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How to Trick People into Reading Your Story By Convincing Them it’s about Them

Showman P.T. Barnum once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” and if you believe he actually said that you may be one of them. Barnum promoted sideshow hoaxes like the Fiji mermaid and the Cardiff Giant but his biographer, Arthur H. Saxon, casts doubt on the idea that Barnum would openly “disparage his patrons.”

We believe misattributed quotes for the same reason we believe conventional theories that have been disproven time and again: they have staying power.

Take the Myer-Briggs personality test. The Myers-Briggs is based on outdated Jungian theories. It’s accuracy has been dwarfed by tests like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, yet more people know their Myers-Briggs type than their MMPI. One test just has better branding.

The Meyers-Briggs enjoys popularity, because people are satisfied with their results. This is due to how encompassing each personality type is defined. Of all the traits in the 16 personality types there’s a little something for everyone.

The psychiatric community dismisses the Myers-Briggs as pseudoscience, but if there’s anything the Internet has taught us is that if enough people perpetuate a myth they can start an epidemic. That feeling of truth will persist even when the myth is shown to be false.

As P.T. Barnum actually said, “Exposing an illusion is not the same as revealing a truth.”

The Barnum Effect

In 1948, Bertram R. Forer tried an experiment on his psychology students. He gave his class a personality test and told them he’d use the answers to give each student a thorough psychological profile. Upon receiving their profiles the students were asked to rate their accuracy on a scale of 0-5. The averaged was 4.3. It was only after the ratings were in that Forer revealed his scheme. He’d given everyone identical profiles with affirmations he’d plagiarized from an astrology book he got at a newsstand. The profile read:

1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
5. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
6. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
7. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
8. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
9. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
10. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
11. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
12. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
13. Security is one of your major goals in life.

This phenomenon of people seeing themselves in strategically vague material has been dubbed The Barnum Effect in honor of the deception prone showman.

While Forer used these generalities to trick his students, story-tellers should consider what these items say about the human condition. We’re inclined to see ourselves in horoscopes, in tarot readings, and in the stories written by our friends, because, well, we’re inclined to see ourselves everywhere. We hold on to the highlights that hit home and minimize the misses.

We are so vain, and yes, we do think that song is about us.

The Value of Universal Character Traits

Writers know the value of a blank-slate every person Keanu Reeves-type character for audiences to project themselves onto, the so-called hero with a thousand faces. Writers know that likeable leads tend to be longing, sympathetic, complex individuals with room to grow, you know, like pretty much everyone you know.

Writers know that horoscope truisms make for good characterization short hand. If all of Forer’s 13 profile items apply to your hero then congratulations they’re basically human.

It’s a great feeling when a reader tells you they relate to one of your characters. It’s validating knowing your sense of empathy is compatible with other human beings. If only an understanding of the human condition could get more eyes on the page though.

Well, now writers can make the Barnum Effect work for them.

Convince People You’re Writing about Them

By harnessing the power of social media, social engineering, and sociopathy you can trick your friends, family, and ex-lovers into looking for themselves in your writing. This will boost your Amazon search placement, traffic to your blog, and overall engagement.

Use these 4 easy steps.

1. Become a Stenographer

Subtly plant the seeds that you’re drawing your writing material from the real world. Start with innocuous declarations like, “That’s going in the quote book.” Then get slightly more problematic, “Shhh, I’m mining the Tinder Date behind us for material. That couple is a gold mine.” Then leave your phone on the table with the voice memo application running while you’re in the bathroom.

Pro tip: have hidden camera equipment up in your Amazon cart and leave your browser there whenever you have company.

2. Become a Profiler

Get into the habit of peppering personality test questions into casual conversations.

“Do you prefer to mingle or observe at parties?”
“Do you lean more toward randomness or routine?”
“Are you big on being the center of attention?”

When your friends ask why you’re ask simply respond, “I have an idea for something, but it may be nothing.”

Then escalate your questioning to include questions from Robert D. Hare’s Psychopath checklist.

“Do you have constant need for stimulation?”
“Do you ever think you have a parasitic lifestyle?”
“Do you ever think you display criminal versatility?”

3. Become a Softcover Shit-Talker

You know that friend who talks shit about all of your mutual friends whenever you hang out? You know that sneaking suspicion you get that they talk that shit about you when they’re with those same friends?

Harness that same social suspicion and apply it to your fiction. You can do this by boosting about how you’ve gotten revenge on people who’ve wronged you by dismembering them in your writing.

“The first character the monster feasts on has all of my ex’s mannerisms.”
“The one who loses all his limbs was based on a boss of mine.”
“Oh, and the one who gets eviscerated was an old professor.”

Convince everyone around you that you are petty, vindictive, and cruel and they will comb through your writing looking for references to them.

Now here’s the best part. You can still build your characters from the ground up, with traits based on the needs of your story. Your characters can be as original, colorful, and outlandish as you want.

The Barnum Effect teaches us that you don’t have to draw any inspiration from genuine interactions with others. People are prone to see themselves on the page whether they’re there or not.

4. Become a Topic of Conversation

Once your nearest and dearest have been conditioned to think your writing is about them they’ll make assumptions and pass them along. That gossip is good word of mouth. The more people who feel personally offended the more likely they are to write long winded condemnations of you (and more importantly your book) on social media.

Just remember: There’s no such thing as bad publicity, burning bridges are a sight to see, and you can always lean on plausible deniability if you find yourself in a courtroom setting.

Closing Thoughts

The information age has made it harder than ever for emerging authors to elevate their work from the masses. A truly dedicated writer has to be willing to do whatever it takes, including tricking their friends into thinking their material is about them.

A serious writer will harness the power of the Barnum Effect to build a brand.

We want to believe we’re individuals, that our personal traits aren’t universal. We want to believe we’re diamonds in the rough, unlike all that basic bedrock. We want our individuality to be acknowledged, so much so that we’ll see acknowledgement where it isn’t.

“This Instagram targeted advertisement makes me feel like someone is truly listening.”

“This aura reader sees the shade of burnt sienna I’m desperately trying to show the world.”

“This Buzzfeed quiz peered into my soul… and assigned me to house Gryffindor.”

As a writer it’s your duty to let your friends, family, and ex-lovers feel acknowledged. Let them know that they’re unique creative individuals, just like everyone else.

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Gracefully Handle Rejection By Standing Outside a Publisher’s Home in a Clown Mask

Stephen King cut his teeth submitting short fiction to magazines. Legend has it that he hung his rejection letters from a nail in the wall. When the nail couldn’t take the weight he upgraded to a railroad spike, but King kept right on going.
The greatest skills an aspiring author can learn is to handle rejection gracefully.

Most of the time a publisher will send you a form letter that reads “We had so many amazing submissions that unfortunately we couldn’t include everyone in the collection.”

The reason you get a form letter is because you haven’t taken the time to build a relationship with the people you’re submitting to.

Now you could shoot them a “Thank you for the opportunity” e-mail like all the other sad saps desperate for a spot in their rolodex, but if you really want to be remembered you’ll need to show more initiative than that.

I’m not talking about inquiry about the publisher’s need in advance, printing your submissions on pink paper, or sending them fruit baskets. No. I’m talking about showing up on the publisher’s front door in a clown mask.

Leave an Impression that Truly Lasts

Most mid-level publishers aren’t based out of an office. They use a PO BOX to hide the fact that they work from home. So where is that? Well, the post office won’t answer a Boxholder Request Form from just anyone, especially without a subpoena, but a private investigator might have a guy on the inside who could fax them the 1093 form, if you’re willing to grease their wheels.

With the reverse lookup complete you’re going to rent a pair of bounce castles, NOT houses, castles. You’re a creative individual. So it should no problem for you to secure the rental without a paper trail. Use that same creative intelligence to convince the bounce castle employees to block both ends of a residential street without the tenants calling the police. Dress it up as community carnival.

If onlookers ask, “What’s going on here?” play it off like you’re acting on someone else’s behalf. Shrug. You’re just another working stiff on a deadline.

Next you’ll need a pair of 24-40 inch industrial stilts and a pair of stilt trousers to cover them up. These stilts are made for hanging drywall, but you’ll be using them to seem larger than life.

As for the rest of your outfit don’t bog yourself down with too many gaudy accessories. Your instincts might tell you to be on the lookout for: ruffles, polka dotted bowties, and florescent jumpers, but I suggest you shift your gaze toward form fitting formal wear with hyper extended limbs.

Creepypasta-themed urban legends are all the rage in horror forums. What better way to showcase your awareness of genre trends then by dressing as one? Mix and match Jeff the Killer’s long black hair with Slender Man’s thin tie and Eyeless Jack’s hoodie. Even if the publisher isn’t familiar with the characters cultural osmosis should give them an eerie twinge of recognition.

Now you’ll have to choose a mask. You might be drawn to masks with jigsaw grids of gashes, but consider this. You want your mask to feel like a blank canvas, a place for your audience to project their fears onto, not a space that’s already teeming with yellow teeth, stiches, and exposed bone.

Remember these are publishers. The mask shouldn’t tell a story. Your actions should tell a story. A classic hobo clown face should suffice.

Now it’s time to pick a prop. Your prop shouldn’t be a weapon. A weapon is too obvious. It’s like wearing a plastic smock with the name of who you’re supposed to be on the chest. You need to pick a prop that’s both innocuous and menacing: a stainless steel yo-yo that catches the light like the edge of a knife, juggling pins that are large enough to bludgeon, or balloon animals fashioned from condoms. Use your imagination.

From Plan to Execution

Let’s fast forward. You’ve got your bouncing castles blocking traffic. You’re up on your stilts. You’ve got your clown mask, creepypasta costume, and a vaguely menacing prop. Now you’ve got to give the publisher a reason to look out onto the lawn. You could try the old ding dong ditch, but once the publisher opens the door the tension has no room to grow. They see you in all your creepy glory and you either have a confrontation or get the hell off their lawn.

You want to give your target time to dwell on what they’re seeing, to stew in the absurdity of it. If you want to be subtle you can toss a few pebbles at the window, but if you really want to shock a couch potato you can’t go wrong with an airhorn.

An airhorn will draw onlookers. That’s why it’s important to research the average response time of local law enforcement. Bounce castles aren’t going to a hold squad cars back for very long.

That said, give the publisher a moment to drink you in. Let the alien shape of your carnival attire burn into their vision. Wait for them to back away from their blinds and move in. Don’t worry if they do a double take, just freeze and red-light-green-light your way across the lawn as needed.

Be Remembered for Your Work

Before we go any further it’s important to note that, yes, you will breaking and entering. Now the internet is full of helpful tips on picking locks with canned air and bobby pins, but we’re going to need to play this faster and looser. That’s why you’ll need a mallet for the knob, and a hunting knife for the deadbolt. Badda-bing badda-boom.

Disclaimer: once you’re an intruder anything the publisher does to you is nice and legal. So don’t go barreling through the front door. Leave it hanging open it in a maddening silence.

Ditch the stilts and creep around back. If there’s a screen door on the porch you’re one clean slice away from your destination. From here you’ll need two final items: a Jack-in-the-box on a timer, and a manuscript about a publisher who is convinced there’s a clown is living in their walls, a clown that comes out at night to stand at the foot of their bed and watch them sleep.

With the payload secure it’s time to haul ass out of there. Now I’ll leave the getaway plan to your better judgement: have Uber on standby, a crotch rocket hidden in the bushes, a hot air balloon waiting in the park. Again use your imagination.

What matters is that you’re leaving a lasting impression on an industry professional and what better way to wow a publisher than to haunt their dreams forever? Every time their house settles, or a rat scratches at their walls they’ll be thinking of you. Every time they shoot up in the dead of night and struggle to find a light that’s you too. Every time they freeze in front of a dark crawl space, drawstring attic, or cellar door you’ll be waiting there.

You will evoke a powerful emotional response, and isn’t that all any author can really ask for?

Continue reading Gracefully Handle Rejection By Standing Outside a Publisher’s Home in a Clown Mask

How to Promote Your Novel by Interrupting First Dates

According to eharmony 40% of Americans are dating online, but only 20% of committed relationships are starting there. While portrait swiping applications have streamlined casual flings romantics struggle with the limitations of the platform. Texting isn’t like having a conversation. It’s hard to gage inflection, read expressions, or process the subtle cues that are lost between the lines. Prospective lovers can pour their hearts into a text string but when they meet face to face it either clicks or it doesn’t.

Chemistry is governed by so many subconscious factors that no algorithm can predict when it’ll actually work. The person on one side of the table could check all of the other’s boxes, and still fill them with strong urge to flee the scene. For whatever reason sparks aren’t flying. The Venn diagram of expectation and reality isn’t overlapping. The polarity just feels off.

Hookup applications are convenient for people who want to get straight to the Netflix and Chillaxing. Those poor souls aching for long term companions will have endure a lot of awkward situations.

Writing in public, I’ve witnessed a lot first dates the devolved in the first 30 seconds, a lot of situations where both parties looked like they could use an easy out. This is when I stumbled upon a great new oppurtunity for self-promotion.

Writer to the Rescue

If you want dominate your subgenre on Amazon you’ve got to get more review scores than your peers. Sure, you could float some free copies of your book to influencers, hoping the cool cover art will get you to the top of their slush piles. Of course the competition has already thought of that one.

If you really want to boost your signal through the noise you’ve got to get creative. You’ve got to slide your pages beneath peepers who weren’t expecting them. You’ve got to run your book promotion through other people’s conversations.

What better place to engage new readers than in the middle of romantic encounters that aren’t going anywhere?

See that couple at the end of the bar? The one with the wandering eyes and restless legs. They could sure use some help filling those awkward pauses in. If only there was a kind soul willing to jumpstart their conversation. Someone willing to tell them a story. Someone capable of delivering a bombastic cinematic experience with their tongue alone.

The Lost Art of Interjecting

You can’t go interjecting into just any first date. Look for signs that either party are feeling romantic remorse. Are they shifting in their seats, trying to see their date from the angle of their online photo? Are their warmest smiles coming from something they’re seeing on their phones? Does one party appear to have more chemistry with the wait staff than the person they’re here to see?

Tilt your head, tune your ear, and drop some eaves.

If one party announces they have a second engagement after this one, you have an in. If one of them inorganically proselytizes religious beliefs, you have an in. If one of them wades into the polarizing waters of cultural warfare, then you what are you waiting for? Get in there.

Let them Think You’re Supposed to be There

One or more parties may wish to keep the date going for the sake of decorum, which is why you’ll have to make your interjection part of the environment. Just as buskers make tips by enhancing diners’ experiences, so too must the novelist. This is why, no matter my surroundings, I introduce myself as the author in residence.

“You probably saw on the hotel’s Facebook page that I was going to be here this evening. Well, on behalf of the DoubleTree, Doubleday publishing, and this fine double malt scotch I’d like to thank you for coming.”

I imply I’m here as a favor to the establishment, as though I’m moonlighting as an influencer, using my platform to perpetuate the stereotype of the alcoholic author.

“I’m supposed to tell you that that yellow concoction was Hemmingway’s favorite Daiquiri, that the house cocktail was based on Mark Twain’s recipe, that the top shelf Vodka was Sylvia Plath’s favorite, and some other authors’ preferences I’ve conveniently forgotten.”

This is how I get the couple to invite me to join them. I imply I’m about to move on and give the neighboring booth the same spiel.

This is usually where the gentleman says, “Remind me what you’ve written.”

This is an opportunity for emerging authors to cycle through their unfinished manuscripts to bulk up their bibliography.

The Book of Mirrors, I am Fire, We the Damned

“Ahhh yes, you write horror.”

The gentleman feigns recognition as the lady raises her eyebrow. “Horror? Oh my? What drew you to such divisive genre, Mr?…”

This is where I kiss her hand. “Drizzlewick T. Chillington esquire.”

“You’re also a too?”

“I’m a notary. It’s practically the same thing, but to answer your fist question: I wasn’t drawn to horror my dear. Oh no. Horror was drawn to me. Since as far back as I could remember I suffered from sleep paralysis. Each incidence came with vivid hypnopompic hallucinations that felt as real as you do now.”

This is where the couple usually leans forward. “What did you see?”

“Lying there, pinned to the mattress, I stared at the closet as the door slid along the track. I saw a blood drenched hellscape  so vile it sent streaks of silver through my hair. Every morning my mother found me hiding in the grandfather clock, a little grayer than I’d been the night before.”

“Did she ever bring you in for treatment?”

“The 80s was different time. The mind was a confounding mystery and neurology was still a primitive study. I was subjected to electroshock, trepanation, and in one final act of desperation: talk therapy.”

“Did it work?”

This is where I make a theatrical display of concealing my quivering hands beneath the table. I shake my head. “No amount of hydrotherapy or healing colonics could rinse the demons out. It wasn’t until I put them down on paper that my mind began to clear.”

Any influencer will tell you it’s best to sell yourself first and your creations second.

Salvage their Evening By Pitching Your Writing

Recognize that this couple is never going to “couple.” Neither party is going to invite the other up for coffee. Neither one will push the other on a newly installed sex swing. Your interruption will be the centerpiece of their evening. So get good and sloshed and take them on a journey.

“My novel He Had Many Nameschannels my boyhood experiences with sleep paralysis into a tale about a haunted hotel. It follows Noelle Blackwood, a screenwriter whose terrified she’s aging out of Hollywood for good. Desperate for work, she takes a job ghostwriting for a hack author. The hack wants to sequester Noelle in an art deco hotel. This is where Noelle uncovers the truth about devils, secret societies, and Hollywood hedonism.”

This is where I gift my audience with signed copies, with bookmarks that politely remind them: Like what you read? Let the world know by leaving a rating on Amazon!

I find the worse the date was going before my interjection the more likely the couple will read my book later on. It helps wash the unpleasant aftertaste of one another’s company out.

Continue reading How to Promote Your Novel by Interrupting First Dates