Story Mop-Up Duty… and Another Challenge

Sunday, 6:23pm
Reno, NV
The street’s become one big damn dirt-flavored slushie…


Hey — great job on the stories, guys (and gals).

I just grabbed a few, totally at random, for comment here:

Ian, one of the last to post, nailed it. As a dog lover, I laughed out loud about his short, vivid tale of the dog who didn’t know what to do with the squirrel — after a lifetime of chasing them, she’d never caught one before. And so it got away.

Weak segue into a product, but definitely the right idea. Nice work, Ian.

Karen, Dean, Jason — nice work. Especially Karen — vivid, funny, poignant finish.

Bill went long with his story about slacking his way into college while his poor brother struggled for good grades and failed… but it’s just damn good storytelling. Human interest, compelling narrative, an opening wide enough to begin a truly killer sales pitch. Kudos.

There were two very short posts, by Kris and Udo, that illustrate the lesson. I suggest everyone dig in and read them.

Kris relayed the old “3 men went out, only 2 came back” saw. I appreciate the thinking behind it, but it’s not a story. An opening line for a story, perhaps…but it’s totally unmoored, with no plot elements, no punch line, no action.

This is best illustrated by Udo’s submission about the 300 Trojans stopping 200,000 at Thermopylae (subject of the recent movie based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel), coupled with the modern idea of a single “Trojan” now stopping half a million. I’ll let you, the reader, fill in the details… but I “got” it immediately. Maybe a little too cute, but good — set up, plot elements, coy twist, punch line.

Two extremely sparse submissions, both trying for pithy delivery. One connected, the other fell into the trap of not completing the process of set-up/action/punch-line.

This is not a knock on you, Kris. Thousands of people read this blog, and you had the guts to sit down and give the task a whirl. You are already ahead of everyone else who didn’t lock into “think hard” mode… and your next effort (if you take the lesson to heart) will put you even further ahead.

This is how writers get good.

I’ve been studying writing since I was a kid (when I tried to figure out how Bradbury and Asimov were able to suck me into their novellas). And, as an adult, I’ve dug deep into the “art”, shelling out big bucks to attend fancy-ass writer’s workshops in various states (like the famous annual events in Swannee, TN, and Squaw Valley, CA).

And I discovered two very important things:

1) Writer’s write. It’s that simple.

Almost every accomplished writer I have ever met started out struggling…. and even after becoming successful, continued to drive to get even better.

Not a single one was “born” into it. Their early stories were garbled garbage… but they kept after it, learning the craft by making mistakes, and then absorbing the lesson.

2) Most of the people running around those workshops were not writers… nor did they ever intend to become one.

No. They shelled out the thousands and thousands of bucks required to attend these week-long workshops… because they wanted to have already written something, and enjoy the imagined self-respect and glory of “being” a writer.

The one thing they had in common: They seldom actually sat down and wrote.

They complained of “writer’s block” (which doesn’t exist), they knew how to talk a good game, they even set up meetings with publishers.

But since the only way to get a book written is to… um, excuse me if I shock you here… is to WRITE IT, these pathetic wannabe’s were just shit outa luck in their desire to be seen as writers.

They are the worst kind of poseur. (Unfortunately, the workshops can’t survive without them. The “real” writers — a definite, tiny minority — need the wannabe’s to fund the events.) (Though, after attending five or six, I’ve concluded they’re mostly a waste of time. If you want to become a writer, write. And find successful writers to study. Oh, and take advantage of free blogs like this one.)

I’m relaying this tale specifically because many people who posted their stories here did something that a HUGE part of the population simply cannot bring themselves to do: Face the blank screen, and then write.

For every marketer out there writing his own copy — and learning from his mistakes and testing and inter-acting with guys like me — there are a hundred more who are frozen just by the thought of putting their fingers on a keyboard and engaging their brains.

The invention of email — which wasn’t all that long ago — has been a godsend for many people… simply because it forces you to grab a coherent thought, wiggle it down through your body from brain to fingers, and type it out.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this same situation: My father (who, at 86, may be one of the oldest dudes alive who knows how to surf online), at first could barely peck out a single sentence in an email. He was so terse, it was hardly communication at all.

Quickly, however, by repetition, he got the hang of it. And now pens emails easily and unself-consciously.

He got better… by doing it.

Believe it or not… the essentials of killer storytelling require nothing more than the few specifics I handed out in the past few blog posts… combined with your continued effort to see the world around you, and translate it into a pithy, concise, well-told tale that meets the simple requirements of set-up/action/punch line.

If you’re doing it badly now, you soon won’t be. Just keep after it.


Here’s another challenge for y’all.

It ties in neatly with the idea of keeping after it.

Harken: Most folks know the “science” behind forming a habit.

I can’t quote you the research, but the standard anecdote is that it takes 21 days to create a habit… whether it’s a good habit, or a bad one.

You gotta get up every day, for three weeks in a row, uninterrupted… and do your thing in a proscribed way that eventually gets set into muscle memory and into your brain.

The bad habits are easy.

The good ones… not so much.

My trainer, Bryan, reminded of how important it is to focus on creating good habits last week. He’s forcing all his clients — he’s a sadist, the man is — to think about a good habit they want to cultivate… and he’s not shutting up about it once you make the committment.

This is great stuff.

Think how quickly your life could change if you had a slave standing behind you at your desk… and every time you did whatever it is you’re trying to change (like slouching in your chair, or obsessively checking email, or downloading porn) the slave would whack you upside the head until you stopped.

Well, what Bryan’s doing is pretty close. I see him three times a week for punishment (okay, for a workout)… and he is relentless about getting into my face about my goals.

Heck — I PAY him to do this to me.

I highly recommend it.

But even if you’re on your own right now… the whole 21-day challenge thing is worthwhile.

Just pick a single good habit you want to instill. And use the next 3 weeks as your “forge” to make it stick.

At the recent Altitude “check up” event, there were dozens of rich marketers who talked about this very thing — changing your life in increments, habit by habit. (The necessity for “being a good animal” ranks up there with “earn another million bucks” for the most successful guys in the game. Often enough, it ranks even higher.)

What could you accomplish in your life by, say… getting up an hour earlier every day?

Or forming a morning ritual that allows you to efficiently meet the day pumped full of good nutrients, clean, alert and already exercised?

Or setting up a single day each week to take the phone off the hook, and just write all day long without interruption?

Or, heck, even the old standby’s: Is it time to quit smoking? Time to get serious about mentoring your kids? Time to start reading a novel every month?

As humans, we are all woefully inept at creating our “movies” in any perfect way. I would never strive for perfection, anyway — sounds boring to me.

Still, there are ways I want to live that I cannot access until I create better habits. Incremental changes, made permanent, can quickly form the foundation for amazing transformation.

I’ll tell you what my little 21-day challenge is. I’m addicted to carbohydrates — bread, cereal, chips, all that good stuff. And so, despite being in excellent over-all shape and health (cuz, you know, I work out)… my cholesterol isn’t cooperating.

So I’m simply jettisoning all the crap from my diet. (The beer stays, though. I’m not a monk.)

It’s not tough. I’ve done it before. In fact, last year I got into the habit of NOT eating so many carbs… but over the holidays, I dedicated myself to perversely destroying that habit.

Such is life. Constant vigilance is required.

However, without an actual deadline, it might take me years to even attempt to readjust my diet. (I swear, I bought a big damn bag of tortilla chips in a trance last week. I told myself “Don’t do it, man” as I watched my hand reach out and toss the bag into the grocery cart. Carbs are great zombie fuel.)

So here I am, a week into it. And already thinking twice every time I walk into the kitchen. And just waving hello to the Cheeto’s at the deli when I grab a sandwich, and not buying them.

Because I set a simple, very reachable goal: Just do it for 21 days, and see what happens.

It’s cheating, of course. I know full well that, after 21 days, I will have replaced the old habits with a new one: Eating healthy.


Wanna come along?

Pick a goal. For the next 21 days, engage in your chosen new behavior. Just 3 short weeks.

A cakewalk. (Unless it’s cake you’re trying to get away from.)

If you’ve done this before, then you know how powerful it is. If you’ve never done it, you’re in for a treat.

Start simple, if you like. Take a long walk every day. Start brushing your teeth more effectively. Meditate for twenty minutes in the afternoon. Be nice to your mate, no matter how aggravating they are to you.

Or… keep a journal, and every evening, write down a short story of what you observed during your day. Take ten minutes, and tell yourself a little tale.

Heck… post your new goal here in the comments section, if you like. It’ll be there for God and everybody to see… and that will help you breeze through the 3 weeks.

Twenty-one days is not an eternity (unless you’re quitting smoking, which is one of those big damn deal goals) (which you need to get to at some point).

It goes quick. (Think back to your New Year’s Even celebrating. That was FOUR weeks ago. A mere blink.)

And, at the end of your 21 days, you’ll have your new good habit.

C’mon, let us know what you’re eager to instill. We all need good ideas for the next challenge, you know. And I’ll remind you, each time I blog, about it. I’ll keep you aprised of my progress, and you can post yours.

This could be the year for you. The big breakthrough year, where it all comes together.

And it can start with just a little focus and dedication to change…

Don’t be a putz. Let’s change things around…

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

P.S. Speaking of turning things around, the Simple Writing System has changed the life of thousands of marketers, business owners and copywriters and has helped launch countless careers.

Could it do the same for you?

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  • Bernie says:

    Okay John, I’ll give it a go.

    For the next 21 days my goal is to do my Matt Furey body weight exercises (Hindu push-ups, squats and bridging) first thing in the morning before my cup of coffee.

    I bought Mr. Furey’s book a few years ago and since travel with work is killing my gym schedule, these are exercises I can do at home, on the road, in the hotel room etc.

    I’ll let you know how it goes.


  • John P says:


    I will list my new found habit. I am going to be starting to do my morning workout that I have been talking to myself about doing for well let’s just say too long.

    P.S. Never mention Monk and lack of beer in the same sentence. Just look at the only true monks in the world. The trappist Monks in Denmark make an indescribable beer, just hard to find.

    John Carlton writes: Dude, you are so right. My partner Stan introduced me to Duval during a trip to Belgium. A little rich for my ale-hardened tastes, but good stuff. (I didn’t know they’d made their way all the way up to Denmark, too.)

    Still, most of the monks in the world renounce worldly pleasure.

    I’m gonna go pour an IPA now…

  • Louis says:

    I’ve been meaning to work on my Spanish for a good while now. This is a perfect excuse to make a daily habit of it. I’ll start doing 30 minutes a day.

    Thanks for suggesting this, John.

  • Scott says:


    O.K., here goes…

    In 21 days I’ll have my first web site up, my first sales copy written, and my first sale made.

    Thanks for your great blog, insights, and encouragement!


  • ?uestion says:

    Okay, guess its my turn…I wanna take the previous assignments and turn them into my goal…meaning I want to write a 3 sentence story describing something interesting about each day

  • Bill says:

    Thanks for the kind words – coming from you, they made my day.

  • Larry Foster says:

    John, just a minor point from those of us who are anal about such things.
    I think it was Spartans that stopped the Persians at Thermopylae.
    Trojans do stop… At least, supposedly.
    It’s like mixed metaphors.

    Now, here’s the part where I hate you (Not really)
    You slap me and make me actually improve my damn self.

    So many areas need improvement.
    Which one do I pick for the next 21 days?

    Smoked for 40 years and really starting to feel the effects. Pretty damn important.

    Eat a lot better and start working out to shed some of the extra weight. Pretty important, too.

    Stop being one of those posers. Someone who wants to write but doesn’t do near enough of it.

    Here’s what I’m goiing to choose to do for the next 21 days to create a new habit.
    I’m going to write for 3 consecutive 33 minute sessions daily at a fixed time.
    33 minutes worked for Gene Schwartz (and I’m certainly no Gene Schwartz)

    Thanks for bringing this subject up.
    Larry Foster

    John Carlton writes: Of course, you’re right. It was the Spartans. (Small matter the movie fudged — the Athenians were shown as cowardly in the flick, but from what I’ve read they actually took it to the Persian navy with as much fury and success as the Spartans did to the ground forces. Athenian warriors were just as nasty in combat as Spartans, but over the years they’ve gotten the rap of being weak. It’s nonsense, since the neighboring city-states were at war for generations, which forced both to pay attention to warfare strengths. Athens’ crime was to have art and culture, while the Spartans lived like pissed-off grouches. It was the first recorded feud between right-brain/leftie politics and left-brain/conservative politics. BTW: We got our ideas of democracy from Athens.)

    Thanks for the fact-checking. It’s worthy of a whole lesson, you know. I’ve written an entire sales pitch before based on a fundamentally incorrect piece of info, and that’s embarrassing. It can also make the piece bomb. (Though, amazingly, many readers will just gloss right over even obvious inaccuracies and wander into fantasyland with you, never challenging your “facts”, if you write compellingly. Another sorry piece of human psych abused and exploited by unsavory marketers and politicians and opinion-makers.)

    To get the golden reputation that will forge your career in bright lights, be obsessive about getting your facts straight. Never invest in ideas that are proven to be wrong, and never get stubborn about admitting you blew it.

    Those who’ve followed my stuff for any length of time know that reality checks are a basic part of my tool kit. It’s tough to live with truth sometimes, but in the long run it’s the right choice.


  • Matt says:

    K, here’s my habit:

    Everyday, for at least an hour, I’ll work on one of my various web pages that I can’t figure out how to publish or design.

    One hour a day, that’s it.

  • Donna says:

    I’m in. I need this so bad it’s disgusting. My day is completely hap-hazzard and unstructured. I’m starting with the morning “non-routine”. Take my son to school, come home and get STRAIGHT in the shower – no detours. We’ll move on from there.

    Thanks John – you are really something . . .


  • Tom says:

    I’ve been an interested follower of your website/blog the last couple of years for all the copywriting, life lesson and other tidbits that you so willingly share.
    Little did I know that they would be motivational as well.
    I’ll try to write for one hour a day the next 21 days-first thing.

  • sammy says:

    Thanks John,

    I already made a 30 day commitment based on the trials of Steve Pavlina ( a personal improvement writer who talked about shunning ny resolutions and committing to a 30 day ny “trial”, stating that it’s less daunting, whilst also giving you the option of dropping it if you don’t notice an obvious positive difference.

    Steve is currently finishing his 30 day raw food trial. Its really tough on him, but seeing his photos on the site encouraged me to eat fruit for breakfast everyday since jan 2. I feel so much better and have lost 4 pounds without even trying. Just 1 apple, 1 banana and 1 orange for breakfast was all it took. it unconsciously lead to me eating better throughout the day, and if i did eat a dirty big chinese meal for dinner, i didn’t feel so guilty with the morning fruit behind me.

    after this month i can fully see myself continuing with this breakfast. small change i know, but its given me the confidence in my self discipline to join you fellas and add another goal for this 21 days… study japanese every morning for 1 hour.

    Good luck to us all, if you do stick with it, it’s worth it in more ways than the obvious initial change you’ve created.


  • Matt says:

    John, you’re a big jerk. If I’m not careful, I’m going to totally forget where my comfort zone WAS if I listen to you long enough. Oh well, nothing ventured and all that, right?

    My challenge is to forge a habit of working on my copywriting skills every day. I’m going to quit dreaming and start getting down to the nitty gritty, down and dirty side.

    Seriously, though, man, thanks for your blog. It’s the kick in the butt I need every now and then.

  • Leo says:

    Okay, okay…

    1. Every night I will fill the tub and run the jets…
    2. While I soak, write a “TO-DO” list
    3. Actually DO the list the following day…

    I’m thinking that it is easier to form a good habit if there is some likeable aspect to it…

    Thanks John!


  • Shawn Lebrun says:

    As a trainer in the fitness field myself, I’ve found that after about a month with a client, they’ve become used to the exercise regimen themselves and I can slowly take the leash off.

    It’s really true, that once something becomes habit, you become a slave to it. And that can help or hurt, depending on the habit.

  • Kamron says:


    I lowered my cholesterol 88 points in one year by simply slurping down a tablespoon of Res-Q fish oil every day. No shit. Stuff comes from Norway. (My girlfriend is a personal trainer – got me started on it).

    Going from 244 to 156… I guess you could say – has become a habit. My doctor freaked out and ordered another test… same results.


  • john-carlton says:

    Nice work, Kamron.

    Old Viking remedy, I imagine…


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