Archive for the ‘pitches’ category

Drex Heikes: Let the story come first

November 17, 2008

Drex Heikes, managing editor of the Las Vegas Sun, came to Eugene for a pitch clinic this Friday, and he left the LNFers with some pearls of narrative wisdom to think about.

  • One story, one character – He’s wary of what he calls “character fatigue” and thinks introducing too many subjects can be unwieldy and distracting. I generally agree, but I do think stories about two divergent characters on a collision path are very effective.
  • Find the relevance – Particularly with stories set in the past, it’s vital to find a way to connect to readers’ lives.
  • Focus on the story first – Let the issues come later.

This last one is me basically putting words into his mouth, but it sums up what was the most important lesson for me.

Before the session, I was prepping my pitch by compiling all sorts of data on international tourism, deforestation in the Andes and the demographics of Ecuador. I was determined to prove the newsworthiness of what is basically a small personal story: An indigenous cloud forest guide yearning to forsake everything he knows to move to the big city.

When it was my turn, I started rattling off information: There were 900 million international tourists in 2007, global tourism is a $7 billion industry, Ecuador’s Amazon jungle is shrinking by 3 percent every year, etc. I totally forgot to even describe my main character, Edison, until the very end.

Drex didn’t respond and sat there in an overwhelmed silence.  It was the sort of hush, I imagined, that possessed my father when he witnessed my teen-aged self crash the Buick into the garage door.

“Ok,” Drex said after a couple of minutes. “Who else has got something?”

Once the pitch clinic was over, he approached me and apologized. “Sorry. It’s just that you were throwing around a lot of ideas.”

He questioned me a little more about Edison, the guide, and the details of his life. The story, he said, is Edison. All the other connections I had made should percolate from his narrative arc.  “This guy sounds like a novel in the making,” Drex said.

This made sense to me. I suppose it’s important to think about the themes of your piece and how it should resonate with readers, but at the end of the day it’s about telling a compelling story. Theme and relevance exist in any good story. It’s just a matter of plucking them from the narrative fray like one picks an apple from the tree branch.

Also, a “novel”? I guess this means I should plan on returning to Ecuador this summer.

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P.S. If you haven’t yet, check out the Sun’s riveting series on the region’s water crisis, For Want of Water.

P.P.S. I cannot articulate how excited I am to read my classmates’ stories – Nuclear eskimoes? The tomato kingpin of the Accra slums? All sound terrific.