there’s anything you need to know.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Ella rose, walked to the door, and called the other three servants back in. While Dita finished unweaving the kaïna’s hair, Shaban set a place at the long table in the dining room. Ella followed him there, pulled back the drapes over the high windows to open the garden view, and went downstairs to let the kitchen staff know what Rysha had said she’d like for her light evening meal.

§

Everyone but Talat and Wilig was in and accounted for. Talat had called to say they were riding a public shuttle into Skyhill Village, whence they would walk out to the estate. Dinner was served and consumed, and this week’s after-hours kitchen team was cleaning up under Lior and Tabit’s direction.

In the cooling late dusk, stars twinkled overhead as black night pushed the last mauve glow of the sun below the distant, silhouetted hills. A few sticks of wood glowed and snapped in the outdoor firepit, a central focus of the patio and mossy fields where people gathered between the workday’s end and curfew. Dorin and Ella, having about finished riding herd for the day, sat near the hearth sipping one of his supposedly calming teas out of the same heavy mugs with which they had started the day.

Syndicato, she thought. If he was – if he was any good at it – he would know the silent sign language used when things were tight or dangerous. Wouldn’t he? She tapped him gently on a knee and, holding her hand between their chairs, let her fingers flicker a quick message.

He looked…what? Surprised? Puzzled, she thought. But he nodded, just so slightly as to be barely noticeable. He drew an appreciative sip of the hot tea and then remarked, “Beautiful night, isn’t it.”

“It is.”

“Why don’t we go for a walk and enjoy the evening air for a few minutes, before we have to herd this bunch off to bed?”

“Now there’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” she said.

They ambled toward the gathering’s periphery and then, coming to a path that led into the exotic flower gardens on the west side of the manor house, angled away from their charges.

“The ileeri fruit are starting to blossom,” she remarked.

“Yes. They smell lovely at this time of night.” By a path’s lamplight, she could see his fingers move. What’s this about?

“Almost as lovely as ileeri tastes.” The mistress told me the reason we got our healer before he was healed.

“Yeah. It’s one of the highlights of the summer.” So?

Uprisings. Ideamas, of all places. “We should have some put in the mistress’s sitting room for her.” She wasn’t inclined to say much. But I gathered it’s pretty serious.

“She’d like that, I expect.” So I’d heard. “Why don’t you suggest it to Shaban?”

 “Look at that sunset!” You know about it?

“It was outright amazing an hour ago.” Not much. How did she come to bring this up with you?

“There’s little Gathra coming up,” she observed. Gathra, the smaller moon, was just rising over the trees in front of the house. I asked her.

“I’ve heard it looks a lot bigger from Ethra Compound.” That’s probably not a great idea.

 “Oh, my yes. Because it’s so much closer to Zaitaf than it is to the planet.” She didn’t seem to mind.

“Didn’t we tell Talat to get back here by first moon?” Best not to bring it up again.

She glanced at him: was this an order? “Yes. Yes, that’s so.”

“We’d probably better get back to the party,” he said.

The Complete Writer: Writing the Feature Article *Free Read*

The Complete Writer
Part III
Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs

Chapter 13. The Structure of Feature Articles

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears at our here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Like a work of fiction, an article has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Accomplished writers organize their material up front. Before they sit down at the keyboard, they know how the story will begin, how it will conclude, and what path it will take to reach the end.

If you look closely at published feature stories and at most journalistic blog posts, you’ll see they follow a fairly standard format.

  • The lead, which opens the story with a person, an anecdote, a set scene, or—rarely—dialogue.
  • The transition, often called the capsule statement, bridge, nut paragraph, or “nut graf.” It tells the reader why you’re writing about this subject. The nut graf has its equivalent in the “thesis sentence” of freshman composition.
  • A strong ending, a real gem saved for the last paragraph.

The way the writer develops these elements depends on his or her purpose and material. An effective story is shaped logically to fit its substance.

The story’s architecture

The typical news story is shaped like an inverted pyramid. It starts with a lead that concentrates the so-called “5 W’s and an H” of classical journalistic style: who, what, when, where, why and how. The facts of the event are then presented, as objectively as possible, in descending order of importance.

This structure made it easy for the reporter to call in or submit a typescript that disgorged whatever happened on the scene, and for the copy desk to shorten the story to fit the space available simply by cutting from the bottom—the closer to the end, the less important was the content.

The feature story, in contrast, can take on any of several shapes. The basic structure is what I like to call the “paper doll”:

Here the story opens with an attention grabber. A transition between the striking image or statement of the lead bridges the gap between the lead and the main part of the story, which develops facts and observations in a coherent way. Finally, a strong ending wraps up the narrative.

Without the transitional plateau of the nut paragraph, you get a footed bowl, also a useful structure:

Some feature stories are circular: the ending brings the reader back to the lead.

Others may be Y- or menorah-shaped. In this fairly complex structure, several distinct strands or parallel substories are braided to form a narrative that come together in a rousing conclusion.

The best writers understand the importance of structure. William Howarth, in his introduction to The John McPhee Reader, notes that McPhee, a master craftsman, seeks “to create a form [for a given story] that is logical but so unobtrusive that judgments of its content will seem to arise only in the reader’s mind.” In designing a structure, Howarth observes, McPhee may “either find an idea for order in the material or impose one upon it, selecting what Coleridge called the ‘organic’ or ‘mechanic’ principles of structure.” Levels of the Game, a study of Arthur Ashe and Clarke Graebner’s September 8, 1968, Forest Hills semifinals match, takes up the back-and-forth action of a tennis game, deriving the story’s form from the material at hand.

The structure you choose for your story must give it unity, balance, and coherence. You can point out the facts’ meaning simply by the order in which you present them, sometimes by setting two telling items side-by-side without editorial comment. Search for a structure that complements your story’s theme. You might, for example, write a human-interest piece about someone caught in a bureaucratic runaround: the story could have a circular structure, taking your subject from Point A right back to Point A. This would effectively underscore theme with structure, conveying the victim’s frustration or bemusement without ever preaching or explicitly criticizing.

Writing Leads

The lead’s purpose is to grab the reader’s attention, provide the central idea, and persuade the person to read on. It need not state the story’s point or most important facts. Feature leads are less formulaic than a hard news lead; they give you more room to be creative.

Feature leads for newspapers are necessarily short and to the point. This is true of leads for blog posts, where brevity is often the point in itself. Newspaper and blog editors invariably prefer a punchy opening over the impressionistic lead that may appeal to a magazine editor. Try a magazine lead on a newspaper editor and you’ll hear that you’re “backing into the story.”

In any event, the lead’s information must be related to the story’s main point. Don’t open a piece with a colorful descriptive passage that has little to do with your message. If a catchy anecdote illuminates the story’s point, fine: use it. Otherwise, find a better lead.

Many writers will start a story by focusing on a person whose experience underscores what the story is about, and they’ll try to put a good quote near the top. Bloomberg News focuses on entrepreneur Richard Branson to open this story:

In 2014, disaster struck Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The company’s experimental spaceship tore apart and crashed during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot. The crash added tragedy to a string of delays and disappointments for the company, which Branson founded in 2004 to make space tourism routine. This year, Virgin Galactic came back with the unveiling of the beautiful SpaceShipTwo.

Hello World’s Ashlee Vance went to the desert to attend the SpaceShipTwo press event at the Mojave, Calif., airport and to find out how much resolve Branson has left. With his typical flair, Branson brought the spaceship out amid a sea of champagne and celebrities and huge helpings of optimism. Flashing his brilliant smile, he said that the world’s wealthiest people will be able to travel to space soon. Some more of us will follow, someday.[1]

Some of the most effective leads are anecdotal. An anecdote is a ministory with its own opening, middle, and end. When you use it as a lead, its ending should tie into the rest of the story by making a transition into the capsule statement or body of the story, by making a strong point that underscores your story’s subject, or by serving as a capsule statement itself.

The letter arrived on a spring day. It had flown across the Great Lakes, over cornfields, across the Rockies, and out over the Pacific—8,000 miles across the briny deep and up into a satellite somewhere in orbit that flicks emails from one end of the earth to the other. It zipped through the stratosphere above the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, over the sprawl of Guangdong and the rice paddies beyond, to the foothills of the Himalayas. And finally to Kunming, a city of seven million people in southern China. The day it arrived, Jessica was sitting at home, eating dinner with a friend from school.

When she saw the words “Northeastern University” on the subject line, Jessica almost didn’t want to open it. It was clear outside, “but I was afraid of raining in my heart” if the college refused her, she said. Jessica was a high school senior at the time, in 2013. She had grown up in Yunnan, the Chinese province edging on Tibet, Myanmar, and Laos, but her dreams rested in a distant land, the United States. Slowly, she scanned each line of the letter, carefully. Then she turned to her friend with a huge smile and said: “I did it!”[2]

Similar to the anecdote is the single example or series of briefly stated examples. These are often short case histories illustrating a problem the story will address. They are popular in women’s magazines, especially for health-oriented stories.

“Pop had to be put in a nursing home at a cost to my mother of about $2,400 per month,” a man from Cicero, Ill., wrote to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare,” and neither Medicare nor Medicaid could help because my parents had a nest egg. The law is without pity. Had my father lived for just two more years in a nursing home, my mother would have had to spend the rest of her life in poverty, but God called Pop to his eternal rest in one year, instead of two. My mother and I can never forget the terrible feeling of relief we had when Pop died. We can only live with it in shame. We loved him.”[3]

This lead, which appeared in a newspaper’s magazine, begins with a quote. Many editors, especially those with a newspaper background, dislike a lead that opens with dialogue. Although they sometimes go with it if the lead works exceptionally well, beginning writers should avoid leading with a quote.

Similarly, many editors disapprove of leading with a rhetorical question. This approach has become more common, though. The problem with the rhetorical question—posed so the writer can provide the answer—is that it may appear patronizing. Also, it can lead your reader to provide a different answer from the one you’re trying to elicit.

Which freshwater fish weighs an average of between 12 and 20 pounds, slams your lure with a hair-raising jolt, screams line off your reel with alarming speed, splits the air with slashing, leaping runs, and shucks free about three out of five time to leave you with nothing but a memory of it?

The answer is Skamania, a very special steelhead found almost exclusively in Indiana.[4]

The narrative lead opens the story with a chain of events unfolded in a dramatic, chronological way. First this happened, then this, then we get to the substance of the story. Long form nonfiction pieces, such as this one by Siddartha Mukherjee for The New Yorker, often open with a narrative lead.

On a Saturday morning in April of 2014, Nenad Macesic, a thirty-one-year-old doctor-in-training, received an urgent phone call from the emergency room of Austin Hospital, just outside Melbourne, Australia. Lean and taut, with a swirl of dark hair, Macesic resembles an aspiring urban d.j. In fact, by night he spun electronica in clubs around Melbourne; by day he was a fellow in infectious diseases. The call concerned a woman in her late forties who had come to the hospital complaining of a fever, headaches, and an unusual rash.

Travel-related illnesses may be an Australian obsession: foreign contagions brought into the country can spread like, well, rabbits. The woman in the E.R. had just returned from the Cook Islands, an isolated spray of atolls in the South Pacific, where she and her husband had been attending a family funeral. Other people at the funeral had been sick with mysterious fevers, but she hadn’t made much of it. Now that she was home, though, a mild headache had progressed to a full, persistent throb. Migratory pains appeared in her joints, and an angry, blanching rash—the kind that pales when you press it—was now blooming across her torso.

When Macesic entered her hospital room, the woman, a textile worker, looked more medically stable than he had expected she would. She spoke in measured sentences, with no sign of confusion or delirium. But Macesic was struck by her strange rash—vivid raised red dots coalescing into islands—and the color of her eyes (pink, with streaks of vermillion), which was indicative of conjunctivitis, a symptom of certain viral infections.

Was it dengue? Macesic wondered. Dengue—colloquially known as breakbone fever, because of the intense corkscrews of pain that can occur in the bones, muscles, and joints—is caused by a mosquito-borne virus and was endemic in the Cook Islands. But the woman’s symptoms seemed too mild for dengue: the disease can cause catastrophic drops in white blood cells and platelets, but her blood counts were nearly normal. Could it be chikungunya? Another mosquito-transmitted viral fever, chikungunya can leave its victims with months, or even years, of wracking joint pains. But this woman’s joint pains and swellings weren’t severe. It was as if she had acquired a milder variant of those diseases—a more temperate cousin. And the conjunctivitis was a tipoff: neither chikungunya nor dengue is usually accompanied by those blood-tinged eyes.

Macesic decided to consult an online reporting system called ProMED, which tracks infectious diseases around the world. Even surfing the site casually takes a fair amount of fortitude: one day this month, there were eleven new reports on the site, including an undiagnosed measles-like disease that killed forty children in rural Myanmar; anthrax outbreaks among deer in Siberia; food poisoning from cyclospora at a Mexican resort; and a form of strep, normally found in horses, that sickened a woman in Washington State and killed her mother.

As Macesic went through previous entries in ProMED’s database—malaria in Oman, Lassa fever in Nigeria—he found a cluster of cases in French Polynesia, some six hundred miles east of the Cook Islands, that seemed remarkably similar to the woman’s condition: a dengue-like, mosquito-borne viral syndrome, but with a milder course. Those cases had been attributed to a little-known virus called Zika, a member of a family of RNA viruses that includes dengue, West Nile, and yellow fever. (Zika gets its name from the Ugandan forest where the virus was first found, in a monkey, in the nineteen-forties.) Macesic sent the woman’s blood to a specialized laboratory for viral analysis.

The next morning, the woman’s husband arrived at the hospital, enveloped in the same diffuse, blanching rash. By the end of the week, the woman’s blood test had come back positive for the Zika virus. The husband, however, had no detectable virus in his blood: he had seemingly cleared the infection almost completely. In both cases, Macesic noted, the symptoms had also begun to resolve on their own. He figured that the man and the woman had been bitten by Zika-carrying mosquitoes. (The sexual transmission of Zika had been described in one prior case report, but Macesic did not know about it.) Macesic wrote the case up as an abstruse curiosity—a medical “quiz”—for an infectious-diseases journal. “The illness is typically mild and self-limited, with resolution over 1 week,” he noted. “In a previous outbreak with 49 confirmed cases of Zika, no deaths, hospitalizations, or hemorrhagic complications were reported, but neurological complications . . . have been described.”

Medical students are often taught a piece of diagnostic wisdom: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” But this case, a rare illness that closely resembled common ones, was a classic zebra. Macesic didn’t expect to encounter it again—at least, not anytime soon.[5]

Setting the scene can also be exceptionally effective. To do this, the writer establishes the story’s locale or circumstances and puts the players in place. This gut-wrenching investigation begins in the most ominous way:

Apartment #716

It was a joke among members of the ragtag maintenance crew at the Section 8 housing project, as well as a convenient answer for local fire marshals who sometimes inquired: “Blacks frying chicken with grease, they keep burning down these apartments!”

The London Square apartment complex where the crew worked was an aging misfit in the midst of a well-established middle-class neighborhood in Tulsa, in central Oklahoma. When it was built in 1965, the sprawling complex was considered a jewel in the midtown community, boasting seven private in-ground swimming pools and immaculate landscaping. Fifty years later, neighbors see it as a tinderbox—its aging wooden roofs, dilapidated stairs, and boarded windows a testament to neglect. Numerous fires through the years served to evacuate unlucky tenants, along with the colonies of bedbugs hiding in mattresses of previously burned-out units.

One of those occurred on November 18, 2013.

For Miashah Moses, it began with a plume of black smoke. She saw it rising from her building as she crossed the parking lot. She broke into a run. Her two small nieces were inside.[6]

Sometimes you can lead with a bit of striking, well-written description:

Before me is what looks like a small, serene idol. It is in fact a beautiful child, eyes outlined in black ointments, dark hair gleaming with mustard oil, relieving herself in the street. I try to move but bump into a businessman’s briefcase. Nudging right, I’m nudged back by a bull wearing a necklace of marigolds. Pressed from behind by a piping flute seller, I step over the child as a bus blares up the narrow brick canyon, missing us all by inches. Within its coils of exhaust a man painted orange, carrying a snake-headed staff, takes form, nods at me, then vanishes behind a jostle of teenagers with stereo headphones working out their rock-n-roll moves. Pagodas that writhe with erotic carvings thrust roof upon roof above the trees, where big bats hang like fruit. and above the rooftops pure white snow peaks reach upward toward the stratosphere. At the moment all I’m looking for is the local computer club—somewhere in the magic confusion of modern Kathmandu.[7]

With this tapestry-like imagery, National Geographic writer Douglas Chadwick introduces us to the sights, sounds, smells, and people of an almost unimaginably exotic locale.

Occasionally, you can use some odd, unusual, or outrageous statement:

Hendricks County, Ind.—Detective Michael Nelson is walking a beat with one foot in the Twilight Zone.[8]

So a Wall Street Journal piece led into a story about a cop on the witchcraft beat.

These aren’t all the possibilities, but they should be enough to get you going. Read a lot of the kind of stories you enjoy, and observe how each one opens. Decide which ones work best, and then go forth and do likewise.

Nut Paragraphs

The nut graf or transitional capsule statement, often called the “bridge” by newspaper writers, moves the reader smoothly from the lead, which may be startling, into the body of the story. It explains what the piece is to be about and how the opening ties into the subject.

Many writers compose a one- or two-sentence thesis statement before they begin the story. Some version of this can often fit into the nut graf, but whether or not it does, the habit helps organize and focus one’s thoughts.

In a story about the AT&T break-up, Wall Street Journal reporter Francine Schwadel introduced a customer in the lead, showing him making a snap decision to sign up for the company’s long-distance service. She continued:

Millions of Americans have made the same call. In the big wave of balloting that started two years ago and ends Sept. 1, roughly 75% of the voters so far have chosen AT&T to provide long-distance service to the home or business. And a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll indicates that feelings like Mr. Seitz’s are largely responsible for the outcome: half of the 1565 respondents who expressed a preference for one of the phone firms cited familiarity with AT&T as the most influential element in their choice.[9]

Though the next paragraph concedes that the then-monolithic telecommunications giant was seeing some inroads from its new competition, the gist of the story is summarized in the nut graf: AT&T was still beating the dickens out of its rivals.

Development

In the body of a feature story, you make your points or discuss the issues at hand. These details must come in a logical order, one leading reasonably to the next. Most writers accomplish this by outlining the information they plan to present, whether on paper, in a computer file, or mentally.

A newspaper or magazine story may be organized along the lines of any of the standard rhetorical approaches. You may compare and contrast issues. You may develop an argument inductively, working from particular facts to a general conclusion, or deductively, reasoning from the general to the specific or from a familiar principle to the unfamiliar. You can build a chronological narrative, presenting events in the order they occurred. You can show cause and effect, or write a story that is an extended definition of some abstract concept.

Your approach to your story’s organization should fit your purpose. Chronological ordering works effectively with how-to stories and straight reports. Deduction—leading the reader from something familiar to new, unfamiliar concepts—is especially useful in science writing, where you may have to present bizarre, difficult ideas. Induction—drawing general conclusions from specific, concrete facts—helps clarify economics, sociology, and business issues, and it also works well in writing profiles. Cause-and-effect and comparison-and-contrast are useful approaches to the report.

One dramatic variety of development involves abutting a series of peaceful or pleasing events against an ironic fact or a stunning change in fortune. A writer discussing feral horses, for example, described the beauty and grace of a wild stallion that eluded capture for many ears. She wrapped up this idyllic passage with a bald statement: “The next year the big black and five of his mares were gutshot in cold blood by vandals and left to die in a meadow where once they peacefully grazed.” This can be a forceful way to make a point.

However you decide to develop your facts, they should hang together coherently. Short but smooth transitions should tie each paragraph with the ones that come before and after it. You can accomplish this by repeating key words and phrases and by using transitional words such as but, and, however, so, or nevertheless. Schwadel leads almost every paragraph of her AT&T story with some transitional device. The story’s second developmental paragraph begins, “AT&T’s success in the balloting,” echoing “impressive victory” in a preceding paragraph. This paragraph ends with “The theory was that people would desert AT&T in droves once federally mandated “equal access” enabled them to enjoy cheaper service without having to dial extra digits.”

Next graf begins, “But the results indicate. . . .” Now we see a steady progression of transitional function words heading paragraph after paragraph:

Another reason for AT&T’s strong showing. . . .”

But AT&T didn’t succeed solely. . . ”

Still, some people didn’t buy. . .

“AT&T’s efforts, however, were clearly. . . ”

“AT&T describes such defectors. . .

Indeed, of the customers that AT&T’s rivals . . .”

“In some parts of the country, meanwhile, . . .”

Although this approach seems mechanical when shown out of context, it demonstrates the importance of everyday transition words. They help your reader follow your train of thought.

Careful, logical ordering of your points so that the reader’s thought moves easily from one paragraph to the next will do the job, although you’ll need an occasional assist from those mechanical transition words. To succeed with this, you lay out a meticulously organized outline before you start to write. If the outline flows logically and the writing is coherent, the article should move logically, too.

The Last Word

Save a strong quote or a striking observation for the ending. It may or may not hark back directly to the lead, but it should summarize what you’ve said in a powerful, colorful, or succinct way. Sometimes you can use an ironic or telling quote for this purpose.

As a prosodic note, some writers try to end a story on an accented beat. That is, the last syllable in the last sentence is stressed, rather than unstressed. About Indiana’s steelheads, Homer Circle concludes,

The dictionary defines mania as “a form of insanity characterized by great excitement.” After you do battle with your first one, you’ll see why Skamaniacs are well named.

Because English usually stresses the first syllable, this reversal subtly catches the readers attention and, like the final flourish in a song, it ends the piece on an emphatic note. It’s not necessary to do this—it’s not always possible—but it’s a nice touch.

Sources:

[1] Bloomberg News, “Virgin Galactic’s Next Big Bet,” July 29, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-29/virgin-galactic-s-next-big-bet?cmpid=google&google_editors_picks=true

[2] Caitlin Dwyer, “Escaping the Gaokao,” September 17, 2015, The Big Roundtable. http://www.thebigroundtable.com/stories/escaping-the-gaokao/

[3] Daniel Holzman, “Endless Care with Costs to Match,” December 28, 1987, Insight.

[4] Homer Circle, “Skamania: Indiana’s Super Steelhead,” January 1985, Sports Afield.

[5] Siddartha Mukherjee, “The Race for a Zika Vaccine,” August 22, 2016, The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/the-race-for-a-zika-vaccine

[6] Carol Mersch, “A Trial by Fire,” May 26, 2016, The Big Roundtable, http://www.thebigroundtable.com/stories/a-trial-by-fire/
[7] Douglas H. Chadwick, “New Forces Challenge the Gods at the Crossroads of Kathmandu,” July 1987, National Geographic.

[8] Alex Kotlowitz, January 7, 1988.

[9] August 22, 1986.

Ella’s Story: Chapter 15 *FREE READS*

This is a story about people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story

15

Weeds cleared from the planting beds around the garden pond, Ella came to the end of the quiet tasks that made for an occasional break in her sometimes hectic days. Time to get back to work. She gathered the wilting intruders and tossed them into a compost bin.

The garnet blossom lay on the ground near where she had knelt by the water. She picked it up and gazed briefly into its blood-red depth. Its alluring perfume drifted on the air.

Ella crushed the flower in her fist and dropped it into the bin on top of the other debris.

§

Back at the manor house, she checked in with Tabit, Cook Lior’s wife and Skyhill’s chief housekeeper. Work was proceeding, Tabit said, “as per usual.”

That sounded pretty ambiguous, Ella thought. She climbed the broad stone stairway to the second floor, there to begin her own inspection of the morning’s routine activities.

Chadzar, the snow-colored Michaian bodyguard and valet, was not on duty at the station outside the Kaïna’s quarters. Nor, when she looked down the corridor formed when both doors at either end of the central meeting room stood open, could she see him at the station at the far end of the building, outside Rysha’s office and private meeting room. She hadn’t checked the day’s schedule for the mistress – she should have, admittedly – but knew if Chad wasn’t around, it meant Rysha was somewhere else, too.

She knocked tentatively at Rysha’s door. Receiving no response, she peeked in and found yes, the mistress was out.

And no, the bed was not made, draperies were not pulled open, the night’s dishes not picked up, the furniture not freshly polished, the morning’s towels not replaced with fresh ones, the bathroom not cleaned, polished, or reprovisioned. And it was past mid-day.

This was Bintje’s job: second-floor maid service. Where was the brat?

Ella walked through the central meeting room, which occupied the middle part of this floor, and came out in front of Rysha’s private office. The suite had been Suhuru’s private quarters, mirroring Rysha’s at the other end of the building. But after he died, it was converted into a secluded work and meeting space for his daughter, presently the sole survivor of the Delamona dynasty.

Interestingly, this set of rooms had been cleaned. Or possibly, Ella thought, it simply hadn’t been used since yesterday. A faint fresh scent of cleanser told her that wasn’t the case. Bintje had been here, but had failed to visit the Kaïna’s living quarters.

What colorful excuse, Ella wondered, would the girl have this time? She passed her hand over a console on Rysha’s desk, which recognized her and brought up a scheduling calendar. Just now Rysha was in E’o Cinorra addressing the diplomatic representatives of the Sector 5 Governing Council.

Good. It would take Her Eminence awhile to get back to Skyhill, even if she went nowhere else. That would give Ella time to track down the truant maid, sparing herself the task of cleaning the rest of the second storey.

She coded the intercom to signal the kitchen downstairs. Lior’s broad, cheerful face appeared on the monitor.

“Have you seen Bintje lately?”

The cook pulled a blank expression. “Not since this morning, ma’am.”

“How about Dita,” the Kaïna’s personal maid.

“She’s helping in the laundry right now. Want me to call her?”

“Bintje’s not with her?”

“Nope.”

That was middling positive news: those two weren’t up to something together. If they were, it would have been a surprise – Dita was no great chum of Bintje. But Ella knew enough to put nothing past anyone.

“If you see Binnie, tell her I want to see her, will you?”

After bidding Lior a good afternoon, she pulled up the front guard post’s log for the day.

No: Bintje had not left the estate.

She glanced out the office window, which looked onto a large, formal garden of exotic flora. Two of the agricultural crew – both men – were grooming some strangely sculptured plants. They were alone.

Walking up an outside corridor, she checked the north side of the building through a long bank of windows: no Bintje loafing on the patios. Nor could she be seen out the windows of the Kaïna’s quarters.

Inside the slave quarters? Not in her room. Not in the atrium garden. Not in the meeting room with its big stone fireplace.

Near the back end of the building, the servants’ snack canteen separated the corridors along the single people’s and the married couples’ sections. There she found her quarry, parked in front of an active vidspot and munching on some crispy, pungent air-roasted red-vine beans.

Give me strength, Goddess, Ella prayed. With a wave of her hand, she shut off the noise. the vidspot went blank, invisible against the wall’s glowpanel.

What are you doing?” she demanded.

Bintje didn’t even look surprised. “Taking a break.”

“Oh yeah? On whose say-so?”

“I don’t feel good, boss.” Ever so slightly whiny.

“That’s too bad. But it’s not getting the work done.”

Bintje sighed and affected a woebegone look.

“I’m sorry you don’t feel good,” Ella said, though not inclined to relent. “That’s part of getting pregnant. You’ll live through it. And while you’re living through it, you need to finish cleaning the second floor.”

“I threw up,” Bintje protested.

“You did . . . when?” Ella knew the girl had been sick in the morning but expected she should have come past it after a few hours.

“Just now.” The barely perceptible pause and the handful of spicey snack morsels gave the lie to that. Ella had to restrain herself from laughing aloud.

“Did Rizana give you anything for it?” Rizana: the midwife who operated out of the village a few miles to the west.

Maybe the Darl thing wasn’t such a bad idea, she reflected fleetingly. She could hardly wait to foist this one onto him. Think you’re in pain now, brother? Just wait…

 “Some special crackers,” Bintje replied.

“Uh huh. Why aren’t you eating those?”

“I wanted to save them for mornings. Just anything to eat helps. Later in the day.”

Right. “Bintji. I am not going to do your work for you. No one else is going to do your work for you. Do you understand me?”

“Yes’m.”

Was there ever any question? “Back over to the house right now, sister. Get to work cleaning the Kaïna’s suite. And this time do it right. I don’t want to hear her asking me where her face soap is again.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Now. Get going. And don’t miss the corners!”

Bintje dragged herself to her feet as though she were bearing the weight of full-term triplets.

Not until the prospective mother lumbered out the door did Ella permit herself a dry chuckle. The drama in full swing, well short of three months: this was going to be a long opera.

The Complete Writer: Introducing the Feature Article *FREE READ*

The Complete Writer
Part III
Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs

Chapter 12. Journalistic Nonfiction: Introducing the Feature Article

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears at our here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

A feature article is a piece of journalistic writing whose purpose is to entertain and to inform.

Sir Philip Sidney, famed as an Elizabethan courtier and poet who, among other things, wrote the first novel in the English language, was also a literary critic. He remarked that the purpose of literature is “to entertain and inform.” By entertain, he didn’t have in mind a soft-shoe on a vaudeville stage. He meant that literature should draw the reader into the author’s message and keep the person engaged by entertaining as well as informing. This idea applies fully to the modern-day feature article. Entertaining and informing is what the feature exists to do.

If you were to read a feature out loud, how would it sound? In most instances, the language would sound informal and conversational. Style would follow the Associated Press Style Manual. Sources, for example, would be acknowledged in the flow of the narrative, not in devices like footnotes and references. Numbers under 10 would be spelled out; all others would appear as numerals. The content would fit the purposes and audience of the publication in which the article appears.

Features that appear in newspapers often differ from those that appear in magazines. A newspaper feature is usually shorter, and, because the newspaper reporter works against a tight deadline, newspaper features are often less thoroughly researched than magazine features. The newspaper reporter attempts to take an objective tone and stance, avoiding loaded language and trying to present facts in an unbiased way. Magazine articles may be longer—a typical length is around 800 to 1,500 words, but sometimes they run very long, indeed. Magazine writers use the techniques of fiction to achieve the “entertainment” objective; that is, to engage the reader and carry the reader’s attention through a long and sometimes complex story. These techniques include plot, characterization, setting, and the like. And in many cases the magazine writer is not expected to maintain a façade of objectivity. Depending on the publication, writing may be openly opinionated or biased.

We can picture the feature article in silhouette to consider all the things a feature article is not.

For example, it’s not a hard news report—the sort of thing that used to populate the front page of your daily newspaper. A classic news story presents the facts in the so-called “inverted pyramid” structure. The most important facts, generally the five W’s and an H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) appear in the first paragraph. The remaining information is presented in descending order of importance, finally petering out in the last graf. The inverted pyramid structure allowed the editor on the copy desk to cut the copy to fit space available. Knowing the last paragraph or two contained little of lasting importance, the editor simply lopped off paragraphs from the end to fit the article into the paper.

Tone in a hard news story is unbiased and objective. Unlike writers for certain types of magazines, newspaper journalists strive to maintain an objective stance when reporting news.

Paragraph structure is rudimentary. Newspaper editors believe readers’ attention spans are so short they can’t get through more than about one sentence at a time, and so hard news reports consist of strings of short, one- or two-sentence paragraphs.

The feature is not an interview. Interviews appear in question-and-answer format. Although the content may be edited and manipulated, the interview structure resembles a transcript of a taped interview. It is not intended to resemble a story.

A feature is not a newspaper column, which is generally an editorial or a ramble that reflects the author’s opinion or expertise. Newspaper columnists, like bloggers, often engage some of the characteristics of a feature, such as a strong lead, a good wrap, and an engaging story line, but they are not writing features per se.

A feature is not a piece of literary criticism or a review. A few visits to an eatery do not a feature article make. Reviewers often use the feature writer’s tools to produce an engaging article, but a review does not have the same purpose as a feature. A review’s purpose is to recommend (or not recommend) a work of art, a product, or a restaurant. A feature’s purpose is to report news or ideas using the tools of literary nonfiction.

Sometimes blog posts are structured exactly like features; sometimes not. A blog post can be anything from a diary entry to a photo essay to a news article to a feature. Blogs are much looser and less subject to the constraints of a publisher’s interests. An important difference between a blogger and a journalist is that few bloggers have the advantage of an editor or a lawyer. No extra pairs of eyes read a blogger’s articles or advise on content, factuality, and legalities.

The essay is a literary genre in which the author expresses a subjective view of the world. It is highly personal and not meant to be a piece of journalistic reporting. In contrast, the feature article is journalism; its main purpose is reporting.

A “brite” is an ultra-short squib often used to fill space between ads or to populate departments, those regularly recurring sections that appear in the front or at the back of magazines. Some editors regard the brite as a type of very short feature, but it lacks the sophistication and structure of the longer piece.

An advertorial is a paid article designed to mimic a real feature, but its sole purpose is to sell you something. Ethical publications set these apart by using a special font, by marking them with a tag like “Advertisement,” or by printing them on slightly different paper stock.

The feature is generally a fully researched, structured article based on interviews, observation, and legwork. Length ranges upwards of 800 words—long-form features such as the ones you find in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, or at sites like Longreads.com and Medium.com can be several thousand words. The feature engages certain elements of fiction, such as a plot-like structure, narrative, setting, characterization, and dialogue, to draw the reader in and tell its story. Not all news writing, obviously, is feature writing, and not all features are, strictly speaking, news stories.

If You’d Asked Me: Kicking Out the Kids *FREE READ*

This book is a work in progress. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our home page or send a request through our Contact form.

To follow the progress online, click on the little orange icon beside the P&S Press feed, over there in the right-hand sidebar. ⇒ ⇒ ⇒

SECTION 1, Continued:

God Is Great, Beer Is Good, and People Are Crazy

12. My fiancée says it’s not cruel to kick one’s child out of the house on their eighteenth birthday for no other reason than “they are now an adult, and they have to be reliant on themselves.”

What’s the whole story here? To come up with a sane answer, we’d need to know . . .

  • What country are you in?
  • What culture did she grow up in?
  • How old is she and how much experience of life does she have?
  • Does she now have a teenager?
  • If so, is that teenager misbehaving in ways that put undue strain on the rest of the family?
  • Will the kid be out of high school when s/he turns 18?
  • Can the kid make a living? If not, why not? If so, is it enough to support him or her?
  • Does she want to have a family, or does she just want to procreate?
  • Does she even understand what “family” means, in the context of your culture?
  • Have you already had a child with this woman?
  • If so, what is your stand on the matter?
  • If not, are you willing to do so, given her thinking on the matter?

If her philosophy conflicts powerfully with yours, why are you engaged to her, suggesting you seriously intend to marry her?

Are you willing not to have children so as to get around this heartless “philosophy” of hers?

If I were in love with a person who took this attitude, I would look for another love interest. Real quick.

If she’ll treat her own child like this, just imagine how she’ll treat you, once the romance wears off!

If You’d Asked Me… Wife’s Vicious Dog: Am I Liable? *FREE READ!*

This book is a work in progress. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our home page or send a request through our Contact form.

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SECTION 1, Continued:

God Is Great, Beer Is Good, and People Are Crazy

11. In California, what is my legal exposure (and methods for mitigating it) if a dog that my wife obtained (despite my disagreement) attacks someone unprovoked and causes injury or property damage?*

So, this hound hasn’t done any harm yet, but you suspect it will? And she got the dog over your objections? AND you live in California?

Divorce her. This will require you to split all community property — remember, community property includes community liability. However, a divorce might be cheaper than what a serious biting incident will cost you.

Kidding aside: if you’re concerned about a potential liability brought on by her unwise behavior, why not get unhitched but continue to live together? As long as you’re not legally married, most of your assets might be safe from a lawsuit, assuming you weren’t responsible for the animal’s behavior. Of course, the victim could claim you are . . . presumably anyone who lives in the house where such an animal is kept is responsible for the animal’s behavior.

No . . . on second thought, I’d say divorce her and move out. That’s about your safest bet.

§

* Yes, friends, this post is /s. Absolutely positively /s. If a question like this arises in your real life, ask a lawyer! I am an English major; I am not a lawyer. Always seek professional legal advice for questions involving the risk of legal liability.

Isn’t it amazing how you have to tell people that? 😀

If You’d Asked Me… Conversation with President Trump *FREE READ!*

This book is a work in progress. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our home page or send a request through our Contact form.

To follow the progress online, click on the little orange icon beside the P&S Press feed, over there in the right-hand sidebar. ⇒ ⇒ ⇒

SECTION 1, Continued:

God Is Great, Beer Is Good, and People Are Crazy

9. If you could say one sentence to President Trump, what would you say?

“Please get psychological help, sir.”

10. If you could limit President Trump to four words tomorrow, what four words would you have him say?

“I resign. Good luck!”

 

If You’d Asked Me… Cigarette Smokers vs. The World *FREE READ!*

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SECTION 1, Continued:

God Is Great, Beer Is Good, and People Are Crazy

7. Why are people so rude to cigarette smokers?

We love you, but…some of us are not happy about chronic health risks brought on by parents who smoked heavily throughout our childhood, and we resent having still more of that garbage shoved into our lungs by other addicts.

We love you, but…some of us don’t enjoy being reminded, in vivid detail, of the way a loved one died in hideous pain from the cancer brought on by smoking. The stink of a cigarette smells amazingly like the stink of a woman on her deathbed with cancerous fluids leaking out of her.

We love you, but…some of us resent the fact that corporations pushing a drug (nicotine) that is more addictive than heroin can enrich themselves legally on the suffering and death of millions of people. Including, to our despair, you.

And yeah: some of us don’t understand how people can be so effing stupid.

Should I go on, or do you have the idea yet?