Guest blogger dishes on writing … a Xmas “special”
December 15, 2008 § 10 Comments
Say hello to Karen Harrington, novelist, constant writer, blogger and Mom. (Pictured here with actor Rob Schneider, 1994; read below to see why)
Seizing her offer to guest blog this month, a Christmas present of a different sort and also wonderfully timed as I wrap packages, finish Xmas cards and bake cookies for the cookie exchange tomorrow (egads – 4 dozen?), I’d like to thank her for showing up here and sharing her thoughts on translating speech writing skills into fiction structure. Bet that’s an angle you hadn’t thought about! Not a speech writer, you say? Or, maybe you’re not a novelist? Little matter. There’s some great stuff here, and some humor and some life lessons, really.
Merry Christmas! See? Gifts come in all kinds of packages.
5 Thing Being A Speechwriter Taught Me About Writing Fiction
Once upon a time, I was a corporate speechwriter. This was a job I loved and hope to return to one day if this novelist gig doesn’t pan out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this job was the best training ground I would ever receive for becoming disciplined enough to be a mother by day/novelist by night (or in any spare 15 minutes I have.) Here are a few lessons I learned from speechwriting that I draw on for any writing project I undertake:
1. Write an outline. As a speechwriter, many of the execs I supported didn’t know what they wanted to say until you pitched them an outline – which often was definitely was NOT what they wanted to say. But, it was a beginning. It always launched us into a productive discussion of what we could say. I quickly learned never to show up without one. I still do this when writing fiction. I write Beginning, Middle, End – then start writing two or three points under each. Most of the time, I end up diverting from this outline, but it gets me started. Which leads me to…
2. Train yourself to write in any environment. In almost any creative discipline, there is the myth of inspiration, waiting for the muse. This is a good thing when it happens, but it rarely happens on cue. As a corporate speechwriter, I often had to write a 45 minute keynote speech in two days. It took some growing pains to be able to do this, but once I developed the muscle, I turned this habit into a skill I still use today. For example, instead of writing with a shouting (but lovable) executive in the background, I now have screaming (and lovable) toddlers nearby. I sit down and make myself write something, anything, just to get some words on the page. While that day’s work may be awful, it’s important to do it anyway. It’s about developing the muscle through practice in the same way a pianist practices her notes at her keyboard everyday.
3. If something doesn’t work, accept it and move on…fast. One of my first speechwriting gigs was for a data processing company. We were on the cutting edge of new technologies. Once, we did a massive multi-media show along with the speech. Part of the presentation failed during the speech. Instead of looking off-stage to the minions he could fire, the speaker quickly seized upon this moment, incorporating the faux pas into his message and made light of technology, sounding very intelligent and charming at the same time. It could have been a bomb if he had been silent until the problem was fixed, but he changed directions fast, never losing his audience. Another time, I traveled with my execs to a sales leadership meeting in Hawaii. One of the themed nights was called MASH night, in an homage to the TV show. We had a horrible, unexpected rain that sent everything – presentations and all – inside. This put the execs and the audience in a dour mood. I quickly changed the speaker’s opening to “Welcome to MUSH night.” That little tweak started turning things around. Today, I find that this attitude helps me be adaptable when a story just isn’t working. You see, we fiction writers get very attached to the thousands of words we’ve produced. But if the story isn’t working, no amount of forced laboring and cursing is going to make it work. A new perspective is needed when you reach a writing dead-end. Sometimes this can mean setting a piece aside for a month. Other times, it means deleting ten thousand words. The main idea here is to heed the instinctive voice that tells me something isn’t working and move on quickly.
4. Embrace Your Outlandish Ideas. During the preparations for the same leadership meeting I mentioned in #3, I experienced another great lesson. It was 1994 and the “Copier Guy” was a recent hit character on Saturday Night Live, created by comedian Rob Schneider. I generated a pitch to our CEO where in some employee would imitate the Copier Guy and make fun of the executive staff. Guess what? He asked me to do the Copier Guy skit in his office. Me. Insulting the CEO. Fun times, I tell ya. I saw my career flash before my eyes with each subsequent joke. But, it inspired the CEO so much that he went out and HIRED Rob Schneider for the event. The result was that yours truly got to work with Mr. Schneider on a very funny roast of our execs – and it was one of the most memorable events in my career as a speechwriter.
5. “Don Up!” My speechwriting mentor, Donald Phillips, taught me a lot by example. One of his biggest lessons was the power of positive thinking. If he doubted himself, he never showed it. He’d show up at speech pitch sessions and hit the ball out of the park every time. How? He always began with, “This is a great idea. It’s going to be very well received.” His confidence imparted confidence to the speaker, and to me by association. He had a belief in himself I have yet to observe in another person, which is probably the reason he is the best-selling author of more than 10 books. When I was first preparing to promote my book, I was deathly afraid to do book signings. Talking to strangers? Making a sales pitch? How could I ask people to part with hard earned money for my book? Just put me in the corner by the bathroom, thank you very much. Then my husband said I had worked hard and needed to “Don up” and be proud of my first book. He was right. As soon as I did, the power of positive thinking helped me get out there with confidence and even do a public reading while holding a microphone, something I never thought I’d be able to do.
Karen Harrington is the author of the psychological suspense debut Janeology. Visit her at