Posts made in September, 2013

What Stories Do You Choose to Tell?

Posted by on Sep 26, 2013 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

Imagine if the payroll assistant you’ve just been introduced to tweaked the question a bit. Instead of some variation of “Where do you get your stories from?” she asked, “Why do you choose to tell the stories you choose to tell?” Ah, now that’s an interesting question. Thoughts have been provoked here. You get an extra cookie.

Stories and characters can come to us completely at random. It’s sort of an abstract thing. But the reason we choose to tell one story and discard another is another matter entirely. It’s more concrete – more rooted in our own psyche as well as our personality as writers.

There are lots of amazing stories out there. Off the top of my head, I’m sure a novel about an elderly woman in Minneapolis who beats incredible odds to get her pilot’s license in the wake of her husband’s death would be an incredible tale. The problem for me, personally, is that I have absolutely no experience being an elderly woman nor do I have the first clue how to fly a small airplane. I’d have to do an exhausting amount of research on both aviation and aging just to get crappy lines like….

“Whiz-bang, Junior, there’s sure a lot of gadgets in this cockpit,” Martha said.

Also, I’ve never been to Minnesota. I think it’s cold there. And flat. And they root for the Twins. That’s about what I know at present. Obviously, that story should be left to someone else to tell.

As writers, I believe the majority of us choose to tell the stories we choose to tell because some aspect of that particular situation hits close to home. Whatever it is, we choose that story because in some way, it’s important to who we are and what we represent in this world. The further away a story is from one’s own drive, motivation, and understanding, the more likely it is to turn out sort of hollow, no matter how beautifully crafted.

Anyone who knows my writing will definitely say that my protagonists have a theme. They tend to be male. They tend to be white. They tend to be poor or on the low end of middle class. They tend to be former athletes. They tend to tell jokes at somewhat inappropriate times. They tend to have a suppressed violent streak that only comes out when pushed to the extreme. Why? Because this is the world I know. These are the people I have an immediate connection with. This is the world I can internalize and thusly externalize. I can create rich and nuanced characters with these particular traits. Try as I might, what I can’t do is create a rich and nuanced young Mexican girl who finds out she’s pregnant just before her Quinceañera. Nor would I want to because I feel I’d be robbing someone else of a story they could tell much, much better than I could.

Actually, scratch that. I can create that character just fine. She just won’t be able to speak a lick of Spanish and she’ll have a surprising amount of middle-aged white guy problems. Also her name will be Carl.

As writers, ask yourself this tweaked “company picnic” question. See if there’s a theme to your work. Really delve deep into why it is you choose to tell the stories you choose to tell. Do you tell superhero stories because you feel powerless in your life and want to gain some control for a few glorious hours, or do you tell superhero stories because superheroes kick ass and you love lasers and punching? You need to know. Because those two stories might both come out awesome, but they’ll come out completely different.

Do you write because there’s a story you absolutely need to get out into the world before your guts explode, or do you write because the idea seems commercial and just might sell? These stories are going to be massively different depending on the writer’s motivation. Neither reason is right or wrong, but in order for the story to work as you originally envisioned, you have to know. It’s essential.

The idea of what stories we pick and choose from the infinite pool of characters and ideas in the universe is a complex one that I’m going to touch on in many ways in the upcoming weeks. For instance, what if you’re called upon to write or rewrite a script that was someone else’s idea? What if you have the story chosen for you? What if you simply want to branch out and write something you’re unfamiliar with? How in tarnation do I do that? These are all incredible questions that will be answered here when we’re all just a bit older. But not much older. Maybe like three weeks to a month older. I think we can all handle that.

But honestly, ask yourself the title question from this post and really analyze it. You’ll not only find that it helps your writing, but it will also help guide you as to what stories you’ll be the most successful taking on.

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Writing A Press Release

Posted by on Sep 23, 2013 in Business Writing | 0 comments

So you need to write a press release. Maybe your boss is crawling up your butt about how to get more media exposure for the event your nonprofit has coming up in a few weeks. Maybe you’re trying to get someone, anyone, outside of your roommate and your mom to notice the one-woman drama that you’re putting on at an abandoned textile company down by the railroad tracks. You think it won’t be that hard. “I’ll just write a bunch of stuff and send it out to people,” you think. And then you sit down and realize you have no idea what you’re doing. Don’t worry. It happens to the best of us. Fortunately, we’re here to help.

In this post, we’re going to give you a template and a basic idea of what to do with your finished product. Then in a follow-up post, I’m going to analyze a press release I wrote last year that will both serve as another example as well as shamelessly promote my buddy Jason’s artwork.

So here’s a basic template. If you’re not promoting a particular “event,” you can substitute “product” etc.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Short but Eye Catching Action Headline in Amazing Bold Lettering

WHEREVER, Nebraska (September 1st, 2013) Unknown author to write a precise and hard-hitting topic sentence that succinctly describes the event that’s being promoted.

This unknown author will follow up the topic sentence with relevant background details about why the upcoming event is taking place. Some good examples the author might use include a history of said event, or some interesting bits about the people making the event happen.

As the author proceeds into the body of the press release, he or she will include anything that makes this event stand out amongst the countless number of other events that are happening around town that week. For example, if there are lions involved or something else really flipping cool like that, the author should definitely mention it here.

By this point, the author may deem more explanation unnecessary, but anything critical to the event that hasn’t yet been mentioned should be placed here. This is a great time for the author to specifically give the public a reason or two for attending the event, and thus the media a reason or two to cover it.

As the release quickly comes to an end, the author will make sure to give out any relevant websites, articles, or other pertinent and easily accessible information.

PROMOTER’S NAME
PROMOTER’S TITLE – BUSINESS THEY REPRESENT
CONTACT NUMBER / EMAIL

###

And in the end, it’s that simple. The biggest tip is to be exciting but not too flowery. Good, solid action verbs are a great idea. Most of the release should be like a hard, stiff jab, not some wild combination of hooks and uppercuts that may or may not land. Boring press releases get skimmed and deleted. So do press releases that resemble novellas. Remember that the reader on the other end is going to decide based on your headline and topic sentence whether what you’ve written is even worth a cursory perusal. I’d be surprised if most press releases are given eight seconds. Seriously, count to eight in your head right now. That’s what you get – at most. So play rodeo cowboy and make it a damn good eight seconds.

Now introducing the Grandpa Hank’s Marketing Expert, my wonderful sister Kelly, who is here to briefly explain how to actually go about the “releasing” part of the press release. Trust me, the best written headline in the world doesn’t do much for you just sitting in a pale blue folder marked “pressy type stuff” on your desktop- unless you’re the one person in history who manages to get beneficially hacked.

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Submitting A Press Release

Posted by on Sep 23, 2013 in Business Writing | 0 comments

After spending about ten years as a video producer for a private company, I had a lot of experience in what I considered to be the “media” world. I then branched out and became the Marketing Director of a small start-up company selling a hot new product and managing a local celebrity spokesperson. The difference between these two jobs was that in video production, I had clients and at the start-up company I was a client. The difference in these two worlds was much greater than I expected.

When the owner of the start-up company asked me to do things like write press releases and negotiate print advertising rates, I smiled and said, “No problem!” This showed a confidence I did not really feel. My first year at the company was filled with lots of extra time at home spent searching Google, reading blogs, WikiHow, and asking lots of questions to people in other marketing and PR positions. My marketing experience was all learned hands-on through lots of advice, information, and mostly by trying things out to see what worked and what didn’t.

So, how do you submit a press release? First of all, make sure you’ve read Cramer’s article, Writing A Press Release. If you want to have your press release even given a cursory glance, you need to make sure you have it in the proper format with a catchy title. But back to business:

 

  1. Do your research – What media outlets?

This may seem self-explanatory but make sure you submit your press release to places that will care about what you’re promoting. Your local running and fitness magazine may care if your company is the headline sponsor for a new 5K, but if you’ve already bugged them with press releases announcing new products that don’t appeal to runners, they may ignore the release you send promoting an event that actually does line up with their audience.

Also, you likely don’t know all the magazines, newspapers, and media outlets in your area or in the area you are promoting. Many communities have at least a small newsletter that goes out to local residents. Do not overlook these smaller publications. Smaller publications are more likely to bite on the story and thus get more people out to your event.

 

  1. Do your research – Who & How?

OK, you have your list of places that you plan to send your press release. Now what? Now you need to find the right person to send the press release and in what format they prefer to receive what you’re sending. Unless you are spending a lot of money on a PR Firm to send these out for the company, you need to know what to do next.

First, determine if what you are selling or promoting would likely have a specific department. At larger media companies, you should be able to find the person in charge of that department and their email address on the company’s website. Some places will even tell you which person to contact to submit stories. (Although this isn’t typical as they do not want an inbox full of spammy press).

If looking up the information doesn’t work, call and ask. I realize we live in a world of text messages, social media and emails but a phone call and conversation with an actual human being can be your best friend. I’ve also found that admitting you don’t completely know what you are doing can occasionally make people even nicer to you and sometimes can get you all types of extra valuable information. Calling the media outlet or specific department and saying something like…

“Hi, my name is so and so from Company X, I’d like to submit a press release about such and such. I’m really new at this and want to make sure I’m getting the press release to the right person, in the format they prefer so I’m not causing you or them any extra hassle. Could you please help me or direct me to the right person?”

In my experience, humble will take you places. It’s very likely you will be talking to someone’s assistant or receptionist. The person with whom your are speaking has very likely been answering frustrating and pushy emails and phone calls all day and may relish a few minutes to get to talk to a nice sounding person. At worst they will be extremely busy and will be annoyed that you are wasting their time but will give you the information you requested anyway. At best you’ll spend five minutes listening to this person tell you a random story about their day, which will open up the conversation for a few more questions (gossip) about which reporters are best to work with, what type of stories they typically run with, etc. A simple “How is your day going?” and a friendly demeanor while they look up information can sometimes get you worlds of information you didn’t even know you needed.

 

  1. Do your research – Format

Make sure to find out how that particular person likes to receive their press releases. If they prefer it to be faxed, don’t email it anyway because you’re worried it will somehow fly off the fax machine and they will never see it. If they prefer you to email the press release, copy and paste the document into the body of the email. Do not bother attaching it (unless otherwise specified by the person receiving it). There can be a tendency to simply delete emails containing attachments, especially since they’ll be receiving this email from an address they probably won’t recognize.

 

  1. Exclusives

Exclusives relate especially to TV News outlets. Watch the news. It’s their absolute favorite thing to say, “Only on Channel 6!” The reason I bring this up is because it is not always best to send your press release to everyone right away if you have a bit of time.

 

  1. Follow Up

Once you’ve done all the research and you’ve successfully sent out your press release, make sure to pick up your phone again. This time call the person you sent the release to. Most of the time you will get their voice mail or an assistant. That’s fine. If you get an assistant, they may be able to tell you whether or not the press release was received and you can ask them any follow up questions. They may or may not be able to help you, but again, it’s worth a shot if you get to talk to an actual person. If you get their voice mail, then your message serves as a way to bring your press release to the top of their mind or it may pique their interest. You message will also quickly give them your contact information if they do indeed have any questions or want to follow up.

 

The bottom line to successfully sending out your press release is that you want to do most of your work up front. You want to do lots of research so you’re actually getting your release out to the right people at the right places in the right format. After that, follow up with a phone call and hope you wrote your press release well enough (or have a product or event interesting enough) that these very busy reporters will care enough to cover the information that you have worked so hard to send out.

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Where Do You Get Your Stories From?

Posted by on Sep 18, 2013 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

“Where do you get your stories from?” asks the suddenly interested payroll assistant that you were introduced to ninety seconds ago at your spouse’s company picnic. She’s staring at you with the open, hopeful, fascinated eyes of someone who has never attempted to tell a story in her life.

And now you’re on the spot. Every creative writer knows this question. Someone you don’t know particularly well is asking you perhaps the most impossibly difficult thing you’ve ever been faced with. And they are REALLY, REALLY, REALLY INTERESTED.

They don’t know it’s not a fair question. They have no idea that in essence, they are prompting you to concisely sum up the essence of your entire being. They’re blissfully unaware that they’re asking you to use certain chemical reactions in the current amalgamation of neurons in your head to decipher and understand other chemical reactions that most likely happened when your brain wasn’t paying much attention to said chemical reactions. They are asking you to have a moment of pure and complete self-awareness achieved only by seven or eight Tibetan monks in history. And you only have the allotted time before Tracey from Human Resources stands up on a picnic table and tells everyone the burgers are “just about done, so grab a plate!”

“My stories?” you answer. “Costco. I get them at Costco.”

Then you grin and shrug your shoulders. And everyone shares a laugh at the completely unsatisfying answer that your humor managed to deflect from careful examination.

But as dumb and accidentally intrusive as that question is, you know what’s great about it?

Everything.

Why? Because as a storyteller, that question lets you know you’re special- that you have a gift others don’t possess. It’s akin to asking the payroll assistant, “How in the hell do you keep all those damn numbers and accounts straight? It’d make my head spin.” And it would. I wouldn’t have the first clue where to start.

A lot of times as writers, we hang out with like-minded people and thus feel everyone is working on a script or a novel or a short story -that we’re all attempting to get a protagonist past some sort of obstacle only to find another even bigger obstacle in the way. But that’s not true. Most people in the world aren’t doing this. It’s a staggering realization.

Want to know the second thing that’s amazing about that question? It gets you to examine where in tarnation you actually get your stories from. What fascinates you? What is it about particular people in particular situations that makes you want to sit down and spend the mental energy trying to understand them? What is it about your own life that you’re trying to work out via your characters? What the hell IS it?

Perhaps you know exactly where your stories come from. You may be thinking, “They come from a small pocket of grayish mush in the frontal lobe about two inches directly behind my right eyebrow, actually.” Well good for you. As for me, I’m not afraid to admit, I HAVE NO FREAKING IDEA. Not the slightest clue. And it’s not one of those, “One day I got nothing and the next day there it is,” type of deals either. It’s more like, “One day there’s nothing and then the next day there’s something but I’m not sure what, and then two days later there’s something else that kind of fits into the weird amoeba of an idea I may or may not have, and then a month later there’s something a bit more concrete, and then I get distracted with another project until nine months later I’m riding the stationary bike at the gym and I suddenly realize there’s enough to start writing on that idea I had way back when.”

But try telling that to someone at a company picnic. Try explaining that you have zero idea how your stories arrive at your brain’s loading dock. Odds are they’ll just squint as you watch the fascination slowly deflate from their eyes. They want you to say something mystical like…
“On the night of the full moon, I ride a yak deep into the woods where I lather myself in castor oil and rub my naked body against the Great Tree of Stories.”

“Wow, that sounds amazing. Can I join you next time?”

“You bet. I even have two yak saddles, so we’re good to go.”

That’s what they want. That’s why they ask the question. They honestly think you’re going to clue them in to some large, universal creative secret.

But don’t be afraid to let them know there is no secret. Don’t be afraid to look them straight in the eye and admit your own ignorance. Because what’s going to happen is that they’re going to go on believing a secret exists no matter what you tell them. They’re going to simply think you’re bound by some underground society of writers to withhold the information. It’s just human nature.

On second thought, just use the line about Costco.

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Loser vs. Looser

Posted by on Sep 14, 2013 in Business Writing | 1 comment

So I was watching baseball highlights last week and I happened to see a guy at Fenway Park in Boston holding up a sign he’d obviously made after miraculously stumbling upon some poster board next to a dumpster on his way to the game. The intent of the sign was obviously to tweak Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees about all the illegal substances he’s painted his insides with since 2002. In spectacularly patriotic red, white, and blue, the sign read:

A-ROD = A LOOSER

Before we get into the million ways that this sign was incorrect, I have to point out that for no reason, both O’s in “looser” were drawn as eyes. Maybe the Boston fan thought A-Rod might be intimidated by a semi-anthropomorphized misspelled word staring at him? Or maybe he was a better speller than we thought and just ran out of room on the sign. Perhaps he really meant to write:

A-ROD = A LOOSER
MODEL OF THE BATTING GLOVES YOU’RE WEARING ARE AVAILABLE AT THE SPORTING GOODS STORE I WORK AT IN SOMERVILLE. THE SIGN IS EASY TO SEE FROM THE INTERSTATE, HENCE THE EYES I DREW. JUST COME ON IN AND ASK FOR CARL.

We’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that barring a similarly ridiculous explanation:

SIGN GUY = A LOSER

Before Facebook, it never occurred to me just how many relatively intelligent people have no idea how to make this simple distinction. At least once a week, one of my friends (most likely one with an advanced college degree) will post something like…

OMG, I just farted in the department meeting. I feel like such a looser!

Well, random friend, now you have two reasons. Because what you’ve actually typed is….

OMG, I just farted in the department meeting. I feel like such a thing that isn’t quite as tight as some other object it’s being compared to!

I think the main reason for this consistent mistake stems from the Calvinball rules of English. (If you’re unfamiliar with this reference, go purchase a Calvin & Hobbes retrospective IMMEDIATELY) For absolutely no reason, the word “lose” rhymes with “choose” and “snooze.” (It also rhymes with shoes and dues and rather appropriately “confuse.”) So in the end, it makes perfect sense why so many people make this mistake. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make the mistake any less incorrect. It’s also a mistake that’s very easy to spot and will make anything you’re doing look infinitely less professional. (And remember Spellcheck is ineffective here since looser is an actual word)

The same principle applies for the base word “lose” as well. Just imagine picking up a brochure at a conference and seeing….

At Plumpkin Diagnostics, we never loose focus. Our dedicated team of researchers…were immediately dropped in the nearest trashcan wasting hundreds of dollars in printing costs and countless man hours because of a simple, easily overlooked mistake.

My tip on making sure you’re using lose, loose, loser, and looser correctly? Remember the Boston fan’s sign with the random eyes? It should’ve been a Cyclops.

LOSER = CYCLOPS

Or if it’s easier for you, just picture the Boston fan’s sign as saying:

A-ROD IS A CYCLOPS

There you go. It’s that easy. Picture Alex Rodriguez with one giant eye in the middle of his forehead. Easy trick. And if you’re unfamiliar with Alex Rodriguez, just picture the biggest loser you know with a single dumb-looking eye right smack dab in the middle of their face. You’ll never screw up “loser” and “looser” again.

Now go forth good people and make more effective ballpark signs.

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