Sunday, October 25, 2015

Death of a Novel, Maybe

Not only has the novel nibble reported in July become null -- I’m on notice that I don’t have a novel at all. I have a novella. Forty-six-thousand words does not a novel make, I’m told, and I may have been sealing my own fate by specifying that number in the pitches I’ve been sending to agents.

This leaves me in a quandary. The work is too long to try to pass off as a short story but too short for a comic strip. (I had actually considered that format for it at one time, but comic strips go on for years or, in some cases, decades, while this story has an end.) 

Trying to force something into a new format is unpleasant work. It would mean creating new adventures for the characters to satisfy the comic strip form or adding thousands more words to make it a conventional novel. Either would be like patching together a Frankensteinian monster; it might walk, but you wouldn’t want to spend time with it. Might individual chapters, excerpted, make coherent stories? Maybe, but it would be by lucky coincidence at best.   

There is a last resort: self-publishing. It used to be called “vanity” publishing, but like many other things it’s been renamed and made respectable, the literary equivalent of “erectile dysfunction.” I've always held out against it as being an admission of defeat: your work couldn’t make it in the competitive arena.

 I believe there have been instances of self-published books going on to become wonderfully successful, but it’s so rare as to be comparable to winning the lottery. There must be countless books in print, sort of, with readership in the single digits, slightly more for authors with large families. I prefer not to put myself in that category, especially since my circle of relatives has greatly diminished over the years.

The saving of the situation is that not being published, while it’s a disappointment, isn’t a crushing defeat, because I’m not a novelist. I’m a business/technical writer who felt a story coming on one time and put it down on paper. Maybe it’s time to put it down altogether. Appropriate; it’s about animals.           

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Profiles and Dumb Questions

Occasionally I write profiles of people and companies. Haven’t made it into The New Yorker yet, but I have been featured in Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration News and Paint and Coatings Industry  -- so there.

There are (or used to be)  publications like those for every industry. Usually there’d be two or three in each, because someone in the business is the CEO, someone else is the technical expert behind the product or service, and there’s a purchasing agent and the marketing department, even if it's a one-man company and they’re all the same guy. You could slant the writing to the interests of each in the publication that catered to each. Enterprising business writers traditionally made their living emphasizing different aspects of a basic story for different audiences. I guess they’d call it “repurposing” now.   

For reasons I have to think back about to explain, I’ve always preferred writing for trade publications like those rather than consumer publications. Pay is less and exposure is nil, but it just seems there’s something more …solid…about it. Those business book editors gave you specific assignments and expected pertinent information back. You weren’t going to slip a wad of “content” past them.

The profile assignment would usually be someone selected for his or her reputation in the industry or maybe for something newsworthy they’d done. It’s where one of my specialties, the dumb question, comes into play. 

Dumb questions are the secret behind being able to go, with nothing but scribbling ability, into an interview in a business or a technical operation you may know nothing or very little about and come out with a story. I’m good at asking dumb questions. The skill part of course is asking the right dumb questions. At the end, you organize what you’ve learned, consider your audience, decide on the “voice,” et voila -- your article.  

Those assignments are the easy ones. It’s trickier developing a profile about someone undistinguished or an “average” business. You have to believe -- I do -- there’s a story in every business. Maybe you can see what it is going in but, then, maybe it only emerges at the end, and when it’s finished and it’s good you feel like you’re reading it for the first time yourself. 

It’s a good feeling all around. Your editor is happy (you’ve met the deadline); the interviewee is delighted (he sees himself and his business reviewed, to the envy of his peers); and for a writer, it’s knowing you were skilled enough to find the story where maybe not everyone could. Very satisfying.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Young Tree, Old Gardeners

Just discovered a newly-planted tree in the greenbelt near my writing bench. It’s a skinny little thing, still with its training wheels: poles on each side wired to it, holding it erect. You can count the number of leaves on it -- I did, there are 12 -- although I don’t know what kind. They’re not three-pointed maples, so it’s pushing the limits of what I know about trees. They’re vaguely oak-looking, and I’m not even sure of that.

All the other trees in the neighborhood are fully leafed out; it’s first days of autumn but the weather is still summer around here. So this newbie really sticks out. You want to say encouraging things to it, like you might to an awkward teenager: “You’ll be beautiful in a little while. Hang in there.”

And it will flourish. I’m not the one who put it in the ground, a sure death sentence for anything green. We have really professional gardeners. Mostly they’re Chicano, 50s- and 60s-looking. Many look too old to be doing this kind of work in the heat -- we’re having some near-hundred-degree days as I write this -- but I’m sure  it’s not by choice. I think they get even with the world by running their hundred-decibel leafblowers.

They work all around us residents but manage to not be “of” us. Most don’t speak English or pretend not to, and I and the people   I know don’t speak Spanish. So if there is any contact it’s fleeting: pidgin Spanish-English and some gestures to indicate you’d like the flowerbed in front of your apartment weeded. If it’s heavier than that the English may be a little louder and a little slower, and maybe a ten-dollar-bill will change hands.

The gardening goes on  constantly; no blade of grass escapes to grow more than half an inch when our gardeners mow the lawns. At tree-trimming time you see them perched in the upper branches, running small chainsaws. The trees look denuded when they’re through, but I’ve learned they know what they’re doing because the trees come back better than before.

I can't help but think there must be a metaphor in the situation somewhere: the aging gardeners, some of whom look like they should be in retirement themselves, planting young trees in an old folks’ community. The trees will outlive all of us, residents and gardeners both. Young Tree, Old Gardeners

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Emotion and Business-To-Business Marketing

There’s an  ongoing argument about emotion in business-to-business marketing, and it’s a fundamental one: Should emotion be used, yes or no. I’ve seen diametrically opposed arguments from people who are represented (or represent themselves) as gurus in the field.

This is an argument against.

Traditionally, business marketing has taken a pragmatic approach, focusing usually on helping prospects attain practical objectives by practical means. “Increase Your Profits With This Product.”

The people who advocate using emotion point out that businesses are run by people and people have emotions, so you should appeal to that when selling business products or services. “Here’s a Way To Become Rich.”

Basically the approach recasts “objectives” as “emotions.” You translate the business owner’s objective, “making money,” into an emotion, “greed”; the employee’s drive to advance on the job becomes pride.  But have you really changed anything?

Not if you’re in business for the conventional reasons. Your prospects have objectives or emotional needs, call them what you want, and you’re selling something that will help achieve or fulfill them.

How do you do that?

Not with emotion; you do it with hard information.

The entrepreneur makes additional profit (satisfies his greed) by increasing sales or lowering costs or getting to market ahead of the competition or offering higher quality for the price. Your task is to show how your product helps achieve those things. Demonstration, specifications, test results, case histories, ROI.

The manager advances to a better position (satisfies his pride) by demonstrating improved results for his department. Your product has to show him increased productivity. More efficient processes, new-technology equipment, better-trained employees.     

Sure, you can hook `em with emotion, but question-answering and problem-solving and customer benefits are what you’re going to need after that. Why not just get down to it?

And it’s no different even in the new-era work environment we hear about where profit may not be the driving motive; where success may be measured by other criteria. But the business going under won’t help save the environment or improve the human condition; it has to be viable to achieve the larger goals. The ends may have emotional roots, but the means remain stubbornly practical.

That’s not to say there can’t be any emotion at all in business marketing.

Say you’ve just solved a tough problem for an important customer. Your reward is practical -- a big sale and a lot of money  -- but there’s an emotional component in it, too. Depending on which camp you're in, it's the pleasure of knowing you have a profitable business, or the satisfaction of your greed.