Blog-a-view: Phil Cooke

Recently, Phil Cooke, author and founder of Cooke Pictures, graciously agreed to answer a few questions about writing, the Internet, and online media.

The Who

Phil Cooke

Founder and Creative Director – Cooke Pictures – Burbank, California

Many of the largest and most effective Christian organizations in the world ask for his advice, and his ideas are changing the way people of faith use media to communicate with the culture. Christianity Today magazine called him a “media guru,” and you’ve seen him on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and numerous national magazines. His blog at philcooke.com is a highly respected resource on media, faith, and culture, and Phil’s workshops are a rare glimpse into the future of media and entertainment. His new book is The Last TV Evangelist: Why The Next Generation Couldn’t Care Less About Christian Media … and why it matters. Phil is also a founding partner in TWC Films, an award winning TV commercial company in Los Angeles that produced two spots for Super Bowl 2008.

The What

1) What writing projects currently occupy your time—or have recently?

I just finished my latest book: The Last TV Evangelist: Why the Next Generation Couldn’t Care Less About Religious Media. It followed up my release last March of Branding Faith and focuses on how we’ve missed the mark with religious media and what we need to do to make real change happen. Although it’s critical of some of the wacky stuff we do in religious media, it’s really a road map to the media revolution that’s happening right now. I also post on my blog every day. My wife calls philcooke.com my “mistress,” and I have to admit, I’m a little addicted. But it sure saves me money on therapy.

2) What advice concerning writing or editing do you wish that someone had given you years ago?

Just write. I was always intimidated by writing and waited far too long to start with any discipline. I wish that early on someone would have shared with me the importance of simply writing and getting it down on paper. In Hollywood, I’ve discovered that there are writers who talk about writing, and then there are writers who actually write. I prefer the latter.

3) How has the Internet changed the way that you write or edit your material? What tools or websites do you rely on?

Today we live in what I’m calling an “open media revolution.” With email, text messaging, and other online tools, we don’t have to wait months or years to be published, it can happen right now. Good or bad, that aspect of writing has changed everything. While I often loathe the bad writing that abounds on the web, it’s also a fascinating opportunity to see what people are thinking immediately. That’s why I’m so passionate about my blog. Anytime an idea comes, I can toss it out for thousands of people to see and then hear their response. That’s pretty amazing. As far as tools, I’m a Mac person. I write with MS Word, but wish Mac had a popular writing program. “Pages” just doesn’t do it for me—not only because it lacks Word’s features, but since I do a lot of writing for clients, I have to use what everyone else can read.

4) What advice do you have for aspiring writers to use media and social networking to reach the culture?

In my new book The Last TV Evangelist I show just how significant the shift to online media and social networking really has become. Traditional media will always be around, but there’s no question that more and more people are going online as the “first screen.” The key to the future will be about knowing which is more appropriate for what content. There’s a lot of things I love doing with my iPhone, but when it comes to the Super Bowl, I still want to watch my HD plasma screen TV.

5) How do you decide that it’s finally time to step back, stop revising, and say that a writing project is finished?

Generally, I tell people I’m not a writer, I’m a “re-writer.” Here’s my process: I usually wait as long as I can to start writing. I just let the raw ideas and concepts roll around in my head for as long as possible—until I’m about to explode. Then, when I sit down to actually write, it comes out as fast as I can type. When I’m working on a new book for instance, I can do 10–20 pages in a day pretty easily, depending on the subject. However (and this is a big however), those pages are a long way from being finished. At that point I go back and start re-writing, re-arranging, making sense, cutting out, adding, and polishing. The best way to explain my style is to throw it all down on paper and then work through it to see what sticks. When I wrote my dissertation for my Ph.D., I threw out 200 pages before I really even got started. Is that a recommendation? Good question. But it works for me, and that’s the most important thing. Everyone’s different, and I always recommend trying different styles, writing times, and methods, then finding the right mix that’s most appropriate for you.

My best advice would be to connect your butt to the chair. That’s the best place to start.

To find out more, visit philcooke.com.

Episode 30: Dealing with Rejection

Rejection stings. No matter how many form letter rejections you receive, each one comes with its own unique wince or feigned indifference (I tend toward the latter). My anonymous rebuffs have come in several different forms over the years: whole sheets of paper with two sentences, tiny squares of paper with two sentences, short emails with two sentences, a list of winners not including me, and—probably the worst—silence.

Some writers like to collect these rejections as badges of honor, a museum of hard work and revision. After I received my first one, I know I meant to keep it and all the future ones in a file. However, I lost that file long ago, and I have no desire to start a new one.

The point of writing is not about looking back at failures, pitfalls, and raw drafts. It’s about creation, revision, and polish. Rejections are simply the bruises you get along the way—they often hurt, they take a while to fade, but they leave no scars.

Writers should evaluate their talent and their commitment on a fairly regular basis to determine if they have the passion to keep dodging through the minefield of submissions. If you have the gumption to keep going, then the rejection served a far better purpose.

Consider a few things when you get your next letter of seeming doom:

The writing pyramid: Rejection sets you apart. The number of people who finish a project is much lower than the number who start working on something. Then, the number who submit something is even lower still. And the number who keep reworking and resubmitting is even lower. If you’ve made it to the last group, then you should certainly consider that a significant step.

Keep juggling: One way to alleviate the sting of an individual rejection is by having a continuous queue of material. If possible, send out several stories, novel queries, articles, poems, or other materials in a staggered fashion and have several in progress and several in revision. If one is turned down, you’ve still got several being considered. It may take a while to get this “assembly line” going, but the point is to never have all your hopes riding on one project.

Stop, drop, and cull: With every rejection, I recommend putting the project aside for a cooling off period. Deciding what to do with something that has just been shot down can often lead to overreaction. Later, reflect on the work as objectively as possible—and, preferably, let others read it. Should you keep working on it? What needs to be revised—if anything? There’s no shame in shelving something.

It’s not me: Sometimes, your work may simply be rejected because it does not fit the needs of a particular publication, editor, or agent. They likely won’t have time to tell you this (though be very encouraged if they do), but if you review your work and find that it doesn’t deserve flogging, then it’s possible that you could just send it out again as is.

Whatever the case, I hope that you do not let rejection deter you from continuing pursuit of a more perfect prose.

Episode 29: The One about Magazine Articles

Writing often requires multiple personalities. Well, you don’t actually have to be somebody else, but some types of writing will push you beyond the comfort zone. For me, my comfort zone ends where word limits begin, which is why I have to prepare more thoroughly for magazine articles than most other writing styles.

Magazines have a premium on space, theme, and tone, and those qualities make writing magazine articles great practice for improving writing of all types. Forcing big ideas into 300–600 words (for 1 to 2 pages) makes you pay quite a bit of attention to what you want to say. Don’t think of it as shoehorning an elephant into your house; think of it as slimming the elephant down to fit.

With that in mind, what follows is my process for writing magazine articles. However, many of these same tips could be applied elsewhere.

1) Getting the assignment: Depending on the editor, this could involve a detailed synopsis with a list of main points . . . or one sentence with a vague idea. Personally, I like having more leeway, but in either case, when I first get the assignment, I jot down my “gut reaction.” What do I think about this topic? What hangers could I use to frame the topic?

2) Brushing up: Once I’ve got my reaction down, I spend some time looking through back issues of the magazine, which is much easier with Internet archives. Has this topic been covered before? What is the general attitude of the magazine to this topic or similar topics? Obviously, you want the article to be your own, but you also don’t want to counter what the magazine has already established—or cover old ground.

3) Research: This varies depending on the topic. More technical subject matter requires more time. But I must stress this: become as fluent in the area as you can. You may have to defend your point of view later to the editor or others. Typically, I spend more time researching than actually writing, but the payoff is excellent. The better I understand the topic, the better I can summarize it. And, of course, I whip up a Google Doc spreadsheet or document of the pertinent facts.

4) Outline: With shorter articles, a simple outline or article sketch should suffice. I usually like to write the topic sentence of each paragraph, but that’s certainly not required. Longer articles, on the other hand, need a full-scale assault.

5) Writing: Five steps in, I start writing. I lay out my topic sentences, add an intro paragraph, and start filling in the rest. After I’ve filled in the meat, I add the conclusion. This may seem a bit odd and not very “creatively free flowing,” but when words are at a premium, you have to concentrate the text.

6) Cut/Edit: Odds are you’ll end up chipping away and revising at the request of the editor to better meet the needs of the magazine.

As I mentioned earlier, this type of process makes for great practice. Come up with your own ideas and write some articles for yourself. I’ll get you started:

  • How to prepare a special dinner
  • Living in [city of your choice]
  • Ministry in a social media world
  • Making the most of your vacation—on a budget
  • Business practices that improve morale
  • Should we worry about SARS?

Episode 28: Selling Yourself

Here’s a question: what moves more books, great writing or a name? Before you answer, consider the celebrity books that you’ve seen on the shelves. How many of them say something like “Big Name Celebrity” in huge letters and “Somebody Else” in tiny print below? In all likelihood, the “no name” was the one responsible for the making the writing presentable, but that person does not make the book sell.

Don’t get me wrong. The whole point of this blog is to promote excellent writing in all genres. A name can get you through the door, but great writing will sustain you. That is, if you are a public figure, an editor or publisher is much more likely to take a chance on you—but if your writing is sub-par, then it takes more work and money to get it out.

But if you want to be successful, you will, at some point, have to shop yourself around in one form or another. We all do this at some point: consider your resumé or cover letters. Through literary craft or communication skills, we tell a potential employer why we make the best candidate. Essentially, we have to sell ourselves because this is the only way to get our name out there.

In writing, just finishing the project is really only one part of the overall picture. Don’t just assume that if you make something great that it will sell itself. It could, but not always. Obviously, if you work for a company and put together white papers or marketing materials, that writing will find its way in without too much haggling, but even there, you often have to sell your ideas and viewpoint to other departments and bosses.

For your independent work, you should spend just as much time making a presence for yourself in the “real” and “virtual” worlds as you do working on your actual writing. An editor or publisher needs to know that people care about what you’re saying. If they care, then, hopefully, they’ll buy.

Here are some ways to get started:

Networking: It’s almost a cliché, but make it a point to find others in the field you want to enter. For example, after nearly a year of networking with an editor for a magazine, I finally got my first assignment from him. Worth it? It was to me, since this is a great way to get my name out there even more. Also, you could attend conferences in your desired field and rub elbows with the best.

Blogs: The great thing about a professional blog is that you get your name out there and you work on your writing at the same time. A professional blog is not necessarily about your personal thoughts; it’s about joining the discussion in your targeted field through highly focused, regular blog posts.

Social networking: Facebook may not seem like the best place to sell yourself professionally, but such sites are one of the newest forms of social capital. They allow you to promote your work, your ideas, and your name—all in your PJs.

The bottom line is that selling yourself opens doors, and while it does take work, it’s not nearly as impossible as it may seem.

Episode 27: Resolve to Resolve

By this point, I hope that you’ve already made your resolutions this year, and while this blog can’t help you with weight loss, a cleaner house, or fewer sweets, what I can do is give you some tips for keeping your writing resolutions. Motivation is a large part of writing, and there are a few ways to get jump started on your novel, research paper, or chapbook of poems.

Step 1: Lose the phrase writers’ block. I’m serious. Most of the time this phrase is simply an excuse not to sit down and write. Changing terminology may seem pedantic, but motivation is all about psychology. Psyche yourself out and call your struggles “reallocation of writing talents” or something like that. If you can’t find the right words, then write the wrong ones for as long as it takes. You can always delete later. The only “wrong” words, really, are the ones you don’t write because of a fear of failure or an uncertainty about where the writing will go.

Step 2: Get in the groove. Write as often as you can. Writing every day is the goal, and some easy ways to do this are to start a blog or journal. Ten words or a thousand, the amount is not the point—the point is to keep your hands moving and your brain working.

Step 3: Set goals. Give yourself a reason for writing. Finish a short story; write a novel; submit your writing somewhere. You don’t have to tell anyone what your goal is, but I highly recommend that you do. If someone else knows, then it makes the goal more “real.”

Step 4: Set deadlines. I know. I know. Your life already revolves around way too many deadlines, but there is an important point to this: deadlines make amorphous goals into solid destinations. As with your goal, if you’re comfortable, share your deadline with someone else, someone that you know will keep you accountable and ask about your project. If you are serious about developing your skills as a writer, goals and deadlines will push you to grow.

Step 5: Push yourself. Writing is like any other skill (or muscle), improvement comes from use. Try moving beyond just the types of writing that you’re comfortable with. Write something technical or creative; use a point of view that you’ve never tried before. Tackle haiku.

Step 6: Perfect what you start. Once you’ve got something written down, keep working on it. Get in the habit of revising everything that you write—even if it’s for your eyes only. Revising helps you to see your weakest areas and grow in the writing that is for others.

Step 7: Enjoy what you do. While goals and deadlines will help motivate you, keep in mind that writing should be about the joy of using words to convey a message. If you’re not enjoying the writing, then it’s less likely that others will enjoy the reading.

I hope 2009 is the best year for your writing yet.