Serial, The Teacher’s Pet, Dirty John and Phoebe’s Fall: reviewing the best True Crime podcasts

The recent arrest of Chris Dawson charged with the murder of his former wife Lyn in 1982, not only re-opened Australia’s most famous cold case, but shone the spotlight on arguably the most successful of the podcast genres: true crime.

Indeed were it not for the investigative podcast The Teacher’s Pet, written and narrated by The Australian journalist Hedley Thomas, the arrest of the former rugby league star nearly 38 years after his wife vanished from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, might never have happened.

Not only did the podcast re-open public interest in the case, but it also unearthed fresh evidence that helped the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions finally lay murder charges and pave the way for what may very well be the trial of the century, at least in Australia anyway, when it kicks off sometime in 2020.

Podcasts have certainly subverted the true crime genre, which had been dominated for decades by journalistic books, documentaries and movies.

For me, from my early twenties, it was true crime books that provided a way into the darkly fascinating minds of the criminally deranged.

I think this interest started with London’s Jack The Ripper (I read The Complete Jack The Ripper by Donald Rumbelow in about 1994 after going on Rumbelow’s grisly Whitechapel Tour), and then expanded into literary crime classics like 10 Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy (about the London serial killer John Christie), Killing for Company by Brian Masters (about London necrophile Dennis Nilsen), The Stranger Beside Me by Anne Rule (about her former friend, the American serial killer Ted Bundy) and of course, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, plus many, many more.

(This interest was supported by my reading of Detective Crime fiction including many Ian Rankin novels featuring his beer loving Edinburgh detective John Rebus.)

This is undoubtedly a gross generalisation, but I still think a well-written true crime book stands head and shoulders above any podcast.

But I have also found myself drawn to this new form of true crime storytelling, which when done well offers a potent and highly addictive mix of entertainment, storytelling, investigation and information.

Having recently finished listening to The Teacher’s Pet (I enjoyed a pleasing email exchange with Hedley Thomas), and having listened to a whole bunch of them, this is how I would rank them from best to least favourite:

  1. Dirty John

dirty-john-crime-podcastProduced by the LA Times and written and narrated by Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Christopher Goffard, Dirty John is the most polished, thrilling, insightful and entertaining true crime podcast (actually any genre) I have listened to so far.  To briefly summarise the plot, it investigates a charming, but violent con-artist called John Neeham who wormed himself into the life of a wealthy but lonely Los Angeles interior designer, Debra Newell posing as a successful surgeon. The script is punchy, the story of love, deception, denial and cunning beautifully told, the cast of characters fascinating and the ending shocking . Best of all, Dirty John runs to just six intense episodes of between 36 and 47 minutes so there’s no unnecessary waffling. Every minute is filled with intrigue.  Such has been the success of Dirty John that it was made into a TV series starring Hollywood star Eric Bana while Christopher Goffard has gone on a world tour about the podcast. I cannot recommend this podcast more highly.

Rating: 5 stars

2. Serial (Season 1)

serial podcastMuch of the foundations for the success of True Crime podcasts is owed to the first season of Serial, which aired in 2014. The first blockbuster true crime podcast, Serial examined the 1999 Baltimore murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her football jock boyfriend Adnan Syed. The podcast was created and hosted by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder of This American Life, one of the most syndicated radio shows in the world. The Serial hosts interviewed the key people associated with the case (friends, witnesses, dodgy characters) and created plausible doubt regarding Syed’s conviction and helped win him a retrial. Koenig and Snyder are consummate story tellers and their passion for the case made it a hit. Season 2 of Serial was dreadfully boring (I didn’t even last one full episode) and the third season is apparently even worse. But the first season is among the best of the genre.

Rating: 4.5 stars

3. Phoebe’s Fall

phoebe-s-fallWritten and narrated by The Age journalists Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard, Phoebe’s Fall investigated the perplexing 2010 death of 24-year-old Melbourne woman Phoebe Handsjuk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage chute of a luxury apartment tower. Both Baker and Bachelard are renowned investigative journalists and they drew on all their experience to examine the circumstances of this bizarre and tragic case including whether it was even possible for someone to lower themselves into a narrow chute (the coroner ruled death by accident) and whether it was more likely Handsjuk was pushed. Apart from uncovering new evidence, Phoebe’s Fall is also extremely polished, yet also has a gonzo-style journalism feel to it as the hosts head out into the field to test out their theories. Each episode is as long as it needs to be and there’s no waffling on by the hosts.

Rating: 4 stars

4. The Teacher’s Pet

whooshkaa-podcast-imageReaders of this post may be surprised that I ranked The Teacher’s Pet below the other three given its huge global success (27 million or so downloads), the fact that it won the Gold Walkley, the most prestigious prize in Australian journalism and the heaps of new evidence it uncovered that led to the arrest recently of Chris Dawson, charged with the murder of his wife. Taken in its entirety, it is a brilliant investigation and deserves all the accolades it has received and I highly recommend it. But my biggest issue is its rambling nature and the lengthy episodes (some over 2 hours). There is far too much unnecessary stuff (pointless telephone conversations etc.) and I believe the podcast would have been even better with some severe editing. It felt like a bit of a marathon getting through it all especially the final few episodes, which for me took away some of its gloss and power.

Rating: 3.5 stars

5. Sword & Scale

sword and scaleThis bi-weekly American podcast is hugely popular, but suffers from a bombastic host (Mike Boudet) who has a tendency to sensationalize everything in an overly obvious attempt to keep listeners in suspense and who makes himself the star of the podcast rather than the cases themselves. The episodes are also overly long and unlike the aforementioned podcasts is not really an investigative show, but retells macabre and interesting cases. These criticism aside, it’s still a pretty entertaining podcast and well produced.

Rating: 3 stars

6. Casefile

casefileReaders of this blog will know my history with the anonymous (or not so anonymous) host of this Australian podcast, which has become a huge international hit.  Setting aside my own personal squabble, I’ve ranked Casefile at the bottom because it is not an investigative podcast in any real sense, but merely retells famous as well as more obscure true crime cases with a creepy voiced narrator and eerie ambient music. In my opinion the success of this podcast outweighs its content, which at times feels like nothing more than a reading out loud of a Wikipedia entry. No doubt millions of fans will disagree. Readers are better off reading a true crime book.

Rating: 2.5 stars

A note to readers: I would love to know of other true crime podcasts to listen to. Please send me your suggestions.

 

 

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Podcasts for train journeys: 10 to get you started

Vlocity_train_at_little_river_victoriaA new, hour–long, daily commute by train into work (Gisborne to Southern Cross) has suprisingly quelled my reading habits and instead created a new obsession: Podcasts.

Where I thought I would have my head buried in a book as the rugged Victorian countryside rolled by,  I have instead been listening to a variety of audio tales spanning  true crime, politics, everyday life, pyschology and science, celebrity lives, music and comedy.

I’ve been using the Stitcher app which is great because its very user-friendly and you can download podcast espisodes onto your phone to listen offline so I don’t have to use any of my data or rely on mobile connections (this is particurlarly handy for country train rides where mobile signal disappear into black holes).

Much has been written about how Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime and others have changed television forever with all their brilliantly original shows and on-demand binge viewing, I reckon Podcasts are changing radio broadcasting in the same way.

In fact I hardly listen to live radio any more and haven’t watched live television in months.

I have listened to Podcasts before – namely the groundbreaking Guardian Unlimited Ricky Gervais Show and the first brilliant season of crime investigation Serial – but this is the first time I have truly binged on the podcast medium.

Given there are literally thousands of podcasts (and many are downright mediocre or terrible), here are 10 I reckon are worth giving a try, mostly based on recommendations from my podcast-addicted friend Jonny L.

Casefile

My first introduction to the Australian true crime podcast ‘Casefile was the story,  told in three parts, of the notorious ‘Jonestown’ massacre involving the narcissistic Reverend Jim Jones. I followed this up with the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels serial murders in Snowtown, South Australia in the late 1990s which revealed human behaviour at its most depraved.

Each grizzly story is told in graphic detail by an unnamed (and yet to be identified) Australian narrator with a chilling, deadpan voice. Each episode is brilliantly researched, taking you right inside the criminal mind. The podcast, which according to a Vice interview came about when the anonymous creator was stuck in hospital and bored, has become an international sensation with something like 200,000+ downloads per episode.

Sword and Scale

I followed up a couple of Casefile stories with another true crime American podcast ‘Sword and Scale’ with a disturbing episode about childhood sexual abuse and then an episode about Donna Scrivo who killed and dismembered her own son, Ramsay.

Narrated by the disquieting Mike Boudet, Sword and Scale has more of an investigative feel blending a retelling of events with exclusive interviews, courtroom recording and radio and television broadcasts. The podcasts keep listeners guessing, only revealing certains bits of crucial information towards the end.

Desert Island Discs

In need of some light relief, I tuned into the BBC’s famous music series Desert Island Discs (Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, John McEnroe, Hugh Bonneville and Mark Rylance to date) where celebrities talk to Kirsty Young about their lives and the eight songs they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. This is actually a radio show that has been condensed into podcast format. Each are about 40 minutes long.

Here’s The Thing

Next on the menu was Alec Baldwin’s New York podcast “Here’s The Thing'” where the 30 Rock star interviews actors, musicians, politicians and other people he admires (Edie Falco, John Turturro, Dustin Hoffma, William Friedkin, Bernie Sanders, Sandra Bernhardt, Anthony Weiner and Mickey Rourke) about what inspires them, the turning points in their lives and the people and events that shaped them. It’s great because Baldwin loves and admires his interview subjects and is genuinely interested in their lives. Plus he has the perfect voice for radio: smooth and mellow, and he doesn’t take himself to seriously. (My personal favourite so far, the director William Friedkin who made The Exorcist and The French Connection).

The Moth Radio Hour

I confess I have only listened to one episode so far, but it was brilliant. The format of the show, which has been around for years, is to have a theme and then to feature real stories told live in front of an audience. The theme I listened to was Me, Myself, and I: Stories of Questioned Identity which included a great story by the writer and journalist Jon Ronson about a Twitter spambot that stole his identity. The three other stories in the podcast, including the dating adventures of a Manhattan Mormon comic, were all wonderfully engaging, funny, charming and thought-provoking.

On Point

On Point is podcast by the always reliably good National Public Radio (NPR) syndication network examining major issues dominating the American news cycle. Hosted by Tom Ashbrook, the former foreign editor of the Boston Globe, the show invites top journalists and bloggers who are experts on the chosen topic – be it the Harvey Weinstein scandal or the #Takeaknee NFL protest – to present their view-point and debate among each other. Generally panelists include people across the political spectrum which adds to its appeal.

Phoebe’s Fall (On iTunes not Stitcher)

Phoebe’s Fall is a special investigation by The Age newspaper into the bizarre, tragic and unexplained death of 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjunk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage shoot in one of Melbourne’s most exclusive apartment towers.  Presented over six episodes by investigative journalists Michael Bachalard and Richard Baker, it looks at all the key aspects of the baffling case, which seems to defy the ruling of the Coronial Inquest; that Phoebe died by misadventure. It includes interviews with Phoebe’s family, retired detectives and legal experts pulled together with an enjoyable discussion and debate between the two journalists about the key aspects of the case. It’s unmissable for podcast addicts.

This American Life

Presented by one of American radio’s most distinctive voices, Ira Glass, This American Life is one of the most listened to radio shows and podcasts in America. Each weekly episode (broadcast across 500 radio stations) exploring a different theme or topic with great nuance and insight whether it be “The Perils of Intimacy” (about relationships), or “Expect Delays” (about the banal perils of travel and journeys) or more serious topics like the rise of the Alt-Right and White Nationalism. The show is legendary and deserves its status.

Hidden Brain

Also an NPR broadcast, Hidden Brain is a science-based podcast about how we experience the world. Episodes that I have listen to look at the phenomenon of Nostalgia and Regret. The latest episode is on unpredictable behaviour. It’s presented by the highly articulate Shankar Vedantam, a former Washington Post reporter and columnist.

These are just a few suggestions from a novice Podcast listener. If you have any suggestions of your own, send me an email (freshlyworded@gmail.com).

In particular I am keen on finding a good comedy podcast. I’ve not had much luck so far.

Avoiding PR fails: How to win friends and influence journalists

human-652827_960_720I recently sat down over an informal lunch with a large real estate group in their high-rise office.

It was an opportunity to meet some of their new team members at the start of the new year and make new contacts.

But it was also an opportunity for them to ask me questions about the how the newspaper business works and essentially explain how stories  – perhaps their own property deals – might end up in the paper I write for, the Australian Financial Review.

As we chatted over sandwiches, it occurred to me that I was answering many of the same questions I’d answered a number of times before at similar “meet the press’ type meetings and that it might be useful to others to summarise some of the things we discussed.

So here it goes, from the horse’s mouth: A journalist’s top tips for dealing with…journalists:

1. A short email or phone call is often better than sending a press release.

Every journalist is bombarded with media releases. Dozens appear in our email inboxes everyday and throughout the day. It’s impossible to carefully read every one and find the time to work on stories at the same time. A much better option is a short email outlining the story idea in a few dot points and a contact number for the journalist to ring to get more information.  If you are going to send a press release, keep it short and to the point. No journalist has the time to read an 8 page press release. Alternatively, pick up the phone and call, but not before you have read point 2 below.

2. Don’t ring a journalist when they are on deadline.

It’s incredible how many experienced PR consultants still ring journalists at my newspaper at 4 or 5 pm in the afternoon as we are frantically filing stories for the next day’s paper to pitch ideas or just to “chat”. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a conversion, even if for a few minutes about something that’s either irrelevant or can wait while you are trying to finish a story. Incredibly some people go on pitching stories even after you say you are on deadline .If you’re going to ring a journalist find out when the best time to call is. For those writing for newspapers, the morning is usually the best time to ring.  If you are going to ring on deadline, make sure it’s a REALLY, REALLY BIG story.

3. Think before you speak

Once you tell a journalist something, it cannot be untold or unremembered. (Think of us as bottomless receptacles of information rather than sieves). Before you call, think about what you are going to say and write down some key points. It’s amazing how many people ring journalists, provide all kinds of great insider information, slag off their competitors and then are amazed when these quotes appear in the newspaper the next day. The same goes for facts. If they are true and you tell us them, we will report them. (Of course journalists also love salacious people like this and…there are equally some people who love dishing it out, but just be prepared to see it in print the next day as a direct quote).

4. Exclusives are what we want

Exclusives are the life blood of journalists and newspapers. If you can offer a journalist an exclusive and it’s a worthy story, you are almost assured of getting a good run in the paper. However, there is nothing more annoying for a journalist to read the exact same story they have been pitched and are writing appear in another publication. Of course you are perfectly entitled to pitch your story at multiple publications but you should be upfront about that and let the journalist know that they don’t have the story to themselves.

5. Be patient

Even a good story may take a few days, even a few weeks to get a run. This may be because of space (in the case of a print publication) or resources (journalists are generally working on a number of stories and have to prioritize based on what their editor wants) or the type of story: for example rural stories may run on a certain day of the week.  A good story will always get a run. By all means follow-up on the story – NOT ON DEADLINE! – but don’t bombard journalists with multiple daily emails. If the story needs to run by a certain date, then let the journalist know. If they can’t meet that date, then you are perfectly entitled to take the story elsewhere, but tell them first if you want to keep a good relationship.

6. Expect journos to quote you accurately but don’t expect a certain type of story

Journalists that deliberately misquote or take remarks out of context are to be avoided. Mistakes do happen. However, good writers don’t simply regurgitate press releases verbatim. Remember we are story tellers and are writing for our readers – not for you or your clients. Often those two audiences will overlap, but not always. Sometimes a passing comment or a small point may have greater and wider resonance – in the eyes of the journalist or their editor – then the main subject of a press release or briefing. Have an open mind about what you might read in the paper or online.

7. Don’t pester a journalist’s colleagues with the same story

Most journalists work in a team, whether it’s a specific beat like politics or property or the arts. We often sit together and discuss story ideas. It’s amazing how often a PR firm will contact a journalist with a story idea that doesn’t get traction and then ring all their colleagues with the same idea. This is not a great strategy. It smacks of desperation. If you really think a journalist is missing a good story my suggestion is to ring them and ask them why they won’t cover it. If you still think it has legs tell them you will contact their editor to pitch the story or a colleague, but don’t just send it out – scatter-gun style – to all and sundry.

8. Don’t give misleading information

This may seem an obvious one, but it’s quite common for someone to embellish a story idea or even a formal press release with inaccurate information, half-truths or outdated information to generate interest. Good journalists will verify facts, but we expect to be given accurate information in the first instance especially if its in a formal media release. If you are not sure, then say so. Being deliberately misleading is the quickest way to get you on a journalist’s blacklist.

9. Share market intelligence to build rapport

A great way to build a relationship with a journalist is to share information you have about the market and what your competitors are doing “off-the record” (see point 10). This may not get your name in the paper, but will help when you pitch your own story idea. Journalists treasure market tip-offs as much as they do exclusives.

10. Understand what “off-the-record” means

A lot of people I think have misconceptions about what it means when you tell a journalist: “This is off-the-record”. This does not mean that a fact or tidbit won’t be reported. All it means that if it is reported, it will not be attributed to you. Either it will be stated as a fact or something along the lines of “market sources said” or “people close to the deal said”. One thing I would stress is be wary of sharing information off-the-record that could only conceivably come from you. (See point 3 again). That always ends badly – for you, not the journalist.

11. Don’t pick fights with journalists

Of all the idiotic things President Donald Trump has done, one of the silliest has been to pick fights with the main stream media. It’s incredible that he has gone to war with some of the most respected global publications like The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN which have huge audiences. Pick up the phone if you are unhappy with a story, don’t send a ranting email or abusive text message – we have thick skins and long memories.

How to be young and rich in Australia: be a man

How do you become young and filthy rich in Australia?

The short answer is: be a man.

Yes, be a tech whizz, a property tycoon, a retail visionary, a sports star, but most importantly, to steal a line from Canadian stand-up comedian Russell Peters, BE A MAN!

How do I know? The latest BRW Young Rich 2015, a compilation of the 100 richest Australians under 40, which came out in October, had just eight woman on it.

The all-male Top 10

2015-brw-young-rich1Source: BRW.com.au

Of those woman on the list, just four – singer Sia Furler, founder of financial counselling service My Budget, Tammy May, super model Miranda Kerr and golfing star Karrie Webb – have made their fortune entirely on their own.

The other women on the list have made their fortunes in partnerships with men: Erica Baxter through her marriage to billionaire James Packer, Erin Deering, through online bikini company Triangl founded with her husband Craig Ellis; Melanie Perkins, who set up online graphics software company Canva with Cliff Obrecht, and Michelle Strode, who co-founded technology company Invoice2go with her husband Chris.

So, making it on your own as a woman is even tougher. Having a bloke by your side helps.

I remarked about the lack of woman on the BRW list to a number of people and got pretty much the stock standard answer: woman don’t become ultra-wealthy because they are off having babies etc etc.

The truth is for all the talk in Australia about gender equality in the work place; not penalising women who want a career AND a family; lifting the proportion of women in senior position; and equal pay for men and women who do the same jobs – we still live in a very unequal business environment, where men earn the big dollars and women are expected to give it all up when they have children.

There are of course exceptions, the likes of former Westpac boss Gail Kelly, Mirvac CEO Susan Lloyd Hurwitz, and in government, deputy prime minister Julie Bishop.

But, mostly there remains the old-world misogynist view of women not rising too high in society, displayed most strikingly and distastefully in the 1423545120130attacks on Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard called a ‘bitch’, and  ‘witch’ by mostly middle-aged men in politics and the mainstream media. Julia Gillard was also judged by society – both men and women – for not having children, as if that was some kind of heinous crime, not merely a valid life choice for any woman.

This unequal belief system – that men should be the big earners, the stereotypical ‘providers’ – extends into all realms of Australian working life: I was flabbergasted to read recently that the basic contract for an Australian woman representing the national soccer team, the Matildas, is just $21,000 a year, two-thirds of the minimum wage.

This is a team, ranked 9th in the world, who beat Brazil at the World Cup this year and reached the knockout stages.

By contrast, regular members of the mens soccer team, the Socceroos, have each earn more than $200,000 so far this year, despite losing every game at the last World Cup and being ranked a lowly 65th in the world.

It’s does not surprise me at all that the Matildas have gone on strike, demanding fairer pay.

In the property industry, the sector I cover as a journalist, gender is a big, emotive issue.

Property has traditionally been a very blokey, boy’s club industry, though it’s true that efforts are being made to encourage more women into the industry, and also that there have been some notable successes in this endevour.

But still, the property industry remains dominated by outrageously wealthy men as can be seen by the number of young male property tycoons on the BRW Young Rich List  (I counted five) and the complete absence of any women property tycoons.

Supermodel Miranda Kerr

Supermodel Miranda Kerr

The other point about the type of women who make it onto the BRW Young Rich List needs to be made delicately.

In short, looks definitely matter.

This to me, only reinforces the “Crocodile Dundee” image of Australia as the land of “Bruces” and “Sheilas”, that was circulated around the world in the 1980s and later reinforced by cringeworthy iconic Australians like the late animal entertainer Steve Irwin famous for jumping on to the backs of wild animals in true Aussie macho style

While it is true that there is much that is progressive, modern fresh and exciting about Australia, it still retains a distinct air of male chauvinism and a strong underlying current of conservatism (gay marriage is another area of distinct inequality).

Real wealth and power in this country, remains in the hands of blokes, now, and, given the make-up of latest BRW Young Rich List with its tiny female representation, will remain in their hands in the future too.

How to survive a horror movie marathon this Halloween

Halloween-Pumpkin-BG-1

“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie” – so says Randy, the geeky virgin played by Jamie Kennedy in the original Scream movie.

But can you survive a Drew Barrymore movie?

Randy’s rules are a) you never have sex b) you never drink or do drugs and c) you never say “I’ll be right back” – because you won’t!

Sound advice, although doesn’t Randy end up dead too at some point? Perhaps its in one of the rubbishy sequels. I can’t remember.

Never mind. Halloween is coming up soon (October 31) which means it’s the perfect time to re-acquaint myself with Scream and other horror classics, both good and bad.

lost_boys_ver2_xlgI should warn you. I am a terrible horror movie watcher, always in a state of perpetual terror, heart racing. Once in the cinema, when I was a teenager, I threw my popcorn straight up in the air when a vampire awoke in The Lost Boys (Kiefer Sutherland with fangs) and did the same, unfortunately with a glass of red wine this time (on someone else’s couch) when one of the masked intruders in the very creepy (and underrated) The Strangers made a sudden appearance.

2008-The-Strangers-Screenshot-1

I have also been known to bury my head behind a pillow, hide behind the couch, hide behind the curtains, block my ears and close my eyes – much to the amusement, but also annoyance of my fellow film watchers.

But if you had to ask me what I would need to survive a movie marathon of my favourite horror movies, these are things I’d pack in my man crate*:

gloves

Extra thick gloves so I don’t get touched up by evil psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lector, and night vision goggles for later so I can shoot transvestite serial killer Buffalo bill squarely between the eyeballs before he gets me in the dark basement of his creepy old house (For The Silence of the Lambs).

earthmate-pn-40-handheld-gps-device
A good local map or perhaps a decent GPS device so I don’t get lost while inexplicably taking a walk on a moonlit night in the barren Yorkshire Moors, plus a little note-book to write down handy hints like “Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors” and “Beware the moon, lads”. Also, a gun loaded with silver bullets in case a deranged hairy monster leaps out at me (For An American Werewolf in London).

I’d need a beach bag, with towel, but no bathing suit so I would have a damn good excuse for not getting into the water and a scary book about sharks to convince me I really don’t need to go in for a swim in my undies. (For Jaws, the original, where the shark actually looked real).

For later in the evening, three books, “A guide to old Manhattan apartment and their ghoulish histories“, “How to know if your partner is a Satanist” (pocket size) and “New York’s most reputable obstetricians: the Definitive List“. (For Rosemary’s Baby)

61QuGlo9kZL._SY355_

A few more odds and ends: Extra strong coffee so I don’t fall asleep while having a bath (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and my anti-psychotic medication to keep the subway demons at bay (Jacob’s Ladder)

And of course, a decent recipe for pea soup! (The Exorcist).

GreenGarlicSoup

*I was invited to write this post for mancrates.com, an American gift company that makes up collections of nostalgic gifts and then ships them out in actual wooden crates, complete with an Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style crowbar, to open them.

I haven’t been paid to write it, nor did I get a free man crate (I did ask) but I loved the concept when I checked out their website. Pity they don’t ship to Australia.

I especially liked the crate filled with exotic meats crate (including biltong), the coffee crate with genuine NATO ammo case and one I am sure would be sought after by many blokes, the retro gamer man crate.

Freshlyworded online bites: Five hand-picked yarns to enjoy this week

media bitesJanuary 15 edition (inaugural edition)

The internet is a vast, limitless place and very distracting.The worst thing you can do is waste your time reading drivel like this or this

Every week freshlyworded.com scours the internet for five worthy reads and shares them with you, completely free of charge.

The only criteria are that they be interesting/startling/enlightening (or preferably all three), that I have read them myself, that they are not behind a pay wall and that they can be enjoyed in the time it takes to drink a good cappuccino (sometimes quite slowly).

This week’s five are:

1. A Craigslist ‘Missed Connection’ Lure (New York Times)
“It all felt so sweet, strange and surreal. And impossibly romantic.”

– Finding ‘true love’ on Craiglist isn’t as easy as you think by Rosemary Counter (@RosemaryCounter).

2. Reconciling faith with political power (The Age)
“Others, including myself, are puzzled that the most Catholic Coalition Cabinet in Australia’s history can be so cruel in slashing our aid program – the lowest  in our history.”

– Being Christian at home does not mean being kind in public office writes Tim Costello. (@TimCostello)

3. Laughing at the Establishment in Thailand ( Time Magazine)
“The Bangkok Post dubbed Winyu Wongsurawat’s frenetic style ‘Jon Stewart on crack,'”.

– How a satirist is taking on Thailand’s military junta via a hugely popular YouTube show by Charlie Campbell. (@CharlieCamp6ell)

4. Selma’ Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights (The Jewish Daily Forward)
“The black-Jewish relationship is complex, with many changes over time, but the historical record is clear.”

– A new film about the 1965 Civil Rights processes omits the role played by Jewish leaders writes Leida Snow. (@LeidaSnow)

5. RJ Mitte: ‘Nothing I do will ever compare with Breaking Bad’ (The Guardian)
“When Mitte read the character summary for Walt Jr seven years ago, it came as a welcome shock. “The breakdown pretty much described me,” he says, still slightly amazed by his luck. “Dark hair, big eyebrows, cerebral palsy … I was like, ‘I have this covered.’”.

– RJ Mitte, the actor who played Walt Jr in Breaking Bad talks about his acting and how he overcame his disability by Homa Khaleeli. (@homakhaleeli)

If you have a worthy yarn, send a link to freshlyworded@gmail.com and I will review for possible inclusion.

Writing well: 10 useful tips for feature writing from the pages of the Wall Street Journal

art and craft ofA couple of months ago, a colleague, pressing me to get started on a feature for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper I write for, suggested:

“Have a big glass of red wine and then just start writing.”

I should put some context around this. I don’t drink wine at work as a rule. I was going to function, where wine would be served. Then I would come back to the office.

My colleague’s rationale: it would free up my creativity.

I took his advice, and the end result was good, but the story certainly did not flow out of me like….fine red wine (perhaps the quality of wine ingested matters!)

Feature writing is challenging. There are many different things to pull together – people, events, themes, counter-arguments – and to do so well is as much technique as it is flair, talent or creativity.

My technique, until recently, was a stop-start approach of firstly trying to come up with the lead (the opening paragraphs) which usually involved numerous attempts, re-writes, teeth grinding, coffee break, chat with colleagues etc before finally making a start. Then I’ll write to the length required and then arduously work back, trying to create some kind of flow and rhythm and to give a point to it all.

But there are better, more structured ways to go about writing features (not that writing should be easy, good writing requires effort, sweat and toil).

I recently came across a useful book recommended to me by Michelle Griffin a very experienced journalist at The Age, who has also been my mentor the past 8 months.

She suggested I read: “The Wall Street Journal Guide to The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Blundell, himself a journalist with the esteemed newspaper

It’s an old book, first printed in 1988, but you can get a newish reprint online. I bought a copy from the Book Depository and read it cover to cover, slowly, underlining parts on the way into work, trying to ingest some of Blundell’s tips, tools and techniques for telling better stories; after all isn’t that what feature writing really is?

As Blundell puts it: “We can learn a great deal from fiction and this book makes at least a modest start to connecting some techniques of fiction to the work we do.

The book is helpful on many levels, for example the opening chapters are about generating ideas and coming up with the raw materials for a good feature and I suggest reading it cover to cover.

What I found most useful where the practical tips for the writing process itself. These are 10 to keep in mind:

1. Write out your main theme statement

In a couple of simple, tightly written sentences express the story: its main developments, likely effects and reactions to them.

If writing a profile, the theme statement  should be the facets of the person, company or organisation you plans to focus on.

“Tack this main theme statement up where  you can see it. Let it guide your work. Let it reproach you, question you, when you stray too far,” Blundell writes, adding; “I consider the main theme statement the single most important bit of writing I do on any story.”

2. Have a plan

“The only important thing is that you have a plan, however loose and informal and use it to good effect”, says Blundell. Good writers, plan before they report and again before they write.

3. Readers love action

“The story that does not move, that just sits there stalled while people declaim, explain, elaborate and suck their thumbs is justly labeled by some editors as a MEGO – “My Eyes Glaze Over”,” writes Blundell.”The most desirable kind of movement is the unfurling of natural story progression.” To do this stories must shift the reader’s attention from “the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular, from the mural to the minature.”

Feature writers are storytellers. “We are in the drama business,” Blundell declares.

4. People with direct experience are better than ‘experts’

I think this is particularly useful as many journalists quote too easily from “certified somebodies” rather than “little people with direct experience”.

I heavily circled this paragraph: “The story is happening on streets where there are no PR men strewing palms in the reporter’s path, no computers disgorging blocks of seductive statistics and a lot of people who have nothing to gain from doing pirouettes for the press…we have to gather details and direct experiences that show the reader what we are talking about, that convince him of the truth of the sweeping assertions made by us and our desk people. Most of all we go there to convince ourselves.”

5. Skim read through all your material beforehand

Often, I don’t do this. I go back and forth looking for what to include in various documents. It’s an exhausting process and sucks up vast amounts of time.

Blundell’s advice: Skim through all interviews and documents. Read rapidly, not for mastery of detail, but for the sense of things. Put aside material that is irrelevant or weakly repetitive.

This will help refine and define your main theme statement and story plan.Blundell also suggests creating an indexing system where you group things in a logical manner. This may be vital for very long stories, but I find it overly complex. A couple of theme sub-heading and a few notes about what to include under each theme should do the job on shortish features.

6. Keep digressions short, return quickly to the action

Anything that is not action is digression: observations, quotes, explanations and descriptions. Blundell’s advice: Keep it short and sharp, or as he says it: “Hustle the reader over the lakes as rapidly as you can to get his vessel back into white water – story action.”

7. The lead is key, but can be left till later

The lead is what draws a reader in, gets him to make an investment of his time in your story right away. Blundell says a good lead intrigues, teases, gives you a reason for reading on. Many of the best leads he says have one quality: mystery.

The book is full of numerous examples of good and bad writing. I’ll just transpose one example he gives of a good lead:

“Crowded with 346 passengers and crew members, the Turkish Airlines DC-10 rose smoothly from Orly Airport in Paris bound for London. Terror came at 12,000 feet.”

Mystery is good, but not confusion or riddles. If mystery does not work for your story focus on urgency or telling the reader that something compelling is happening.

An anecdote or quote is a popular way to start a feature, but Blundell says it should be simple to understand and have relevance for the main theme of the story.

Often, the lead can be a retooling of the main theme statement, especially if you are struggling to come up with one.

However, don’t spend hours at the beginning of the writing process coming up with the lead, unless one comes naturally to mind. Write the main body of the story and come back to it later.

8. Don’t overuse numbers and statistics

Blundell’s advice – don’t overload readers with too many numbers.  Also, he says express them in their most simplest form, rounded-off, expressed pictorially (something “doubled” or “trebled”) or as ratios. Very large (or very small) numbers are better expressed in a way that can be visualised. E.g. “It was three times the size of New York City’s Central Park”

9. Choose your quotes carefully and sparingly

Too many people quoted in a story, not saying anything that is particularly interesting will drown out those who do have something worthwhile to say.

Blundell advises avoiding quotes that state the obvious (the writer should be brave enough to state these points themselves). He says good writers are merciless about who they include and exclude. A good quote should have: credibility, draw an emotional response, be trenchant (sharp, incisive, authentic) and add variety to your story.

10. Endings are important

Blundell suggests that good endings drive home the established theme and help readers remember all they have been told. He says there are three that seem to work well:

– Circling back: reminding the reader of the central message through “symbols, emotional responses, observations, even snippets of poetry”. It should be full of echoes and overtones of the body of the story.

– Looking ahead: “What might be useless speculation clogging up the middle of a piece can become evocative material at its end,” Blundell says.

-Spreading out: You end by giving the reader something new to think about. The ending makes the story bigger than it was before, something worth remembering.

These are just some of the tips I picked up from the book and have found useful.

Of course none of this matters if your idea is weak, ill-conceived, poorly researched, of little gravitas or just plain boring.

Every great story begins with a great idea.

Happy writing, storytellers.