Rogue Ink

October 9, 2008

Assaying the Essay

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 3:20 am
Tags: ,

Just because I know what both of those words mean. Alliteration for everyone!

Short post, about personal essays and how to get one down on paper. Ten rules, for your consideration.

Rule #1

Rule #1 never changes, and it is always this: do not be boring. Do not be boring. Do not be boring. Thank you for your attention regarding this matter.

Rule #2

Do not be – I think we’ve run that Fight Club joke into the ground, don’t you? Yes, me too. See Rule #1. No, this rule is different, and it is: pick a personal topic. You would be surprised how many people try to write a personal essay and forget to be anything resembling personal. You can rant about politics or social whatever, but you have to bring it back to you. This is required. I require it. So do editors. So does the genre. ‘Personal essay.’ You see? Right there, with the P.

Rule #3

Write every single thing on the topic that comes into your mind. Seriously. Just write. Don’t try to put it in logical order, you will totally fail. Or if you succeed, you will be one of those writers that all other writers hate, which means that you can never come on this blog and tell me I’m wrong, it is possible to write in a coherent plotline, because all the rest of us will rise up and destroy you. So. Freefall it. Write everything down.

Rule #4

Now make a plotline. Open a new document, line the two up side by side, and type it into an order that resembles a plausible plotline. Note: the first time you do this, you will get it wrong.

Rule #5

Smooth out the transitions. The transitions are the bits where a new paragraph starts. Or when a new subject starts, but seriously, if you’re starting new subjects in the middle of paragraphs you’re not ready to write essays yet. Stop reading and go pick up a good manual of style, catch up, and come back later. The post will still be here. It’s all good.

The transitions WILL be shaky the first time you go through with your new plotline, because you’re essentially cut-and-pasting from a thought process that didn’t have a logical plotline to begin with. So they’ll be shaky. That’s why you smooth them out now. Don’t panic. It’s not like your writing will ever know what your brain is up to, anyway.

Rule #6

Have someone else read it. I picked Naomi and Stephanie. I would have asked James, but he was too busy. Something about his daugther’s birthday. Lame excuse, but whatever. Stephanie edited, Naomi gave me a general impression of whether she thought it was on the right track. Here’s what Naomi sounds like when she gives feedback.

“Wow. I really wanted to hate it, but it was good.”

Naomi is subtle. She also said ‘it felt long, but they like long’ and I asked her if she felt bored. Which brings us to Rule #7

Rule #7

Ask your readers direct and unflattering questions about your writing, and be prepared to hear the answers. I asked Naomi if she was bored because I suspected ‘it felt long’ was the nice way of hinting just that.

She said, in an unusual display of Naomic tact, “a little,  but it got better when you mentioned Craigslist guy.” (We’ll get to Craigslist guy later.)

Rule #8

Figure out a possible solution to your readers’ objections, and ask them while they’re still captive to your will. Otherwise you’ll have to ask new people, and they will have other objections, and you’ll never get anything done.

“Would it be better if I flipped the whole plot back to front and started with the guy?” I asked.

“Now you mention it, yeah. That’s exactly what you should do.”

The really great part about asking people if you should do something when you haven’t already done it is that they will usually tell you if you are about to take a long walk off a short pier. If you’ve already done it, they start saying stupid stuff like, “Well, you’re a little wet, but it’s nothing to worry about.” Before the mistake, they’re much more likely to say something like, “Look, why don’t you just go to the edge of the pier and dangle your feet in the water? I think that’d be better.”

Rule #9

Follow up on their suggestion immediately, otherwise you will lose momentum. The personal essay stops being compelling the exact same instant you become disenchanted with your own subject. The disenchantment happens when you spend too much time thinking about writing it and not actually writing it. Stepping away from the personal essay while it is still in plot format is the best way to kill it. Once the plot is there in order, you can step away and come back and fix the adjectives. That’s totally fine.

Rule #10

Take your own advice.

I gotta go fix this essay. Play nice while I’m gone. Anyone written a personal essay out there? Got something to share? Bring it on.

October 3, 2008

On Writing on Politics

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 6:51 am
Tags: ,

My fellow University of Chicago alumnus and writer John Scalzi, whose blog and writing I admire very much, recently posted on why writers ought to put forth their opinions on politics. Now, I’m not going to go into politics in this post, and I don’t really intend to in the future, unless an intense turn of events goes down and government takes it upon itself to ration keystrokes or something. At which point, I will come out full force for the Free Qwerty Party, and you can quote me on that.

So while I don’t want to write about politics, I do want to write about writing about politics, because semantics are fun.

Scalzi makes the truly excellent point that we should all consider it our duty to be as engaged with politics as we possibly can. We should read papers and watch debates and listen to the rantings of the seniors at the old folks’ home, because nothing is more enjoyable than encouraging someone to speak at length on a topic when they don’t quite have full command of their teeth.

And yeah, we should write about it.

There are a lot of folks out there who ONLY write about politics, which is totally acceptable to us as a society. When writing about politics is your full-time job as opposed to an occasional indulgence, it upsets no one. Strangely, it is the exact opposite for sex. Think about it.

I’m grateful to the people for whom writing about politics is a full-time job. The people at FactCheck are my personal heroes, since I am too lazy to look up how each senator voted in the past or how exactly they pronounced the word ‘tomato’ back in 1997. They are the ones who finally told me who the first person to put lipstick on a pig was (it was Noah. Yes, of the Ark. Little known fact. I imagine it got boring during the flood). I like the good people who write at the New York Times and the Washington Post, for the Village Voice Media all over the United States, for Slate and Salon – heck, for the Onion.

I often disagree with them; I often agree. But I’m always grateful that someone gets my thought process running at all. It is harder to kick-start than a rusty lawn mower, and I personally do not want the job. You cannot have an opinion on a topic if you don’t know about the topic. If someone had asked me at age seven what my opinion was on the situation in the Middle East, I would have had nary a pro or con to contribute. Because as far as I was concerned, the Middle East was located at the center of China. If I had been reading on politics at the time, I might have had an opinion. (Actually, I was reading about politics, I just didn’t know it. Dr. Suess remains one of the best political pundits ever; his medium just happened to be children’s books. The Better Butter Battle is the best description of the Cold War ever depicted in print. When I finally ran into the Cold War in eighth grade history, I recognized it immediately.)

Without political writers, I wouldn’t know what to have an opinion about. And that would be sad for my opinion. It likes to express itself. Frequently in the form of finger paintings, but that’s neither here nor there.

Politics at the Dinner Table

So we’ve established that if it’s your job, it’s totally cool to write about politics. In fact, it is laudable, especially as I find it personally beneficial. The same can be said of making truffles. But what if it’s not your job? What if you’re a plumber or a schoolteacher or an impeccably charming freelance copywriter? Then we get into the whole dinner-table debacle, where conventional wisdom tells us politics is the last thing we should discuss.

The reason you’re not supposed to talk about politics is that, theoretically, it makes people upset. No one wants a tableful of upset dinner guests. Particularly if the ‘upset’ relates to their gastrointestinal tract. If I disagree with the guy to my left about foreign policy, someone might get stabbed in the eye with a lobster fork before the dinner is out. Because clearly, we are incapable of having discussions.

This interests me.

I’m not supposed to write about politics because I might offend some of you. Now, I’m going to give the good denizens of the Lusty Weevil some credit here, because I have written a post on journalistic terms that would try the Offense Meter of Buddha Hisownself. I seriously doubt any of you would be so offended by a post on current events that you would never speak to me again. But this is the sincere argument behind not discussing politics at the dinner table or in the blogosphere – the fear of offending people. Which brings me to the following points – are we really that easily offended? And when did we get so fearful of discussion and debate?

Offensive Writing, and Why There Isn’t Any Such Thing

To me, stating an opinion is never offensive. Offense occurs when I decide that I’m right, you’re wrong, and you should just shut the hell up. Which, while always true, is not generally how I go about putting forth an opinion. I’ll put one out there right now.

“Killing is not always wrong.”

This may or may not be my personal opinion, but whatever. It’s a strong stance, it’s a volatile topic. Did anyone out there spontaneously combust by virtue of my writing it? I seriously doubt it. Though if I’m wrong, I’m in a dandy position to find out whether your spouse has an opinion of their own on that topic, particularly as it applies to vengeance, so please don’t explode, even if you want to. Please? Thank you. Have one on me.

Here’s the fun thing about opinions, though. Now everyone who reads that opinion has to think about it. Some will agree, some will disagree. And while they may know instantaneously which side of the debate they fall on, and why they may never, ever change their opinion from the first day the topic occurs to them to the last day their memory functions at all, now they all have to think about WHY.

How freakin’ COOL is that?

I just made you think about WHY something is. I just made you consider the essence of truth itself. That’s amazing. That’s the power of writing.

Now we can have a discussion about it, like civilized people. (We don’t have to. We can debate all the other stuff in this post, the stuff that isn’t politics, since apparently that stuff is less likely to make you guys explode than the politics stuff.) We don’t have to throw things or scream or make up a drinking game to keep score. We CAN, but we really don’t have to. We can just talk about it. It’s okay. We don’t all have to agree. That’s not the point. The point is that we all think, collaboratively, about WHY.

Back to Politics

The government affects virtually every aspect of our lives. We should be thinking about it, forming opinions on it, and every time we see a scrap of writing on politics, it makes us question our worldview just a little bit. That’s fantastic. There is nothing more amazing than being assured that while your opinions may not be anyone else’s, they are your personal truths. To have a personal truth is to carry with you, at all times, a household god.

It’s no fun to have opinions that have never been questioned by the written word. Writing about politics makes us better thinkers, better people, and better citizens, and if one day I have the ability to do so for a living, I believe I’d be proud to do it. Until then, I’ll be bringing it up at the dinner table. Because ignoring a subject that impacts us all so much is a disservice to the human mind.

And a Final Note from Scalzi Himself

Scalzi wrote mainly about why he would continue to write about politics on his blog. Scalzi writes about pretty much everything on his blog, including books and politics and his family and movies and a whole lot of bacon and cats. Since he’s been doing it forever, Scalzi’s allowed to talk about politics on his blog, since he hasn’t really limited his field at all. But he makes the following note as an author, and I wanted to share.

To go back to fiction writers and politics, there’s another reason I feel obliged to freely speak my mind: Because so many writers cannot. PEN has a handy list of writers currently imprisoned all over the world because they’ve written about the world they live in; it also has a list of writers who had been imprisoned and who, while now released, continue to face prosecution and danger should what they write offend the wrong people. Are there fiction writers on these lists? There sure are. These writers chose to speak about their world, despite the certain risk, and were punished for it by prison terms or worse — and I’m supposed to hold my tongue because someone might not buy my book? Give me a fucking break. I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t dare.

This is a more serious post than usual, but the VP debates had me thinking. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about the strangely compelling sales guy. Subscribe so you don’t miss it.

June 19, 2008

Sonnets Are Sexy

Filed under: Copywriting,Writing — Tei @ 4:15 am
Tags: , , ,

This is true. Nothing you say will deter me on this point. There is nothing sexier than the rhyme and meter of a sonnet, particularly when transposed to the modern day. I am about to make a point on writing in general and how you can take a little lesson from the sonnet when you feel all restricted about the structure many of us are forced to follow when writing, say, guest posts, or articles, or web copy chock full of keywords.

Before I do that, however, I must prove my point. To wit: three modern sonnets that are sexy as hell. None of them are Shakespeare. I figure you had enough of high school when you were in high school. Won’t make you do that again, much as we do love Big Willie. Plus, I doubt any of you are writing in Old Elizabethan English, because if you were, I would have to skewer you for using creative spelling. I realize there wasn’t a formal dictionary in Shakespeare’s day, so I would not dream to correct the Bard himself. Or Milton, for that matter. If I see anyone who was born past 1933 appending extra ‘e’s to words whence they do not belong (yeah, that’s right, I said whence) I will hurt them badly, and dance upon their grave here in blogland, under the heading “The Vanquished Terrorists of English.”

Why 1933? First person who can tell me gets a pony.

Right. So. Modern Sonnets. I defy you not to get all hot and bothered by the time you’ve finished these.

Sonnet

This is for the afternoon we lay in the leaves
After it had been winter for half a year,
And I kissed you and unbuttoned your jeans
And touched you and made you smile, my dear.
And of all the good things that love means,
One of them is to touch you there
And make you smile, among the leaves,
And feel your wetness and your sweet short hair,
And kiss your breasts and put my tongue
Into the delirium between your soft pale thighs,
Because the winter has been much too long
And soon will come again, when this love dies.
I will hear sermons preached, and some of them be true,
But I will not regret that afternoon with you.

C.B. Trail

Yeah, you thought you’d be bored by now, didn’t you? Suckers. I started you off with the easy one. Here’s another one, by the good Kim Addonizio.

First Poem for You

I like to touch your tattoos in complete
darkness, when I can’t see them. I’m sure of
where they are, know by heart the neat
lines of lightning pulsing just above
your nipple, can find, as if by instinct, the blue
swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent
twists, facing a dragon. When I pull you
to me, taking you until we’re spent
and quiet on the sheets, I love to kiss
the pictures in your skin. They’ll last until
you’re seared to ashes; whatever persists
or turns to pain between us, they will still
be there. Such permanence is terrifying.
So I touch them in the dark, but touch them, trying.

Kim Addonizio

You and I both know I’ve already won this bet, but here’s one more, not specifically about sex, just to bring home the point that sonnets are sexy regardless of subject matter.

The Desire Manuscripts
V. In the Mourning Fields
(The Aeneid, Book Six)

The world below is starless, stark and deep,
and while you lay beside me, my golden bough,
plunged in the shadowy marsh of sleep,

I read about the infernal realm, and how
a soldier walked forth in the House of Dis
while still alive, breaking an eternal law

by braving death’s kingdom, a vast abyss,
the ground sunken in fog – eerie, treacherous –
guarded by a mad beast, three-throated Cerberus.

Tonight I read about us – foundering, hopeless –
in the Mourning Fields and the myrtle grove,
wandering on separate paths, lost in darkness.

It is written that we were consumed by love,
here on earth, a pitiless world above.

Edward Hirsch

(Note to the authors of all these poems – I am not intending to disrespect your copyright laws, just sharing the love. If you want me to take ’em down, by all means, say the word. I linked people to Amazon for your books, though. Trying to increase the poetry readers in the world. Don’t hate me.)

Now then.

What the hell do sonnets have to do with copywriting?

The English majors among you are just itching to get down to the comment box, where you are going to inform me that none of the above are technical sonnets, because they casually break some rules of strict meter. Hate to ruin your fun, but this is about to be my point, and I need it to prove to you that the sexiness of sonnets is relevant, so you’re out of luck. Feel free to rant anyway, it’s just that you’re going to sound silly now. Sorry ’bout that.

The above sonnets continue to follow the basic rules of sonnets – fourteen lines, specific rhyme scheme, and more or less correct meter. The reason the poets get away with breaking some of the rules is because they are versed enough (heh, writing puns) in the rules of a sonnet to break them, gently, so that neither you nor I notice until we go back and start counting off syllables on our fingers. Which brings me to my first point.

You can break the rules if you know what the rules are.

In copywriting, there are basic rules. One of the obvious ones is: Use correct grammar. However, this rule can be broken, and not even the immense wrath of the Rogue will befall you, if you know what you are about when you use incorrect grammar. For example, I can say the following:

Sonnets bring with the sexy, dudes.

And none of you are going to freak out, though ‘bringing with’ is not a recognizable thing to do with sexy under anyone’s formal rules of grammar. This is slang, and it is used for comedic purposes, and I am allowed to do it because I know what I’m doing. If my entire blog post were composed of slang like that, you would all want to beat me over the head and tie me to my skateboard and send me rolling back down the hill to groovyville where I would belong. Since I do know what I’m doing, you just rolled your eyes and let me be. See how you’re still reading? You wouldn’t be, if I didn’t know what the rules were. You’d be all pissed at me, and you’d leave and never come back, and I’d be sad, because then who would debate gender bias in my comments? The pixies, that’s who. And they don’t even have genders.

You can break the standard rules. You can put more text on a web page than is recommended if you know what you’re doing. You can break rules of grammar, of sentence structure, and of formality. You cannot do any of that if you don’t know what the rules are to begin with. You will sound like an idiot, and you will sound like an idiot who does not know what he is doing. If I misuse grammar on this blog, you all know that I either did it because it’s a casual turn of phrase used conversationally (because this is a pub, not the platform of the inaugural address) or because I am being hilarious.

Laugh it up, denizens. Ain’t nothin’ but a butter biscuit.

If you sound like you are following the rules, you are going to bore us all.

One of the things I love about Addonzio’s sonnet is that I damn well did not realize it was a sonnet until I hit the last rhyming stanza. That is some skills, y’all. (Looky there, did it again. Breaking rules left and right today. I must be a grammatical genius.) The best sonnets are not so obviously sonnets that they beat you over the head with it. Poets should not so painstakingly follow the rules of sonneting that doing so compromises the flow of their language.

Same holds true for copywriting. If you are writing a keyword-rich article, and someone tells you the best length for a paragraph is 200 words and the optimal number of times you can use the keyword is once per paragraph, you are going to sound a damn fool if you adhere to those rules so strictly that it compromises the copywriting. This is a rookie mistake. There’s a lot of copywriting strewn about the web right now that is technically correct. Problem is, it sounds dumb. None of the writers is paying attention to the way it sounds. They’re too busy trying to get the right number of words in the paragraph.

Listen to the way your writing sounds. Read it out loud if you have to. (Note: I would not entirely recommend reading those sonnets out loud at the office. Just a small piece of advice from me to you. Unless you work in a sex shop or something. In which case, I just upped your chances of selling something battery-powered. You’re welcome.) If your writing would sound better if you bent one of the formal rules of your chosen genre, then by all means, bend it. Wrench it sideways. Contort it into Cirque de Soleil. Then read it out loud again. If it sounds good, I guarantee you no one is going to care that you broke a formal rule.

Why? They won’t even notice you have broken it. It’s crazy how that works. If you are skilled enough, your bent rule will sound so natural that unless you have the anal editor from doom on your hands, they won’t pay your contorted, backbending, pretzel-twisted rule any mind at all. And even then, evil editors from doom often know from good writing.

Sonnets are crazy sexy.

Just felt like reiterating that. If you want your copywriting, or any other kind of writing, to be crazy sexy in a similar fashion, though not so rhymey, go ahead and bend a few rules.

Go learn what the rules are first, though. You cannot gently bend rules if you don’t know what they are. You are liable to bend something else by accident, like a gerund. And nobody likes a bent gerund, do they?

Subscribe. I’m bringing sexy sonnets back.

June 13, 2008

Phoning it in.

Filed under: Quotes,Writing — Tei @ 4:56 am
Tags:

Can’t talk. Writing. Back tomorrow.

“Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”

– Neil Gaiman

May 29, 2008

Save your world. Write.

Yesterday, we talked about procrastination, and why it works. Because when you get down to those last few minutes, you know you have to write, you have to finish. This works great for me, but that is because I have a hero complex. Come along. We’re about to geek out.

The Hero Syndrome

I know a lot of people who cannot handle the pressure of a last-minute deadline. I was one of them when I was small. The thing is, I need an impetus, a push. I need a reason to write, and I realize that there are a good many romantics who consider breathing to be a good enough reason to write, and I hope that they all make lovely poetry somewhere, preferably at the top of a tree where I can’t hear them. I choose to not be a poet. I think the whole pen-and-sword thing started because writers need to believe themselves heroes in order to get any work done, ever.

If you don’t get the writing done, horrible things will befall you. The rent won’t get paid, you’ll starve, you’ll have to subject yourself to the horrible tyrant at the Widget Factory and be chained to a cubicle and have fluorescent lights shined in your eyes forever. The weight of the world is on your shoulders. You are the only one who can get it done. You are the chosen one. You are the ring-bearer, Frodo. You are the hero. You are the child, Bastion. Save us. The force is strong within you. There is no one else. You, and only you, can keep your world spinning.

Think. Fast.

You have to think. Shutting your eyes and jumping only works at the very last moment, just before the explosion happens and you’re shot across the atmosphere in a very cool movie still. Before that happens, there’s a moment of inspiration. Listen to it. What are you going to do? What are the first words going to be? You have to decide, and you have to decide now. There’s just no more time.

Make the decision and stick with it. No time for waffling. If you figure out something brilliant halfway through, you can change tactics, because that is the privilege of the hero. If some magical connection suddenly clicks into place, spin around and go in that direction. You’ve already started. You’re a man of action. (Or a woman, but seriously, being all PC totally ruins the rhythm of these things. We have to GO, people. There’s only five minutes left.)

Don’t look up.

The girl is crying, the sidekick is babbling, lightning is flashing, big explosions are exploding and someone nameless is screaming in the street. There’s probably an adorable puppy whimpering somewhere. Don’t look up, don’t you dare. No distractions matter at this moment, because the clock is running out. Whatever you do, don’t look up. Don’t check Twitter, don’t look at your email, don’t answer the phone. There’s no time for that. You’re writing.

Don’t stop.

If you stop, you’ll fall down. If you stop, you’ll stop forever. If you stop, Mount Doom will open cracks below your feet and it will always be winter in Narnia and the Nothing will eat Fantasia. You cannot stop. Keep writing, keep putting words one after another. Your words are your footsteps. You can correct them to keep yourself from falling down, but don’t ever stop putting one foot in front of the other. One word, another word, keep moving, keep going.

Believe.

I swear, nothing was ever so powerful as being a hero, ever. I got myself a big hourglass at the Z Gallerie just because it was the coolest, most romantic thing I’d ever seen. It measures out, shockingly enough, one hour, which is a good unit of time to get something significant done. A press release, your web content, the first five pages of your short story. Reach out. Turn the glass over. Start running, start writing. This is your world, and you save it every day. John Steinbeck said something amazing that is my official writer’s mantra. It goes:

“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”

My time’s up. Subscribe now, or the world will end.

May 28, 2008

Procrastination. It works for me.

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 5:22 am
Tags: ,

Put your head down, your nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, money where your mouth is, hand on the helm jam on the biscuit, weasel in the rabbit hole, martini in the left hand and pool stick across the right, for I say unto you: cliches are fun when properly abused, and they are an excellent way to pass the time when you ought to be doing something else. Like, say, work.

I procrastinate. A lot.

This is not my fault. I place the blame it squarely upon my dearly beloved professor of Shakespeare at the University of Chicago. This blessed gentleman was not only the owner of several of those delightful jackets with the leather patches on the sleeves – not to mention a bicycle, a full head of white hair, and an incredibly sweet and welcoming wife who didn’t seem to mind filthy college students in her house at all hours – but was also a scholar of no small distinction who had been teaching the Bard for over fifty years and had seen a paper written on nearly every possible topic on the subject. I mention this because he made ‘A’s contingent on producing a thesis that he had not seen before. In fifty years.

I spent a full day writing my first paper, and I’d like everyone to bear in mind that I write very quickly and generally spend a good deal of time ‘thinking’ about it before I actually put pen to paper. I got a B+ on it. ‘Good writing,’ said he, in his comments, ‘but I’ve heard this argument before. Also, you happen to be wrong, but you didn’t lose points on that.‘ Is it any wonder that there was a deep and abiding love in my heart for this man?

The next paper I consulted with him beforehand to make sure he hadn’t seen the topic before. He was about to go onstage for a production of The Tempest, he was dressed in robes and a good deal of stage makeup, and he discussed my topic with me so arrayed until he had to answer ten minute call. He hadn’t heard the topic before. I spent the afternoon writing it. I got an A-.

The final paper I completely forgot about. It was finals week, I had a class in global warming taught by a professor who bore a remarkable resemblance to Gimli of Lord of the Rings, if Gimli dropped the axe and the helm and discussed particle dispersion a lot, and I figured my studying hours were best spent on physics. I wound up reading the play (again, I’d read it once before in high school), deciding on my topic, and writing the paper all in the space of five hours.

I got an A.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I procrastinate. It seems to work for me.

The trouble is, while procrastinating projects works for me, what I tend to do with the spare time is never good. It usually involves pop songs, for some reason. These are the moments in my life when I tend to think, “What would I say to all my loved ones in the afterlife if the Apocalypse happened right now and we all got to view our last twenty minutes over and over again? Is there any realistically cool explanation for spending one’s last moments on Earth rocking out to nineties one-hit wonders? I don’t think there is.”

I could do cool things when I procrastinate. If I scheduled it right, I could be procrastinating certain projects while scrambling to meet a deadline on another. I could dance or sing or train squirrels to do the tarantella. But I keep putting it off, because none of those things have deadlines.

Procrastination is not the problem. The problem is, I don’t have enough things to procrastinate. If I did, I could be in a constant state of panic, and everything would get done, and it would all be BRILLIANT.

I’ll tell you all about it. Tomorrow.

Subscribe. You might miss it otherwise.

May 15, 2008

My Useless College Education

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 4:37 am
Tags: , ,

I was just thinking I should write a post on college, since my brother is graduating from his. And then, in my spam filter, I caught this little gem, which for reasons unknown to me, was under the heading “Business College.”

Hustler is a new realistic dong that will definitely be useful in your next passionate play.

I do not see why you would have to go to business college to determine that, but there you have it.

Which brings me to my topic for today. College. Why do we go, and what good is it?

One of my biggest regrets in life is going to college. I can say this not because I had a bad time in college, but because, given the choice to either go to college or check out what’s behind door number two in my history, I’d be excited to try door number two. That’s rare. Usually I’m kind of hippie-esque on this one (California roots, people. I believe in the power of organic vegetables and homeopathy and good vibes. Also, Asian fusion). For the most part, even if a particular choice was rough, I learned enough from it that I wouldn’t undo it.

There’s a saying I’m told is Romani, to the effect that you should never retrace your steps unless you’re willing to undo that portion of your life. This freaked me out to the extent that I have only ever taken highway 80 cross-country going one direction. And I go cross-country a lot. To the detriment of my car and my sanity and my bank account. I like driving. I like the open road. And I have become very well acquainted with the southern alternate route to 80. If you speed, it’s just as fast.

Unless you speed on 80 too. Then it’s a little slower. But prettier.

All of that is to say that given the choice to unwalk that path, to do something else with the three years I was in college (I finished, I finished, I’m just bright), I would take that chance. I would pick the red pill.

College Was Kind of Useless for My Profession

Everything I needed to know to be a writer I already knew by eighth grade. This is true, and it saddens me that most eighth graders do not graduate middle school with that capacity. I had excellent grammar and spelling skills and I read enough to know the difference between awkward and smooth phrasing. I started rewriting white papers for my mother when I was fifteen.

If I had been smarter, I would have started my business while I was still in high school. I could have been home free by now. I could have been keeping this blog for seven, eight years, people. You could have had SO much more Roguish in your diet.

I didn’t. I went to college. And I studied a lot of literature and philosophy and Shakespeare, spent an enjoyable three months in Rome on a study abroad venture, and weaseled my way through environmental science and French and Italian. It was fun. I like learning. I like academia.

It was completely and utterly useless to my profession.

I have never been asked for any of the skills I developed in college. I took precisely one class that offered the basics of business writing, and it was excellent, but I’m certain I would have learned more or less the same thing on the job if I had chosen instead to go be a stringer at an alt-weekly or write copy freelance as I do now. No one has ever asked me if Poe was being ironic when he claimed that he used only the forces of logic and reason, not intuition or experimentation, when he chose the rhyme scheme, meter, subjects, and scansion of ‘The Raven’ (Answer: he damn well better have been being ironic, because otherwise he was a tool).

People say you go to college for the experience. I say, that was a damned expensive experience. It cost me something like a hundred grand to go to the University of Chicago for three years, and that was with a sizable academic grant. I met people. I learned things. It’s a phenomenal school full of very smart people, and if I were planning on studying the origins or new virtues of something for the rest of my life, archaeology or economics or literature, I’d have gone again. I’d have taken the blue pill.

But I’m a writer. Writers write. I didn’t write more because I went to college, I wrote less, since I was working to support myself through it and trying to study for exams and come up with new interpretations of Much Ado. Writers write, that simply, and being in debt never made it any easier on us.

What say the rest of you? College or real-life experience? Red or blue pill?

Subscribe. Come down the rabbit hole.

May 6, 2008

Being a Wuss is Bad for Business.

Filed under: Copywriting,Entrepreneurship,Writing — Tei @ 5:06 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I have an announcement I would like to make: I am a coward.

No, seriously. Hiding in trees is what I am all about. The brave ones went off to be paladins and stuff. Me, I stuck to my roguish ways, stayed in the shadows, tried not to be noticed, and every now and then, I’d poke my head out and trick some unsuspecting customer into hiring me for a gig. This is how I operated my business. And it actually worked decently well. No one is expecting a sneak-attacked by a copywriter. It’s the perfect disguise. I appeared, fully geared up, resume and references in hand, charm at the ready, to certain select clients I had decided beforehand would be amenable to my proposal. It was a very roguish way to go about things.

It is also REALLY cowardly.

You can’t be a wuss and run your own business.

I had a little wake-up call on this the other day. I’ve asked the good Men with Pens to make me a website (and a new blog, so consider this your first announcement that Rogue Ink will be relocating shortly), and Harry came up with a banner for me. It is quite possibly the coolest thing that ever happened to life. I had a small orgasm just looking at it. It is entirely possible that I threatened to kiss Harrison, just for being the mastermind behind it. I immediately forwarded the thing to twenty of my favorite people, and every single one of them wrote back saying, “Dude. What kind of virgin did you sacrifice to which unholy gods to get this banner?”

Look. Isn’t it awesome?

Okay. So we have established that it is, in fact, awesome. I went to bed all excited about it, dreaming blissfully of my beauteous website-to-be, and woke up in the morning with that strange feeling of doubt and guilt and possible impending doom that usually accompanies a Coyote-Ugly sort of morning-after. I had doubts about the banner. I suspected it was perhaps the kind of cool banner that you take home one night only to discover the next morning that he is not a good banner, he is not good for you, and he stole twenty bucks from you for whiskey. I was gazing at the banner, which was still blissfully sleeping, looking beautiful, wondering when it was going to wake up and be a very, very bad idea.

Why?

Because I am a coward.

I came up with some reasons why the banner was a bad idea. That my clientele wouldn’t like it, that it was too aggressive, that I couldn’t pull it off. All of this was complete and utter bullshit, though. I was scared the banner was a bad idea because I knew it would get me noticed.

Note to everyone: You are TRYING to get noticed. This is a good thing. If you have roguish tendencies like me, screw them. Consider this your biggest con. You are playing the role of someone who loves the spotlight, in order to serve the greater you. You have to ride the dragon, baby. Get some balls and just do it. Get out there.

Ride the Dragon. Or the Purple Cow.

I just read Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow. Yes, I know everyone else has already discovered the magic of Seth Godin. I am coming a little late to this party. Why don’t we all just celebrate my arrival and let it go, shall we? Excellent. At any rate, Purple Cow. Fun name. Good little book. If he’d put it out in paperback I might have bought it. I am not questioning the lack of paperback, for I know Seth Godin works in strange and mysterious ways his wonders to publish, I just don’t like hardbacks and I am too broke to afford them. So instead, I sat in one of the big cushy chairs at Barnes and Noble and read the thing cover to cover.

The Purple Cow theory, in essence, is that nobody needs normal. Everyone wants exceptional, extraordinary, remarkable. So freakin’ cool they wet themselves. So why was I afraid of the banner? Because it was a Purple Cow. And you have to be a special kind of rogue to ride a Purple Cow. Seth mentions this, actually, that there are few people becoming extraordinary because it’s scary to become extraordinary. Which it is. It most certainly is. It’s also really freakin’ cool.

An Anecdote From My Geeky Youth. And Adulthood.

When I was sixteen, I learned to swordfight. I was really good at it. Naturally good, born-to-it kind of good. Nobody had expected me to be any good at it initially, since I was tiny, blond, and a chick, so there I was on the sidelines, stealthily beating everyone, systematically. There was a tournament at the culmination of our training, and I almost didn’t participate in it, because I was incredibly fearful that I would lose, and that all of the acclaim I’d been getting by staying on the sidelines and only showing up to be awesome would all go away.

I did go to the tournament. And I won. It was glory on a stick and wrapped in bacon.

That victory led to a lot of things. The fact that I am a swordfighter has always been one of the things that made me stand out, made me get noticed. It was what I wrote my college entrance essay on, and it was the reason one of the admittance counselors noticed me and wanted me at University of Chicago. It’s a great icebreaker at parties. It’s a good thing to talk to hardware store guys about. They always remember me. That’s the chick who swordfights. You can’t BUY branding like that.

Swords have done good work for me, all my life. And I was afraid of a banner that touted this brand that has always worked for me. That’s just dumb. It’s unforgettable. It’s exciting and daring and memorable. And I’d be a damn fool not to keep using it, scary as the idea is.

There is a moral to this story. Harrison was very sweet about the whole Tei-is-being-a-wuss thing, and quoted Polonius at me. I will not do this to you, because I believe in wielding Shakespeare in a wrathful manner, not a comforting one. The moral of the story, therefore, does not come out of the Bard’s mouth, it comes out of mine:

Do not be a wuss. It is bad for you.

Thank you. Subscribe. Ride the Purple Cow.

May 3, 2008

Working on the Weekends

Filed under: Entrepreneurship,Off Topic,Writing — Tei @ 7:32 pm
Tags: , ,

It’s Saturday morning. By ‘morning’ I actually mean ‘one in the afternoon, but I just got up and made breakfast, so bite me.’ Last night I went out and saw a movie with a friend, played some air hockey for the first time in a decade, and won both games, which feels just as righteous at twenty-four as it did when I was fourteen. Arcades should never go away. And screw first-person shooter games. It’s all about air hockey and skeeball and those machines that would let you keep playing forever with 50 cents if you were good enough. Mortal Kombat. Oh, man, nostalgia’ll kill you.

Now, yesterday was a blow-off day for me. I had just finished a pretty hefty-sized couple of projects. It was a cold, gray, ‘Curl Up With a Cup of Tea and Watch Doctor Who on DVD’ kind of day, and I know to obey those days if you don’t have a good reason not to. Otherwise the Gods of Naming Days come after you, saying stuff like, “Dude, we named it that for a REASON. We did not name it ‘Get a Jump Start on Next Week’s Work’ Day, DID we? NO. It was even sub-titled ‘Christopher Eccles Is MY Doctor’ Day. What is WRONG with you? Quit organizing your receipts for tax purposes this second and watch him dip Billie Piper.”

Which means that today, Saturday, is a work day.

And I have a confession to make.

I like working on weekends.

Seriously. I like the devil-may-care nature of the whole thing. I like heading on over to the farmer’s market and parking myself and my notebook behind the cart full of fresh tomatoes and basil and scribbling down outlines in the midst of the smell and the street busking musicians and the flower-sellers. Eventually I’ll toddle over to a cafe full of people who are all having a lovely weekend, getting some breakfast with their lovers the morning after, discussing the vacation they might take, the book they just read, the relaxing, diverting, amusing stuff. Nobody talks about work on a Saturday. Everyone is tired of that. They talk about the stuff they enjoy, and that’s a delightful environment to write in, because I enjoy my work. It’s writing. It’s the best fucking job in the world.

If you’re a writer. I imagine that for a fisherman, catching fish is the best job in the world. And that is cool too. Power on, fishermen. Everyone’s got their own truth. My truth is Writing Rocks. Yours may be that Star Wars Rocks. And both of these things are equally true.

When I write around other people who hate what they do for a living, it starts to rub off on me. I start to go, “Yeah! Work sucks! Rise up and overthrow your overlords! Who’s my overlord? Damn it, it’s me.” When I write in a cafe full of people enjoying their Saturday, that rubs off on me too. I say things like, “It IS a lovely Saturday, and look, I just finished this first draft! And you’re starting a band with some buddies of yours? Awesome. We are both extremely cool.” Much better. Anarchy is good for desperate times, but this is writing we’re talking about. I prefer to be chill.

Nine-to-five, Monday through Friday. Uh, no.

I like that I can tell the common calendar to back off, because I am going to take one day off on Friday and one off on Tuesday and hell, maybe half a day off on Sunday, just because I can. As long as I put in the forty hours a week (or so) I promise myself, I can work any day I want, and at any time of day. I can wake up at noon if I want to and work until eight. I can work for two hours in the morning, take the afternoon off, and finish up in the evening. I can get up at five and – no, wait, I can’t do that at all. Early morning is where my abilities are shot. But all the rest of it, I can do.

And yeah, this does often mean that I work Saturday AND Sunday. Or Friday evening, or other times when all the world is theoretically supposed to be out gallavanting the night away. That’s where my roguish nature steps in. I don’t want to dance just because it’s Saturday. I’ll dance on the day I wake up and just have to dance. I will dance in my front yard if I have to because it’s four a.m. on a Wednesday and no dancing places are open. I don’t want to work just because it’s Monday. Actually, if you think about it, nobody wants to work on Monday because it’s Monday. But you do, don’t you? Yeah, you do. Stop that. Listen to the gods of naming things. If they say that this particular Monday is, in fact, “Wear a Stupid Hat to Work and Shoot the Breeze with Your Boss All Morning” Day, do it. Go for it. Especially if you’re a freelancer. You have no excuses. No one is going to fire you for this stuff.

Outside-World Intrusion.

Yeah, sometimes I have a deadline. Sometimes I have to work on days that are much better spent hiking up a mountain. Most of the time I don’t, though. If I work whenever it feels good to work, and play when it feels good to play, my schedule generally accommodates that. I don’t need to play all the time. I don’t always have the urge. In the space of a week, I try to work about the same number of hours as everyone else works. I just catch them when the time is right.

It’s Saturday. I’m going to go write a bunch of monthly missives for a woman who runs public speaking seminars, and eat free melon from the fruit-stall guy, and maybe sit under a big tree and flick at ants that invade my personal space.

I love my life.

Subscribe. It’s Saturday.

April 29, 2008

Writing for Non-Profits or Why Cheese is Awesome

Filed under: Copywriting,Entrepreneurship — Tei @ 5:25 am
Tags: , , ,

I was going to write a post on freelancing ethics, but I’m not feeling particularly ethical today (you have to sort of be in the mood to get on your moralistic high horse) so I’m going to talk about why writing for non-profits is different than writing for other kinds of companies.

As with all things, the key is in the words (oh, English language, how I heart you). A non-profit does not work for profit. A for-profit, as in all other companies, works for profit. I know. It’s all so clear and magical. Wait a sec, though, because I’m going to change it up: this means that when you are writing for a for-profit, you are generally selling something. This is, in fact, a good thing to tell people about yourself if you write sales copy for a living: I can help you generate more profits. The granddaddy of sales copy is Bob Bly, and this is exactly what he tells people, over and over again. I can make you more money, says he, and he is evidently correct on that point. And that’s awesome for Bob, but it doesn’t work for non-profits.

This is not because non-profits do not need money. They actually always need money. Throw a stone into a roomful of non-profit people, and you will give some non-profit guy a head wound, and that guy will not have health insurance, because non-profits always need money. So money is still a factor here.

The difference is you are no longer getting people to buy something. You are getting people to invest.

We HATE investing.

When we buy things, we know exactly what we’re getting, and what it’s going to do for us. I buy cheese because I really like cheese. It is delicious, it smells good, it is frequently studded with nuts or rosemary or apricots, it goes great with a glass of wine, it keeps me from getting too skinny (a thing I worry about constantly, let me tell you) and it featured very prominently in the wonderful Redwall books of my youth. These are great reasons to buy cheese.

When we invest in things, we do not usually know what we’re getting. Very few people actually own stocks and bonds, few people have CDs or savings of any kind, because they don’t understand the investment. So someone has to explain it to us.

Here’s the clincher: nobody likes to have stuff explained to them.

We get bored. We tune out. We start counting the freckles on the bank guy’s face, and deciding that maybe he should have been a little friendlier with the sunscreen in his youth, because some of those freckles are big and strangely-shaped and look decidedly precancerous. We start wondering what we’re going to have for dinner. We start hating the term ‘CDs’. Not really, because music CDs are great, but we mostly use mp3s now and why would they call investment-CDs CDs when there were already CDs in the world and those CDs had music on them? Investment CDs are never going to compete with music CDs, we think. We are wondering if this guy is still talking about the CDs. We kind of have to pee. We wish he’d finish up.

When we get bored, we never find out what the awesome investment is going to do for us, and so we never invest. We take our money and we go buy cheese, because we know all the delights of cheese, and they are numerously delicious.

Back to the Non-Profits

Non-profits get their money from donations. There is a huge list of things that fall under the category of ‘donations’ – grants, government and state monies, privately wealthy folk who for some reason don’t see the immediate necessity of funding my personal lifestyle and choose to write checks to other causes instead – but for the sake of discussion, ‘donations’ about covers it.

When someone is being asked to donate to a non-profit, they are being asked to invest. They personally are not going to get the return on their investment, but they want to know that their money is going to accomplish something good. I know, these are selfish evil people, but they want to be able to have the warm fuzzies that come with sending your money off to save starving children. They want the fuzzies. They are complete addicts for the fuzzies. They want to know why your brand of fuzzies is better than the other guy’s fuzzies, and in order to do that, you’re going to have explain, and as I’ve already said, nobody likes shit explained to them, so you’re going to have to be entertaining. You’re going to have to tell them a story.

Writing for businesses is selling. Writing for non-profits is storytelling.

When writing for a non-profit, you have to craft a story that makes the potential donor’s heart grow three sizes in one day and cracks the Grinch’s face and sends him sledding down to Whoville with Max. That’s your job. It is a little easier than the Grinch, because your potential donors are good-hearted folk already and they aren’t green and they don’t have weird evil-shaped eyes, but you have competitors out there, competitors who will try to make their warm fuzzies seem warmer and fuzzier than that damned Snuggle bear, so you better craft a good story.

Good storytellers get the investments, because they can explain things without the listener being aware of the explanation. If the guy at the bank could craft a really compelling story about the CDs, I would sit there all rapt and attentive and he would probably get my money. They do this occasionally. They tell this wonderful story about a woman who started a twenty-dollar CD when she was fifteen and then retired at the age of thirty and went off to live in the Bahamas with an actor. A cool actor, not a creepy Hollywood type. A Johnny Depp type actor.

Although, I have to say, even then, I go: that sounds great, but do I HAVE to invest now? If I don’t invest now, I could use that money to buy cheese instead. And the immediate satisfaction of cheese is so much more real than the eventual satisfaction of financial stability. I don’t believe in financial stability anyway. I think financial stability hangs out with the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus and none of them are ever coming to my house again, because I’m a grown-up now.

I don’t feel this way about non-profits though. If you tell me I can save a small child from AIDS with my quarter, you have got my quarter, no problem. I’ll buy cheese some other time.

The Small Matter of Hero Creation

The donor is making an investment in someone else’s life. That is good and noble, but he needs to know why he is doing that. Tell him a story. Tell him a story about illiteracy if you’re writing for a library, tell him a story about poverty if you’re writing for a non-profit business loans company, tell him a story about disease if you’re writing for a health-care facility.

Then make the donor the hero of the story. Give him the power to rectify the situation, right the wrong, save the world. No one can resist being a hero.

Here’s what’s really fun: it’s true. You just told a true story, and you made a real hero. Which makes you the guy who makes heroes. It makes you Zeus. Zeus got all the lightning bolts and women and those cool arm-band things. Zeus is a good guy to be.

Yeah, yeah, real heroes make themselves, I know. I just want to be Zeus.

If I were Zeus, someone would bring me some cheese right now. I’ll bet you Zeus never had to buy his own cheese.

More cheese obsessions later. Subscribe so’s you don’t miss them.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.