Reading about Writing: “Just the Funny Parts”

The only word-related thing I like better than writing is reading—especially reading about writing.

Nell Scovell has written a brilliant, moving, and inspiring book about the writing she’s done, for TV mostly. Just the Funny Parts also offers some advice about writing that happens to agree with things I tell my writers all the time. So don’t take my word for it—listen to Nell Scovell:

“Writing is not what you start. It’s not even what you finish. It’s what you start, finish, and put out there for the world to see.”

“There’s an old saying that ‘a writer writes.’ but that’s just the start. A writer writes…a lot…and then shares that work with others.”

Or, as Austin Kleon says—right in the title another book you should read if you haven’t already—Show Your Work!

As a writer, Scovell also apparently loves reading about writing. She quotes John Irving: “Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

Irving writes novels, but that’s true for us in the nonfiction world as well. “Noticing”—which I call going on Story Safari™—enlivens our writing, takes us beyond the spreadsheet the client handed us and opens up the possibility of metaphor.

The final bit of wisdom I’ll share today comes from Barry Kemp, who was Scovell’s boss when she wrote for the sitcom Coach.

“Writing,” Barry said, “is not an act of creation. It’s an act of choice.”

She means that you choose what your characters do and say. And that’s true. But you also choose to sit there and make words come out of your fingers. You choose to create.

Read Nell Scovell’s book. And then write…write a lot…and push your work out of the nest so people can enjoy it.

First draft – sometimes Hemingway is wrong

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “Everyone’s first draft is sh*t.”

Or perhaps someone else said it and it just sounded so much like Hemingway that the attribution stuck. In any case, it’s mostly true.

Except for when it isn’t. Sometimes a first draft can be brilliant.

The secret to first drafts—well you can find it right in that adjective: they’re first. Which automatically implies that there could well be a second, or third. Or, if you’re like one old client I miss not one bit, a 27th.

If everybody agrees that the first draft can (and likely will) change, then you get to throw all sorts of outlandish ideas into it. Make it the first draft of your dreams.

With new clients, I always send the draft with a note, something like:

I threw some unexpected stuff in here, but if it seems like too much—hey, it’s a first draft.

With older clients, I often skip the caveat. And mostly they’ll play with me. Being bold on the first draft—and the client’s complete buy-in on the idea—won me my Cicero Award for best speech on diversity. You can read the story here.

First draft, second draft

Sometimes, though, even a longstanding client will push back. Not ten minutes ago, I opened an email expecting it to be full of praise for my brilliant, hysterical, and admittedly unconventional approach to a standard business topic.

Oh the client loved it, alright. But they don’t feel they can publish it.

Sucks? Sure.

But I still remember how elated I felt when I finished writing it and hit send. I felt creative; I felt free.

And, you know what? I still do.

Let your creativity loose on the first draft—it may be your only opportunity. And if the client pushes back, well, it’s their work in the end. And they’re paying you to be creative, whether they realize it or not.

If your first draft doesn’t fly, put your fabulous idea in your Outtakes folder and move on. That’s what I’m going to do. I’ll let this sit over the weekend and then rewrite on Monday.

And who knows? Maybe Hemingway will be right about my second draft.

730 — yes, every damn day

I had not intended to blog again today. I wrote a post yesterday and I’m trying to get away from posting daily—although I still write for 15 minutes every day. Yep, every damn day.

Anyway, I hadn’t intended to blog today. Yesterday’s post—weighing in at a hefty 900+ words—took me far longer than my 15 minutes to write. Ate a good chunk of my morning, in fact.

But when I woke up today, Facebook reminded me that last year on this date, I had dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant with some friends—celebrating the one-year anniversary of my writing streak.

“That can’t be right,” I said to myself. “If it was a year ago today, then that must mean today is…”

Yes indeed.

every damn day
I’ve written for 2 full years—730 days!

The anniversary sneaked up on me, which might make you think my writing habit is pretty well integrated into my life.

You’d be—well, not exactly wrong, but it’s not quite as easy as the graphic makes it look. Especially the last couple of months, when I’ve been writing a big project for a client. I get to the end of a day of writing, grateful to power down the old laptop, only to realize that I haven’t done my 15. The commitment I made two years ago was 15 minutes of writing for myself, not for a client. Those days, when there’s not much left in my brain, I just journal. I figure it counts.

So what have I gotten out of this?

I moved forward with some aspects of my business I’d been putting off. Honestly, I think they scared me. But if I only had to write for 15 minutes…okay. That’s how the streak started.

I blogged every damn day for well over a year—maybe 18 months. (I’m on hiatus at the moment, but I may return.) Sometimes I had so many ideas that I could bank a week’s worth of blogs in advance; other times I just sat down at the keyboard and started typing, hoping that whatever came out would be at least semi-lucid. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Eventually I even dethroned the woman who’d always taken first place in a Google search of my name—”Elaine Benes.” She’s now a sidebar. Whoo hoo!

Elaine Bennett, not Elaine Benes

What can writing every damn day get you?

Well, what do you want?

Do you want to become a better writer?
I can almost guarantee it. In fact, many published writers swear that writing every day is essential to growing your skills.

Do you have an idea pinging around your head that wants to get out?
It’s scary to say you want to write a book. I know. When I decided to write one, for months I couldn’t say the b-word without air quotes. If you think “writing a book” has to mean shutting yourself a way for days on end—well, how attractive is that? If it means writing for 15 minutes a day, well, after a week you’ll have written for nearly two hours. After a month (one of those 30-day months, not freaking February), you’ll have written for seven and a half hours! And lived your life, too.

Do you want to get your work out in the world?
You may wonder what that has to do with writing every damn day. I’ll tell you: if you’re holding back because you’re afraid your writing is somehow flawed…honey, you don’t know “flawed” until you’ve written every day. Some days it’s golden, other days it’s, to put it politely, a pile of manure. But the Dutch have an old saying I love:

“Shit is not a holy thing, but from where it lies there come miracles.

Every bit of bad writing you produce gets you that much closer to producing good writing.

I’m on a mission this year. I want to help more people start and maintain their writing streaks. It’s more fun when we do it together. Fill in the Contact form and let me know how I can support you.

Roses are red, violets are unexpected—a Story Safari™

“Roses are red/Violets are _________”

Of course, you want to say “blue.” If you’re like me, it’s probably one of the first poems you ever memorized. Of course violets are blue.

violetsBut are they really? Aren’t they more—crazy idea here—violet-colored? And roses come in all shades. Some enterprising florists will even dye them green for St. Patrick’s Day.

If you start the poem:

Rose are red,
Violets are violet

People think they know where you’re going with that first line. They might even put their brains on autopilot for the second one. Until that unexpected word wakes them up.

How about this?

Roses are green,
Violets are blue
But are they really?
Try an idea that’s new.

Surprise your readers and you can breathe new life into even the most tired clichés.

That’s part of the idea behind the Story Safari™ technique I share with my writers. It allows you to find fresh ways to talk about your ideas, so audiences hear them in new ways. Your ideas become memorable—you become memorable. And if you don’t want people to remember what you have to say, why are you bothering to write in the first place?


Join me this Saturday, March 17th, for a one-day program designed to help you find and tell stories more memorably. Anchor Your Ideas—five short videos and writing assignments with a writers’ group-style webinar at the end of the day. Register here.

Ethics & Molasses—a Story Safari™

What does ethics have to do with molasses?

Nothing—that’s what I always thought. Until I found the story of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.

ethics
Boston Post, Public Domain,

Yes, that’s a real thing that happened—back when people stored molasses in giant tanks on the tops of buildings. Tank springs a leak, molasses rushes out—more than 2 million gallons of it—traveling at speeds up to 35 miles an hour. More than 20 people died, along with countless horses. Can you imagine?

I found that story while doing some completely unrelated reading one day. And it just so happened that one of my clients had asked me to find a regional tie for his speech near Boston. A speech about ethics.

What does molasses have to do with ethics? I dug a little deeper into the story and found that people had noticed brown stuff oozing from between the slats of the storage tank. Did the owners investigate? No. But they did take action—they painted the tanks brown to match.

Many people have written or talked about the Molasses Flood. Some of the people in my client’s audience may have even heard of it before. But I doubt they’d ever used it to discuss ethics.

A fresh perspective on ethics

That’s what a Story Safari™ can do for you. Once you learn this technique, you’ll be able to write about any subject—even concepts your audience has read or heard dozens of times before—and bring a fresh perspective to it. A memorable perspective.

Here’s my client’s perspective:

I know this is a fine program you’re participating in, but I have to tell you that I chuckled a little when I saw the title of the program: “Managing Ethics in Organizations.” The word “managing” implies planning and control. And while that certainly is the ideal to which we all aspire, in my experience—and I don’t think I’m alone here—an Ethics Officer’s best-laid plans can be derailed at a moment’s notice.

Let me illustrate that point by offering you a bit of local history. It happened in the early years of the 20th century—and although companies didn’t have Ethics & Compliance officers back then, I think you’ll notice some parallels to the kinds of work we do today.

In January 1919, the North End of Boston was hit by a devastating flood. More than 20 people died and hundreds were injured. The flood caused several buildings to collapse and knocked an elevated train right off its tracks.

You might be thinking, “That’s tragic. But it sounds like standard flood damage.” And you’re right. But this wasn’t a standard flood. It was a flood of molasses.

Now, usually we think of molasses as a slow-moving substance. But when a 2.3 million-gallon holding tank burst that day, it sent the sticky syrup cascading through the city streets at 35 miles an hour. In a wave that some reports said was up to 40 feet high.

Who could imagine that such a thing would happen? It had never happened before (and, thank goodness, it’s never happened since). But it happened once, and that was costly enough.

Could this tragedy have been prevented? The exact cause of the failure was never determined, but it may be that shoddy construction was to blame—the tank apparently leaked from the outset, a fact the company attempted to hide by painting it brown.

It seems to me that the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 is the perfect analogy for our jobs today. Whatever company we work for, whatever industry or profession we work in, we Ethics & Compliance Officers are charged with finding out if there are any leaky tanks in our organizations and fixing them before they cause serious damage.

You might not be writing about ethics, or anything particularly business-related. But chances are, you’re not the first person—or the only person—who has something to say about your idea or issue. Make your words memorable, and get your audiences engaged, by taking them on a Story Safari.™


Join me for a one-day adventure in finding and using stories, this Saturday—March 17th. Register here.

Transformation: when your window wants to become a sail

I’m in the transformation business. One of the things that excites me most about working with writers is seeing the “afters” from their “befores” as they absorb my feedback and hone their craft.

But transformation can be scary stuff. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not the kind of person who’ll volunteer to be scared. And pay good money for it? No thanks.

not a great transformation
[not my window]
During the big storm that swept up the East Coast recently, a large plate-glass window at the back of my house tried to transform itself into a sail.

Scared? Uh, yes, I believe I screamed. Well, “exclaimed.” With growing urgency and volume each time I saw it bow in. Eventually we found some tape to support it. I’ve been through enough hurricanes to know you’re supposed to tape the windows, but this wasn’t supposed to be a hurricane!

After taping the window, we hung a blanket over it for good measure. My friend said it was to prevent the glass from blowing into my house if the window shattered. I think it was more to prevent me from screaming at each new shape the window assumed. She assured me the window was rated to withstand 100 mph winds—and she’s a builder; I figured she should know.

Transformation & Fear

My friend and I reacted differently to the window’s attempts to transform itself into a sail. I went straight to fear; she saw nothing amiss. That’s the thing with transformation. No two people approach it in the same way.

Something that’s routine for me—like writing—may scare the living daylights out of someone else.

Other people can sell ice to Alaskans (a phrase that packed a whole lot more punch before we destroyed the polar ice caps). But even thinking about selling can render me practically comatose with fear.

How do you move through the fear to transformation?

First, if it’s a rational fear—like shards of plate glass flying through your home to decapitate you—Take Appropriate Action. By the way, the local newscast said winds reached 93 mph in the town next door, which totally vindicated my fear. Then again, it wasn’t 100 and the window remained intact, so my builder friend was right too. But I was right-er. (Not that I’m competitive or anything.)

If it’s an irrational fear—if it’s not going to kill you—then by all means Take Appropriate Action. Action is the only thing that can banish fear.

I know, I know. I hate reading that too. I wish there were a pill you could pop, or a website where you could click a button and the thing you’re afraid of magically gets done for you. But really the thing you need to do is…suck it up and do the thing.

How? When you’re paralyzed with fear, how do you take even one step forward?

Elizabeth Gilbert says to have a conversation with your fear. If you haven’t read her book Big Magic yet, do that ASAP.

And I’m going to offer another suggestion based on my recent experience: Hang a blanket over it. Picture your fear on the other side of a big window and just tape up a blanket. Or draw the curtains if you’ve got ’em. And leave your fear standing outside.

If you’re feeling vindictive, you can imagine your fear standing out in the cold. If you’re a kinder person—and I feel certain Liz Gilbert is a kinder person—give it a lawn chair, a strong SPF sunblock, and a gossip magazine to keep itself occupied while you do that scary thing.

Then Take Appropriate Action

Writing isn’t going to kill you—not unless you do it while hanging off a mountain one-handed. And marketing hasn’t killed me yet. I have no doubt that one of these days, I’ll remember that.

Transformation can seem scary. But the more you can ignore the fear and do the thing that scares you, the less power that fear will have over you. At least that’s what they tell me.


Transform yourself into a more powerful storyteller. Join my one-day Anchor Your Ideas challenge, March 17th. (Blanket over the window optional.)

When is a story more than a story?

Can a story ever be more than a story?
That’s what I’ve been exploring with an intrepid group of writers in my “Anchor Your Ideas” challenge this week.
They’ve spent most of the week gathering stories—and they’ve found some good ones. On day 4, I started asking them to use those stories to make a larger point. That can be a challenging pivot to make, but it’s essential.
Learn this skill and it turns you from someone who tells stories into someone whose stories get listened to—someone whose stories get remembered. Someone whose stories drive people to action.

A story that’s more than the sum of its parts

I asked my writers to dig up some interesting stories about a place they live or would like to live, and one of them came up with a new (to me) story about one of my favorite places on earth: the Fenway section of Boston, home of Fenway Park (and namesake of my trusty Canine Assistant).

story
My own Fenway
Apparently during World War II the fine citizens of Boston turned part of the Fenway into a Victory Garden—a garden that’s still tended today.
Now, that’s a fine story on its own—but widen the lens a bit and think about what ELSE it could be about. Cooperation in wartime—if you were writing about a business, you could draw a parallel to teamwork. Or you might go at it from the angle of making the most of scarce resources. That could be a great theme for a blog.
 
Let’s think about the cooperation angle for a minute. How many pieces have you read about “teamwork”? Only about a million, right? But how many have you read that start with a story about a victory garden next to a baseball stadium? That unique angle makes whatever you have to say more memorable. You’re not just lecturing your readers about why they should work together; you’re showing them a story about people who worked together and achieved great things as a result.
 
This is not the easiest pivot to make—from taking a story at face value to seeing a story as a metaphor for something larger. It takes practice. But once my writers learn it, they’ll have a skill they can use the rest of their lives.
If you’d like to discover how to make a story worth far more than the sum of its parts, join me on March 17th. We’ll run through the whole “Anchor Your Ideas” program in one fabulously entertaining day—my own version of March Madness. Register here—it’s free. And the skill you’ll hone is priceless.

Rachel Dratch is a reluctant writer. Sound familiar?

Rachel Dratch is a reluctant writer
By David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0

Listening to Rachel Dratch on the podcast Conversations with Funny Feminists, I had one of those “Stars! They’re just like us!” moments. You know, when the tabloids run photos of a famous actor buying groceries or walking their dog or toting their yoga mat into a gym. Rachel Dratch is just like us! (At least some of us.) She’s a reluctant writer.

Or as she put it:

“I don’t really enjoy writing. I think it’s very difficult.”

Later she explains it’s not the writing that’s hard, it’s not stringing together words. It’s, well…

“I think most of writing is just making yourself do it—the act of it, without worrying about the result.”

“Without worrying about the result.” Yeah—easy, right?

A reluctant writer on writing

While writing her 2012 a book, A Girl Walks into a Bar…: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Mid-Life Miracle, Dratch found herself paralyzed.

I set this bar for myself: This has to be this literary—I can’t even write a word because it has to be this work of art, kind of thing.

Yep, that kind of thinking would definitely turn you into a reluctant writer. So she started reading memoirs by other writers—

Just random memoirs. And what I realized is like—nobody’s memoir is like, “They were like Mark Twain.” They were them and everyone had their own style. And that totally took away the standard I set for myself. Just write this how you would tell the story. And then that’s how you do it instead of sitting, prejudging yourself.

“Just write this how you would tell the story.” Or, as I tell my writers, do what Seth Godin does: Start by telling the story. Talk it out loud and write what you say. No one can tell the story exactly the way you can. Because, as Dratch reminds us,

Only you have your voice, and your experiences and personality. So whatever you’re bringing to a sketch or improvising—just trust….Bringing your experiences and who you are is all you can do.”

Of course, I’d add “or writing” to that list. Write who you are—whether you’re telling your own story or someone else’s, or reporting to the board about the third quarter sales figures, do it as yourself. Let your personality shine through. And you’ll shine.

Have a listen to the podcast for yourself—and let me know what you think of it.


Are you ready to discover how to find and tell stories that only you can tell? Use my Story Safari™ technique and you’ll amaze and delight your audiences—whether you’re blogging, writing newsletters, or delivering business presentations. Join a select group of writers on Cape Cod for my Story Safari™ Retreat.

How many rewrites until I have a final draft?

Q: How many rewrites until I have a final draft?
A: Do you want someone to publish it?

One of my writers recently admitted, “I get tired of what I’m writing after about three drafts.” Give her points for honesty. To be clear: I don’t think that means she’s giving up after three drafts. She’ll just give it a rest, until she’s got the stamina for another three drafts.

A writer I know recently sold her first article to a very prestigious publication. Took her 12 drafts. Yes, a dozen. And give her points for recognizing that each draft made the piece that much better.

Neither of those people would have passed muster in my friend Vanessa Park‘s middle school English class. This cartoon sums up the experience of one of her students—a young woman whose mother is New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly.

how many drafts until the final draft?

“Uh-oh. You did 82 drafts??!” the young man says. “I only did 79!”

The point, of course, is not quantity but quality. So how do you know when to take the D-word off the top of the page and call it a finished piece?

Sometimes you run into another D-word: Deadline. I could futz and finesse all day, but if I told the client she’d have it by 5pm then by God she has it by 4:59.

But if you don’t have an external deadline, give yourself an internal one. The futzing and finessing stage can last (probably literally) forever. When you find your revisions shrinking from paragraphs to sentences to words, you’re getting as close as you’re ever going to get.

Is it perfect? No. Because it’s never going to be. As my old coach Samantha Bennett (no relation) says, “Get a C.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent “C” work out into the world and found it received as an A-plus.

We writers can be unreliable judges of our own work. That’s why we need trusted colleagues to read and comment. Sometimes that’s a writing group. Other times it’s a sympathetic magazine editor who asks for Draft 9, then 10, 11, 12. Each time you get feedback, your work gets better.

How long until you have a final draft? If your editor doesn’t tell you, your deadlines will.


Of course you know how to read. But do you know how to read like a writer? Learn that essential skill in my critical reading course. Next cohort starts in late February.

Know any frustrated writers?

I’ve written before about the, um, idiosyncratic search function at the otherwise-spectacular Stencil. Honestly, it’s the best purchase I’ve made for my business. I have no skill at desktop publishing or whatever it is you need to do to marry images and words into eye-catching designs.

But Stencil’s search function leaves something to be desired. Or maybe I’m just overtaxing it. Maybe I’m offering it too much information. Maybe that’s the problem.

When I typed “frustrated writers” into the Stencil search box, I expected to find people in front of computers pulling out their hair. Something like this, maybe:

Although, on further reflection, this looks more like a woman who just realized she shouldn’t have ordered the diner’s meat loaf special. But among the photos of people legitimately writing (though not in apparent frustration), Stencil dished up this little image:

No! No, goth princess, I wanted to shout. Writing’s not worth that! It never is.

Seriously—is this what the folks at Stencil think when they think “frustrated writer”?

That’s just a liiiiiitle darker than I wanted to go.

Rebranding the comfort zone

I’m rebranding my 5×15 Writing Challenge Facebook group, you see. I’ll still be running the challenges—one week every quarter. But I want my writers to see the group as a place they can post anytime, not just the five days of the challenge.

So it’s about community. But it’s also about acknowledging the frustrations that come with trying to step outside your comfort zone—especially in a creative endeavor. It’s about carving out a safe space for yourself. And if the Willits arrive, saying, “Thank you very much I won’t be needing you today.”

You know the Willits. I’ve written about them before. Here’s a little video I made for the Facebook group that explains them further.


If you wonder what’s going on in the Willits-Free Zone on Facebook, well, we’ll have some community writing projects, themes for each month that people can write to if they like, and I’ll be offering some deals and discounts especially for group members. If you’d like to join us, cruise on over to Facebook and submit a request.

Frustrated writers un-frustrated here. And no Willits allowed.