Monday, August 3, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking V

The best way to crack any market is to study it, understand its pattern, and pitch something that fits that pattern, but has a fresh twist.

This past Sunday’s Modern Love essay is an excellent example of the “pattern with a twist” in action.

The essay, “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear” by Laura A. Munson is the story of how the author was able to employ a unique behavioral response to her mid-life-crisis tortured husband. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that by refusing to buy into his drama, she was able to turn him. The essay begins with his surprise announcement that he’s leaving and ends with him returning emotionally to the marriage.

So what’s the pattern? Well, this essay has a nifty similarity to one of Modern Love’s most successful essays of all time. The Shamu essay. Fans of the column may remember “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” by Amy Sutherland. It ran in June of 2006. Even people who aren’t fans of the column may remember this essay, because it was one of the New York Times’ most emailed stories ever. In her essay, Sutherland tells of how she was able to change her husband’s behavior for the better by employing techniques animal trainers use to get hyenas to pirouette, elephants to paint, and killer whales to leap out the water and plant “kisses” on their jailers. Sutherland reported that by treating her husband as a trainer would treat Shaumu, she was able to improve his behavior and the dynamics of their marriage. (By the way, Sutherland is one of the many Modern Love alums who landed a book deal off her essay. I’m just saying.)

Anyway, despite their radically different tones, Munson’s essay has a lot in common with Sutherland’s. Both are stories of errant husbands and quick-thinking wives who use their wits and their brains to transform marital conflict into marital bliss. Sutherland’s story is funny. Munson’s is definitely not. But she follows Sutherland’s lead. When her husband announces that he no longer loves her, maybe never did, and he’s leaving, she leverages technique many parents use with a tantruming child. She does not reward the tantrum by getting drawn into the fight. Instead, she goes about her business, expressing sympathy, offering support, but not playing into the drama.

Two essays. Same basic topic: how I leveraged a surprising technique to get my husband to behave. One humorous. The other, serious as a heart attack. Same pattern; fresh execution. Brilliant.

Munson’s essay has more than pattern going for it. It has strong dramatic tension – will the husband leave? Will this crazy plan of Munson’s work? The reader definitely stays in the story to find out how it ends. And the writing is great – staccato and punchy making smart use of fragments and colons. Very edgy.

In fact, my only criticism is the headline, which is kind of off topic. But I’m a newspaper veteran so I know there’s almost no way the author wrote the headline.

I’m betting agents are already trying to track this author down. There’s definitely a book in her story. Watch the Barnes and Noble tables for “Rejecting the Drama: The smart woman’s guide to her man’s mid-life tantrum.”

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