Yesterday while flying cross country I read State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. It’s about real people in an almost-but-not-quite magical Amazon jungle, and, although the plot moves steadily forward, it’s more of a spell, woven with words by a great writer, than just a story.
As I got off my first plane, I was about 30 pages from finished, and two hours from my next flight. I didn’t check email first. I didn’t get lunch, which was overdue. I sat next to the gate and finished the novel. I was immersed in the Amazon jungle and the spell of a the trees, mushrooms, Indians, scientists, doctors, the deaf boy, the pharmaceutical study, and the pregnancy. It wasn’t just to find out what happens; it was about staying inside the spell, keeping the buzz. What a great book!
This morning, jetlagged and back in Oregon, I woke up before dawn and went to the computer to consider my post today, which was, until now, just the two paragraphs above this one and a title that sounded like a high school book review. So I decided to reconfigure this post, cynically, with a new title, and a more business-compatible title.
So here are my five tips, and when I’m done with them, I’d like to ask you a serious question. If you’re still with me at that point.
1. It’s not just content; it’s writing
I got serious about blogging in 2007 because I like writing. I thought the written word was going to be suffocated by online video, boa-constrictor-like, wrapped up and confined and unable to breathe. That made me sad. But blogs and even social media changed that for me, and I feel better about writing now. There’s hope. The quality of writing makes a huge difference. It’s not just blogging. It’s not just content. It’s writing. Enjoy it.
2. All people love stories
What Ann Patchett does with words on a page is a reminder of why people breathe stories as much as we breathe air. You get in the middle of a great novel and you’re lost in a new world. Trite, but true. If you manage to pull up and out of the story and think about it, it’s part of a human craving for meaning, and to create a world out of pure words is proof of God. This blog, with its title Planning Startups Stories, needs more stories. Should your blog have more stories?
3. A few well-chosen details are magic
An American woman is arriving at Manaus, in Brazil, by plane. Watch the detail:
Marina went past security an customs and stepped out into the lobby full of people who were looking behind her. Young girls stood on their toes and waved. Taxi drivers hustled for fares, cruise directors and Amazon adventure guides herded their charges into groups. An assortment of cheap shops and money changing stations vied for attention with bright colors and brighter lights, and right in the middle of everything stood a man in a dark suit holding a neatly lettered sign with two words: Marina Singh
Do you see what I mean? The plot moves steadily forward as a woman named Marina Singh finds a driver waiting for her. But the detail makes the scene live. How about coming through customs to “a lobby of people who were looking behind her.” That’s perfect.
The details make it come alive like that. Don’t just talk. Create. Write pictures.
4. Lighten up and read for fun more
My wife says angels fly “because they take themselves lightly.” Yesterday on the plane was a reminder to me that I can’t always read the next business book or write the next column or blog post. The goal is living, not working. I had forgotten how much I was focused on business, to the extent that I don’t automatically carry a good book with me when I travel. I’m shocked to realize I do more than 50,000 miles a year, most of which I spend writing, not reading. Big mistake.
5. About the title game
They tell me the best titles are lists of 3, 5, or 10 points, and I’ve seen myself that people like lists of mistakes best of all. So I rewrote this post to play that up with a list of 5 mistakes. Did it work? Would you have read this far if it were titled like a book report on a novel?
And that, by the way, is the serious question I promised in my fourth paragraph, introducing the mistakes: did it work? Should I have just posted the first two paragraphs in this post, and a title to go with just that, and left it there? Or was it worth it to add the somewhat-cynical list of mistakes and change the title? Does this feel like bait and switch to you?
And one final note: I first discovered Ann Patchett several years ago with Bel Canto, which is — believe it or not — a story about people and love and beauty set in a South American hostage crisis. That’s another great book.
(Image: Patricia Wall/The New York Times, from this review by Janet Maslin)