What do press releases and short stories have in common?

by MDY

Writing one thing can help with another. I, for example, have written many press releases as part of my day-job. Press releases are like Sudoku: you have to use the scant information you have to fill in the blanks of a template that is, more or less, always the same. I don’t do Sudoku because 81 squares is too many for my brain, but I do Kenken (which is like Sudoku but with mental arithmetic) and I feel the same spark of euphoria when I finish one as I do when I finish a press release.

Press releases always contain one or two quotations from important people who are too busy to actually say anything about the subject of the press release, so instead you have to make up what they would say if they had the time to say something. You often end up writing something like this:

“The launch of the new T1000 model has the potential to revolutionise the nascent autonomous cybernetics industry, propelling us towards a future where true collaboration between humans and machines is possible,” said John Connor.

Note that these are quotations, not actual dialogue. I suck at dialogue, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. But that can be useful when you’re writing short (or long) fiction and want to convey a character’s speaking voice without getting them mired in a gluey exchange of sympathies. I’ve always liked having my characters talking against or over each other, rather than to, perhaps because it reflects my own experience of conversations (where people are great at talking but not so much at listening or responding). I’ve found that the way important people are quoted in press releases is actually very effective when I use it for ordinary people in my short stories.

For example, there is nothing dialogue-y about this:

“When I was in primary school, we had scripture classes every Wednesday morning,” I said instead. “I wasn’t sure where to go so they put me in the Catholic class, which I thought was pretty decent luck since we got to have bread and grape juice every session. But one day Mom and Dad notice I’m closing my eyes and putting my hands together before dinner and when they figure it out, they fly into a rage like you’ve never seen. Mom drives into school the next day and I can hear her yelling at my teacher for a whole half hour while I wait outside, about how Dad is thinking of suing the school and do you people think about the consequences to the home environment or even think at all?” 

(from “Afterlife”)

But it’s a lot more fitting (when you read the story) than if the protagonist and Maria went into a 20-line piece of dialogue where they exchanged whole expository chunks about their feelings. Does anyone really do that any more (except via Facebook)?

In short, even “boring” writing like press releases can impart lessons and cool technical tricks which you can re-purpose elsewhere.