Content Creation? Content Curation!

shutterstock_94123525So of course we all know that the Hot New Thing (which isn’t all that new, but whatever) is content marketing. And content marketing, by definition, requires content creation.

What that’s meant is that a whole lot of people are busily producing blogs, newsletters, articles and bylines, videos, podcasts … the list goes on. And that content reaches out and is shared and reaches out some more.

What I’m seeing, however, is another trend altogether: the trend toward content that, instead of being produced, is being curated.

EncartaAsk yourself this: how did Wikipedia defeat Encarta? By making sure that it’s the community that curates the content. The more that people are involved with something, the more important it becomes to them.

When content is curated, then valueless content disappears.

Direct-response marketing always controlled the user experience for the marketer. But the reality that we’re finally seeing is that the user experience has to be good for … the user.

There are two steps to working with curated content: one is a method (build an audience) and the second is a strategy (build a relationship with that audience). One you’ve accomplished those two goals, then you can rely on curated content doing the heavy lifting for you. And then you’ll be … beyond The Elements of Style!

Writing Rule #4: Be Invisible

Okay, so I don’t really know if this is rule #4 or not. It’s somewhere in my top five for sure. I’ve talked about it in my podcast, in workshops, and probably on this blog, and I talk about it with every new client I take on: the danger of writing in such a way that the reader knows there’s a writer in the room.

In other words, it’s the story that readers need to be immersed in, not the fact that someone has written it.

elmo-leonard-bookElmore Leonard, who in addition to being a brilliant writer and storyteller was no slouch when it came to giving tips to writers, prefaced his book with these words:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

Ah, yes, gentle reader, you might look them over. In fact, go buy the book. Right now. Because Leonard gives the best advice currently available on the planet, and every beginning (or even seasoned) writer should engrave them on his or her heart. And since there are exceptions to every rule, Leonard covers them, too:

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1″ and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2″ as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

elmore_leonard.01.26.04.rr_lrgOf course he did. But do recall that they were the exception. In general, it’s story that you want to have come through, story that you want the reader to absorb, and story that keeps you away from falling too much in love with your own writing. (Didn’t think I knew that one, did you? Relax: we all did it at some point. Get over it.)

Do all that, and then you’ll be … beyond The Elements of Style!

“There Are Places I Remember …”

notre_dame_montrealI hope that you were singing along to that title! It’s been on my brain since I had the idea for this column. I was thinking of the issues of place in fiction recently as I prepare to begin the second novel in my Martine LeDuc series, a series situated in my beloved Montréal. (Here’s a photo of Notre-Dame basilica, where one pivotal scene in the first book takes place. How could you resist doing something dramatic there?)

How important is place?

One of the great challenges of writing science fiction (or so I understand, having never done so myself) is in world creation: making a place that has internal consistency, that’s believable, that can feel real to the reader. Not an easy task.

Sometimes we don’t want to name a specific place. One of my soon-to-be published mysteries takes place in Pemberton, a town that I made up simply because too many odd things were happening there and I didn’t want to subject the people of any real place to them!

Dennis_Lehane_by_David_ShankboneBut in general it’s terrific to be able to use what we have as backdrops for our work. I love reading Dennis Lehane, mostly because he does brilliant things with dialogue, but also because I can visualize, completely and accurately, his depictions of Boston and his own old beloved neighborhood of Dorchester. That doesn’t mean that other people cannot appreciate the scenes and ambiance he describes; but it’s like slipping into an old comfortable sweatshirt when you read about a place you know.

Two authors I know about take completely opposite approaches to the question of place:

  • It may be apocryphal, but my understanding is that Phyllis Whitney, who wrote romantic suspense, used to decide where she wished to vacation next and that would become the setting for her new novel. I personally find this a delightful idea, and whenever I travel I’m always looking for ideas for backdrops to future stories.
  • Quiller_KGBElleston Trevor, who wrote fantastic thrillers under a number of different pen names—including Adam Hall—almost never visited the places he wrote about (and he wrote about Hong Kong, Laos, Germany, the Soviet Union, and many, many more exotic venues), relying exclusively on maps, guidebooks, letters, and so on for his information. Yet there’s an immediacy and level of description in his novels that make one feel one really is thee.

Have you thought about where you situate your fiction? Is place important to you? Is it in and of itself a real character to your readers? Could what you write take place anywhere, or is it connected to a specific place?

There are no right answers here. But as you mature as a writer, it’s important to ask yourself the questions. And then you’ll be … beyond The Elements of Style!