Friday, April 17, 2009

Writing Ads Adds to your Writing

Professor Charles here again, with the second of my installments on the parallels between writing effective advertising and writing compelling novels.

Rick’s post (below) on revision made me revise my plans. Instead of posting about branding and character development, I want to ramble on a bit about micro-level revision.

When most folks talk about the revision process, they are usually talking about how they need to tweak the entire manuscript to ensure that it’s all going in the right direction—do I add a chapter here to explain Lord Philby’s obsession with marsupials, do I remove Aunt Glenda since, other than the one scene in the copper smelting plant she adds little to the plot, do I give Marvin an adorable obsessive compulsive trait in addition to his inability to conjugate French past-tense verbs? These are all good questions and work at this level is essential, but what I’m talking about are much smaller decisions—do I say ottoman or footstool, did he push the door open or was it more of a shove, did her eyes glisten or just water up?

Billboard ads seem so last century, but after almost 100 years they remain amazingly effective. One of the toughest assignments in advertising is to come up with an effective billboard campaign. What makes it so tough is that you have a blink to make an impact, a tiny handful of words—seven or so, tops—to get the message out there. Often, but not always, you get a good picture to work with and if you’re lucky, a well-known logo that can cut down what has to be said in words. I have written many times about how long it might take me to write a chapter in a book, but it’s no exaggeration to say that I have spent 20+ hours trying to come up with just the right set of words for single billboard. Sometimes you hit on the right combination in an hour, but the norm is much longer, and it’s all because of word choices.

Now authors make word choices every two seconds, but I submit that when you are writing an ad—a billboard, a print ad, a web banner, a point-of-sale poster—those word choices are critical to the success of the writing. In a novel you might have 90,000 words. If you sweated every word you’d never get it done. Yes, you think about them, but does any author have the time—or the need—to explore alternative word choices and phrasing for every single word, every single time? Sometimes you just have to open the damn door.

When you ponder word choices on a micro level, you get to explore all the neat denotations and connotations, weighing this word over that one, these two together versus these two, these three, not these three. It’s great fun, intellectually stimulating and painfully slow. I don’t suggest it as a way to approach your novel since you’ll never get it done (hmmm…good excuse, though), but when you have a scene that is just not working or a character who remains flat on the page, get down to the micro level and I bet you’ll see some progress.

So here’s your assignment—come up with a 5 billboard campaign for the manuscript you are currently working on. That’s 5 different billboards that sell your particular story (not you, the story), using no more than 7 words per billboard. Yes, you can use images. Here’s an example using the book I’m writing. It might go something like this:

[Image - Top down photo of the inside of a dresser drawer. Objects on the top of the dresser and inside make it clear it’s an older man’s dresser. Mixed in with the shirts and suspenders and old monogrammed hankies is a small black bag, and spilling out of this bag are un-mounted jewels. And just visible under the bag is the pistol grip of a handgun and a pair of black leather gloves. Upper right side of the billboard is an image of the book cover.]

[Headline] He’s not your typical grandfather.

You may not know anything about the book—and you don’t—but I bet you have some questions about this old man. Okay, it’s not brilliant, but you get the idea. Please post your billboards in the comment section. And trust me on this, writing billboards is harder than it sounds.


Vicki Delany said...

I am definately going to do this! In the meantime, what I think makes my trailer for Valley of the Lost (go to Youtube and search on Valley of the Lost Delany) is that it's so short. 38 seconds. Pow, and it's over. Much, much better than many trailers I've seen that are a lot longer.

Rick Blechta said...

It's not hard to write on billboards. I used to do it all the time when I was a kid, sometimes with a brush, but more often with a can of spray paint.

What's that?...Oh...

You meant I have to WRITE copy for a billboard, not ON a billboard?


Julie Butcher-Fedynich said...

I would be so cheating if I did this one. My husband and Son.

Billboards are my day job :) Nice to know it's useful to writing.

Rick Blechta said...

Okay, here's my billboard design for the next novel, The Fallen One -- or in Italian, La Traviata:

On the lefthand side, a blackened stage. Photo of obvious opera singer wearing a white gown, lying on her side at the end of the big death scene. On the right the image morphs into a photo of the dead body of a man dumped among the garbage in a darkened alley.

The copy is (typeset in white, either Interstate Black or Geoslab Extra Bold -- sorry, the designer in me has to get in on the action) "Sometimes opera doesn't stay on the stage..."

Lower right hand corner has the book's details ("Available now", etc.) and the cover, which will obviously have to be bright or have a glow around it otherwise it will be lost in the images. Sorry... Design moment again.

Vicki Delany said...

Nice pic, Julie. Interesting work, I would imagine.

Vicki Delany said...

Gold Digger: The billboard if sull of the iconic black and white photo of the line of people struggling up the Golden Staircase to the Chilkoot pass (you know the picture). Half the picture is overlaid by colour photo of a huge woman's hat - red, ostrich feather, lace and satin. Caption "There is more than one type of gold rush".

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