A Very Urgent Creation

Alexa wound down the window and flicked her cigarette out into the carpark. She listened to the slow exhalation of the city, the thrumming from the factories in the east, then checked her pistol. It was loaded.

“What about him then?” she said and pointed to the shadow rummaging behind a skip at the end of the alley.

Toby’s lips smacked around his all-day-testosterone-sucker. “Whadda bout him?”

“What if we take him in, you dolt?” Alexa said.

“How do you know he’s a him?”

“You all look the same, don’t ya?” Continue reading A Very Urgent Creation

Reflections on Berlin

It’s 8:30 in the morning — a summer morning if you want to be all chipper about it.  I’m strolling up the main street in my neighbourhood, sunlight filters through the elms onto the newly laid cobblestones.

I notice a man in paint-splattered boots enjoying a breakfast beer on the park bench. His arms are covered with faded dragon tattoos — the kind that indicate age and lack of foresight. Around him, a flock of sparrows bounce to and fro like popcorn on a grill, suggesting that he or someone else occupying that bench before him had started the day with a flaky mound of dough from the bakery across the street.

Whether he has just finished work or is on his way isn’t clear, but when he rises to leave, he places his bottle neatly underneath the rubbish bin at the end of a row of empties. Someone will be along shortly to collect them for recycling money. Continue reading Reflections on Berlin

Short stories, not attention spans

When fans queue to see the movie Ender’s Game later this year, many of them will know that the movie is based on Orson Scott’s card 1985 novel of the same name.

It’s safe to assume that a great deal of them will have also read the book and the subsequent titles in the series too. But I would bet that only a handful would know (mostly the hardcore fans) that the idea and many of the characters in Ender’s Game had humble beginnings in a short story, published in Analog magazine in 1977.

Whenever I hear about short stories that have triggered the creation of a larger work, or when I read the works of Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, or the dozens of other short story writers whose ideas ‘made it’, not only am I comforted by the thought that I’m not wasting my time learning the craft, but also by the promise that a short story can lead to bigger things. In my case, I hope my journey into short fiction will lead to a novel.

Continue reading Short stories, not attention spans

Psychotic horse asks: Who cares about corporate birthdays anyway?

Attention every corporate body who thinks the general public cares that it’s your ‘birthday’:

Wow! 75 years of Company XYZ pumping out ear-raping advertisements! 50 years of government bailouts for No-Frills Faceless Bank!

Seriously: do you, the marketing parasites of these commercial leviathins, truly believe we give a fuck that the company has been around for [insert random number] years? And that it’s somehow cause for public ceremony? Continue reading Psychotic horse asks: Who cares about corporate birthdays anyway?

Online surveys in the time of decreasing attention spans

What happened to the good ol’ days? The time when you could approach people in the street with a few polite questions without fear of being given the heave-ho; when customers would be only too happy to donate two minutes of their day to offer constructive words of advice to an enthusiastic entrepreneur who just wanted to do a bit of old fashion world-changing. Continue reading Online surveys in the time of decreasing attention spans

Is fiction writing tasteless?

Tonguing for a meat pie
Tonguing for a meat pie

Taste is an elusive sense. Have you ever tried to describe what bitterness is? What about the enigmatic meatiness of umami? It’s not an easy task. But should I change the question and ask what you feel when you eat something of a particular taste – not just whether it is hot, chewy or smooth, but what you think or how other parts of your body react besides those in your mouth – then we stumble upon a banquet of ideas.

I for one swoon at the pleasure of devouring a savoury stew of thick beef chunks, red wine, sea salt, carrot and sweet onion, but the taste of tripe makes me want to call a priest.

Food is emotional

The sense of taste triggers intense reactions in us, both physically and emotionally. Therefore, when writing fiction, we don’t need to rely on words such as bitterness, sweetness or sourness – readers know these gustatory concepts already. Our goal is to connect notions such as texture, smell, temperature, memories and expectations so that we can communicate the experience of taste.

Consider this sentence:

Joanne held the spoon of honey at arm’s length and let the syrup topple into her mouth. At first she felt a tingling, then a slight whisper of wattle and citrus before the sweetness started to crawl across the surface of her tongue like viscous wave of sugar ants, up the insides of her cheeks and across her palate. She closed her mouth and eyes and thought of her mother’s farm, the smell of warm September mornings and of her childhood pet, the one-eyed cat, Salamander, who would lay all day purring on her bare feet.

Here we reveal not just the physical properties of the food, but also the relationship between Joanne and the taste of honey, in both the present and the past. We animate the texture, throw in a few taste references that would make a thesaurus-hugging wine connoisseur proud; we depict even the way she eats the food.

Most people are familiar with the taste of honey, but by adding these emotional and sensory ingredients we are attempting to present honey in novel way.

Of course it doesn’t have to be as floury as my example, but I think depictions of food are only tasteless when they don’t venture beyond the ‘bland’, ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’. By using all the senses at our disposal, it is possible to transform the description of taste into a very delectable morsel for readers to digest.

Robbin’ da Hood: steal, borrow but never beg

Creative writing ideas can come to you at the most irregular moments: in the shower, at 3 o’clock in the morning, or in those moments before you’re about to run a red light and hit an elderly pedestrian. Does this sound familiar?

Perhaps you keep a notepad in your top pocket and diligently scribble down musings and interesting observations before they can tumble back into your subconscious. Or, if you’re like me, you let the idea roll around the human fairy floss machine (brain) and wait to see something sticks.

But waiting for creative moments to happen themselves is frightfully inconvenient, particularly when you have a deadline.  In these situations, the only inspiration that is likely to descend from above is the one attached to your boss’s arm – and it won’t be inspiring at all really.

Inspired Googling

Picasso once said inspiration “must find you working”. I agree with this statement but would extend it somewhat by saying that inspiration, particularly for copywriting, can also be googled.

Jay Abraham, who makes his bread coming up with ways to make more bread, suggests a method which I believe many people use already (I know I do): simply head to the places where they’ve already done the hard work – Amazon for example – and study the headlines of the top 100 best-selling items for your particular keyword or topic. Look at the cross-promotions, summaries and subheadings and write them down. Find out what you can use and how you can apply it to your work. Then ask yourself: How are people motivated by this copy? What is it they want from this product? Don’t worry, you don’t need to answer these questions yourself, just bear them in mind when you read the user reviews. Because user reviews, and arguably much user-generated content around the web, are veritable gold mines for writers because they often tell very plainly and honestly what people find good and bad about an item.

You can hear him speak about this method: Jay Abraham on Copywriting

Take a book. Oh, I don’t know, something like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ by E.L. James. The product description opens as follows:

Romantic, liberating and totally addictive, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a novel that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.

Okay, that sounds like an inviting deal, although I am wary of anything that claims to have powers of ‘possession’. Let’s take a look at some of the 10,500 reviews that have been published. Five star and one star ratings were at the time of writing roughly even. I picked three random reviews from each group. The fivers said:

These books rock!!! Yeah yeah yeah there’s a soft porn theme here, but the bulk of this series is about a love story!! Period.

Jaw dropping, “holy cow!!!”. Intriguing book, couldn’t stop reading.

This book was great and kept the reader interested right from the beginning.

And now, just because we can, the oners:

I started this book only to see what the hype was all about and I still can’t figure it out.

The only thing this book has going for it is remarkable marketing. Seems unfair so much money can be made from such talentless writing.

Sorry, but this book was one of the most boring books that I have ever read.

What are these reviews telling us about a product we have probably never used or seen ourselves? That there is definitely a theme of fascination and dramatic tension, a.k.a ‘a pager turner’, which is captivating fans. We’ve got love – something soft and tender –  and sex, which we all know is guaranteed to arouse some sort of interest.

What to do with the copy-booty

So taking sentences from just six reviews we could come up with a twitteresque strapline of:

A romance that shudders with sexual potency, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a novel that will haunt you at every turn of the page.

It might not be fabulous copy nor will it make you want to buy the book (I certainly hope not), but the exercise is to describe something by exploiting elements (in our case love, sex and captivation) that represent emotions of real people. By using characteristics and actions related to these emotions such as “shudder” to suggest sexual ecstasy, we can animate our ideas even more.

How may we then use the bad reviews to effect? Obviously we’re not going to write that the book is a complete waste of time and implore the reader not to purchase it. However scathing reviews also provide insight into the product and sometimes hint at areas we have to avoid. Stating for instance that ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ is the most important literary work of the decade might go down well with the fivers, but given that 50 percent of readers hated it, we would be going a little too far. Sometimes even copywriters need a dose of reality.

So whenever you have a case of writer’s block or just need to tease out more information on what your audience actually needs, get your arse to Mars! No, wait, I mean learn from those who have more money than you. They can afford it.

 

Achtung! Imprint does not mean Impressum

Impressum is a fabulous German word that appears in the footer of most websites in the .de domain, the loose translation of which is a combination of  ‘legal notice‘ and ‘site information‘. Its literal twin in English is ‘imprint‘, which of course means ‘a mark made by pressure’.

Now, comrades, we all know that translating literally from one language to another is dangerous and can cause everything from mild embarrassment to the cataclysmic destruction of the known universe – that’s pretty much why we who work with funny foreign words tend to avoid it. Idioms are of course the easiest to make fun of. Take for example the following:

Es fällt mir nichts ein.

This literally means ‘nothing falls into me’ and represents the idea that you cannot think of anything or nothing occurs to you. Perhaps this example reveals too much of my personality, but it illustrates a point – the same people who would have us place ‘Imprint‘ at the end of the English version of a website , when what they really mean is ‘Impressum‘, would also insist on the absence of things falling into them, when they really can’t think of anything at all! “The more meaningless it is to a native speaker of the target language the better!” they exclaim and busy themselves with other solipsismal nonsense. Confused? You wouldn’t be if everyone translated words into intelligible sentences.

Have your cake and eat it… thermometer

When a word is used out of context or just plain incorrectly, it grabs the reader’s attention. The reader thinks: “Hey, that doesn’t belong there. What could the writer possibly mean?” This tool can be effectively used in fiction:

Terence reached into his tackle box and clawed through the tangled mass of old sinkers and wire. He was looking for strawberries.

Nevertheless, inserting ‘Imprint‘ at the bottom of your website, when you really mean something else (and legally have to), is a clear case of stupid laziness, of which the only consequence is to generate confusion in and mockery of you by every native speaker of English who happens to land on your Webseite. We know it, even the Germans know it, so why does it persist?

On arriving in Amsterdam

So I moved to Amsterdam a week ago, I’m already mobile and there’s a chill in the air. Together with the peculiar Dutch language, Amsterdam beguiles with its horseshoe streets and baffling harmony between people, trams, cars and bikes. Even close to the centre where I am there’s a weird silence,  like when a cat gives birth; something is happening in this city right under my nose and it’s up to me to find it.

In the streets,  flocks of confident, well-dressed Dutch people flow past on bicycles as graceful as gazelles, as I struggle with a chain that is heavier and more expensive than the bike I’m attempting to secure. They look upon me with those judging, fair eyes – eyes that quash the impulse to spit in their perfectly groomed hair – and ride away. I wonder where they are going. Clearly to a modern city apartment, filled with other handsome, smiling people eating fresh bread, smoking and drinking delicious wine. Very gezellig. I make a reminder to penetrate their secret society and dismantle it from within.

Meanwhile grim clouds chase the sun beyond the horizon. The world looks as if it has been bit on the arse by a black hole. I wake in the mornings questioning if my watch stopped at eight the previous evening or if there has been a total eclipse of all light in the universe. People use the word midday but I’m sure they’d have no idea of what or when it is if they didn’t wear watches.

The lowlands deserve a chance however and I’m looking forward to unearthing every morsel of it. Preferably with tablespoons of mayonnaise.

5 ways you can shut the fuck up

Going through my RSS feeds this morning I was once again beset by reams of article titles with claims of 10 items you should take on a holiday, 20 CSS tricks everyone should know, 11 iPhone apps that will make your grandmother orgasm and so on and so forth.

Can we stop this pathetic enumeration of self-help blogshit please? To post n ways of doing something in the hope that a catchy title may ensnare a few self-absorbed or paranoid web surfers may have been novel advice for bloggers once upon a time, but it has become cliché and the numbers and topics are getting more ridiculous. I mean, who needs to read a post about 7 ways Forrest Gump can improve your self confidence?

The history behind this flappy piece of copywriting dribble is unknown, but it’s been awfully catching. Somehow it has even become absorbed into the body of advice (known as ‘good practice’) given to aspiring authors and others looking for easy ways to avoid agonising over head lines.

The 5 ways of truth

So, anyway as a retort I thought I’d share five pitiful pieces of advice to help all those template-worshipping, google-hungry tip-bandits out there to move on:

  1. Don’t make the number more important than the message

    To limit, or stretch, yourself to provide six or seven or 25 tips on making a hat out of salmon or whatever means that you’re spending more time on conforming to a structure than on what you’re writing. A good argument, or a list of lucid tips, doesn’t need to be fenced in and will flow naturally anyway if the content is well-written. Ever heard of catchy titles?

  2. If you write good content they’ll come anyway

    Oh my God! 40 Photoshop tutorials you must read! Digg this and I’ll be famous even though I’m just linking to the top 40 Google results and haven’t contributed anything to the broader sphere of knowledge nor do I know anything about Photoshop! Loser.

  3. Lists can be great. Big lists are not.

    Sure, people who use RSS to aggregate their news are really going to spend more than 15 seconds reading your 20-page article on 100 movie bloopers you must see before you go to the toilet.

  4. Don’t make the web boring

    People are copycats. It’s natural. If I see someone wearing a particularly dashing pair of jeans on Oxford Street, I’ll scour the opportunity shops until I find something similar. But if you’re smart enough to be able to create your own blog, you probably also possess sufficient imagination to do something new on the web or, at least, not to follow what a quadrillion people have done already. The web is exciting, it’s malleable and there are (mostly) no rules. Don’t turn it into a newspaper.

  5. There is no five

    When you realise the truth, that there are more than 12 methods of pruning nasal hair or 8 foods you should eat to become Pavarotti, you might just be on the way to writing in the authoritative voice you thought you would have achieved from your sad numbered list.