(This column appeared online Dec. 29 in the Portland Tribune.)
Ten years ago this week, I was sitting in a newsroom in Salem, Oregon, working another Christmas Day on the metro desk and enjoying the company of my fellow journalists. Christmas usually is an easy shift: The largest stories in each section are pre-written. Add a few photos of Santas or kids, and the issue fills itself.
And then a tsunami hit in the Indian Ocean. It was caused by an 9.0-magnitude earthquake so huge it made the planet wobble in its orbit around the sun.
I loved my days in Oregon newspaper newsrooms. It was a great, 20-year career. But that day stands out.
We worked the shift as usual, filled in the stuff that wasn’t pre-written. We celebrated the holiday with potluck in the staff break room. No Christmas music, but we did have four channels of TV news and the police scanners.
Then, late in the shift, the Associated Press moved a story about an Indonesian quake of unknown magnitude, saying several buildings had collapsed and nine people were dead. Back then, we finished building each day’s paper – got the pages “off the floor” as it were – by 11 p.m. It was late, so we ignored the first iteration of the story. Nine dead in Indonesia? We wouldn’t have space to fit that one in the international news section of the Dec. 26 issue. We ignored it.
At 10:24 p.m., AP moved the next version of the same story. A copy editor caught the update. Now it was an 8.5 quake with 160 dead. And not in Indonesia, but in Sri Lanka.
The copy editor blinked at his screen several times. “Sri Lanka? That’s, like, a thousand miles to the west. How the hell … ?”
The only explanation any of us could think of for nine dead on one side of an ocean, and 160 dead on the other, was a tsunami.
A word the AP story never mentioned.
The Copy Desk chief that night — a quick-witted newsman named Deka with a gift for sports trivia and lead guitar — called downstairs and asked Pre-Press to give us back Page 13A. We removed a story about Palestinian elections, crafted a brief about the quake and re-released the page. There had to have been a tsunami but we couldn’t speculate. And no wire service was ready to call it. We knew the story but we didn’t “have” the story. So we told readers that there were nine dead on one side of an ocean, 160 dead on the other, a thousand miles of open water in between, and hoped the readers did the math.
It was the best we could do.
We were “off the floor” at 11 p.m., Pre-Press sent the paper on to our printing press, and went home, knowing we’d given the readers the slimmest sliver of a story that would only get worse.
I set the alarm for 6 a.m. Sunday and National Public Radio told me the death toll was up to 5,000. I picked clothes up off the floor, brewed coffee, headed into the newsroom with pillow creases on my cheeks, posted the story on our Web page and waited until 8 to wake up the managing editor.
The immediate problem: It was still the holiday, and much of the next issue was pre-written and pre-designed. We had to rip it up. We also had the smallest conceivable skeleton crew; only us volunteers work Christmas or the following day. Now, what was supposed to be a milk run had become a short-handed slog.
The prebuilt front page was torn apart. Inside pages, too. Ads were moved. The Communities and Op/Ed pages got nixed, and the copy editors – the people who build the newspaper – scrambled like crazy.
I built the online coverage for our website. Every time I finished downloading and reconstructing a graphic, the wire services would send out an alert changing the death count.
The story grew worse and worse. The death count rose by 1,000 people per hour. Every hour, the whole shift.
We started with a page for Indonesia and one for Sri Lanka. Then added a page for when the tsunami hit India. Then Myanmar. Then Thailand. Then Malaysia. We weren’t covering a tragedy that had hit yesterday. The damn thing was still moving. Still killing.
We thought it was “just” an Asian disaster. At mid-afternoon Sunday, one of the copy editors looked up from his terminal, a little pale, and said, “Dude? I think this thing just hit Africa.”
We started building pages for Somalia. For Tanzania. For Kenya.
The hours ticked away. It was a holiday. We had configured a news staff just big enough to do “cop calls” and to calculate snowfall totals at the ski resorts. Instead, we watched as maps of the Southern Hemisphere got redrawn. Permanently.
Sixteen hours later, we finally agreed that we had to get this day’s paper “off the floor” – pre-press was waiting. The story was still in flux but we’d done what we could.
At 11 p.m., Deka called downstairs. “It’s the newsroom. We are off the floor. Good luck.”
We shut off the lights and headed home.
That version of the Statesman Journal, which hit my doorstop Monday morning, listed 14,000 dead.
When the radio snapped on at 6 a.m., the death toll had climbed to 22,000.
I picked clothes up off the floor, brewed coffee, and headed in to do it all again.
Just like every other journalist in that newsroom. And in every other daily newsroom in the world.
Come join me from 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17, at Another Read Through, 3932 N. Mississippi Ave.! Book aficionado Elisa Stamphier has put together a great venue for readers, and this is my debut appearance there!
GUN METAL HEART is the perfect holiday gift. As you know, nothing says “yuletide” like nine thugs a-spying, eight mercs a-scheming, seven drones a-zooming, six buildings crumbling, five cars a-chasing, four villains scheming, three guns a-blazing, two heroes scrambling and a cartridge in a Glock-Niiiiiine!
(Sorry. Really. Mistakes were made.)
Another Read Through
3932 N. Mississippi Ave.
From time to time, it’s good to remind myself that pretty much everything I know about writing I stole from better writers. As a journalist – and now, as a speechwriter – I stole motto from The New Yorker’s famous A.J. Liebling: I can write faster than anyone who’s better than me, but I can write better than anyone who’s faster than me.
As a novelist, and also as a fledgling screenwriter, I turn to guys like Billy Wilder, writer, director and producer of such genius work as “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Sabrina.”
The following – copiously copied by hacks like me for years now – are Wilder’s 10 rules of good filmmaking. But for “filmmaking,” I think you can substitute “thriller writing.” The rules work, more or less, for the kinds of books I write.
1: The audience is fickle – Not sure what I think about this one. I’m an audience, and I’m fickle, which is to say, some days I want a certain something from a story, and the next day I don’t.
2: Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go – When I teach writing, I often tell people, “Today, my job is not to write 400 pages of good story. My job is to write five good pages. Then five more, then five more…” It’s how I try to break the “muddle in the middle” problem. Breaking down a novel into bite-sized chunks can, I think, grab audiences by the throat and never let them go.
3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character – I have to be cautious not to throw in action for action’s sake. “It’s a little dull here … how about a homicide!” That’s usually the weakest form of plotting. An action bit had better serve the storyline or character development, or it’s out on its keister.
4: Know where you’re going – I disobey this one because I’m not an outliner. When I start a story, I know Act I and I know the pivotal plot point of Act II, but that’s generally all of it. In mysteries, I often don’t know who the bad guy is until part way through the first draft.
5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer – Your “plot point” is a bit of action that causes a substantial reaction, either from the good guys or the bad guys. It’s the big rock in the river that redirects the stream. And I gotta admit: I’m not good at the whole “subtle and elegant” thing. My plot points tend to be pretty obvious (planes falling out of the sky, for instance).
6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act – OK, this one’s definitely true. If I can’t get the action on page 300 to go where I want it to, I generally have to go back to page 30 and figure out what I didn’t set up. We, as thriller writers, sometimes quip that the protagonists won’t do what the writer wants them to do. More often than not, when that happens, it’s because the protagonists are telling us we blew something early on. “My heroine won’t do what I want her to do!” likely means, “I didn’t give my heroine all the tools she’d need in Act I to fix the plot-engine in Act III.”
7: A tip that Wilder swiped from German filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch (“Ninotchka,” “Heaven Can Wait”): Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever – I try not to be too “on the nose” with my clues.
8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing – For “voice-over,” think “dialog.” It’d be a bad idea to spend a paragraph describing a rhino, then have the heroine say, “Look! A rhino!”
9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie – Yup. For sure. I still write in terms of Act I, Act II and Act III, and I encourage others to, as well. And everything at the end of the story needs to feed the plot element that brought the plot to a boil at the end of Act II. In “Crashers,” I ended Act II by having a jetliner land in a horrible storm on Interstate 5. And then, realizing they had no choice, taking off again from I-5. Every page and every scene that follows pivots off that moment.
10: The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.