About ten years ago, when I was still living in London and already writing for The Economist, I got in the habit of visualizing a specific scene whenever I was preparing to write something (ie, most of the time). And I still do it today.
In this mental scene, I am saying goodbye to somebody I know and like, somebody who would not bullshit me–my wife, for instance. She has boarded her train in the London Tube (“subway”, to you New Yorkers), and just as that famous Tube voice says Mind the Gap and I pull back on the platform, she says: ‘Oh, and what’s your next piece about?’
As the doors close, I shout one single mouthful of words into the train. A few words. That’s all there is time for. Then I watch the train pull away, and I imagine her facial expression as she looks through the pane.
- Intrigued? Good.
- Thoughtful? Good.
- Outraged? Good, if that’s the kind of story it is.
- Smirking? Good, if that’s the kind of story it is.
But what if the reaction on her face is:
- Ho-hum. Not good.
- Bored. No go.
- Squinting. Ouch, I must have shouted out a cliché.
Often, I iterate story ideas in real conversations, of course. But there isn’t enough time to do that with the thousands of half-formed story ideas that teem inside my head at any given moment. And conversation has a drawback: You have time. Time to explain… and explain… and explain. The writer needs the opposite: to be constrained into one short phrase only.
So the big surprise is that this mental exercise alone usually does the trick. That ‘trick’ being:
To find something in the everything around me that is worth telling, because somebody will react to it.
At The Economist, we have a ‘flytitle’, ‘title’, and ‘rubric’ above every piece, and sometimes a ‘dateline’. In this article, for instance, these are:
The Filipina sisterhood [flytitle]
An anthropology of happiness [title]
Dec 20th 2001 | HONG KONG [dateline]
Out of misery, some extraordinary lessons [rubric]
ONCE a week, on Sundays, Hong Kong becomes a different city. Thousands of Filipina women throng into… [text]
I chose this example because it’s one that worked. Spoken through closing Tube doors, this trio of flytitle, title and rubric would have done the trick. I would know that I’m ready to start writing the pice.
The rubric, Out of misery, some extraordinary lessons, actually came from the editor of that piece, Ann Wroe (usually our Obituary writer, and one of our best). She had taken whatever phrase I had put there, probably a grammatically complete sentence, and chopped it into this open-ended, verbless and … inescapable line. (Notice the alluringly modest some)
So that’s what I do, day in and day out, I think of rubrics and titles. The world is full of things and events and people and sensual inputs. Those are not yet stories. To become stories, they have to fall into place in a way that is interesting. And an essence has to emerge out of them. That becomes the rubric.
The rubric is not a summary (that’s where I used to get it wrong for a long time). It can, but need not be, a thesis, bluntly put. It can be a question, inviting the reader to go on a journey of discovery. Or anything else. The best ones are Haikus, full of attitude. I thought this one, for instance, worked okay, although it bordered on gimmicky:
What a lot of wheatgrass
Jun 30th 2005 | SAN FRANCISCO
Psst, there is news about Google, but don’t tell
IT IS hard to know whether to be impressed, suspicious or amused…..
Really, all it does is to inform you that I’m about to ‘take the piss’, as the Brits would say, on the general subject of Google. If you expect serious analysis after this, it’s your own fault.
Anyway. I happen to believe that this rubric-shouting through closing Tube doors works for all writing at all length. Short blog posts, long essays, even entire books. If you don’t know what that center of gravity is toward which you want your readers to be pulled, you’re not ready yet.
Which makes me wonder, of course, whether I have found the title and rubric of my forthcoming book (which I happen to care about more than about any article I’ve ever written.) You may recall that I recently sent the manuscript to my editor at Riverhead, and that for all sorts of reasons, having to do with the American marketplace, I do not yet know the title and subtitle. It will be determined by the editor, “in consultation” with me. And so I wait.
Lots of Tube doors opening and closing in my mind. Mind the Gap.