Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Ghostwriting: Getting Into "Character" with help from Richard Armitage

"I think I'm a concentrating actor. So in order to do my work in the course of a day, particularly with a character like this I have to concentrate. So it's about staying in the scene, staying with my head in the scene and attempting to keep the character with me. It doesn't mean I can't have a conversation or go and make a cup of coffee. But I actually stay with the character for 18 months." ~ British actor Richard Armitage, star of "The Hobbit" film series

As a writer, I love reading quotes by other famous writers (Jane Austen and C.S. Lewis, in particular) for inspiration when delving into a project.

However, during the past six weeks, I've had to turn to a completely different type of "artist" -- an actor -- to light a spark for a new project.

I've just signed on to ghost write a book. I can't divulge details yet. But right at the outset of this project, I hit a major snag:

I was ghost writing in my own voice.

I had worked on my introductory chapter and was really pleased with myself! I have to say ... I felt smug. I just knew my client would be effusive! I'd worked for about two days on this chapter. I was certain that I'd covered everything she wanted to convey, in a manner that would capture the reader's fancy and drive them further into the book.

The morning after I sent it off, I sat down with my steaming mug of French-pressed coffee and a gorgeous Southern biscuit slathered in honey. I gleefully opened my computer, expecting to see an email that said, "You're brilliant! Thank you! I love this!"


No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Yes, that's what she said.


My ego hit the floor like a a guy taking a knock-out punch from Floyd Mayweather.

"How in the world could she NOT like this?"  I thought.

To assuage my angst (if you're a writer, you know how you have to recover after your material is rejected), I took a mental break and pulled up some Youtube interviews with a favorite actor, Richard Armitage. You may know him for his role in "The Hobbit." On this particular morning, I pulled up an interview that he did to promote his current theatrical performance in London on "The Crucible." As I listened to how he traveled to Massachusetts to wrap his brain around the Puritanical community and the character he would be playing ... suddenly it hit me.

Ghost writing really is nothing more than acting on a page, rather than on a stage.

I pulled up more interviews by Armitage to see how he gets himself into character. One of his more fascinating exercises is that he writes his own fiction, creating "character diaries" for each person he is portraying.

"I kind of do stay with the character, yeah. He's always there. It's like marinating something – you're sitting in a marinade the whole time," he told one interviewer.

What I was missing was my client's voice. In short, I needed to "sit in marinade" in her character.

Part of her book is about her strong passion for her vegan lifestyle. So this week, believe it or not, I have eschewed MEAT. I have watched every link she's sent (Netflix documentaries and Youtube videos alike) about the evils of the agricultural industry.

And today, I hit the supermarket and picked up vegan butter, vegan sour cream, soy milk ... and looked into how to prepare vegan meals ... and have prepared a fully vegan diet to follow while I write this book.

Extreme, you may say?

Well, all I can tell you is that when I turned in the re-write of that chapter, the client came back to me and said one of her best friends remarked, "It sounds just like you." She's pleased with the changes.

I've been writing newspaper, wire service and now magazine articles for 25 years. I've never had to write in someone else's voice until now. But I am having so much fun "marinating" in my "character."

And, thanks to a fellow creative artist/soul, I think I've found the answer to successfully segueing into a new writing venture.

I'll keep you posted to let you know how the rest of the project goes.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

When Something Smells Rotten in Denmark

So you want to be an "investigative journalist."

Let's make one thing clear: If you're a reporter, it doesn't matter what beat you are working --  you could be covering the local PTA and school board meeting, the municipal sewage/water authority, cops and robbers or the sports desk. There is always an opportunity to be an investigative journalist. The problem is that most "journalists" think that they have to be assigned to a political desk to do any meaningful work. But oftentimes, the stories of corruption are sitting right in front of you. You just aren't being observant enough -- or your antenna may be so tuned in to one direction of the wind, that you may be missing the storm brewing behind you.

I started thinking about this because of a personal circumstance, ironically, which has nothing to do with my freelance writing job. Human nature is human nature. And eventually, someone's dark side will surface if it's something they are trying to hide. It's just a matter of time before you put the pieces together.

Here are a few tale-tell signs that I've learned along the way:

1. The person that people trust the most is the person you should suspect the most. I know, it sounds counter-intuitive. But ironically, the most trusted person in the room usually is the person hiding something. Think about it -- pedophiles aren't usually creeps hanging out in dark corners. They're Catholic priests, Boy Scout leaders, classroom teachers. Ever hear of Jerry Sandusky? Google him if you haven't.

Did you know that Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, was the treasurer for the group of disciples and embezzled their money? Anyone who handles money for someone else is highly trusted. Always look in that direction for clues.

I had a case when I was working at The York Dispatch ... we were a union shop, and the reporters had to pay union dues every month. Ours were $40 per reporter. I was 27-29 while I was there, and I was making a paltry $27,000 per year. So $40 per month was a lot of money for me.

I asked the union treasurer -- who was the newspaper's retired librarian -- to bring in the union accounting books so that I could see how the money was being spent. It just didn't seem very logical to me. Where was the money going? She was about 75 years old and very beloved in this newsroom. She refused to bring in the books. So I refused to give her my dues. Things came to a head. People who loved this little old lady told me I was a big meanie (well, they used OTHER words, but use your imagination, and you've got it ...) and that I should just pay the dues. I said the little old lady should bring in the books if there was nothing to hide.

To make a long story short, after a big brew-ha-ha, the union treasurer confessed that she had been embezzling the funds. It gets better. She had a gambling addiction and had taken the money to Atlantic City, NJ, on weekends, and lost thousands of dollars. She had been maintaining two sets of books to hide it.

So if you're covering a local municipality, school district, whatever ... that leads us to point number 2:

2. Always ask for budgets. Don't say to me, "But Heidi, I only scored C-minus in math, my entire time in school. I'm a gifted writer, but I'm not an accountant."


You want to be an investigative reporter? Get a calculator.

Ask for budgets. Ask questions about the budgets. If you don't know how to add and subtract, get a tutor. You will never uncover anything unless you're willing to go into the world of numbers.

3. The people who are pointing fingers are usually the people hiding something. I'm not talking about whistle-blowers here. I'm talking about people who are in a collective huff -- the people who want to see another person or another group of people fall. These are the people who are so busy pointing out the faults of others that they can't see their own faults. Usually, this type of story is the easiest one to cover. The only thing you have to do is let them hang themselves with their words. The minute you get an invitation to cover a big "event" where a group of people is "exposing" the wrong-doings of someone else, bring your tape recorder and transcribe EVERYTHING that is said. You can probably get the other side of the story very easily just by the way Group A portrays Group B. Usually you can anticipate what Group B's response will be, because the things Group A throws around will start to sound so ridiculous that their credibility will dissolve like vapor.

4. If people start acting defensive when you ask questions, you're on to something.

People with nothing to hide will be forthright. They may seem taken aback by questions, but they will always be eager to show you that they have done nothing wrong.

On the other hand, people with something to hide will immediately put up their defenses. They'll do everything conceivable to avoid answering questions, will cast blame elsewhere ... and may even accuse you of being a hack journalist.

Don't let that throw you.

Just stay with your line of questioning, which will lead to point number 5:

5. Somewhere in the group that is hiding something, there is a person who wants the truth to be told. I have lost count of the number of times during my newspaper and AP wire service careers when I would get an anonymous note or phone call. The person on the other end would say something like, "I was in the room when you were asking questions of So-and-So, and they weren't telling you everything. I can tell you the truth, but you have to keep my name out of it."

Sometimes these notes would be sandwiched between my wiper blades and car windshield. (When that happens, it's not only freaky to know that people know your car, but also your schedule. And it also means you've nailed the story.)

Once you get to that point in your information gathering, go to your editor for next steps. Proceeding ahead on a story of this nature requires the backing of your publication. Do not do this alone in a vacuum. You'll want everybody on board --  including the publisher, who may have personal community ties that could threaten the story's publishing. You need the publisher in your corner especially.

This was a quick primer, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section. This can be a complicated issue for anyone covering news, but with practice in studying human behavior, you may be winning your investigative trophy in no time.