Thursday, December 30, 2010


If you ever feel stuck while trying to complete a short writing project, it is easy to deal with. Just put it on hold temporarily, and start writing another one. Simply writing something – anything – is the most effective way to instantly defeat writer's block! But first, before going on, let me state firmly – there is absolutely no such thing as “writer’s block.”
Now, read that sentence *aloud* to yourself -- There is absolutely no such thing as “writer’s block!”
Have you ever heard of “bricklayer’s block,” “lawyer’s block,” “surgeon’s block,” “truck-driver’s block”? Of course not. So-called writer’s block is at best an artistic affectation. It does not exist. At worst, it is a mental attitude that prevents a writer from putting the words down – nothing more. So the solution is simple. Write some words down – any words to start with – and you are by practical demonstration, no longer “blocked.”

Still, feeling “blocked” can be serious when it comes to novels. You may have invested weeks, months, or years in your opus, and giving up on it should not be an option. Instead, when you get stuck for ideas, do not know what to write next, or suddenly feel the whole book is a waste of effort, here is what to do:
Get some progress going by creating blank chapter headings for the next few segments. Then add two or three blank scenes to each. Don't worry about how long these are going to be, or whether you need one or four of them per chapter. You're just showing your brain the small incremental steps involved.

Starting at the “blocked” chapter, jot down one-line descriptions for the blank scenes. You are just filling empty spaces right now, so it does not have to be amazingly exciting. As you progress you might find yourself moving away from your plot. If that turns out to be more interesting - good. (The excuse of “writer's block” is often simply the result of trapping your characters in a dead end.)

If that is the case with you, more than likely you have not done any preparation in the form of a plot outline of what your novel is going to be about. You would not jump into your car to drive across country without at least looking at a map first to see where you intend to end up. Same with a book project. Writing down even the barest rough outline first will do wonders for your creativity. So, stop trying to write any scenes or chapters at all, until you write an outline.
Only then should you dive back in to writing your novel. Do not agonize over the very first line on the very first page. Start anywhere. Describe an incident or scene that particularly interests you, regardless of where it may end up in the manuscript. Suddenly, you will be able to write down a scene which excites you, interests you. Has some life to it. Some juice in it. You feel in your guts it is a good scene; one that makes your tale come alive!
Don't try to write it fully immediately, though. Just write some more detailed notes for it. Over the next day or two, it will stick in your mind, and you'll be able to refine it, add to it. Still hold yourself back and don't write it yet. If you like, you can stop outlining other scenes now. Just keep replaying this particular vivid scene through your mind. If you are itching to write it down... well, there goes that mythical writer's block! Never forget -- you are writing a novel, not reading one. What happens next is completely in your hands, but this new freedom can sometimes make you freeze like a rabbit in the headlights. Do you leap left or right? Who cares? Jump in any direction. The important thing is to keep moving the tale along.

After you sit down to write this great scene, it may not come out on paper reading as grand as it was in your imagination. As Ernest Hemingway said famously, “All first drafts are shit!” So do not worry at this stage. That final grandness will come after multiple revisions. You will probably rewrite the whole thing several times before your book is complete. The main thing at this stage is to unblock the creative juices, not expect to create a first draft which proves instantly to be the best novel the world has ever seen.

After you've written that pretty-good dramatic scene, you can go back to modify the events and descriptions leading up to it. As you're rewriting these descriptions, your imagination will create other scenes – before or after the current stage. Now you have another segment to develop.

The point is, write scenes which are busting to get onto the page, and skip the ones which seem like a chore. If you yourself feel bored while writing them, imagine how bored your reader is likely going to feel. Especially important for keeping a sense of swift progression, avoid long, overly-detailed transition scenes. For example, say you have a character in New York City who needs to travel to Calcutta. Unless something dramatic or relevant happens on the plane, you can end the NYC scene by hailing a cab for the airport. Then you can start the next chapter with a quick mention of Calcutta atmosphere, just to orient the reader. Use the same method throughout, to avoid any other discursive, needlessly-descriptive parts, and your novel will speed along – both while writing it and reading it.
Now, one more time: Read this sentence aloud to yourself:
“There is absolutely no such thing as writer’s block!”
Now, buckle down, and start writing some words on paper.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

David Ogilvy founded one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, Ogilvy & Mather International. (I had the privilege of working with him for six years as a creative director.) Everyone associated with David learned a great deal from his vast knowledge of copywriting and human nature. He synthesised much of his advice in his book, Confessions of an Advertising Man. Yet even he praised another great advertising genius, Claude Hopkins, who wrote an enduring classic of his own. Ogilvy once said of Hopkins’ book:
"Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times. It changed the course of my life."
Here are some excerpts from Claude Hopkins’On Salesmanship In Advertising
Advertising is salesmanship. Its principles are the principles of salesmanship. Successes and failures in both lines are due to like causes. Thus every advertising question should be answered by the salesman's standards.
The only purpose of advertising is to make sales. It is profitable or unprofitable according to its actual sales.
It is not for general effect. It is not to keep your name before the people. It is not primarily to aid your other salesmen.
Advertising is multiplied salesmanship. Therefore every ad should be a super-saleperson.
"There is one simple and right way to answer many advertising questions. Ask yourself, 'Would this help a salesman sell the goods?' 'Would it help me sell them if I met the buyer in person?'

On the lenqth of your ads:
Some say, "Be very brief. People will read only a little." Would you say that to a salesperson? With a prospect standing there, would you confine him to use only a certain number of words? That would be an unthinkable handicap.
So in advertising. The only readers we get are people whom our subject interests. No one reads ads for amusement, long or short. Consider them as prospects standing before you, seeking information. Give them enough to get action.

On the proper attitude:
When you plan and prepare an advertisement, mentally keep before you a typical buyer. Then in everything be guided by what you would do if you met the buyer face-to-face.
The advertising writer studies the consumer. He or she tries to place themselves in the position of that buyer. Success largely depends on doing that to the exclusion of everything else.
On offerinq service:
Remember that the people you address are selfish, as we all are. They care nothing about your interest or your profit. They seek service for themselves. Ignoring this fact is a common mistake and a costly mistake in advertising.

On the lessons of mail order advertisinq:
Mail order advertising tells a complete story if the purpose is to make an immediate sale. You see no limitations there on amount of copy.
The motto is, 'The more you tell, the more you sell.'

It is far harder to get mail orders than to send buyers to the store. It is hard to sell goods which can't be seen. Ads which do that are excellent examples of what advertising should be.

Mail order advertising is traced down to the fraction of a penny. The cost per reply and cost per dollar of sale show up with utter exactness. [This principle applies to this day: all web-based ads should best be tracked for effectiveness.]

The most common way of comparing one ad with another [used to be] by use of a coupon. We offer a sample, a book, a free package or something to induce direct replies. Thus we learn the amount of action which each ad engenders.

But those figures are not final. One ad may bring too many worthless replies; another brings replies that are valuable to our final conclusions are always based on cost per customer or cost per dollar of sale.

On the proper use of headlines:

The purpose of a headline is to pick out people you can interest. You care only for those people.

People will not be bored in print. In print they choose their own companions, their own subjects. There may be products which interest them more than anything else in a magazine. But they will never know it unless the headline or the picture tells them.

The vast difference in headlines is shown by keyed returns. The identical ad run with various headlines differs tremendously in its returns. It is not uncommon for a change in headlines to multiply returns from five to ten times over.

Don't think that those millions will read your ads to find out if your product interests them. They will decide by a glance -- by your headline or your pictures.

On psychology:
Competent advertising people must understand psychology. The more they know about it the better. They must learn that certain effects lead to certain reactions, and use that knowledge to increase results and avoid mistakes.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that's read by persons who move their lips when they're reading to themselves."
-- Don Marquis.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

"When I want to read a good book, I write one."
-- Benjamin Disraeli.


The country of Ireland has a strong tradition of noted authors and the reputation of general mastery of language. So it it is all the more sad to learn that, according to columnist Sinead Ryan, Eire's standards of literacy has apparently plummeted too, joining what seems to be a widespread trend in the English-speaking world. She writes:

This week's Apprentice [TV programme] was a cringe-fest as resident eye candy Will McCreevey was fired by Bill Cullen who had enlisted eagle-eyed recruiter Mairead Fleming to check out his CV.

"Did you get help writing it, Will?" she asked sweetly. He hadn't, he said proudly. "Maybe you should have," she answered pointedly.

The former Bank of Scotland executive claimed "being a perfectionist" was one of his faults. Mairead agreed he had a few alright, but "clearly being a perfectionist isn't one of them", as she labelled his written application "atrocious" and "a shambles" citing basic spelling and grammar mistakes and an inability to articulate himself on paper.

Will was lucky. Others displaying such poor skills might not get so far. Indeed, Ireland has just been downgraded in the literacy stakes in a wide- ranging three-year study by leading thinktank, the OECD.

Ireland has slipped from 5th to 17th place in English and 15th to 25th for Maths. This isn't advanced calculus and interpretation of Ulysses we're talking about -- it's the basic skills of our 15-year-olds in the three Rs.

It is most pronounced as it comes at a time when our own assessment of the same pupils is glowing. Junior Cert honours grades have actually risen, with 79.4pc getting an A,B or C at Ordinary level this year compared to 71pc a decade ago, leading to inevitable suggestions that our exam system has been 'dumbed down'.


What can't be denied is that our kids are actually getting worse at expressing themselves in written form and undertaking basic mathematical problems. The OECD is not the first organisation to rap us on the knuckles. Tony Donoghue, head of education policy with IBEC -- who represent the employers seeing CVs every bit as bad as Will's every day -- said they had already raised concerns over literacy levels with the Government.

Google executive John Herlihy spoke earlier this year of the number of CVs and letters he routinely bins due to basic spelling and grammar errors -- and they're from graduates. Clearly parental influence has a huge role to play. It's not fair to simply lay the blame at teachers' doors when they are dealing with larger class sizes, an increase in pupils for whom English is not a first language and a fuller curriculum. Children who come from homes where parents are well-read do best in literacy tests. Those who are supported in their learning, likewise, but simple measures seem to have passed many by.

For instance, we have fantastic free libraries in Ireland. While well over half of the 15-year-olds in other countries borrow regularly for pleasure reading, just four in 10 here do.

Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have a TV in their room, fewer books in the home and suffer the worst literacy problems according to studies here.

Getting it right early on is the key. It's too late when our engineering, computer and science graduates discover they can't write articulately only after they apply for that all-important job.

- Sinead Ryan,

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


More than a few business writers have secret yearnings to also become novelists. There's a lot to be said for such literary aspiration, not least because it tends to spur higher standards for day-to-day 'non-creative' writing chores. However, most salaried business/government writers think of themselves as realists, inclined to estimate their chances of being published at close to zero, so fearful of likely rejection they are reluctant to make the effort. True, competition is tough, but it is for every wannabe writer, and has always been so. A refreshing dictum of screenwriter, William Goldman, is: "Nobody knows anything beforehand about what makes a successful script.".
Similar ignorance exists in the print publication world too; some acquisitions editors repeatedly unable to predict which manuscripts are potential best-sellers. (On a personal note, one of my own books was submitted to 23 firms before being accepted and becoming successful enough to be published on both sides of the Atlantic. It is still in print 20 years later, and continues to sell.)
If you are working on a book on the quiet, take heart in knowing that -- time and again -- publishers can be wrong about which manuscripts to bring out as a book. Here's just a few examples of now perennial best-sellers which had to first survive publishers' repeated rejections:
"Peter Rabbit" -- turned down 16 times.
"Love Story" -- turned down I I times
"M*A*S*H" --turned down 16 times.
"Silent Spring"" -- turned down 5 times.
"Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" -- turned down 12 times "Day Of “The Jackal" -- turned down 8 times.
"Jonathan Livingston Seagull"" -- turned clown 18 times.
"Kon-Tiki" -- turned down 23 times.
Now I've cheered you up, here’s a word of caution. Try not to write your book on company time.
Commercial Novel Plot Summary:
Boy meets girl.
Girl gets boy into pickle.
Boy gets pickle into girl.
-- Jack Woodford
Writing To Sell.
Though I have mainly earned my living as an advertising copywriter, my greatest enjoyment has been the writing of historical novels and studies of military history, regardless of the fact they are not all that well known. Often, I have gained pleasure from imagining one of my books being discovered many years hence and read by a person yet unborn. So I was particularly pleased to learn that my dream of being stumbled upon and read sometime far in the future was also shared by a famed author.
"When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York, but toward a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a country boy finding them, and having them speak to him. The reviews,the stacks in Brentanos, are just hurdles to get over, to eventually place the books on that shelf." -- John Updike.