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A Copywriter’s Blog
This clarifies nothing Ben Levy 19, February

My mother often laments how she doesn’t understand what I do for a living. This post is not going to help her.

This morning, my partner and I stopped in a variety of fabric stores in NYC’s fashion district.

“Hello, we’re looking for faux rabbit fur.”

“Oh, I haven’t got that. Have you been to Elegant Fabrics yet? They’re the best in the city for fur.”

“Ah, thank you.”

2 blocks later:

“Hello, we’re looking for white rabbit fur.”

“Long or short?”

“Long.”

“Upstairs.”

The next fifteen minutes were spent making muppet jokes and comparing the bolts of faux pelts that crammed every square foot. Eventually we settled on a yard and a half of snow white yeti hair. We were back in the office around 11am, where we confirmed that, yes, the custom crunk chalice we had commissioned for a client would look “boss” amidst the fuzz.

After a quick lunch, we spent an hour discussing what sort of knit sweater a turtle should wear. We settled on turtle neck. Because, really, how can you not? I feel it necessary to point out that this was a legitimately billable discussion pertaining to an actual client project. The terrapin’s gotta wear something in the TV spot.

Afterwards we debated what picture should go in the bedroom that would appear in the ad. We were initially thinking a Lisa Frank style dolphin illustration, but quickly realized it would take away from the copious amounts of hand-knit furnishings that are going to be featured in the scene. Kittens were considered, but felt a bit overdone. Also, it was noted that if dolphins were good, narwhals were better. We tentatively settled on a silhouette of a narwhal against a solid background. A subtle touch of the unicorn of the sea.

I guess it’s worth mentioning that I also rewrote a few lines for the spot, and about a page and a half of copy for the company website. But those are mere details, like my attempt to tag a half-full champagne bottle with my nerf gun from halfway across the creative department.

And that’s what I do for a living. Some days. Today, at least.

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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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Dear 2011 Ben Ben Levy 31, December

An open letter about the future 365 days too late to be useful.

Yo, 2011 me! Sup, brah? Life was good, yeah? All that stuff you told 2010 us about came true, obviously.

I’m gonna tell you man, this is a big year you’re heading into. Lotta firsts.

You should start the year by changing the way you post on the blog. Stop killing yourself to update it weekly. It’s kind of a minor thing, but it’ll actually result in exactly what you’re hoping for- more energy spent on new creative pursuits.

That kid you impregnated our The Wife with comes out. Winds up being by C-Section. This will result in the creation of two things: our daughter, and the greatest picture we’re likely to take in our lifetime*:

Nat Geo, call me.

You’ll publish our second book. Huzzah and cheers all around. It should be noted however, that the silly idea you have that this book will be easier than the last one -whether because it’s your second, a children’s book, or whatever- is absolutely laughable.

That awesome job at a place you never heard of that you took last year? Yeah you’ve still got that. You know we don’t talk about work much on the blog, because we strongly believe that leads to pink slips and having to look for new jobs. But if we did, this post would wind up being about three times as long. Lotta stuff gonna happen, man, lotta stuff. Suffice it to say that you’ll finish the year with some of the coolest stuff you’ve made since the last coolest stuff you’ve made.

You’ll finally do NaNoWriMo. That’ll be a bit intense. I commend your impending dedication to that cause. It won’t be easy. And then, somewhat shockingly, it will be.

And just because that wasn’t interesting enough, you’ll move in December. In a week. Like, you’ll find a 2-bedroom in the building, and then you’ll swap apartments 6 days later. To be honest, it’s one of the least painful moves you’ll have made. Still exhausting though.

Oh, and you don’t need me to tell you this, but the Mayans were totally wrong.

-The Ben from “now”, which is your “then”.

PS- Hey, one last thing. In October a really freaking enormous storm is going to hit your area. It’s going to fuck shit up. You’re going to lie awake at night at your parent’s place and try to come to grips with the fact that according to all the information you can find your apartment is underwater and nearly all your possessions are gone. In fact, you’re going to be incredibly lucky and the entire place will be untouched, so try not to worry about it, ok?

*Holy crap, the tense in these letters is/will be/was murder.

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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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VIRUS Ben Levy 21, August

When I was 12, I wrote a comic book. I don’t think I finished it until I was 14, and I know I bugged the shit out of everyone with it for those two years.

I found the comic, scanned it, and spent entirely too much time retyping dialogue. Then I added commentary to nearly every page. Partially so you could all enjoy reading my inner voice, and partially to ensure that no one would ever come across this and think I did it yesterday.

Screen Shot 2012-08-21 at 10.37.34 PM

From the forward:

When I was 12, I started a comic book.

When I was 29, I wrote a 1,000-word critique of it.

This is VIRUS. A comic drawn by 12-year old me, about 12-year old me getting struck by lighting, zapped into my computer, and fighting a digitized villain through a series of games.

I’m the hero of the story. The room, hairstyle, and games are all accurate to my life in ‘95. If you keep this in mind while reading, everything is roughly 400x funnier.

Thank you, Joe, for reminding me this existed. Thank you, Mom, for making sure I kept all my old art.

Click here to download.

Enjoy.

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Foomi Ben Levy 7, July

Someone left a bunch of Munny’s around the office, along with a box of sharpies. Well, I wasn’t not gonna draw all over one.

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(I swear I actually do work at work. It’s just that concepting is a mental exercise, and sometimes my hands get bored.)

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It’s my third Munny, and my first all-sharpie. My previous experiments had led me to believe that all-sharpie was not a viable option. Apparently, reports of smearing were widely exaggerated.

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IMAG0687

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29 Ben Levy 25, June

The last two years, I had awesome explanations for how I was actually aging backwards. That ended this year.

This year, I turned 29. In itself, not a bad thing. But it’s 29-with-an-8-week-old-daughter, which is 45 in parent years. Many of my friends are in their 30s, but they can all sleep easy knowing I’ll always be older than they are.

The Spawn is two months old now, which means she’s ten pounds and smiles and laughs. Her gift to me was seven straight hours of sleep. It was the first night since she was born that I didn’t have to get up to feed her at least once.

So while I might be older than ever, I’m terminally behind on life, and I’m in a constant state of exhaustion, I could be feeling a lot worse.

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Deceiving appearances. Ben Levy 21, June

I found this article about how drowning doesn’t look like drowning fascinating. Mostly because my brother almost drowned right in front of a life guard when we were little. Literally 2 feet in front of a lifeguard. Who was sitting at ground-level. Watching my brother do a fantastic impression of someone treading water.

What the life guard wasn’t noticing was that he was pushing the water right into his open mouth. Which was at water level, not above it.

The first clue for me was that my brother wasn’t supposed to be in the damn pool by himself. If I hadn’t known that, I might not have really seen what was going on either. The upshot was he didn’t die. Another benefit was that since I’m the one who jumped in and saved his life, I didn’t feel as bad when we discovered his horribly deviated septum was from that time I accidentally kicked him in the face.

Sorry, bro.

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