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Copywriter Slash Novelist: How My Career in Advertising Helped Shape Me as a Novelist


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About a hundred years ago when I was finishing my senior year of high school, my dad and I had a very important conversation about my future.

My parents knew that I wanted to be a novelist. How could they not? It was practically all I’d talked about since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I wrote stories incessantly, I was the editor of my high school’s literary magazine, I took a typing class during summer school once so I could write faster, I bought t-shirts with authors’ faces on them, and, of course, I read and read.

As supportive as my parents were, they were also very practical people. They still are, especially my dad. Although not a man of the arts himself, he understood that no one was going to pay me for trying to be a novelist. Even under the best of circumstances, he knew, it takes years for writers to get paid, if ever, and those who do often make very…very little.

He was right, by the way—on all counts. I didn’t sell my first novel, Domestic Violets, until I was in my early thirties, and after paying taxes and my agent, I took home about enough to buy a nice IKEA bedroom set.

As a way to avoid a life of abject poverty, my dad suggested that I major in advertising and pursue a career as something called an “advertising copywriter.” From his perspective it was a pretty sweet deal. I’d be a writer and I’d get paid an actual salary that I could live on and buy things with. Then, on nights and weekends, I’d be free to work on my own writing.

When you’re eighteen years old, it’s easy to immediately dismiss everything your parents say, because what the hell do they know, right? Well, thankfully I skipped that part and declared my dad a freaking genius. And then I went ahead and did exactly as he suggested.

AN ADVERTISING NOVELIST

There’s that line in “Piano Man” where Billy Joel sings about a “real estate novelist.” I’m not entirely sure what that is, but for more than twenty years I was…well, an “advertising novelist.” And I’m not ashamed to say that I enjoyed it very much. I was good enough at writing ads to keep getting promotions, I made enough money to live comfortably, and I even got to meet a few celebrities along the way.

Looking back on those years among my fellow caffeine-blitzed advertising creatives, I’ve come to realize that copywriting wasn’t just something I did on the side to pay the bills. Truth is, advertising, for better or worse, helped shape my work habits as a novelist, my relationship with the tricky business of criticism, and my attitude toward being paid to write. Here are a few takeaways.

  • Inspiration Is Irrelevant It felt harsh to type that, but I decided to keep it anyway because…well, it’s true. If I added up all the hours I’ve spent writing during my professional life—from features and benefits copy for Under Armour hoodies to any chapter of any of my novels—I bet I’ve been truly inspired about thirty percent of that time. That means that more often than not when I’m writing I’m just sitting at my keyboard and grinding the damn thing out. Because that’s the job, and no piece of writing has ever written itself. Pro tip: espresso. It works quickly, and with enough cream it barely even tastes like coffee.
  • Deadlines Are Good An old creative director of mine liked to say, “Nothing crystalizes your thinking like a deadline.” He was right. Deadlines are familiar to any professional writer, and we’ve all done what we’ve had to do to meet those deadlines. (See my previous tip about espresso.) Sometimes, however, particularly when we’re working on our own writing projects, there are no formal deadlines. In those cases, you should make one up—and stick to it. You’ll finish your novel by Christmas, dammit. You’ll have a draft of your personal essay by Friday if it’s the last thing you ever do. You’ll revise your memoir before you leave for vacation, so help you God. If you convince yourself that you have to do something by a specific time, you will.
  • Keep Consistent Working Hours This will sound downright quaint now in Covidtimes, but when I worked in advertising, I went to an office every weekday at about 8:30 a.m., and I left around 5:30 p.m. Was I a captive? Yeah, probably. Was I dead inside? Maybe a little. However, prisoner or otherwise, such specific working parameters trained my brain to be creative on demand. Those were my hours, and, unless I had a good excuse like a dentist appointment or a vacation, I was working. While I’m not suggesting that you should be writing nine hours a day five days a week—I certainly don’t—I think you’ll find that making a writing schedule and sticking to it will help you produce more pages than you otherwise would.
  • Your Writing is Only as Good as Your “Boss” Thinks It Is Oof, that hurt even worse than that “Inspiration is Irrelevant” thing from before. Unfortunately, though, it’s also true. Some of my all-time best ad concepts, headline ideas, and would-be commercial campaigns never saw the light of day because they were mercilessly murdered before my very eyes by creative directors, clients, and legal teams. Those people were my bosses—the gatekeepers. While I definitely believe in taking creative risks and pushing authority when possible, my rate of success went up dramatically when I began to consider what my bosses liked, wanted, and required. As a writer, your “boss” may be your editor, your agent, prospective editors and agents, or readers at large. Whoever it is, understand what your “boss” wants and write with that in mind.
  • You Are Competing for Your Reader’s Attention Good advertising breaks through the clutter, right? Same goes for good writing. Make no mistake, the literary marketplace is a cluttered mess, and readers are more distracted than they’ve ever been. Whether it’s through your voice, your concepts, or your prose itself, find a way to demand attention. Readers are tired, overwhelmed, and scatterbrained—and it doesn’t help that they currently have instant access to every TV show and movie ever made. If you give them a reason to turn away from your writing, I promise you they will. So, get out there and grab some eyeballs! (Not really. You know what I mean.)
  • Pitching Matters We’ve all seen Madmen, right? Handsome, silver-tongued Don Draper makes an ad for some everyday kitchen product sound like Shakespeare. Okay, well, even if you’re never called upon to wear a suit and pitch your writing in a sixties-inspired boardroom, developing the ability to quickly, articulately, and enthusiastically describe your own work is a vital part of the publishing process. Whether this takes place in person or (more likely) in the form of a query letter, we, as writers, need to be able to sell ourselves and our work. Take it easy on the drinking, smoking, and philandering, though. That stuff takes a toll.

And finally… 

  • Some People Won’t Like Your Work
    Say what you will about the Internet, but it’s great for instantly making you feel bad about yourself. I can Google some of my old advertising work right now and see what people hated about it. And, although I try very hard not to, I can visit GoodReads or Amazon whenever I want and read about how terrible I am at being a novelist. (I was once referred to as a “shittier Jonathan Franzen.”) No matter what you accomplish, and no matter how hard you work at your craft, there are people out there who will think—sometimes loudly—that you’re no good. It’s fine. Ignore them and keep going. Because you’ve got work to do.

FOR DISCUSSION

Unless you were born rich or you wrote Gone Girl when you were fifteen years old, you’ve probably had some jobs over the years. How have those jobs influenced you as a writer? Have you ever had a job that had a negative effect on your writing? What about a positive effect? How have you managed to balance the demands of a job with your need to write? If money were no object, do you think you could write full time? Would all that time to write be a good thing or a bad thing?

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About Matthew Norman

Matthew Norman is the author of four novels. His latest novel, All Together Now, is out now from Ballantine Books. His debut novel, Domestic Violets, was nominated in the Best Humor Category at the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. We're All Damaged was an Amazon bestseller. And Last Couple Standing was named one of the best books of 2020 by Esquire. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Baltimore, Maryland and holds an MFA from George Mason University.

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