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Why you should practice copy-catting.
Vince Koster was a living cartoon with an oversized head bobbing on a springy neck with perfectly coifed hair that never moved to offset his forever-running mouth, which never stopped.
But what got him to stop, at least for a minute, was a chance to show off, and when Vince showed off, there was no better person to be around.
Vince was an Ad Man, as he liked to say it, and that’s exactly how he said it, “Ad Man,” with two distinct syllables, Ad, Man, although he wasn’t really in advertising at all. He just knew a lot about it, or so he liked to say.
To me, it didn’t matter. He was an authority on the subject of my endless fascination. I couldn’t get enough, and Vince never shut up.
One of my first assignments with Vince was something he called copywork.
“Copywork,” he said. “It works.”
Vince handed me a manila folder. “You take this home,” he says, “and you read it, and then you read it again, ya’unnerstan?”
Vince had his own slang of run-together phrases he slapped at the end of sentences that usually asked a question he didn’t want an answer for.
“You read this ad, and I want you to read it ten times.”
“Ten times,” he said again, but this time flashing his ten fingers splayed out like jazz hands. “Ten. Times, ya’unnerstan?”
“Then,” he leans in close. “Then,” he whispers. “Then, you’re gonna write it all out, by hand, every word, every punctuation mark, and every line break. Ten times,” again with the jazz hands. “Ten. Times, ya’unnerstan?”
The idea was that by rewriting great ad copy by hand over and over again, your work would improve. You’d get a feel for the cadence and rhythm of great copywriting by copying the proven cadence and rhythms of great copywriters.
I saw my first copy of Advertising Age magazine in Vince Koster’s office, and I was hooked. I wanted to be in advertising. I was going to be an Ad Man. I was ten years old, and the bank where my father and Vince Koster worked was on top of the tallest paved hill in town.
Except it wasn’t a hill. I mean, to me, it was, but this ‘hill’ was actually Second Street, and the bank was built into the hillside at the corner of Second and Simms with Vince’s office on the bottom floor in the loan department, conveniently close to the coldest water fountain in town and an entire two floors beneath my father’s office on the main floor which was open to the prying eyes of Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public.
I’d fly down Second Street on my skateboard and sail halfway to Chestnut Street, but walking back up the block to Simms was a chore. Whew! So, every few trips, I’d sneak inside the building, sting my teeth and numb my throat with ice-cold fountain water, and sometimes peek in on Vince.
“You do that copywork yet?” Vince called out.
I was still at the end of the hall.
This is what it does.
Copywork, the act of rewriting the work of someone you’d like to emulate, is a practice I’ve used off and on for years to write websites, emails, landing pages, and pitch decks, but I’ve never considered it for my fiction.
The little story I started with is written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, with long sentences, meandering transitions, and repeated choruses, all of which are new to my writing and the result of copying the work of a writer I’ve just discovered named John Fante.
Fante is a fascinating character, a Hollywood screenwriter, a novelist, and the purported drinking buddy of William Faulkner, which all sounds absolutely dreamy, except he was diagnosed with diabetes.
So, instead of fame and fortune, Fante lost his eyesight, then toes, then feet, then legs to the disease, yet continued to produce novels and screenplays by dictating lines to his wife, Joyce.
Is that not poetic, sad, inspiring, yet almost unbelievable?
Six weeks ago, I would have never written that little introduction the way I just have.
My typical style is short. Terse. Very few commas.
I’m willing, of course. Commas aren’t so bad.
But after copying passages from John Fante’s Ask The Dust, I have a choice. It’s like I’m working with an expanded palette.
“Ah, that first day! Mrs. Hargraves opened the door to my room, and there it was, with red carpet on the floor, pictures of the English countryside on the walls, and a shower adjoining. The room was down on the sixth floor, room 678, up near the front of the hill, so my window was on a level with the green hillside, and there was no need for a key, for the window was always open. Through that window, I saw my first palm tree, not six feet away, and sure enough, I thought of Palm Sunday and Egypt, and Cleopatra, but the palm was blackish at its branches, stained by the carbon monoxide coming out of the Third Street Tunnel, its crusted trunk choked with dust and sand that blew in from the Mojave and Santa Ana deserts.”
—John Fante, Ask The Dust, p16, Chapter One
The rhythm and flow of Fante’s words carry you through his rented room like the breeze that billows through its open window only to slip back out into the acrid, sooty filth of downtown Los Angeles.
Feel Fante’s words slowly stick and catch in your throat as you cough and spit and gasp for breath.
“…but the palm was blackish at its branches, stained by the carbon monoxide coming out of the Third Street Tunnel, its crusted trunk choked with dust and sand that blew in from the Mojave and Santa Ana deserts.”
—John Fante, Ask The Dust, p16, Chapter One
Sentences that slay.
I keep a spreadsheet, my own tiny database of incredible sentences, phrases, and passages I find. It’s also a great place to capture little snippets of dialogue picked up from daily conversation.
Just yesterday, standing in line at the Piggy Wiggly (grocery store. I know, right?), the woman behind me, blindly blathering into her cellphone, chimed,
“I knew from the gecko she was trash. Right from the gecko, I knew that girl was no good.”
Clear as day, she said, “gecko” like the cute little lizard.
Gecko, rather than ‘Get-go,’ meaning ‘right from the start,’ from Black American vernacular, originally spelled ‘git-go.’
These priceless idiomatic manglings are common and are great little ‘tells’ or revealing traits you can use to build depth into your characters and your stories.
Like, does she really not know the word?
Or, more likely, is she just so annoying that we all pretend she didn’t say what we heard because engaging her in thoughtful conversation would require too much patience and empathy?
In either case, the quip is worth recording, so into the spreadsheet it goes.
The spreadsheet is titled, aptly enough, ‘Sentences that Slay.’
These bits and quips I collect convey more than the sum of their parts, so the spreadsheet is subdivided into categories, of course, with tags for easy search and retrieval.
Sentence: The impactful sentence itself.
Author: Name of the artist who wrote it. (which is sometimes me—and could be you, too)
Source: Title of the book, article, or piece where it was discovered.
Page Number/Location: The page number or location for easy(ish) future reference.
Tags: Tags are labels to make it easy to find exactly what I need. More on tags later.
I went up to my room, up the dusty stairs of Bunker Hill, past the soot-covered frame buildings along that dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet.”
—John Fante, Ask The Dust
Fante is telling two stories here.
The story’s hero, Arturo Bandini, is a struggling writer, eking out a meager existence, surviving on a diet of oranges (to avoid scurvy, we imagine), but he’s making it. He’s a writer.
He’s a writer, like most writers, holding out hope after hope that their work will be recognized and appreciated. That one day, he’ll truly ‘make it.’
Arturo Bandini is praying for a transformation. His own.
One of Several Subplots
Bandini’s story runs against the backdrop of a city in transformation. Los Angeles, California, in the throes of the Great Depression.
Bunker Hill, the neighborhood of Bandini’s rented room, was once a wealthy neighborhood. Mighty Victorian mansions built on a hillside overlooking the industrial west end of the city. As Uptown as any upwardly mobile Los Angelian could ever hope for.
But with the money gone, the abandoned mansions decay into boarding houses for down-on-their-luck tenants living hand to mouth in an unforgiving city.
“Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street. The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston, and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days....”
—John Fante, Ask The Dust, Chapter Six
These are the ashes from which Bandini must arise.
Tags are the second-most important part of your spreadsheet, next to your captured brilliance, of course.
But I have prattled on long enough, so I will leave tags for another day.
Oh! I almost forgot.
The moral of the story
The act of copying the work of another you admire to pick up their writing style, whether consciously or subconsciously…
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