Crash course in real-life writing

It might seem to you that I’ve been rather quiet on the blogging/writing front in the last month. Turns out that this is because in fact, I’ve actually been frantically busy on the writing front …

When it comes to my budding writing career, May turned out to be the busiest and most frantic months work of all time. Not particularly profitable, mind you – but extremely valuable in terms of what I’ve learnt about writing both fiction and non-fiction, which I thought I should share. (Even though the writing concerned is on motorsports, don’t let you put that off – the subject matter I was writing about is almost irrelevant to the wider themes of this blog post. Honest. Trust me!)

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been writing “race reports” of various motorsports events for many years, originally for The WELL online community, then briefly on this blog before being spun out to a separate companion blog; it was an outlet for my frustrating writing aspirations, and I thought it would help improve my quality of writing (it did) and also train me to be able to sit down and actually produce writing on demand rather than sitting in front of a blank screen feigning writer’s block – and the whole NaNoWriMo experience last November proved just how effectively all these years of writing pieces effectively on a tight deadline really had been in making it comparatively easy to sit down and Just Do It when it mattered.

In the middle of last year I was asked by a professional motorsports website called crash.net if I would ‘syndicate’ some of my material there as well as they were without a correspondent covering NASCAR Sprint Cup, IndyCar and GP2. Since I was writing these pieces anyway it was a no-brainer to cross-post the material there as well, but now it meant that I had a vastly increased audience for these pieces. Where before I’d been writing purely for my own entertainment (even if the WordPress stats told me a few dozen people might actually be reading these things), it was nothing compared to the audience that the pieces were now in front of, and who were not afraid to make their feelings known on any aspect of what was being written about (or how it was written.)

It’s a scientific axiom that the mere act of observation changes the thing that’s being observed, and that’s certainly true here: I had to start considering how these were being written, what the audience might be interested in, how to best deliver a good coverage to them.

Very quickly, the limitations of delivering ‘just’ a race report after that week’s event were evident. It’s rather like producing a film that consists of just an extended action sequence: from the minute the curtain goes up, it’s all explosions, fist fights, gun flights, yelling. But you have no idea what’s going on, what they’re fighting about, who the good guys are – it’s just sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing at all. It might be viscerally thrilling for the first two or three minutes, but by ten you’ll just have a headache. By 15 you’ll have walked out, no matter how good a narrative depiction of the events of the action sequence are rendered.

That’s because in order to work, the action sequence needs two things: context and character. And just as it’s true in fiction (whether cinema, TV, stage or novels) so it’s true in making the journalism work. The only difference is that whereas in a film or book all the parts would be in one piece of work, here the oeuvre would have to consist of dozens and hundreds of individual pieces contributing to the overall whole. And just to add to the difficulty, I would have no idea from one day to another what tomorrow’s storylines would be, and yet still had to knit them together into something that overall would provide all that necessary context and character regardless.

Just like a novelist, that meant identifying storylines that would be of interest to people, and identifying characters that could be introduced, fleshed out and followed – so that when it came to the races themselves, the activity would mean something. People might actually care what was going on, rather than just being expected to follow descriptions of on-track race activity no matter how well (or not) it was written.

So now my brief had fleshed out to finding interesting news stories, following them through, producing driver profiles and interviews, and other background material such as explanations of the history of an event or how the rules worked. It was all the context and character that anyone would need to have to invest in anything else we went on to produce in out motorsports coverage. It was a lot more work than originally envisaged, but it would be worth it.

Then along came May, and suddenly it all went a little bit berserk with a classic case of “scope creep” writ large.

The original idea with my crash.net submissions, you’ll remember, was to provide a race coverage for three different series, with an average of one race every 1-2 weeks. No problem. Except that at the start of May, a development meant that a former F1 world champion would be going to the US to try his hand at NASCAR. Obviously we wanted to cover that because he’s got huge name recognition among F1 fans that form the bulk of crash.net‘s audience and who would want and expect to read about it (and from my point of view it was also a way of potentially growing the audience for the site’s NASCAR section.)

Trouble is, he wasn’t going into NASCAR Sprint Cup – the series we covered. He was going in two levels down (“Truck”), so suddenly we had to provide at least baseline coverage of that series to provide the same sort of context and background I was previously talking about developing. And then there’s a mid-series (“Nationwide”) which we thought we should cover just in case he tried that out while he was there (and indeed he did). So suddenly we were covering three NASCAR series rather than just one, and overarching all of that was the need for specific “pop-out” focus coverage of the F1 champion meta-story. It increased the NASCAR output by at least three-fold.

Which would still have been fine if it hadn’t coincided with the Indianapolis 500, America’s biggest motor racing event of the year. Where most motor race events consist of a few hours of practice on a Friday, an hour or two of qualifying on the Saturday, and the race itself on the Sunday, the Indy 500 was a completely different level: a full day of rookie orientation to cover, then seven days of practice, followed by an entire weekend of qualifying and then a full week of build-up before the race itself. Where a normal race weekend would consist of perhaps ten hours of track activity, the Indy 500 was scheduled to deliver nearly nine times that amount in under three weeks in a non-stop daily rotation.

Where NaNoWriMo is regarded as a Big Ask because it requires writers to commit to producing something like 1700 words every day for a month, suddenly the cumulative effect of all this context, character and scope creep meant that most days in May was requiring between 4000 and 6000 words of reporting on an average day of coverage (this blog post, which may well feel interminable to you, dear reader, is a relatively succinct and concise 2300 by contrast.) Even if you were just able to sit down at a keyboard and start typing, that’s a lot of work each and every day.

And the thing with reporting rather than fiction/creative writing is that you can’t sit there pummelling away at the keyboard producing everything out of your imagination. You have to know what you’re talking about and it has to be accurate, which means an awful lot of research work on top of the actual writing: finding the facts, sifting through them – which takes a lot of time.

The Indianapolis 500 qualification is a particular case in point: it has the most bizarre, unintelligible process I’ve ever seen, called “Bump Day” (it’s protected from a rational overhaul by the historical reverence Americans have for the Indy 500 as a whole, which celebrated its centennial this week.) I confess that coming into it, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t have to cover it last year, and looking back at other people’s reports it made absolutely no sense to me. I soon found out why: I tried researching it and couldn’t find any consistency in explanations among all the sources; even the official IndyCar.com guidance on it turned out to be inaccurate when it came to the actual day. It seems that there’s a certain amount of “making it up on the spur of the moment” that goes with it, and unless you actually sit through it all and follow virtually every moment it’s almost impossible to understand it fully, and if you don’t understand it then you certainly can’t explain it with any confidence or clarity to the people relying on your account in turn.

As a result, in the last few weeks, most of my time spent not writing has instead been catching up via streaming Internet radio stations, blogs and Twitter feeds covering the events that I’m writing about; I’ve also found some great podcasts which have been perfect in adding to my understanding and to the authenticity of what I produce, plus I’m receiving a ton of emails every day which are press releases from the various teams and venues involved which need going through for usable material. Just reading through the various driver and team PR quotes after a day’s activity looking for those one or two lines to bring a report to life – making a character live on the page, or having them provide a description of events from their point of view – can take an age, but is inevitably worth it when it pays off.

My writing has become a lot more informed and nuanced thanks to immersing myself in the culture of the IndyCar and NASCAR worlds, but it’s meant that for every hour I’ve spent writing I’ve spent almost two in background and prep work: I’ve taken up going off for two-hour walks on most days just so I can take my podcasts with me for a good listen. In the past I’d naively assumed that I was good enough that I could get by without this sort of hard graft, but now I can really see just how much it adds to the quality of the end result if you invest the time and effort to really know your subject. (Yes, experienced journalists will be rolling their eyes and doing “durrrr!” and not without good cause. All I can say is that everyone needs to learn the lesson themselves to really take it to heart.)

So if anyone’s been wondering where I’ve gone, why I hadn’t been tweeting or blogging or emailing as much as usual in the last month, that’s why – and I just hope the end effort over on crash.net justifies the time and effort that has gone into it.

Anyway, it’s all done now, and there’s a lot of writing been done over the last two weeks that I have to say – with all due humility – I’m immensely proud of, pieces that I can read back after just a few days or a week later and actually think: “Ooooh that’s good,” either because the original seed of an idea was a nice original twist or simply because the execution has lifted what in other places had seemed to be a rather dull, flat, uninteresting piece and made it something genuinely interesting. (If you want to check out any of this stuff, just go to the IndyCar, NASCAR and GP2 sections of crash.net and read from the archives.)

What this has all taught me is how much sheer hard work covering real events properly can actually be. By contrast with this sort of reporting work, fiction writing is positively a breeze. Small wonder that so many newspaper journalists, having spent years honing their craft, then go on to become such fabulous novelists and look so darn happy about it: it’s far easier than all that slogging away in the reporting trenches and pays better to boot.

I don’t pretend to be suddenly a world class journalist just because of a few weeks of hard work covering some motor races. But it’s certainly made me appreciate some things a lot more about what writers go through day in and day out to produce quality journalistic coverage of events.

It’s also made me appreciate my own abilities to pull this off, and I think I’m a better writer because of having had the chance to do this. Plus, at the end of the day, I still love the subject matter as much as I ever have. In fact, even more so having had the chance to properly immerse myself in it all.

At some point I’ll have to surface back in reality, but the Month of May Motorsport Madness has for me been quite magical – but I am certainly ready for a few days rest now!

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