What happens when a journalist attempts a novel

It used to be said that every newspaperman had a novel inside him, waiting for release. (Yes, male. Women reporters and editors were a definite minority. My, how times have changed!)

Frankly, I rarely saw any literary ambition around me. Few in the business read fiction of a serious sort, much less poetry. There were, though, a couple of playwrights. More recently, however, I know of two colleagues who have self-published – one a mystery, the other a political intrigue.

Yes, we’ve had notable exceptions, with Edna Buchanan, Ernest Hebert, Carl Hiassen, and Tony Hillerman topping my list. (Hemingway wasn’t considered much of a reporter in his six-month stint in Kansas City, and earlier giants often cited reflect a much different kind of journalism than what’s been practiced from the rise of the last century.) The crush of daily deadlines is exhausting, and fiction requires an entirely different approach and sensibility to the telling of a story. Journalists are conditioned to put facts first, usually without any concern for feeling, and to be professionally neutral, reflecting the quest of objectivity. These stances place the reporter at a distance from the subject, no matter how fascinating. Journalists also tend to put action ahead of the actors. Most of the resulting novels leaned toward the crusading reformer slant of the Front Page tradition – Down with corruption! – or maybe sports, either way, with the emphasis on the game more than the inner mindset of the players.

Well, there was also one editor-in-chief who took a popular genre novel and did a paint-by-numbers kind of rewrite over it. I think it was a Western, but I’m no longer sure. His connections got it published, and his success led to a half-dozen more. He was sheepish about the whole thing, though. It was more like a game, I suppose.

I wasn’t typical. My first love was the fine arts beat, for one thing. Since jobs there were scarce, I wound up on the copy desk. No matter how much I love politics, I find meetings boring. Press conferences, even more so. My most satisfying post was heading up lifestyles sections. Long story, as you’ll see in Hometown News. Maybe I was mostly a misfit who happened to do some things extremely well.

News writing, for the most part, is supposed to sound anonymous. Short sentences, limited vocabulary, a structure with the most important details at the top and the rest in descending order. As a writer or editor, your craft can soon become dulled. As an editor, one of my skills went to headlines, trying to relate a story in as few as four or five words. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of them, and I can see the distillation as an element of poetry. In my personal writing, I often reacted against the broader restrictions – I wanted a richer range of diction, more accurate language, more varied sentence structure (yes, I love long threads that work), and often more background on the story itself.

Turning to fiction, I’ve learned the importance of withholding details until later in the tale, things like not including first name, middle initial, and last name when introducing a character, much less his or her age and address. As for my poetry, I’ve preferred experimental and edgy, where the image or fractured expression might open into its own ambiguity and potential.

I do remember the first time a poetry publisher reacted to my submission by saying how delighted he was that my work wasn’t what he expected from a journalist. He had received enough to develop a negative opinion, one I fortunately didn’t fit.

My novel “Hometown News” was drafted during my third break from the news biz, when I was approaching 40 and gave myself a sabbatical after two years calling on editors in 14 Northeastern states as field salesman for a major newspaper syndicate. Driving between my calls on the local papers and seeing their newsrooms from the other side of the desk, so to speak, gave me plenty of time to reflect on the industry and then augment what I had collected in my own career. At many papers, as I saw, the managing editor or his equivalent was gone in a year, and with each one, I’d have to start grooming a new connection all over again. Many of them had telling histories of their own. Many of their towns looked like bombed out shells after World War II, their industrial might boarded up or rusting. I kept notes. Many of their skirmishes reflected my own.

Later, developing my novel in a series of routine days set months apart, “Hometown News” gave me an opportunity to see what I could do with creating a computer-generated novel. I set a framework for the day and randomly inserted 80 to 120 markers I could hit with search-and-replace items for each round. There were many other places that had to be manipulated manually, but it the attempt was fascinating, the way working a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle is.

The result was something like a Jackson Pollock painting, a theme-and-variations curiosity but not compelling reading. Through a series of revisions, I kept the bones but layer by layer added flesh and muscle to bring certain characters to the fore while the dystopian theme deepened.

Thirty-four years after starting out on the work, and seven years after its publication, I am struck by the story’s prescient warning of the collapse of a once very profitable business for the dominant voices, not that our salaries reflected that. What I saw was entire communities under attack, and they still are – not just their daily mirror.

The newsroom I present is a blend of five I’ve worked in over the years – another one was much smaller, and the remaining one was simply different. When you get a group of news folk together and we start talking what one spouse called Bodoni-Bodoni, after the typeface used for many headlines, we all have insider war stories. I hope “Hometown News” gives you an idea how ours translate.

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