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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Journalist's Handbook: A Primer on Good Writing

When I was teaching journalism and feature writing at the University of Illinois I wrote a Journalist's Handbook that I gave to all of my students. In it was information and tips on writing that I collected and revised for almost three decades. Some of it dated back to my time as a journalism student. Some of it was information that I accumulated and consigned to a three-ring binder during a 25-year career as a reporter and editor.

The binder accompanied me during my years as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America and as a national correspondent covering the West Coast of the United States. I kept it close at hand when I was an editor. As the years passed, the binder got older and frayed (sort of like me). My old binder was rife with coffee stains, grubby hand prints, lots of barely readable hand-scribbled notes, and to top it off the pages kept falling out.

But that never kept me from consulting it--a humbling reminder that you will never know all there is to know about writing, nor should you ever stop learning.

As a writer you must find your own voice; your own style; your own place in the writer's dominion. It is a journey of discovery that never ends. The objective of my class and the Handbook I created was to assist students in beginning that journey; to make sure they were  equipped with the tools they would need to chart a successful course.

It has been said that writing is both an "art" and a "craft." Others have said that you can't teach people to write, that it must be learned. That is only partially correct.

While no one can teach "talent," as in any art, we can teach technique. That's what I wanted students to find in the Handbook--the techniques of reporting and writing.  Talent is an intrinsic quality and each of us must develop it in our own way.

The "art" of writing refers to the writer's innate ability to use the language with respect and affection.

For journalists it is the capacity to be sensitive to what is going on around him or her; a facility to recognize what is important or interesting and to present it in a compelling way; the commitment to adhere to the journalistic principles of fairness and honesty.

The class I taught and the Handbook I used were designed to introduce students to the tools and the techniques of the "art." How they chose to use those tools and techniques was determined by how dedicated and talented they were.

The "craft" of journalism and writing, however, as with any other craft, can be transferred from the professional to the novice. I told students that I would teach them to recognize the tools of the craft, to understand how to use those tools and to respect them.

I cannot teach you to be a brilliant writer, I told the students, but I hope to introduce you to the enchantment and wonder of words and to the profound responsibility that comes with using their awesome power. Once you understand and respect those tools your brilliance as a writer and reporter will be limited only by your inherent talent.

One of the first things I attempted to teach my students was a glossary of rhetorical terms. An understanding of rhetorical terms and their use should be part of every writer's tool kit. I warned them that some of the examples were a bit dated (and they still are).

But their age doesn't make the examples any less relevant--sort of like people.

A Writer's Glossary of Rhetorical Terms:

Alliteration: The occurrence of words more or less in sequence having the same beginning sound. (“words that had warmed women, wooed and won them…”—Gay Telese).

Allusion: Reference to a well-known book, person, place, or event. An allusion is an economical way to enrich the impact of your writing with emotional and intellectual echoes from another work. (“If a [McDonald’s] manager tries to sell his customers hamburgers that have been off the grill more than 10 minutes. . .Big Brother in Oak Brook will find out.”Time. Big Brother is a reference to the supreme authority in George Orwell’s 1984. “(The photograph) shocked the nation into realizing that something was rotten in Vietnam.”—John G. Morris. An allusion to Hamlet.

Anticlimax: A descent from a comparatively lofty vocabulary or tone to one noticeably less exalted. If the descent is sudden, the effect is often comic. (“Fun is for the frivolous, and Jimmy (Carter) sees the world as a hard and serious place. Man was put here to suffer, to atone, to repent, to confess, to surrender, to witness, or else to bake until well-did.” Larry L. King)

Connotation: The implications or suggestions evoked by a word. Connotations may be highly individual, based on associations because of pleasant or unpleasant experiences in a person’s life; or universal—that is, culturally conditioned.

Denotation: The literal meaning of a word, exclusive of attitudes or feelings the writer or speaker may have.

Hyperbole: Exaggeration as a means of achieving emphasis, humor, and sometimes irony. (“Here she [Ann Miller] stands for a moment, examining legs that start at the waist and end nine miles below in a pair of shoes she’s nicknamed Mac and Joe.”—Arthur Bell.

Imagery: In its most common use imagery suggests visual detail or pictures, though it may also refer to words denoting other sensory experiences.

Irony: A discrepancy between what is said and what is meant; incongruity. Often used with a kind of grim humor, irony gives the effect of cool detachment and restraint. (“Carter. . ignored the Democratic crown prince, Ted Kennedy, the well-known midnight aquanaut.”—Larry L. King)

Metaphor: A comparison of two unlike objects without using the word “like.” (“Sentimentality and repression have a natural affinity; they’re the two sides of one counterfeit coin.”—Pauline Kael. “A very old woman with gray hair is hauled along by her life-support system, a curly-haired blue-jacketed black dog on a leash.”—Talk of the Town, The New Yorker. Another example is Kenneth Tynan describing the stage relationship between TV’s Johnny Carson and comedian Don Rickles: “More deftly than anyone else, Carson knows how to play matador to Rickles’ bull, inciting him to charge, and sometimes getting gored himself.”)

Onomatopoeia: The use of words whose sounds seem to express or reinforce their meanings: hiss, bank, bow-wow, for example. (“The room clacked with the crack of billiard balls.”—Gay Telese.

Oxymoron: Two apparently contradictory terms that express a startling paradox. (“a smiling man-child of 51”—Shana Alexander; “flawless faux pas”—Arthur Bell)

Parallelism: Writing in which similar or related ideas are expressed in similar grammatical structure, thus achieving balance, rhythm, and emphasis. (Look for the series of parallel verb phrases at the end of this sentence: “It is strangely comforting to surrender an unadorned, eminently imperfect body to the ministration of another human being: someone who will rotate the stiffened joints, knead the balky muscles, unknot the drum-tight nerves and coax the sluggish skin into alertness.” Michelle Green.

Periodic Sentence: A suspenseful sentence, usually long, in which the main idea is not completed until the very end. (“Every four or eight years a large band of men, mostly without previous experience of government, mostly young, all dangerously euphoric because of recent and often accidental political success, all billed as geniuses by the Washington press corps and believing their own notices, all persuaded that they were meant by the stars to reinvent the wheel, are given great ostensible, and even actual, power on the White House staff.”—John Kenneth Galbraith.

Personification: A figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstract ideas are endowed with human qualities. (“the shape and shade and size and noise of the words as they hummed, strummed, jigged and galloped along”—Dylan Thomas.

Pun: Word play involving the use of a word with two different meanings or the use of a word that is pronounced similarly to another with a different meaning. (“a science writer who can make the language of numbers sound as easy as pi”Time. “McDonald’s is a super clean production machine efficient enough to give even the chiefs of General Motors food for thought.” Time)

Simile: An expressed comparison between two unlike objects. (Kenneth Tynan describing host Johnny Carson: “In repose, he resembles a king-sized ventriloquist’s dummy.”  “The white flesh of her thighs rose like soft bread dough over the tops of her stockings.”—Stephanie Mills.)

Symbol: Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.

Zeugma: A construction in which one word is placed in the same grammatical relationship to two other words but it relates to the two in different senses. Zeugma usually involves a verb and two objects, and the verb has two different meanings. (“He was a serious young man wearing glasses and the mien of a Harvard divinity student.”—Terry Southern)
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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Q & A With Ron Yates (Part 3)

During a recent virtual book tour with a book blogging website I was asked the following questions, which I endeavored to answer honestly. I hope you find this Q & A interesting and helpful.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?  

Don't let anybody discourage you from pursuing this work if it is really what you want to do. Don't be discouraged by rejection. You must believe in yourself, your ideas, your stories. If you don't, who will? Certainly not that dense editor or literary agent who couldn't see your potential or grasp your book's story line.

Is being a writer a curse or a gift?

It is a wonderful gift if you allow the process to come to you and don't force it. However, don't let anybody tell you it is not damned hard work. It is. The joy of writing for me is telling a good story. I don't care about imparting a "message." Nor do I care about creating any hidden "meanings" that some literature professor will hold forth about in a writing class when I am no longer around to rebut him/her. I just want to tell a good story. That, to me, is the ultimate gift of writing.
The curse is that writing can take over your life, isolate you from family and friends and turn you into a kind of sophistic recluse if you are not careful. Writers need to take breaks from working. If they don't I believe they run the risk of becoming stale, self-absorbed, and misanthropic.

Where do you write?

My Room with a View
I have taken over the upstairs bonus room in our house. It is about 500 square feet. In it I have my rather prodigious library, a good sound system for playing classical music, a large screen TV for watching sports, the Discovery, History, and National Geographic channels when I need a break from writing. My window looks out onto a plant and boulder-strewn foothill that rises in front of my house. Another window looks down onto the Temecula valley some 2,000 feet below. It is quiet and soothing. Couldn't have a better place to write.

Do you prefer silence or some noise while you write?

I like to listen to music when I write. Most often I listen to Mozart, Haydn, Telemann, William Boyce, and Beethoven. Classical music brings out my muse. However, I also like the jazz of Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, The Modern Jazz Quartet, George Shearing, etc. and I will on occasion switch from classical to that.

What do you typically drink while writing?

Very cold iced tea.

What challenges have you had in regards to your writing life?

When I was a working journalist for the Chicago Tribune and then a Dean and professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, I could never find large enough blocks of time to write consistently. Writing requires HUGE amounts of time and long periods of seclusion--things most of us don't have. So time to write has always been the biggest challenge. Now that I am no longer teaching or working full-time as a journalist I am blessed to have a lot more time to write than I ever thought I would have.

When did you first start and when did you finish your book?

I started the first book in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy in 2010, but I wasn't consistent in working on it. I really buckled down in the spring of 2013 and probably wrote 60% of it in about five months. I plant to finish Book #2 in six months.

What does your protagonist think of you? Would he/she want to hang out with you?

I think Billy Battles and I would be good friends. We are both journalists and we both like going to new places and experiencing new challenges. And we both enjoy a good cold beer after a long hard day.

How do you market your book? What avenues work best?

I am still learning how to use the vast universe of social media to market my book. In addition to Amazon and Barnes and Noble, of course, my book is on Goodreads, Smashwords, Google Books, Createspace, NetGalley, Independent Book Publishers Association, as well as the Historical Novel Society, my blog, my author page on Facebook and the book's website,

What has been the toughest criticism so far?

None, so far. Though it is still early in the process. Someone did say they didn't like the fact that the book is part of a trilogy because now they have to wait for Book #2. I like THAT kind of criticism.

What has been the best compliment?

There have been several, but I will list just four here. You can find these and other reviews on the book's Amazon page:

"The is easily the best work of fiction I have read in some time."  

"There is something about this book that is almost impossible to explain, but it takes it from being a *good* book to a GREAT one."

"Move over Elmore Leonard and Pete Dexter--there's a new deputy sheriff in town."

"Ever have a book that takes over your days and nights - that's what Finding Billy Battles did for me."  

Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?

That's tricky. I call my work "Faction," because it is both fact and fiction. Some of the events in the book--especially those dealing with real people, did happen. Was my character directly involved in them? No. But members of my family were native Kansans and some of the experiences I write about did happen. Of course, I have woven some of my own experiences into the story line also.

How did you come up with the title?

I had been trying to think of a title for years. I didn't like any of them. Then one day, this one just jumped out of my brain and into the computer and Finding Billy Battles was born.

Will there be a sequel?

This is the first book in a trilogy of books that deal with Billy Battles life story. Book One is centered in Kansas, Colorado and other places in the American West. Book Two takes Billy to the Far East--French Indochina, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.--places I spent a lot of my life. Book  Three will find Billy in Latin America, Mexico and Europe--all places I have lived and worked in.

Any upcoming events, book fairs where we can meet Billy Battles?

Yes. I was honored to be invited to be Presenting Author at the Kansas Book Festival Sept. 11-12 in Topeka, Kansas. This is especially meaningful to me because Kansas is my home state and I am a graduate of the University of Kansas just east of Topeka.

What project are you working on now?

Book #2 in the Finding Billy Battles series AND I am getting together reams of notes for when I finally decide to write about my own life as foreign correspondent.

Please fill in the blank: Keep Calm and___________:
Laugh--a lot! It's good for the mind and body.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Q & A with Ron Yates (Part 2)

If you could have dinner with 1 person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Winston Churchill. He was absolutely brilliant and I would hope by the end of dinner some of that brilliance would have rubbed off on me, though I seriously doubt it.

One food you would never eat?

Monkey Brain Sushi (yes, it is a real dish in China and I won't tell you how it's prepared). It is considered a cure for impotence (what isn't?).

Another dish I will continue to eschew is Balut, which is a delicacy in The Philippines. It is fertilized chicken or duck eggs in which the developed embryo is boiled and eaten from the shell. Yum!
Which brings me to some advice an old Chicago Tribune copy editor named Spokely gave me when I was getting ready to leave Chicago for my first posting as a foreign correspondent. "You are going to places that serve strange food and you will be tempted to say 'no thank you,' when it is offered. Don't do that. It will be an insult to your host. When somebody offers you something to eat that looks or smells horrible, just remember Spokely's law: Everything tastes more or less like chicken."

What were the last couple of movies you watched?

Labor Day with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin & Philomena, with Judy Dench.

What was the scariest moment of your life?

There have been several. One was during the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. The last day was chaos incarnate. Russian made 122mm rockets were slamming into buildings, 130mm mortars were hitting Tan Son Nhut airport, and the U.S. Embassy was surrounded by frantic South  Vietnamese desperate to get out of the country because they had worked for the American military or some U.S. agency. The city was in full panic mode. Several of us made our way to the sprawling Defense Attache Office building at Tan Son Nhut and we were finally evacuated by a U.S. Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter. It was a relief until the door gunner told me later aboard the U.S.S. Okinawa that the pilot apparently had to drop a flare to misdirect a SAM-7 (surface to air missile).
Evacuation from Saigon aboard a Marine CH-53 

Another was during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when I and several Chinese students were pinned down near the square for 30 minutes or so by Chinese soldiers shooting in our direction. Several students near me were wounded and we were helping them get to a doctor's house nearby so he could treat them. I was convinced I was going to wind up dead in the square. Then suddenly the shooting stopped and I was able to get my Red and White Sprick bicycle that I had chained to a lamp post and peddle like crazy for the Jinghau Hotel where I was staying and from where I was filing my stories to the Tribune.

Yet another memorable moment was during the revolution in El Salvador when I and two German correspondents were stopped in our car near the town of Suchitoto by Communist guerillas. They put cloth bags put over our heads and forced us to kneel alongside the road. We were sure we were going to be executed. But suddenly the "jefe" (leader) showed up and we were set free. "Don't kill journalists--unless they are armed," he yelled at his troops. I was greatly relieved that I had left the 1911 Colt Pistol I had purchased a few days earlier back in the hotel in San Salvador. I believe it is still there.

Ahhh yes, the life of a foreign correspondent...never a dull moment. But I still believe I had the best job in the world and I wouldn't trade my career for anything.

What books have most influenced your life?

Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh; The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck; The Quiet American, Graham Greene; The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott; Kim, Rudyard Kipling; Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain); A Passage to India, E.M. Forster; Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser; The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer.

What do you do to unwind and relax?

What else? I read. I find reading a good book helps me escape from my own writing, which I need to do on occasion. Right now I am reading Lawrence In Arabia by Scott Anderson; The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearnes Goodwin and A Drink Before the War, by Dennis Lehane.

Do you have a Website or Blog?

Yes, I have both. My website is called ronaldyatesbooks: and I am constantly updating it. My blog, ForeignCorrespondent, can be found at: I try to post to it at least once or twice a week. I also have an Amazon Author Central page at:, and an Author's Page on Facebook called Ronald E. Yates Books. It is located at:
What is your favorite line from a book?

I have a couple and they are both from Evelyn Waugh: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole." It is a line from Waugh's Scoop written by nature writer William Boot for the London Daily Beast just before he is mistaken for a famous foreign correspondent and sent off to the fictional African country of Ishmaelia to cover a war.

AND from Waugh's book Vile Bodies comes this great line: “I know very few young people, but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence.” 

If it was mandatory for everyone to read three books, what books would you suggest?
Huckleberry Finn; The Grapes of Wrath; Sister Carrie. Not only are these classics, they are wonderful stories about the human spirit, its resiliency and strength, and its deficiencies and weaknesses.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Q & A with Ron Yates (Part 1)

During one of my virtual online book tours, a blogger asked to do a Question and Answer interview during our session. What follows are her questions and my answers. I hope you find them useful. 

Q. What was your inspiration to write Finding Billy Battles?
A. I grew up in Kansas and was always fascinated by what life was like there in the 19th Century when the state was still pretty wild. At the same time, I spent a lot of time in the Far East as a foreign correspondent and I was equally intrigued by what life must have been like in the 19th Century colonial period in places like French Indochina, The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. Then one day I got the idea to blend the two using a character from 19th Century Kansas who goes to the Far East in search of himself.
The Philippine Highlands
 Q. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
A. Probably when I was in the sixth grade. I loved writing stories and I had a teacher (Mrs. Gooch) who encouraged me. My mother also bought me books and took me often to the library--a place that I found mystical and magnetic. She often read to me and I could "see" the story unfolding before me. When I could, I began to read everything I could get my hands on. As I used to tell my journalism students at the University of Illinois, if you want to be a good writer, be an avid reader.

Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a published author?
A.   Try to write as much as you can from your own experiences. They are real and uncontrived and if you incorporate those experiences in your fiction your work will have a truthful ring to it. Beyond that, KEEP AT IT! Don't let anybody (editors, agents, etc) discourage you. At the same time, be willing to accept constructive criticism from those who have experience as authors, editors, agents, etc. Notice I said CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. Some people criticize just to be criticizing--or to be malicious. You must believe in yourself, your work, your vision and your story. If you don't, who will?

Q.  What do you think makes a good story?
A.  A good story needs a strong plot and even stronger characters. Otherwise it falls flat. The writer needs to be first and foremost, a good storyteller. If you build a good story, THEY WILL COME, to paraphrase Field of Dreams. Make readers care about your protagonist.  Make readers empathize, cry and laugh with them. At the same time, keep them off balance. Don't be predictable and don't be afraid to do terrible things to your favorite characters. Have you ever known anybody who has sailed through life without some turmoil, some pain, some suffering? I haven't.

Q.  Do you have any writing projects you are currently working on?
A.  I am currently working on Book Two of the Finding Billy Battles trilogy. I expect to be finished by late fall 2014. Then I will start on Book Three. After that, who knows. I may finally get around to writing about my own life as a war correspondent.
Ron & Vietnamese "Boat People" 1979

Q.  If your book became a movie, who would be your first choice to play the lead roles?
A.  Clint Eastwood as the elderly Billy Battles; Clive Owen as the middle aged Billy Battles and Ashton Kutcher as the young Billy Battles. I would pick Saffron Burrows for Billy's first love, Mallie McNab and Famke Janssen for the widow Katharina Schreiber who Billy meets on the boat to the Far East. (Why these choices? They are all tall. Billy is 6'3" and Mallie is about 5'10," as is the statuesque widow Schreiber).

Q.  Do any of your characters have qualities/characteristics that are similar to yourself?
A.  I think Billy Battles and I are a lot alike. I mean, aren't most novels a bit autobiographical? He is a restless sort, he enjoys traveling, going to new places and experiencing new things. Like Billy, I couldn't wait to get away from Kansas (though I love the place dearly). And like Billy, I am a happy wanderer. How else could I have survived and thrived as a foreign correspondent for 25 years? We are both journalists. At the same time he is a pretty dependable guy who is loyal to his friends and to those he chooses to keep close to him. Above all, Billy respects two traits in people: Honesty and Kindness. We are alike in that way.

Q.  Tell us about your next release.
A.  The next book will be Book #2 in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy. This chapter in Billy Battles' life takes him to the Far East of the 1890s and places like French Indochina, The Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore. This phase of Billy's life finds him mixed up with political opportunists, spies, revolutionaries and an assortment of malevolent and dubious characters of both sexes. In short, Book #2 in the trilogy takes Billy far away from his Kansas roots and out of his comfort zone. How will Billy handle those people and the challenges they present? It's a question that you will have to read Book #2 to find the answer to.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Q.  Do you listen to music while writing? If so what?
A.  Yes. I listen to Mozart, Haydn, Telemann, and Boyce when I am in a classical mood. When not, I listen to good "cool" jazz by people like Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Bill Evans, etc.

Q.  How do you develop your plots and your characters? Do you use any set formula?
A.  I write from the seat of my pants. I don't outline my books and I don't write down plot scenarios. I just start writing and see where the story and my characters lead me. It's a lot like life itself. We may have a goal in mind, but the route to it is often strewn with obstacles, surprises, and sometimes tragedy. I usually write 3,000 or 4,000 words a day and I edit as I go. In other words, I may write a few paragraphs and then rewrite them within a few minutes of creating them. I don't write a First Draft. For me, that seems like a waste of time. When I finish writing a book it is finished. I may make a few tweaks with the plot here and there, or alter a little dialogue, or some action by a character, but there is no second or third draft. I know some authors write a draft and put it away for weeks or months and then go back in look at it with fresh eyes--OR they send it out to be critiqued by professional "readers" or "critiquers." Those strategies may work for some people. They don't work for me. I guess it's my journalistic training: see it, report it, organize it, write it and then move on to the next story.

Q.  Say your publisher has offered to fly you anywhere in the world to do research on an upcoming book, where would you most likely want to go?
A.  Back to Vietnam, Cambodia and The Philippines--three countries I worked in as correspondent in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and three countries where Billy Battles is going to wind up living during the 1890s. While I know a lot about those places, having lived and worked in them, I would love to dig deeper into their colonial periods and learn more about life during that era.