INTRO: OUR MAN IN KIEV In December 2009, I heard from Dmitry Duda, an entrepreneur in Ukraine who'd seen one of my ads on craigslist. He was building a professional services hub called EliteBrains, and he needed 2,000 words of site copy edited or rewritten. It was an easy project for me, he was happy with my work, and in addition to instantly settling a few PayPal invoices (what time was it in Kiev? did this man never sleep?), he invited me to participate in a Q&A for his site. The idea was featuring me as the kind of talent that he hoped to attract. Of course I agreed.
I haven't heard from Dmitry in a while and EliteBrains has vanished from the web, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind me republishing our interview here.
Alan K. Lipton: a "fictioneer" copywriter who makes stories real. I met Alan when I decided to find a new copywriter to work with. Alan intrigued me with his approach -- making fiction a reality. Having in mind that most of the time copywriters are hired to create a new “fiction,” I was interested in making my “fiction” a reality. And I must say Alan did a great job! His results are persuasive and prominent, words that truly create a new reality. We cooperated well and our process was really smooth, despite that we were new to each other. I decided to ask Alan a few questions about his approach to copywriting… I can only stress that what he thinks is essential for any professional copywriter because, sadly, I have found that not everyone shares or is serious about his strategy of “honesty and willingness to help.”
But let Alan speak for himself.
What makes fiction reality? How is a realistic character or story created? Good question. A big part of successful fiction is how the reader perceives it. The right reader happily enters the world you created. The wrong reader will never be satisfied and probably stop reading. I try to keep things interesting by starting out with reality and improving on it, blurring the line between actual fact and my imagination. It helps to notice the way real people are in the world -- hand gestures, nervous habits, speech patterns, etc. All this stuff gets recycled into realistic fiction.
From where do you draw your inspiration? And what do you do when you experience a mental block? Best-case scenarios and magical outcomes inspire me. My stories are in the zone of science fiction, speculative fiction, magic realism, and fantasy, and I'd prefer to use my art for optimistic purposes, so I'm always thinking about taking a sad song and making it better. When I experience a mental block, I usually back away from it and try again later. Sometimes it can be rewarding to keep pushing at the mental block until it breaks open. There's no rule about this.
How do you see the future of writing fiction, given that today almost everything has moved to visuals, and for me it seems that not many people care about a story with a solid background? I disagree about not many people caring. Yes, there are low expectations around popular entertainment, because most people are easily amused, but it's obvious to most when a story is better than average, however they perceive "better than average." As much as I love picking up a printed book, I see the literate world falling in love with e-books. There are audio books for those who'd prefer not to read. And film, TV, and online gaming could all benefit from good storylines and scripting. The oral tradition is still alive through rap music and poetry slams. People have to write this stuff down (usually) before they start speaking it.
What is your approach to understanding client needs and making perfect solutions for these needs? I've had a lot of clients who want something pretty basic, but their explanations are big and complicated. Of course, it's not that way with everyone. I try not to assume I know exactly what they're talking about from the very beginning. That's arrogant and sometimes gets me in trouble. I ask them questions, sometimes the same question in a few different ways, until I'm sure about what they need, and until they're comfortable that I "get" their point. Some clients want to comment on early drafts and works in progress, so they prefer frequent check-ins. Others are irritated by anything less than a final draft. It helps to read the personality as well as the proposal. Knowing who you're dealing with makes things much easier.
What skills and mind-set are needed to be a successful copywriter? Have a gift for written language. (You get this through a lifetime of reading and writing.) Know what looks good in writing and sounds good when it's read aloud. Understand how long an assignment is likely to take, clear out a space in your schedule, and work steadily. Deliver on time or, if possible, deliver early. Keep your opinions and ego out of it. This is important. Your job is presenting somebody else's idea in the best possible way. They want you to say what they're thinking, and they want it said much better than they could ever say it. Which can be a real challenge if you think they're wrong. Maybe you can educate them about the error of their ways, but that might also get you fired.
What are your tips for building a successful relationship with clients? Beyond honesty and willingness to help? Successful self-employed people, whatever their specialties, need to be good judges of character. It's always smart to begin with a written contract or at least a memorandum of understanding. If it's in writing, you can refer back to it. Make reasonable promises and build enough extra time into your deadlines so that you can deliver early. Keep a clear sense of the line between working within budget and giving away the store. Discuss fees up front and be open to compromise. Once they see what you're actually worth, they might be more generous. Okay, there's no guarantee about that in the current economy, but if you meet and exceed their expectations, they'll want to work with you again, and maybe refer you to others in need of your services. Be friendly but professional. Everyone likes being treated with cheerful, pleasant respect.
How do you find the right balance between your own creativity and the client’s needs? Sad to say, that rarely happens. I can usually find a creative approach to meeting the client's needs, but that's me doing my job, not me doing my art. Personal fiction-writing projects get pushed aside, worked on in bits and pieces, or ignored for months or years. After I've been churning out words all day for someone else, I'm not that interested in churning out words for my own pleasure. That's the price I pay for doing what I do.
What do you do to give your creativity full swing? I’m sure not many clients give you such a possibility. You're right. It's very, very rare for a client to say, "Let your imagination run wild and send me an invoice for it." At this point, my major creative outlet is composing and playing my own songs. When I was much younger, I thought I wanted to earn my living as a professional musician, but I've come to realize how money would only poison that well. I have no problem shaping my words around someone else's budget. Doing that with my music would hurt too much.
How come you work on an hourly basis with creativity? Often creative people use the pay-per-project model, because a nice idea could come up even when you are in the shower, not in front of a PC and a clock. Interesting question! I feel justified charging an hourly rate because I'm very focused when someone is paying me for it. I can work with an idea and produce results within a predictable time frame. And when inspiration does strike me at random moments (and yes, that happens all the time), it's usually about art rather than business. I scribble things on little pieces of paper and manage to keep track of them until they end up where they belong.
If you were to start your career today, what would you do differently? I'd learn more about the market I was entering. I started my freelance writing career in 1996 with broad assumptions, lucky and not-so-lucky guesswork, and iron-willed persistence. It was at the interesting moment when the gaming industry was crashing and the dot-com boom was taking off. If I'd bothered to learn more in advance about what I wanted to do, I could have seized some pretty obvious opportunities and gone farther and faster. This is a much different economy, and different industries are positioned for growth. I'm not sure where I'd focus my efforts now. Hindsight is always so much easier!
How do you manage to live with an unstable income from the freelance business? This is a painful question right now. Over the years I've been lucky enough to have a few steady clients who needed me on a regular basis. Things are different now, and I'm constantly networking to find small, one-off, low-paying projects while waiting for something big that's always supposed to happen but never seems to. So, if I can be slightly crass here, does anyone out there need a writer? Let's talk!
You can find Alan at his personal website: [URL that's no longer active]