Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

6×6: making things happen

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 28, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The sixth in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

making things happen

When 900 years old you reach, pithy phrases will you come up with.

OK, so a bit of hammy self-help from Master Yoda there, but he makes a good point. We’ve looked at branding and business, and the craft skills like audio and video, but they all mean nothing in the scary and ever shifting new world of journalism if you’re not prepared to do something with it.

If you’re trying to get your first job particularly, or going freelance especially, you have to be able to make things happen for yourself. This final post has little to do with journalism, but might be the difference between getting your vital first commission and spending your day in the company of Jeremy Kyle crying into your supernoodles.

01. have goals – big ones

We’ve all got goals, right? Clear that debt, get that promotion, get that payrise.

But what about dreams? They’re the goals which set your sex on fire. They get your heart racing with excitement and have you muttering to yourself ‘that would be awesome…but I could never do that’. It’s the novel you’ve had in the back of your mind to write one day, the photo essay you’d love to go and make in Chad, the media start-up you’d love to get going…

Point is, dismiss them as you may, big goals are what really get us going; once we’re on the track to doing them, they get us out of bed in the morning.

Life Coach Jeff Archer says choosing big goals is vital: “Creating a future that excites you is of vital importance. If your future doesn’t excite you, then why go to all the time and trouble of making things happen?”

And Lindsey Agness at the Change Corporation agrees the goals must be “compelling”. She also says they must be all of the following:

  • Specific: “clearly define what you are going to do
  • Measurable: “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”
  • Achievable: “they should be within the bounds of possibility for you”
  • Realistic: “set the bar high enough to find out what you are capable of, but not so high you get frustrated”
  • Timed: “set a clear time frame for the goal”

So in practice this means avoiding goals like: “I will get a couple of articles published before Christmas” and instead going with “I will pitch 2 written articles and one photo-essay every month”.

02. write things down

Things start happening when you write them down. Apparently this has been proved by researchers at Harvard, who split a graduate class into those that had written down their plans for the future and those that hadn’t. And revisiting them 10 years later, the ones who had achieved what they wanted were those who put a pen to paper.

Mechanically, writing down ideas, dreams, plans on paper gets your mental juices flowing. You start to visualise what it might look and feel like to achieve them. And then you start doodling how to get there. The next thing you know you’ve got a list of steps to take to get you on your way.

And other people recommend keeping a journal, if you don’t already. Back to Jeff Archer: “Once you make yourself consciously aware of the highs and lows of each day you decide specifically what changes you’d like to make to make sure you can increase the positive and decrease the negative.”

On a practical level it means a quick post-mortem of your day or week and it keeps you focused on why you set out to do this all anyway.

03. visualise the process – and the result

Rehearse doing things and rehearse them going well.

The first part is as simple as going through the things you need to do (not plan) the next day: the phone calls you need to make, the film you need to edit, the blog you need to write; picture yourself in your head, sitting down at your desk making those things happen. Alternatively you can write down the steps and describe what it’s like to carry them out. Rehearsing those steps makes them easier to do the next day.

The second part is all about visualising success. Athlete’s vividly visualise winning the 100m sprint until they can almost taste the sweat and feel the flag in their hands. Career coach Jonathan Fields, who’s written Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love says this part is very important in overcoming any self-doubt:

Repeatedly visualising a deeply sought after goal, seeing, feeling, hearing yourself accomplish this goal, over and over, has a profound effect. It conditions you slowly away from self-doubt and disbelief and moves you increasingly towards belief.

04. the Dr Pepper test

This is asking yourself the question: what’s the worst that can happen? Taking the plunge, quitting your job, starting a company, even cold-calling some editors they’re all scary obstacles. If you’ve thought about going freelance, or retraining, no-doubt you’ve thought quite hard about failing:

  • running out of money
  • not getting a job interview
  • not getting any commissions
  • getting kicked out of your flat
  • defaulting on your mortage
  • giving up

These are the classic scenarios played out by a part of our mentality the NLP lot call the “limiting mind”. It’s the voice in your head which says “naahh, that’s too difficult“, “it’ll never work” “you? a novelist? give over“. Sadly for many people the limiting mind wins and we talk ourselves out of doing something risky.

How to overcome it? The answer, suggests Jonathan Fields, is to visualise and quantify failure – but only once. Sit down and write out exactly how failure would happen – if the worst came to the worst how long would you keep going? What would happen when you ran out of money? Where would you go?

You should (hopefully) realise that in fact you will always have a place to stay, you can always get another job, and failure isn’t that bad at all. When you stop being afraid of failing, you are unstoppable.

And accept: you will fail. So fail fast, and learn from it.

05. get messy

Right to business. If there’s one thing I’ve learned the best thing you can do to get started is…to get started. Sounds stupid I know, but my idea of ‘getting started’ was writing lots of to-do lists, creating a financial spreadsheet, reading books on freelancing. Surprise, surprise, nothing happened.

Then I realised I needed to start doing stuff. Ready or not, start contacting editors, start filming, start editing, start writing. Go out there, and do it now! The sooner you start doing things the sooner you get results. And the sooner you fail, so you can get over it.

Too many of us spend time being the proverbial think-tank, when we should be a do-tank.

06. don’t give up

And for the love of God don’t give up. This is going to be really hard, but as Corey Tennis pointed out it is supposed to be. Being hard done by is what makes us great writers. Pursuing this new world of multimedia journalism – which is right in its infant stages – means an uncertain future.

But any more uncertain than full time jobs and pensions? The recession has dispelled that myth.

When times get tough, read this inspirational piece of gold by freelance writer Tumblenoose:

Do not give up. Don’t you dare. You’re going to want to. You’re going to think that the security of a paycheck every two weeks is really worth the trade off for working for someone else. Don’t do it, you hear?

Remember your dream. Remember your bright-eyed, take the world by storm vision that sent you down the path. Yes, the journey is hard. Yes, you will be discouraged when you feel like nothing is happening, like you aren’t moving forward.  Hold your nose and stick through those tough times. Keep working your plan. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep making the connections. Keep building your community.  Do      not     give     up.

The final word

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our  faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.

Helen Keller

The full 6×6 series is available here!

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6×6: storytelling

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 21, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The third in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

storytelling

A lot of the focus for multimedia journalists and digital journalists has been on the new technology: using Twitter, learning Flash. But there’s a danger that in the rush to learn new skills, we forgot (or never learn) the oldest ones. And there is no skill older, or more important, than storytelling.

Maybe you think it’s something you can’t learn; it comes naturally. You might think it’s something with no rules: each story is different. True, but there is a science to storytelling as well as an art: here are 6 secrets.

01. who’s your character?

Every story needs a character. Lord of the Rings has dozens, but your short doc or audio slideshow might only have one. Either way, they need to be compelling, and they need to be embarking on a journey. And we need to like them or be fascinated by them, because we’re going to follow their journey: and we want our audience to follow it too.

No matter what your story, it needs a character. In old-media land this is known crudely as the “case study”. (Think how many TV news reports start with a case study!). But they are crucial because they humanise what might actually be a general issue. Making a doc about homelessness?  You best make sure it stars a homeless person.

Beware though the difference between Character and Characterization. Robert McKee in his excellent book Story tells us the latter is the outward description of a person-their personality, age, height, what clothes they wear; but character is the true essence of the person in the story. That true character is only revealed when their journey puts them under increased pressures.

The decisions we all make under pressure are the ones which reveal our true character.

02. the narrative arc

The next thing you want to do is find your story’s narrative arc. Remember I mentioned your character’s journey? Well that’s your narrative arc.

It starts with what Hollywood screenwriters call “The Incident Incident.” It’s the moment which instills in your character a desire to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal/object of desire. It sets them on a mission – a quest.

This mission must challenge them in increasingly difficult ways (and never decreasingly), rising to a climax to which the audience can imagine no other. Writing in the Digital Journalist, Ken Kobre sums it up:

“Besides a beginning, middle and end, a good story has a memorable protagonist who surmounts obstacles en route to achieving a goal that we care about.”

Stories work better with a real play-off of positive and negative charges. Something good happens, and then something bad. Then something even better than before, and then something even worse than before. Robert McKee describes a second device, called “gap of expectation”: that’s where your character’s expectations of an event are blown apart by reality.

03. Oi! Where’s the conflict?

You’re making a film about that homeless person on a mission to get his life back on track. The first thing he wants to do is get some money for a small flat. He asks the council. They give him the money. The end.

Lame story.

Why? Because there is no conflict! I hate conflict in real life, but in storytelling it’s essential. There must be forces opposing your character and their mission. And sparks must fly. McKee lists three types of conflict:

  1. Inner conflict: your character is in conflict with themselves (Kramer vs Kramer)
  2. Personal: your character’s in conflict with people around them (Casablanca)
  3. Extrapersonal: your character’s on conflict with something massive (Independence Day)

04. climax!

Traditionally stories end in a climax. The ever increasing ups and downs culminate in either an ultimate high (happy ending) or ultimate low (sad ending). Either way, the key word is “ultimate”. In Hollywood-land the ending must be so climatic they cannot possibly imagine another way of doing it.

In the real world it is not always the way, but you should have half a mind on how your story is going to end. Crucially if they’ve been set off on a quest, they should finish it for better or worse. The ending should still be “absolute and irreversible”.

05. use tried and tested storytelling techniques

There are lots of little storytelling devices you can use to add some sparkle to your work.

  • Book-ending: returning the character/place/event which opened your piece, at the end, is a nice way to sum up what’s changed. It can add a bit of emotional punch too.
  • Narrative hook: opening the piece with an enticing, unexplained event, interview, image to suck the viewers right in
  • Get the crayons out: popular in internet memes everywhere, getting people to write something down and hold it up to the camera is very effective (just check out SOTM if you need proof); I know of a very experienced reporter who took crayons and paper to a refugee camp and got children to draw the terrible things they’d seen: another great device.

06. stories are everywhere!

These guidelines are really used by authors, and screen writers – people who create stories from scratch. As journalists we aren’t making up stories (hopefully not, anyway) – but we should have our eyes and ears open to these elements in the real world to heighten the sense of story for our audience.

And most of all – remember stories are everywhere! I have never been more inspired than by reading Cory Tennis’ advice to one floundering journalism graduate, unable to get work:

“And then, with the irony that cloaks us against utter nihilism, we think, if only we were living in more interesting times! And that is the confounding thing about it, isn’t it? That we stand on the nodal point of a great, creaking, crunching change in historical direction, at the beginning of cataclysmic planetary collapse, at the dying of civilization, at the rising of new empires, at our own meltdown, as a million stories bloom out of the earth like wildflowers in the spring and we think, gee, uh, if only there were some good stories to tell.”

The best way to learn the craft of storytelling, is to get out there and tell some.

The final word:

“A storyteller is a life poet, an artist who transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem whose rhyme scheme is events rather than words – a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this! Therefore a story must be abstract from life to discover its essences, but must not become an abstraction that loses all sense of a life-as-lived. A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond anyone in the street.”

Robert McKee Story.

Next: the creative entrepreneur!

Everyone’s free (to find a story and write about it)

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on July 6, 2009

In 1999 Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everyone’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen) became a huge hit, with its sage wisdom  over a haunting and shimmering melody and mellow beat.

The words, written in the Chicago Tribune by American journalist Mary Schmich, seemed to reflect perfectly the feelings of a generation about to enter a new century; as a 15 year old the words seemed to speak directly to me.

Well, ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2009, there might be a new edition.

It emerged through Twitter last week; some sage wisdom from one journalist to another – again seemingly reflecting perfectly the fears and feelings of a generation on the verge of a massive revolution.

Its here in full; you need to read the question to understand it fully, but the answer, I think, is poetry.

I studied print journalism. Now what?

By Cary Tennis (published in Salon Magazine)

Dear Cary,

I spent the last four and a half years studying print journalism in college and watching vacantly as the newspaper/magazine industry crumbled before my eyes. The decline never bothered me. I always figured I had what it takes to get a job even in an extremely competitive market: Before I ever graduated, I had completed four internships at newspapers, magazines and a Web site, published almost a hundred clips (including longer, high-quality pieces), and left a good impression with everyone I worked with. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, and I knew that I wanted to write for a living.

Now, six months after graduating, my parents still pay my cellphone bill and I am working full-time making ice cream. I make a couple hundred bucks here and there freelancing for a magazine I interned at, but otherwise my “freelance” career, as well as my journalism career, is dead in the water. I find myself despondent and unable to send out any more cover letters, and I can’t find the time or motivation to research a story idea enough to send it to an editor because I assume he or she will simply reject my half-baked idea. I’m panicking, but I fear failure so much that I can’t even get started. Freelancing seems to be my best option career-wise, but I can’t summon the willpower and enthusiasm to do it. Plus, I lost my license to a DUI conviction (that got me fired from one of those newspaper internships), which has immobilized me and left me unable to relocate to a new job until October. The DUI also contributes to my job-hunting anxiety.

What I see is that my passion for journalism and writing is waning. Working full-time has taught me that work is work and play is play, and that I need to maximize the efficiency of my hours I spend at work in order to maximize how much I can play outside of work. I am looking into jobs in other fields that pay better. Is it healthier to stick it out working at an ice cream store and desperately try to make it as a writer, or should I pursue a career where financial security is more realistic?

Scared Journalist

Dear Scared Journalist,

If you are a true journalist, the world is going to kick your ass. If you are a true journalist, you  are supposed to be having a hard time. This is how the world makes writers. It kicks their ass long enough that they start finally telling the truth. They just finally give up and start bleating out little truthlets.

If we are honest we occasionally wonder why we aren’t starving in the gutter, or dead, or working in a windowless office stuffing envelopes. Though luck has played a part, so have other things. We have been cunning and ruthless. Sometimes this will be an almost spiritual thing; you sit in your room and visualize your eventual occupation while others are furiously pounding on doors. You refuse to show that you want what you so desperately want; sometimes you refuse even to admit it to yourself. And then it comes and you quietly take it to your corner to chew it to death.

A measure of charm has been necessary. A modicum of hygiene has been necessary. A measure of keeping one’s mouth shut and pulling the cart along with everyone else has been necessary. A measure of compromise and pretending has been necessary, as it was necessary in nursery school and kindergarten and first grades through 12, and in college and graduate school and in the innumerable low-paying, humiliating bullshit jobs that followed.

We have applied and applied and applied for jobs and gotten nothing, and then things have been dropped at our feet that we were not sure we wanted but which we accepted because there was nothing else available. We have applied and applied and applied for jobs and been rejected and been forced therefore to work in unsuitable occupations that surprisingly led us to good fortune. We have kept our heads down and crawled forward like G.I.s in Korea. We have alternately railed at the system and begged it for favors and received the same infuriating coolness and indifference either way. We have ranted and we have started movements and we have tried to infiltrate the ranks of journalism as poets and insurrectionists. We have attempted to better our public relations skills. We have tried to network and join organizations. We have bought drinks at bars frequented by journalists and have praised works we detested. We have tried to detect trends and written queries suggesting feature stories about such trends. We have tried to develop specialties and gained immense knowledge of the inconsequential. We have interviewed celebrities and resold the interviews to numerous publications, each paying less than the one before in a vector of diminishment resembling our own entropic trajectory toward death. We have entertained the notion of getting into TV. We have wondered why the best quit or get fired and the mediocre persevere. We have wondered how mediocre we must be if we are still employed. We wonder why so many brilliant writers remain unheard, and why we ourselves were not thrown out long ago. We wonder why we don’t have a six-months cash reserve. We wonder who will save us from our own foolishness. We wonder if maybe there is a God who is quietly taking care of us. We take note of our increasing store of mediocre ideas such as that one. We think of Sartre. We read Boswell. We picture the harsh levity of a drunken Samuel Johnson and think to ourselves, well, things could be worse. We think of Samuel Pepys on London Bridge getting blown by whores. We think of him singing with his wife and friends in the parlor. We think of him being treated, again, for another venereal disease. We think of Neanderthals scratching on the walls of caves. We think of their flutes 18,000 years old, the music they must have played, the fears they must have had; we wonder if they thought about us, their descendants, trying to figure out our VCRs. We embark on stories that do not get sold. We spend weeks investigating. We sit in airports waiting for the governor. One of us strikes gold: Look, there’s the governor, returning from Buenos Aires! Look, it works! Journalism works! Hunches pay off! We have played a thousand hunches and not one has paid off but look, there is the thousand-and-first hunch and it paid off! We think plodding away is the solution so we continue to plod away and get nowhere. We change our strategy. We think networking is the solution so we lavish false blandishments on the successful. We share our marijuana with editors who go back inside before our pitch is half done. We take up music. We go through phases where we are “reading the masters.” We peruse brochures for MBA programs at prestigious East Coast universities. We think about the exponential growth of creative writing programs. Maybe our skills could be useful in detective work. Maybe we could start our own newsletter. Maybe someone will call today about our résumé.

And then, with the irony that cloaks us against utter nihilism, we think, if only we were living in more interesting times! And that is the confounding thing about it, isn’t it? That we stand on the nodal point of a great, creaking, crunching change in historical direction, at the beginning of cataclysmic planetary collapse, at the dying of civilization, at the rising of new empires, at our own meltdown, as a million stories bloom out of the earth like wildflowers in the spring and we think, gee, uh, if only there were some good stories to tell. The stock market just collapsed, the seas are rising, polar bears are dying, a whole generation is transcending its corporeal limitations and creating essentially a new civilization outside the body, a chimerical wonderland of holographic and spiritual representation permanently liberated from face, hands, feet … and rather than celebrating the destruction of the old paper-bound media and assuming with a shrug that no way in hell could it be any other way, instead we cling to our occupations like ox-cart drivers who do not want to climb down from the ox cart. Miracles and tragedies are bursting all around us but we plod through the village in our ox cart, selling vegetables one at a time.

Yeah. That’s the ultimate irony, no? That in the midst of remarkable and unprecedented change, in the midst of the greatest stories to happen all century, we are paralyzed by some changes in the delivery system. Well, we do know, as McLuhan taught us, it is not just the delivery system; paper itself is a kind of message; it tells us that information is permanent, whereas the Net tells us that information is in motion. So the print journalism curriculum may have taught, incorrectly — because it is  taught by ox-cart drivers — that information is permanent, not that it is in motion, and you may well be struggling to throw off that teaching, as perhaps you must if you are to tweet your way to victory. We must ask: If information is in motion, does that make it more or less true? That depends on whether you believe the world is in motion. Obviously the world is in motion. So information must be in motion as well.

There it is in a nutshell. No need to read Terry Eagleton, just ask me! But, well, he’s funnier.

And so we add to the list of attributes: a breathless arrogance; shameless comfort with our own ignorance!

So that’s where we’re at. That’s how we are, me included. We stand paralyzed before the fire, like animals watching their habitats burn. I can see what’s happening but am also somewhat paralyzed, doing an essentially 19th-century thing in this 21st century medium. I can scarcely figure out how to download the MP3 of my band from 1983 — but believe me, when I get it together next week, I’ll sell it to you for $1.50 a pop and maybe make enough to pay my cellphone bill.

It’s a weird world but it’s interesting and fun. Fuck the little stuff. Don’t worry about your career. Find a story and write about it, and stay off the streets if you’re drunk.