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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Cover the Canvas

By Steven Pressfield
Published: May 25, 2016

Is the first draft the hardest? Is it different from a third draft, or a twelfth? Does a first draft possess unique challenges that we have to attack in a one-of-a-kind way?

Cover it, baby!

Cover it, baby!

Yes, yes and yes.

A first draft is different from (and more difficult than) all subsequent drafts because in a first draft we’re filling the blank page. And we know what that means: Resistance.

We were talking last week about the “Blitzkrieg method” for attacking a first draft. Here’s another way of thinking about it. This is my main mantra for first drafts:

“Cover the canvas.”

I think of myself as a painter standing before a big blank canvas. What is my aim in a first draft? I just wanna get paint on every inch of that canvas. I know I’m done when I can stand back and see color from end to end and top to bottom.

Imagine we’re Leonardo and we’re laying out “The Last Supper” (in other words, a first draft). Here’s what we want to do. We want to sketch in the apostles, get an outline of Jesus in the center, get the supper table down so it works nicely from left to right and right to left. And we want the perspective in the background. Beyond that, we will not sweat the details. It doesn’t matter if Matthew’s hair isn’t right, or Peter’s left hand has four fingers. We’ll fix that later. Get the picture down. Cover the canvas.

I’m working on a first draft right now. I’m into it about two months. It’s half done. I’ve got one scene that I know in finished form will be about two pages long. Right now it’s twelve. I’ve got repeats, digressions, all kinds of weird stuff in there. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy. I’ve got paint on that part of the canvas.

Another sequence in finished form will be probably forty pages. Right now it’s one sentence. It’s a big TK (“to come.”) I’m fine with that. At least I’ve got SOMETHING as a place holder. I’m covering the canvas.

Why is it so helpful to think of first drafts in these terms? Because in the first draft, Resistance is at its most powerful. First drafts are killers. The blank page, day after day is a monster. Fighting that fight, we give Resistance ten thousand chances to come up with reasons for us to quit. If we dawdle on our first draft, even good external news can destroy us. A raise, a new baby, a winning lottery ticket. Aw hell, there goes our symphony.

Some smart son of a gun once said, “There’s no such thing as writing, only re-writing.” He was wrong. The first draft is writing. Pure blue-sky, blank-sheet writing. But he was right too. Because after Draft #1, it’s all rewriting.

That’s our goal in a first draft: to get to the point where we can start re-writing.

Lemme say it again: Our enemy as artists is Resistance. If we make the mistake in our first draft of playing perfectionist, if we agonize over syntax and take a week to finish Chapter One, by the time we’ve reached Chapter Four, we’ll have hit the wall. Resistance will beat us.

But if we can stay nimble and keep advancing, slapping paint on the canvas and words on the page till we’ve got something that works from east to west and north to south, however imperfectly, then we’ve done our job.

Remember, we’ll probably do ten drafts or more before we’re done. Those drafts are for fixing the stuff we laid in roughly in Draft #1. But by putting paint in every square inch, we’ve laid the groundwork for those subsequent drafts. There’s lots left to do but we’ve established a beachhead now. We’ve got something we can work with.

Cover the canvas. It works.


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What It Takes

What It Takes

Always be Closing

By Shawn Coyne | Published: May 27, 2016

So you’ve got a cover image that you’re happy with.

Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross...remember your ABCs

Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross…remember your ABCs

  1. The title and the image Yin and Yang around the territory of the global theme of the work.
  1. You’ve also got a solid short quote from a respected source and/or a respected figure in the book’s genre featured prominently on the front. Something like “The best book on extreme spelunking bar none!” –Lon Fuller

So you’re done right?

NOPE.

Don’t forget the back cover copy.

This is a fundamental mistake self-publishers make again and again.

They go all the way to the finish line and then they half ass the back cover.

Hey, I’ve done it myself. The back cover is the last battleground with book packaging Resistance. It’s the place when we just want the damn thing to be over with.

We’re exhausted. We went through 30 different cover ideas and almost destroyed our relationship with our designer.

We’ve burned every bridge possible calling in every favor we can to get advance quotes. Now we just want to get this sucker out in the marketplace so we can move on with our lives.

Totally understandable.

Now go have a cup of coffee and then close this sucker.  Burn through this last grind and don’t quit until you’re sure the copy is as good as it can be.

So what are you going to write?

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Have a tagline at the top of the back cover.
  3. Do two paragraphs of body copy that explain the three stages of the book (beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff) in a dynamic way.
  4. End with an author bio (and perhaps photo too if you can make it look good).
  5. Realize that it will never be perfect…

So Steve has a new book at the printer now that we’ll be bringing out very soon. (Don’t worry all of our peeps who are part of First Look Access, which you can sign up for here, will get preferential treatment before it goes wide…)

What did we decide to use as our tagline at the top?

FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE WAR OF ART

We’re cool honing in on that single simple eight-word pitch because the book is perfect for anyone who’s read, heard of, or is mildly interested in The War of Art.

Steve’s new book isn’t for everyone…so we didn’t try and pitch everyone.

Obviously, you don’t need to read The War of Art to go mad for the new book. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say it has a very provocative title.

So the trick for the back cover copy is to CLOSE THE SALE!

So one way to CLOSE THE SALE is to speak to people you absolutely know will be ready to buy.

Don’t try and convince people who aren’t inclined to turn over the book and read the back cover!

Because guess what? They haven’t even made the choice to read the back cover copy. And if you write your copy for those who don’t really care…you might turn off your core audience.

There is nothing more off putting than generic back cover copy written to no one in particular. A book is an invitation to deepen a person’s relationship to the author…even if they’ve never read anything by him/her before.

So write copy that speaks to the reader you know will love the book.

If you’ve written a thriller about online gaming…use language that online gamers use so that those people will see the book as authentic. Not some lame attempt by a 50-year-old editor trying to get a piece of that hot new market. The copy needs to sound like something the reader has heard tangentially in his chosen area of interest or something he understands deeply.

So for those two body paragraphs after the opening hook of the tag line…use the strength of the book’s theme as represented by its inciting incident to compel the reader to just BUY THE THING ALREADY.

“What if an insatiable killer shark starting eating Hamptons summer swells and the only person capable of stopping the shark is terrified of getting into the water?”

“What kind of man has the inner fortitude to defend a society’s scapegoats from the prejudice and tyranny of a nation’s starving underclass?”

“Is there ever a time to forgive an unforgivable act of malice?”

Use the story to sell the story.

Lay down the landscape of emotional terrain for the reader with a juicy question for them to ponder so that they “get it.” They’ll understand the genre the book is living in just from that question. They’ll understand the stakes involved in the story (the central value inherent in each external and internal genre must be conveyed in the back cover copy) and they’ll understand what generally the ending payoff of the entire thing will be just from that question.

What you need to do with the back cover copy is build up the reader’s expectations and make them promises that you will pay those expectations off in ways that they will never see coming.

Use the back cover copy to Close the sale. ALWAYS BE CLOSING.

And if the book delivers on those promises, it will be discussed among the lovers of that particular genre. And it will gain word of mouth. It will live.

Lastly, if you have a renowned author with incredible bona fides, don’t waste them!

Put his/her bio (and if they’re interesting and warm looking too…their photo) on the back cover so that anyone still not sure to try it will be convinced by this last bit of salesmanship.

The subtext of the bio/photo is “Dude, this woman or man is awesome…you’re not going to find an expert better than her or him…so buy it!”

And keep the whole thing under 250 words.


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What It Takes

What It Takes

Don’t Swing Big All the Time

By Callie Oettinger | Published: May 20, 2016

The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams and John UnderwoodIn The Science of Hitting, by Ted Williams and John Underwood, there’s a a section titled “Smarter is Better,” which starts out by talking about Frank Howard, then of the Senators.

“He hit a lot of home runs, he’s the strongest man I’ve ever seen in baseball, but he wasn’t getting on base nearly as often as he should. He struck out a lot, he swung at bad pitches, he swung big all the time.”

When Williams finally had an opportunity to work with Howard, they focused on NOT swinging big all the time.

“Halfway through the 1969 season he had almost as many walks as he drew the entire previous season. He wound up with 102 and cut his strikeouts by a third. His average was higher than ever, he scored more runs, and he still hit more home runs, some of them out of sight. In 1970 he led the league in home runs (45) and RBIs (140) and walked 130 times.”

For the non-baseball fans, this boils down to one thing: Once Howard stopped trying to crush every ball that came his way, his stats improved.

I met another author last month, whose goal was to make it to the New York Times bestseller list. He knows that first-time authors have made the list. He ignores the greater number of first-time authors that haven’t made the list, as well as the long-time successful authors who haven’t made the list.

His goal is to hit home runs and only home runs.
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Posted in What It Takes | 11 Comments
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