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Friday, 21 February 2014

Childhood Heroes: Authors Dress Up for Oxford Story Museum exhibit

On 5th April 2014, the Oxford Story Museum will host an unforgettable series of author portraits. 26 Characters is a project in which 26 famous authors have dressed up as their favourite children's book characters, to spectacular effect. I can only assume this was the most fun photographer Cambridge Jones has had on a shoot.

The project has been a collaboration between the Museum, Jones and writer's association 26, who you might remember from my Throwaway Lines post a while back. Here's where the writing part comes in. Each of us was assigned a portrait and the challenge to write a sestude (a 62 word poem) about the photograph as a whole, taking in both the character and the author's work.

I was lucky enough for my author to have chosen one of my absolute favourite childhood reads. Adventure, danger and unseen worlds right beneath our feet. I can't say any more, or I'd spoil the surprise, but keep your eyes on the Museum website and follow them and 26 on Twitter for updates. Oh, and look out for the sestude writers going rogue nearer the time, as we talk about our own favourite characters, and try dressing up ourselves. It's going to be magical.

What's that? You absolutely can't wait and want a sneak peek? OK then. Straight from the Museum's website, see if you can recognise the cult author playing Badger from Wind In The Willows.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Bitten off of an otter: 5 linguistic reasons to love Viz

We're big Viz fans at Copy That. Granted, that could be partly due to half of the crew being northern, but it's also down to their witty linguistic tinkering.

Viz play a Tommy Cooper role with language, acting the fool with boob jokes and children's cartoons, while smuggling into its pages a sharp knowledge of convention, tone and trope that conjures something remarkably cutting.

Here are 5 of our favourite Viz-isms, putting the copper bolt in copywriting:

1. Spoonerisms on the cover.

With such mucky-monikered icons as Terry Fuckwitt and Spoilt Bastard on its roster, Viz has had to get creative to keep their billing centre stage and uncensored. Simultaneously childish and brilliant, this is the publishing version of insisting to your parents that you said "ships" and not The Other Word.

 2. Tattle-Mag Satire.

Nobody spoofs tabloids or cheap women's magazines quite like Newcastle's finest. Take A Shit, their homage to coffee-time scandal mag Take A Break, mimics the style so disturbingly accurately that the surreal stories could almost pass for real ones. Using the headline conventions of "This Happened ... And That's Not The Half of It!", they send up the exaggerated tone and content perfectly (my favourite being "I'm pregnant with a million baby crabs ... and I'm keeping them all!").

For its more Daily Star-style articles, Viz also throw in gleefully silly Easter eggs. Scattered throughout a piece about a pensioner conning himself out of his own life savings, are the sub-heads 'upstairs', 'downton', 'rieviaux', 'fountains' and 'dib-dabs'. It's only after finishing the article that you notice the writer has been sticking their tongue out at you the whole time.

3. Strip Tease. 

Gilbert Ratchet is a Viz regular. At the start of each strip, the schoolboy inventor will usually be promised a reward for making a custom invention, and will spend the entire episode battling duff prototypes until inspiration or good luck strikes. But his triumph is short-lived, as a homophonic error always means his reward is not what he thought. A much-anticipated "giant cup of tea" turns out to be an immense statue of author Truman Capote and poor Gilbert is left wondering why, yet again, he didn't see this coming.

In contrast, Finbarr Saunders (and his Double Entendres) pulls the opposite trick. Throughout the entire strip, his mum and her neighbour Mr Gimlet will exchange pleasantries, blissfully unaware that their unintentional innuendo is sending Finbarr into apoplexy. It's only in the final panel we see that the joke's on Finbarr.

4. In-jokes and deliberate mistakes. 

If you squint at the phrase "bitten off of an otter" or "stang off of a bee", you were clearly home-schooled. There's something about seeing a phrase you remember from childhood given the gravitas of print and the context of a serious article that makes it twice as funny. It's like Chris Morris extremely soberly telling viewers that David Owen has emerged, "shattered, from Oliver Reed."

Further playgroundisms abound. Remember when you thought all vampires were Draculas? Or the Ernie Wise-style use of 'what' instead of 'that' (see: "a play what I wrote")? Viz does.

5. Bad ads. 

The small ads in Viz are pin-sharply observed satirical gems. In any given issue you might find a chintzy decorative plate ad featuring deliberately confusing terms involving double negatives and threats of home repossession in a miniscule font, or ludicrous kinky phone lines catering for hot scientist/terrorist/priest action (sample: "I'm r*v*rs*ng the p*l*rity of the d*l*th*i*m crystals!"). By starring out their words, non-sexual characters are suddenly given a new, hilariously inappropriate guise.

One of my favourite issues of Viz came in the wake of the Market Rasen 'earthquake', when the following steamy ads were published, elegantly lampooning Britishness:

I also have a soft spot for their niche cigarette brands and their accompanying health warnings:

There are so many more little flourishes and winks between those Fat Slag-filled pages that it was hard to narrow it down to five favourites. In case regular Viz readers were wondering, I've deliberately avoided delving into Roger's Profanisaurus (steady, Finbarr), because that's an article in itself. Overall, though, Viz's ace in the hole is repetition, through which the feeling of "wait - that's not right..." or "I don't understand" is overtaken by a growing familiarity and expectation. Eventually, reading Viz becomes like meeting up with your weird but witty mate. The one who happens to read Engels and Nietzsche and has fifty words for fart.

I'll leave you with this gem, for anyone who's ever been tempted to learn a language:

Why not share your favourite Viz tics in the comments below?

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Chocolate Bot - Markov Chocolates and deliciously bad copy

OK, I'm hereby calling a halt to our toe-dip into the world of chocolate box hyperbole, because frankly, even our most unashamedly purple copywriting has been bested by an algorithm. Well, an algorithm and an extremely witty programmer.

I first encountered technologist and designer Tom Armitage when I interviewed him for Maker World magazine. The focus of the article was The Literary Operator, a cross-genre collaboration with sci-fi author Jeff Noon. Armitage created and programmed the Operator, a fantastic device that can scan a book in a moment and print a micro-remix of its contents. Taking inspiration from metatexts throughout history, the experiment was irreverent, sharp and audience-addicting. In addition to his literary operations, however, Tom has also been masquerading as the founder of fictional confectionary empire, Markov Chocolates.

Sound classy, doesn't it? A spot of Moscow mystique. They're probably served in gold-wrapped pyramids to silk-clad dignitaries by an ever-indulgent ambassador. Following them on Twitter treats the reader to mouthwatering, if completely over-the-top, descriptions of their wares. There's just one catch: they're not real. The company aren't real, (brace yourself) the chocolates aren't real and since imaginary companies don't employ staff, there's no earnest marketing bard coming up with those florid tweets. So what's the explanation behind the ghost in the machine?

It's actually fairly simple. @MarkovChocolate is a Twitter account inspired by sickly-sweet chocolate box copywriting, and run by a bot using Markov Chains. These are mathematical systems, used to model everything from games of chance to Google's PageRank mechanism. Each chain is a memoryless process, i.e. it remembers only the last thing it created, and bases its next creation on that. So each flight of fondant fancy uses the information from its last tweet, in combination with its overall pool of gooey phrasing, to create the next micro-message. The resulting descriptions are brilliantly odd and tongue-in-cheek, yet still strangely plausible.

There's a warning in this for copywriters. Lay off the liqueurs when composing for chocolate boxes, or you might find your florid phrasing immortalised in a Markov remix. Something a little like this, perhaps:

Just for fun, why not see if you can outdo Markov Chocolates (and our own nauseating attempts here and here) in the comments? Dollop on the saccharine and dial down the moderation for an excellent exercise in style.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Graphic Content: What Can Copywriters Lean from Comics?

Back in December 2012, Chris Martin wrote a piece for the 26 blog on the lessons writers could learn from comic books. These included telling stories, being concise and looking great (the writing - I'm sure those pyjamas are just dandy, you freelance thing, you). Since Copy That and Sidekick Books were both founded on a love of mixing media and collaborating, I wanted to delve into the actual nuts and bolts of comic book design, and the ways in which the different components work together, in order to apply this to other forms.

A great place to start is the 2000 AD submissions page. This lays out for the rookie Alan Moores out there exactly how exactly you write a comic. I thoroughly recommend this guide, not just for comic writers, but for anyone interested in narrative and storytelling. There are old, cross-format pearls in there, such as 'Show, don't tell' and 'Write it, then pick it to pieces', but these are presented in the light of the restrictive format. Overly verbose passages, for example, which perhaps might just read badly in a novel, literally do not fit into the majority of comic book panels. In splash pages (an entire page dedicated to a single frame), more often than not the only words in it will be "Oh. My. God." or "I don't believe it", tucked beside something like this:

Yes, when it comes to the big reveal of an immense robot-gorgon-kaiju, the artist is the star.

Which leads on to the skill of collaboration. A good copywriter, like a good comic writer, knows when to let the image speak loudest. Sometimes this means using no words at all, sometimes a few and sometimes quick-fire darts of wit all over the shop. Being able to bounce off the ideas of a designer or artist is something any writer can benefit from. Take Roald Dahl's work with Quentin Blake, or those sparsely-worded ads that blow your mind.

Simply awesome. Nightcrawler would be proud.

Katsushi Ota, editor of Japanese literature magazine Faust, describes the illustrations in the manga he publishes by saying they "do more than just explain a scene, or describe the novel. [They're] meant to draw in the reader and excite their imagination." Many manga writers, like Bleach creator Tite Kubo, both write and draw their own titles. This is not only less expensive for the magazine but also allows for easier cohesion between ideas. In mainstream Western comics, it's more common to see a pairing of artist and writer, and when the two work well together, it's magical. Do you pile in the quickfire dialogue or let a static silent movie unfold, punctuated only by the odd sound effect?

Decompressed and Compressed Storytelling
(with thanks to Brian Cronin)

Basically, compressed storytelling was a format more popular in Golden Age comics, in which monster-of-the-week or one-shot episodes demanded a lot of action in a small number of pages. So within six panels you might have Magneto stealing a weapon, taunting the X-Men and getting into his escape plane, only to find Cyclops on his windscreen, who pulls him out of the window and dumps him into the sea. Bam. High-octane, lots of BIFF and KER-SPLASH sounds. The writer could cram several such adventures into one comic. Not much room for emotional development and nuances.

Deadpool get compressed. Wait, IS that Deadpool?

Decompressed storytelling is a comparatively modern mode, and involves a lot more suggestion and silence. A look, the sudden appearance of a character, a weapon, a uniform...the reader is left to do a little more of the legwork. Criticisms include self-indulgence and over-angsty storylines at the expense of excitement and plot progression.

Response buffering...

A balance between the two - character and plot, excitement and believability - is paramount for engaging writing. Charlie Jane Anders has an excellent post on the sins of comic book writers, including inserting action scenes for the hell of it and ornamental dialogue. Readers aren't stupid.

In Close-Up

One of the golden rules in that original 2000AD post is not to cram too many actions into a single panel. Good planning is something copywriters and novel writers alike always have trepanned into their skulls. You simply can't have Spiderman knocking out a bank robber, rescuing MJ and jumping onto the roof in one frame. It would be confusing for the reader, impossible for the artist to render coherently and disruptive to the reader's flow. If just putting the speech bubble in the wrong corner of a panel is enough to confuse the order of dialogue, having Peter Parker whirl around like a Catherine Wheel in a very short period will leave the audience as dizzy as the hapless crooks themselves.

The copywriting parallel with the overstuffed single panel would be beginning your story with a paragraph-long sentence. This might work for Faulkner, but most people, it's not exactly gripping. There's a reason we are taught to emphasise ideas three times - it sticks in the mind and gives us space to begin examining and processing. Just the same, many comic strips in newspapers will have three panels; a visual repetition of the characters that helps the reader to follow a story.

It's clear that, just as working with strict poetic forms like the pantoum or villanelle can benefit writers looking to improving their linguistic dexterity, the comic book form has a lot to teach everyone from ad writers to novelists about restraint, excitement, pacing and working with outside elements like artwork. And you don't need to be a brilliant artist or owed favours from Nick Roche. Compassionate types on the internet have designed free software for this very purpose. Check out Bitstrips and Pixton for a start.

Alternatively, just do what Max Cannon at Red Meat, Ryan North at Dinosaur Comics and Randall Munroe at XKCD do, and make your lack of artistic skills a fundamental part of your comic.

On that note, I'll leave you with Max Cannon's inscrutable cut 'n' paste cryptkeeper, Bug-Eyed Earl, demonstrating the Rule of Three in style:

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Chocolate Box Hyperbole #2

An ongoing series in which Copy That does for chocolate box descriptions what dragons do for oil rigs.

Orange Chocolate Crunch

All of us need a shield against the darkness, and this bronze octagon, emblazoned with the crest of the house of Quality, will shine through the caverns of deepest night. A fiery battle between chocolate and citrus, each crunch like the clash of sword on halberd, and the whole mediated by the wise and just maiden, Tongue.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Life on Mars: ESA's space tales

I'm not an astronaut, space scientist or engineer, but I'm hooked on the European Space Agency's emails. When I worked as a funding content editor for policy publisher Research, I signed up to as many European public body mailing lists as possible, to avoid missing any calls. Most mailouts contained dry lists of upcoming events, but ESA's headlines have consistently tempted me, ensuring I stayed on their list long after it stopped being essential for my job.

Here are a few recent examples:

  • Cool Andromeda
  • Game on: European student codes reach space station
  • Orion Slideshow
  • Choosing the right people to go to Mars
  • Smelling Grímsvötn (a bit Tolkien, that one)

You might think that space science has an easy ride when it comes to impressing readers, and they're certainly not short of arresting photography. But given that the European Commission has allocated €330 million in FP7 funds to its Science in Society programme, which aims to communicate science to the public, it seems even the bombastic disciplines need more outreach and engagement. And in a time of squeezed middles and reduced funding, when small businesses are going under and citizens fear for their homes, sympathy for multi-billion-euro space research programmes might understandably wane.

In a situation as sensitive as this, ESA's headlines manage to get the reader's attention without over-dramatising the story. This understatement sets up an expectation that the story behind it will no doubt be impressive. How about this for some nifty context-dependent litotes? Sitting beneath the space agency logo, the headline "Stormy Year" immediately suggests something a little more spectacular than a bit of drizzle or a few financial woes. Click.

There's an interesting short interview with ESA PR Manager Bernhard von Weyhe here. In the meantime, why not sign up to ESA's Space News alerts for more interplanetary wordplay?