Two years ago, a local printer told me his problem: No one was reading hi Hey-here-we-are, company-name-and address ads in the local daily newspaper. Sure, people saw them, but the didn’t stand out from all the other ads. As a writer, he asked, did I have an ideas?
Absolutely. I offered to write ultra short stories of about 450 words apiece, set in the university town where his business is located. My premise was that no one likes an ad, but everyone enjoys a funny story. Humor and advertising go together like bran muffins and coffee. I wrote the first tale, setting the format for those to come, and Cascade Chronicles began as a monthly fiction column. (I now write it twice a month.
Each column takes between five and eight hours to write and edit, but they’re fun to create, so I charge a flat rate of $100. I fax or mail the one-page manuscript to the printers every month, and they do the layout. My client faxes me galleys a few days later, at which point I send corrections and my invoice. The Chronicles appear on the first Sunday and Tuesday of each month.
If the business were a restaurant, car dealership, hot tub supplier or computer store, the basic concept would still work. No business wants less business; they want their ads to be noticed and remembered.
The trick in writing these microstories is to have no inhibitions during the actual writing, to overwrite as necessary, and to cut and polish until each word hauls its freight. In every piece, I inlay the name of the company in bold letters right in the body of the text, and find an allterative tag line for the end. Other than that, each is different.
Each story focuses on at least two characters (I’ve squeezed in as many as ten), a conflict or situation, and a resolution of some kind.
I’ve written about young love, literacy and literature, trips to the dentist (a recurring motif in my other writing), quitting smoking (another one), a stuffy professor’s battle with a fly, and stories told from the viewpoints of companion animals and toddlers.
Once a year, in March, I allow myself to hallucinate a wild, improbable fantasy featuring leprechauns; in most other stories, the characters are ordinary (and very fictional) people, in prosaic settings and with realistic situations or conflicts. For instance, the first story described the meeting of two strangers, Annie and Sven, both single, who discover they share interests in uncommon things: skydiving, old foreign cars, eggplant recipes and crossword puzzles. In fact, that’s the first thing Sven asks her when she walks through the door of CASCADE PRINTING COMPANY: “What’s an eight-letter word for Bulgarian money?” Annie replies, “A stotinka. Bulgarian coin, 100 make a lev. Why?” At the end of the story, they get married in midair and live happily ever after, appearing every six months in my column for serial effect and unity of oeuvre.
Feedback was instantaneous. People read the ads, and talked about the ads, and waited for the next ad. After the first six Chronicles, the printer put them in a bordered box that was half as long but twice as wide, making the stories even more readable in the same number of column inches. After all, the printer still must pay the newspaper for space.
The paper gets an ongoing series of circulation-building short stories and gets paid for a larger ad; presumably, a daily or weekly newspaper might be persuaded to discount the space rates. This bonus won’t necessarily involve you, but it’s a possibility worth pointing out to a prospective client when you make your pitch. Obviously, you’ll need to know the target audience and their community. You should have at least one sample story for your clients to read, and be prepared with ideas for a few more. You want a series, not a one-shot.
It’s the hardest and most rewarding writing I’ve ever done, a lesson in how to say more with less, how to work within the constraints of word count and format, and how to stretch the imagination.
Is Cascade Printing Company happy with their ads? Put it this way: Now the ads are clipped and posted all over town. New customers and old friends come into the shop, laughing about the latest Chronicle. I’ve written 40 stories so far; when we reach 100, the printer wants to publish a collection.