What it Takes to Write Copy That Kills: Part 1: Environment

(Blogger’s Note: There as many successful writing formulas as there are successful writers. Disclaimer: Am I a successful writer? I don’t really know. I’ve published thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, but will never be satisfied until my first book is published. It’s near, and of course, I think it kills. This is the first in a series of posts detailing the formula I use for my own writing. No two writers can duplicate styles, but maybe you’ll pick up a nugget or two here, and maybe you can share a few tips with me. So, write on. ~ Steve)

My formula’s found in the small, six-word tagline you see in the header above.

OBSERVE. THINK. PLAN. WRITE. PURSUE. EXECUTE.

There are sub-categories to each element of the formula, but essentially that’s it. Today, I’m focusing on OBSERVATION.

Observation is all about environment, and there are three distinct aspects to every writer’s environment.

  1. Where you are at the moment when you write.
  2. Where you are at any given moment in time.
  3. How you see yourself at any given moment in time.

Let’s talk about the observations you make in each of these moments. Because these moments must be captured and controlled. You never get moments back.

WHERE YOU ARE AT THE MOMENT WHEN YOU WRITE

I’ve seen some recent posts by some excellent bloggers whom I really respect. The question raised by the bloggers was: WHAT IS YOUR DREAM PLACE FOR WRITING?

It’s an interesting topic, but let’s stop dreaming for now and get real. Let’s talk about the real places where you write and how you can help yourself.

One of the most important things I know about myself is that I’m hugely visual.

I learn visually, teach visually, communicate visually, but most importantly as a writer, I’m inspired visually.

Maybe you’re inspired audibly, or through dreams or whatever. But writers must know what inspires them and then surround themselves with it.

My wife can do her hair a dozen different ways. Two or three of those ways really get my attention. This is the style I love the most:

This is my wife, Dana, who always looks hot, but when she does her hair in a swoop like this, she’s especially great arm candy. Visually, it’s the way I love her hair the most.

When I see my wife with this hair style, I’m inspired to be with one hot chick, but I digress.

Two things inspire me. One is people. The other, for better or worse, is accomplishments.

Regarding People – I’m typically inspired by world leaders, athletes and movie characters.

The walls of my writing office (painted, of course, in the colors that please me most)  are filled with framed posters: Jack Nicklaus, Larry  Bird, William Wallace of Braveheart, Maximus of Gladiator, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and others. Just seeing these guys on my walls, well, it gives me courage, fortitude, determination. It’s cheezy, but you have to recognize what works for you.

I wouldn’t know what to say about any man who’s not inspired to go out and kill something when they think about Maximus.

Regarding Accomplishments – Other things are framed that remind me of certain accomplishments: diplomas with a bachelor’s and master’s degree; photos of me finishing three different marathons over an 18-month period. I worked hard for those things. When I’m feeling weak, they remind me and I can do whatever I determine to do.

Finally just to the left of my keyboard is a small globe. It makes me think about the impact we, as writers, can have. We enjoy the benefits today of writing to a global community and that’s a really exciting thing.

The overstated point here is really quite simple. Identify what inspires you and be intentional to use it to your advantage.

WHERE YOU ARE AT A GIVEN MOMENT IN TIME

 The world is the writer’s classroom.

You’ve probably heard of a guy named Hemingway, right?

Ernest Hemingway loved to travel. He loved going places. He loved observing people in the exotic places where he spent time. But not every place where he did his greatest work was the most cosmopolitan of locales.

Forty miles from up the road where I write today, it was a barn in Piggott, Arkansas where Hemingway wrote one of his most acclaimed works, A Farewell to Arms.”

You got that right? A barn studio in Piggott, Arkansas – a town with a population of about a thousand surrounded by cotton and soybean fields. And it was there, where he produced a classic.

You see, the world is your classroom, and the world is wherever you are at a given moment in time.

Watch people. Watch them interact. See what they wear. Listen to how they speak. Watch what they eat and how they eat it. Absorb the man in the airport ticket line who just missed his plane and learn from the tirade he puts upon the helpless ticket counter attendant.

I’ll bet you my bottom dollar I could walk in Kmart and find someone interesting to interview. Even if Kmart does suck (see the Rainman video below) it’s just another place where you can learn by watching people.

The airport, church, the barbershop, family gatherings, even Kmart for crying out loud. Watch people and remember what you see and hear.

 I’ve learned my lessons on how not to forget these moment-by-moment observations. I take notes everywhere I go, and I’m NEVER without a camera to catch a visual that inspires me, or perhaps could be used to inspire others.

If you pay intentional attention to where you are at a given moment in time, you’ll always be writing, even but if in your mind.

HOW YOU SEE YOURSELF AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT IN TIME

I break this down into two sub-categories as well.

  1. How you see yourself with your eye.
  2. How you see yourself in your mind.

This is a critically delicate point. It is very much NOT true, but I perceive it to be true, and so it IS true for me.

I have a bad stereotype in that I imagine writers to dress a certain way. They wear gentlemen’s hats, scarves, pea coats and boots. They wear glasses at the end of their nose and peer over the lenses from time to time.

That’s downright silly, I know. But when I dress a certain way, I feel that I’m in character, and I have to be in character when I’m writing or thinking about writing, because the character is interesting. Without being in character I’m actually a pretty dull guy. And I’m a non-fiction writer. Can’t even comprehend the lengths I’d have to go to if I ever took a stab at writing fiction.

How you see yourself in your mind is much more subtle. It’s actually as subliminal thing.

I have more passwords to various electronic accounts than Carter had pills.

Each of my passwords is unique, special, and because I have to type them so frequently, I use them as inspiration. Most passwords I use include the word “author,” or “travel” or “mission” or “goal.” Every time I type the password in, I’m forced to remind myself who it is I’m working to be.

It’s an extreme measure, I know, but again, you do what works for you.

Take these nuggets. Use them if you can. If I’ve missed some quirky way to be great at this, please send your comments. I need – we all need – all the help we can get.

(The next post in this series, “What it Takes to Write Copy that Kills,” will focus on: THINK.)

And for a related, more lighthearted writing post check out the submission on my secondary blog at: http://wp.me/p2wzTk-14

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Writing’s Most Important Metaphor: Ending on a High Note

Among the group of professionals who call themselves writers (we’ll save my opinion for what makes a professional writer for a whole nother series, a whole nother time) there are dozens of species.

Some will get simple satisfaction from a single book; others will find happiness with the occasional Reader’s Digest or Chicken Soup blurb; many wish to publish a series of either related or unrelated works over a due period of time.

Each can have its merit and worth, but it’s the latter group to which I make a point today.

In the lower left-hand corner of my blog’s header, you’ll see a tagline. Six words, each with a period.

OBSERVE. THINK. PLAN. WRITE. PURSUE. EXECUTE.

It’s the formula I use for just about any project, but it’s particularly effective for me in a lengthy, dead-serious piece of prose.

If you wish to be one of those in the latter category i.e., a series writer with a number of interwoven, published works, you must do this. You must:

END ON A HIGH NOTE.

Let’s think about that metaphor for a moment. Take a 30-second break here and think about the picture the metaphor brings to your mind. END ON A HIGH NOTE… Think NOW…

Now that you have the picture, I’ll share with you what comes to my mind..

THIS IS NOT WHAT I PICTURE:

Go with me on this for a moment.

My mind’s eye visualizes a middle-aged woman, 60-ish we’ll say, slightly overweight, stunning black dress, simple pearls, plainly attractive, but also strangely stunning. And she radiates professionalism. She commands attention.

Her performance: It begins softly, movingly and it brings anticipation. She runs the scale, up, then down, and then she draws you nearer, but quietly, and you know it’s coming. The high note soars, and the drum rolls to a dramatic conclusion.

And it’s over.

ENCORE! ENCORE! ENCORE!

The ENCORE!~ is the writer’s dream. That’s where you want to be.

When I began my first non-fiction work in March of this year, one of the best moves I made was hiring a professional editor to work with me along the way. He is my compass.

Some 15,000 words into the draft, he dropped me an unexpected line. It stopped me, and it changed the course of everything thereafter.

He identified the second book in the series that I didn’t even know was a series.

Yes, it changed everything. Mostly, it presented a huge challenge.

How would I take the anti-thesis of everything I’d written and bring it to an excruciatingly obscure tease at the book’s conclusion and leave every reader salivating to purchase the next one?

***

At the age of 38, (I’m now 46) I decided to run my first marathon. I weighed 248 pounds, couldn’t catch my breath walking up a flight of stairs, and would sometimes pick up a filet-o-fish on the way home from work for a pre-dinner snack.

It began with walking on a treadmill at 5 a.m. on cold winter mornings. Eventually I moved outside. My first goal was to run to the mailbox down the block. Weeks later, I ran a mile. But it was hard to see completing an elevated 26.2 – mile course.

I had to practice VISUALIZATION. I actually had to train my mind to SEE my body running across the finish line and someone putting a medal around my neck.

Eighteen months later I crossed the finishing mark of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon (at a trim 165 pounds I might add.) Taken to the brink of total depletion, the next day, I knew I wanted to do it again.

To do what you must, you have to visualize the finish. You must see the impossible, and you must end on a high note.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin a seven-part series on what it takes to be a successful, professional writer.

That’s my high note for this post.

There’s no way to get where you’re going, unless you know where you want to end up being.

(Steve Watkins is a former journalist and marketing professional with more than 15,000 interviews to his credit. His first two non-fiction works now in the making are: LIGHT WINS: and the darkness is defeated forever… and Dark’s Dominion.)

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