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Writing Lame Introductions…

Image from "Capture the Castle", by Dodie SmithThat’s what you usually do.  Of course, it’s not your fault (until now).  School trained you to start with mind-numbing generalities when you wrote essays.  Sentences like “Everyone in the world needs to breathe.”  Or “We all have to die sometime.”   This advice told you to start with a surprising fact, definition or a quote.  And then they only let you write essays.  No wonder few people love writing and everyone struggles to do it.

 

Look at these introductions:

 

“They shoot the white girl first.”  – Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

 

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”  – Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle  (1948)

 

“Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash.”  – J.G. Ballard, Crash (1973)

 

“My butt itches.”  – Mr. Box, 9th grade English teacher, Wichita Falls, TX

 

All of them get people’s attention and make them want more.  That’s all your first sentence has to do.  Create an image so powerful they can’t focus on anything else.

 

Just One Image

So many of the students I teach in my workshops try writing powerfully by writing a lot.  But the sentences I just showed you limit themselves to one, powerful image.  Or as I’ve heard people say, “You don’t have to make them eat the whole, chocolate cake in one bite.”  If the taste of writing you give them is good enough, they’ll crave the rest of your cake.

 

Limit Your Adjectives

Notice how simple and few adjectives the above sentences use.  The biggest ones are “last” and “white”.  Large adjectives make your audience feel like you’re proving something to them, rather than letting them decide for themselves.  Sentences like, “This is the most incredible story…” ring hollow.  Sentences like, “Out of the lightning my brother whispered…” actually sound incredible.

 

It’s the Verbs

Notice how the verbs grab you: “shoot”, “write”, “sitting”, “died”, “itches”.  Each one creates a scene by itself.  “Shoot” makes your imagination fill in the gun, bullet and person.  “Write” gives you the pen, the hand holding it and the paper for the ink.  None of these intros contain being verbs.

 

Can you use a verb like “is” or “was” in your intro and have it be good?  You can, but you better have some other compelling words surrounding it.  Make it something like…

 

“It was a pleasure to burn.”  – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

 

Familiar + Unexpected

Finally, notice the collision of either an unexpected noun or adjective with the active verb.  “White girl”, “kitchen sink”, “car crash” and “butt” are all familiar words that create one, single object in our minds.  But when you combine those images with an unexpected verb:  “…shoot the white girl…” evokes racism.  “…write… in the kitchen sink” just sounds weird and makes us wonder how small the person is.  “died… …his last car crash” makes us feel like the story’s already over at the very beginning.  “Butt itches” is simply an image we don’t normally want to think about.

 

My fellow Wizard of Ads partner, Jeff Sexton, prefers to call this “Known Scenario + Trouble“.  Not only does it work for introductions, it will plop eye-popping blog titles and newspaper headlines in your lap.  If you want to be a seriously good writer (and improve your vocabulary), study everything he says.

 

Wait ’til the End

Don’t worry about crafting the most powerful introduction until you’ve finished writing.  Once you know what you’re writing about, write fast and let your imagination take over.  You can look back and see if your first sentence truly is the most interesting one you’ve got.  If not, change it to make it better, or cross out all your boring sentences until you come to the one that captures your attention.  Those first sentences aren’t wasted.  They got your thoughts moving.  Sometimes you have to get out the poop to get to the good stuff.

 

Now Go Do It

If you continue writing awful introductions, it’s no longer anyone else’s fault but yours.  So practice.  Write 5 introductions right now.  Put them in the comments section below this post.  Keep practicing, and not only will your introductions hook more readers, the rest of your writing will scratch the itch they’ve had for powerful words.

 

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Where Stories of Good Companies Begin

I’m standing on so many shoulders I can’t count them. My parents. My teachers. My brother and sisters. My pastors, youth leaders, bosses, wife, God, smart people like Roy Williams and Tim Miles, and everyone who’s come before them. So many have given the wisdom of their experience to me so that I don’t make the same mistakes that have scarred, marred or killed them. Sometimes I forget how many things I haven’t learned. How to begin a story is one of them.

 

Tim Miles makes me angry sometimes. He’s so freakin’ good at writing ads and creating campaigns for businesses. Now he’s written a book about his experiences as a gift to business so that they can become a “Good Company“.  You can download it for free today, and you should.  So I did.  In the first few pages I realized I need to change my presentation of “How to Write Stories that Make People Buy What You Sell.”  It’s that good and that powerful.

 

Here’s the part that smacked my face with a 2X4:

 

Daddy’s Fool-proof, Sure-fire, Rock-solid, Lots-of-hyphens Storytelling Formula

Answer these questions.

1. Who’s your story about?

2. Is anybody with them?  Who?

3. Where are they going?

4. Why?

5. Is there a bad guy?

6. Who?

7. What’s in their way?

8. Why?

9. How do they get around it?

10. How do they live happily ever after?

Go ahead, try it.  Tell me you couldn’t write a great story following that formula.  Oh, and tell me also – isn’t that pretty much strategic planning?  Couldn’t you use it to simplify the problems facing your business?”

 

You see now why Tim makes me angry.  In 38 words and 11 questions he taught me how to write stories that make people buy what you sell.  My presentation takes about an hour and a half and didn’t include how to begin your story, until now.  Thanks, Tim.  No, seriously-with-no-sarcasm, THANK YOU, TIM MILES.

 

So let me tell you how and why this list of 10 (really 11) questions should impact your business (or your story writing, if you prefer):

 

“1.Who’s Your Story About?”

If you immediately thought of yourself, you might write a great story, but it will be one that will interest very few people.  Your business doesn’t exist to serve you.  It exists to serve your customers.  Your ads won’t be remembered by anyone unless they see themselves reflected in the pages of your business.  Think about the problems they face.  What makes them frustrated with every company in your business category?  Once you can answer those questions, you can build a character or make a company with values, flaws and dreams that other people will like. That’s where all great stories and businesses start.

 

2. Is anybody with them?  who?

Think about the people on your team, the resources in your corner.  What are their names, their capabilities, their characteristics?  How do they benefit you?  How do they hinder you?  Do they add something that you don’t have?  Are you telling people about the things that make you a great business?  Wizard of Ads partners call these “unleveraged assets.”  Most business owners overlook a couple of their company’s good qualities because they see them every day.  So make an inventory of the treasures and people in your story.  You might need to hire me or one of my Wizard of Ads partners to help you see what you can’t.

 

3. Where are they going?

What’s the goal of your adventure?  If you’re in business, this should be a measurable and achievable goal.  You’ll know it’s measurable if you can put a number to it.  You’ll know it’s achievable by considering the strength of your competitors.  Write it down.  An outline helps everyone who writes stories.  Without it, your unstable emotions, not your best hopes and dreams, will determine the road your story follows.

 

4. Why?

What’s motivating you (or your central character)?  Is it just your own desire or does it benefit others?  Where did that motivation come from?  Why does it drive you?  Answering these questions gives the central character depth.  The only wrong answer here is refusing to ask the question.  Characters and businesses have flaws and mixed motivations.  They only damage you as the storyteller when you don’t choose them consciously, because they’re painfully obvious to everyone else.

 

5. Is there a bad guy?

If you’re writing a story, does it have a villain, or does your central character simply wrestle with himself?  If you’re in business, do you have mean competitors, or are you all alone in your category, fighting the universe and yourself to breathe something new into existence?

 

6. Who?

Now tell me about this villain.  How scary strong is he/she?  Who are your business competitors?  Are they strong at all?  Are they better than you?  Do they have a weakness?  What motivates them?  Star Wars would have stayed as forgettable as Corvette Summer had it relied on Luke Skywalker instead of Darth Vader to carry its dramatic weight.  The more believable and powerful your bad guy, the more your audience will resonate with your central character’s struggle to win.

 

7. What’s in their way?

What’s holding your business back?  Are people not calling you or walking in the door because they haven’t heard about you or because you’ve been writing weak ads?  That problem can be solved with good advertising.  Do your phones stay silent and your store remain empty because they have experienced your business, and they’ve chosen to go somewhere else?  Good advertising will only make that problem worse.  At least now you know the demons you have to kill.

 

8. Why?

Be honest about what got you to this position.  Harry S. Truman had a block of wood on his desk, turned to face him, that said, “The Buck Stops Here.”  No matter how many other people had done him wrong or made mistakes underneath him as President, he took responsibility.  You’re a business owner who dreamed of making a difference and leading people to a better future.  The buck stops with you.

 

9. How do they get around it?

Now that you’ve taken responsibility.  Write down how you plan to change, to overcome the problems keeping your business from the goal you started to achieve.  Then again, if your market share is between 30% and 50% of your business category, that’s an obstacle that no one can move, not even with an ad budget as big as Coca Cola’s.  In that case, you need to open a new location or start another business in a different category.

 

10. How do they live happily ever after?

Stories that simply say the words “happily ever after” bore everyone who reads them.  Tell me the details of a life that’s worth living.  Plan out the systems and results that will have your employees skipping their way through a work day.  Schedule celebrations when you reach milestones so that everyone knows you’re on the right track.  You’ll find yourself living the happily ever after before you’ve even reached the measurable goals you set for yourself.

 

A Final Kick in the Pants

So often we begin by doing whatever makes us feel most comfortable, not what’s most important.  As a consultant, my brain often begins firing off creative ideas the moment I meet a business owner.  That’s the easy part for me.  Listening, researching, testing, being patient; these are the things that make me uncomfortable.  Is it the same for you?  Do you have a different weakness?  Have you been limiting yourself to doing business the way that feels most comfortable instead of the way that actually works?

 

Tim Miles learned the lessons he talks about in Good Company from experience.

 

“As a criminally overworked ad writer for a group of radio stations with hundreds of clients, Tim Miles was crafting more campaigns every month than a Madison Avenue ad man will create in his entire career…  Can you imagine a more perfect laboratory?  Could there be a better classroom?  In terms of real-world experience, Time was 200 years old before he was 30.”

– from Roy Williams’ forward to Good Company

Climb up on someone else’s shoulders and get a better perspective.  You’ve already read your way to the end of this post.  Now go and read Tim Miles’ book.  It’s free.  You have no excuses.

The hard work comes when you decide to put them into practice.  But you’re not someone who avoids doing things just because they’re difficult, are you?  Of course you’re not!  I see courage in you to admit what’s held you back and make your story better.  I’m doing the same thing with my own presentation.  Let’s do it together.

 

Your friend,

Peter.

 

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What Are You Against?

“Bieber-free, Gaga-free, and your no Nickelback guarantee.”   That’s the line that changed the fortunes of Live 88.5FM, an alternative radio station in Ottawa, Canada.  In one year their audience numbers shot up 29%, and their revenue increased 22%.  And all they changed was the message.  Saying what you won’t do makes a difference.  So why is that?

 

 

Roy H. Williams and Michael Drew, in their new book Pendulum, propose the idea that our attitudes swing back and forth from “We” to “Me” in a predictable, 40-year cycle.  They don’t claim to predict how individuals respond, but how the majority of society will react, and they use 3000 years of history to back it up.  (I’d recommend reading it if you want to know how to connect with people or make your business grow over the next 30 years.

 

Williams and Drew propose that we shifted from a “Me” to “We” attitude in 2003.  Nine years later we hunger for teamwork over individuality, small actions over grand visions, authenticity over bold proclamations.  So how do you show people today that you’re authentic?

 

Authenticity

You can’t prove it quickly by telling people what you will do.  But shouting out loud and strong the things you won’t do says you’re no phony.  Live 88.5 used to demonstrate their coolness by telling people the bands they played, Green Day, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots.  “Our audience wants to hear those bands, so those are the bands we’ll tell them about,” they reasoned.

 

But their audience had something more important on their minds.  “We don’t ever want to hear that cheesy pop stuff.”  We want the gritty, the raw, the untamed.  When 88.5 switched to telling them that they won’t ever force them to listen to music they hate, it resonated stronger, because it was what their audience cared about.

 

“But what about all the people who love Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga?  Aren’t they going to lose those listeners?”

 

Yep.  Bieber fans and Gaga-ites will never visit 88.5 FM’s alternative island paradise.  They’ve consciously eliminated them from their audience.  But they’ve also insured that anyone who hopes never to hear “Baby, baby, baby, oh…” or how “he can’t read my poker face” will never leave their island.  The loyalty of those you’re trying to reach only grows when you exclude everyone else.  If you’re not willing to be authentic, they won’t think twice about choosing someone else.

 

Police dog sniffing a locker for drugsMaking it Work for You

So what won’t you do?  What will you stand against?

 

If you have a business who tries to do everything, it means you specialize in nothing.  Have the guts to say, “We don’t do big commercial jobs, electrical wiring or general construction, because we only do residential heating and air conditioning.”  You’ll prove that you’re pretty dang good at making people’s homes feel comfortable.

 

If you’re an artist, choose a category that fits what you do and exclude the others. I’m an individual Spoken Word artist, not a musician, singer or dancer.  That excludes me from American Idol, people looking to sign bands and theatrical productions with me in leotards.  But people hungry for words and those looking to test my ability to teach writing find me way more interesting.

 

When your history report on someone important comes due, tell us what they never did or the things they hated.  Let your teachers know which sources you specifically excluded and why.  Lists of achievements make people seem hollow and boring.  Include the flaws and struggles and they’ll reach their hands out of the pages, grab us by the shoulders and tell us their story while looking us in the eye.

 

Our quest for authenticity means that people sniff at everything you say to test if it’s true.  Trying to prove your accomplishments only makes them sniff harder.  Telling them your limitations up-front gets them to call off the attack dogs and remember you as the one who’s not afraid to be yourself.

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Harnessing the Power of What You Don’t Say

A photo sent to Peter Nevland from a business watching his writing workshop in Sheffield, England

“True writing power comes when you have the audacity to leave out more than you include…”

They’re watching…
It freaks me out when I see my face on a computer screen…
in Sheffield, England…
surrounded by attentive people…
in the dark.

 

The realities of YouTube don’t really sink in until you find out that people across the ocean pay attention to what you have to say.  When they do what your recorded video asks them to, it’s exciting, and a little bit scary.  Now that I’ve admitted the butterflies poking my stomach, here’s what you can learn from it to transform your own writing.

 

Great Opening Material

Check out what “Andrew,” in Sheffield, England, emailed me after he watched the intro video on the front page of this website.  (He’s also the guy closest to the screen in the picture)

 

“The paris night fell on him like an early tide. His footsteps quickened along with his prickling anxiety. Cursing as he noticed the time he accelerated along the busy sidewalk, splashing pedestrians with both frustrated grunts and their shoes with water from the scattered puddles. His mind was so wrapped up in lateness and frustration that he rushed straight into superman, who was naked.” 

 

Wow.  Raise your hand if you want to hear more of that story.  It drips verbs, spews image-producing nouns, only uses adjectives when it needs to and tops it all off with an unexpected twist.  The video told him to use the words “Paris,” “puddles,” “Superman” and “naked.”  Look what he added to it to put you in the scene.  I’ve highlighted the verbs in green, the nouns in blue and the adjectives in red.

 

“The paris night fell on him like an early tide. His footsteps quickened along with his prickling anxiety. Cursing as he noticed the time he accelerated along the busy sidewalk, splashing pedestrians with both frustrated grunts and their shoes with water from the scattered puddles. His mind was so wrapped up in lateness and frustration that he rushed straight into superman, who was naked.” 

 

You can smell the streets of Paris after the rain.  You can feel this guy’s heart pulsing faster and faster.  He’s so caught up in his own frustration he never sees it coming, and neither do we.  A naked Superman stands in his way.  I hope Andrew finishes the story so we get to hear more one day.

 

I count nine verbs to six adjectives, along with a ton of great nouns.  The power of his writing lives in the verbs and nouns… and something else…

 

How to Make it Better

Just to be picky I want to show you how he could make this story even more powerful, and how he’s already begun to harness this technique in his opening.  I suppose he could clean up the line about “splashing the pedestrians with both frustrated grunts and their shoes with water” to make the image a bit cleaner, but that’s a minor change that he would catch when he goes back over it to edit.  Look at the phrase, “along with his prickling anxiety.”  Remove it from the writing.  You’ll discover that it’s not only unnecessary, it dulls the sense of his character’s rising panic. 

 

“…His footsteps quickened.  Cursing as he noticed the time he accelerated along the busy sidewalk, splashing pedestrians…”

 

Don’t tell me it was anxiety.  You don’t need to.  It already makes me feel how he accelerated, splashed pedestrians, knocked over girl scouts and their cookies, paid no attention to the screams of angry mothers, the whistles of policemen.  When it’s undefined, my brain tingles with anxiety; no, fear; no, panic!

 

Knowing what to include and what to leave out is the biggest battle you’ll fight for your audience’s imagination.  True writing power comes when you have the audacity to leave out more than you include and trust the audience to fill in the rest.

 

I suspect that Andrew didn’t have in mind what made his character late, his name, whether he was villain, victim, hero or some combination of the three, or why Superman stood on a sidewalk in Paris without clothes.  Because he leaves them out, our imaginations flood with those questions.

 

Good writers realize which questions an audience is dying to know and quickly construct a plan either to answer them or take the audience to a scene where they feel that they will get an answer.  If the author provides the answer, it relieves the tension of that question.  If the question remains unanswered, tension builds, and the audience will begin to imagine that the answer must be really important.

 

Either method can result in powerful storytelling.  Answering an audience’s question can create just as much tension, as long as the author raises an even deeper question along with the answer.  If you want a good example of this, read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.  The first chapter tells about a day when winter suddenly became summer.  After a couple paragraphs you find out it was because of a rocket.  But then you want to know how big the rocket is and where it will go.  To answer that question you have to read the next chapter. 

 

For a book that leaves one singular question unanswered, pick a mystery, any mystery.  The best writers know when to answer a question, when to let it linger, and how to combine both techniques to leave their readers on the edge of their seat, giddy with the deep satisfaction of entertaining reading.

 

Do It a Lot

The only way to master what to include and what to leave out, is practice, lots and lots of practice.  So start writing.  Andrew, finish your incredible story.  Everyone else, write something.  And then write another, and another.  Let your imagination soar.  Fill up your rocket with the most explosive verbs, nouns and adjectives and light the fuse.  Then leave the best parts for the audience’s brain to fill in.

 

They’re watching…  I guarantee it.

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A Cure for the Fear of Your Writing Students

A little girl scared to readShe tiptoes to the edge of the cliff, breathing heavily.  Her friends watch in horror, shaking with the thought that they’ll be next.  Then she reads, words coming haltingly at first, but rushing out in torrents by the time she finishes.  She looks at the red-haired instructor, expecting his disapproval…

 

Every writing workshop I teach shares this moment in common.  Whether it’s a boy, girl, or grown adult, the first to read his or her writing in front of the class takes a huge risk.  It’s critical to find something positive in what they’ve just exposed.

 

“…many teachers now realize that in order to learn something well, students have to use it for a while on their own without the fear of being negatively criticized,” says Steve Peha in his curriculum guide, Welcome to Writer’s Workshop, put out by TTMS.org

 

It’s so easy to correct mistakes, to point out where they do it wrong.  But I watch the sighs of relief from the rest of the class when I let the student know exactly what they did amazingly well in their writing.  This isn’t general praise, like, “Good job, Rachel,” or “Way to go, Cassandra.”  It’s specific affirmation like, “I loved the image you created when the mockingbird zoomed through the clouds.”  Then, when I point out how they can make it even better by taking out “being” verbs, or crossing out their first sentence, because the second one creates more imagery, they get excited, rather than defeated. “Who wants to read theirs next?” I ask.  Hands pop up all over the room.

 

Specific, positive feedback eliminates the “fear of being negatively criticized” and opens a student’s mind to receive instruction that they trust will help them improve.  Once a student gains the confidence that wrote something interesting and had fun doing it, new ideas begin forming about the next thing that they can write.  They naturally dream of doing it better, bigger, faster.  The door swings wide for feedback and tips.  You begin to build trust.  With enough repetitions of specific, positive feedback, students will begin asking for your input so that they can improve.

 

Research backs up the need for specific, positive feedback.  In this Carnegie Mellon article for faculty on giving feedback, the author cites several research studies indicating that experienced writing teachers read to understand, while novice teachers read to find fault.  “Students can be easily overwhelmed by too many comments…” they advise.  Instead teachers should “…address one or two substantive issues in the piece of writing.”  A 1997 study by D.R. Ferris in TESOL Quarterly states that “Student writers will not be able to benefit from feedback that they do not understand.”

 

Eliminating the fear of being negatively criticized doesn’t begin with the first, brave student that raises their hand to read their writing.  Teachers begin building (or losing) trust from the moment they walk into the room.  In my workshops, my first questions to the class have no right or wrong answers.  “Who thinks it was poetry?”  “Who thinks it wasn’t poetry?”  “Who liked it?”  “What did you like about it?”  Affirming their answers and encouraging their opinions gives them confidence that I listen.  As I continue asking questions, their engagement grows, with students essentially teaching the class what makes good writing with each answer.  By the time I ask them to write, they can’t wait to try it out.

 

If I’ve done a good job building trust, multiple hands spring up once I ask who wants to read theirs first.  Sometimes it’s just one.  Either way, I pay attention and listen as their reading.  I usually pick the most vivid line they’ve written and tell them specifically how it demonstrates the lesson I’ve just taught them.  In the line, “the mockingbird zoomed through the clouds,” I would point out how “zoom” is such a great action verb that connects the powerful imagery of a “mockingbird” with “cloud.”

 

Occasionally a student’s writing doesn’t exhibit any of the lessons you’ve just taught.  That’s when it’s critical to listen for the best aspect of their writing and point it out.  If you don’t understand what they’re communicating, ask them to explain it.  As long as you’re genuinely asking, they’ll feel comforted knowing that you want an explanation.  Try to affirm their idea and then show them how to make it work.  Often their attempt to write means more than them doing exactly what you want.  Giving them something solid and positive that they can remember and grab onto will make a huge change in their attitude, which will pay off later on.

 

Patience is what a teacher needs most to build student trust in your writing feedback.  Give your instruction and teaching a chance to work.  Celebrate the success of your students with genuine enthusiasm.  Let them know that they’re being prepared to succeed when the tests come.  Help them to dream of ways to use what they learn in class to write better outside of class.

 

Our education system, with its present-day emphasis on testing and results, often provides the opposite stimulus.  When the standard is perfect, praise gets neglected in favor of “what you can improve.”  Instead of focusing on students’ strengths we teach them to fix their weaknesses.  Rather than enabling the next generation to excel, we train them not to fail.  School has become a survival course, rather than an incubation house for big ideas.

 

It’s no different in the business world.  “Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative,” said William McKnight, former CEO of 3M.  New ideas and productivity flourish in an environment where creativity is encouraged without fear of punishment.  No wonder 3M devotes 15% of every employee’s time to creativity and play.

 

If you read this post and don’t put it into practice, don’t be surprised if you see responses to your writing instruction like Peppermint Patty’s below.  Much happier are the teachers, students, executives and employees who USE THIS WISDOM.

 

 

Avoid student boredom with Peter’s workshop for teachers…

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The Works of Unprofessional Masters…

The attendees of the first ever No One Told Me How to Write Workshop at Wizard Academy, June 26/27, 2012

 

On June 26th, writers journeyed from across North America to Wizard Academy in Austin, Texas, to attend the first ever, No One Told Me How to Write Workshop.  They didn’t know it yet, but each one of them already possessed writing talent beyond their expectations.

 

Their short pieces stunned me with depth and richness.   They sounded like masters who should be teaching me.  It’s the same thing I’ve seen all over the world whether I’m teaching kids or adults.  Writing becomes incredibly powerful with an unleashed imagination and a focus redirected to active verbs and nouns that create instant imagery.

 

As the workshop progressed we shared our stories.  One woman had been told by an aptitude test that the one thing she couldn’t do was write. She could have easily been a professional writer. Another continually proclaimed her lack of ability, yet produced combinations of words none of us had dreamed of.  Their occupations included an investment banker, lawyer, veterinarian, real estate agent and project manager.  Those occupations belong in a joke set in a bar, not a writing workshop.

 

I showed them the secrets to creating introductions, conclusions, editing, rhythm and rhyme and interesting characters.  At the end of the 2nd day’s lecture I led them through an exercise to create their own book outline.  Each one accomplished the skeleton structure of their first book in 30 minutes.

 

As a final treat and learning experience, we put on a cooking competition in Engelbrecht House, the student mansion where we all stayed.  Guys vs. girls with a full complement of raw ingredients and one requirement: the use of mango in every dish.  The composition of flavors grabbed our tongues and forced us to eat too much.  Vicki and I returned home with a week’s worth of yumminess.

 

I’ve posted some of their work below.  Click on the link to read each one.  None of them identified themselves as writers before our class.  All of them possess ridiculous talent, just like you.  You don’t have to wait for someone like me to teach you.

 

“Victory Over Nature” – Stephen Alport, Canadian Financial Investor
“Like His Father Before Him” – Kyle Young, Non-Profit Project Manager
“On Our Way…” – Kristen Van Engelen, Real Estate Investor
“Secrets Within Secrets” – Oz Jaxxon, Houston Veterinarian
“A Washer Woman’s Request” – Teri Shapiro, Austin Attorney

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When Rhythm and Rhyme Murder Imagery…

I cringed as three women butchered what should have been a good story. They, along with a few hundred other people were celebrating Bolster Day, the legend of a cannibalistic giant defeated by the clever wits of a beautiful villager.  They had all the ingredients for gripping reading: terror, villainy, government ineptitude, a vulnerable heroine and a surprising outcome.  They even had a giant puppet and the scenic backdrop of England’s Cornish coast.  Instead this (listen to it from the 3:40 mark of this video, if you dare) is what they wrote…

 

“But Bolster’s love was so strong,
And Agnes, she knew she could string him along.
So in her mind a scheme did plan
To rid the village of this beast of a man.
Agnes paid a visit to the local mayor
To set a challenge she thought was fair.
She told Bolster if he lost the fight
That he must leave this place tonight…”

 

…and the worst ending in the history of the world…

“So now we celebrate this Bolster Day,
His love, her deeds are here to stay.”

 

Everyone’s experienced crap poetry like this.  It’s painful to read.  It’s more painful to hear.  I sat on a hill in Cornwall, holding my head in my hands, wondering when it would end.

 

But the constant rhyme and predictable rhythm aren’t the biggest problems.  Dr. Seuss, T.S. Eliot, Longfellow and many other genius writers have written masterpieces using those same tools.  Shoot, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet entirely in iambic pentameter!  What do they do that the Bolster Day poets obviously don’t?

 

1. Focus on Interesting Verbs and Unexpected Nouns

 

Dr. Seuss’ rhymes aren’t complicated or difficult to predict.  “Sam” and “ham”, “meet” and “street”, “me” and “see”, even “day” and “say” won’t set the world on fire.  But his stories grip our imaginations with their unexpected imagery and action-filled verbs.  Look at this couplet from  And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street."A gold and blue chariot's something to meet, rumbling like thunder down Mulberry Street."

 

“A gold and blue chariot’s something to meet,
Rumbling like thunder down Mulberry Street!”

 

Few of us see a chariot in our daily lives.  That’s why reading it instantly conjures pictures of Ben Hur, battles, racing and adventure.  Even better, the combination of “gold” and “blue” make us think of royalty.  There must be a king in that chariot!  And he’s not just driving, he’s “rumbling like thunder” down the street.  You can almost feel the wind brushing past your face.  He tells us he’s going fast without ever saying it.  The STORY captivates our imagination.  The fact that it rhymes and sticks to a steady rhythm only makes our faces happy.

 

If a sick feeling is twisting your stomach in knots because you realize that you rhyme a bunch without interesting imagery, relax.  You can fix it in two ways:

 

  • Go back and substitute more exciting verbs and unexpected nouns for some of the lame ones.
  • Use great verbs and imagery in the first place, WITHOUT worrying about rhyme or rhythm.  Then go back and substitute rhyming or rhythmic copy, if you want.

 

2. Vary Your Rhythm and/or Rhyme

 

When the brain hears a rhyme once, it begins anticipating it’s continual use.  I submit that it’s primarily a left-brain activity (research the use and function of Broca’s area, if you’d like), rather than the job of the imaginative, right-side.  If the rhyme or rhythm becomes predictable, the left-brain either tunes out or looks for something else that’s unpredictable, like imagery, meaning, or someone else’s story.  Completing a rhyme before or after the brain’s expectations delights the imagination and highlights the meaning and imagery of the words.

 

Take a look at a couple lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:a deserted street in a tired city

 

“Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:”

 

In this, the first stanza, he’s using mostly AA, BB, CC… type rhyming.  However, the second line brings the rhyme in more quickly than most of the lines.  Not only that, if you read according to the punctuation it almost sounds like prose, with subtle rhyming lurking underneath.  This forces the brain to give up trying to predict when the rhyme will occur and focuses it on the meaning and imagery instead.

 

Later in the piece he varies it further:

“And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,My eyes with glasses
When I am pinned and wriggling to the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?”

 

The poor, left-brain can’t juggle that much variation while it’s listening.  For rhyme scheme, it’s ABCACBD.  But he’s also using internal rhyme with “days and ways”, “pin” and “pinned” and “begin”.  Combine that with “eyes that fix you”, “sprawling on a pin”, “pinned and wriggling to the wall” and “spit out all the butt-ends of my days”.  Eliot’s unexpected twists and turns send our imagination on a rollercoaster.  No wonder it gets included in just about every anthology of the top 100 poems of all time.

 

Trying to tell you how to vary your rhythm and meter begins to stray beyond the realm of formulas.  But two ideas should help:

 

  • Start by writing with predictable rhyme and rhythm and then choosing different lines throughout to vary it up.  Go back afterwards and make sure, once again, that you created interesting images through unexpected word choice.  (This is a good exercise for those of you who normally write in prose)
  • Let your imagination go and write whatever hits you, no matter how crazy or different.  Then go back, notice the “accidental” rhymes you’ve created, maybe throw in a few more and edit it to make sure it makes as much sense as you desire.  (This exercise works best for those who normally write with predictable rhythms and rhymes)

Rescuing the Bolster Day Story…

 

Pointing out the flaws in something without suggesting a better alternative is a sure sign of a bitter, wounded heart.  So I figured I’d try fixing the lines I criticized at the beginning of this post.  For my first trick, I’m going to substitute some more interesting words…Bolster the Giant

 

Bolster’s desire for Agnes grew strong,
So Agnes strung his lust along.
She invented duels, races and plans
To rid the village of this beast of a man.
She enlisted brave knights and the local mayor
In challenges Bolster deemed were fair.
He agreed to prove his love with might
Or creep in shame from the village that night…

 

Ah, it’s getting a little better.  Now let’s vary up the rhythm and rhyme to complete the transformation…

 

Bolster’s desire for Agnes grew strong,
She sang songs his heart couldn’t refuse.
But she used his lust, plotted his fall.
Brave knights, the town mayor,
Feats of strength, he conquered them all.
Agnes’ heart failed ’til her mind conceived
One final deed, a test of pain
To rid the world of this giant’s name…

 

Notice how much more gets communicated using the same number of words.  We begin to identify with the heroine, desperately trying to save herself from marriage to a giant beast.  The rhythm still rolls along, but it’s not predictable, and neither is the rhyme.  The story is alive!

 

It Takes Practice

 

Unless you get lucky or you’re a writing freak of nature, incorporating these techniques takes repeated effort.  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock isn’t T.S. Eliot’s first work.  And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street may have been Dr. Seuss’ first published work (it was rejected 27 times), but he had written advertising campaigns, comic-strips and satirical articles for years.  This article took me three days, countless editing and a complete rewrite, since the computer erased my first attempt.

 

Getting better at anything worth doing requires practice.   So try out these techniques as soon as possible.  When it comes out less than exciting, try again.  If you don’t have a job or homework that requires you to write, invent a reason.

 

The ingredients for spectacular stories surround you everywhere you go.  If you write enough of them, you’ll soon have people listening spellbound instead of wondering when it will finally be over.

 

ride the zipline to freedom!

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Kick Writer’s Block In the Face!

Peter Nevland kicks writer's block in the faceWriter’s block lurks under every blank page, its monster teeth eager to sink themselves in your creativity.  You can defeat the monster.  It’s part trick and part confidence that you’ve done it before.  If you don’t have the confidence yet, I’ll give you the trick so you can punch that monster in the teeth every time…

 

Don’t start with a blank page.  If an idea for any sentence has popped into your head, write it down.  It doesn’t matter if it’s your first sentence, middle sentence or, closing sentence, or even a bad sentence.  WRITE IT DOWN.  It’ll stimulate more ideas that you can write down.

 

If you’ve come to a blank page with no idea for writing already in your head, look at the room around you.  Choose 3 or 4 objects.  The less connected they are, the better.  If another object from outside your room pops in your mind, use it.  WRITE THEM DOWN.

 

Then start writing using the words you’ve chosen or weaving them into your writing at the point you got stuck.  Keep writing and let your imagination take over.  Don’t stop to edit out mistakes or crappy writing.  Keep going until you’ve gotten to what feels like the end.

 

Once you’ve finished, you can go back and edit out the random words, add in sentences where needed, refine imagery or correct spelling and grammar.  Editing is much easier than writing from nothing.  Plus, using this trick will add in unexpected twists and turns that make your writing more interested.

 

Now do it, and let me know what magic you’ve created…

Peter.

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HowtoWriteWorkshops.com Lives!

Problems with domains and servers.  Too many edits to count.  My programming skills are far from legendary, and I don’t possess huge wads of cash to throw at a website assassin.  My willpower struggled to make it.  But here I am.  Yay!

 

If you haven’t taken time to watch “The First Lesson” shot by Rex and Jake Williams at Sunpop Studios, watch it now.  Here’s my schedule…

Go to http://www.spokengroove.com to see all the details.  In the next few weeks I’ll have a calendar right here.

 

Coming soon…

 

  • A “Buy Stuff” page so you can get books, DVDs and CDs to inspire your writing
  • A place to sign up for my email list
  • Writing Tip o’ the day (today’s tip is WATCH THE VIDEO ON THE HOMEPAGE!!!)

Keep writing,

Peter Nevland.

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