Monthly Archives: January 2012

Further Perspective on Author Branding — You Are Forced To Choose Who You Are

And of course, to not choose is, in fact, a choice. 
One with consequences that are just as defining for your career as a writer.
This is a follow up to my most recent post, entitled “We read (INSERT YOUR NAME HERE) because…”
Several who commented online, and a few who contacted me directly, had a knee-jerk response.  They didn’t want to write from within the confines of a brand.  They perceived doing so as selling out, and or sacrificing some of the joyous freedom of writing what they please, how they please.
Nothing wrong with that.  But there are consequences to that knee-jerk.  Because it is a choice.
Branding is nothing more than a requisite step in the process.  If one doesn’t wish to proceed down the path, if they want to remain where they are, then feel free to ignore that particular step.   Remain a decathlete in a game that pays only sport-specific athletes.  If you claim you want to play professional football — and virtually everyone reading this website wants to earn and cultivate a readership for their stories; in other words, to turn pro) — then you’re going to have to put down that javelin and stop jumping over those hurdles and line up with how the game is played.  With a helmet.
I hope you’ll take it as the clarification it is meant to be…
… without the slightest intention of making anyone right or wrong.  Consequences are often non-judgmental, they just are.  Nothign wrong with trying to write a book in every single available genre you can name.  Have at it.  Just make sure your career goals, your vision for the outcome, aligns with that choice.
Imagine your kid wants to be a doctor. 
She or he will go to medical school, sure, and for the right reasons.  But when she’s done, she says she wants to be a surgeon, an OBGYN, a heart specialist, a chiropractor, a shrink, and, when they feel like it, a shaman.  Fair enough.  That’s some serious joy and freedom.
Usually a vision this scattered is coming from the mouth of a 11-year old who is a big fan of Greys Anatomy, which is fine.  Dreams have to start somewhere.
But the question, in light of that choice, at some point (like, the second year of medical school) becomes: what hospital is going to put you on their payroll?  Or, when you’re in private practice, who will be your patients?
The issue of branding only kicks in at the professional level. 
Until then, write what you want.  But when you cross the threshold and you’re writing for money, trying to build a career, and you have a publisher investing money in you (or, just as validly, you’re investing your own money toward the objective of building a career), you now face a choice
To brand, or not to brand?  That isn’t the question, it’s the key to moving forward.  Like it or not.
Below is my personal response to one of the writers — a very good one, too — who wrote me on this issue:
Dear xxxxxx:
I think my response begins with something I put into the post itself: a writer needs to decide who they are writing for, and why.  If they are writing for themselves, for their own experience and pleasure and fulfillment, then by all means, swapping genres and brands and styles is perfectly okay.  It’s okay because, for the most part, the outcome of the manuscript, by definition, is a lower priority than the experience.
To say otherwise is to not understand the reality of this proposition.  You can’t claim to desire commercial success but remain immune to the realities of commercialism.
That said, it can work, most likely as a one-off, and within a short window.  Any one of those diverse projects might catch on with a publisher, might even sell well and begin a career for the writer.
And right there is where the choice must be made… again.
Because the publisher won’t want you to change up the game.  If you sold a romance novel, and you’ve been offered a two book contract, rest assured that the publisher doesn’t want a mystery as your second book, or a thriller, or a time travel piece.  In fact, they’ll ask to review the “logline” of the second book before the contract goes through, just to ensure that you’re going to stay within your new “brand.”
And once again, you get to choose.
I’ve heard from several writers on this topic as a result of the last post.  One mentioned writing from a formula — I think that writer didn’t fully understand the message here.  Being known for something, having a brand, isn’t remotely formulaic.  Nelson Demille’s witty, layered dialogue is the very antithesis of formula, as is Grisham’s approach to showing an underdog hero battling the complexities and dark corners of the legal system.
So in addition to choosing, the process involves understanding.
Writing is the very essence of freedom.  At least it should be.  If you want to maintain that freedom completely and totally, then it’s totally available.  Heck, you don’t even have to finish a manuscript to experience it.  Just don’t expect an outcome that includes a career with money and fame, because in that realm you’re not alone.  Your publisher is, in effect, an employer.  Your books are the product, and they are, by definition and expecation and dead to rights, involved in quality control AND marketing.  In fact, they’re running it all. 
For the latter (marketing), branding is critical.
Nothing wrong with choosing out of that game.  But be honest… writers who say they will never cave in to branding are also harboring a dream of making the A-list.  Which is a contradiction.
Tough truth.  It forces us to choose, to navigate reality.
Which is why I continue to believe that writing is life itself.  Not an analogy for life,  but as as a transparent Petrie dish within which we live it… exposed.
 Interesting to note, too, that this same dynamic — choices, consequences and the expectations of the commercial marketplace — apply to the complexities of craft.  Which gets just as much resistence from writers who seek to reject it in the name of freedom, while at the same time nourishing a dream that unfolds in the window at Barnes & Noble.
This, too, is a microcosm of life.  Some get it, some don’t.
Blatant commercial branding message follows: Need a hug?  Click HERE.


Filed under getting published

We read (INSERT YOUR NAME HERE) because…

We write our stories for different reasons.  If one of them is to make a career of it — not simply to publish, but to last — you need to be able to finish that sentence for your readers with clarity and purpose.

You need to be playing the long game.

When you look at the regular names that claim a spot on the bestseller lists, and then ask yourself (and others) why you read them, you’ll quickly realize how true this is. 

They have a brand, an expectation that they deliver to.

We read John Grisham because he always delivers an interesting slant on the law, and there’s always an underdog being victimized by it.

We read Nelson Demille because his dialogue sizzles with cynical wit, his protagonists are self-depricating patriots who are the silent heroes we wish we could be, and the pursuit of the solution is always visceral and satisfying.

We read Stuart Woods because he doesn’t mess around with narrative, he prefers dialogue that is short, snappy and simply loaded with appeal.  We overlook the silly stories just to hear the characters snipe at each other.

We read James Patterson because it goes down easy, digests quickly and you can knock  off a whole novel on a single leg of a trip, including layover.

We read James North Patterson because he tears into the nuances of the law in ways that actually make interesting sense, and we feel enlightened along the way.

We read Clive Cussler to live vicariously. Exotic lands, dangerous journeys, treasure and treason, all that Indiana Jones kind of stuff.

We read Jonathan Franzen because… well, my guess is because the critics say we should, and when we do we’re ready for some cocktail party chit-chat, even if we have to lie about finishing.

I tried for that over the course of my five novels, but I didn’t stay the course.

We read — and I use the term simply to stay in tune here — Larry Brooks because he takes us into dark little corners of ourselves we are afraid to admit we find delicious, along with some snappy (and snarky) dialogue. 

Trouble is, I distributed that particular brand — that’s what we’re talking about here, the writer’s brand — across a sexy thriller, a techno thriller, an arena-dependant thriller, and a speculative apocalyptic thriller.  Some stuff stayed consistent, but I wasn’t carving a deep enough niche.

The long game involves knowing who are as writers, and delivering it.  It can take a while to land on it — it can take years — and sometimes, when a book hits, it becomes our inheritence rather than our choice.  Whatever… branding works, and we need to understand it when we can.

Part of the process involves realizing we are not writing for ourselves as much as we are writing for an audience, one we are trying to grow.  Rare is the first book that defines a career.  And yet, when it gets some traction, even a little, reades and want more of the same.  Which is why it’s best to focus on what jacks your wagon, rather than get stuck with some science experiement that ends up defining you.

Who are you as a writer?  And why will anybody care?

That’s the question we need to keep posted next to our keyboards.

Who do you read?  What is it about their work that you know is dependable, that you look forward to with each new story?


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)