The Exploding Whale and the explosion of weird news

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy called Oregon, the local Empire decided to used tons of explosives to blow up a whale on their beach. It did not go well. But it was a prophecy, foretelling the explosion of weird news we see today.

Why is the exploding whale footage such a harbinger of things to come?

Maybe I just like to use the words harbinger and prophecy in nearby sentences.

Maybe I’m a trained journalist who loves to collect, analyze and dissect weird news stories.

And maybe, just maybe, I have a theory that explains the whole glorious Florida Man-style mess.

A Grand Unified Theory of Weird News

First: Weird news is omnipresent.

You’ll find it on an Oregon beach, in the middle of Alaska or on every acre of this land I call Florida.

There are strange people and bizarre bits of mayhem anyplace you look.

While my wife was in law school, I worked in this small-town paper in a place you can’t pronounce.

And listen, you would not believe the amount of mayhem I witnessed and wrote about, and not because the little town was a war zone.

Massive floods, with houses floating down the river. At least two serial killers. Political scandals. A man who died when a mobile home fell on him as he installed it. A sniper who shot at me (and everybody in sight) until the county sheriff deputies rolled up in a tank.

Here’s a little taste: The killer beside you

But if you look, there are always crazy stories happening locally.

Second: Weird news is not related to the crime rate.

This seems counter-intuitive. Criminals and criminally idiotic people make up the majority of weird news. 

Take away petty crime and Florida Man stories would wither and die.

Yet the numbers are nuts, when you look at them. Crime is down and has been going down for years.

Things were actually wilder and crazier before today’s explosion of weird news. I mean, the late ’70s and early ’80s were Animal House.

You just didn’t know about every single thing that happens like you do today. Why is that?

Third: Weird news lives on the interwebs

Without the speed and reach of the Series of Tubes, you’d never hear about 99.9 percent of weird news.

Before, the only real way crazy news would spread was by newspapers, so feeding your need for Florida Man stories would require serious resources. Because your local paper would not devote a full page to random wire stories about crazytown happening far away.

There are entire sites devoted to the daily collection and curation of funny and bizarre stories. 

Fourth: Weird news is intensely visual

This is the most essential ingredient. As a writer, it’s hard to fully describe the insanity of what you see.

Photos help.

Video is better. There is no substitute.

This is why Russian dash cam footage goes so viral. It’s raw, it’s real and the cameras are on all the time, so they capture all kinds of crashes and cray-cray.

Fifth: Smart phones, smart phones and more smart phones

Now that everybody has iPhones or Samsungs in their pockets, weird news is constantly being not only captured, but shared with the world.

All day and night. Everywhere.

You don’t need to have a TV crew on site, or watch the broadcast at 11 p.m.

So get out there and keep your phone handy. Florida Man doesn’t just hang out in Florida–he’s everywhere you look.

Hot tub crime machine

No, I did not make up that headline. That’s the real deal, word for word.

Shockingly, this did not happen in Florida.

Let’s break it down, journalism-style.

WHO: A female inmate, 34 years old.

WHAT: An escape from custody while she was getting booked on a drug possession charge.

She was later found hiding in the hot tub of a senior center, still wearing her orange jumpsuit from the jail.

WHEN: December 19, 2018. It took police hours to find her after the escape.

WHERE: Waverly, Ohio.

WHY: That’s the mystery.

Hiding in a senior center could make sense. It’s not like the cops have to show up there every Friday night to break up bar fights. But to make that plan work, you’d have to change your clothes and pretend to be a visitor, or a janitor, that sort of thing. You don’t hang out in the hot tub, where you’ll (a) get spotted by all kinds of people who (b) maybe want to use that hot tub and (c) will definitely call the cops when they see your orange jail gear.

And for those who don’t get it, the headline is a great riff on the movie HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, brought to you by the same geniuses now doing COBRA KAI.

However, this story is only the latest entry into the proud historical record of Criminals Who Stink at Hiding.

Florida Man takes the top spot in my book, with a man running from the police late at night getting the bright idea that he’ll hide in a pond. True, the 5-0 didn’t find him. That’s only because an alligator did first.

There are hundreds of other stories of criminals hiding in stupid places: in a dumpster, a manure lagoon, the lion cage at a zoo–you name it, some idiot has done it.

So I salute you, Hot Tub Crime Machine Woman–you get an F for achieving your goal but an A+ for style.

The secret truth about writing

When was the last time you went to a movie and wanted to stay behind and watch it again?

What was the last political stump speech that made you laugh and cry and want to go knock on the doors of your neighbors to make sure they voted?

When was the last time you read a newspaper story that built up to an amazing climax instead of petering off into boring little details?

More people are writing more things than ever before. Movies and TV shows, blogs and newspapers, hardcover novels and digital e-books. Yet most of it is forgettable. Trite. Boring.

It used to be, blockbuster movies were the ones that had amazing special effects. STAR WARS showed us things we’d never seen before, like lightsabers. Who doesn’t want a lightsaber? JURASSIC PARK gave us dinosaurs that weren’t claymation or puppets. Today, though, any old TV show can afford to have great special effects.

And with the written word — novels, speeches, non-fiction and poetry — every author has the same unlimited special effects budget. You can do whatever you want for absolutely nothing.

So what’s the problem?

College does you wrong

You won’t find the answers in college. Everybody teaches a tiny piece of writing, happy in their little silo, isolated from the rest of the world.

  • Journalism school teaches you writing to INFORM.
  • Rhetoric and speech classes teach you writing to PERSUADE, though hardly anyone studies rhetoric these days. They should.
  • Creative writing classes are supposed to teach you writing to ENTERTAIN, but how many college professors wrote entertaining bestsellers instead of obscure literary novels that went nowhere?

I have a degree in journalism from a great j-school, competed in speech and debate, took creative writing classes and won silly awards from not-so-silly organizations for editing, reporting, speaking and fiction.

None of that really taught me how to write or speak. You get thrown into the deep end of the pool, and you either sink or doggie-paddle. Doggie paddle isn’t good enough.

Your whole life up through college, people are required to read what you write. Your kindergarten teacher gave you a star, right? Your college professor had to read your term paper.

Out in the real world, nobody has to read our stuff. You have to persuade people to read your stuff. And hardly anyone gets an education in rhetoric and persuasion. So there’s a huge switch right there.

Oh, if you have a degree in journalism or creative writing, sure, you can write a lot better than the man on the street. Technically, your writing will be sound. These programs are good.

So tell me: why are so many smart, well-educated people with degrees in creative writing, English Literature or journalism driving 15-year-old Hondas or selling insurance?

Correct is not spectacular

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Pretty words and grammatically correct sentences don’t mean a thing.

Sure, you’d look like an idiot if you couldn’t string a sentence together. It’s just that correct grammar and well-built sentences are expected. It’s standard.

Think about literary novels. I’m not talking about really good books that aren’t easy to classify as thrillers or mysteries or romance. I’m talking about Serious Literature. If pretty sentences were the trick, then the people who write Serious Literature would be billionaires, not folks like J.K. Rowling, who is now RICHER THAN GOD.

Now, there’s some great stuff out there. I read literature and watch serious, literary movies. Yet some authors of Serious Literature, and makers of Serious Movies, take it as a badge of honor if their book or movie is hard on their audience (“the text is challenging”). It’s seen as wrong to have a happy, “Hollywood” ending, so the endings tend to be intensely dour.

Yes, you can do this right. But it’s easy to make it a tough experience for the reader or moviegoer. The topic also tends to be tough, since a lot of literary novels and movies feature angsty rich people having affairs and spending crazy amounts of money and still being unhappy about it all. Sometimes, to switch things up, literary novels feature miserable stories about grinding poverty or the emptiness of suburban, middle-class life.

Are the sentences pretty? Yeah. They’re gorgeous. Serious Literature can be poetry, and Serious Movies have amazing cinematography and acting, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Is it genius? Maybe. It looked great, and the acting was good. Do I want to see it again? No. You couldn’t pay me to sit through it.

The secret truth about writing is THIS ISN’T ABOUT PRETTY WORDS.

The trick is persuading people to read your stuff, watch the movie or listen to the speech when they have 5.9 million other things they could be reading, watching or doing.

Now, I love newspapers, novels, speeches and movies. But I’m not everybody, and I know a lot of folks who think like this instead: Why listen to some politician speak when you can watch the Packers beat the Bears? Why buy a novel when you can pretend to be a space marine and shoot aliens on the Playstation? Why read a newspaper story about a natural gas refinery blowing up in Texas when you can go to a Michael Bay movie and watch all sorts of stuff blow up in super slow motion while Megan Fox tries to emote in short-shorts and a tank top?

So if it’s not about pretty words, what’s the evil secret to writing?

The inverted pyramid MUST DIE

Big city newspapers love to do these monstrous investigative stories that start on Page One and jump inside for two or three more entire pages.

I’m an ex-reporter who still loves newspapers, and I can’t drag myself through these never-ending stories. Is the writing bad? No. Reporters spend serious time polishing the words on these pieces.

It’s the flawed structure of newspaper writing.

The inverted pyramid is great for short pieces and headlines, for telling people the most important thing first and the least important thing last. However: the inverted pyramid should be taken out and shot, because it’s a horrible blueprint for anything of length.

The inverted pyramid is like (a) having an amazing honeymoon on your first date, (b) kissing on your second date and (c) holding hands on your third date.

It gives you payoffs without setups, events out of order and people popping in and out of the story randomly. It doesn’t take the reader on a journey. Instead, it teleports the reader directly to the best part, then beams the reader all over the damn planet until you don’t care anymore. It’s not showing a gun in Act 1 that goes off in Act 3 — it’s just a gun going off in Act 1. You don’t know why.

I know the inverted pyramid inside and out. I’ve studied it, used it and abused it. It sucks like Electrolux and needs to be retired. It’s part of the reason why people are reading The Economist and blogs — because they’re going back to the roots of journalism, which was “somebody’s journal.”

That journal, those journalists, started out as first-person accounts. The reporter wrote exactly what they saw, felt, smelled, touched.

Early novels were disguised as journals.

First person again. Visceral, emotional and personal.

The dog was yellow

When I worked as a reporter, I’d write 10 to 15 stories a week. Let’s say 500 stories a year. And yeah, I won awards, but if I’m publishing 500 freaking stories a year, 200 of them should be pretty good, 12 should be amazing and six should rock the house.

A while back, I wrote one freelance newspaper story the entire year, about a man losing his dog on top of a mountain, because that man was my friend. The dog, too. My friend — and a bunch of old mountaineers nicknamed the Silver Panther Rescue Squad — went back to that mountain and rescued his dog from a cliff, just off the summit.

That solo story won an award. I batted 1.000 that year, and not because I’d grown so much as a writer since my cub reporter days.

Oh, my sentences were a little prettier. Just not THAT much prettier.

It was because I took the inverted pyramid out back behind the barn and shot it between the eyes.

If I’d had written the story using what they’d taught me in journalism school, the headline would give away the ending — “Man rescues dog on top of mountain” and the lede (first sentence) would be something like this: “After four days of being stuck on a cliff without food or water, one lucky dog is happy to be back home with his owner.”

The story would only get less interesting from there. The last line of the story would be what editors could chop if they were short on space. That last line would be something like, “The dog was yellow.”

To hell with that. I wrote it like a story, because giving the ending away in the headline and first graf is CHEATING THE READER.

College types call this “narrative non-fiction,” which is an overly fancy way of saying storytelling.

Good storytelling is the hardest thing any writer does.

It’s also the most powerful, and the most fun you can legally have as a writer of any sort.

Structure and storytelling, not grammar and comma splices

I don’t care if you’re (1) a speechwriter for a U.S. senator, (2) a romance novelist writing a novel about Men in Kilts and the Women Who Love Them or (3) a screenwriter sipping margaritas by a pool in Hollywood while you pen a movie about a zombie attack during a high school musical.

Storytelling and structure is the hard part.

The bodywork is not the most important part of the car. The engine under the hood is what makes the car go fast.

What they teach us — in college, in most books in writing and at writing conferences — is mostly bodywork.

I don’t care how pretty the car looks. If the engine is a mess — or is completely missing — your readers aren’t going for a ride. At all.

Storytelling and structure is why every Pixar movie has been a blockbuster. The other computer-animated movies look just as pretty. The folks at Pixar simply are ten times better at telling stories.

It’s why novelists who frankly are pedestrian, line by line, sell millions of books while brilliant literary novelists who write gorgeous sentences, every phrase a poem, starve in obscurity.

Clive Cussler may have an ugly bare frame, a glorified go-cart painted seven different shades of bondo. Next to the shining Lexus of a literary novel, his car looks horrible. However, Cussler has a honking V-8, while the Literary Lexus has a lawnmower engine put in backwards.

Cussler, John Grisham and Stephen King understand the structure of stories. They draw the blueprints. They spend most of their energy on the storytelling engine and a lot less time polishing the chrome.

And right there, with those three authors, you see three entirely different levels of writing ability:

  • Cussler is meh.
  • Grisham is workmanlike.
  • King is great. I’d read his Safeway shopping list, because he could make it epic.

Yet all three made it big despite the vast differences in writing skill, because all three mastered an entirely different skill: THEY KNOW HOW TO TELL A DAMN STORY.

Do I hate Cussler’s writing style? Yeah, it grates on me. Do I want to know what happens next? Yes.

Does Stephen the King sometimes ramble on too long and give you a 1,000-page novel when 400 would do? Yes. But we forgive him, because he is a God of Writing and Storytelling, and also because he looks kinda scary, like he might kill you if you pissed him off.

Bad blueprints make people forget beautiful writing.

Good blueprints make people forget bad writing.

It’s not the intensity that matters — it’s the distance you travel

Think of any B-movie, and they all have the same flaw. The structure is bad. The storytelling is horrible.

You might say, hey, it’s a low-budget flick. That’s what you get. No. Indie movies with no budget can be great.

B-movies are bad because they’re built wrong. They’re full of repetition without a purpose.

Right now, you and I can write a better story than the script of TRANSFORMERS 2, which had an army of screenwriters who got paid — I kid you not — something like $4 million for a script about explosions and computer-generated robots born from a cartoon meant to sell toys to seven-year-old boys in the 1980s.

Here’s a short version of the script for TRANSFORMERS 2.

ACT 1:
Megan Fox in shorts and a tank top, washing a car or whatever
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS!

ACT 2:
Megan Fox has a rip in her short-shorts
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS!

ACT 3:
Megan Fox has some dirt on her cheek
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS! Bad robots die, but they’ll be back for the sequel.

This also works, in a pinch, as the script for TRANSFORMERS and TRANSFORMERS 3.

Is it intense? Sure. Lots of running, lots of fighting, lots of explosions.

Yet it’s boring in the same way most martial arts films get boring, and I love those movies. Here’s the problem with them: Oh, look, it’s another fight. Man, it’s been almost three minutes since the last battle. Why is the hero fighting the blue ninjas? Three minutes ago, he was getting chased by a gang of fat shirtless dudes waving meat cleavers.

After an hour of this, you start praying for a training montage with the old wrinkled mentor who farts a lot and picks his nose and teaches the hero some secret fighting technique before the Big Bad Guy snaps the old man’s spine and kidnaps the old man’s daughter, who happens to be hot, and now the hero will go fight 4,082 different henchmen until he gets to the Big Bad Guy and battles him on a rooftop with rain and lightning going crazy. Yeah. You know I’m right.

B-movies have the same intensity throughout the movie. They crank it up to 11 and stay there.

If every scene in a movie — or every paragraph in a speech — has the intensity cranked up to 11, then you’re shouting at the audience. It becomes noise, and it makes for a flat ride. There’s no momentum, no velocity, no meaning.

Don’t shout at your audience

Most bad speeches have the same B-movie problem. People shout their way through them, confusing volume with passion.

The structure for 99 percent of speeches is also wrong. Listen to any random stump speech from that and there’s nothing holding it together. There’s no story being told, no setups and payoffs, no real structure. This is why the rare candidate who says something different gets hailed as a political rock star.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t a great speaker in a technical sense. He had a lot of verbal tics. What he was great at was telling a story from his days as an actor. He knew that audiences didn’t want to hear just about policies and programs. He made sure to talk about people, too.

Barack Obama was quite different. He also isn’t technically perfect; there are flaws in his delivery that you don’t notice because he and his speechwriters really care about the bones of a speech, about making sure the pieces fit together. They work on the engine first, THEN make it look pretty. Obama’s best speeches are structurally amazing. You can take them apart and see how the pieces intertwine. Or turn an Obama speech into an epic music video.

Velocity and power

No matter what you’re writing, what matters is the journey you take the audience on, the distance traveled. That’s what gives you velocity and power.

This is why tragedies have worked for 2,000 years.

You start UP, say with a wealthy, powerful man. You end DOWN after he falls from grace through hubris. There’s power and velocity there, because it’s a big fall from King of the World way on down to Hobo Begging for Change.

The opposite — Rags to Riches — works as a structure because it’s a big jump.

The bigger the trip, the better the story.

Little jumps don’t work.

This is why most literary novels about grinding poverty go nowhere, because a Rags to Riches story would be too happy-happy Hollywood, right? That sort of text is not challenging! So instead, things go from really bad to even more miserable.

Except that’s a bad structure, because it’s a small hop. It’s not a fall from the top to the bottom. It’s going from the gutter to a different, less desirable gutter, where the food scraps are inferior and the cardboard boxes aren’t as roomy.

Non-jumps don’t work, either.

If you’re a French existentialist director, the last frame of the movie is the hero being hit by a bus, not because he deserves it, but because life is random. There’s a reason why only college students trying to be hip take their dates to French existentialist movies. That reason is this: the movies stink. Give me something that will make me laugh, make me cry, scare me silly. Don’t give me “Life is random and pointless, so let’s have random and pointless things happen to characters for two hours.”

Tales of redemption are powerful because you’ve got the full a roller coaster: UP, DOWN and UP again.

Here’s an easy example: all six STAR WARS movies are really about Darth Vader’s redemption. Luke is only in the last three movies. Vader is in all six. He was good, then he turned bad, and in the end, he sacrificed his life to save his son and kill the real bad guy, the Emperor with Seriously Angry Wrinkles.

Take the audience somewhere

For any kind of writing, this is a law: Take your audience on a journey that actually goes somewhere.

If you’re going to have a down ending, you need an up beginning.

Together to alone.

Democracy to dictatorship.

Life to death.

If the ending is up, the beginning better be down.

Alone to together.

Dictatorship to revolution and democracy.

Hopelessness to hope.

Here’s a non-story example. I bet you’ve seen a lot of TV ads about drunk driving. A tough issue. The usual way people talk about drunk driving — or any problem — is wrong. You’re trying to persuade them to DO something. To take action. The typical way is to beat the audience over the head. “This is a problem. It’s bad. Really, really bad. I’m serious: the problem is bad. Just look at these numbers. Don’t let it happen to you.”

Not persuasive. Not a good structure. It’s all down, isn’t it? Just as flat as a Michael Bay explosion-fest or a literary novel swimming in misery and angst. Sure, the ending should be down. It’s not a happy topic. Then the beginning better be up. And like Reagan, you should talk about real people instead of numbers. So let’s start talking about a real person:

At 7:15 a.m. last Thursday, eight-year-old Ashlyn hugged her daddy goodbye and got into the Subaru with her mom, Jane, to drive to school. Across town at 7 in the morning, Billy Wayne was getting out of the county jail. At ten in the morning, Ashlyn practiced singing the national anthem, which her third-grade class will sing at halftime during the high school homecoming game. Half a mile away, Billy Wayne stole a twenty from his baby mamma’s purse and drove down to the Qwik-E Mart to buy two six packs of Corona Light. At a quarter past 3, Jane picked up Ashlyn from school and they met Billy Wayne at the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, when he blew threw a red light at fifty-six miles an hour and his Chevy pickup turned that Subaru into a pile of smoking metal. It was the fourth time Billy Wayne got arrested for driving drunk. People like Billy Wayne get second chance after second chance. Little Ashlyn and her mom won’t get a second chance. But we can change the law. We can lock up chronic drunk drivers.

That’s a far more moving than statistics. Even something tiny like this — it’s less than 200 words — needs structure, because that’s what gives it emotional heft and persuades people. Statistics can come in later.

Those words I just wrote are rough and raw. Not pretty at all. The thing is, they don’t need to be pretty. There’s an engine in there.

Is that plot? Sort of. Except if I’d looked up what specific plot fit this situation and tried to cram in inciting incidents and turning points and all that nonsense in there it would take hours to write instead of two minutes and make my head explode.

All I needed to know was the ending was down (death) and I wanted a big contrast (life) without giving it all away in the first sentence. So there’s tension in that single paragraph.

Emotion matters most

Cussler, Grisham and King understand that fun is OK, that people like a good story that makes them laugh and cry, to feel thrilled or scared out of their minds.

People want to FEEL something.

Misery is actually fine, if you start with misery and take people on a journey that ends in joy. Or if you do the reverse. What you can’t do is pile misery on top of misery for 100,000 words or two hours in a dark room where the popcorn costs $15 — or even two minutes at a podium.

And you can’t stack joy on top of joy.

Also, you want to run far, far away from the Invincible Hero problem, which explains why Batman (no powers) is beloved while people sorta kinda hate Superman (invincible) because it’s never a fair fight. No villain has a shot and you know Superman will win without paying a price.

The only books on writing worth anything, I learned from my genius screenwriter sister, were about screenwriting, because it’s all about storytelling and structure. There’s no way to hide bad structure with pretty words, not in a screenplay. It’s pared down to bare bones anyway. Setups and payoffs. Public stakes and private stakes. Emotion. Turning points. Revelations. Raising the stakes. Building to a climax.

Asking questions without answering them. Will they get together? Who’s the killer? Can the planet be saved from the aliens / comet / zombies?

Let’s fix THE MATRIX, right now

Movies are the easiest to talk about because most people have seen them.

THE MATRIX was amazing. Both sequels were terrible. Why? Same writers and directors, same cast, same crew. Giant budget.

The sequels sucked like Electrolux because of structural problems. Story problems.

The first movie had a down beginning and up ending.

The last two movies were flat and boring, despite all the action and fights.

I didn’t care about the last scene of the last MATRIX movie because I wasn’t watching it with some fanboy who could explain to me why the Oracle made a deal with the Architect or whoever, with the deal being the robots take stupid pills and declare a truce after Neo dies killing Agent Smith, when any five-year-old would know that if they continued to fight for three seconds, they’d wipe out the rebel humans once and for all.

Maybe I’m too stupid to fully enjoy the ambiguity and philosophical BS involved. Or maybe the last movie sucked, and the fact that the first movie rocked, making the train wreck the second and third movies all the more painful.

Let’s fix it. Right here, right now.

Who’s the real villain in THE MATRIX? Not Agent Smith — he’s a henchman, a virus.

The real villain is whoever controls the robots while keeping humans as slaves and batteries.

Neo is alive in the beginning and dead in the end. It’s a big leap, a real journey. We can roll with that. His death simply has to mean something other than preserving a bad status quo and an endless war. What are the stakes? Freedom vs. slavery. Life vs. death. Humans are slaves in the beginning. A good ending — a true leap — would have all the humans be free.

Here’s our new ending: Neo sacrifices his life to free the humans and win the war, leading the humans as they finally beat the evil robot overlords and retake Earth.

This way, you’ll care about the last scene, and root for Neo to take out the Evil Robot Overlord in the Most Amazing Fight Scene Known to Man, because if he wins, humanity wins. If he loses, every human starves. We are wiped out.

The stakes are raised, aren’t they? Yeah. Can’t get any higher. Plus, I’d much rather have Neo fight something like the Borg Queen than endless clones of the same stupid henchman he’s been fighting since the first movie.

Take things apart and put them back together

You learn to write by editing, and you learn to edit by taking a red pen to what other people write. Where we need to switch it up is how we edit. Not line by line. Don’t worry about pretty sentences. Worry about pretty BONES. The bodywork of the car can wait until the V-8 under the hood can pur and roar. Focus on that storytelling engine.

Take something short — a newspaper story, your favorite movie, a column by Paul Krugman or George Will — and outline the structure, the bones.

Roughly. Quickly. Without overthinking it.

Circle the setups and payoffs.

Is the beginning up or down? What about the ending?

Does the writer make it abstract, talking about ideas like freedom or justice — or are there real paper in there, with names and families?

You can learn from amazing writing and horrible writing. Mediocre writing is frustrating. To hell with it. Ignore that stuff.

Look for the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Take apart the best to see how the author put it together to make it magic. Restructure the worst to make it work.

Slaying sacred cows

Maybe all this is sacrilege and rebellion. It could be that my pet theories are completely insane and that what you really should do is sign up for journalism school or get a master’s in creative writing or attend seminars about the correct use of semi-colons in headlines and how to write dialogue that sings.

Frankly, I don’t care what you do — follow your heart. Not selling anything here. What I do know is this: every day, I see writers, professional and aspiring, banging their head against the wall, spending hours and hours destroying a house while they’re building it, taking six days to write something that should take sixty minutes.

I see other friends of mine holding something it took them ten months to write, something they slaved over and just can’t fix with line editing because the bones of the story are broken, and they have to hold their baby over the round file and let all those pages, all that work, hit the bottom of that trash can.

It makes an awful sound.

I don’t want to hear that sound.

I don’t want my friends thinking they have to suffer when they write.

Writing doesn’t have to be painful.

It should be fast.

It should be fun.

And it should be magical, for the person banging on the keyboard and for the people who read it.

A love letter to TV weather reporters, those brave, storm-chasing fools

Listen, I made a joke on the Twitter about TV weather reporters.

Except there’s more to it than a joke. These folks really are brave, and no, those windbreakers do not make them invincible.

As a former journalist, I get what they’re doing. We used to have the police scanner on all day and night in the newsroom, and if you heard about a flood, fire, car crash, murder or other bit of mayhem, it was a race to see who could grab their camera and notebook to get out the door first.

When everybody else heads away from danger, reporters walk right up and say hi.

Weather reporters don’t get much respect. It’s seen as an entry-level job, with veterans and hotshots doing “real news.”

So noobs at a TV station are usually the ones who have to get up at oh-dark-thirty to drive into the mountains and do a live shot at 6 a.m. that yes, it’s snowing, as you can see. Then another live shot at 6:30, 7:30, noon, and so forth. The same shot. The same news.

TV weather reporters wade into the floodwaters and storm surges.

And yes, they hit the beaches and try to remain upright when hurricanes roll in with 100+ mph winds.

It’s a tough job.

We should appreciate them more. These folks literally risk their lives trying to educate us and hopefully save some lives. Because if they’re showing up with a brave camera crew, it’s a clear sign that we really should get out of town.

The sleeper cells have awoken

Who wrote the anonymous oped in the Times?

Donald Trump and every other carbon-based lifeform who cares about politics is frantically trying to figure out which senior White House official wrote this oped in The New York Times.

So yes, staffers in the White House are actually texting each other “the sleeper cells have awoken” as they huddle behind closed doors and speculate on who it might be.

Now, I write serious things all day and do this silly blog for fun, and for free. So in normal times I’d post something about weird news, why the third act of the latest DC movie doesn’t work or dissect the first page of novel.

But times are not normal. This is an important moment in history, not just for American democracy and the rule of law, but around the world, as Putin and Russia wage a secret and sustained war against the foundations of democratic countries in Europe and elsewhere.

Let’s talk about how conventional wisdom on the oped is wrong.

1) Unmasking the author doesn’t help Trump one bit

Here’s the thing: solving that mystery won’t help Trump.

The author of this oped is taking a big risk to their job, and career, to warn America.

That warning went out. Unmasking the author doesn’t reverse time and unpublish the oped. We’ve all read it.

The dam broke and the damage is done.

2) Punishing the oped author won’t fix a thing, either

If the author gets revealed, sure, they’ll get fired–if they haven’t resigned already and revealed themselves.

Won’t matter.

The author may not have a future in Republican politics, at least for a few years.

If the author is a staffer and not a cabinet official or former elected official, their name recognition and status will increase exponentially.

No matter who they are, they won’t starve on the unemployment line.

Whoever wrote that oped can write their own ticket with publishers. They’ll be booked solid on every political show when they’re not getting magazine profiles and interviews with newspapers.

3) The incentives are now reversed

Sure, everybody in D.C. leaks to reporters. The normal incentive, though, is for seniors staffers at the White House and cabinet officials to be loyal to the president, or the presidency, until they leave office for a job with a lower profile and higher salary. To keep their nose clean.

That’s why most standard leaks are self-serving and minor.

This oped isn’t self-serving or minor. It’s the nuclear bomb of leaks.

The Trump White House already had reversed incentives in many ways. President Barack Obama cultivated a culture of no drama, as it’s toxic and unproductive if you can’t trust your colleagues and boss.

Trump treats the White House like his old reality show. He likes teasing that a staffer or cabinet official might get fired, and they know from history it may well happen by a random tweet. Just like in reality shows, contestants have to deceive and betray just to survive in this White House.

Now, the incentives are fully reversed from normal. Loyalty isn’t helpful anymore in any respect.

This oped, and the new book by the legendary Bob Woodward, create a new incentive to leak more about Trump and get on the right side of history.

Because they know it’s a train wreck. They see it every day and there’s a distinct feeling that we’ve turned a corner, and the end is near.

If they can’t be quiet and loyal to wait for one of those cushy jobs, the other option—the new incentive—is to beat other leakers at the game and hope the history books make you look like a hero instead of a complicit villain.

4) This will paralyze an already paranoid Trump

Running the most powerful country on the planet is the toughest job on the planet. It takes a team that trusts each other and believes in the boss.

After this oped and the Woodward book, it’s clear they don’t believe in the boss and can’t trust each other.

Anyone could be the mole. Half the staff apparently talked to Woodward.

If you think the White House was dysfunctional before, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

5) It’s a race now

The hunt for the identity of the author won’t scare other staffers into not leaking.

It will embolden them.

They know they’re not alone. Woodward’s new book shows how many senior staffers agreed to sit down, with the tape running, to tell the truth.

They know the incentives have flipped, and that subverting a dangerous and dysfunctional White House from within makes them look patriotic instead of disloyal.

And they know the first person to go public—like the oped author—will get far more press and attention than the seventh or tenth.

Leaks to the press will accelerate and escalate.

Expect more anonymous opeds, document dumps and secret tapes.

This week was incredibly awful for Trump, with the Woodward book and NYT oped two mortal blows that will continue to bleed and bleed.

And things will only get worse from here, since no staffer fears getting fired from a sinking ship.

Why writing is EXACTLY like running, except for the part about words

Most of the folks who follow this silly blog are creative types–novelists, editors, journalists, photographers and other brilliant, beautiful people.

So let’s talk about creativity.

Are the arts a habit? Or does the muse randomly descend upon your noggin, so long as you make the right sacrifices and entreaties?

Though my love for the muse is strong, I’m making the case for habit.

All the way.

Because writing–and other creative work–is a hell of a lot like running. Here’s why.

1) The more you do it, the easier it gets

You can take classes about writing (or running), read books, watch videos and listen to experts.

In the end, though, there’s no substitute to getting off your duff and doing it.

And the more you write, or run, the easier it gets.

The first time you run a mile, or write something Serious, it’s painful.

Sometimes so painful that you question why anyone would do this ever again.

But then the next time, you run two miles, or write something twice as long, and it only hurts half as much.

Creativity is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

2) You can’t save up and go wild

It’s far, far easier to write 500 words a day, or run 5 miles five days a week, then tell yourself, “Hey, I’m busy this week, but on the weekend, I’ll crank out 2,500 words of that novel or run 25 miles.”

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: trying to cram it all into a weekend, or a single day, is setting yourself up to fail.

A mile a day is easy. You can walk it.

Same thing with 100 words, which you can do with a stubby pencil and the back of an envelope while hanging upside down on a roller coaster.

Two miles a day is still easy, just as 200 words a day is a breeze.

The difficulty goes up exponentially.

Famous novelists in history like Hemingway used to count their words religiously, by hand. They didn’t have a button on Word that did the work for them. And they’d quit for the day after hitting a target like 500 words.

Doesn’t sound like much. Yet that 500 a day is huge.

If you write 500 words a day, every day, that’s 182,500 words a year.

Three novels, unless you’re doing sagas about elves and dragons and such, in which case congrats on finishing that prologue. (I say that out of love.)

Sure, on good days you’ll crank out 1,000 words, and on great days you’ll hit 2,000 and if you’re absolutely on fire, congrats and 4,000.

It’s just that you can’t count on 2,000 words a day, every day, week after week.

Same thing with running. I can do 5 miles maybe three days a week, and work up to four or five days a week after a month or two.

Might do ten miles once a week, if I’m feeling it.

Ten miles a day, every day, isn’t realistic.

Resting all week and running 25 miles on Sunday? Nopity nope nope. Ain’t happening.

3) Loud music and solitude

There are writers I know who can’t write unless the door is closed, to get rid of that feeling that somebody is behind them.

Unless you have a twin, or a great friend who’s in exactly the same shape as you, it’s tough finding a running partner who goes at the same pace and is available to run whenever you can cram it in.

Writing and running are both made for headphones and solitude.

This is one area where running and writing diverge, since I don’t write anything Serious without a fresh cup of joe, while running five or ten miles while carrying a coffee mug hasn’t worked out yet.

4) Coaching, advice and gear isn’t everything, but it sure helps

It’s possible to write only using a pen and legal pads.

Somebody could run barefoot, every day, and be faster than a sedentary person running once a week wearing $225 shoes.

HOWEVER: good coaching, tips and equipment help.

I type faster on an ergonomic keyboard and run faster with good shoes.

Scrivener is better than Word, which is better than a legal pad.

And in both things, there’s always something to learn. One of the wisest men I know says, “Whenever I meet somebody, I learn something.”

Never think asking for advice is a flashing neon sign telling the world you’re an amateur.

Coaching, advice and gear gets more important the better you get at writing or running.

Professional runners and writers don’t tell people, “Yeah, I do this for a living, which makes me an expert, so why would I ask people for help or advice?”

The opposite is true, with the best professionals in the world seeking out the MOST coaching and help, since even a 1 percent boost to their performance matters.

5) Mixing it up is essential

You don’t run the same route, distance and pace every time. You do a hill day, a sprint day, a distance day.

Same thing with writing. There’s great benefit to mixing up what you do and layering it all together.

Journalists should try fiction.

Novelists should give poetry a go.

Screenwriters can gain from checking out rhetoric and speechwriting.

And there’s an order to how you write or train.

Runners and other athletes do workouts in certain progressions: start slow and build up volume. Rest, stretch, massage, ice, heat. It’s not the same thing every day.

Writers have their own progressions. You can’t write and edit at the same time, just like you can’t run and stretch in the same minute. These things happen in series, not parallel.

6) Deadlines focus the mind

Without deadlines, it’s easy to meander along. There’s always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Deadlines make things happen.

I’m running more and more often, and for longer distances, due to a looming deadline: a half marathon in September.

Same thing is true with writing, where deadlines rules.

For the month of August, I did a little experiment. Could I write one post on this silly blog every day, put down at least 500 words a day on the new novel–plus train for the half marathon?

Running got easier, every time. Two miles turned into three miles, then five, six, seven, nine, ten–it flowed.

Without that half-marathon coming up, I would’ve been happy doing five miles forever, and never tested myself to see if nine or 10 would kill me.

Though I missed one Friday with the blog, I doubled up on a different day for 31 posts in 31 days. NOT TOO SHABBY. Pretty sure that’s the most I’ve posted in any month since the dawn of time.

And on the novel, I cranked out 15 chapters, which works out to half a chapter a day, every day.

For structure geeks, that’s 15 chapters out of 36 total in a four-act structure, with nine chapters per act.

Three chapters shy of half a novel is a beautiful, beautiful month.

You don’t complain about that, unless you want the Writing Gods to strike you down with lightning after opening a sinkhole beneath your feet.

I raise my glass to August, for it was Good.

Not good because the muse decided to bless me.

Good because habit, discipline and dedication beats inspiration. Every single time.

Trump’s trouble with Twitter

You’d think that being president of the United States is enough of a bully pulpit, seeing how whatever you say or do gets reported and analyzed around the world.

It’s not enough for Donald Trump, who’s clearly addicted to Twitter, despite the fact that his tweets keep getting him into political and legal trouble.

Just think of Trump as Kirk, and each adorable tribble is a cancerous tweet, eating away at truth and democracy. Image via Giphy.

If you remove politics—I know, this is hard—Donald Trump presents a unique case in messaging and media strategy, especially when it comes to how he uses social media.

Somehow, he steamrolled a field of Republican candidates so big they all couldn’t fit on one stage. Yet using the same media tactics keep backfiring as president.

Let’s drill down on why.

1) Trump truly believes the myth of Any Press is Good Press

When you’re trying to do anything on a big stage—become a famous rock star, actor, artist, writer or politician—most of the battle is simply becoming known. Because if nobody knows you exist, they can’t see your movies, buy your singles on iTunes or vote for you in a primary.

So at first, it’s all about name ID.

Trump clearly buys into this. His name is his brand, and he’ll do anything to boost that brand.

There are two main schools of thought to generating free press and dominating the news cycle. The first school says dominate the news cycle by, I don’t know, making actual news. Saying something bold and fresh. Announcing a new policy (“We will put a man on the moon!), revealing a secret, saying who your veep will be. That sort of thing.

The other school of thought in PR—an evil school I don’t subscribe to—says, “I don’t care if the story is good or bad, as long as they spell my name right.”

Trump doesn’t just buy into the theory that all press is good press. He *needs* press as a form of attention and validation.

That didn’t hurt him as a businessman, or even as one of 17-bazillion candidates for the Republican nomination. Because it’s true that you can boost your name ID and make money by doing outrageous things. His business goals and personal needs were in alignment.

So the first thing you have to think about is why Trump uses Twitter, and it’s not four-dimensional chess. It’s to gin up press and attention, like he’s always done.

2) The pro’s and cons of constant controversy

Gaffes that would slay ordinary politicians failed to kill Trump’s candidacy.

People expect craziness from him. It’s not a shock. He’s vaccinated himself by doing it so often for so long.

Trump’s go-to move is something that’s guaranteed to generate tons of free ink: insult other famous people. Give them frat-boy nicknames, make fun of their size, call women ugly, attack minorities—whatever it takes.

Yet the downside is huge. Even as an unknown, hustling to make it big, generating controversy boosts your name ID at the expense of your reputation.

Becoming president changed everything for Trump.

Every single spelling mistake, provable lie and temper tantrum he tweets gets dissected on the global stage.

Trump didn’t adjust. He still acts like he’s hustling to get known and make it big, posting risky tweets because that’s what worked to boost his name ID and get earned media.

Except you don’t need to boost your name ID when you’re the president of the United States of America.

And when you pick fights as president, you’re always punching down, attacking people with less power than you. There’s no way it’s seen as anything but bullying.

Trump doesn’t care because he’s still generating attention. Sure, the press will cover his tweets, and people will read those stories.

People will always be entertained by watching human train wrecks. It’s just lot less fun being a passenger on that train when Trump’s driving it off a cliff.

3) There is no plan, only emotion

Most public figures and leaders tweet with a purpose. They have a plan and check with others, including professionals who understand media and message, to make sure they avoid self-inflicted wounds while making progress toward tangible goals.

Political candidates and leaders usually try to gain support and build bridges. Because that’s how you get elected and get things done for the folks you represent.

Trump tweets for himself, based on his needs and emotions. The primary emotion is rage, but even his positive tweets are ones that focus on his favorite subject: Donald Trump.

Tweeting gives him instant gratification. He doesn’t have to wait until tomorrow’s newspaper or for what he said to hit CNN or FOX. The retweets, likes and comments show up in seconds.

So I don’t buy the theory that Trump is doing insanely complicated things on Twitter and somehow playing four-dimensional chess. When he gets mad, he tweets. And he continues to do so despite the obvious legal and political damage. He’s blown up deals with the Republican-controlled Congress with a single tweet, started trade wars and threatened nuclear war. I’m not sure how he could use Twitter to do more damage. He’s pretty much got it covered.

His political goals and personal needs are out of alignment.

Trump isn’t building bridges and making friends with controversial tweets, attacks on his enemies and provable lies. He’s motivating those that oppose him and giving Robert Mueller evidence of obstruction of justice.

This is a key point. Prosecutors need evidence of intent for a crime like obstruction of justice. This is ordinarily hard to get. Trump has turned his tweets into a permanent, written record of his intent, a stream-of-consciousness monologue for everyone to see. It’s a peek inside his brain, and that picture isn’t pretty.

The last argument you could make is Trump uses tweets as fan service, to feed his base. Except when pollsters and pundits talk to people who voted for him, one thing keeps coming up: they wish he’d stay off Twitter.

He won’t.

Not even if it costs him the White House.

Florida Man: Why one state is the absolute mecca for weird news

As a reformed journalist, I have a lifelong fascination with weird news—an addiction that a single state tries hard to satisfy.

Every. Single. DAY.

No other state can hold a candle to Florida.

It’s the only state with its own Fark tag, with so many weird news headlines starting with “Florida man” there’s a Twitter handle that endlessly tweets out insane stories starting with those two words.

I could not love Florida more for this.

Here’s a sample of recent Florida headlines, lovingly curated by fark.com:

Florida Man enters Jacksonville store and chases people with live alligator

Florida teacher quits to become full-time grocery shopper and doubles his salary

Key West mayoral candidate takes a personal cell phone call during a debate. From God

Florida man charged with identity theft after impersonating Backstreet Boy

17-year-old gets attacked by snake while mowing lawn. Gives sage advice: “watch out for snakes”

Police say Florida man planned his suicide for years, making it look like murder by using a weather balloon to carry away the gun

All this craziness packed into a single state begs the question: Why does Florida Man live in Florida?

Theory # 1: Deadly wild animals up the wazoo

Alligators, sharks, pythons invading the Everglades—and those are just the apex predators. You’ll find crazy stories about rabid racoons, bat infestations and all sorts of animal disasters and shenanigans. Yes, that’s the proper spelling. Take note.

Few other states boast the biodiversity needed to generate this much mayhem.

Theory # 2: Dumb criminals

A weird news story’s power gets squared when a stable genius criminal does something truly idiotic only to have karma delivered by the local wildlife.

One great example: man commits a robbery at night and the cops chase him … so he makes the brilliant move of hiding in a nearby pond, where an alligator has him as a midnight snack.

Theory # 3: Paaaaarty time

Florida is seen as a tropical getaway, a place where you go to party on spring break or to retire in the sunshine.

Alcohol and drugs are a common ingredient in weird news stories. Florida gets far more than its fair share of dumb criminals doing dumb things after getting hammered or high. Sometimes both.

Theory # 4: The power of convergence

Every great weird story is a combination of factors, usually (1) men who are (2) drunk or high, doing something risky involving (3) crime, (4) firearms, (5) explosives or (6) wild animals who can kill you.

It’s like baking a cake. Even if most states have an ingredient or two, they don’t have all six, not in the quantities that Florida does. It’s a giant state, one of the biggest, with more people moving there all the time and all those pythons in the Everglades busy laying eggs when they’re not fighting alligators. The weird news will only grow with time.

VERDICT

Florida is an interesting, dynamic place, a semi-tropical paradise that also happens to be home to some of the craziest stories you’ll ever see. We love you, Florida Man—don’t change a thing.

Why all writers need to study the secrets of screenwriting

So my genius sister, Pamela Kay, made a series of YouTube videos on how to write screenplays. She won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy and knows her stuff. Heed her words, even if you don’t write screenplays, because this field is crazy useful for any sort of writer.

Why? The secret to all writing is structure–and nobody is better at structure than screenwriters.

Not because they’re magical and amazing, though many are. It’s because you can hide bad structure with pretty words in a novel or feature story.

With screenplays, you can’t hide the bad bones of a story, because that’s all people see: the bones.

Writing today has far too many silos, mostly focused on little details, with few notions on structure at all:

  • Writing to inform: Journalists are stuck inside the inverted pyramid, a structure that’s inherently boring for anything of length, which is why journalists typically stink at novels
  • Writing to persuade: Speechwriters know the structure of rhetoric, but it’s not really meant for writing anything to inform or entertain
  • Writing to entertain: Novelists, playwrights, poets and screenwriters all have their own jargon and tricks, like they live on different planets

This reminds me of boxing, wrestling and martial arts before the days of MMA, with everybody doing their own little thing and swearing they’d whip the lesser disciplines. Except boxers got destroyed by the wrestlers, who got owned by the jujitsu people, who later on got wrecked by the boxers who learned how to sprawl. To be truly good fighters, fighters had to set aside their pride and train in every discipline.

I believe the same is true for writers today. There’s never been more content out there, with scads created every second all around the world, so there’s never been more competition to get read.

From having a toe in journalism, speechwriting and novels, I know you could slave away in one of these fields for years and still miss out on core fundamentals. Not learning from other disciplines is like building a house when all you know is drywall and plumbing–the thing is going to fall down.

Screenwriting is key because structure is why 99 percent of bad drafts are bad. Go look at a bad draft. Line by line, the words are plenty pretty. Structure is what vexes us all.

So: I hope this video gives you a taste of screenwriting and her series sparks something in you. Not so you can write LETHAL WEAPON 7: DANNY GLOVER AND MEL GIBSON BUST OUT OF THE SANTA MONICA NURSING HOME, but so you can learn how to pour the foundation of any sort of story, making it stands strong so you can move on to the wiring (dialogue), plumbing (setups and payoffs) and drywall (description).

Any sort of writing with strong bones will beat the stuffing out of the prettiest words with a weak foundation.

If you want more, here are two of the basic texts, the guide stars: STORY by Robert McKee is a deep dive on structure, while SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder is a breezy little look at genres, beat sheets and story, using movies we all know.

P.S. Pam did a ton of these videos, so I’ll try to post one every Tuesday as long as she keeps making them.

Chapter 5: Resisting Oppression

This is the last of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.

Oppressive regimes react predictably to protests and opposition movements: they instinctively crack down on any dissent.

The methods used are brutal, but aren’t that surprising or creative. Non-violent resistance and smart messaging can make this instinct backfire on authoritarian rulers.

Step 28. Know their playbook

Protestors will be painted as paid thugs and traitors, with riot police blocking their movement. If protests continue, a regime may use tear gas, fire hoses and mass arrests—or simply outlaw mass protests altogether.

Judges and lawmakers who don’t go along with oppression will get marginalized, replaced or charged with bogus crimes.

Whistleblowers who leak documents to the press or opposition will be tracked down, if possible, and arrested and jailed.

Journalists who reveal the truth about the regime will be threatened, attacked or arrested.

Opposition figures who try to run against the ruler may be disqualified from the ballot or charged with bogus crimes.

If there are local and state police operating with local control, the regime will try to nationalize all police and law enforcement under their direct control.

To combat the manufactured threats generated by constant lies and a sustained propaganda campaign, the regime will seek greater powers, possibly via martial law or states of emergency, to combat these fake threats.

The true reason for this is to remove any checks and balances in the system, whether it’s the courts or lawmakers.

Law enforcement that used to go after criminals and spy agencies that focused on foreign threats will be redirected against lawmakers, judges, journalists and opposition leaders.

Insulting the ruler may become grounds to be sued for defamation or charged with a crime.

Censorship of the media, radio, television and internet will be justified as necessary to safeguard the nation against terrorism and foreign threats.

 

The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together.

Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen.

Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior.

Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

Populism can survive only amid polarization.

It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy.

—Andrés Miguel Rondón

 

Step 29. No singular leader or movement

If the opposition is united under a single banner with a singular leader, that makes it easy for the regime to focus all its firepower on that one opposition group and leader.

A single leader can be smeared, compromised, arrested or imprisoned. A united, national opposition group can be infiltrated, attacked with police raids and depleted by lawsuits.

Let the opposition grow organically and be leaderless, so there’s no one person or group as the regime’s target. Making the opposition leaderless also allows for the most flexibility and local control.

Everyone can feel like they can make a difference rather than being a cog in a machine.

Step 30. Protect whistleblowers, journalists and protest leaders

Peaceful protestors aren’t doing anything unethical or wrong. That won’t stop the regime from trying to use censorship and oppression.

Protect whistleblowers and journalists: Decades ago, authoritarian regimes kept tight control of copying machines because they knew a single copier could be used to spread the truth.

Today, it’s much, much harder to prevent average citizens—or patriotic government officials—from leaking documents revealing how the regime is corrupt and undemocratic.

Anyone with access to such information should carefully leak it to the free press and make sure, once the story breaks, that other copies are safely out of the hands of the regime.

Don’t trust encryption.  Assume the regime can trace anything you do using a smart phone or computer. Instead, use couriers and dead drops.

Use go-betweens. Whistleblowers with access to information should not be one who leak that information directly to the press or opposition. Use a series of go-betweens to protect whistleblowers.

Make copy after copy. Regimes will try to censor or confiscate leaked material and anything embarrassing.  Make multiple copies of important documents in different formats—digital, paper—and keep them safe in different locations.

Dead drops are a time-tested way to safely get documents and information to others.

Never have a face-to-face meeting to transfer sensitive information.

Put the document or thumb drive in an innocent, waterproof container and hide it in a public place, such as taped beneath a parking garage stairwell or beneath a shelf in a public library. Don’t tell anyone where the dead drop is until after the item is already there and the person who placed it is long gone.

Step 31. Use old-fashioned tools

Regimes will put opposition leaders, journalists and whistleblowers under surveillance.

These are some simple precautions to protect against this and to make the regime waste time and resources.

Don’t make it easy. If you suspect you’re being watched, don’t keep a regular schedule that lets a small team keep watch.

Keeping one person under surveillance takes a team. Doing work at odds hours of the evening means the regime has to add a night shift.

Meet with friends at restaurants or bars after midnight and they’ll need another team to work the graveyard shift.

No one-on-one meetings: Don’t meet one-on-one with important whistleblowers, journalists or opposition leaders. Talk with them, briefly, as part of a large group or event: a dinner party, a concert, a wedding or a soccer game.

Mix your real message in a sea of fakes. If something is truly important, send a flood of fake messages in different formats with different dates and details along with the one real message.  Even if all these messages are in simple code, or no code at all, there’s no way for the regime to know the fake from the real.

Watch for infiltrators and instigators. Regimes will send undercover agents to known meetings of the opposition, to gather intelligence and to instigate possible violence to discredit the opposition.

Switch channels. To communicate securely with journalists or other opposition leaders, don’t use the same channel every time. Switch whenever possible.

Book codes. Digital encryption can be broken. If you need to send encrypted messages, book codes are unbreakable, no matter how many supercomputers are thrown at the problem.

Instead of codes referring to letters, a book code refers to the specific page, line and word of widely-available books.

To make it even more secure, continually switch the book used as the key to the code.

Adapt faster than the regime. Above all, continually adapt and change. Use the vast size and strength of a nation-state against the regime, which can’t innovate and adapt as fast as a loose collection of opposition groups.

Step 32. Find safe harbors

Some regimes have massive operations to block media sources from overseas and censor the internet, while others use jamming signals to block radio and television broadcasts from outside their borders.

Modern technology change has made form of censorship this much, much harder.  But it’s not impossible. Some regimes employ a great number of people to censor the internet in their country, with various degrees of success.

What remains impossible for any regime, no matter how rich and powerful, is censoring censor newspapers and opposition leaders based entirely in other countries.

Journalists, whistleblowers and opposition leaders should therefore find and establish places which they can use as a safe places in other countries.

Use safe harbors to:

  • Talk to the media in countries where the regime has no leverage against the free press
  • Keep vital information and secrets safe
  • Spread leaks to the foreign press where the regime can’t apply pressure
  • Cultivate non-profits, friendly political leaders and ex-pats who can speak for the opposition

Step 33. Turn every target into a hero and symbol

Successful non-violent oppositions can turn each act of brutality and oppression into a chance to create a new hero.

Rosa Parks became an American icon for the simple act of refusing to give up her seat to a white man on the bus in the segregated South.

Srjdja Popovic’s brilliant book, Blueprint for Revolution, describes how in Serbia during the protests against Slobodan Milosevic, getting arrested turned people into famous symbols.

Protestors sang songs outside jails and chanted the names of those arrested. When protestors got released, they got rock-star receptions. Only those who got arrested 10 times earned a black Optor! opposition T-shirt, which became a token of respect and status.

Whoever the regime targets for threats, beatings or arrests, turn that person into a symbol of courage and resistance.

Share their stories, and tie it back to tales of people like Cesar Chavez, Malala Yousafazia, Mahatma Gandhi, Guo Feixiong and Nelson Mandela.

 

Download the full PDF by clicking here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at 33ways.org

 

Power is not a means, it is an end.

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.

—George Orwell

Chapter 4: Winning the War on Truth

This is the fourth of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.

Chapter 4: Winning the War on Truth

An authoritarian regime uses lies and propaganda are used not only to generate far and smear opponents, but to distract the press and public from their larger strategy: consolidating power and accumulating wealth.

The main front of the War on Truth is an attack on independent sources of information and truth, primarily the free press, to prevent that corruption from being uncovered.

A second front is propaganda, fake news and misinformation.

Step 22. Support and protect the free press

A free, independent press is crucial to shining a light on corruption and oppression. Only the independent press has the credibility to perform this role.

If opposition lawmakers or protest groups discover corruption and try to inform the people about it, their ethos—their credibility—is weak, because they’re obviously biased.

The free press is the only real institution with the credibility to shine a light on corruption, oppression and injustice. That’s why authoritarian regimes relentlessly attack the press with smears, lawsuits and violence.

Fight back against any attempts to pass laws that crack down on freedom of the press and freedom of speech, including laws making it easier to sue the press for libel. Also watch for new laws that punish journalists for refusing to reveal sources, such as government whistleblowers.

Support independent newspapers acting as a check on the regime by subscribing to key newspapers and media outlets, advertising with them and getting friends and allies to do the same.

When individual reporters are attacked—in public, on social media or with lawsuits and arrests—rally to their defense.

Make smears backfire by treating every attacked reporter as a national hero. If  a regime tries to stage police raids on newspapers or TV stations, blockade the entrances, hold sit-ins and do what you can to make those raids painful and publicized.

Step 23. Attack the heart of propaganda outlets

Anonymity is the beating heart of propaganda.

Unlike journalism, propaganda hides both who’s writing and producing their material and who’s paying for it all.

Attack the heart of propaganda by depriving it of that shield of anonymity.

Unmask the writers and creators of propaganda. Shame is a powerful tool, and the last thing the people who make their living writing and producing this material is for their friends and neighbors to know what they really do for a living.

More importantly, find the funding sources. If the regime itself is entirely funding a propaganda operation, use that to discredit all that they say.

When propaganda is coming from a media outlet with any sort of advertising funding, start a #grabyourwallet campaign to boycott businesses that advertise on propaganda outlets until they remove their support.

 

The rulers of backsliding democracies resent an independent press, but cannot extinguish it. They may curb the media’s appetite for critical stories by intimidating unfriendly journalists, as President Jacob Zuma and members of his party have done in South Africa.

Mostly, however, modern strongmen seek merely to discredit journalism as an institution, by denying that such a thing as independent judgment can exist. All reporting serves an agenda.

There is no truth, only competing attempts to grab power.

By filling the media space with bizarre inventions and brazen denials, purveyors of fake news hope to mobilize potential supporters with righteous wrath—and to demoralize potential opponents by nurturing the idea that everybody lies and nothing matters.

― David Frum

 

Step 24. Ignore fake news and faceless trolls

Kings, emperors and dictators used rumors and whisper campaigns against journalists, judges and the political opposition.

Modern technology has simply shifted those techniques to the digital realm.

Nation-states have the resources to design and deploy elaborate misinformation campaigns:

  • Fake news stories and websites
  • Doctored documents and photos
  • Armies of faceless trolls on the internet
  • Manipulated video and audio

Debunking this flood of fake news and smear attacks is a waste of time.

You can’t refute lies and smears without repeating them in some fashion, spreading them wider.

The only real strategy to deal with trolls is to starve them of the attention they seek. Never engage, no matter how hard they try to provoke you.

Step 25. Turn propaganda against itself

Instead of words, propaganda relies on images, photos, audio, posters film and music.

Propaganda tends to crop up during wartime, even in free democracies, then disappear in peacetime.

What authoritarians do is maintain a permanent campaign of propaganda during war or peace. If you glance at war propaganda posters, this becomes immediately clear: the enemy is depicted not as human beings, but as rats and monsters.

Propaganda is also used to boost the ruler’s perceived strength. It’s no accident authoritarian regimes puts portraits of the ruler everywhere you look, making them seem omnipresent.

A final role of propaganda is to rally the population behind the ruler while portraying any sort of opposition or protest as treasonous.

Don’t give in to the notion that fighting back means using the same techniques as the regime. Spreading your own lies, propaganda and misinformation isn’t smart because it undermines the credibility of the opposition. You’d sacrifice the moral high ground.

And you can’t win by mirroring the regime’s tactics, because this will never be a fair fight.

No opposition can ever match the money and resources of an entire nation-state. It’s like a heavyweight boxer taking on random civilians on the street, including young children and grandmothers. While cheating.

Any battle against propaganda has to be fought with asymmetrical guerilla tactics. Turn the overwhelming presence of propaganda against itself. Take all the time, money and effort the regime spends on posters, slogans and messages and subvert them in creative ways.

Portraits of the ruler posted everywhere are targets for rebellion and mockery. All it takes is a marker and some creativity.

Videos and songs meant to rally the people behind manufactured enemies, and behind the ruler, are easy to satirize by anyone with a laptop and time. Even if the regime tries to censor such videos and songs on the internet, they can’t stop marchers from singing the same words.

Finally, don’t focus satire the subverts the regime’s propaganda on the foibles of ruler, because rulers don’t last forever, while their ideology and methods will continue unless they’re stopped.

Aim mockery at the actual policies of the regime.

Step 26. Send the right messengers

Talking, marching and organizing with people who already agree with you may feel good, and can help the opposition get organized. Staying in that bubble can’t win the day.

Any successful fight against the War on Truth has to focus its persuasive efforts on reaching and persuading supporters of the regime.

Authoritarians gain and sustain power through extreme populism. They appeal to the working class while painting educated professionals as the enemy. By contrast, the natural base of any opposition movement is typically educated and urban.

The working class base of support for an authoritarian regime is typically afraid because they’re struggling economically and desperately want change. They don’t trust the educated elite to give them the change they want.

Listen to supporters of the regime first, and understand their fears, before trying to persuade them with the right message and local messengers.

A powerful message—The opposition’s narrative has to be just as simple and emotional as the regime’s story of a nation united against dangerous enemies.

A real political message is more than a slogan.  It’s a narrative that explains what causes problems in society, how you solve those problems and what an ideal society would look like.

Facts won’t defeat the regime’s powerful, fear-based message.

You need a counter-narrative that explains what causes problems in society (corruption, lies and oppression), how problems are solved (clean, honest government, freedom of speech and fair elections) and what an ideal society looks (a safe, open society where people can be free and prosperous).

Local messengers—Whoever shares the opposition narrative should be from the same demographics and region as the audience you’re trying to reach.

Don’t send anyone who looks or sounds like a member of the educated elite to working class neighborhoods, because they’ll be seen a politician who can’t understand their daily life.

Cultivate fresh voices who get their hands dirty doing the same jobs, every day, as the people you’re trying to reach.

Those new voices, no matter how effective, shouldn’t parachute in and out of places.

Opposition voices and leaders should be found and supported locally, in the very places where the regime’s support is the strongest.

Step 27. Weave stories into everything

Plato feared stories more than anything else.

More than logic. More than facts.

Stories are how we naturally process information. It’s the most powerful form of communication.

Narratives come in many forms, and there’s an art to doing them on a high level. But you’re not trying to write novels or screenplays for a living.

You can, and should, structure whatever you do in terms of a simple, strong narrative.

The biggest difference between narrative stories and the stories you see in newspapers is structure.

Journalism typically uses the inverted pyramid, which is a fancy way of saying “put the exciting bit in the headline and first paragraph, then make it more boring until it peters out at the end.”

There are good reasons for newspapers to use this structure, because it gives people the most important information first and lets editors cut the end of a story if they ran out of room on a page.

This journalistic style of writing is pretty typical for public relations, especially press releases.

Yet it’s terrible for the purposes of persuasive writing and communication, which is what you’re doing as an opposition movement.

Instead, use a narrative structure for everything you do. Everything: speeches, letters to the editor, videos, protest songs and even posters.

The basics of narrative are simple.

Villains, heroes and stakes: Every story is a conflict between villains and heroes. The villains are the most important part of a story. What if the villain wins? Show what’s at stake for the people in the story and for the greater public.

Curiosity and surprise—Narratives are strong because they’re the opposite of the inverted pyramid. They make you curious, build up that tension and only reveal the answers at the absolute end of the piece.

Maximum emotional distance—The best stories, speeches, books and movies maximize the emotional distance the audience travels.

If the ending is up (happy, excited), the beginning should be down. If the ending is down (sad, upset), the beginning should be up.

Never write flat. If the story you tell is down the entire time, or up the entire time, there’s no velocity to what you’re doing. The audience is lost.

Think of a roller coaster. That’s the kind of structure you want, with emotional velocity.

Concrete imagery—Don’t tell people something is wrong or unjust. Talk about real people, about what they saw, touched and heard. Make it real.

End with stories of action—Subtext is more powerful than text. It’s never persuasive to beat people over the head with your message. That’s a lecture.

Instead of telling people to act, find ways to end every speech and message with an example of a person who stood up, spoke up and took action. Inspire them to action.

 

Next week—Chapter 5: Resisting Oppression

Download the full PDF by clicking here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at 33ways.org

Chapter 2: Dismantling a Wall of Lies

This is the second of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.

Read the first chapter here.

Chapter 2: Dismantling a Wall of Lies

Tyrants and would-be tyrants lure people into a debate about the past, which is politically weak.

They use a wall of lies to generate Fear of the Other, then try to capitalize on that manufactured fear by portraying themselves as the only thing strong enough to fight those threats.

The instinctive response of trying to fact-check and rebut these lies draws the press and public into a trap. Here’s why:

  • It’s impossible to rebut the sheer volume of lies.
  • Rebutting those lies requires repeating them and giving the press a conflict to write about, thus spreading the lies even more.
  • And finally, facts alone aren’t good at persuading people.

This chapter is about avoiding that trap and effectively countering a Wall of Lies.

Step 8. Focus on deeds, not words

Being caught in a brazen lie harms the reputation of a normal leader, so lies are mistakes to be avoided in modern democracies.

Authoritarian regimes don’t see lies as mistakes. They use lies as weapons of mass distraction. Instead of avoiding lies and being ashamed when they’re caught, tyrants create a Wall of Lies for use as a shield and a bludgeon.

The goal is to distract the press and opposition with lies as shiny objects while the regime is busy doing things they don’t want you to notice.

This is why authoritarians deploy a stream of headline-grabbing smears, shocking statements and personal attacks against any who dare oppose them.

You can’t keep up.  Don’t see the wall of lies as individual facts to verify or debunk. View each lie as a clue to a regime’s intentions about who they’re targeting next.

If they’re lying about a religious minority, know they’re trying to generate support to target that minority next.  Never take the bait and get stuck in a debate about the past. Instead, focus on the damage the regime is doing to real people, to individual freedom and to the country itself.

Three kinds of debates

  1. Debates about the past deal in facts and assigning blame, often in a court of law. Debates about the past aren’t powerful in the political sense, because most people have a particular frame. If they hear new facts that are contrary to their frame, they don’t reject their long-held beliefs—they reject those new facts.
  1. Debates about the present are about values, decisions you can’t make by weighing evidence or comparing numbers. Debates about values are generally used when talking about social issues. Values are important, but values alone won’t persuade.
  1. Debates about the future are about risks versus reward, hopes versus fears. These are the most powerful political debates and impossible to fact-check, because the future is always in the distance.

Step 9. Let the media and fact-checkers handle lies

The natural reaction to outright lies is for the opposition to cry foul and correct the record.

Doing so, however, is shockingly ineffective. It takes a great deal of time and energy for the press or opposition to debunk a single lie. Meanwhile, it costs an undemocratic ruler mere seconds to generate a pile of new untruths.

Even if you “win” the debate about one of these lies, you haven’t really won a thing except the chance to waste your time.

An opposition can’t get trapped trying to debunk this sea of lies. Average people and the political opposition can’t become consumed with this task.

Leave the job of correcting lies to those with the credibility and resources to do it: fact checkers and the free press, including media based outside the country where the regime has no leverage.

Instead of referring to individual lies, focus on the regime’s credibility as a whole. Point to the long history of lie after lie as proof that you have no reason to believe the regime will tell the truth about anything at all. Ever.

While the press and fact-checkers do their job, do your job: spreading the message that it doesn’t have to be this way. That instead of lies, propaganda and oppression, the people could be free.

That message should focus on the future, because a fight about the fast—about facts—is inherently weak for political purposes.

A debate about the future is the political high ground. Stay there.

Step 10. Never play defense

The targets of lies or a smear campaign shouldn’t spend their energies debating the facts and defending themselves. Taking this bait means you accept the autocrat’s preferred narrative: Are you guilty of these attacks or not?

A person or group defending itself does so from a weakened ethos—credibility—because they have a self-interest in that debate.

Anyone being attacked or smeared by the autocrat should let a third-party defend them.

An independent source has a stronger ethos, since they don’t have any self-interest in the matter.

While others defend you or your group, stick to your message. Know you’re only being attacked because your message is working.

Step 11. Mock  policies instead of personalities

The campaign of lies and propaganda meant to boost the image of the autocrat—to make him look strong—are often countered with mockery from the opposition and the media.

Autocrats tend to be bigger than life and easy to mock. Yet mockery is not a magic bullet.

Throughout history, authoritarian leaders were often seen as clowns or jokes who’d never had a chance of holding power.  Mockery didn’t stop them from gaining power, and attacks on their personality won’t drive them from power.

Economics professor Luigi Zingales points to the example of billionaire and three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who won elections when opponents focused on his bombastic personality and many scandals. Trust me, you don’t want to know what “bunga bunga” parties are.

It’s only when opponents attacked Berlusconi on the issues—policies instead of personality—that they kicked him out of office.

Mocking policies instead of personalities is also smart as a long-term strategy, because every tyrant will eventually pass on and be replaced by a successor using the exact same power base, tactics and policies.

Step 12. Turn the strength of tyrants into weakness

You have to do this literally. Relentlessly.

Without getting distracted by the stream of brazen lies, manufactured conflicts and distractions.

Authoritarians can win the message war by distracting and trap the opposition into debating about facts—a debate about the past— while they’re busy exploiting fear about the future and rigging the system to grab more power and wealth.

To win, you need to convert supporters of the regime into opponents.

When confronted by facts that don’t fit their narrative frame, they won’t reject the autocrat’s dominant frame and story—they’ll reject the facts.

The only way to win is to provide a different political narrative. A story that explains what causes problems and how you fix them.

No matter what issue is being debated, put it in the same frame: the ruler is a cheater who rigs the system because he’s too weak and cowardly to win a fair fight.

Instead of being the savior of the nation, the autocrat is the cause of problems.

The solution is to restore the rule of law and strong individual rights instead of a police state with all power resting in the hands of the few or the one.

Here are sample frames to change the narrative:

  • THE WAR ON TRUTH—The ruler rigs the system with lies, censorship and propaganda because he’s are too weak and cowardly to win a fair debate. Our country won’t be truly free until we have free speech, a free press and the right to protest without being arrested.
  • ELECTIONS— The ruler is a cheater who rigs elections because he’s too weak and cowardly to win a fair election. We won’t be a free country until we have free and fair elections.
  • LAW AND ORDER—The ruler cheats and rigs the police, intelligence agencies and courts because he’s too weak and cowardly to win according to our constitution. It’s not about making us safe—it’s about making him safe. Protecting the people will only happen with police and judges who obey the law instead of a single man who’s above the law.
  • THE ECONOMY—He’s a cheater who rigs the economy for himself and his cronies because he’d rather cheat and game the system than work hard for his money like you and I have to. He’ll plunder the country until we restore fair competition and we reward hard work and merit, not corruption and kickbacks.

Step 13. How stories can fight Fear of the Other

Autocrats use a twisted, extreme form of populism, giving angry masses a simple and powerful attack on the status quo.

That attack is a political narrative, a story that explains what causes problems and how you solve them. It’s based on fear and lies yet quite effective.

In this false narrative, the source of all problems are traced back to the Other—typically immigrants, minorities, intellectuals and foreigners—and since the nation is under attack, the solution is a strong leader to protect the people.

An autocrat will continually refresh and expand the list of Others to keep the population sufficiently afraid and compliant.

The secondary targets of undemocratic rulers are any individual or institution who they see as a threat to absolute power.  These targets include journalists, judges, lawmakers, opposition leaders and protestors.

If there is no real foreign threat, autocrats will often invent threats through lies and propaganda—or by ginning up conflicts with other countries, especially smaller, weaker nations they can bully.

Fear of the Other works because it’s visceral, primal and a debate about the future. You can’t fight this fear with facts, numbers or arguments.

The best way is through sharing stories about real people and building bridges, because Fear of the Other is really a fear of the unknown. In the end, the regime is trying to dehumanize classes of people while turning them into scapegoats.

Fight back with stories about real people.

Find and spread stories about real people from targeted groups who proudly serve as soldiers, police officers, teachers, doctors or nurses. Share photos or video of these people with their extended families—from infants to great-grandmothers—to dispel the lie that they’re somehow inhuman or a  threat to the nation.

The most powerful stories show people from completely different backgrounds, religions and ethnicities meeting and becoming friends.

The most effective responses to attacks on Muslim mosques and Jewish synagogues in North America have been leaders of other faiths rallying to help.

Step 14. Build bridges

There are good lessons from the debate on marriage equality in the United States and other nations.

One of the most effective tools that changed minds wasn’t a slick slogan or an advertising campaign.

What helped turn the tide were gay and lesbian people brave enough to come out to their friends, co-workers and family.

Because once most people had an aunt, son or neighbor who was gay or lesbian, Fear of the Other faded and attitudes quickly changed.

It’s impossible to dehumanize entire groups of people when everybody knows members of that targeted group.

Another key message is the story of transformation, with somebody who used to fear a persecuted group and believe the regime’s lies sharing how they changed their mind. It’s a story about building bridges, one person at a time.

The good news is this is something that every person can do.

Whatever group is being smeared and persecuted, the best way to resist is to reach out and build bridges.

Not with people who already agree with you, but with people who support the regime and may have never met people they’re being asked to hate.

Those new friendships happen at the local level.

And there’s nothing a regime can do to stop people from sharing coffee, chatting during their kids’ soccer game or sharing a meal in their own home.

 

Next week—Chapter 3: The Hidden Fight

Download the full PDF by clicking here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at 33ways.org

33 ways to fight lies, propaganda and oppression—Chapter 1: Marching Toward Liberty

Across the world, a wave of authoritarian regimes is using lies, propaganda and oppression to attack the foundations of liberty and democracy.

This goes beyond politics. My father is a Vietnam vet and strong conservative; my grandfather was a World War II bomber pilot and FDR Democrat, and I’m a former journalist turned progressive speechwriter. Yet we’d all fight for the same bedrock values:

  • freedom of speech and of the press;
  • the Rule of Law instead of the Rule of Man;
  • a Constitution and Bill of Rights to protect the people; and
  • free and fair elections.

Regardless of your political beliefs, those values are the heart of the free world that’s served us so well since the end of World War II.

So this isn’t about politics or elections. It’s is a much bigger fight about whether laws and institutions should be designed to protect the people—or protect the ruler.

And this battle isn’t new. Kings, queens, warlords and dictators have used the same tactics for centuries. Instead of competing in the marketplace of ideas, authoritarians rely on lies and propaganda to generate Fear of the Other.

Instead of competing in fair elections, they rig the system, and the economy, for their personal benefit.

Yet if you google “how to fight propaganda,” it’s shocking how little turns up.

The same thing is true for tips on fighting lies and oppression.

There’s nothing really out there aside from the pamphlet INDIVISIBLE, which is great if you live in a democracy and want to influence a lawmaker in a swing district. It’s simply not designed to give you tips on dismantling a wall of lies, battling a sea of propaganda or fighting back against oppression. In too many nations in the world, the legislature is a rubber stamp, a thin veneer of democracy rather than a possible avenue of change and reform.

Freedom House has taken on this cause and they’ve done a meticulous great job of tracking and reporting each year. Here’s their map on freedom of the press, worldwide. Click on the map to read their latest report.

And this is their map dividing the world into Free, Partly Free and Not Free.

Bit sobering, isn’t it? There’s an awful lot of yellow and blue on both of those maps.

Below you’ll find the first of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.

Each week on Wednesday, I’ll post another chapter.

The guide borrows from journalism, rhetoric and public relations. It’s meant to be useful whatever continent you live on, whether you’re reading it today or 50 years from now.

It will always be free.

P.S. Since this blog has readers who are journalists, speechwriters, editors, writers and people with much larger brains than mine, I’ll happily take your suggestions when it’s time to revise the PDF. Please send ideas, comments or questions to truth.liberty.2017@gmail.com

Chapter 1: Marching Toward Liberty

A march is the basic form of protest and has been for thousands of years.

Marches are still incredibly useful for any political movement, especially if you’re resisting lies, propaganda and oppression.

A single march can do what tyrants fear most:

  • Organize the people
  • Spread a message of truth, equality and democracy
  • End with an action, and
  • Set the stage for bigger marches and events.

This chapter is about maximizing any march, because history shows even a single march can be the seed of a national movement.

Step 1. Why tyrants fear protest marches

However invincible a regime appears, it will crumble without the compliance of average people. Even the harshest dictator doesn’t patrol the streets and do his own dirty work.

Nation-states require police officers, judges, soldiers, administrators—and modern economies require truck drivers, nurses, engineers and construction workers.

This is why authoritarian regimes do all they can to make you afraid, isolated, quiet and compliant.

Protests in the streets show that people are brave, unified, loud and resistant.

Riot police can handle a crowd of two hundred. They can bring in trucks and arrest everyone.  Police can’t arrest a crowd of ten thousand protestors.

They have no way of dealing with 100,000 non-violent marchers. And there aren’t enough police, courts and prison cells to arrest and lock up tens of millions of people peacefully marching.

Even if a regime tried to do this, they’d go bankrupt trying to build enough prisons and hire enough prison guards. The economy would sputter and die without all those workers, while the regime would look silly arresting peaceful grandmothers and kids.

This is why tyrants fear peaceful protests more than anything else.

So you march. Loudly and peacefully.

Together.

And you do not comply.

Step 2. Non-violence is your greatest weapon

An opposition movement must embrace non-violence, not just in protest marches, but throughout every action it takes.

That’s because the first instinct of a regime is to brutally crack down on any signs of rebellion while portraying protestors as paid, violent thugs.

Opposition groups, big or small, have to continually preach and practice non-violence, and renounce any violent protest as being outside the movement.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fellow Freedom Marchers knew they’d be greeted with the blows of police batons, the spray of fire hoses and the bites of police dogs.  They went out in the streets anyway to expose the ugly truth about Segregation.

Peaceful protest is also more effective than a violent uprising. Political scientist Erica Chenoweth studied major non-violent and violent uprisings since 1900. Violent uprisings succeeded 26 percent of the time and tended to lead to another tyrannical regime.

Researchers used to say that no government could survive if just 5 percent of the population rose up against it. Our data shows the number may be lower than that.

No single campaign in that period failed after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population. But get this: every single campaign that exceeded that 3.5 percent point was a nonviolent one. The nonviolent campaigns were on average four times larger than the average violent campaigns.

—Erica Chenoweth

Chenoweth found that non-violent resistance succeeded 53 percent of the time and tended to lead to greater democracy.

Step 3. Publicize a protest long before it happens

The more time you provide for logistics, publicity and planning, the better. Don’t wait until the day before. Start weeks before—the longer, the better.

Many protests and marches are held on weekends, because that’s when people have free time. The trouble with weekends is there aren’t many reporters working Saturdays and Sundays..

Advance notice is therefore key, especially for TV crews. A newspaper reporter can grab a notebook and camera and head out.  A TV reporter needs a camera person and a satellite van, so station producers plan in advance. And you want television coverage whenever possible.

To maximize press coverage before the march, gather a list of names, emails and phone numbers of your local media. Then write down the following in this format, which is the Five W’s of journalism:

  1. WHO: Who is expected to attend and speak at the march? Who is organizing it? And finally, who can the press contact for more information? List multiple organizers, because you should reply right away to any press request. Reporters are always on deadline and will contact different people until they get what they need.
  2. WHAT: What exactly is happening? Think like a reporter about events worth photos or coverage.
  3. WHEN:  Start time and end time.
  4. WHERE: Starting point and ending point.
  5. WHY: Why are you marching? This is best done through a quote from an organizer.

Use this raw material, those Five W’s, to spread your message.

  • Announce the event: Send an email with those exact things, in that format, to the local press with the subject line of the email announcing the event.
  • Share it on social media: Post that same information on social media and ask people to share with their friends and RSVP so you can get a rough headcount. Figure out a hashtag for the movement and event.
  • Turn it into letters to the editor: Get every organizer and ally who’s coming to the march to rewrite those Five W’s into letters to the editor. Have them say, in their own words, why they’re attending the peaceful march and why others should, too..
  • Talk to the press: Reporters doing announcement stories want more than the Five W’s.

Ideally, journalists want a great personal story about one of the organizers or speakers at the march.  The best stories are the ones that surprise and bring audiences on an emotional journey.Find those stories and connect people with journalists before the event.

Step 4. Use the  march to organize and message

Now that every smart phone can take photos and video, then send those images around the world, every march and event is an opportunity to spread your message on multiple platforms.

This is critical because regimes use lies and propaganda as part of a sophisticated, multi-media attack.

Combatting this assault on truth and liberty requires images, video, songs and stories.

Every step of the way, ask your fellow organizers and the crowd to post photos or video using the same hashtag.

  • Photos of the growing crowd: As the march starts, get people to take photos of the growing crowd. Post photos and video to social media to encourage those sitting on the fence to show up.
  • Video of every speaker: Shoot film—on smart phones, camcorders or better—during and after the march.
  • Stories: Set up stations, which can be as simple as a poster that says, “Tell Your Story Here,” and send roving volunteers to do the same around the crowd. Stories about real people are the most powerful form of messaging and communication.
  • Music and song: It’s not a party without music. Many people belonged to marching bands in school or college. Encourage people to bring their drums or guitars to entertain people. Shoot film of people dancing or singing protest songs.
  • Turn the march into an organizing tool: A simple clipboard can turn into an email list or phone tree. On that same clipboard, ask people what skills they have and what issues they’d like to work on.
  • Creative protest signs and costumes: Take photos of the best and funniest ones. Give people credit.
  • Announce the next event and other actions: In the warm-up speeches before the march starts, announce the next march or event.
  • Tell people other actions they can take, like writing letters to the editor, showing up at a lawmaker’s town hall meeting or emailing advertisers to boycott radio shows and blogs spewing fake news and hate.

Repeat these announcements at the end of the march, so you don’t lose momentum by having to track down and inform people after it’s over.

Step 5. Don’t just say you’re peaceful—show it

If the regime can portray protesters as angry and violent, they win. Oppressive regimes want photos and film of protests turned ugly.

They want red-faced people spitting on police, college students wearing black trashing cars and protestors looting shops.

This is why protest marches should be peaceful and joyful, with music and laughter. You want it to be completely clear that the march is a peaceful, happy event. A party people want to join.

For safety reasons, don’t block highways or do anything that could make a march dangerous to bystanders, drivers, police or fellow protestors.

Organize volunteers wearing something visible—hats or armbands—to keep the peace and offer bottles of water or first aid.

To emphasize how committed the opposition is to non-violence, put people who are obviously not threats in the front of any march:

  • Religious leaders
  • Grandmother and grandfathers
  • Retired veterans wearing their uniforms

Step 6. Reach out to the local police

No regime can survive without the support and obedience of local police.

Police have kids who go to the same schools as your kids or grandkids. They shop at the same grocery stores. These are your neighbors, whether you know their names or not.

So learn their names.

Before the march, reach out to the local police to make sure they know exactly what you’re planning.

Ask them for their advice on making it peaceful and safe, because you don’t plan on giving them any trouble whatsoever. And because they’ll know the logistics of a march, big or small. Your local police will know the safest routes you should march.

While the crowd gathers and organizers give speeches, tell the crowd that the local police aren’t the enemy. Explain how the regime really wants to portray protestors as paid thugs who smash windows and throw rocks at the police.

Remind everyone that your movement embraces non-violence in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the march, smile and reach out to the police. Call them by the names on their uniforms and ask where they’re from.

Thank them for coming out to make the march safe. Give them flowers—or coffee and pastries.

If you see this happening, take a photo or video. Because news is the most interesting when it’s a surprise.  People expect protesters to treat the police as an enemy to be met with suspicion, fear and flying bottles. You’ll make news by doing the opposite.

After the march, get to know the police in your neighborhood.  Don’t lecture them—listen. Having coffee and donuts with your local police may sound like a joke. But it’s not.

Everyday police officers are a core pillar of any authoritarian regime. Without their support, the regime crumbles.

Step 7. End with action

If you end a march with nothing, that’s anti-climactic. That’s why most marches begin with warm-up speeches and end with their best speakers.

Surprise people by ending your march not just with a great speech, but with a non-violent action.

Sit-ins are effective, especially to publicize a lawmaker or elected official who refuses to meet with the people they’re supposed to serve.

It’s relatively easy for police to hustle off people who are standing up. It takes multiple police officers to pick up and carry each protestor staging a sit-in.

People around the world have also created variations on the protest march in respond to regime tactics like refusing to issue protest permits or blocking protest routes.

A silent, standing protest doesn’t have to march anywhere and is a powerful and unusual statement.

Street theater is a useful and creative outlet. Stage a short play or skit in a public place.

Picket lines, strikes and boycotts are effective in leveraging economic pressure for reform and justice.

Every oppressive regime is also a kleptocracy. Rulers, their families and cronies get rich through corruption, and major businesses must pay to play. Put pressure on key businesses that support the regime with picket lines, strikes and boycotts.

For a comprehensive list of 198 non-violent methods and actions, read Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Non-Violent Action.

Bring your brooms

At the end of any protest march or event, leave the place cleaner than you found it.

Nothing steps on your message more than photos of piles of trash.

End every event by cleaning up not just the protest area itself, but nearby places, whether it’s a shopping mall, a park or a neighborhood.

Brooms are also a potent symbol of cleanliness vs dirty corruption.  This is a simple, strong way to show that your movement is positive and constructive instead of threatening.

It’s hard to fight against this imagery .

A regime would look ridiculous if it tried to outlaw brooms or arrested groups of peaceful people cleaning up public streets and parks.

Who doesn’t like volunteers with brooms and trash bags, cleaning up local parks and streets?

This is also an opportunity for outreach. People will see you cleaning up outside their home or business and ask who you’re with and why you’re  doing it.

This is far more effective as a conversation starter than knocking on their door and trying to talk to about your movement.

By cleaning up, you’re showing people with deeds instead of words. You’re also creating curiosity, which is the first step to engaging an audience.

 

Next week—Chapter 2: Dismantling a Wall of Lies

To download the full guide as a PDF, click here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at 33ways.org

Why the world needs newspapers more than ever

Man with newspaper

Man with newspaper

Today’s world runs on ideas, spread by the Series of Tubes–and those ideas are made of words.

At the foundation of this pyramid of words and ideas sits an endangered species: newspapers.

Television, radio, blogs and half the interwebs wouldn’t function if they couldn’t crib from papers of news, where the whole food web of information starts.

Don’t believe me? Watch this bit from John Oliver, who shows that while it’s easy and amusing to make fun of something for 10 seconds (John Stewart and every late night talk show host), it takes serious skill to dive deep into important issues without losing your audience. The man is brilliant.

I got started at papers, back when they were financially healthy and the web didn’t really exist. So this hits me in the gut. Continue reading “Why the world needs newspapers more than ever”

The past, present and future of news

internet lynchings fact-based reporting

This post is like X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, except with printing presses and the web instead of Hugh Jackman.

We’ll go back in time, return to the present and into the future. Here’s how it started: for eons, news only traveled as fast as you could run, unless you had a horse or an army of trained pigeons. (Yes, this was a thing. Rather brilliant, really.)

Back in the 1700s, newspapers from London and Paris were put on sailing ships that crossed the Atlantic, and people lined up and paid real money to read news that was months old. Didn’t matter. It was new to them. Continue reading “The past, present and future of news”

The killer beside you

knife

The first murderer I ever met was tall and awkward, with curly hair. But this was sixth grade, and we were all a bit awkward. Every one of us.

This kid didn’t grow up to stalk the streets and slay prostitutes until the TV stations gave him a nickname.

He didn’t buy an AR-15 and shoot up a lecture hall or a nightclub.

This boy became a killer that same year.

One day he was in school. The next day he didn’t show up, and the next, and the next, until we finally learned the truth: he’d been charged with murder.
Continue reading “The killer beside you”

Man leads police on 112 mph chase, crashes, then flees with his pet monkey

Monkey chase. Photo courtesy of the Burien Police Department.

Monkey chase. Photo courtesy of the Burien Police Department.

Photo courtesy of the Burien Police Department.

This sounds like an Onion story. But it’s not.

As a reformed journalist and unrepentant fan of weird news, this story is classic. Let’s break it down.

Related post, which WordPress put on the front page: How weird news teaches us great storytelling

Continue reading “Man leads police on 112 mph chase, crashes, then flees with his pet monkey”

Defense against the Dark Arts: Propaganda vs. journalism and rhetoric

As the race for the White House gears up, you are being bombarded with stories, 30-second ads, attack tweets and Instagram videos.

Back in the 1970s, the average person got hit with 500 messages a day: ads in the paper to buy Fords, radio spots for Richard Nixon, promos for the latest ABBA album and billboards for Coke.

Today, the average person is buried with 5,000 messages a day.

So how do you tell the difference between propaganda vs. journalism and rhetoric?

I did a series of posts about this for about.com, back when it was owned by The New York Times, and it’s a topic worth revisiting. Continue reading “Defense against the Dark Arts: Propaganda vs. journalism and rhetoric”

‘Native advertising’ disguised as news: miracle money or menace to journalism?

media strategy saturday meme

You have to feel for journalists and publishers, since everybody else insists on (a) swiping content from newspapers and magazines, (b) “aggregating” all that content on the Series of Tubes before (c) having your hot startup get bought out by Silicon Valley for $300 million while (d) the journalists who created all that content get pink slips.

So yeah, any form of advertising that’s bringing money to print is a godsend.

HOWEVER: John Oliver is right when he goes off about “native advertising,” a new twist on an old concept. Instead of having news, then ads, why not knock down those walls and make the ads look just like news?

I still believe that real ads in real newspapers and magazine are far more effective than banner ads on the web. Also, this trend can’t last forever. John Oliver is right about somebody having to create all this content, and get paid for it. The trouble is how easy newspapers and magazines made it to either read the stories for free — most paywalls are a joke — or “aggregate” the stories online with no consequences.

Either way, John the Oliver is proving that you can go on deep, 11-minute comedy rants that actually educate people, about serious topics, while making them laugh. Lectures are boring. Mockery is the greatest weapon.

Top 10 Myths of Journalism School

Oh, if I could go back in time, and whisper in the ear of my younger self during journalism school.

Not that I was busy screwing it up. Editor-in-chief of my college newspaper, graduated No. 1 in my class, won a bunch of awards, blah-blah-blah. (Related: Who is this Guy?)

But the traditional things that most journalism students think they SHOULD be doing — well, often those are seven separate kinds of wrong.

And there are other things Serious Journalism Majors scoff at, things that you actually should not only embrace, but hug tightly to your bosom.

So here we go with the Top 10 Myths of Journalism School.

Myth No. 10: Hard news is the only true love of a Serious Journalism Major

Sure, unfiltered Marlboros and Jim Beam come close. But nothing beats a scoop about an amazing scandal. You laugh at people trying to make the words flow for their feature story on dumpster divers, a story packed with all these photos, which are for nancypants who don’t have the stones to write more words.

Here’s the truth: hard news is all about news gathering and using the inverted pyramid, which is a horrible structure for any sort of writing and needs to be taken behind the barn and shot.

Hard news is worthy, and does the public a great service. Yet if all you do is hard news, you won’t truly learn journalism — or how to write.

Myth No. 9: Journalism school will teach you how to write

Once you get that pigskin from j-school, and land your first journalism  gig — at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times — you’ll go home after 12 hours of banging on the keyboard to stay up past midnight, banging on the keyboard some more while smoking Gallouise Blondes and drinking cheap whiskey sours as you write (a) the next Great American Novel, (b) a Broadway play involving a debutant who falls in love with a struggling young reporter or (c) a Hollywood screenplay about a vast government conspiracy unraveled by an intrepid young intern at CBS.

This will be a lot of fun, and you’ll remember this as being the Best Thing Ever until you’ve been doing it for seven months and turning every draft of your extra-curricular writerly fun into three-point attempts. Also, you will miss this thing we call “sleep” and these other things we call “money in the checking account” and “a social life that does not involve typing on a keyboard chatting with a person who may, or may not, actually exist.”

J-school will teach you to be a journalist, but not how to write. You’ll know the AP Stylebook better than the people who wrote it, and your noggin will be stuffed full of the mechanics of writing news stories, how to put out a newspaper or produce a magazine. It may even teach you how to produce radio and TV shows.

Journalism school won’t, however, make you an all-purpose writer. And to truly learn how to write, you need to learn how to edit. I don’t mean copy edit or proof.

Sidenote: I wrote this in a crazy hurry and have not proofed it, or copy edited it, much less edited-edited the sucker. My apologies. God knows what kind of felony crimes against journalism were committed on this silly blog today. 

Myth No. 8: Copy editing is editing

Sure, you sleep with your AP Stylebook, and proof-reading marks are like a second language. But that’s not editing.

There’s proofing, copy editing and true editing. Vastly different things.

Anybody who’s literate can proof. Do I want a great proofer? Sure, I want the best around, because errors are inevitable, and it takes a special person to have the stamina to read page after page. This isn’t rocket science, though.

Copy editing is important. When something is written on deadline, in a huge hurry, the copy editor is a Writing God, saving you from making gigantic factual errors or crimes against the English language.

True editing, though, is different, and you won’t learn it in journalism school. Not unless you seek it out.

Myth No. 7: You should specialize in your special thing while pish-toshing PR, because that’s for cheerleaders

Maybe you’re a sports guy, and all you want to do is write about baseball. It’s your passion. In fact, it’s your dream to cover the San Francisco Giants as a beat reporter. Anything else would be a let-down.

Out in real newsrooms, you’ll switch beats — and newspapers, or TV stations, or whatever — all the time. One month you might be covering politics and the next month it’s a huge murder trial. As a reporter, I covered city council meetings that lasted until midnight, got up the next day and did a flood, a fire or a bumbling serial killer. You never knew what was going to happen, and that’s why journalism is fun. The smaller the paper or media outlet, the more different things you get to cover. The bigger the paper or TV station, the more specialized you get.

So in college, try everything you can. Features, sports, the opinion page. Give radio a shot, and TV if you can. Somebody who can do lots of things, and is interested in many things, is a lot more marketable and fun than a journalist who’s obsessed with one solitary thing.

Also, public relations isn’t something journalism majors should take because it’s a required course. Chances are, you won’t do journalism forever.

Maybe five or ten years after you start working at papers of news, you’ll meet an amazing girl, or a wonderful boy, and the two of you will get married and decide that living on Top Ramen was fun for the first year, and kind of unfun the second year, and if you ever want to have babies and buy a house and send your pookie to college, the job thing may need to get revisited. And instead of selling Toyotas, you want to stick with some kind of writing gig, except one that pays decently and won’t make you worry about the next round of layoffs and such.

This happens. It’s OK, and public relations is a growing field — social media PR is crazy hot right now — while traditional journalism is shrinking before it changes and takes flight again. (I have hope.) Take the PR classes and learn from them. You will not die.

Myth No. 6: All you need is a pen and notebook

These days, it’s a pen, a notebook,  a laptop, a camera and a smart phone, though the phone is a given, and would require a surgical team / SWAT team / NFL team to separate most people from their phones.

A lot of print reporters are taking their own photos these days, with newsroom cutbacks for photo staff. There are far fewer photographers on staff than reporters. Can’t send a shutterbug out on every story, only the biggest ones.

Get a decent SLR and practice. A lot.

That camera will also shoot HD video, and most papers and radio stations are also putting video up on their blogs. Learn how to edit video a little, and to edit photos a whole bunch.

Sidenote: when I say “learn to edit photos,” I don’t mean firing up Instagram and applying the Lux effect.

Myth No. 5: Creative writing and drama people are weird

Yeah, they dress in black and like to quote Sylvia Plath and Oscar Wilde.

Get over it. Instead of taking tons of political science classes and such (I was guilty of this), take all the creative writing and drama that you can. Because you want to be a great journalist and writer instead of a U.S. Senator, right?

If your college has a screenwriting class, take it. If they don’t have screenwriting, buy SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder and STORY by Robert McKee. Read them all the way through while taking notes. Then go back and read them again, because those two books are all about structure, which is the secret to great writing. Not pretty words. Structure.

Also: speech and debate — or editing the opinion page of your college paper — are both crazy smart. You need to learn how to (a) speak in public and (b) persuade other human beings to do things, such as (c) getting sources to reveal secrets to you and (d) charming editors to run your story on Page 1 instead of burying it on Page 15 next to the obituaries. I got lucky by doing speech and debate, and being an opinion page editor, along with all the hard news. Those things gave me different ways of writing aside from the inverted pyramid. So hop on the happy train of storytelling and rhetoric. DO IT NOW.

Myth No. 4: Your  resume, GPA and 5-pound stack of clips — those are the ticket to success

They’re important to get into grad school, sure. And yeah, employers are a lot more impressed with somebody who has a 4.0 and a great resume than a loser.

But after your first real job, nobody cares about your grade point average and such. Or even where you went to school, unless it’s something insanely great (Harvard) or wacky beyond belief (French Polynesian College of Scientology and Barber School).

Here’s a secret: people get stacks of resumes that tower over their desk. They spend about two seconds per resume to sort them into three piles: YES, NO and MAYBE. Three-page resume? The NO pile. Weird font? NO. Paper as stiff as cardboard or so flimsy it tears? NO.

Here’s the cat who helps bosses around the world sort through stacks of resumes.

Then they go back into the YES pile and winnow it down until they’ve got enough people to call for interviews. And that’s if they even ask for resumes.

Also: one amazing clip with photos is better than three great clips or 5 pounds of good clips. NOBODY WILL READ ALL YOUR CLIPS. They’ll read the lede of the first graf of your first clip, maybe. I’d throw some more journalism slang in that sentence, but it’d just be piling on.

Myth No. 3: You can apply for any open job

A lot of times, jobs aren’t advertised. You won’t ever know they existed.

Why? Because people off the street are always a risk. Somebody with the Greatest Resume Known to Man could be a sociopath.

This is why the most important thing isn’t “who you know” but “who already knows you.” There’s a difference, and that segues to the next myth.

Myth No. 2: Internships are glorified slavery

You’re not getting paid for this free work. Why dress up, shave (face or legs), fight traffic and work like a dog while this paper of news / TV station / magazine makes all kinds of money from your free labor? Who cares if you’re late by 15 minutes or leave early? Who cares if you play Angry Birds on your phone during meetings?

Here’s the truth: internships mean jobs. Bosses would much rather skip the whole advertising for a job thing, which involves tons of paperwork, sorting through resumes and sitting through weeks of interviews. It’s a royal pain. If there was a couple interns they just had, people who were professional and hardworking, why not call them both up and hire one of them?

This happens far, far more than you think. And not just with internships. I’m ten times more likely to answer an email from somebody who’s chatted with me on Twitter than a total stranger (delete). The same thing is true for freelance jobs.

Myth No. 1: You’ll win the Pulitzer prize and retire to a villa in France

After you work for six months, putting in all-nighters to uncover the Biggest Scoop Journalism Has Ever Seen, and blow the socks off every Pulitzer Prize judge, your hometown will throw a ticker-tape parade, the mayor will give you the keys to the city and The New York Times will fight it out with The Washington Post to see who can give you $1.3 million a year along with your own set of minions.

Oh, that’s a nice dream. It would make a great movie. I know people who’ve won the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, and while it’s a great honor, they didn’t get snatched up by the national biggies or have buckets of monies rain upon their noggins. Yeah, it’s a big deal, and the best possible award for journalists, and everybody pronounces it wrong.

Despite all that, winning the Pulitzer Prize is not like holding the winning ticket to MegaMillions.

HOWEVER: Journalism isn’t about getting famous or getting rich. It’s about serving your audience, and giving them news and information. The profession is interesting and fun, and even though it’s changing fast, the need for information — and for people who can write — is only growing.

If you choose journalism, you won’t get rich. You won’t get famous.

What you will get is an interesting life. And that’s something worth more than paper decorated with dead presidents.

Journalists just wanna have fun

media strategy saturday meme

As a reformed journalist, I can tell you secret things.

Number One: Coffee.

If you want to make a reporter smile, or an editor not growl at you, feed them industrial amounts of coffee.

Number Two: Stress requires unstressing.

Journalists do a stressful job for tiny amounts of monies, and they’re under the Most Insane Deadline Pressure Known to Man, which makes them look for ways to unwind.

Here are my favorite journalists finding ways to unstress.

First we’ve got Bob Herzog.

Bob’s a TV reporter from Local 12 in Cincinatti who took the thankless job of “Traffic Reporter, A Job We Sometimes Have Interns Do” and turned it onto a “Dancing King of the Glowing Tube.”

Then we’ve got WGN anchors Robert Jordan and Jackie Bange, who look quite Serious and Somber while delivering the news.

Once they hit the commercial break, they transform into silly nutballs and do a special shebang, which they’ve honed over the years to take up exactly two minutes.

Also, just because I can, the original Girls Just Wanna Have Fun by Cindi the Lauper.

The Killers once covered Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj covered it EVEN BETTER.

###

This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.
Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE

If you are a writer, you know all about the inverted pyramid. It’s one of the first blueprints we get taught: put the most important stuff on top and the least important on the bottom, like an upside-down pyramid.

As a reformed journalist, was I familiar with the inverted pyramid? Nah. I only wrote  5,931 bazillion stories using the damn thing. We were practically married.

Every day, millions of reporters use it to write stories for Papers of News and programs on the radios and the Glowing Tube, so if there was ever a sacred cow in writing and journalism, that cow would be named Inverted Pyramid, and the milk from its udders would contain perfect chocolate-flavored milk decorated with specks of gold.

The technique of journalism writing.

HOWEVER: I want you to know something. Come a little closer so I can whisper it in your ear: “The inverted pyramid MUST DIE.”

As a blueprint, it’s inherently flawed and bores readers. If you wrote novels, screenplays and TV shows using the inverted pyramid, they’d all fail, because all the good stuff would be in the beginning. The middle would be boring and the end would put the entire audience in a coma.

The inverted pyramid is useful for short news bulletins, and there were technical reasons why journalists use it. You want to get the maximum amount of information to the reader in a minimum amount of time, and if a story runs long, you can lop off the end without consequence. These days, however, the inverted pyramid is simply a flashing neon sign that says, “Reader, you can stop reading any time, because it only gets more boring from here on.”

Look at your local Sunday newspaper. I read The Seattle Times here, and they tend to do these big investigative stories that start on page one, jump to page 5, then jump to pages 7, 8, 9 and 12. I mean, these stories never end. Are they important? Sure. Can I finish them? No. Because they’re written using the inverted pyramid, and even a reformed journalist who loves papers — if you cut me, I still bleed newsprint — can’t get through that ocean of words.

However: a 10,000-word newspaper story is nothing compared to a 100,000-word novel, and I have no problem reading novels. Love ’em.

It’s the structure, the blueprint. The inverted pyramid sucks.

Here, I’ll give you proof.

Years ago, as a cub reporter right out of college, I’d write at least 10 to 20 stories a week. Let’s say  500 a year. And I’d win journalism awards every year. But hey, if I wrote 500 stories, some of those better be good and a few of them better be brilliant, right?

A few years ago, I freelanced a newspaper story, not simply because I still love papers, but because this story happened to a friend of mine.

One story instead of 500. And that story won some journalism award. I went one for one instead of five for 500 or whatever. Hmm.

I wrote this story about 7 years ago. Looking back at this piece, I’m a much better writer today. Parts seem quite clunky. But this piece didn’t win an award because each sentence was poetry. It got an award because I abandoned the inverted pyramid entirely and wrote this piece as narrative non-fiction, which is a fancy way of saying “storytelling.”

If I’d written it using the stupid inverted pyramid, I’d give away the ending in the damn headline, and the last line of the piece — instead of being something you remember — would be something like “The dog was yellow.”

Read this sucker. Look at the structure, the setups and payoffs, instead of the words. And tell me if you think it would be one-tenth as compelling written using the inverted pyramid. Then make a vow to never, never use that obsolete blueprint ever again.

Lost and trapped at 4,500 feet

Special to The Vidette

by Guy Bergstrom

 

MONTESANO – From the top of Colonel Bob Mountain– nearly 4,500 feet high – Adam Pratt and family friend Amy Smith could see the Pacific Ocean to the west, Mount Rainier to the southeast and everything in between.

The one thing they couldn’t see was Lucas, Adam’s golden retriever.

“Luke had been up Colonel Bob four or five times before,” said Adam, a carpentry instructor at Grays Harbor College who lives in Montesano with his wife, Sara.

“He was just there beside me a second ago, and he always stays right next to me on the trail,” Adam said. “So I figured that maybe he went back down toward a stream that we crossed 30 minutes down the mountain.”

Adam and Amy called for Lucas; they whistled and clapped.

“I expected his happy face and wagging tail to come running back, as he always does,” Adam said.

They went back down the trail to the stream and thought maybe Lucas would head back to the car, at the trailhead.

Adam put his sweaty T-shirt and a bowl of water where they’d parked, hoping the familiar smells and fresh water would serve as a homing beacon for Lucas.

The beacon failed; Lucas never showed up.

The search

To prepare for a search of the wilderness, Adam drove back to Montesano for clothes, food and camping gear.

He dropped off Amy, jumped in his wife’s Subaru – which she’d already packed with supplies – and they raced the setting sun back to the trailhead at Pete’s Creek, about 20 miles into the wilderness.

“I strapped on my headlamp and went up the trail by myself about a mile and a half,” he said. “It’s not wise to hike alone in the dark, especially in black bear and cougar country. I was drained and emotional, making bad decisions.”

He returned to the car. He couldn’t eat. He and Sara tried to sleep, but they lay awake most of the night in the Subaru, thinking the worst.

Where was Lucas? Was he wandering the forests? Injured and unable to move? Or a late-night snack for a mountain lion?

To the top again

Just before daybreak, Adam strapped on his backpack, kissed Sara goodbye and headed back up the mountain again.

He decided to reach the top of the Colonel and search. If he didn’t find Lucas, he’d continue down the trail on the other side of the mountain toward Lake Quinault.

Maybe the dog had headed toward the small town near the lake. Since it was Labor Day weekend, there’d be more people and activity.

Sara drove to Lake Quinault and started putting up lost dog posters. She asked people she met if they’d seen a yellow dog. She alerted the park ranger station, in case they’d heard any reports of a lost dog with a collar. No one had seen Lucas.

The cave

Adam clapped, whistled and called for Lucas as he reached the top of the mountain.

Near the top, he heard faint howling.

“I reached the lookout area and looked down,” Adam said. “About seventy-five feet below the summit, there he was, on this tiny ledge a hundred-twenty feet above the next flat spot.”

Lucas looked scared, but he didn’t seem hurt. But how could Adam reach him?

At the summit, Adam’s cell phone had some reception, so he called Sara and left the message that Lucas was alive, but stuck on a cliff.

He pushed through brush and trees on the steep sides of Colonel Bob, traveling through a twenty-foot cave he had to crouch and crawl through. Then he side-shuffled through open-topped crevice and popped out the other side of the mountain.

To reach the ledge, Adam climbed 60 feet up by hanging onto huckleberry roots and scrub brush.

After being alone on the cliff, Lucas was thrilled to see Adam, wagging his tail and licking his face. He checked Lucas for injuries and was amazed to find the dog didn’t have any broken bones from the fall.

Then the thrill of the reunion hit the Cold Wall of Reality.

“I hate heights,” Adam said, “and it was then and there I realized how stupid I had been. My emotions had got the best of me and now I was sitting on a six-foot by three-foot ledge with my buddy, wondering how we were getting of this mountain.”

No help

Adam offered Lucas a dog bone, but he wasn’t interested in eating. After letting Lucas lap some water out of his hands, he knew he had to go before they both were stuck up there another night.

“Without opposable thumbs, he wasn’t able to follow me off the ledge,” Adam said. “I King-Konged it down the cliff, using the shrubs and roots as handholds, like a monkey.”

After making it through the cave again and back to the summit, Adam went down the mountain yet again, his muscles shaking, his mind spinning. He heard voices coming up the trail but had to stop to rest and eat some trail bars.

At the same time, Sara was at the Forest Service headquarters, asking for help. They told her rescue teams were looking for a group of four lost teens, plus another couple of hikers about 150 miles away.

Stranded dogs? Not a priority.

Lost hope

Sara sobbed; they’d worked so hard to find Lucas, and now he’d starve or freeze to death on a cliff.

She left a voice mail with the only person she could think of back in Montesano: Leo Nixon, a 71-year-old retired dentist and they’d met at Friday wine tastings at Savory Faire, a man who shared their love of hiking local mountains.

Adam headed back down the trail toward the voices. He met a father and daughter hiking up Colonel Bob with their chocolate lab. He asked if they had any rope or a cell phone, since his battery was now dead.

“They helped calm me down,” said Adam, “and they actually landed some of their lunch on Luke’s ledge. To them, I must have seemed like a crazy person. It’s good they didn’t have a rope. I wasn’t qualified to use it to climb. Even if I had training, I was in no condition to do it.”

A daring plan

Heading down the trail, Adam saw another couple heading up the hill, and then a face he knew: Leo, who hadn’t gotten Sara’s message.

“He just happened to take that hike, that day,” Adam said.

Leo climbed to the summit to take a look. He said he had all the necessary climbing gear at home in Montesano and that they could rescue Lucas themselves.

They wouldn’t try it from the top of Colonel Bob, but from below, where Adam had reached the ledge in his earlier, impulsive attempt without equipment or backup.

Since it would soon be dark, they needed to wait until Saturday morning, meaning Lucas would spend his second night alone on the freezing ledge.

On the drive back to Montesano, Leo tried to calm the fears of Adam and Sara, to assure them that it wouldn’t rain, that Lucas wouldn’t try to jump, that no bears or cougars roamed the area.

“Lies, but comforting lies,” Adam said.

Leo stopped at Savory Faire, where Adam and Sara would have been that Friday night for wine tasting if they weren’t spending their time climbing and re-climbing the mountain.

Leo walked inside and casually asked the restaurant owner, Randi Bachtel, if he could borrow his climbing equipment. He refused offers of help, saying he’d called two friends of his who were mountaineers.

Randi, a veteran of Vietnam and local high school teacher, said Leo knew what he was doing. If he had to choose anybody to do a rescue, it’d be Leo, 71 years old or not.

The Silver Panther Rescue Team

At 4:30 Saturday morning, Adam and Sara arrived at Leo’s house, where two of his mountain-climbing friends joined them: Mike Riley of Olympia and Rich Irwin of Raymond.

This would be the third climb up to the summit in 36 hours for Adam, who was exhausted and questioning himself. Could he do it again?

On the way to the mountain, they picked up Amy and her husband, Nate, who’d agreed to make the climb with what they’d nicknamed “The Silver Panthers Rescue Team.”

Adam and Sara couldn’t stop thinking about whether Lucas had survived the night, about the cold, the bears, the cougars.

Driving through the rain and the dark, a dark shape – a cougar – leapt in front of the Subaru and Adam jammed both feet on the brakes.

“It was the first time that any of us had ever seen a mountain lion,” Adam said. “Truly an amazing creature. Truly terrible timing. We said nothing to each other, but we all entertained the same thoughts.”

The cougar spun around and sprinted the opposite direction.

They kept driving.

All seven climbed the trail to Colonel Bob’s summit while it was still dark. The Silver Panthers didn’t lose one step to the younger hikers.

As they reached the top, the sun showed up.

Leo led the way as they bushwhacked through the brush and trees on the side of the mountain. On a semi-flat spot, they gathered their gear and prepared for the rescue attempt.

Leo, Mike, Rich and Adam put on climbing harnesses and helmets.

They walked a narrow ledge to the start of the route Leo had picked out.

And then they started climbing.

Do or die

There’s no half-way in mountain climbing. You make it safely or fail spectacularly.

Rich and Leo set a bottom anchor in the cliff to belay Mike as he climbed toward Lucas.

Mike set a second anchor at twenty feet up, then another at forty feet before making the final climb to the tiny ledge and Lucas.

After taking a minute to calm the dog, Mike set up a rope to top-belay Adam up sixty feet to the ledge.

“I have very little climbing experience,” Adam said, “but I had the best chance to calm down Lucas and bring him down.”

Adam made it up. They attached a harness to Lucas, then hooked that harness to Adam, who pulled the dog tight against his chest.

They would make it down – the slow way or a much speedier one – together.

Home

“I stepped off the cliff,” Adam said, “and the guys lowered us down. Then Mike rappelled down and we all made our way to flat ground and safety.”

After giving Lucas some water and food, the seven-member team celebrated and decompressed. They still had four miles to hike out, downhill, but Adam barely felt it.

“We couldn’t feel anything,” he said, “but relief.”

Leo, Rich and Mike peeled away to climb a nearby peak.

Lucas rode home with his friends. And his family.

Epilogue

Sunday afternoon: Lucas is sprinting around the playground at Crait Field, playing with a three-year-old boy who can’t stop laughing. Lucas leaps off the retaining walls as if he’s weightless and happily picks up his leash to get Adam to play tug-of-war with him.

Adam and Sara talk about their ordeal being unreal, a waking nightmare with a fairy tale ending.

“Retired dentist extracts canine from Colonel Bob,” Adam jokes.

Behind the kidding around, there’s a deep sense of gratitude and community. The couple moved here from Michigan and have only lived in Montesano since last November, so they’re amazed and grateful at how people stepped forward to offer their help.

“We couldn’t have possibly rescued him without the help of our friends,” Adam said, “and the kindness of strangers.”

But there’s also an undercurrent of resolve. Of loyalty.

“We couldn’t just leave our little buddy,” said Adam, “on a mountain cliff to die.”

Writers: social media is a tool — not a magic bullet

Every novelist, journalist and aspiring writer I know is all over social media. They’ve got a blog and a Twitter account, or a Tumblr and a Facebook page.

Or they have all four, plus three things that are so bleeding edge, I haven’t heard of them yet.

HOWEVER: you could spend all day banging out blog posts and tweets and Facebook updates. It could suck up all your free time. And you might not get that much out of it.

I see people doing it wrong all the time, and it kills me.

So let’s get some things straight:

  • It’s not about how many friends you have on Facebook.
  • It’s not about how many hits you get on your blog.
  • It’s not about how many people follow you on Twitter.

If you want to make more money writing for a living — or quit your day job to write full-time — then you need to look inside the media toolbox and see each type of social media for what it is: a tool.

Not a magic bullet. Not a sure-fire path to fame and fortune.

You also need to realize that social media can’t be your entire media plan. And no, you are not the exception, Internet Boy.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty look at each tool:

Twitter

This whole Twitter thing is for meeting people.

The social barrier is incredibly low, because tweets are by definition super-short.

Nobody is going to send you a rambling five-page email about their feelings. There’s a lot of freedom in 140 characters.

Want to BS with other writers? Look up the right hashtag for the kind of writing you do. I bet #poems will get you in touch with poets around the world.

Movies, romance, thrillers, journalism, whatever you’re into, you can find people with the same interests on Twitter, and it’s non-threatening.

It’s like a big bar that’s always open where the drinks are always free and the people are friendly, because they’re drunk. I said THE DRINKS ARE FREE.

Facebook

The Book of Face is nothing like Twitter, nothing at all. It’s a closed system.

If Twitter is a big bar where anybody can talk to anybody, then Facebook is a giant hotel with 500 million rooms where you’ve got to know the right hotel room number, knock on the door and have the person behind the peephole look at you and say OK before they open the door and let you in the private party.

Facebook is for friends and family.

It’s for people you’ve had dinner with, or would have dinner with, and want to share baby photos and wedding photos and private things you don’t want to share with the world.

Maybe you think a Facebook fan page is the best thing ever, and you swear by it, and it’s the reason why you went from reporter at The Willapa Valley Shopper to editor of Vanity Fair.

I don’t recommend it. Facebook’s niche is friends and family. There are better tools.

Also: don’t play Farmville, or Bejeweled, or whatever on Facebook, for doing so a Sin, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster DOES NOT FORGET.

He doesn’t forgive, either. Not his thing.

Blogs

Blogs are a bit like Twitter, in that everybody can see them. It’s not a private party like Facebook.

With a blog, you can write a helluva lot longer than 140 characters and put in silly photos of zombies and movie clips about hair bands from the 1980s. IT IS GLORIOUS.

Blogs are where the people you meet on Twitter can come to hang out. You can have literary flame wars in the comment sections about whether the Spork should be sent along with Snooki and the Situation on a one-way mission to Mars.

Different tools for different jobs

Think about those three tools — Twitter, Facebook and blogs — compared to a face-to-face meeting, a phone call and an e-mail.

  • Asking for a face-to-face meeting with an important and powerful stranger is the highest possible hurdle, right? A six-foot brick wall to climb over.
  • A cold call is chain-link fence. A little easier.
  • E-mailing that same VIP is three-foot wall.
  • Posting a comment on their blog is a little hop over decorative plants.
  • Tweeting is like hopping over a crack in the sidewalk. It’s nothing. Go give Yoko Ono a tweet. DO IT NOW.

It’s not about getting hits

Social media is not a games of Tetris, where you’re trying to get the high score.

Having 500,000 hits to your blog or 20,000 followers on Twitter doesn’t do anything, by itself.

Social media is about meeting people and learning things. It’s about a dialogue, not a monologue.

Fame and fortune still comes from old-fashioned mass media.

Do people like Charlie Sheen start Twitter accounts and instantly get 6.8 bazillion followers? Yes.

And there is a reason for that. That reason is simple: he was already a famous movie and TV star.

Also, he is an infamously insane train wreck, which is hard not to watch.

Want to reach a mass audience? Use the mass media

If you want national success, you need to reach a national audience.

To sell a million movie tickets, or novels, you’ve got to reach tens of millions of people with the mass media — and if you’re lucky, advertising. National success means trying to reach 330 million people. International success means reaching out to all 7 billion on this rock.

You can’t do that with Facebook and Twitter and a blog. Not everybody uses it. The only real way to reach a mass audiences is by using the mass media. TV. Newspapers. Radio.

A big chunk of the population only gets their news and entertainment from the idiot box. A different chunk only listens to the radio. A smaller bit rely on newspapers and magazines.

If you’re not on all of those channels, you don’t exist to those different audiences.

Social media isn’t a magic bullet

Old-fashioned mass media still has the biggest bullets and the biggest guns.

Is this heresy to the fanatics of the web? Yes. Too bad, so sad, tell your dad. Journalists and public relations pros will tell you this is the truth. Suck it up, internet boy. Sometimes, you have to get up from behind the keyboard and talk to real reporters, live and in person.

Someday, you have to go on a radio show. Eventually, you need to get on TV shows — not once, repeatedly — to reach all those people who only watch TV, even if you’re just trying to reach a local or statewide audience.

Say you’re a playwright in Seattle trying to make your debut play a success. Are you gonna sell out the season by having a blog and a Facebook fan page and tweeting twice a day? No.

Don’t waste your time dreaming that lightning will strike via the internets.

Get on the local TV stations, on radio, in the newspapers, on local blogs that are already popular. Your own blog and whatnot is gravy. It’s not a serious media plan.

Take solace from the fact that with 5.84 bazillion people trying to do via the series of tubes, there’s less competition for serious, hard-working people who know how to work the mass media. By “work” I don’t mean “annoy.” You need to do it right.

It isn’t easy. It isn’t simple. But it’s a lot more effective for reaching a mass audience than hoping hits on your blog will turn into magic, like lead into gold.

There are gold mines out there. That’s where you should take your pick and your axe and your mighty pen to look for the shiny yellow stuff. Because that’s where it lives.

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

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.