The Art of the Interview

I should sit down one day and calculate how many people I’ve interviewed in the last nine years. It would be a large number.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Raymond King before he died. From the comfort of his La-Z-Boy recliner, he talked to me for thirty minutes about his life and his philosophy of giving back to the community. After the interview was over, he pushed himself up with a groan, grabbed his cane, and asked me to follow him into the back yard. He struggled to raise a garage door revealing an antique car—his pride and joy. He told me all about it. I have a soft place in my heart for sweet, old men, and so that day stands out in my mind.

Interviewing

I also think back to an interview with US Senator Lamar Alexander. He and I talked about nuclear power. I forgot I was working. I was so interested in the topic and in what Senator Alexander had to say, that I entered into a personal conversation with him. I wrote that article in record time.

I love those moments when I make an instant connection with the person I am interviewing. I love to see the world through their eyes, if even for just a moment. I had that experience when I interviewed the History Channel’s survivor superstar, Alan Kay, two weeks ago. I lobbed a beautiful question for Kay, and he knocked it out of the park.

I said, “I’ve heard that servicemen returning from combat often find it difficult to assimilate back into their routine lives when they return from a combat zone. After your fifty-six days alone on Vancouver Island, did you find it difficult to return home?”

There was a pause, and then Kay gave me what I was looking for. He talked about how his experience had deepened his awareness of life and purpose, and how he wanted to scream warnings to humanity when he returned. I can’t share his specific answer because the article won’t be published until October (Get Out Chattanooga Magazine), but Kay’s response was writer’s gold.

Here are some general tips for getting the most out of an interview.

  1. Do Your Research. Before you talk to the person you are interviewing, do some general research and draft a few warm up questions from your research.
  2. Minimize Yes or No Questions. I always try to form my questions so that the person will give me lots of meat on the bone. For example, instead of asking, “Did you enjoy your experience on Vancouver Island?” I asked, “What were two of the most memorable moments during your time on Vancouver Island?” Asking more open-ended questions will allow the person to elaborate beyond a simple yes or no answer.
  3. Make a Connection. Find common ground with the person you are interviewing and build from that common ground. For example, I recently interviewed volunteers who rescue dogs from a local shelter. After the introductions, I said, “I’m excited about writing this article. I love dogs, and in the past, I, too, have been involved with animal rescue.” Their faces lit up, and they opened up to me.
  4. Ask for the Story. Depending on who I am interviewing, I often have a lot of success asking the person, “So what’s the story here? Why should readers care?” I get lots of interesting responses to this question. I also ask them to tell me about a particular event or experience that can lead into the story—an anecdote—that will draw my readers in.
  5. Ask Followup Questions. Sometimes when a person has a really great answer to a question, I say, “Tell me a little more about that. Give me more detail.”
  6. Send Questions in Advance. Sometimes, I send my questions in advance. This allows people to check details and think about what they want to say and how they want to say it. I never send them all of my questions, but I send a few so that they won’t feel anxious about talking to me.
  7. Mine for Different Angles. I don’t want my article to sound like other articles, and so I often look for different approaches. As I was preparing to interview survivalist Alan Kay, I read many articles that other writers had already published. I was determined to present “a different story,” and so I focused on Kay’s survival tips and the psychological toll that living off the land in total isolation for fifty-six days took on him, and how he kept his sanity. My article is different than the other content, and that’s a good thing.

There are other tips writers use to get the most out of interviews. I invite you to leave a comment telling me what works best for you. As always, I appreciate your stopping by my website.

Hook, Line, and Sinker

First impressions matter, and in writing and storytelling, a writer only has a few seconds to impress a reader. That’s why the hook is critical. The hook is the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, or the first part of a story or article that grabs—or hooks—the reader’s attention and keeps him or her glued to your story.

HookTrout

As I’ve helped aspiring writers compose their keepsake stories (www.ProjectKeepsake.com) in the last three years, I’ve compiled a list of tips to help others craft killer hooks. Here are a few of my suggestions.

  •  Learn from the Masters—Several years ago, a writing instructor urged me and other students to thumb through a Reader’s Digest and read the hooks of each story. I took this idea a step further and started studying how other writers started their own novels and stories. You can learn so much from this exercise. In fact, I’ve written a separate blog post (click here) that lists some of my favorite hooks from best selling authors Jeannette Walls, Alice Sebold, Olive Ann Burns, Rick Bragg, and others. Browse your book shelf. Open your favorite books and study the openings of the stories.
  •  Lights, Camera, Action—Use action to pull your reader immediately into your story. Here’s an example of a blah and boring beginning: My dad wore an old Atlanta Braves baseball cap. And here’s a better beginning (with action): With the winning run on third base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the fate of the season rested on the batter’s shoulders as he stepped up to the plate and started his routine of practice swings. The stadium rocked and roared as fans chanted the Atlanta Braves’ battle cry and made tomahawk chopping motions with their right arms in unison. I shifted nervously in the plastic bleacher seat then looked over at my dad—his pale blue eyes glued on the batter. He removed his faded Braves baseball cap and blotted summery beads of sweat from his brow and balding head with a white handkerchief he kept in his pocket.
  •  Sing to the Senses—Incorporating sensory detail in your first sentences or first paragraphs is another technique that will help hook your readers from the get-go. Paint vibrant visual images that activate the mind’s eye. Use words that appeal to the reader’s sense of hearing or smell. Describe a scene or situation using words that excite the reader’s sense of taste or touch. For example, you could write: The cabin was near the river. If I rewrite the sentence using sensory detail, I might compose something like: The old log cabin near the roaring, raging river smelled like fish, pine, and decaying leaves. The revised sentence appeals to the reader’s sense of hearing (roaring), smell (fish, pine, decaying leaves), and sight (old log cabin).
  •  Add a Dose of Dialogue—Sometimes, placing interesting or provocative dialogue at the beginning of a story grabs the reader’s attention. For example, most readers would keep reading if they were plunged into the middle of someone else’s drama. “Just get out! Get out! Jenna yanked up a dirty tee shirt and a pair of jeans from the shag carpet and flung the garments out the open door.“I never want to see your sorry ass again!” She lunged forward in a fit of hysteria, but Jamie caught her fists before she made contact with his bare chest. “Calm down,” he said gripping her hands and gritting his teeth. “Listen to me—I can explain.”
  •  Craft Questions—You can also use a question to hook a reader. Much like saying “Knock, knock,” triggers a “Who’s there?” reply, reading a question often provokes a response. The reader suddenly feels compelled to answer the question making him or her vested in the story, and that’s what you want—a connection between the reader and your story. For example, most people can’t read the following question without considering an answer: What would you do if you found out today that your spouse has a terminal illness and only has two weeks to live? What would you say to him or her?

Writing a clever or compelling hook has never been more important than it is today. People are reading less, and they have shorter attention spans than readers of the past. You’ve got to give the reader something that really piques his or her interest at the very beginning.

If you found this post helpful, click over to my other website (www.ProjectKeepsake.com) and read a hook from a Project Keepsake story.

Finding Time to Write

It’s a common occurrence. I listen to someone’s story—some tragedy, an interesting recollection, an inspiring story, a story about some miracle, or a tale about some bizarre coincidence—and then I say, “Wow, you have to write that story down.”

My non-writer friends and family members usually roll their eyes at my suggestion then say, “Oh, I can’t write.”hand holding stopwatch

And then I roll my eyes and shoot their statement down. “Yes, you can! I’ve never met another living soul who couldn’t write. It’s a skill that anyone can develop with a little time, a little practice, and a little help.”

And then the storyteller delivers a second excuse: “I just don’t have time to write.”

I reply, “Sure you do.” And then I explain how to find time to write.

I think that a lot of aspiring writers feel that they must find large chunks of time to develop their writing, but in reality, most writers write in short bursts—thirty minutes here, forty-five minutes there, etc. These short writing sessions can add up to big projects.

Think you don’t have time to write? Here are a few suggestions that really work:

  •  GET UP EARLIER—Get up fifteen minutes earlier than usual three times each week, make a cup of coffee, isolate yourself in a quiet room in your house, and write for fifteen minutes. I always encourage aspiring writers to write in the beginning of the day when their thoughts are fresh and before they get bogged down in the daily grind of life. If you postpone your writing to the end of the day, you are more likely to cancel your writing session because you feel too tired or you have to fold one more load of laundry before you can go to bed.
  •  THINK ABOUT YOUR IDLE TIME—Write while you get your car serviced. Write on the bus on the way to and from work or school. Write in the waiting room at the doctor’s office or while waiting to see your dentist. Write at the airport waiting for your flight, then write some more on the airplane. Write at the DMV. Write on the sidelines of your son’s soccer practice. Write during your lunch break. Write while your kids are getting ready for school. Write while your kids are getting ready for bed. Write while your pasta boils. Write when you are a passenger on a long car ride. Write while you wait on your food to be prepared at the restaurant. Can’t get to sleep one night? Pick up your pen and write until you get sleepy.
  •  REDUCE THE ACTIVITIES THAT SUCK AWAY YOUR TIME—Turn off your cell phone for twenty minutes during the day. Don’t read your Facebook newsfeed five times each day. Skip watching one 30-minute sitcom each week. If you are a gaming fanatic, pick one day during the week and don’t play that day. Write instead.
  •  WRITE DURING COMMERCIAL BREAKS—For those of us who occasionally watch real time television, mute the TV during the commercial breaks and write in three minute bursts. There are over twenty minutes of commercials and marketing content per each hour of television programming, so use that time to write.
  •  SCHEDULE A WRITING SESSION—Find a fifteen or twenty minute opening on your calendar and pencil in a writing date with yourself. Don’t blow it off. Keep the appointment.
  •  USE YOUR DVR—Again, for people who watch television, use a DVR to record the news and your favorite programs. When you sit down to watch your programs, you will save a lot of time zooming through the commercials—again, over twenty minutes saved per hour of television. Use that extra time to write.
  •  DON’T MAKE DINNER ONE NIGHT DURING THE WEEK—It takes a lot of time to go to the grocery store to buy food, prepare a meal, and then wash all of the pots, pans, and dishes associated with dinner. So consider this: One night each week, order a pizza or Chinese food and have it delivered to your door. Use the time saved to write.
  •  MAKE A DATE WITH A WRITING BUDDY—One of the best ways to force yourself to write is to make a date with a writing buddy. Combine your social life with your writing. Meet at a library or on a front porch some where, talk for about fifteen minutes, then write together for thirty minutes. And if you are feeling really brave, ask your friend to read what you’ve written and give you some feedback.

Yes, you do have time to write! There are no excuses. And as always, I invite all of you writers and aspiring writers to consider writing a story about one of your keepsakes. To learn more about Project Keepsake, visit my other website at www.ProjectKeepsake.com.

Amber’s Writing Prompts

Aspiring writers often say to me, “I can’t think of anything to write about.”

This remark always perplexes me, because when I look around my house or think about the world, I find infinite topics that interest me.

But as I’ve worked with writers of all skill levels in the last few years, I’ve come to realize that some people need writing prompts to spark their imaginations and get their creative juices flowing. And so, I’ve become known for my long lists of writing prompts (for nonfiction writers) that I hand out at my workshops.

For me, keepsakes, heirlooms, souvenirs, and old photographs often ignite a strong desire to write. I feel the need to capture the histories and memories associated with these very special items. In fact, writing stories about keepsakes is the premise of my book, Project Keepsake. Simply select a keepsake and answer these questions: Where did it come from? Why do you keep it? Who or what does it remind you of? Tell the story—or stories—behind the keepsake.

But if keepsakes don’t inspire you to write, there are thousands of other topics to consider. Write about a job. Write about an aunt or uncle. Write about a favorite book. Write about a vacation. Write about your favorite shoes. Write about getting your first pair of glasses, braces, dentures, a hearing aid, a wig, orthotics, etc.

Still uninspired? Browse the words and phrases on the following list until one triggers a strong memory, close your eyes for a few moments, then write everything that pops into your mind. Don’t edit your work at this stage of your writing. Just get your thoughts and memories down on paper.

  • Popsicle
  • Hot Dog
  • Fireworks
  • First Kiss
  • Lemonade
  • Lightning Bug
  • Trampoline
  • Swimming Pool
  • Swimming Hole
  • Poloroid Camera
  • Tire Swing
  • Blowing Bubbles
  • Marbles
  • Lite Brites
  • Paint-by-Numbers
  • Etch-a-Sketch
  • Parade
  • Deck of Cards
  • Crows
  • Flat Tire
  • Tomatoes
  • Pickles
  • Hot Pink
  • Casket
  • Cigarettes
  • Canoe
  • Jar
  • Dirt Road
  • Sunburn
  • Soap Opera
  • Boom Box
  • Flip Flops
  • Police Officer
  • Emergency Room
  • Train

Did any of my writing prompts help you? If so, please let me know. And whether you wrote a single paragraph or a short story on one of my topics, I’d love to see an excerpt. Please paste in the comments at the end of this post or send me an email message.

Googling 101

In a recent workshop titled, Writing Family Stories, I touched on the topic of Googling to find information and documents pertaining to family members. From my podium, I noticed puzzled expressions on many of the attendees’ faces, so I backed up, slowed down, and gave the audience a few useful tips about Googling I have learned since I started my freelance writing career.

1. Use Quotation Marks
If you want to search on Ona Jarrard, surround her name with quotation marks and type “Ona Jarrard” in the search bar. If you don’t surround her name with quotation marks, Google will look for all Onas and all Jarrards. Using the quotation marks will help you narrow your search results. In this example, using quotation marks narrowed my search from 615,000 results to a more manageable 74 hits.

2. Be Specific
Add detail to your Google searches to narrow your results even more. If you know that Ona Jarrard lived in Lumpkin County, Georgia, type “Ona Jarrard” Lumpkin Georgia in the search bar. If you are trying to find a birth date, try typing “Ona Jarrard” birth or “Ona Jarrard” born. If you are looking for the lifespan of a dragonfly, type dragonfly lifespan into your search bar. Googling dragonfly yields 64 million results, but googling both words—dragonfly and lifespan—yields just over 35,000 hits. And by the way, adult dragonflies only live a few weeks to a few months. How sad!

3. Use Minus Signs
Typing a minus sign just before a search term will cue Google to remove any site with that term from its results. Suppose you have an ancestor named Tom Hanks (not the actor) who you want to learn more about. You could type in “Tom Hanks” -actor -film -television -Forrest -Gump -Philadelphia, and Google will remove some references to the famous and wildly talented actor, Tom Hanks. Or maybe not. Hopefully, your ancestor doesn’t share a name with an uber superstar. If you are trying to find information about impalas (the animal), you should type impala -car -auto -chevrolet -chevy into your search bar. Typing salsa recipe -cilantro will yield recipes for salsa that don’t use cilantro. My husband hates cilantro.

4. Use a tilde sign
Typing a tilde sign just before a search term will return results for the word’s synonyms and other related terms. For example, typing ~nutrition returns a list pertaining to nutrition, health, wellness, and food.

5. Search Specific Websites
If you type in CDC zombies, you’ll get every site and newspaper that mentioned the CDC’s instruction pertaining to the zombie apocalypse. If you want to see exactly what was on the CDC’s site, type zombie site:cdc.gov in the search bar. Google will only return references to zombies from the CDC’s website. If you remembered that I had once posted information about verb usage on my website and wanted to read it again, you could type verbs site:ambernagle.com , and it would show you pages on my site containing references to verbs. Finally, if you only want to view information returned from government sites or educational institutions try adding site:.gov or site:.edu to your search terms.

6. Use Google’s Advanced Search
Finally, don’t forget about Google’s Advance Search features (www.google.com/advanced_search?). The form-driven page will allow you to narrow your search by language, filetype, update dates, etc.