Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Oh, it kills me to say this: we are doing it backwards.

Maybe you’re the exception to the rule. Perhaps you’re that rare writer who figured this out 10 years ago.

But I doubt it. Most of the writers that I know — novelists or journalists, speechwriters or screenwriters — go about it roughly the same way:

Step 1) Research, whether it’s six months of intense study or six minutes of looking at Wikipedia and playing Angry Birds “to let it all percolate.”

Step 2) Boil down the research into useful nuggets of meaty goodness.

Step 3) Use their secret recipe of writing methods to cook up their piece (outlining first or winging it, 3 x 5 index cards or spiral notebook, Word 2016 or Scrivener, one draft or six drafts, coffee or bourbon).

Step 4) Hand the draft to our editor, writing partner, spouse, co-worker or cousin Joey to get all coffee stained and edited. 

Step 5) Spend five or fifty minutes thinking about how to present and sell the sucker for suitcases stuffed with twenties.

Those first four steps, they’re essential, right?

Here’s the thing: We writers are incredibly talented at screwing up Step 5.

Backward is bad

Step 5 is the monster lurking under our typewriters. (Yes, I know most of you use computers. Maybe I have a magic typewriter connected to the Series of Tubes.)

It’s the troll under the bridge, snarfing our lunch and saying, “Whatcha gonna do about it, tough guy?”

Now, boiling down a novel clocking in at 100,000 pages is rough. I have author friends who’d rather leap out of a perfectly good airplane, trusting in the bouncy power of their Nike Air Jordans, than write a three-page synopsis. Tagline? Logline? Forgetaboutit.

Doing Step 5 for anything, long or short, is tough.

Tough for screenwriters, who need to boil it down to an elevator pitch.

Tough for editors in newsrooms, who have to write headlines that fit into tiny nooks and corners of the newspaper layout.

Yet nothing else matters if we botch Step 5. Because nobody will see the fruits of our labors, the hard work that went into Steps 1 through 4, if we can’t condense the whole idea into a killer pitch and hook.

Reversing course

Instead of performing the labors of Hercules before even attempting the torture of Step 5, reverse course.

Start there.

Before you invest hours, days,  weeks or months into research. Before you sweat bullets to put words on page after page.

Begin with the shortest and most important words.

The  logline (or pitch, but in a sentence, not a paragraph) — “An alien monster stalks the trapped crew of a spaceship.”

The tagline – “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”

The headline – “Alien devours spaceship crew; heading for Earth?”

Test that out, not with friends and family, who are constrained by the need to live with you, and be liked by you.

Try that single sentence on people in line at Safeway or Starbucks, neighbors you barely know, visitors from out of town, tourists, people who won’t wound you forever if they make a face and tell you the idea is stupid.

And to get inspiration, use the series of tubes to check out “movie loglines” and “movie taglines” and “great headlines.” Or head to The Onion and read their headlines, which are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

Don’t do a thing until you have a logline, tagline and headline that sing.

Not one thing. Don’t spend six months writing a first draft or six minutes plotting the first chapter.

Go do it. Throw ideas around on a piece of paper or whatever — and not about whatever you’re working on. Dream up a few crazy ideas and write down loglines, taglines and headlines that are shorter than short. Then kill every word you can to make them shorter.

You’re going to notice a few things.

First, the hero doesn’t matter.

Second, the villain matters a whole bunch. If you remove the villain and threat, it kills the logline, tagline and headline. Because stories — even newspaper stories — are about conflict. No villain, no conflict. But if you take out the hero, it usually makes the logline a lot shorter and a lot better.

Here’s another example I’ve used before and will use again, because it is short and sweet and the logline for about six movies that have already been made: “Asteroid will destroy Earth.”

See? We don’t need Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (Matt Damon‘s buddy, the one who dates & marries Jennifers) in there at all. Heroes just clutter things up.

Third, shorter is better. If you can get it down to three or four words, you are golden.

A new way to write

Let’s get practical. Here’s a new way to write anything.

New Step 1) Nail the logline, tagline and headline.

One sentence apiece, as few words as possible, and yes, it is cheating to have sentences that go on and on forever, sentences with six different commas and possibly semi-colons, which are a sin against the English language in the first place and should be taken out and shot.

New Step 2) Make it work as a paragraph.

Expand it a little, but not too much. Half a page, maximum.

New Step 3) Nail it as an outline on ONE PAGE, treating each side fairly.

Whether you’re writing an oped or an opera, a novel or a speech, figure out the biggest possible difference between the beginning and the end — and do it from both POV’s. The villain and the hero.

So: if it’s a romance where the heroine ends up as a great cook who’s happy and in a great relationship, what’s the greatest possible distance she can travel? On page 1, make her  (a) the worst cook in the world, (b) unhappy and (c) alone. How can you take that up a notch? Make her a nun who loses her sense of smell (and therefore taste) in a car accident. I’m half kidding, but not really. You get the idea. 

If the ending is crazy happy, the beginning better be insanely sad.

If the ending is full of sad, the beginning should be Happyville.

If the hero is a tough guy in the end, the best story shows him start out weak. Only after he suffers and sacrifices does he prevail (THE KARATE KID), and not necessarily by wining (ROCKY).

And you’ve got to make it a fair fight. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. The other side — whether it’s an speech about taxes or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK — has a point. If you don’t give it credence, your writing will be one-sided and weak. Cartoonish.

I used ALIEN before. What’s the story for the alien creatures? Maybe they’re a dying race. Maybe that crashed ship contains the last of their kind. The stakes just got a lot higher for the alien, right? You are our only hope, little facehugger. Get in that ship and lay some eggs.

Put yourself in the shoes of Darth Vader and the Emperor, who don’t see themselves as enslaving the galaxy. They’re helping people by establishing law and order. If nobody is in charge, it’s chaos and confusion. A strong empire means safety, security and economic growth. The rebels are violent terrorists who don’t appreciate what they have and will kill whoever it takes to gain power.

Now figure out your turning points. Put in your setups and payoffs. Make it work as an outline before you move on.

New Step 4) Research only what you need.

New Step 5) Write and have a professional editor bleed red ink on the pages until the draft is A SHINY DIAMOND MADE OF WORDS. 

You’ll notice that what used to be an afterthought — Step 5 in the original way of writing — becomes the first three steps.

I did that on purpose.

Say you write a beautiful oped, 700 magnificent words about why the death penalty should be abolished or whatever. Now you’ve got to pick up the phone and pitch an editor at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times.

The first five seconds (aside from the “hello!” nonsense) will determine if they even look at the piece. Maybe six or seven words, if you talk fast. Part of that will be confidence, tone of voice and other things you can’t learn via a blog post.

Your pitch, though, will matter. A lot. A great speaker with a muddled pitch will lose out to a mumbler with a tremendous idea they can convey in four words. That’s what a logline, headline and tagline are really about, three different ways of explaining something in the fewest possible words.

Hollywood calls this five-second kind of thing “the elevator pitch.” There are websites that devote many, many words to it. Use the powers of the google and check them out. They are useful.

Bottom line: those four words matter more than all 700 words of the oped, all 3,000 of the keynote speech, all 15,000 of the screenplay or all 100,000 of your epic novel about elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs.

Make those four words count.

5 ways to make blog posts GO ALL VIRAL

There is no guaranteed method, no secret way, to make a blog post that causes the Series of Tubes to explode.

Anybody who says otherwise is a lying liar full of lying liaosity.

Because this is an art, not a science.

HOWEVER: There are things that are smart, and give you a chance.

yoda after the death star blows up
If your magical blog post causes the Series of Tubes to blow up like a Death Star orbiting the second moon of Yavin, then Yoda will celebrate by dropping it like it’s hot.

5) Swing for the fences

If all your blog posts are kinda the same — the same topic, the same length, the same tone — it’s a good bet none of them will ever magically shock the world.

Learn from PETA, which gets gobs and gobs of free ink and airtime by trying bold, crazy PR stunts.

Most of them fail. Sometimes, they get a little bad press for a stunt gone wrong.

But they keep swinging for the fences, because there is no real penalty for swinging and missing.

People only really pay attention when you hit that towering home run.

So PETA does the opposite of most non-profits, companies, politicians, authors, actors and would-be Famous Peoples: they don’t (a) craft a strategy full of bunts and singles, (b) assume all those bunts and singles will work 100 percent of the time, then (c) freak out when things don’t work out exactly according to the plan and (d) yell at their publicist for all those failures.

PETA knows most swings of the bat will miss. They’re smart about it. They don’t whine or cry in their IPA’s after hours, asking God why nobody prints their press releases. They swing hard. They know missing is part of the game. And they keep on swinging, knowing that all it takes is one solid smack of the bat to get their message through in newspapers, radio and TV around the world.

I did a bunch of posts examining how PETA and other folks do publicity right. Read them. It’ll make you rethink playing small ball.

4) Start with a killer photo

Words are great. I adore words, and I bet you do, too.

Treating photos as an afterthought, though, is crazy.

Because images are more powerful than words. They tap directly into a primal part of our brain and work all kinds of magic, bam, faster than you know it, all while your brain is still processing the first few words of the headline and such.

Every post should have one killer image.

Every post.

Snag a shot from flickr or morguefile. Snap away with your iPhone or Droid — or, if you’re lucky enough to have one, a Nikon of Infinite Beauty.

Use one of the online meme generators (they are legion) to add words to a fresh meme.

Better yet, find a photo and start an entirely new meme.

What if I told you ... how to get to Sesame Street?
Make your own meme already. DO IT NOW.

3) Embrace viral networks

Everybody basically has a blog, a Facebook page and uses Twitter — that’s pretty standard.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: that won’t help you go viral.

Blogs just sit there, really. Nobody except your subscribers will realize you’ve got a new post.

The Book of Face is social networking, not social media. Same with Twitter.

They aren’t designed, really, for things to go viral. Are they better than a kick in the head? Yeah.

For a blog post to really go viral, you need it to make noise on Pinterest or Reddit, Digg or Stumbleupon — those sorts of sites.

Because lumping all these sites under the term “social media” is stupid.

whuh?
What? Social networking and social media are not the same thing?

There’s social networking, where you make new friends and talk smack with those friends.

There’s social media, which sort of works as an alternative to mass media (papers of news, radio, TV) — but not really.

And then there are viral networks.

To make a blog post go viral, people who use viral networks must (a) see your post and (b) share it.

That means putting the right sharing buttons on each post.

It means joining a few of those viral networks to see how they work.

And it means using those networks to push sharing buttons on stuff your friends post, not just your own stuff.

This is where a killer photo comes in handy. Pinterest and other viral networks are incredibly visual. If your post doesn’t have an image, it’s basically impossible to post on many viral networks. Even if they let you post, I don’t suggest doing it. Because a photo is key.

2) Use the video, Luke

Moving pictures are even BETTER than regular old pictures, which are better than words.

Here. I’ll make it all simple with logic and such:

Video > Photos > Words

Find short clips on YouTube that illustrate your point.

Snag animated gifs that are related, and funny, and not gross or pervy.

Techno Viking does not listen to the prayers of men, or bloggers. He only wants to dance, and to crush his enemies, then dance a little more.
Techno Viking does not listen to the prayers of men, or bloggers. He only wants to dance, and to crush his enemies, then dance a little more.

There is no shortage of video clips and gifs. I am constantly amazed by the creativity of peoples on the Series of Tubes, and I tip my hat to them. You make me laugh, and learn things, because video is the most primal way of reaching people.

1) Wrap it all up with a head-turning headline

The Greatest Blog Post in the History of the Blogosphere won’t matter if your headline is something like “What I wrote this morning, after I had some Cocoa Puffs”

Give your post a great headline. How?

Bottom line, you want the headline to create interest by (a) raising interesting questions about (b) stuff people already care about, and I have to say  (c) if your blog is a thinly disguised diary, and eliminating the words “I” and “me” would cause the word counts of all your posts to drop by 20 percent, then yeah, that stuff isn’t really interesting or what people care about. Don’t do it.

Interesting questions include anything primal: life and death, love affairs and disasters, monsters and myths.

Stuff people already care about include books and movies, music and plays, stupid reality TV shows, politics, news, art, photography, stupid reality TV shows about celebrities and anything funny.

So what’s a good killer headline? Here are a few:

  • Top 10 things to do before Comet 1948A destroys Earth
  • Why JAWS and FATAL ATTRACTION are the same flipping story
  • If the Bachelor and Bachelorette are 0 for 40-whatever on engagements and marriages, is all hope for love lost — or is reality TV just an empty wasteland of vacuous, fame-chasing idiots?

Now, I’m kidding with that last headline. Bit too long.

On the other hand, it is unusual and would stand out. Bet you if I wrote a post with exactly that headline, it might make a splash. That last hed (journalism slang alert!) happily swings for the fences.

So don’t worry about missing, and don’t place all your bets on some golden post.

Swing hard.

Swing often.

Swing true.

Because every time you shoot for something bold and spectacular, even if you fail, you’ll get better at it. And you won’t learn how to hit home runs if all you do is aim for bunts and singles.

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

barbed wire

Those nine words are magic.

And those words help sell 5.842 gazillion miles of barbed wire back in the late 1800s, when the West was still wild and there weren’t handy trees or stones to make fences.

Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt – I’ll remember that for days. Forever, maybe.

It’s honed down to perfection. Nine words, and not a one is wasted.

barbed wire
A little strand of steel with a twist and BOOM, you are golden. Photo by Guy Bergstrom.

In the five seconds it takes to hear those words, or read them, you’re sold.

Writers struggle with those first five seconds.

  • What’s the best way for a reporter to convince the city editor put a story on A1 instead of buried next to the obituaries on B15?
  • How can you sum up a 100,000 novel in a single page – or a single sentence?
  • When a magazine editor is buried with pitches, how does yours stand out from the slush pile?
  • What should a screenwriter say about his script while riding in an elevator for 30 seconds with Steven Spielberg?

Science shows us secrets

Here comes the science: people make up their mind about you – or your writing – in the first five seconds.

Viscerally. Unconsciously.

Their little reptile brains see your face or your words and make a split decision.

Later on, our oversized frontal lobes justify that snap judgment.

It’s not a rational thing. I’ve seen the science. Go read BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell. (Go on, read it. I’ll be over here, drinking Belgian ale.)

Different researchers testing for different things found the same result.

  • The first five seconds of a job interview determines whether you get it
  • The first five ticks of the clock during a professor’s first lecture of the semester, with the sound turned off, can be used to predict exactly how students will rate that professor.
  • A quick glance – less than – at two candidate mug shots will predict who will win the race. This works with adults or five-year-olds. Mug shots. No names. No parties. The shape of the face.

This last result fascinated me. Researchers had people glance at those mugs, then rate the candidates on attractiveness, intelligence, competence and whatnot.

They thought attractiveness would matter.Nope. They thought race and sex and age would matter. Nope.

Competence was the only thing related to the eventual winner.

This makes sense. If somebody’s attacking your village, you don’t pick Nerdy McNerdy as the leader of the defense. Brains without brawn won’t work.

You don’t pick Miss America to lead the troops into battle, either, because she’ll simply be nice to look at while you all get slaughterd.

And you don’t pick Mr. Neanderthal, tough but stupid.

Who do you want? Somebody who looks competent – tough but smart. A Clint Eastwood, somebody who looked like he knew what the hell he was doing.

Hold it out and squint

Alright, you’re already thinking of the Greatest Squinty Eyed Tough Guy in Movies, so remember this rule: Hold it out and squint.

Hold out your first page of your text and squint.

Is it a sea of gray?

Is there a photo or graphic? Are all the paragraphs the same length? Do you have any subheads or anything to break up the text?

Now, this doesn’t work for certain things. You can’t have photos and whatnot in screenplays or manuscripts.

Later on, though, it will make or break you.

When you go to rent a movie (yes, I know Blockbuster is dead to you and it’s all Netflix now, so pretend you’re clicking away with Mr. Mouse), you make decisions in far less than five seconds. You glance at the front cover and move on.

Same thing with books. Glance and move. Glance and move.

Maybe you pick a book up and read the text. What makes you pick it up? Images first. Maybe a good title. Glance and move.

That’s why the Squint Test is so important.

Think about movie posters with too much going on. When you squint, you don’t know what’s what.They’ve got the star and the co-star and seven different sidekicks in there, plus the villain and two random thugs. It’s a mess.

Less is more. Simple works best.

The poster for JAWS is perfect: a pretty young woman swimming along and a giant invincible shark roaring out of the depths of the ocean. It doesn’t get any more primal than that. We need the shark and a pretty girl. That’s it.

jaws movie poster
The JAWS movie poster is classic, and will always be classic, because it is simple and brutal and seven separate types of awesome. Steven the Spielberg, stick with this movie thing — you have talent.

Putting this knowledge to evil use

Our conscious brains aren’t really running the show. We’re like a mouse riding on top of an elephant, sometimes biting the elephants ear to go left or right.

How can we writers use that knowledge?

Tap into the reptile part of our brains. Go for the gut.

Blake Snyder hit this idea with his Hammer of Truth in SAVE THE CAT when he demolished the conventional wisdom of genres.

JAWS isn’t a horror movie. ALIEN isn’t a sci-fi movie. FATAL ATTRACTION isn’t a domestic drama. All three are the same story, the same primal threat: there’s a monster in the house. You can’t get away. Either you fight it and kill it, or it eats you.

Hollywood screenwriters are masters of the first five seconds. Fire up the google and check out “loglines” to see how they sum up a movie in a sentence. They make writers of novels look like silly chatterboxes. Think you’re being hip with a one-page synopsis instead of five pages? Hollywood laughs at a full page of text. One sentence, buddy.

Can you do it in a sentence?

How about nine words?

Copywriters are also world-class at those first five seconds. Visit copyblogger and soak up their wisdom. DO IT NOW.

The best five-second pitches — whether it’s a headline for a newspaper story, a poster for a movie or a pitch for a novel — tap into those primal needs and instincts that Blake Snyder talks about.

Survival vs. death. Love vs. loss.

You know what the stakes are. Instantly. Not 30 seconds into it. Not 15 seconds after learning about the when and where and who. You see what’s at stake, right away.

Here are four words: COMET WILL DESTROY EARTH.

That’s a newspaper story everybody will read. Everybody. It’s a movie people saw twice (ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT).

Part of the secret seems to what’s missing: the hero. You don’t hear a damn thing about the hero after you’ve boiled it all down, do you? Screw the hero. Heroes are plain vanilla and boring. The best ones, the ones that hook us, talk about the bad guy: the alien, the shark, the comet. Hmm. Maybe there’s a reason for that. But that’s a post for another day.