June 30, 2008

Example: How to Define a Core Strategy

By J Sherer

Taking last week’s theoretical framework, let’s look at an example to showcase how it plays out. Theories are great, but if you can’t apply them to produce results, they don’t mean much.

Question #1: How can my writing add value to my readers?

Starting at a very high level, I’m going to use my own writing as an example. Notice I’ve numbered the value-added criteria. That’s important, because those numbers will help define your priority. That said, I add value by:

1. Providing entertainment.
2. Inspiring others.
3. Provoking thought.

Priority is essential. Imagine me sitting in front of my computer. I come to a place in the story (whether I’m writing the first draft or editing) where I have to decide what’s more important, entertainment or inspiration. If I can’t pull both things off, I have to strategically choose between the two. The choice may be subtler than that. In any given story arc or passage I may have to choose which element to emphasize. My core strategy should define that.

My core strategy defines whether or not I should write an action sequence or a heated argument, use simple sentences or complex, it may even help me choose a genre and define the story’s characters or its focus (especially true in journalistic writing).

Question #2: How do I want my readers to respond to my work?

Take yourself out of the writer’s shoes for a moment and place yourself on the opposite side of the page. Become your audience group. What does your audience expect? Do they want to be introduced to new ideas? Thrilled? Pushed into action?

Look at Dan Brown, writer of the bestselling The Da Vinci Code. While his primary purpose is to entertain, he definitely writes to provoke thought as well (though, in my opinion those thoughts are totally bogus...but at least it's interesting). His audience expects that from him. That’s his core strategy. That’s how he adds value.

Start at the core strategy, because it’s going to affect everything else you choose to do through your writing. If you have questions or comments, I’d love to hear them. Also, I’m headed out on vacation for a couple weeks (and doing some research for a novel I’m working on), so it may be a little while before you hear from me again, but I’ll be back soon to finish out the series. Thanks for reading!

June 28, 2008

Adding Value

By J Sherer

Last post I asked all the readers to consider the question: why would anyone want to read my work? As a business must consider how to add value to its customers, so too does the writer. As a business chooses a core strategy, so too can the writer.

Let’s dig a little deeper. First, take the concept of added value. What options exist for adding value? Here are a few (I’d love to hear your thoughts as well):
  • Provide entertainment
  • Provoke thought
  • Relate common experiences or emotions
  • Develop an understanding or teach
  • Inspire (or maybe depress)
  • Offer social commentary
  • Express creativity
There’s a variety of ways to add value. Those are just a few. To compare, businesses add value through: excellent customer service, cutting-edge products, reliable service, etc. Either way you look at it, the writer/business is providing a product that is consumed by a given audience.

Many works of art include several levels of value-added material. The writer might provide entertainment while simultaneously provoking thought and offering social commentary. The key is to strategically choose your main focus. Don’t choose too many, because you will dilute your purpose. Let’s use a popular writer as an example.

Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and Congo, writes first and foremost to entertain, but he also weaves in scientific facts and things he has learned about his subject. His strategy? Primarily to entertain, but in a way that heightens the readers knowledge.

When defining your core strategy, answer two questions:
  1. How can my writing add value to my readers?
  2. How do I want my readers to respond to my work?
These are two simple questions with millions of possibilities. Start at a very high level. Prioritize your answers. Maybe you want to provoke a new thought process with your readers, but is that more important than entertaining them? Don’t get too detailed just yet, that will come soon enough.

In the next post I’ll walk through this exercise in detail to show you how it works at a functional level. In the meantime, answer questions one and two (and if you feel up to it, post your answers in a comment).

June 25, 2008

Core Strategy and the Value Proposition

By J Sherer

Four generic business strategies exist in the modern business environment:
  1. A complete customer solutions strategy encompasses providing many different products and/or services in tandem in order to meet multiple customer needs all in one place (e.g. Starbucks, IBM, Micrsosoft).
  2. Following a product innovation strategy means that an organization will constantly release the newest and/or best products in its selected category (e.g. Apple, Google, etc.).
  3. Being the low cost leader involves providing products to a mass market at a very low cost to the consumer (e.g. Wal-Mart, Jiffy-Lube, Amazon).
  4. Taking on a lock-in strategy means tying consumers into your service offering and keeping them there (e.g. L.A. Fitness, etc.).
These strategies can be combined, but are frequently used in singular (organizations can’t be all things to all people). Great. So…what does this have to do with writing?

Organizations have learned to define themselves through their core strategy because doing so allows them to clearly articulate their value proposition. What’s a value proposition? Simply stated, it’s what a company will provide consumers that will add value to their lives. Every company needs to ask itself that question. Why would consumers pay us money for this product?

Now, writers, take a step back. Ask yourself this: why would anyone want to read my work?

Let’s take one of the businesses listed above to explore possible answers. Starbucks. What does Starbucks provide its customers so that they’ll pay an absurd amount of money for coffee? The answer? Their value proposition:
  • Excellent coffee.
  • Friendly baristas (that remember your name and drink of choice).
  • Casual, relaxing, and inviting atmosphere.
  • Complimentary products (muffins, music, etc.).
We know how Starbucks gets people to pay for coffee, but do you know why people should read what you write? Think about it. You’re going to spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen. What is it that you’re going to provide that will add value to the reader’s experience, and what core strategy are you going to utilize in order to get there?

Let’s explore that together.

June 23, 2008

The Business of Writing

By J Sherer

Profit. Shareholder wealth. Net income. Growth. Terms you might hear tossed around a table by a couple businessmen in khaki slacks polo shirts. Business has become increasingly significant in today’s world. Because of that, it has been studied, analyzed, and critiqued on a massive scale. That means there’s a wealth of resources regarding how to be successful in the business world.

In the writing world, though, “business” quickly becomes a dirty word. How many times have you read a novel and scoffed, “This guy has no talent! How was this published? He must have a great agent.” Or, maybe you’ve seen the rejection letter that states, “This is a good story, but it’s not right for our audience.”

Poor writers get published and make millions. Great writers struggle for years with little or no success. As writers, we shake our heads, frown, and blame a fairly generic term: “business.”

Are we being fair? Yes. Business principles will help or hurt your writing. But, they can go even one step farther: they can help you hone your craft.

There are two sides to the business of writing:
  1. Getting your work out on the market for consumption. The final product. Business principles apply directly, because publishers are looking for customers. Money is exchanged. It’s a business transaction.
  2. Developing our craft, polishing the art, and letting our creativity loose on the page. Business principles apply here? Yes, but far more subtly.
My intention is to analyze both sides so that you can look at your writing from another perspective. Hopefully, it’ll cause you to think about things in a new way, and maybe it’ll even help improve your writing.

Business is a lot more than just money. There’s a science to business that can be replicated across job functions and industry types. Writers can use the same principles executives use to drive success.

As I dive into this series, I would love some feedback. Is there anything that you’re interested in knowing about business? Maybe you’ve heard some buzzwords but you’re not sure they relate? Let me know and I’ll integrate that into this series. Should be really fun.

June 21, 2008

Disappearing Characters - On Being a Professional Amateur

It’s with great sadness that I present to you the last of Maya’s series on being a professional amateur. I’m sure it’s not the last time Maya will appear on Constructing Stories. Besides, I do need to start righting my own posts again at some point, right?

Disappearing (or Uni-tasking) Characters
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Waldo appears in chapter three and has an epic encounter with the villain, saves the day and endears himself to a female protagonist. He then promptly disappears for the rest of the book, while the reader is left to wonder where he went.

This is such a familiar scenario in the manuscripts I see that I begin to suspect the "Where's Waldo?" fad was started by a college level creative writing instructor or a convention workshop coordinator.

Characters are not widgets. By this I mean that they are not convenient objects that you can invent, use, and then discard by simply forgetting about them—sort of literary uni-taskers. Once you've written a character he or she has a certain reality in the reader's mind and in the world you created for the characters to function in. Your reader will think of Waldo as a person, even if to you he is just a convenient way to "off" the head troll.

There are several solutions to this. You might find another way to kill the troll that does not involve inventing a character just for that purpose. Let one of your main characters do it. Or turn Waldo into a multi-tasker. Give him a life. You might find he helps you write a better book. Better yet, back up and take a long look at the structure of your story. If you've had to invent a character for a specific purpose, ask yourself why that is and what it says about your story that once that purpose is fulfilled, the character has ceased to matter to you. Then address that issue.

You may find that the action involving the character:
  1. Is taking place at the wrong time in the story.
  2. Needs to be set up more thoroughly as part of the fabric of the story.
  3. Is not as central to the plot of the story as you thought and can be cut.

Have you enjoyed Maya’s series, “On Being a Professional Amateur?” If so, check out her website at http://www.mysticfig.com/. In the meantime, I’ll be posting a series on how business strategy and writing craft actually may be related. Shocked? Sign up for the RSS so you don’t miss it. And, please let me know how you liked Maya’s series! Thanks!

June 15, 2008

Enter Stage Right - On Being a Professional Amateur

It’s been a little while since I posted! Business travel, completing my MBA, and deciding to travel to the Dominican Republic this summer have been taking up my time. But, I am excited to complete Maya’s series this week. Today is the sixth installment, and later this week I’ll post the seventh. Enjoy!

Enter stage right
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Many new writers I've worked with insist on walking characters into every scene. Literally.

It goes something like this: Van entered the house from the back door and set his lunch box down on the kitchen table. He walked across the room and opened the refrigerator where he took out a can of soda. He opened it and took a drink. Then he went into the living room and walked toward the bottom of the staircase. He entered the front hall and realized the front door was wide open. Someone had entered his house.

Cataloguing every move Van made when he got home from work before we get to the key Moment he discovers his house has been violated just softens the impact of that Moment.
To get off to a faster start, we might try something like this: Van was halfway across the living room, his mind on the can of ice cold soda he'd just opened, when he realized his front door was hanging wide open. He stopped and stared at it. Dear God, what if...? He realized he was holding his breath, listening to the house.

You may have heard the advice to start your story where it actually starts—that is where the action, suspense, conflict, etc. kick in. This is also true of individual scenes within the story. You don't have to describe your characters entering a room together and sitting down before they begin conversing. Bring us into their conversation as the first really important issue is raised or the first critical question asked. Bring us into the action the moment before something happens.

If you want the reader's heart to race, write the moment your character's heart begins to race. Whether it's the start of a book or a chapter or a scene, you want to get off to the most engaging start you can.

Thanks for stopping by! There’s only one more segment to Maya’s series, so please stop by later this week to check it out. After that, I’ll be starting a series on applying business principles to your writing to increase your chances of success! Sign up for the RSS feed so you don’t miss it!