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?

24 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

24 Responses to We read (INSERT YOUR NAME HERE) because…

  1. Nick

    I suppose this is true, but isn’t there something to be said for the author that tries new things? That pushes themselves beyond their limits to create greater literature?

  2. I’ve wound up in both Robert Ludlum type spy thrillers and romantic sci-fi thrillers. My style in each genre is totally different. I foresee a pseudonym for one of those genre’s in my future.

  3. Great thoughts. I know for me it took a few books before I found my groove. We read Louise because of her characters – well motivated, driven people caught in unusual situations anyone of us might experience.

  4. This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve been having a hard time making myself known as a writer. I recently had a friend guest blog for me and she has the magic touch. My views were the highest they’ve been all year. She started a freelance business by tweeting about it once. I can barely keep one gig going, let alone get multiple gigs. I have decided to take a step back from writing to focus on branding and platform building, and this post has given me some things to think about.

  5. Martha

    Great post! And so true.

  6. I liked Danielle Steele’s Zoya but then, gradually, her works became too predictable. Loved Dean Koontz because his horror was so frighteningly believable, but, according to critics, he has lost his touch. I cannot confirm that.

    There are others who have dropped off the radar for a variety of reasons but you’re here and helping us shoot for the stars. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just fix it. 🙂 Besides, you don’t want to be… typecast do you? 😉

  7. Sorry, bad use of punctuation. You don’t want to be, well, typecast do you?

  8. Marcie Colleen

    I understand what you are getting at here, but I don’t want to follow a set formula. James Patterson is a brand now. He doesn’t even write all of his own books now. He sources them out to others. He’s a formula. Something about that bothers me.

  9. Okay, I’ll play. I read George R. R. Martin because his characters move me and I’ve invested part of myself in their destinies. I care about them. I want to know those characters, and live in their shoes. I want to see those lands. I read Naomi Novik because even though I know how Napoleon was defeated, I care about the fictional people and creatures she’s created in that time and place. I read Stephen King because I care about the relentless big bad that is coming for characters I care about. I read because good characters are compelling. Once an author hooks me on his characters in one book/series, I’m going to read everything he has, looking for that same high.

  10. Reading a novel right now that is blowing my socks off: The Passage, Justin Cronin. It’s not that the writing is perfect, it’s that he creates scale and depth and characters I want to know more about. Can hardly put it down.

    The Internet, with its tweeting, blog-following, etc., drives me crazy with its distractions, but it brings people (like you) who help narrow my focus and recognize what I want to write about — which ironically has broadened horizons. Once I had a name for my genre, the plot of my first book began to blossom and take shape. Not to say I’m not still struggling mightily with a second draft, both with the work and with my doubts. Hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do …

  11. Carmen

    Loved this, thank you.

  12. spinx

    Very well put, Larry.
    And, again, a great time-saver.

    You should do a post that brings even more questions to the table for us newbies.
    That is truly the hardest part, forming the questions. All thoughts on such topics tend to serve me little when I am not able to conjure the right questions.

    The proper questions make everything FIT. Only then can my brain categorize pieces of knowledge in the right category. It is the first step to clarity, it brings focus—sharpness—-it brings a quicker access.
    ———————————

    Sooooo———thanks again for another great question!

    Peace, love and much soul ;T

  13. spinx

    (are double posts even allowed here?)

    Sorry, sorry….me again. Just a little something I forgot to mention in the above post.

    The switch to that mindset- writing with an audience in mind- seems the logical step to me. It seems to be that one step that even further allows ourselves to get that needed distance from our characters. To let them breathe, instead of choking them with our own mind.

    I like writing with an audience in mind. It makes me even more focused on my task- and, more importantly, it gives the illusion of an imaginary director just above my right shoulder.

    Books, to me, are very much like directing. You film as many scenes as you consider important, you film scenes that are only for your own pleasure, you film in no right order, some takes are too long, some absolute nonsense- but that is not important—because, at the end of the day, when you have all your scenes, you take the material to the cuttingroom- and- you- CUT.

    Cut every sentence that does not need to be there, cut scenes that seemed to make sense months ago, but seem incredibly stupid now, cut it all out- add the right music, clean it up and- voila!(forgot how to add the accent here!!)

    I am most certainly a director.

  14. Marcie, really? How can he not be writing his own work? How do you outsource you own prose? That more than “bothers” me, that annoys and disgusts me! Sacriliege! Larry, are we wrong to feel this way???

  15. In trying to nail down my “brand”–the way I tell a story that makes me unique from other writers–it helped me to pay attention to feedback from readers. When phrases like “historically accurate,” “complex characters,” or “a gift for painting settings with words” show up in several reviews, it indicates something I’m doing well. As a writer of Christian fiction, I’m particularly pleased by response that my story was neither trite nor preachy but offered insight and encouragement for the realities of life. That’s what I was going for.

  16. What I look for in a book, more than genre, is genuine, feel-it-in-your-gut emotion. King has it. Jody Picoult does too. So does Pat Conroy. All different, yet each has that ‘brand’ for me.

    Oh, and my books too!

  17. Martha

    I finally got an agent for my thriller and was hot into writing a new story which was VERY different from the book my agent is marketing. About two-thirds of the way through writing my second novel, I told my agent about it and she very gently but firmly told me to put it aside and write something that would logically follow the first one in subject. The subtext of her advice was pretty clear to me and Larry has done a fine job of explaining it in these last two posts. We’re making products, whether we like it or not, and widget buyers expect to go back to the widget manufacturer when they want more widgets.

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  19. You have just given me a silver lining to every external circumstance that led me to write fifty trunk novels between my first book and the one I’m editing now. You’re right about this stuff.

    All of my favorite authors have that kind of tight brand. Even when they go off topic, it’s there. I have to ask myself – is there that kind of common thread in all of my works?

    Yep. I write Cat Lovers novels. There’s always a cat and sometimes the cat’s the central character. My readers will include many of the “Cat Who” mystery fans, especially the ones who’d like to see the cat get a bigger part in the story. This isn’t a bad specialty at all! Cats outnumber dogs in the USA, they have for over a decade now.

    The archetypes are Faithful Dog, Sarcastic Cat.

    Trust authority and tradition, or be skeptical about authority and explore beyond tradition. They’re real tendencies in the books by cat or dog lovers too, when those animals turn up their themes aren’t far behind. Dean Koontz is a good example of a Dog Lover’s novelist.

    He’s a bit conservative but I enjoy about half his books anyway because they’re good when he’s not getting so specific about Good and Evil that it gets preachy. I enjoy the mythic battles of Good and Evil as much as he does. It’s when he starts nailing it down to “there’s only one right religion” that I get as nervous as I do around large growling dogs. He’s true to his themes.

    That’s an important comparison because if I stay vague about my themes, they will reach a broader audience. I might write a few books aimed more specifically at the Crystal Waving Tree Hugging Progressive Cat Lovers markets, but if I want a good big following I won’t pound it so heavy that I lose the bigger group of readers that like “some” of my books.

    They’re there for every author, like social zones. Core readers love everything that you write. I’m a Core Reader of Terry Pratchett – I enjoyed “Nation” when that’s had very little success compared to his Discworld novels because it’s not Discworld and had none of his continuing characters in it. Millions of readers skipped that one and bought Snuff recently because Vimes was on the cover.

    Then there’s the next zone, maybe they’re “Fans” who like many of my books, dislike a few they think I went too far in, like my genres, enjoy many of my favorite authors too but are critical of individual volumes.

    Beyond that, readers who just like that type of thing and I’m on their midlist, one of the authors they read because something about it is their flavor – maybe something that to me is minor. Maybe she loves Cat Mystery and settles for Cat Fantasy or Cats-Nature when she can’t find a new one or for a change. They’re still good but not favorites and she’ll be very choosy – the ones where the plots have a mystery structure will appeal most to her.

    Then there’s the genre readers, who will put up with themes they disagree with and characters they dislike because at least it’s Science Fiction. They might ignore the fantasy altogether in favor of Raven Dance because at least that has telepathy and space battles and the battles are written well. He doesn’t care about the cats, he likes space battles, and very few of my books deliver them but if they’re good that one book is on his shelf. Or he’ll try another one from me if it’s in that series or has a space battle mentioned in the blurb.

    Finally, there are readers who just loathe everything I do. The better I do it, the more noxious it is. They disagree with my themes, dislike my genre, can find something to hate in every book I’ve written and hopefully get descriptive enough when they flame it that readers who disagree with them know it might be their flavor. They can and do buy a different flavor of pizza.

    I like Robert Heinlein’s quote – we are competing for readers’ beer money. We give good value, because you can reread a good book but I don’t want to meet the guy that re-drinks a good beer. We create sleeping aids more healthful than that pill the luna moth delivers and the branding isn’t a bad thing. Everyone’s got their own flavor.

    Branding is like accurate keywording. If I can understand what all of my books have in common, my core readers will find them more easily and so will my fans and the outer circles of genre readers and general readers and settle-for-it readers. It’s not a distortion of who I am or why I write. It’s understanding that and making sure the right label is on it, so the people who love my books best of all will know that yes, every time I do, I’ll still be a slightly wiser, slightly more skilled version of the same cat loving, tree hugging man who spins a good yarn.

    I can even put it into a cat metaphor. Branding is spraying my territory to let the other cats and dogs and everything else that roams the neighborhood know this is where that cat hangs out. I’m this tall, I eat well, I hunt here, no, I don’t run away from rottweilers when I stand here. Yes, I appreciate good dogs but will not tolerate bad ones.

    I think the danger in branding is to be mistaken about what you stand for, when what you do isn’t what you think you want to do. Force yourself to write what you don’t like to read and you can get stuck miserably producing books you hate by market forces. Be true to yourself and use accurate keywords.

  20. Evelyn, funny you should mention Koontz and critics complaining he lost his touch. At some point around the middle of my passion for used cheap Koontz paperbacks, he drifted more preachy and got more specific about what constitutes Good and Evil. To the point that it excludes people who don’t share his religious views.

    I think that may be what the critics are referring to – for his core readers it may not be a problem at all and seem like he’s writing better than ever, the stories even more so, the morality plays sharper and more defined. I’m in the middle ground on Koontz. But I can see that a change in his style appeals more to some readers and puts off others. He lost none of his skill in the shift. It’s only “too preachy” when I disagree on a theme point.

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  22. Mary

    I find your blog entries inspiring and smart, but the typos turn me off! This piece in particular has an amazing amount of typos in a rather short text. You were probably in a rush to get the blog out — and I don’t want to appear anal, but given the fact that this is a writers’ blog I think that there should be more attention to detail.

  23. @Mary — I couldn’t agree more, and I apologize. I always proof, I rarely get ’em all, and I need to do better. Thanks for the feedback. L.

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