Copywriting – the forgotten art

 

My best friend and honorary sister, Dawn Barnes, has won an award for her copywriting from GDUSA (American Graphic Design Awards 2012). If you click on the photo above, then click thru to numbers 15 and 16, you’ll see the ads for which she wrote the copy. I can’t even begin to tell you how cool this is, and I’m really freaking proud of her. She has been doing copywriting and editing since we were in Carnegie Mellon together. That’s decades, people, and this is her first award.

That’s the part that is insane. Copywriting is the most forgotten part of writing. You know all those Whatever for Dummies Books? She did a lot of the copy for those, too. It’s the stuff that appears in ads, on the back of books, on the inside flaps of books, the blurbs on Amazon, the stuff on the back of your cereal box, and more. Those words don’t come out of nowhere, they’re written. I can tell you, honestly and with great conviction: writing copy for stuff like that is INSANELY DIFFICULT.

I’ve written a bunch of novels and you know what the hardest part is? Writing the back cover blurbs. The stuff that’s supposed to draw in the reader and make them want to buy the book. I suck at it. No, really, I truly do. The people who do this for a living, like my friend Dawn, have my utmost appreciation and respect. And did I mention? The pay for this kind of thing kind of sucks. So, this post is for her—I’m clapping for all those copywriters out there who work really hard that no one ever even thinks about. You rock!

Things that frighten me

You would think I’d say zombies or perhaps my house burning down. Fear of being poor. Fear of tornados. Yeah, no. None of those things. I’m not even really that frightened of breaking my ankle again, though it would suck. Honestly, there are only a few things that really make my heart race: death (mine or my family’s), illness (fatal and unpleasant, mine or my family’s), and breaking one of my fingers or otherwise permanently damaging my hand.

I’ve lived through death (not my own, obviously) and illness and they are both hideous and unpleasant. I’d like to not do it again but I guess I’ll have no choice at some point. Shit happens.

However, I have never injured my hands. I’ve strained a muscle or two and had my wrist ache from too much mousing (computer mousing, that is), but I’ve never broken a finger. And I bet that would be unbelievably HORRIBLE. Why? Because I couldn’t type. Omigosh I can’t even think about it without feeling hysterical. People think of musicians and surgeons and their hands. They say: oh that would be tragic, if something happened to her hands. Why, why don’t they ever mention writers?

I’ve thought about it. Even if I never truly sell a lot of books (or even sell any, which could definitely happen), the act of writing sustains me. I read an essay today about what success means for a poet (at Jeannine Hall Gailey’s blog) and her conclusion was that the writing itself was enough. I agree. (I strive to agree with that incredibly heathy attitude while I continue to weep and moan over the rejections that fly into my inbox.) Writing itself is a wonderful act of creation. Of defiance. Of hey, this is what I have to say and if you don’t like it, too bad rebellion against our culture and society and art and stagnancy and sometimes myself. Except, how the hell would I do that if something happened to my hands?

I know/have known two writers who lost the use of their hands through illness. One managed by typing with a pencil in her mouth. The other, well I don’t actually know how he gets by, but he continues to write amazing poetry. I know it’s not impossible. Still. I imagine it must be like that nightmare where your body is frozen and you can’t get up the hill. Words would back up inside my head like a truly epic sentence-traffic jam. And how would I read? How to hold a book? Even now my heart rate speeds up at the idea. . .

deep breath


deep breath


deep breath

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How to write through extreme physical discomfort

Namely: a really bad itch.

Yeah, sure, I guess a lack of sleep (two hours total last night, suck on that you wimpy full-night’s sleep people, I am awesome) could also qualify as extreme discomfort, but it’s really more of a drunken buzzy edge-of-hallucination feeling than discomfort. I suppose the weird muscle spasms at 3 am could qualify, but still, no. Or the hot flashes (it’s not menopause, trust me), but also no. It’s really the itch that is the hardest thing to ignore.

Why are you so itchy, you ask? TMI ahead: Monday I had a dermatologist cut off a funny-looking mole (not cancer, the biopsy was benign). The mole was on my cleavage. So, yeah, I was a bit sad to see it disappear. No more Marilyn Monroe flash of sexiness to make me feel cool anymore, but really, it wasn’t a big deal. Until I realized I was allergic to EVERYTHING the doctor put on the wound.

Allergic to Doctor’s bandaid? Check. Allergic to four other types of bandage/surgical tape/adhesive/ointment/water/air/just-looking-at-the-damn-thing? Check. Red marks on my skin where all the various adhesives have raised patterns of itchy hellishness? Check. Why don’t I just leave it exposed, you wonder? Well, the skin is missing. It’ll take at least ten days, I think, for it to be safe from infection.

So the question remains, how does one write through such extreme physical discomfort? What will help?

—> Vodka.

Or so I thought.

I tried pouring it on the wound, but that SURE DIDN’T HELP AT ALL. No siree. Then I drank a little with my Benadryl. That was a fun couple hours right there but it didn’t really help with the writing.

So I bought myself a ginormous, chocolate chip, chocolate frosted, chocolate muffin and perched it on my desk. That will be dinner. I’m not allowed to eat it until I write my word count quota for the day.

The fumes of sweet yummy goodness are extremely discomfiting.

I have named my muffin Incentive.

(Yeah, yeah, I can hear you laughing at the obscene pun all the way in PA. Whatevs)

E-journal? E-zine? Why do we have to preface everything online with a big E?

E

I keep seeing people posting online/tweeting/facebooking about great new e-journals. This reminds me that I edit an e-journal, though I’ve never once called it that. I used to call it an online journal but then I decided it was silly to make that distinction and stopped. Is making sure everyone knows it’s an e-journal so very important? And how does this even signify when so many print journals have e-issues? Or e-samples? Or e-mail? Oh wait, you don’t have to say e DASH mail anymore. The AP Stylebook finally lost the hyphen. Does that make e-journal an ejournal now?

The distinction between an e-journal and a plain old paper journal is, I believe, one of status. Everything online is terribly gauche and new, despite the decades-long existence of the internet. Print journals (I’m looking at you Poetry and The New Yorker) have a sort of embedded upper-class sheen that e-journals do not. This sheen of awesomeness carries over to everything print in the literary world, so that even a baby paper journal, fresh off its maker’s homemade press and with a distribution of oh, say ten, has a sense of literary hauteur attached to it that makes it better than an e-journal.

To this I say ptew! I spit on you, paper journal fanatics! Pjournals (hmm, that’s kinda interesting, onomatopoeiacally-speaking) are no more or less well-constructed than e-journals in this era of web-literacy. Attaching ridiculous distinctions to web-only journals is one of the things that continues to divide poets. We’ve got online poets and academic poets. Old poets and young poets. New formalists and lang-po practitioners. It’s like an episode of celebrity death match! Watch the dude who only uses his 1953 typewriter go at it against the smart phone guru! Bah.

All of these conflicts are a result of ego. Poets practice an obscure art which makes little to no money. The only way to keep score is to win contests and get published. Generally speaking, getting published in print leads to tenure. Getting published online leads to more readers. The decision between which venue to pursue is agonizing for all of us. Don’t you hate trying to decide where to send your poems? I know I do. The cure? Let’s all drop our Ps and Es and focus on quality publications rather than paper or pixels. Submit to both, then tell everyone about that great new journal you love without adding extraneous letters to a poor, defenseless word. After all, poetry is all about paring down the excess verbiage, right?

First poem tossed in the shark pool

(aka first poem posted on an online workshop)

I know exactly why I posted my poem to the No Holds Barred workshop on CompuServe on Friday, April 18, 1997: ego. I’d written a sestina and thought it was the best thing ever. I wanted someone to tell me how amazing it was. Isn’t that why all beginners post to online workshops? You bet. The very first line of the very first critique I ever received is this:

“When I read your poem, my first response was to laugh.”

I know you’re thinking: hey, it’s a comedic poem! Um, no. Hate to break it to you, but this poem was/is a melodramatic pile of adolescent angst. Sadly, I wasn’t anywhere near adolescence when I posted it, though I admit I was 22 when I wrote it (which is near enough to puberty to merit a bit of mercy, right?). It contains metaphor and personification. It follows the sestina form nicely. It uses concrete imagery and active verbs: “Cars like intermittent wipers. . .” and “I punch the glass. . .” Unfortunately, all these poetic devices are at the mercy of a poem which says nothing except: I exist and it kinda sucks. It’s just like all those other badly written poems floating around in the universe, pining for an eraser.

My response to that first sentence of critique? Devastation. Possibly a bit of anger. But what about the rest of the critique? you ask. Here is the second sentence of it: “I expect that you didn’t intend it to elicit this response, but the piece comes across to me as almost a parody of over-imaged poetic angst.” Oh snap! I think I might have cried, but I can’t remember now. The reader continued with some excellent details about why he found the poem impossible: “You start with the sound being a wild animal and by the third stanza, the animal is you and it is in agony for some completely unexplained reason.”

I didn’t see his point at the time. I was using creative license to make comparisons, all of which failed (hindsight! my old friend!). However, the point is that I had NO IDEA what the hell just happened. I posted my darling and it came back to me eviscerated. I’d never participated online before. I read the rules of the workshop just enough to know where to post without completely falling all over my virtual self in stupidity. Little did I know that here, online, people were going to read the poem and actually tell me the truth. See, I’d gone to college for creative writing. Some of the workshops there were brutal, but it was my fellow students who were red-lining everything, not my professors. Since what they’d written was also barely comprehensible drivel, I was confident in my contempt for their opinions. In this online workshop, however, I had no idea who this person was or what he’d written. How could I believe what he had to say was valid?

By noon I’d formulated a response. It contained a great many exclamations points, question marks, and I’m sure it would’ve had a ton of smilies if they’d existed back then in animated form (I have the universe to thank for sparing me that humiliation). To my credit, I was polite and answered some of his points with the barest inkling of reason since even then I knew that a reader, any reader, had to be able to at least comprehend my work once I released it into the pool. I revised a bit. I found it hilarious that this person didn’t even realize he was critiquing a sestina. My favorite part, the one which makes me writhe in embarrassment for my youthful self, is where I explain thus: “I actually wanted the reader to guess at this to provide an emotional atmosphere.”

His response?

“If, in the main character’s point of view, anything and everything is an animal, then I would regard the main character as psychotic and I usually find psychotic statements confusing. The poem is, to me, so highy [sic] internalized that it fails to communicate either a mood or a point of understanding to the reader.”

Did I find this helpful at the time? NO. Of course not. I was so traumatized by his use of the word “psychotic” in reference to my poem that I ignored everything else he said. Unfortunately, every word of his second sentence about the poem being highly internalized was an extremely useful and valid critique. There is a bit more, but the result is that he basically wiped his hands of me and my poem due to my complete and utter incomprehension of the situation. After that, three moderators posted apologies for him. Another person posted an excellent critique of my poem, all of which I ignored.

Fourteen years later I find myself in charge of an online workshop: Poets.org’s discussion forums. I’ve been at the job off and on since 2005 (several years hiatus in-between). I am the shark. I eat poems for breakfast. Now, you may be wondering: what is the point of this long, self-absorbed post already? And why the hell did she save her very first critique online? That’s kind of weird. My answer: I deserve to feel that sense of horrible dismay now and then because it’s good for me. It reminds me of what it felt like before I knew how to write a poem. Before I’d mutated into one of the evil sharks who munch on passive verbs. Because now people are tossing their poems into the pool and I would like to remember that while I can provide good, solid critique, there’s no need to eviscerate the poem while I do it.

I’ll be the first to admit, sometimes I fail at this. Just the other day I posted a somewhat sharp critique of a poem because after years of reading the same cliches over and over again, we who critique poetry grow bored and find ourselves fiddling with language just to keep ourselves awake. Snark is a great, freaking blast to write. So much fun can be had at the mercy of some poor, unsuspecting novice. When this happens and when I recognize it in myself, I pull out that first critique of mine and force myself to read it. I remember the sting. And instead of writing snarky criticism that delights in itself (oh, ego again!) I try to be merely truthful instead. And then I go write a poem. Maybe sometime soon I’ll post it and see what happens.

NaNoWriMo

So far, I’m ahead of schedule for NaNoWriMo this year, which means that I’m on schedule. I try to write more each weekday so I can take off the weekends. This is my second year of NaNoWriMo, but I’m writing my fourth novel. It feels comfortable now. I know how to write dialogue and description and I’m moving into the stage where I can work on the artistry of the prose in a way that makes me feel like I’m doing something original. I’ve been writing poetry for years but prose is relatively new to me (Creative prose. I’ve written technical manuals, essays, etc.).

I’ve been pretty lucky with it, too. I’ve had one novel published (it’s a romance and under a pen name) and another slated for publication next year (another romance). These are not literary novels by any stretch of the imagination, but I like them. I’ve been a romance junkie since I was 13. Sci-fi and fantasy are my other favorites so I’ve been focusing on learning more everyday about how to write in different genres for different markets. I wrote the romances very carefully after doing some market research on what sells and what doesn’t.

Marketable prose is strangely more relaxed and more strict than literary prose. I have to be careful how often I use sentence fragments and POV is key. For the romance market, absolutely no fragments and POV has to be third person. That’s just what sells. For sci-fi/fantasy the standards are a little more relaxed, but not so much that it’s terribly difficult to read. The theme can be adventurous, but the writing style needs to not call too much attention to itself. Literary prose? All bets are off! My novel, The Quantum Archives, is a mix of poetry and experimental prose snippets along with straight prose and I’m fairly certain it’ll be a tough sell. I haven’t managed to get that one published yet and I’ve slated it for some more revision in a month or so.

With this nanowrimo I’m trying to write my second sci-fi (The Quantum Archives was my first). I’m hoping this one will be more mainstream because I’d like to sell it. At the same time I’m trying to put more of my literary voice into the work. Then, after it’s done, I’ll need to find an agent. Haven’t done that yet and I’m a bit apprehensive, though I shouldn’t be. After dealing with the poetry world for over ten years and getting rejection after rejection, my skin is pretty tough.

Anyway, if you’d like to follow my progress, my page at http://www.nanowrimo.org is here: chrissiemkl

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It’s the Daily Dish’s birthday

The Daily Dish is one of two blogs I read every day, even those days when I’m too sick or tired to turn on the computer (I read it on my phone). Andrew Sullivan’s blog provides me with an understanding of the world I could never find on my own. I lack the political background (or maybe fortitude, I’m not sure) to really figure out how and why people do the things they do in society. The nifty thing about his blog is that in addition to politics, he posts poetry. Where else does that happen? A political blog posting poetry? How strange. Nevertheless, it’s true. In fact, that’s how I discovered his blog: Andrew posted one of my poems on his site and traffic to my website exploded for a day or so. It was kind of awesome. I could’ve just left it at that, except I found myself going back again and again to read the blog. He and his staff also post photos from around the world, mental health breaks, and links to some of the funniest memes I’ve ever seen. Thank you Daily Dish. And happy birthday!

Maybe I’ll just stop submitting.

Today I seriously considered giving up writing for good. For about three seconds. Maybe a minute. I’m tired of submitting my book-length poetry manuscript (Dark matter) and having it not make the grade. I love that manuscript. I’m proud of it. I’m tired of submitting my chapbook of sonnets (Cloud studies) and my chapbook of prose poems (Glimpse). I’m tired of trying to find a home for my sci-fi lit novel (The Quantum Archives). Even when a poetry manuscript gets accepted, it doesn’t really sell. Maybe twenty people read it. And then I checked up on the stats for my romance novel (it’s under a pen name and hell no I’m not telling you what it is) and it’s not selling anymore. I haven’t even made enough on it to buy groceries for a month (I have two teenage boys that eat a ton but still). So I seriously thought: why am I doing this?

I thought about all the time I would have if I stopped writing: I could actually finish painting my bedroom or weed my rose garden. I could ride my bicycle every day. Go to the movies. And then I thought about how much I hated ladders and weeding and the future stretched ahead of me empty and rattling. What the hell would I do with myself if I stopped writing? So. I’m almost done writing a new romance novel and I have an idea for another sci-fi book that is so cool I’ve been dreaming about it. And there are those notes for the funny memoir and the next romance novel (mostly plotted out in my head) .

I guess I won’t quit. I like writing better than painting or weeding. Better than pretty much everything else I could do. I’ve worked in offices: I won’t even get into my passive aggressive clothing choices (let’s just say the incident with the tie-dyed tights was not a one-time thing). And I love words. Metaphors get me all jazzed up.

Maybe I’ll just stop submitting.

Why writers like booze (and chocolate)

I am a writer. I have written software manuals, insurance presentations, tests, letters, resumes, memos, poems, stories, novels, articles, interviews, and more. I have edited and proofread countless textbooks, journals, and other things. At no point in my life have I ever made more than $30,000 a year. The competition to get published is akin to jumping into a pool infested with sharks. Once you’re published, reviewers and critics can punch a hole in your work and watch you sink to the bottom, all the while congratulating themselves on how cleverly they did so. At the end of the day, any non-writer you tell about your job thinks he or she can do it better with no arts education and a complete disinterest in reading. Everyone I tell about my poetry is also a poet; even that woman down the street who “jots a bit in her journal now and again” has been published by Poetry.com.

There are only two reasons writers keep writing. One is because we love creating something with words. The other is the hope that someday we will be in that top .05% of writers that makes the bestseller list (think J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown) and rakes in a ton of cash. Most of us will die before that happens.

This is why we like booze (and chocolate) so much.

(edited to add: I stopped working full-time when I had my two kids, just fyi)

(edited again to add: I should probably mention how cool it is to play with words. Seriously. Writing a perfect poem is one of the most sublime experiences I’ve ever had. So, while all that up there is still true, I should have explained more about the “we love creating something with words” part. Just sayin’.)

Taking a long break. . . but not really

So, I haven’t been taking many photos lately, mostly because I’m concentrating on writing. Except where’s the writing, you ask? I also haven’t been writing poetry lately. This is because I’m concentrating on writing novels and of course just when I thought I knew what I was doing as far as creative writing was concerned, I learn that I don’t know everything. I’ve written two and a half novels so far, and I’m hard at work on making that half a novel a whole. I spent the last several months rewriting one of them because I didn’t know a damn thing about dialogue tags. This process has been both rewarding and humbling, like most things when it comes to writing.

So my long break isn’t really a break, it’s a trek onto another trail. I’m enjoying the view but I wish the trail markers weren’t so tricky to follow.