Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Standing Out: Writing that breaks the rules

When clarity is at a premium, dull writing has it's place. I do not want instructions on how to use a parachute to be a great read. I want them to help me survive the drop from an airplane.

But, in a world full of distractions, fiction, opinion pieces, speeches, and manuscript queries, need to hook readers and keep them engaged. Take, for instance, the cover letter for a job. The Web is full of templates with logical structures. The advice to make your letter stand out centers on using keywords, focusing on capabilities, mentioning contacts, and being specific to the opportunity (rather than taking a generic approach).

Here's the opening of the last job letter I wrote:

Tuning phrases with an IBM VP while federal agents pulled the corporate jet apart for an hour was just part of 24 hours of no food, no sleep and no breaks. A major speech in front of skeptical clients dictated my flying to Toronto for a polish, then editing and reworking material on the flight down to Miami and finally rehearsal and revamping of charts into the morning. But the speech sold the idea of e-business and got good press.

It doesn't fit a template, but it's relevant -- providing a sense of my experience and how I work. It's not crazy. I did not provide a resume marked off to be folded into an origami swan. Within the body off the letter, I had the keywords for the job and explained why the job and the organization interested me. But I designed my letter to be intriguing and to stand apart from those of other applicants. I got the interview and the job.

Fiction writers know how important hooks and voice are to catching a reader's attention, but they can forget. The amateur manuscripts I read (and some in print, too) often seem to be manufactured from a model aimed at delivering required information within the first pages. In some cases, you could map the chapter of one book onto the chapter of another point by point. In the effort to get it right, the story is forgotten. The elements -- including the hook -- can feel contrived.

How do you write work that stands out?
  • Relax -- Reliance on the tried and true is based on anxiety. Ironically, the more you want the writing to achieve your aims, the more you are likely to fall back on formulas, formats, and rules that promise success. Take a deep breath and put that all aside, at least at the beginning.
  • Have fun -- Telemarketers are encouraged to smile as they make their pitches. Supposedly, you can hear a smile over the phone. Likewise, the emotions you have as you write usually come through.
  • Be bad -- In both senses. Be willing to write poorly as you compose, and to risk revealing your dark side. The former can be fixed. The latter may be what the reader is looking for.
  • Tell a secret -- Truth or dare, baby. Write what you don't want the reader to know. If they'd lean in to hear it, you might have something worth keeping.
  • Cut -- The most common thing I see in manuscripts is the true voice emerging around page 15. It's almost always worth listening to.  But after all those pages of throat clearing, prettied up language, and "what the reader needs to know," how many readers are still around?
  • Play -- Mess with the order. Run a scene past the ending. Slip in some poetry. Write from a different point of view. Do things that delight you even though they may be cut. Even if the experimentation doesn't make the final copy, it influences everything else for the better.
  • Trust your reader -- Don't explain everything. Imply. Hint. Wink. Do something you know you won't get away with. Yes, some readers won't get it. Those aren't your readers.
  • Make it different -- If it reads like everything else, change it up. You make it stand out by making it yours.
  • Check for clarity after it's done -- When you are happy with your work, let someone else read it and ask them if anything confused them. You might also ask if they wanted to put it down at some point.
  • Review -- Now you might want to pull out your formats and templates and rules. Chances are, you'll find your writing does the job. It may even include, in its own way, everything that's "required."
Obviously, fiction, which must provide an emotional experience, can take advantage of this advice to stand out. So can memoir. And queries. So should the bio you include with queries. Electrify, defy, annoy, disgust, charm, and arouse. Don't bore.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Writing Fast - The Jungle Red Writers discussion

Hi, all
I'm guest posting this week on Jungle Red Writers, entering into the discussion of the benefits and pitfalls related to writing faster.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

HTWF #200! Best Advice on Productive Writing

In just over two years, I’ve posted 200 entries to this blog. To mark this milestone, I’d like to celebrate some of the advice I’ve gotten that has helped me become a more productive writer:
Write, Don’t ThinkIsaac Asimov spoke at my university back when I was about twenty years old. He said that aspiring writers should rush the pages through the typewriter as quickly as they dared. It took the deadlines of radio, almost a decade later, for me to get a good understanding of what he meant. It didn’t mean composing in stream of consciousness mode or getting sloppy. It meant writing without long pauses, without searching too long for a word, without questioning myself too much, and without ducking away for research.
Don’t Confuse Writing with Writerly ThingsKristan Higgins offered a key insight on a time waster. When you write regularly, it should be actual work on the manuscript. This is especially important in a world where promotion, networking, and other career-oriented activities can fill writing time. But it also applies to other activities (such as research) that can eat up writing time.
Screw ThemHarlan Ellison said this less politely, but blowing off the naysayers or even using anger toward them as a prompt to write more and better can be helpful. It might even be worthwhile to post a note in big block letters in your writing area or someplace else (refrigerator?) you’re likely to see it often.
Take Notes in Full Sentences – I never met Ray Bradbury, but this suggestion of his has been an amazing timesaver for me. I no longer waste hours trying to figure out I meant by short phrases and individual words marked down on the back of receipts.
Voice Shows Up When You Write Fast – This might not be the exact phrasing, but Liz Pelletier said something akin to this when I attended a workshop with her this summer. I think it’s true. Too often, labored prose reads like someone other than yourself or comes out in a bland anonymous voice. (Perhaps one that would please your high school English teacher.) Going full throttle releases something new, and that is a (sometimes disturbing) expression of the inner you, unfiltered. It accepts risks.
I wish I could give credit to some of my other productivity standbys – using a timer, writing a goal sentence the day before, replacing a word that won’t come with “bagel,” and many more included in these pages. With each of these, I’ve either forgotten the source or come up with them myself (probably reinventing the wheel). 
... I've also gotten terrific advice that's less directly involved with productivity, such as guidance on character development and structure and choosing topics and refining ideas. Not to mention much needed encouragement. Writing is truly a community activity, with many generous hands contributing.
But I’m glad I can take advantage of this post to credit a few people and thank them for advice I’ve both benefited from and been able to share with readers and students.