'Many fish bite when you got good bait.'
For twenty-several years, that was the motto of my ad agency. I'd appropriated the line from an old blues song, and it appeared on all our signage, letterhead, business cards, and promotional materials. To me, those few folksy words exquisitely and completely captured the essence of selling. You have to bait the hook before you cast out the line. And the better the bait, the better the haul.
I don't write ads anymore. But I'm still in the business of selling. I sell stories. Not to agents, or editors or publishers, or movie moguls. I'm talking about Salesmanship 101. Selling my fictional fabrications to flesh-and-blood readers. Selling. Oh sure, I fancy myself a serious writer now, but I'll never abandon the bait and hook method of writing. Bait and hook are as essential to marketable writing as a Thesaurus. Yes, Virginia, that's the big book of words that mean the same thing.
I'm consistently frustrated by the number of otherwise decent writers who throw out their lines with old, tired, lifeless bait attached to rusty, frail hooks so dull they couldn't snag a whale stuck in a pickle jar. Geez, people, don't you realize that readers are bombarded with other entertainment options? Yes, Mr. Melville, I said entertainment. Maybe there's hope for you after all. Mr. Dickens was wordier than the telephone boiler-room of a presidential campaign, but he understood he was an entertainer. Mr. Twain, too.
What I'm trying to say, folks, is put a little salesmanship into your writing right from the jump. And try not to look down your noses when I say salesmanship. I'm not suggesting you sell out. Just sell up. It's my contention that there are more authors dying to write The Great Novel than there are people dying to read it. And I've yet to hear of a great novel no one read. Nor am I likely to.
By all means, stay true to your artistic sensibilities, my idealistic friends. But how about mixing in some entertainment, huh? I'm not talking car chases. A fresh and clever turn of phrase can be just as exciting. Or start your story in an unlikely place (Not setting, Jethro. I'm talking about using unexpected chronology to add zest from page one onward). Or cop an unexpected attitude. Be creative. And be creative right from the beginning. Then keep it up. That's how you sell a reader--one page at a time. When I wrote TV commercials, I knew I had fewer than ten seconds to hook my viewers. If I hadn't, I may as well have been talking to myself for sixty seconds. Writing short stories is not much different. No one has a reason to read my work unless I provide a reason, and do it--fast. Bloggers and memoirists please take special note: If you're writing isn't interesting, no one will be interested. Despite what you think. If you don't believe me, ask the untold millions of other people who don't care. They won't be hard to find.
Authors, accept this simple fact. Your work is no different from any other product. Yes, I said, product. You can refer to it as art if you must, but until a whole lot of other people call it art, you're better off thinking of it as a product, and writing with that realization in mind. Because if you haven't sold me something by the third paragraph, you're not likely to get the chance. And, believe it or not, I'm more empathetic than most.
♦ Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.