Monthly Archives: October 2013

Listen First, Then Write

Good writing is like a good haircut: it depends on the person doing it!

I was four months overdue for a trim, so yesterday I went to my favorite hair care place. It’s a chain, but my favorite hairdresser is consistently good. I wanted a couple inches off all around (think Dame Judi Dench in the Bond movies). I felt disappointed because Jennifer wasn’t in. I really needed the trim!

I decided to try another woman there. (I’ll call her “Eve” to protect Jennifer – and me.)

Eve asked me what I wanted as she led me to the washing station.

“A trim, razor cut, not scissors. No bangs, no blow dry and no mousse or anything like that in my hair,” I said.

Yes, as you can guess, she did everything opposite of what I wanted. When I called her on not using the razor, she said she was and showed me the texturing scissors. I sighed; I know what a razor cut feels like and she wasnt doing it. But, shed already begun cutting so I needed her to finish. She started blow-drying my hair; I told her I didn’t want it. She ignored me. She used the blow dryer to pull the bangs down onto my forehead. I pushed the short hairs back and she looked surprised.

“I don’t do bangs,” I said firmly.

“Oh.” She turned away and squirted something in her hands.

“And I don’t want anything in my hair.” This time I was more emphatic.

“Oh! You don’t want this?”

No.”

She wiped the foam onto a towel.

Eve gave me a discount (don’t ask me why; she never said and I didn’t ask). I gave her a tip out of habit.

While I walked away with a decent haircut, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. It was serviceable; I didn’t have to “wait until it grew out.” It was… decent.

But, Eve hadn’t listened to a thing I said. She may have heard me, but she didn’t do as I wanted.

Now, what does this have to do with writing?

Everything.

As writers, we need to really listen to what our clients want. Not simply hear the words. Not put our own filters on what they say. Not assume we know what they’re saying. And we’d better not do the opposite of what they want. We need to listen and ask questions to fully understand what they’re asking for.

Our product is our ability to transform what they want into a piece that they’ll be happy with. We need to give them more than just a decent piece, more than a serviceable piece. Normally, theyll pay us even if all they receive is a decent piece.

But, they wont come back to us.

We want each of our clients happy with what they receive from us. We need to give them the piece they want so that theyll come back.

Ill still go back to that particular chain. However, Ill only stay if Jennifer is there. Im happy with how she cuts my hair.

What’s the most recent decent thing you’ve received, even if it wasn’t what you actually wanted? Leave a comment here and let me know.

Strategy and Simplify

And many an idea comes from fiction.

In the short story, Consones Diary, (*see below) an 1850s consummate swordsman named Otavio Consone is teaching swordplay to Duncan MacLeod. His impatient student already knows sword work, but wants to learn more. From a master. At this point, MacLeod is rash, headstrong and Consone considers him still somewhat barbaric. But Consone sees promise in the man, and takes him as a student.

Later, after several weeks of training, Consone shares two secrets with the Highlander: Strategy and Simplify

From the diary:

He is ready for the first secret. Strategy. A duelist asks himself four simple questions. What is my opponent doing? How is he doing it? What can I do about it? And most importantly: can I do it?

Secret number two. Simplify. Action is an exercise in minimalism. Speed does not come from greater effort, but from doing less and doing it better. A smaller simpler move is more effective and speed is the natural result.

The Writers Interpretation

This can more than apply to writing as well. Just as a duelist may ask himself these questions, we writers can ask the same type of questions.

  • What is my competition doing?
  • How is he doing it?
  • What can I do about it?
  • Can I do it?

Strategy

If your competition is creating a decent brochure (his what) but is concentrating on the features (his how), why not concentrate on writing a brochure that stresses the benefits, perceived or real (your what)? Only you can decide whether you can do this or not

Simplify

Youve decided that yes, you can do it. Whats more, you will do it. You will write the brochure with benefits. And, youve also found a way to use white space so that your brochure look less cluttered, even as your lean text states everything necessary. Its deceptively simple, but its a powerful piece.

Todays Takeaway

Dont put away fiction completely. Leave a little room in each months time to read something non-cerebral. Put away the reference books, the business books and the how-to manuals for just a few minutes here and there of unrestricted fiction.

I admit, I dont read a lot of fiction any more, no more than one, maybe two books in a month. My tastes now embrace non-fiction at the rate of two or three in a week. But, what fiction I do read (mystery, suspense, and fantasy, mostly), I find ideas that answer questions beyond the suspension of disbelief, ideas to think about, and ideas that spark other ideas. Best of all, I find ideas I can use in writing.

Dont put away fiction forever.

Where have you found ideas in odd places? Which fiction books are your favorites and why?

Air, Our Breath

“It takes my breath away!”

Most of the time, when we hear that, it’s an exclamation of beauty. There’s a sense of wonder watching leaves turn ruby and gold and carnelian, of smelling good clean earth. All seasons have their scents. The ocean fills up the summer, with salt and water. Autumns leaves and their loamy, musty scent. Winter is sharp cold and hot cocoa. Spring flowers open to sweet, delicate fragrances.

It does take your breath away to enjoy the seasons.

It is also, sometimes, a cry for help.

Let’s face it: no one lives without air. Not babies coming out of the womb. Not the oldest men or women on Earth. Most of us die within minutes if we’re without air. Some, like the two Brazilians in 2010, and Blaine and Severinsen in 2012, managed to hold their breaths more than 15 minutes each. However, each one had to breathe when they came up again. Without that first breath after being under water, their feat would have ended in tragedy. No one lives without air.

For asthmatics (and those with other lung diseases), breathing can be a hardship unlike any other. Cold, crisp days feel like icicles growing in their lungs. Smoke from wood stoves or rubber fields choke like a forest fire. Running for the pure pleasure of it? It’s possible, although it must be constantly monitored or else it can be deadly. The feeling of drowning is frightening. There are almost as many triggers for an asthma attack, both allergy-related and non-allergy-related as there are people who have the disease.

The statistics are there.

The statistics for this incurable (but mostly manageable with proper treatment) lung disease are staggering. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, every day in America:

  • 44,000 people have an asthma attack
  • Nearly 25 million Americans suffer from asthma (over 8% of adults, over 9% of children), and 60% of asthma cases are “allergic-asthma.” The prevalence of asthma has been increasing since the early 1980s across all age, sex and racial groups.
  • Nearly half (44%) of all asthma hospitalizations are for children.
  • Each day 9 Americans die from asthma. There are more than 3,300 deaths due to asthma each year, many of which are avoidable with proper treatment and care. In addition, asthma is indicated as “contributing factor” for nearly 7,000 other deaths each year.

These are just a few of the facts about asthma. For more information, go to their website (http://aafa.org) and take a look around.

The EPA

I bring up this because we need to care about our air. We – as individuals, a people and a country – need to learn how to start cleaning our air better. A lot has been done already. According to the EPA (home, A-Z index), emissions quality of 6 principal air pollutants has decreased since 1980. Check out their website for more information.

However, we need to do more.

The AAFA states that asthma has increased 80% since 1980. Together, the figures from the AAFA and the EPA mean we aren’t yet doing enough.

Today’s takeaway

Take the time to:

  • Appreciate that you can breathe freely,
  • Find out what you can do to improve the ambient air pollution in your community, and then,
  • Begin a grass-roots campaign for improvement or volunteer at a local level.

Let me help you.

If you want help, whether through newsletters, grant proposal writing, or brochures for the public meeting you’re holding, contact me. I’ll help you in your commitment!

Yours in Breathing Healthy Today,
D. Kendra Francesco

P.S. I’m an asthmatic who got a huge shock to learn that it’s a lung disease. When Dr. Meiser asked me what I thought asthma was, I stammered, “It’s just… it just means I can’t breathe well sometimes.” He nodded and gave me a brochure about asthma. It certainly opened my eyes!

What are some of the things that take your breath away – either figuratively or literally?