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A Copywriter’s Blog
And what have we learned? Ben Levy 29, January

Things I am capable of writing, as evidenced by sales, interest, or employment:

  • Ads
  • Scripts
  • Books about dicks
  • Books about owls
  • Autobiographical blog posts

Things I am incapable of writing, as evidenced by recent feedback from proofreaders:

  • Short stories

A few days ago, I finally decided that the first of my short stories was “done.” By “done” I mean it was ready to be shown to a select group of test-readers. I was expecting them to find a fair number of grammatical errors, and maybe have a question or two about character motivations.

I think the best way to express their feedback would be “WTF?”

One reader absolutely tore it apart. Just decimated it. He didn’t have a single positive thing to say. He covered it all, from the awkward sentences, to the plot holes, to the unrealistic character behavior. It was incredible. He didn’t just tell me what wasn’t working. He dissected why, and then presented examples of other stories where it was done right. I sat there and got my work shit on for the better part of an hour, and it was done with precision accuracy. Then he finished by slapping me across the face with the question, “So how will you fix it?”

Keep in mind, dear reader, that I work in Ad Land for a living. My job description involves trying to please multiple people with creative ideas on a daily basis. This does not always work out. You’re constantly told something isn’t right, or good enough, or (worst of all) boring. You survive this daily diet of criticism by learning that they don’t hate you, they hate the thing you made. It’s ok. Just go make something better now. Or you’re fired.

I have lived this existence for the last 11 years. Trust me when I tell you I can handle criticism.

But when this reader got done with my story, I was honestly, legitimately, sad for the next 90 minutes. I don’t think I’ve felt this way since my freshman year of college. It was excruciating.

And then it was exhilarating. I had just been run through a master class of “what you did wrong,” and I am incredibly indebted to that reader for the time and energy he was willing to exert on what was clearly a steaming pile of excrement. People pay good money for classes that are not half as instructive.

I started doing this to myself precisely because I wanted to learn how to write in an unfamiliar format. I wanted a challenge. I appear to have found it. I mean, ideally it wasn’t going to make me feel like a total moron, but look, a challenge was found. And I will sit through a hundred more soul-flaying critiques if that’s what it takes to figure this out.

Besides, he doesn’t hate me. He hates the story.

I think.

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I totally lied back there Ben Levy 26, December

I actually wrote 54,217 words for NaNoWriMo.

I intended to be done after the 26th, and give myself a break for a while before trying to revisit some of the less finished stories and edit the more finished ones.

Then I got this idea for another story on November 30th, and wrote a further 3,389 words before 12am.

Which proves that this at-least-ill-advised-if-not-possibly-flat-out-insane experiment was a total success. I can now convert (questionable) story ideas into words at will. Or at least into a word document full of nonsensical ramblings. My method appears to be less about creating a chronological tale and more about assembling a loose collection of plot holes. But! That’s ok because none of you chumps will ever see that draft. As far as you’ll know, I shit perfect prose and impeccable formatting every time a story comes into my head.

Unless of course you read my blog. Which you just have. So, crap.

Not everything I wrote was usable, and often times it was the stuff I had the least faith in that now appears to have the most potential. The next lessons will be how to re-write, and re-re-write, and fill plot holes, and then edit.

Sounds pretty painful. But so was this, and I think it turned out pretty well.

50,828 words later Ben Levy 26, November

Done. 50,828 words in 26 days. NaNoWriMo can suck it.

I’ll post some kind of reflection later. Right now I’m going to sleep.

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It’s Nov 2. This is significant, because I’ve just lived through what will hopefully be the scariest Halloween I ever experience. The one where I spent four days at my parent’s house with The Wife and Spawn, convinced that our apartment was underwater from Hurricane Sandy. I now know what it’s like to lie awake and try to come to grips with the fact that nearly everything you own is gone. To realize you may have no home left. To-

Woah, there. That was getting dark. Let’s try this again:

As I said, it’s Nov 2. This is significant, because November is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. It’s the time when everyone is supposed to sit down and bang out 50,000 words by Nov 30th. Or die trying.

I’ve been meaning to try it for the last three or four years, but I always forget about it until halfway through November. But this year, I had a sharp reminder in early October that NaNoWriMo was coming.

An old friend of mine wrote a book. I hadn’t spoken to this guy for years. He’s the sort of person Hollywood bases a “true story” on. He put aside his own goals and future to support his family. Works long hours at a thankless job he doesn’t want, but excels at it anyway because that’s just who he is. The kind who always wanted to be a writer, but had no idea what he was doing or how to even spell for chrissakes.

So we’re catching up, and he mentions he finished his book. Yeah? Wow. Can I read it?

Sure, he says. I’ll email it to you. Let me know what you think.

I get the doc, open the file, and watch as Word chokes on it’s own inadequacies.

It’s a 400 page novel.

It’s been edited for grammar and spelling. It’s formatted with page numbers and headers and everything.

Four. Hundred. Pages.

The right thing to feel would have been happiness. The right thing to feel would have been joy for my old friend’s incredible accomplishment. I felt some of those things later. Right then though, watching Word choke as it opened page after page of characters and plot and cliffhangers and emotion?

I was furious.

That son of a bitch, with his soul-crushing responsibilities and a schedule that not even a 9-yr old Nike assembly line worker would envy, wrote a 400-page novel.

Yes, I’ve written two books. But if you look carefully, you’ll notice that at best there’s a 50/50 split between word and image in them. Because I never learned how to write outside of the context of advertising.

I’m frightened of it. I want to do it, but the enormity of the task defies me. After the Dick Book, I wanted to write a collection of short stories. I got serious about it for a month, too. Woke up every morning and wrote down the story ideas and plot points that were in my head. But the harder I tried to write them, the worse they became.

In my head the stories were perfect. But the second I tried to commit one to words, it became a limping, broken thing. I took this pure, beautiful concept of a story, and made it mortal. Worse, it was deformed and in pain. Safer to close the file, put the folder somewhere on my hard drive, and put us both out of our misery.

This friend of mine, this arrogant bastard, shattered every excuse I ever had. My schedule was tough? He hadn’t had a night free of work or distraction in years. I didn’t know what I was doing? I write every day for a living. I was taught how to manipulate words by some of the most talented motherfuckers in the advertising industry today. I had to know more than he did. My stories might suck if I put them on the page? At least his are on the page. At least his exist. Even if only half a dozen people have read his unpublished but very real novel. It exists.

I don’t have a novel to write right now. I don’t have the desire to write one, either. But I have a folder full of short stories that I’ve been avoiding for years. And I’m putting at least 50,000 words of them on paper before 12:00am November 30th. They will suck. I will commit horrible travesties to the concept of plot and grammar, and to the bond between reader and storyteller. And then I will edit them until they’re worthy of representing the ideas I haven’t been able to express for years.

Two things drive me. One is the desire for mastery. It’s a very powerful force, and this video explains it way better than I ever could. And the other?

Base fucking envy.

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Screen Shot 2012-05-14 at 11.03.17 PM

Good lord, was that a chore. Someone once said “When you’re 95% done, you’re halfway there.” Dude knew what he was talking about. But it’s done. Finally up and available. Click, buy, etc. If you don’t want a silly overpriced physical copy, or if you have embraced the digital apocalypse, imma have a super cheap ibook version up in a few days weeks whenever I get around to it. Gotta go feed The Spawn.

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Signs of the times Ben Levy 11, April

It’s interesting that the busier I am, the less time I waste spend talking about what I’m doing. I mean, I finished my second book over a week ago, and I’m just posting about it now. (I just dropped that shit like it was nothing, didn’t I? That’s how we experienced authors roll, bitches.)

IMAG0154 copy

The proof copy did just come in this evening, so that’s part of my excuse. I had it as an iBook on The Wife’s iPad as soon as the pages were done, but there’s something special about holding a physical copy. I don’t even know if I’m going to make the physical one available for purchase (all the color options I’m finding are laughably expensive) but I’m glad I have one for myself. Maybe I’ll do a limited run or something.

IMAG0155 copy

Why’d I do this, you ask? Because the only thing I could think of that would screw with people’s heads more than being “the guy who wrote the dick book” was to be “the guy who wrote the dick book and a children’s book.” Also, it was because I felt the need to do something really special for my unborn daughter, something that we could share even before I knew what she was like. But don’t tell people that. It’ll totally ruin my street cred.

IMAG0156 copy

So, maybe I’m a slightly more legitimate not-at-all-legitimate author now. That’s two books. Neither of which have what you’d call plot, exactly. And they’re surprisingly heavy on illustration for a guy who dropped out of graphic design in college, and claims to be a professional writer. But still, they’re books. I’m pretty proud of them.

Like I said, I’m not sure what the sales options will be like for this one. I see a few very minor tweaks I’d like to make to the physical version, and there’s been a surprising amount of talk regarding board-books and plush Little Owls. There’ll definitely be an iBook version out, but I need to make those tweaks first.

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A little over a month ago, I had two things happen in quick succession that energized me to try writing some super short fiction. The first was that I read the introduction to Neil Gaiman’s Stories. The second was a bizarre event involving a woman shot-gunning a glass of red wine in a bar before rushing out. I mentioned both in (possibly excruciating) detail here.

So I decided to write four short stories where I imagined what happened after that woman left the bar.

The first was the longest. It was also the messiest, with an embarrassingly confused tense issue. I also couldn’t shake the desire to explain why the woman hit the bar in the first place, and spent more time on that then on what happened afterward. On the bright side, I think I made great progress in avoiding that pitfall in subsequent stories.

The second was in many ways my favorite. It had a bit of a twist, and I feel I managed to give the protagonist personality in a far subtler way than I had in the first story. Best of all, I think I managed to explain her motivation for entering the bar and what happened afterward in a harmonious fashion.

The third story was difficult for me. Mostly because I’d come up with this silly idea where she was going to a job interview and had downed the wine to give herself the courage to argue that she was a better choice than all the younger, prettier girls. I discarded that because it had no twist, and felt like it would become a long-winded rant. Then the idea presented itself again, where the entire thing was a thinly-veiled double entendre and she was actually auditioning for a secretary porn scene. It had a twist, but come on. That sort of sex humor is completely played out. Worse, I can write it in my sleep, meaning I was unlikely to learn anything from it. I struggled a bit, wrote the first few lines of story three, and then sort of watched as it unfolded in front of me. I think it might not have enough detail for readers to really get anything out of it beyond the surface events transcribed. Still, it’s way better than that secretary crap I nearly wrote.

The fourth story was my attempt at a somewhat lighter tale. The woman in the bar was, to me, an obviously tragic figure. She was desperately uncomfortable and out of place, and I had so far written her that way. This last short fiction was my attempt to bring more to the character than that. It actually occurred to me an hour after I posted it that the best way to write this story would have been from the man’s point of view. I may go back and rewrite it that way, because there were several elements about this one that I enjoyed. It certainly changed who the woman was in my mind.

I think the best thing about this project is that it forced me to write in a different way for a bit. I’ve had this blog for over two years- blogging is no longer a “different” form of writing for me. So I think doing short fiction bits like this is a good way to stretch the literary and story-telling muscles a bit. Also, I tend to write humor stuff. This is the first time I’ve written a serious or tragic story in…shit. Years, probably.

I haven’t gotten a ton of feedback on these, but I’m curious to know peoples’ feelings. Did you like the same ones I did? Were any utterly confusing and nonsensical? Do you think my self-critique is on point, or am I (like usual) spouting hot air? Are you flat-out horrified by the fact that I posted something unfunny on the blog? Am I contractually obligated to make fart jokes and filthy movie rants for the next month? Let me know in the comments.

It’s done. Four stories answering the question “and then what happened?”. I’m going to write some final thoughts about them, but I am so exhausted right now that I just can’t. See the final one below, and I’ll write this post and properly link all the stories later.

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She left the bar clutching her purse as though it meant the difference between life and death. She wasn’t far wrong.

She walked down the street, her eyes darting left and right, seeking an alley, an abandoned construction site, or even a secluded parking lot. Nothing immediately presented itself.

She should never have gone in that bar. She should have just kept going. Walked into a Starbucks or something. Gone shopping. But no. Instead she stupidly went into a bar. Something completely out of character for her cover. She’d realized her mistake immediately, ordered one drink on the off-chance it looked less suspicious, and then left almost immediately. Now he would know she was rattled. He would realize he’d been spotted.

The question was, what would he do with that knowledge? Did she dare look behind her? He had to know he’d been spotted. She had nothing to lose. Lifting her phone as though searching for signal, she was able to twist it so that it reflected a glimpse of the street behind her. He was half a block behind, walking in her direction.

She swallowed hard, and gripped the purse with white knuckles. This was it. Well, if her back was going to be up against a wall, she might as well pick one she liked.

She saw an empty playground up ahead, and turned toward it. She knew it was impossible over the dull roar of the city at midday, but she could swear she heard his footsteps following.

Ducking around a jungle gym, she spied a toddler-sized climbing wall. It was only five feet high, but it would be enough. She thought she heard the steps’ tempo increase, but she was probably just imagining it. There was no time to look.

She spun behind the wall, slamming her back into it and dropping to one knee in the same motion.

Pounding feet approached. He rounded the wall at a dead run.

Her fear was gone. Her purse was gone. But her Walther PPK was pointed right at him.

Inanely, his last thought was to wonder what she had ordered at the bar.

She fired.

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“Please come this way, Ma’am.”

“Thank you.”

“Forgive me, but have you been drinking?”

“Just a glass. I…just a glass of wine. That’s all.”

“I see. In here.”

The door opened, and she walked into the room. It was dim. The glass, she felt, was too clear. It should be darker. How did she know he wouldn’t be able to see her? They should leave it darker, just to make witnesses feel safer. The officer indicated a folding chair.

“They’ll be brought in in a minute. Can I get you anything? Water?”

“No, thank you.”

This was a police station, she should feel safe here. There were police. There was two-way glass. He wouldn’t even know she was here. Except why else would he have been brought out as a witness, unless she was here? Her heart jumped into her throat. He would know.

The officer looked like he was going to leave the room. She clutched her purse convulsively, suddenly gripped by a fear of being alone.

“Uh-excuse me!”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“I- uh-”

She could feel the wine in her stomach, and fought down the urge to retch. The room tilted, her fingers caught the chair in a death grip, and it took all her strength to keep from falling over. And then they came in.

The glass should be darker, she thought again. And then she saw him.

“The one in the middle.”

“I need you to say the number, ma’am.”

“The middle! Number- number three.”

“Number Three, step forward….are you sure that’s the one? Do you want to take more time?”

She stared at the floor, refusing to look at him. Terrified to think that this might somehow be the wrong room, that the glass wasn’t mirrored at all.

“Ma’am? Do you need more time? If you’re unsure-”

“No, I-” she swallowed, hard. “That’s him. That’s my son.”