Sunday, March 31, 2013

Positive sports stories - on Elena Delle Donne & Mike Matheny

About a week ago I came across a sports story about things more important than just winning or losing and more recently saw (and was reminded of) another athlete's story in the same vein.

The piece from a week back was about St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and coaching of youth baseball. Written by Joe Posnanski for NBC Sports, "Matheny's Message: Sports Can Be Joyful For Kids" starts off four years ago with a recently retired MLB catcher Matheny being asked to coach the team his 10-year old son would play on. Posnanski writes of how rather than simply accepting the coaching offer, Matheny wrote a 2,556 word document with his conditions for him agreeing to coach. The idea behind Matheny's words (which he also covered in a meeting with parents prior to accepting the role) was that youth sports should be played a certain way, with respect for the game and opponent and free from overbearing parents. While it's true that Matheny as a former MLB player had the leverage to spell out and get people to agree to his coaching approach, it's great reading about it.

The other story I've seen recently on sports and approaching them with perspective was on University of Delaware women's basketball player Elena Della Donne. ESPN ran during Sportscenter a profile about her path from sought-after high school recruit to the women's powerhouse program at the University of Connecticut. The piece details how Della Donne then left UConn shortly after arriving and returned back home to be closer to her family, including older sister Lizzie who was born blind and deaf and has both celebral palsy and autism. Della Donne enrolled at the nearby University of Delaware and after time away from the sport, began playing basketball again and became one of the best women's NCAA players.

I've previously linked to articles on Della Donne with a 2009 column by Selena Roberts for Sports Illustrated and 2012 SI feature by Jon Wertheim and the ESPN segment was more excellent storytelling on Della Donne. The same day I watched it, Delaware was eliminated from the NCAA tournament 69-62 to Kentucky, with its star player scoring 33 points in this loss as well as in each of the Blue Hens first two tournament games.

Seeing the ESPN segment on TV sent me off in search of the video online and along with the below version of it was a Mar 2012 ESPN Outside the Lines feature article by Graham Hays. Providing more detail than could simply be in a short video, it's an excellent look at Della Donne and choices made in pursuit of the things that matter to her.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Feature writing by Mooney, Power & Chivers

There's a few pieces of writing to note here that may not share huge connection with one another other than they're all exceptionally well done.

For Field & Stream in Jan, C.J. Chivers wrote the fairly short piece "Pain" about a Grizzly Bear attack on hunter Chris Ott in the British Columbia wilderness. The story was one of eighteen outdoor pieces by different writers for Field & Steam and features absolutely riveting language and tension building from Chivers.

Another exceptionally well done piece of writing I've seen lately then led me to an additional great piece by the same author. Michael Mooney earlier this month wrote "The Legend of Chris Kyle" for D Magazine and I then went and read "When Lois Pearson Started Fighting Back", published May 2012 in D Magazine. I was familiar with Kyle from the Time Magazine story "Killer. Healer. Victim" (which I briefly wrote about) after Kyle's Feb 2 death and Mooney provided additional excellent writing on his life. The Lois Pearson story is very different than that on Kyle in that she not known publicly, but contains one of the things I love to come across in great writing... a story that blends together well pathos with a positive story (with the latter of these coming at the very end of Mooney's feature on Pearson).

Final piece to mention here was a tremendously interesting one by Matthew Power for the March issue of GQ Magazine. "Excuse Us While We Kiss the Sky" chronicles Power's time spent exploring with people who go places they're not allowed (whether those be on top of bridges and buildings or in tunnels under cities) for the experience of it. It was fascinating writing on this concept known at times as urban exploration or place hacking.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Businessweek features - by Greenfeld, Hannan, Ricadela, Vance & Leonard

Over the past few months there's been some excellent Businessweek features to note here.

The Jan 10 edition cover story was "Can Meg Whitman Reverse Hewlett-Packard's Free Fall?" by Ashlee Vance and Aaron Ricadela. Very solid piece with the additional data point since it's publication being that HP stock has risen 37%.

Two other interesting stories of late were on very different companies in Huy Fong Foods and Walt Disney. The Feb 21 issue featured "Sriracha Hot Sauce Catches Fire, Yet 'There's Only One Rooster'" by Caleb Hannan and Mar 7 cover story "How Disney Bought Lucasfilm—and Its Plans for 'Star Wars'" by Devin Leonard. One company little known except for their signature hot sauce and the other known pretty much everywhere, but excellent pieces on each.

The other story to mention stood out to me both for the subject as well as writer of the piece. In the Feb 28 issue of BW was "Bill McKibben's Battle Against the Keystone XL Pipeline" and I've previously written on and linked to stories about McKibben and done posts on work by Karl Taro Greenfeld who wrote about McKibben and his efforts.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Baseball writing - by Jordan, Kepner, Sargent & Jenkins

As MLB Opening Day approaches, there's been some excellent writing on baseball I've come across lately.

For the SB Nation Longform website close to a month ago, Pat Jordan wrote "The pain and pleasure of spring: How I lost my fastball but learned to love spring training." It's a beautifully written piece that covers from Jordan's time as an aspiring major league player through his career as a sportswriter. Really lyrical writing that makes me interested in reading his book A False Spring, rated #37 on the 2002 Sports Illustrated listing of the top sports books of all time.

In a similar vein of baseball writing leaning towards the sentimental was a recent piece by Bruce Jenkins in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Glove love never dies, it just falls apart" was on major leaguers and what for many of them is a cherished tool of their trade.

Another tremendously interesting baseball piece was by Scott Sargent from the Cleveland and Ohio State sports website Waiting for Next Year. "Trevor Bauer: Eccentric or just smarter than the rest of us?" was on the 23 year-old pitcher I first heard about from a 2011 SI profile by Lee Jenkins and who was traded this off-season to Cleveland from the Diamondbacks. Bauer is someone that takes a different approach than many to the game and it'll be interesting to see how his career progresses.

The last baseball piece to mention here also involves the Indians, but on a much older player trying to make the team. "Giambi Reinvents Himself, and Baseball Is Intrigued" was by Tyler Kepner for the New York Times and is a tremendously interesting profile of Jason Giambi, former steroid-using superstar and now well-respected managerial candidate.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Nieman Foundation talk with Clayton Christensen & David Skok

As someone interested in not just great writing, but also the production of great writing, I found of note a recent videotaped discussion hosted by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. The Feb 27 session was on the topic of "Disruptive Innovation in Journalism" and featured Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen and 2012 Nieman Fellow David Skok along with Nieman Foundation Curator Ann Marie Lipinski.

Christensen is a renowned business author I was familiar with from his latest effort, How Will You Measure Your Life? co-written with James AllworthKaren Dillon. I enjoyed the book quite a bit and was interested in watching this Nieman talk with Christensen as one of the featured guests. Lipinski notes early on in the session that it follows up on an Oct 2012 Nieman Report by Christensen, Skok and Allworth titled "Mastering the art of disruptive innovation in journalism" and in terms of the recent talk itself, there was some fascinating points made by Christensen and Skok. While certainly not all-inclusive of what the two discussed, below are some of the things I took from the session...

Sustaining & disruptive innovations

Christensen spoke of how sustaining innovations are about making good products better and disruptive innovations, on the other hand, transform something that used to be complicated and expensive and make it accessible to a whole new mass audience.

One example of this is in the general field of higher education, and specifically that provided through the Harvard Business School. Along with the competitiveness in getting accepted, resulting caliber of the graduates and high cost of attending, Christensen noted how many HBS graduates wind up in Financial or Professional Services firms. With few few operating companies (such as GE or GM) recruiting at Harvard, these firms instead often focus on creating exceptional in-house educational systems. The result of this becomes a disruptive force in education along the same lines as online learning available outside of a corporate ed department.

One key point made about disruptive innovation is it's something that has to be incubated outside of a current sustaining business. The reason for this is disruptive innovation needs to be worked on at the same time current business continued and if the disruptive business done by the same people or even in the same space as the sustained business, the disruptive business will lose its differentiation and become like what's already been there. Closely related to this idea of separating disruptive from sustaining business is someone can't bring about disruption by simply changing the tasks done within a sustaining business.

Jobs to be done

One concept discussed that sounds to be a hallmark of Christensen's lecturing was that of jobs to be done. Two things I noted out of the How Will Your Measure Your Life? book were personal focused ideas with "the two fundamental jobs that children need to do are to feel successful and to have friends- every day" and the encouragement that people should “think about what jobs your spouse is looking to you to do.”

The basic idea of consumer or jobs to be done as I understood it was an argument against demographics as the driver of choices made and for the idea that people spend money or support causes to get specific jobs done. Companies shouldn't worry so much about the customer or technology used, but rather on the job that needs to get done. Then along with this identification of the job to be done comes perpetual efforts to get the job done better, with focus on both enhanced value of the job to be done and at lower cost.

As an example of disruption based on jobs to be done, Christensen cited Apple under Steve Jobs (who was known for not focusing on demographics or research into existing markets) as a company that introduced the iPod as a better way to fulfill the job of making music available and accessible easily.

Newspapers and their future

What got newspapers as an industry to its current difficult business state was discussed with Skok noting how many of the things that used to make up pieces of a newspaper got picked off by companies that focused exclusively on those areas, with products for sale going to sites like Craigslist and help wanted to a Monster or one of the other job sites.

What remains for newspapers is the same basic question that all companies in all industries face, what jobs do newspapers serve? Skok and Christensen discussed how the job fulfilled may be that of providing truth, may serve the job of helping someone unwind, may be to help start the day for people or may be something different. Either way, newspapers just like any other industry need to hone in on what job they serve and focus on fulfilling that.

Four elements to a business model

Christensen talked about every venture has a business model with the elements being the following: (1) Value proposition – there’s a job to be done and we’re trying to get people to hire our product to fill that job. (2) Resources – have to have these to deliver a value proposition. (3) Processes – as the people in a company do things in support of filling a job, processes emerge. (4) Profit formula – how do you get money to cover resources?

Changes that occur with disruption

Skok and Christensen noted that when a business becomes commoditized, new jobs to be done open up. It was said that as a general rule, when disruption occurs, the market booms and the interesting point made that if the top of the market drops off, the bottom will rise. Related to the field of journalism... if print dies, online writing fees should rise as there would be no more two-tier system with much higher compensation for print pieces.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Writing on interesting places, writing on nice stories and writing on mental health

There's been some excellent writing I've come across lately that seems to link together with two pieces being about interesting places, two about people with stories that can be described as exceptionally nice and two about the important subject of mental health.

In terms of interesting places, the March 2013 issue of Outside Magazine had a fascinating feature story written by Rowan Jacobsen. "Chef Blaine Wetzel's Quest to Become the Ultimate Locavore" was on the just-now-turning-27 Wetzel and his Willows Inn restaurant on Lummi Island near Bellingham, WA. It was one of those pieces of writing that stood out in part because I wouldn't have expected it to.

Another interesting place story recently was also from Outside, with the Outside website having a piece noted as originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of OnEarth Magazine. About the Chicago River, Matthew Power wrote "Is it Possible to Save the Waterway That Made Chicago Great?" Very similar to the feature on Wetzel and the Willows Inn, I wouldn't have expected to find this story that compelling, but it really was... and included Power describing the river by writing "levels of E. coli bacteria in non-disinfected wastewater sent from Stickney into the canal have registered 700 times above the legal limit for swimmable water."

In terms of nice, two stories that have stuck with me recently were on adoption of an abandoned child and a kayak journey. Of particular profundity was "We Found Our Son in the Subway", a first-person account from playwright and screenwriter Peter Mercurio posted to a New York Times blog. It's just heartwarming reading of a story that as Mercurio writes "began 12 years earlier."

It may not have the gravitas of the account by Mercurio, but another feel-good story written well was from Tampa Bay Times writer Ben Montgomery. "Kayak trip from Minnesota to Key West cuts through Tampa Bay" was about Daniel Alvarez and his solo kayak trip from Minnesota to Key West. The journey was financed by a $10,000 Outside Magazine (again with Outside Mag!) prize and Montgomery recounts how the 31 year old left behind his corporate law gig (which came out of a Yale law degree) to do... exactly what he wants to be doing.

The mental health writing was first a Chris Jones column for ESPN and then short interview with him about what he wrote. "Status update: A tennis player quits because the cost of a public life feeds her depression" is on 22 year old Rebecca Marino and then the Q&A piece "ESPN The Magazine columnist Chris Jones relates with young tennis star’s bouts with depression." In the interview, Jones references writing on the subject of his own depression a Nov 2011 Esquire piece (that I wrote about along with a similarly important Mike Sager piece) and his statement that "mental illness is something we should talk about" just seems to ring so true.

Hockey writing by Jeff MacGregor, Tim Rohan & Sarah Hampson

I've lately come across a few pieces of writing that stood out as excellent which all dealt with the sport of hockey, just different things related to the game.

The first piece to note here was about the sport itself in "The Hockey News" by Jeff MacGregor for ESPN.  Written about his experience as first a young and now adult hockey fan, it's a short and thoughtful column that makes me think of the Chris Jones column "Best Day Ever" about time with the Stanley Cup.

The second hockey piece I particularly enjoyed was by Tim Rohan for the New York Times and dealt with potential greatness. "A Prodigy on the Way to Stardom"  is about 16 year-old Conner McDavid, currently playing in the Ontario Hockey League and expected to be the first pick in the 2015 NHL draft. I love coming across and posting about writing on sports phenoms and with McDavid having already drawn favorable attention from the likes of Bobby Orr (his agent), Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky, he's definitely in the phenom category.

The third piece to mention here was a poignant look at someone in the game by Sarah Hampson for the Toronto Globe & Mail. "NHL veteran Dominic Moore opens up about his wife, their life and her death" is about the former San Jose Shark whose wife Katie was diagnosed during the last Stanley Cup Playoffs with a rare cancer and passed away in January. Very well done writing from Hampson that brought in the history of both Moore's brother Steve whose career ended by Todd Burtuzzi and and Katie's father who died unexpectedly a year before her passing.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Esquire pieces - Bin Laden Shooter by Bronstein & Kutcher profile by Chiarella

There were two pieces from the March 2013 issue of Esquire Magazine that stood out as particularly interesting and thought-provoking. The first was "The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden... Is Screwed" by Phil Bronstein and second "The All New Ashton Kutcher Story!" by Tom Chiarella.

The Bronstein feature is about the the unnamed Navy Seal who shot and killed Bin Laden and his challenges (both financial and otherwise) assimilating to civilian life after leaving the military. The piece is a fascinating one in that the Bin Laden shooter was in such an elite group in Seal Team 6 and did such a high-profile thing, but it makes me think of his difficulties as part of the much larger population of all returning servicemen and women and challenges faced. I've written on and linked to a number of pieces by Mark Thompson on the subject and the experience of the Bin Laden shooter is both fascinating to read about and just a shame for both he, his family and other veterans who have a hard time after returning home.

The Chiarella profile of Kutcher was of course about someone in an area of much less heft, but the piece towards the end had two different things from the actor that struck me as compelling. Specifically, Chiarella closed the profile around Kutcher discussing how he spends his time by saying "I kinda only do what I like to do" and a bit prior to that had a quote from Kutcher about Steve Jobs that I found fascinating...

"There was this one speech that I found where he said, 'So when you grow up, if you spend your life trying not to bounce into walls, just inheriting what you get, you gotta know your life can be a lot broader than that. Once you realize one simple thing: Everything around you that you call life was made by people who are no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use.' And I heard that and I knew exactly what the niche for making the movie was, what the social need for making the movie was. For people seeking purpose. I remember growing up and looking at the world and going, Okay, how do I live in this? instead of How do I create it? How do I build it? How do I make something? And the empowerment of these ideas, I think they make an important story." 

Monday, March 04, 2013

Basketball writing from Sports Illustrated - by Jenkins & McCallum

There's been three pieces of basketball writing I've seen recently (all from Sports Illustrated) that struck me as particularly interesting.

The Feb 25 issue featured two of them with "Rondo" by Lee Jenkins and "Chaos Theory" from Jack McCallum. The Jenkins piece is a long profile on Rajon Rondo and does an excellent job delving into the extremely competitive injured Celtics point guard. The McCallum story was on the Los Angeles Lakers and what stood out in this piece was the construction of it. After an introduction in which he set the stage with expectations for the team going into the season measured against performance so far, McCallum threw down the sentence "Herewith, the main story lines and characters" and proceeded with short sections that had the following italicized titles...

No Country for Old Men - on former (and incorrectly assumed to become current) coach Phil Jackson
The Departed - on owner Jerry Buss who recently passed away
The Adjustment Bureau - on the team under new coach Mike D'Antoni
The Tao of Steve - on point guard Steve Nash and his play
13 Going on 30 - on mercurial (and perhaps immature) center Dwight Howard
The Dilemma - on the integration of all-star Pau Gasol into the offense under D'Antoni
The Italian Job - on Lakers guard (and one of the greatest players in the game) Kobe Bryant
It's Complicated - on the question of what exactly need be done to get the team playing as it should

Just a very innovative approach the story by McCallum and it felt to work perfectly.

The third piece of excellent basketball writing to mention here was also by Lee Jenkins and for the Sports Illustrated website. "Lakers' success a testament to best owner in sports history" was published online the same day Jerry Buss passed away and, in the same vein as he did on Rondo, Jenkins wrote a story which showed a great deal about the person it covered. Detail leading to with greater meaning all done with writing that flows well... very good stuff.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Cinequest 2013 Writers Celebration event

I recently came across a fascinating Vanity Fair article "When the Spec Script was King" by Margaret Heidenry about the ups and downs in the market for selling screenplays and the timing of seeing this feature dovetailed with an event I attended this weekend.

Each year the Cinequest Film Festival is held in San Jose, CA and four years ago I went to (and wrote about) the Cinequest Day of the Writer event and for this year's iteration, Writers Celebration, there was some tremendously interesting takeaways from the three different parts.

Part one - screenwriting wisdom

In the first session, talent manager Diane McGee and writer James Dalessandro spoke and answered audience questions about successful screenwriting. While both speakers excellent, Dalessandro probably spoke more and passed along a number of his thoughts and experiences as a successful writer and teacher of screenwriting. Some of his past work includes 1906: A Novel that he optioned for a large amount of money to be made into a film and the 2010 Playboy Magazine story "Petrosino v. The Black Hand", now slated to be a 10-hour TV mini-series about Joseph Petrosino, the turn of the 20th Century New York City Police Detective.

Some of the main takeaways from Dalessandro and McGee were as follows...

Structure in writing - Repeatedly spoken of was the importance of outlining a screenplay... with the idea that both plot and subplot should be done in the outline prior to actually writing the screenplay. Not in opposition, though, was also that someone should be willing to write out of sequence if stuck. Basically to write a section that is clear as a writer and then go back later, the phrase used for this was "letting the puddles run together."

Formula in writing - Formula as a concept was referring to as repeating dumb ideas, but it also noted that formula can be a jumping off point with taking what people have done and then putting a twist on it. It was said that there's little out there that's completely original, but can certainly be things presented in a new way that will get attention.

Writing for television - It was mentioned that if something can't get made as a movie, a TV show is a great alternative as film can be considered a directors medium and TV one for writers, and there's simply more opportunities in TV than film.

Writing detail - Dalessandro noted that a writer shouldn't write details if they don't know any of them to be correct and he does a lot of research as many of his ideas are based in reality. Included along with this was his quote that "a writer is a storehouse of useless information."

Importance of character in writing - It was said repeatedly that while a plot idea or concept may be the first thing a writer has, a story need to have an interesting main character... otherwise, who cares? Part of the concept was that a character has to have two problems, one internal and one external. On a progression, the steps for a writer could be viewed as (a) premise, (b) character, (c) rising conflict and (d) resolution.

Approach towards success at screenwriting - Dalessandro said both that first novel was rejected by seven agents and thirty-seven publishers and 1906 abandoned as a movie project by a prominent director and may not ever get made. Regardless, though, you just keep working at it. One point made was that screenplays a foreign language compared to books and articles so if someone wants to be a screenwriter, they should read a lot of scripts (with Fargo mentioned as a great one). It was also mentioned that scripts are now 95-100 pages only and screenwriting competitions a great place to take a first script. Additionally, two sites for aspiring screenwriters noted were The Black List and The Tracking Board.

Part two - selling a screenplay panel

The second session also featured Dalessandro, this time along with producer and management company owner Sean Davis and was moderated by San Jose State professor Barnaby Dallas. It featured 6-8 different early in the business people who pitched their screenplays (which had fared well in a competition) to Davis and Dalessandro as if they were studio executives. 

It was said by Dalessandro and Davis that a pitch should give enough information to make someone understand the concept and want to know what happens next... as opposed to wanting explanation of what the concept actually is. Basically the intent would be to address the story questions of who, what, when, where, how does it affect the lives of the characters? 

Additionally noted as being good to include in a pitch was brief personal information about the screenwriter. Along with that was mention that it's completely fine (probably a good idea, in fact) to be up front about someone's level of experience pitching if they're new it to and to have a backup in case the primary idea not of interest. Finally, it was said that query letters are tough route to try to get a script noticed because so many come, but competitions are a good route to go through... and two more sites to be aware of as an aspiring screenwriter are Without a Box about film festivals and competitions and the screenwriters resource site InkTip

Part three - Maverick Spirit Award with Chuck Palahniuk

Palahniuk is a writer best-known for his novel (and basis for the classic film) Fight Club and this session first featured a viewing of the short film Romance based on story by Palahniuk and then there was a Q&A that began with him receiving the 2013 Cinequest Maverick Spirit Award.

Palahniuk noted that he's not really in the world of Hollywood as his model is more to write books or stories (with his most recent being Phoenix, a $.99 Byliner Kindle Single) which may get optioned and eventually developed for film or television. What stood out the most to me from him, though, was what he had to say about his work put in, both by himself and with other writers. Palahniuk said that Fight Club originally only sold a few thousand copies and prior to becoming a successful writer he worked at Freightliner for 13 years making trucks... and wrote while at work. 

He then mentioned Joy Williams as one of his favorite writers and talked about the writing workshop group he's been in since 1990. There's nine people that meet weekly and Palahniuk noted the benefits of immediate feedback and accountability towards goals stated out loud. Also interesting (and related at least somewhat to the writing group mention) was his statement (which echoed one from Dalessandro) that creative work doesn't have to be all your own original ideas, it can come from other people and their ideas, just with your own take.

Between the three sessions there was a lot of great ideas put forth, with of course the most profound one being to put in the work and see where it takes you.

Friday, March 01, 2013

"After Friday Night Lights" by Buzz Bissinger

After Friday Night Lights was a compelling eBook from Buzz Bissinger that followed up on his bestselling Friday Night Lights book written 22 years, one feature film and one television series ago.

The original book was an excellent read and a past sports book from Bissinger that I also enjoyed was Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager about Tony LaRussa and the 2003 St. Louis Cardinals. Additionally of interest to me was his publication last year of Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, from which there was a really captivating excerpt that I wrote about and linked to in a post on great writing on raising kids.

This most recent After Friday Night Lights was a short book published through Byliner and about Boobie Miles, the main character featured in Bissinger's original book. After reading of what Miles went through as a high school football player, it was then fascinating seeing the path his life has taken in the two decades since.

Miles certainly hasn't been without his faults and self-inflicted difficulties, but reading of him one gets the sense of the long odds he's faced towards having something resembling a normal, productive-member-of-society type life. Told well by Bissinger was how Miles treated by many others, ranging from his high school coach to those at Universal Studios who paid him $1,000 to use his character in the movie. Really what seems to be inherent in his story is the reconciliation between wishing for something and making the best out of what is.

Also terribly interesting from the eBook was Bissinger's writing on himself, both as a writer whose best-known work was done at the age of 35 and as someone who formed a connection with Miles that's carried forward to today.

I enjoyed After Friday Night Lights quite a bit and it's short enough to be read in one sitting, basically like a long and very well done magazine feature.