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?

Creating descriptions of people

Here’s an exercise we were taught in writing school to help free our minds from the conciseness and blandness used by politically-correct trogologytes with nothing better to do than to force us all to use non-figurative, monosyllabic grunts expressly devised to be comprehensible to a sock puppet.

What you do is think of someone you know well and write ten metaphorical sentences about them. It starts by thinking:

“If my friend were a vehicle, what type of vehicle would he/she be?”

The answer might be something like:

“She is a wheat harvester rearing on its back wheels.”

The idea is taken from a poet, whose name I cannot remember, who used this device to describe English poet laureate, Ted Hughes.

For example, here’s one I made up about a person I know:

His shoulders are two oversized furcoats, draped over a telegraph pole.
His voice, a shotgun ringing through a bowling alley on a Saturday night.
His eyes blink over an early evening at the equator.
He uses his nose like a vacuum cleaner sucks up marbles.

As you can see, you can create a fairly vivid image of a person through the association of ideas. My example is rubbish, but give it a go, it’s not only simple but fun – like throwing a hair dryer in the fish tank.

Journalists love developers love journalists

The convergence of media has given rise to some strange bedfellows. Once upon a time a news room was filled with copy editors, journalists, photographers, phones blaring, and daily deadlines. Now it’s more common to see plasma screens, banks of computers, a multimedia department and us – the proud web developers.

A good working relationship between developers and the “journos” takes some time to forge: it depends on the environment and the willingness of both parties to accept and comprehend each others’ roles. But because these roles are so different, misunderstandings are inevitable. In some places, I’ve noticed a level of antagonism arise between the two groups where each regard the other as an ignorant impediment to their own jobs.

Developers take great pains to craft and maintain clean and compliant code and become disillusioned with the editors’ constant and successful attempts to break it. They can’t fathom how an editor would input 100 break tags to clear an image and consider a little piece of coding knowledge in an eager writer to be a dangerous thing. To a developer, an editor is someone whose basic role is akin to data entry. It is inconceivable that they should require any other skill beyond copy and paste and more HTML tags than <h2> and <p>.

Editors on the other hand, think that developers are a team of geeks who, because they don’t want to do any work, enforce draconian rules on the publishing process and stifle any attempt at creativity. Editors feel that developers don’t understand a thing about the craft of news writing and the importance of timely and topical messages. The attitude is that they use acronyms to confuse and hide behind their inability to deliver what an editor wants.

Wording, coding and loading

Fortunately, I’ve been in both chairs. As a writer hacking away at a desktop word processor composing articles destined for the web, I was on intimate terms with the way text had to be “cleaned and gleaned” before it was suitable to be published as HTML. Any variations on the template (usually defined by designers) had to be fudged or “requested” meaning that a designer had to create them and a client side developer had to provide the code. In a news environment, more so in an online environment where we can break and update stories when and from where we please, this is a huge frustration.

So too having worked with editors and journalists across many industries in a development capacity, I have heard their frustrations in relation to technology: “Why should we have to learn HTML and CSS? Don’t we employ people to take care of that for us?”

My answer was always that they should learn simple HTML and perhaps a little CSS, or at least what it’s used for, and that I would offer to teach them what they needed to know. Some accepted and others spurned the offer as if I’d just invited them to watch moss grow on roof tiles. But I understood their complaints. Arguably, more than in any other sector, the media and entertainment industries are experiencing profound changes due to the rise and rise of the internet. Concurrently, all the platforms, a great deal of the content, the language and yes, even the roles are changing with it.

In today’s web-focused newsrooms the journalist is expected to not only produce the content but to publish it at well using whatever tool is provided for them. They’ve been employed to write, edit, research and provide the content that keeps people coming to the site. But the variable output of content management systems and the strict rules that are required to maintain a website that validates, create a digital minefield. Training and documentation might be non-existent, technology changes but the pressures to submit their copy in a presentable format remain the same. For example, if a means to create a breakout quote is not available to the editor, who has to immediately push out a breaking story, they will improvise and we, the support staff who look after the integrity of the site, may come across something like this:

<font size="3" color="red">
"And a minister said something interesting."<br>
<i>The Hon Henry Honeybun</i>

The writers don’t care. Their material is out and they’ve done their job. Any self-respecting web developer however is prone to suffer a mild spasm. Larger organisations that can afford to hire technical support staff who can respond to these events straight away have mitigating buffers. But the night desks and smaller news teams will publish what they can get away with, despite breaking the layout or every rule in the HTML validator.

Who’s right?

It might be a gratuitously evident comment, but people publishing content to the web – whatever that content may be – should have the tools and knowledge available to them to do so. Saying I work as a writer shouldn’t negate the necessity for me to understand the medium in which I publish. I should know what I can and can’t do and follow the advice of the developers.

But, it goes both ways.

If I am a developer (responsible for the frontend of a news website), it’s important for me to know how a newsroom works and to understand the role of journalists in newsmaking; it’s also worthy to discover the mental process by which people in my team will be publishing to the site, not just the physical workflow. For example, how and when does sub-editing take place? Who approves the final draft? What elements of  a story should be semantically marked up? And so on. When armed with this knowledge, I’ll be able to better support them so that they can do their jobs properly. Providing the right tools is only a part of this. Attaching a digital style guide to the formal style guide is one option. Proper training is another.

Despite the gaps in the knowledge of both parties, I think we are at the tail-end of the transition and that we will see a new generation of journalists who will have had training in web publishing. Accordingly I hope that we’ll see a new breed of developers, particularly bloggers, who appreciate the art of the word and the importance of a journalist’s and editor’s role in the creation of news. Ultimately we’re both producing lines to achieve the same end: whether they’re words or code, our medium is online and our audiences shouldn’t have to know that there’s a difference between the two.