Sully School: The Barstool Method

Or, Plowing, Backfilling, and Steamrolling

I’m getting ready to participate in November’s National Novel Writing Month and this story keeps running through my head. It’s long, but my goal is to write 2,000 words a day next month, and I wanted get a feel for what that entails. This story is just about on the mark.

In which a 23 year-old me learns a lesson on writing that a soon-to-be 37 year-old me will use to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

My first job out of college was at a group of suburban weeklies in Massachusetts called The TAB newspapers. There were, I think, about a dozen TABs in all, mostly up and down Route 9 in what was once only jokingly referred to as the MetroWest region of Massachusetts. Each TAB had one reporter. The best beats were Boston, Cambridge, Newton and Brookline. They were also the most labor-intensive, of course, because something was always happening in those cities. When I worked at the TAB, John Salvi shot up a Brookline abortion clinic, killing two people and wounding seven. I didn’t cover it, but I was in the newsroom when it happened, and it was the first really serious breaking news story I ever witnessed from that vantage point. Since then, I’ve covered lots of breaking news stories, including at least one that made international headlines, but that first experience of being in a newsroom when something big is happening is singular.

There were other towns, too, that were respectable places to be a TAB reporter. Wellesley, for example, because of its size and healthy political scene, its powerful residents, its excellent schools and a police chief who wasn’t openly hostile to reporters. Plus, there was always town-gown news. Ashland was another good beat, in part because the town has a superfund site, but mostly because the politics there are a blood sport and the participants at the time liked to see their names in the paper. They were smart: they encouraged a rivalry between the TAB reporter and the reporter from the local daily—what was then called the Middlesex News, but is now called the MetroWest Daily News. In that way, they made sure both reporters were always paying attention to them, fighting for their affections, even. (A bit of trivia: It was a reporter, who first worked for the TAB and later for the Middlesex News, which later became the MestroWest Daily News, that coined the phrase “MetroWest” to describe the region west of Boston.) Then there were the small, well-heeled towns, like Wayland and Sudbury. Enough hard news to keep a reporter busy covering the Selectmen and School Committee and Town Meeting. Throw in a nice feature, three police blotter items and your week’s work would be done.

But as a brand-new college graduate, I didn’t get any of those beats. Dover and Sherborn are two tiny, tony towns that happen to be the furthest distance from the TAB offices, which were in Newton in those days. Dover and Sherborn are forever linked to each other because they share a high school, are about the same size, and because more dogs are registered at Town Hall than Democrats. (I know, because I wrote a story about it. It was headlined “More Dogs Than Democrats.”) But these two towns are quite different. Dover is rich in a glitzy, McMansiony, diamond-ring-the-size-of-a-grape kind of way. Sherborn has a lot of horses and falling-down barns and a little old money tucked under the mattress. Sherborn is decidedly rural. Dover is more of an exurb. (Wrote a story about that, too.) Because Dover and Sherborn residents do not like to be compared to or confused with one another, and because the demographics of the two towns very much pleased the advertisers, each town had its own TAB newspaper. But because these towns are so small, and so very far away from the TAB offices, they only got one reporter. It was what we affectionately call in the newspaper business the shit beat.

I got the shit beat.

The reporters at the big and medium TABs had so many stories, they would never find time to write them all. They had a lot of work, yes. But they also got to pick and choose the stories they found most interesting. Their work was exciting and satisfying. The reporters at the small TABs had just enough stories to fill their pages each week. Their jobs were steady and predictable. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING ever happened in Dover or Sherborn. Even when the police would hand over the police blotter, which they often refused to do, there would rarely be anything of interest on it. The selectmen shared polite small talk at meetings and then went home and telephoned each other to get the real town business done. The big gossip at the local coffee shop was always about how the peacocks at old So-and-So’s farm got out into the road again. And yet, because the towns so staunchly opposed being lumped together into one newspaper, the Dover/Sherborn reporter had to fill two issues each week. Sometimes inside stories could run in both issues. But the cover stories—the paper was tabloid in format, and the cover usually had one long story that jumped to the inside—had to be different for each.

And here’s the best part. The town already had a weekly newspaper. Published by a local. Whom they loved. And they hated, hated, hated the Dover and Sherborn TABs. And they hated me, or at least what I represented: the fact that the TAB newspapers didn’t care enough about them to send a real reporter to cover their town’s news. My job was desperate and depressing.

To say that I was woefully underprepared for even this shitty beat would be a massive understatement.

The deadline for the cover stories was Thursday at 6 p.m. And one particular Thursday, about two months into my stint, I found myself staring at a blank computer screen, fighting back tears.

It was 9 p.m.

Now, this was a weekly, mind you, so all around me my office-mates were still working on their cover stories, too. Some of them had even gone out for dinner and a few beers and come back to the office to work. It wasn’t that I had missed the deadline. It was that I had no story. And I don’t mean I hadn’t written the story yet. I mean I had no story notes, no story ideas, and no story on the horizon for either edition.

My editor at that time was a big, loud lout of a guy name Brian Sullivan. Those of us who survived his tutelage call ourselves graduates of Sully School. Someday I am going to write a book about Sully School, so long as he doesn’t beat me to it. He was that good. On this day, however, I wanted to kill him. Here I was, sitting at my messy desk, quietly sniveling, wallowing in despair, and seriously considering just walking out the door and never coming back. Sully came over to check on me and when I told him I had nothing, that there was nothing happening in either town, that I did not have a cover story for either the Dover or the Sherborn TAB, this is what he said to me (actually, he sang it):

“You’ve got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues and you know it won’t come easy.”

And then he walked away.

OK, he didn’t actually walk away. The singing part is true, and it seemed cruel at the time, but he did stay, and he did help me think of a story that would work for both the Sherborn and the Dover editions with some minor tweaking. It involved calling people at home after 9 p.m., which was embarrassing as shit, but I sucked it up and I made the calls to the sleepy residents and officials of Dover and Sherborn. I had my story and I had my interview notes and I had a little background, thanks to file cabinets filled with archived stories arranged alphabetically by subject. Now I just needed to write the thing. At this point it was about 10 p.m. I was scared, I was tired, and I was feeling immensely inadequate. Not exactly the best state of mind for a quasi-creative endeavor. I stared at the computer screen for a while and my eyes started to well up again. It was pathetic.

My boozy pod-mates finally took pity on me and coached me through the daunting task. After all, every single one of them had been in this exact position. A deadline not just looming on the horizon but quickly headed toward the vanishing point. A very disorganized pile of notes. A very messy desk. And only a little talent to fall back on. But by 11 p.m. I was sitting in the bar with them, knocking back drinks to dull the pain and trying not to think about next week.

This is what my more experienced peers taught me that horrible night and over the course of my TAB tenure. It’s a method I call plowing, backfilling, and steamrolling. The first step is to put aside your notes, open up a blank document, and start typing. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or typos. If you don’t know how to start, write INSERT BRILLIANT LEDE HERE and go on to the second graf. When it comes time for a nut graf, don’t give in to the temptation to look your research. Write INSERT NUT GRAF instead. If you come to a spot and you know you have a quote to put there, don’t stop to look it up, but write the words INSERT QUOTE HERE. If you need a transition but can’t think of one, write INSERT TRANSITION HERE. If you can’t remember a person’s name, refer to him as THE FIREFIGHTER WITH THE RED HAIR. If you completely draw a blank as to how a sentence should end, or if there’s a word on the tip of your tongue, write BLAH, BLAH, BLAH or XXXX. And keep typing. Don’t think about what you are going to write next, just empty your brain onto the paper. Tell the story as you know it and you’ll always be surprised how much you know. Pound on the keyboard, tear at your hair, weep tears of desperation if you must. But plow through that first draft as if your job, if not your career, depends on it.

Later, probably one night after work over beers, Sully put it to me another way. He called it the bar stool method. Pretend you’re sitting at the bar and someone sits down next to you. Pretend you are telling the story to that person. What would you say first? You would say, "Hey, guess what happened today?" And then you would tell him. You’d give him some details so could picture the scene. You might give him a little background so he would better understand what it all meant. You would not say, “Wait, I told you the first part wrong,” and make him listen to it again. You wouldn’t stop to ruminate over the perfect word or phrase. You would just tell him the story. The story is the most important thing.

The bar stool is the second most important thing.

OK, so you’ve pounded out the story in an hour or two. Now you have a rough draft. And, yes, it is full of typos and holes, full of XXXs and Blah, Blah, Blahs. You still have work to do. You will have to double-check your facts and plug in that quote and write your lede, nut grafs, and transitions. You still have to go over it with the big, scary copy editor who will make snarky remarks about how he should put his own byline on the story instead of yours. But you’re not crying anymore. Because you have accomplished what you thought was impossible just two hours earlier.

It’s the equivalent of writing 50,000 words in 30 days.

The holes, the spelling, the fine details—they can all be fixed or added later. That’s the backfilling part. And after that, if you haven’t been fired and you haven’t quit, you can really polish the story, flatten out all the bumps, pick the exact right word or phrase, punch up your lede. That’s the steamrolling bit.

But for my purposes, November is going to be a month of plowing. I am going to plow through those 50,000 words without worrying about spelling, without re-reading every sentence three times, without doubting my ability and without feeling so invested in the damn thing that I freeze up and do nothing for fear of getting it wrong.

It’s just a matter of sitting down on the barstool on November 1st and telling the story. Maybe I can get Sully to come over, grab a barstool, and sing to me while I write.


Anonymous said...

you go girl!

StuckHereWithNoTV said...

I love this post; I think the Plowing, Backfilling, and Steamrolling Method is really good advice.

And what's funny is that I think your former editor's Bar Stool Method has made it into universities' journalism curriculums nationwide. It happened to be one of the first "theories" we learned in class.


Anonymous said...

Gienna was an obnoxious self-obsessed twit when we worked together at the TAB and she obviously still is. If she were half as witty or talented as she thinks she is she might have a better idea for a novel than a 30-day puke draft. Like Capote said about "On the Road" — That's not writing, it's typing.

And by the way, Sully also had another bit of wisdom that was obviously and sadly lost on Gienna: "Every reporter has a book in him (or her). And that's exactly where it should stay."

Gienna said...

Holy crap.

I can't even imagine what I did to deserve that, especially from someone who isn't willing to sign his or her name ... But I'll be sure to sit and think about it (ie myself) for a while.

Ah, the good old days.

Gienna said...

Oh, and one other thing -- It might be true that Sully said that reporters shouldn't write novels, but it didn't stop him from working on his own.

Anonymous said...

This is an old thread but I can't resist. Afterall, I am Sully.

First off, it's a joke kids. ``Every reporter has a good book in them and that's exactly where it should stay.'' It's a joke and it is a very old joke. Ancient. In fact, it was probably first used on Jonathan Swift after he opened his first newspaper and before he wrote ``Gulliver's Travels.''

Second, I wrote a lot of nasty things in my time and I drew a lot of even nastier cartoons in my time but... I ALWAYS SIGNED THEM. Shame on whoever you are for not signing this post. If you are going to say something nasty you should stand up and take it on the chin.

Often when I wrote something (particularly in Ashland) that I knew was going to get people pissed off I would get a copy of the paper, walk into their office and sit there while they read it. If I couldn't do that, I would sit there and listen to them rant on the phone.

This anonymous bush whacking bugs me. You hate someone pick up the phone and tell them to their face -- at least that way you can enjoy it.

G, I hope you write 100 novels.

Take care, Sully...

And if anyone wants to know if I am the real Sully, here's my email: . Send me a note and I will take you to lunch.

Gienna said...

There is no doubt that is Sully himself--it's a classic Sully response. :) In fact, I remember that line about sitting in someone's office while they read the story you wrote about them. That's a good rule, too--keeps you honest. See what I mean about Sully School?

Thanks for sticking up for me. :)