Monday, 27 December 2010

Peruvian anchovies are a commodity

My editor told me to take a week off, so I flew to Berlin for a few days (German Christmas! Family! 5,000 calories per day!) and when I came back, I decided to clear out various mystery boxes that have been cluttering my flat for about a year or so.

One of them contained a stack of folders from my days as a Reuters trainee.
Picture the bittersweet moment as I was reunited with seven-year-old mock press releases from the fictional failed state of Gregorija, named after our trainer's son. Scribbled on the margins of a rather breathless story about bomb explosions in the Gregorijan capital ("Police said the injuries treated in hospital included cuts, burns, broken legs and amputations") were some wise words from another brilliant trainer, Keith, who crossed out "amputations" and commented: "This is not an injury. It's a solution (of sorts)."
I also found my first bond market reports, astonishingly unmarked by the passage of time: they were just as boring as when I had written them.

Finally, I came across a list of 100 Learning Points. They were the result of a slightly odd Reuters ritual that involved throwing an inflatable ball around the room at the end of every training day and telling each other what we had learned. I can't remember the exact system but it somehow resulted in a long list of writing and reporting and general life-management tips. When I re-read them today for the first time in seven years, I realised that some of them were actually quite useful - not just for journalists, but also for novelists.
So here we go. I'm not going to post all 100 of them as I still need to clear out the other boxes, but I've selected some that will hopefully brighten up your New Writing Year:

1.) Use strong verb in headline (if you're a novelist - for headline read title, opening paragraph...).

2.) No one cares about irrelevant detail.

3.) Don't start leads* with "The..." (I don't think this applies to novels. And I'm not just saying that because my own novel starts with "The...".)

4.) Don't start leads with numbers.

11.) Byline: share with/give to stringer (= one of the things I truly love about news agencies: The person who does the reporting gets the credit. Whereas at most newspapers, eg the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, the person who sits in a warm newsroom and writes up reports from a freezing stringer, or a rain-soaked news agency hack, tends to get the credit). 

20.) Challenge the word "get", you can usually find a better one.

22.) Where, what, who, when, how, why in lead ( ... very different from a novel, where the what and how and especially the why tend not to become clear until the final chapter, if at all.)

28.) A golden quote makes a story sing. (This point probably helped me develop an ear for golden quotes, and by extension, for dialogue. Sitting through endless speeches while waiting for one colourful, telling quote wasn't much fun at the time, but it did teach me to listen.)  

31.) Bad style comes from bad reporting. (Possibly my favourite learning point, because it's true.)

32.) Accuracy comes before speed.

34.) Listen and watch (eg body language in interviews).

38.) Peruvian anchovies are a commodity. 

44.) People don't read websites, they skim. (Hey, this list dates from 2003. Online reading habits were still considered a novelty.)

48.) Never hand over notebooks to police.

49.) Get arrested rather than hand over notebooks or disclose source.

50.) Keep away from subsidiary clauses. (I still hear this every time I write a subsidiary clause. And then I write it anyway.)

59.) Defamation, slander, libel. (That's all it says. Presumably the learning point is that they should be avoided.)

60.) It's defamatory to quote a defamatory statement.

77.) Vox pops**: get age, profession, name. Ask a range of people. (If you're an intern at a media organisation and you follow this advice every time you go out to get "man on the street" quotes, your boss will love you forever.)

83. Sniff for the turkey. (Nope, I have not the faintest idea what this one is about, either.)

87.) Use dabs, not slabs, of background.

94.) Don't be bored by analysts. Fish for the golden quote.

97.) 'fess up when you've done something wrong and send a correction.

99.) Never keep gifts worth more than 50 pounds

100.) Keep a cool head and don't get flustered.

Voila! I'm going to merge this with my list of resolutions for 2011.
On that note, happy holidays to all of you. Thank you for reading my blog, and may the new year bring you lots of love, health and happiness.

Sophie x

* A lead is the first paragraph of a news report.
** A vox pop is an attempt to record "the voice of the people", eg you send your intern out to ask ten people what the fall of the Berlin wall means to them, then use the resulting quotes in your own elegant anniversary piece. This is also known as gathering colour. A good gauge of a journalist's character is whether they share the byline with the intern who did the vox pop/went out to gather colour.

Monday, 6 December 2010

MBA Rats

It started with a scratching, scurrying sound in the middle of the night.

"Did you hear that?" I asked Dan.

"Yes," he said.

"Squeak," said someone in the rafters.

"Was that a mouse?" I asked stupidly, still half asleep.

"Probably." Long pause. "Though it sounds pretty big for a mouse."

Oh, the beauty of big old country houses. The one Dan lives in is particularly attractive to rodents as it's shared by several MBA students. Think messy late-night dinners, hastily assembled sandwiches, pizza-fuelled student parties.

Dan called me in the afternoon, sounding partly disgusted, partly triumphant.

"Guess where I am right now!"

"At school?"

"At Carrefour, buying rat poison."

"So it was a rat? Did you see it?"


"Urgh. Was it big?"

"It was the size of a cow. It could barely fit its head through the door."

Dan had been sitting in his room, studying for his next class, when he heard a sound in his house-mate Nicolas' room. Someone was moving things around. How strange, Dan thought, Nicolas came back and he didn't say hello. He continued reading. Nicolas continued moving stuff around. Dan got up to see if he needed a hand...but when he entered the room, there was no sign of Nicolas. Instead, there was the cow-sized rat. It had been rummaging around for more paper to build its nest.

"I'm going to send you a photo of the nest," Dan said. "You can tell it's an MBA rat."


"It used the Financial Times."