“You Have to Tell a Story Before You Can Sell a Story”

This morning, the Twitter account of (@brainpicker) linked to an interview of Beth Comstock, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer of GE. Although the conversation is primarily focused on marketing, product development, and innovation, I think the interview is particularly useful for writers as well.

At 3:32, Comstock responds to a question of how to get attention for an idea. Although writers will eventually have to sell a completed story, Comstock’s advice is useful for recognizing when your spark of an idea has grown into something that can support an entire story. First she mentions “skunk works.” For the writer, that means we should keep quiet in the beginning. Let the idea gestate. Let it soak up elements from unexpected sources.

Second, she talks about having “a little success…some reason beyond, ‘hey, I just love this idea.'” Has your idea expanded? Does it now have structure, characters, themes?

Third, and I think very importantly, she advises people not too wait too long or wait for perfection. For writers, you probably have some scenes or maybe a few notes–something more than just your original idea. This is when you should decide if your idea is ripe for the plucking or if it needs some more time to rattle around in your brain. But how do you decide?

Comstock says, “you have to tell a story before you can sell a story”–you need a clear vision about the story, and you need to be confident and passionate about the idea. Could you write a paragraph about your story that resembles what will eventually be part of your submission or query letter? Can you do it with some passion and emotion? Are you already excited about the idea of writing and selling this story? Well, looks like your idea might be ripe.

At 5:15, a question is asked about innovation and failure. Comstock’s answer is useful because she talks about how to fail intelligently and how to learn from our failures. As writers, not only will some of our ideas fail to pan out, but we will also inevitably face rejection. How do you move on? First, she says “fail fast, fail small.” Use those tips above to determine your best ideas. Your time is limited, so try to focus your efforts on the ideas with the most promise. You want to eliminate the unripe ideas as quickly as possible. This is easier said than done, of course. Sometimes it takes a while for a promising idea to reveal its inner dud.

But Comstock also talks about “making heroes” out of failures. Save those duds. Save those unripe ideas. Save the bits and pieces you have to cut from other stories. You might find a use for them later. Maybe that dud is not really a dud; it’s just not in the right story yet. Then again, what if it really is a dud?

Comstock says “creativity needs a process,” and part of that process is stopping to consider what you learned from that failure. Stop to consider the dud. Why doesn’t it work? Are your characters just stereotypes? Are you using too many adverbs? Does your dialogue fail to develop character and move the plot forward? Think about what success would look like. Can your dud be improved? How can you prevent yourself from repeating such errors? Next time you start writing, hopefully you can avoid, or at least minimize, these errors. Then you can succeed more quickly.

What did you think of Comstock’s interview? Was it useful? What other sectors do you turn to for advice and inspiration?

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