Sunday, June 5, 2011

My Evelyn Salt Inspiration

Don't ever think of the beginning of your story as the "lead." That's such a clinical, sanitary term for something that ought to be a boisterous shout or poetic whisper of an introduction to your prose.

I like to think of the opening paragraph as my "nugget" -- a gleaming jewel of information that catches sunlight and reflects a dazzling prism.

But how to unearth it?

I have a perfect example from yesterday.

Once every six weeks, I write about technological or engineering corporations or government agencies. Sometimes, these stories completely numb my mind, especially if I'm trying to cobble them together on a Saturday afternoon. (And especially if I'd rather be sitting at a pool than in my tomb of a living room on a hot summer day.)

This story was no different. It was about the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, otherwise known as the DTRA. To be frank with you, when I see acronyms in my notes -- even in the first sentence of my notes -- I get completely zombie-fied.

I was so deadened to the prospect of writing this story that I fell asleep sitting up. I'm not making this up.

After my short cat nap, I decided that rather than try to force the piece, I'd watch a movie. So I plucked up "SALT" on my Netflix account and gave it a whirl. If you've seen the movie, you know it's filled with espionage and big boom-booms and lots of high-speed scenes.


There, on the screen, was a scene right out of my notes -- a description of the IT professionals doing their jobs for national security as they tried to track down Angelina Jolie, aka Evelyn Salt.

Suddenly ... I was inspired. I watched the movie to the end, and then I came up with this nugget:

"These are the people who stand between you and disaster: The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA/Fort Belvoir, VA). The DTRA’s mission sounds like the backdrop for an action-thriller film: It’s the Department of Defense’s official Combat Support Agency that counters weapons of mass destruction."

Sometimes, discovering the nugget in the story isn't as dreary as my task of yesterday. Your source may give you the gem of a quote, or during the reporting of the piece, you may have stumbled into a scene that stayed fixed in your mind. (I once covered an apartment house fire, and the firemen were shooting so much water into the structure that it gushed out of four windows. My "nugget" described the windows as "gaping like astonished mouths.")

Other times, as it was for me yesterday, you just need to give your brain the R&R it needs to give the Muse entree.

Don't actively seek the nugget. If you're stuck, do as I did and take a break. When your brain is ready for it, the nugget will jump out at you like a Jack-in-the-Box.

When it does, that's when you'll get your "Evelyn Salt Inspiration." Then grab onto that inspiration like you would Angelina Jolie on the top of an oil tanker ... and give the readers the ride they deserve.

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