5 powerful (but unproven) survival tips for writers
Is it possible to write yourself to death?
Consider this: Homo sapiens sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years. The modern novel? About 300 years.
See the disconnect? Human anatomy has not had enough time to adapt to novel-writing.
If humans were meant to spend hours in a chair, making repetitive hand movements, alternating between periods of megalomania and despair, then having a drink (or two, or three) only to wake up the next morning under the computer table, and doing this all over again, day in, day out for years at a time, we would look like large vegetables (I'm imagining a turnip crossed with a beet) with tiny legs, massive arms and multi-digited fingers. The properly evolved writer's body (homo sapiens literati) might even boast a second head to hold all those dangling story lines, not to mention a liver more robust than the average homo sapiens sapiens.
It can't be good for us to spend so much time keyboarding and dreaming up epiphanies for people who don't exist. We were built to farm crops, chase and domesticate animals, tend fires, make love, distill spirits, sail boats toward unknown horizons, boldly go where no human has gone before, build comfortable shelters, adorn ourselves in bright colours, beat metal into shiny things, make conversation, sing and eat. (My theory of our current place on the evolutionary scale might best be described as 'Dinner Party Culture'.)
Serious writers are supposed to write every day. This way madness lies. Not to mention carpal tunnel syndrome, lower back problems, neck pain, or, in my case, a bump on the artery of my left wrist that pulsated like the gelatinous parasitic eggs in Alien. It was biggish enough that one of my spinning teachers noticed it in class, from a distance of roughly ten feet.
"What the hell is that on your wrist?" she queried politely. (Back off, this is my blog and I'll adverb if I want to.)
"Dunno," I panted, struggling to maintain my cadence. "A bump?"
"Get off the bike and go to a walk-in clinic. Now," she ordered.
I didn't get off the bike but a week later, I did go to my doctor, who referred me to a hand specialist. A year later, the bump now so large that it hurt to wear a watch, I was in surgery: let's just say that the experience wasn't pretty. Scarborough General Hospital sent me the pathology report describing the bump as 'consistent with degeneration'. Translation: 'It's the writing, stupid.' (I had been working on "The Proxy Bride" for some time, along with a lot of short fiction, articles and copywriting.) I've also been warned that it could come back. Splendid.
One solution might be to write less, but given that I make my living as a copywriter and spend the rest of my time trying to write literary fiction, that ain't going to happen.
But I have developed a number of ways to preserve my mental and physical health, which I am happy to share with other writers: I call them Favro's Five Laws of Literary Longevity.
1. Move around, already.
Ah ha, you thought you already knew this one, right? But are you observing it? I don't believe you.
Like many writers, you probably pay lip service to the benefits of exercise but on some level, you think of yourself as pure emotion and intellect, rather than a fleshy presence. Why? Because of Star Trek (The Original Series).
In Star Trek (TOS) the message was: the more you use your brain, the less you need to worry about your body. Star Trek would have us believe that the most intelligent beings don't really need to bother with bodies -- at least, not their own. They were Pure Intellect, as shown by their white robes, giant, bald, deathly white heads, and telepathic powers. They lived forever and weren't interested in sex (although I'm not sure I totally buy that, seeing as they were very interested in getting Captain Christopher Pike to make love to a green-skinned Salsa dancer in "The Menagerie" episode). On Star Trek, they even occasionally removed people's brains from their bodies and let them live on as separate beings. If it's smart enough, the stand-alone brain can control a small nuclear reactor. (Remember the much-derided episode, "Spock's Brain"?)
Here's a shocker: sometimes, Star Trek got it wrong. Yes, I know the tricorder inspired some of today's medical imaging technology and that someone at CalTech is developing an actual transporter. But if you check out the researcher doing that work, I guarantee you that she has bits of body dangling off her big brain. It's the dangling-off bits - weak wrists, hunched shoulders, a crick-prone neck -- that should give writers pause.
I don't care how you choose to move your body but you need to do it every single day and no, walking up and down stairs for coffee, nuts and toast doesn't count. I've tried that. I favour cycling, hiking, resistance training and aerobic dance.
If you haven't figured out what exercise you enjoy, why not try boxing? It's the perfect exercise for a writer. Not because of the legendary Hemingway versus Callaghan fight, but because of Favro's Second Law of Literary Survival...
2. Learn to take a punch and block one.
Sadly, rejection is part of the writing life. With a few exceptions (Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Georges St-Pierre, Valerie Bertinelli, the Duchess of York) writers will always be rejected, even if their writing is well received.
Why? The reasons are legion. Your work isn't a good match for the publisher (you write straight historical fiction, they're moving to gay paranormal romance), your timing was off (love of your publisher's life just married a guy with the same name as your fictional male protagonist), bad representation (your agent hadn't bathed in a few days), bad karma (the editor was hungover when they read your story)...I could go on. There's a good chance you weren't rejected because your work sucks. Having said all this, you should be aware that rejection is not conducive to good mental health. It can feed paranoia, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. I've observed that these are areas of mental health in which writers seem to be over-represented.
How do you get around the blank wall of rejection without feeling really shitty, all the time? Here are a few tips:
- Delete/destroy all rejection notes and emails IMMEDIATELY. Do not keep them around as some type of souvenir or paper your bathroom with them, the way you heard F. Scott Fitzgerald did. (I'll bet he didn't. Fitzgerald also didn't observe Rules #3 and #5, coming up.) Saving rejections just gives you an opportunity to ruminate over them, even to try to read between the lines, if the rejection had a few kind personal word appended to it.
- Set your Submittable settings to ACTIVE. If you don't already know, Submittable is an online submissions system used by a growing number of literary magazines. When you set up a Submittable account, magazines mark the stories you submit to them as "Active", "In Progress" or "Declined". When a submission is Declined, the submission goes red, the way the bottom of The Weather Network does when a tornado is about to rip off the top off your house. Having a big, red DECLINED hit you in the face every time you check on the status of a submission is guaranteed to make you feel crummy. Don't go there! You can instruct Submittable to hide those declined submissions by showing only the Actives. Why wallow in red type?
- Read the literary magazines you submit to. Yes, you do so have to. I'm telling you, friend, sometimes you can see at a glance that you and The Puslinch Literary Review are a mismatch. It's a lot like speed dating. Read one story and you'll know. And remember, if you're not willing to read someone else's story in Pumps & Trussez Annual, why will anyone else read yours? Trust me on this one.
- As soon as a publisher rejects you, move on. Give yourself the illusion of progress by submitting to another publisher that very day. Better still, start a new story in the heat of white anger.
- To that last point: Get really, really angry! Why not? Instead of turning your rejection against yourself, you can assume the person or persons who rejected you are shortsighted fuckheads. Might or might not be true but, either way, you'll feel better.
3. Cultivate relationships with people who don't write.
Writers tend to live on Planet Writer, particularly if they are residents of Toronto or another city where writers flock like seagulls in a McDonald's parking lot at lunchtime. And while being part of a community of writers is good, and important, and even valuable from a career standpoint, and occasionally fun, there are times when you need to get off Planet Writer and breathe the clean, fresh air of the world where books are things you occasionally buy at airports.
People who always and only read novels for pleasure usually aren't writers. They don't sit there thinking: How did this crap get published when I'm looking at a wall of red type on Submittable? You can talk to these friends about other interests (if you actually do have them) and, not being writers, they can probably afford to buy you a drink. Accept their generosity. Ask them about their lives, their passions. You could get some good story material. You could learn something about running a bed and breakfast or plumbing or podiatry. These contacts could also come in useful in the event of a burst pipe, sore feet or a need for a quiet place to write in the country.
I also quietly believe that writers should not sleep with writers, or if they do, strictly as a "one night stand" sort of thing. Yes, I know there are happily married writer couples out there, but they are rare, my friend. Find yourself a nice, solid abstract expressionist, like I did. You will never need to worry that your mate is secretly hiding a six-figure book contract from you.
You already know that you can't be a good writer without being a committed reader (even if you can't turn off the critic in your brain mentioned in point #2). But what's this got to do with being healthy? It gets you back to why you wanted to write in the first place. Because if you don't like to read, why the hell are you writing?
Also: Read your contemporaries. I am always suspicious of writers who insist on only reading mysterious books called The Classics. Every 'Classic' started out as just-another-novel, perhaps a debut novel (e.g. To Kill A Mockingbird), or as a title quietly hiding on a small publisher's list. Be a reader in the literary world in which you exist; read widely, read genre, read experimental, read graphic novels, read short stories, read poetry, read non-fiction, read flash fiction, read work by people much older or younger or just different from you. Stretch a little.
5. Don't drink until you down tools.
It's useless to tell you not to drink yourself into an early grave (as the aforementioned F. Scott Fitzgerald did). But I can suggest ways to make the process more pleasant. It's very much like my advice regarding literary magazines. Find what you like to read. Find what you like to drink. As someone incapable of making it past the fourth day of the week without a wet dirty Vodka martini, I owe it to you to at least be honest: we drink too much because we think too much. As writers, we're always on the job - observing, watching, analyzing, noting down. Drinking is not good for you, really, but is a way to flick the 'OFF" switch.
Like others in dirty, dangerous, physically demanding professions, writers need to keep a clear head while they're on the job. Like writing down dreams, writing half-cut is not going to get you into the list of writers who never face red Submittable submissions. Put away the laptop before you pull out the Campari, friends. Again, trust me on this one.
A short but serious addendum:
These are tough times for Canadian writers but most of us don't have to worry about 'dying by the pen', in a literal sense. But other writers around the world do. Best to remember that we have the freedom to write and be rejected (or hooray, accepted) without worrying about being thrown in jail, tortured or threatened. PEN Canada can tell you about writers who do.
The Birth of Canadian Classic
This blog post appeared in The Toronto Star (April 12, 2013) as part of my participation on a panel at the SPUR Festival
"Is Blackberry a Canadian company? Is Midnight's Children a Canadian film? What does it mean to label something Canadian? Does labeling something as 'Canadian' build our society or doom our cultural industries to failure?" -- question posed to Canadian writer-bloggers by SPUR Festival of politics, art and ideas. Here's my response. What do you think?
When I was a kid, my parents owned one true Canadian innovation: a Canadian General Electric kettle, model K42. Developed by industrial designer Fred Moffatt, the K42 was a fixture in Canadian households throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Moffatt got the idea for the domed shape from a soldier who used the casing of a broken car headlight to boil water.
Even my Italian-Canadian immigrant parents - who didn't come from a tea drinking tradition -- loved their kettle. It was part of living with their feet in two cultures, as so many Canadians do.
Today the K42 has been elevated to the status of a Canadian classic, a perfect balance of elegant form and practical functionality. Moffatt's design was an example of what happens when we do our best work by being true to ourselves - to our own tastes, needs and vision.
Canadian culture is all around us, whether we consciously realize it or not. Think of the work of Umbra's product designers, who manage to even make a waste basket look cool. Or the Blackberry's clenched-teeth of a keypad, reminiscent of the grilled cage of a hockey helmet. Or the Avro Arrow, the plane that almost attained the status of myth and whose destruction people speak of as a type of mechanical martyrdom. All are expressions of classical Canadian personality and style.
Read Sheila Heti's fiction or a graphic story by Seth or Kate Beaton, watch a Guy Maddin film or Russell Peters's stand-up, listen to a Ron Sexsmith or Tegan & Sara song, go mano a mano with GSP, try on a pair of John Fluevog's wildly imaginative shoes, walk around Douglas Cardinal's Native-art inspired Museum of Civilization or stand in the afternoon light in the Galleria Italia of Frank Gehry's redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario - and while you're there, take a look at the art of General Idea. What else could any of these creators possibly be but Canadian? And why would we not want to claim them as our own?
The 'Canadian-ness' of our cultural industries is their strength. Canadian creativity travels well, even when it doesn't wear a maple leaf on its shoulder. Irrelevance lies in trying to be a one-size-fits-all culture, not recognizably Canadian (or anything else). The more we move toward the generic, the regionally non-specific, the blandness of Nowhereland, the more we risk becoming cultural ghosts, roaming the world in search of a definable identity.
Our problem isn't cultural, but demographic. Survival depends on being appreciated elsewhere. Our creators have no choice but to look beyond Canada's borders because Canadians are too few in number to support our cultural and technological industries single-handedly.
But without our creative topsoil - and by that, I mean myths, stories, shared tragedies, cultural touchstones, history, weather and the thousand-thousand indefinable experiences that nurture creativity - we would have no materials to work with.
Our idea of ourselves as 'true northerners' may be more myth than reality, but as myths go, it's a damn good one. Diversity and hardiness, ingenuity and resilience, multi-cultured and multi-lingual lives are part of our cultural legacy, no matter where we, or our families, came from. Those are all good ingredients for a culture that we can be proud to export as sturdily and identifiably Canadian.
Do Canadians find it off-putting that Slumdog Millionaire was a British-made film, set in India? Or that Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series is suffused with a chilly Swedish sensibility, even if the prose is as flat as an IKEA end table? Or that Manga graphic novels and techno horror films were birthed in Japan?
Would we prefer South American authors be less magical and more realistic? Or that Fellini stop being so Fellinesque? Should Zadie Smith downplay her British-Jamaican background? Why, then, do we feel that a creation's Canadian provenance needs to be hidden from the rest of the world?
Fierce, compelling work rises out of strong, confident cultures that aren't afraid to stand up for their own vision of themselves. We are already that culture. Time to stop worrying and focus on getting more creative work done.
My Deathmatch: Uppity Woman Meets Soylent Green
Phew! As I write this, the Broken Pencil Indie Writers Deathmatch 2013 edition has been over for me for almost two weeks. (Final round wraps up at midnight March 10th, 2013.)
The results: I won my quarterfinal match (863 to 370) and lost in the semifinal (4,998 to 5,528). The semifinal was a particularly tough battle, with excitement building as I battled a writer at a university in Albany, New York, jockeying for votes, hour by hour, over seven days. To make the process even more challenging, Broken Pencil required all four winners of the quarterfinals to rewrite our stories before our semifinal rounds.
The experience - good, bad, occasionally ugly - is still a bit fresh for in-depth dissection but here are a few insights.
• My short story, "Cold Comfort", gained more readers by being part of Deathmatch than I suspect it ever would have if published in a more traditional way (i.e. in a literary magazine). I worried at first that friends would simply click without reading but in fact it seems most did read, not only my story, but both of my opponents'. Lesson learned: readers like to be involved, to have an opinion, to discuss. The online forum might not always have been the most comfortable place for such a debate but a lot of people told me that they enjoyed it.
• Having won my quarterfinal round I win one significant thing: publication in Broken Pencil. So in addition to the online readers, there is also the pool of readers of BP's print edition - and a small publication payment which I plan to donate to a small new (but feisty) publishing venture, Meat Locker Editions, which supports the work of young (18 to 35 years of age) Canadian writers with a special focus on women.
• While I've been a long-time user of Facebook, Twitter and email blasts, Deathmatch forced to me to kick up my game by several thousand orders of magnitude. It was Social Media 101.
Facebook turned out to be a great way to rally the troops and provide inspirational music and movie clips (the egg salad speech from "Mystery Men", the St. Crispin's Day speech from Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V", clips from cage match movies "Beyond Thunderdome", "Rocky", "Gladiator", "Kansas City Bomber" and plenty of rock songs - "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" was a particular favourite.) Twitter/HootSuite helped me push out round-the-clock teasers to the Deathmatch site.
• I was astonished at how excited and involved people became with the Deathmatch, how much support they threw me, and how much they inconvenienced themselves to do so. My network of supporters grew and grew and grew. All over a short story. Amazing. (To all of you reading this, thank you again.)
The charmingly Steampunk vote clicker on the Deathmatch site makes it easy to vote: no registration or twisted code to decipher. But it's also easy to get around the 'one person, one vote, one hour' rule. After all, when Deathmatch launched six years ago, smartphones were not as common as they are now and the iPad was still a gleam in Steve Jobs' eye.
In the heat of battle, it becomes obvious that anyone, on either side, can vote from any mobile device with its own IP address. If you have three devices (laptop, smartphone, tablet) you can vote three times in an hour as long as the devices are not all running off the same IP. (Easy to get around, let's put it at that.)
So when, in the dying hours of the semifinal, someone posted on the Deathmatch blog that something called an 'IP generator' was being used to unfairly generate an avalanche of votes for my competitor, I immediately believed the claim. (I'd never heard of an IP generator before that point.) But -- mea culpa - Broken Pencil could find no evidence of a generator being involved. So I am officially putting the cheating claim to bed. I was beaten fair and square.
Having said that, it seems to me that if the voting system is to remain 'charmingly Steampunk', there should be no rules that technology has made unenforceable. Perhaps instead of "one person, one vote, one hour" it should just be "vote'em if you got'em".
Deathmatch is called 'the world's most dangerous short story contest.' But the trash talk is supposed to be about the writing. At the end of the semifinal round, some individuals (anonymously) flamed me because of my age.
Clearly, these tender souls were disturbed by the idea of a woman 'of a certain age' being fit, willing and able to compete (vigorously) in a literary online cage match as opposed to, say, being turned into Soylent Green.
Their ugly invective translated out to something like this: "Harumph! How dare you, woman! And at your age!"
Give me a break.
I think a woman 'of my age' having the guts to take part in Deathmatch is something to be celebrated. I hereby accept the label of 'Uppity Woman' with pride.
All in all, it was worth it and I would do it again. Down the road, there might be a story to write about the experience. Maybe even a novel. We'll see.
Cold Comfort at the Deathmatch
One of my favourite movies of the 1980s is the Australian postapocolyptic action film Mad Max III: Beyond Thunderdome. My affection for the movie that immortalized the line "Two men enter, one man leaves" may help you understand why I am about to 'throw it down' in a literary cage match called the Broken Pencil Indie Deathmatch.
Like Beyond Thunderdome (and Alien Versus Predator, Hunger Games, Mixed Martial Arts, the Pepsi Challenge, etc.), the Deathmatch selects challengers, arms them (with their wits, friends, live blogging and social media) and watches them fight to the death.
I should add that by "death" I actually mean "elimination". No one in the Deathmatch "dies" of anything but embarrassment or disappointment. Not that that isn't bad enough. That's why I am asking you to be at my back.
How did I get mixed up with this slugfest, this donnybrook, this brouhaha, this game of literary Survivor?
Getting into the Deathmatch was a victory in itself. I sent a short story titled "Cold Comfort" to Broken Pencil's call for entries. Based on that story, I was picked as one of eight writers who will fight it out online, two on two, to capture readers' approval -- and votes. Last year's Deathmatch attracted more than 25,000 votes.
Anyone, anywhere in the world, can go online, read the stories, and vote for their favourite. My fate is in their hands, and yours.
Here's how it works and how you can help me:
* The eight finalists enter the Deathmatch 'online cage', two at a time. Every week, starting on January 21st, a different pair of writers face off. There are never more than two writers in the cage - along with hundreds of readers, supporting or haranguing them. It's utter chaos with the writers in the middle of it.
* Each cage match lasts one week with votes counted in real time, so we always know where we stand. My first match runs from January 28 to February 3. That's when my story ("Cold Comfort") and my opponent's story will go live at 12:01 a.m. on January 28th.
* Vote! You can go back again and again and vote as often as once an hour, if you are so inclined. You can also post comments (a.k.a. insults, taunts, trash talk, editorial suggestions) that my opponent and I will respond to. Writers have to gather supporters to win the Deathmatch - I can't win unless I roll deep.
Two writers enter the online Deathmatch cage. Only one survives to fight again.
Here's another wrinkle: the "winner" of the first round must rewrite their story before it is posted in their next heat.
Then the whole mess starts again: quarter finalist versus quarter finalist, semi-finalist versus semi-finalist, under the final epic Gotterdammerungian battle takes place in March and one writer stands sweaty and triumphant.
The victorious writer gets an Indie writer makeover and publication in Broken Pencil.
Sounds brutal, doesn't it? But before you think that this is a crazy way to run a literary contest, check out the venerated CBC Literary Prizes. In the judging phase, the CBC posts their shortlisted stories, non-fiction and poetry and invites readers to vote for their favourites and post comments - which can be cutting. Although the winners are selected by a panel of professional writers, they also have a readers' choice award. And CBC runs other contests, like the People's Choice Gillers, that is decided by popular vote.
Why do it this way? To get people involved in the process. To open the door on what was a closed and mysterious judging process. To invite participation and involvement by people besides the writers and judges. To introduce an element of suspense by turning the competition into a horserace - step right up and back your favourite story, ladies and gentlemen!
Maybe the Deathmatch even reflects a growing Darwinian reality in publishing -- but that's a topic for another post.
Despite its name, the Deathmatch is a cakewalk compared to the cage match in Beyond Thunderdome: when a large, screaming, punkrock haircut wearing combatant on a bungee cord comes swinging at you with a chainsaw, death is certain. Unless I find myself facing down Pris from Bladerunner, I should come out of this alive.
See you at the cage, starting on January 28. My story goes up at 12:01 a.m. and remains available for reading, voting and comments until 11:59 p.m., February 3. I'm hoping you'll be there some time that week to hand me a chainsaw at a strategic moment.
Please read! Please vote!
Unbrand that writer!
Back in the early Jurassic (the 1990s) when typesetters still roamed the Earth, they referred to exclamation points as 'screamers' -- a way for the printed word to raise its voice.
I've added a screamer to the title of this post to emphasize my feelings about the claim that writers (well, not just writers -- everyone) should 'brand themselves.'
I know brands. Brands know me. That's because I write copy for marketing and advertising agencies. I've seen first-hand what branding can do for mobile phones, minivans, investment instruments, Irish liqueur, educational toys, mass market magazines, charitable fundraisers, vacuum cleaners, television networks, cosmeceuticals, pharmaceuticals, neutraceuticals, shampoo, tampons, pet food, diapers, ice cream, yeast infection creams, industrial cogeneration power systems, IT consultants and coffee whitener. But when it comes to books - at least, literary ones -- brand me no brands.
"Don't you have to brand yourself to sell your novel?" you ask.
In the roughly three months since the publication of my novella The Proxy Bride, I have done plenty of marketing. Readings, book club visits, interviews. None of those activities are branding.
Which brings me to the point where I need to use another screamer: branding and sales & marketing are not the same thing!
Sales & marketing, and its sister, publicity, are sweaty, warm, friendly, time-honoured human endeavours. They are the art of persuasion, personal charm, the foot in the door, the handshake, the business of a 'smile and a shoeshine' as Willy Loman would put it - with luck, without the death of the salesman. Think of a reading as a free sample or product demonstration.
Brands are above all that. Brands are bloodless. Steely-eyed. Controlling. They go about doing what must be done to succeed, at all costs, without emotion.
Sales are personal and one-to-one. Brands are Legion. They are the Borg. They are the collective might of the many versus the blood, sweat and tears of one writer against the world, reaching readers one book club visit at a time.
I don't want to name drop, but I'm on a first name basis with Brands. Brands and I go way back; occasionally I was there at their birth. I get invited to their parties. I air kiss Brands. Brands have been very, very good to me.
But to bludgeon a phrase from The Great Gatsby (a novella that knew a thing or two about Brands, its author F. Scott Fitzgerald being a former department store copywriter), "Brands are not like you and me."
Brands are made, not born. They do not bleed, neither do they sweat, swear, give birth, get blocked, develop carpal-tunnel syndrome or go into rehab.
Brands are durable: stubbornly so. That's the whole point of a brand. They stand for a set of values, best described as in their brand promise:
"I, your Brand, promise never to surprise you. I am your brand and I am going to give you the same pleasant experience again and again and again."
Brands are in your face every day but when a Brand's day has passed, it quietly goes into a bin at the back of the dollar store and eventually, to nostalgia sites where people can buy the perfumes they wore in high school and eat candy corn last produced in 1965. Brands don't cry. They simply soldier on in the nostalgic underworld of eBay.
Brands don't have epiphanies. They want to be your epiphany. That doesn't mean you don't care about the brand, and vice versa. There are low involvement brand categories, like shampoo (go to your bathroom right now and count how many bottles you have in the shower) and high involvement ones like coffee, tampons, cat food and perfume.
It's true that brands change. They evolve with their target market, usually after much focus testing and the sacking of various executives. Brands change too quickly at their peril. (Remember "New" Coke?) They don't change after the death of a spouse, a motorcycle trip across South America, coming out to their parents, a cancer scare, their fortieth birthday, finding God, taking up yoga, falling in love or giving up dairy.
Brands endure because they are bigger than any one person: if, let's say, a product manager at Starbucks goes rogue and starts pushing for chicken soup in a cup, the other product managers will walk into her office wearing blue latex gloves and wave some type of electromagnetic device in front of her eyes so that she stops betraying the brand.
Brands have people to stop them from doing things that might hurt the brand. They have product managers and shareholders and PR and ad agencies. Writers have (if they're lucky) people who love them and love to read them. If they're very lucky they'll have an agent and a publisher. Maybe a personal trainer.
There are other ways that brands are different from writers. Here are just a few:
Brands don't sleep with other brands and get all confused about their feelings.
Brands don't tweet overheard conversations on the subway.
Brands don't fall off barstools and get into weepy diatribes about how they should have gone to law school as a fallback.
Brands don't go to the gym to offset all that sitting at the computer. Brands hire trained actors to be their bodies. You can't blame them: the brand has to look good, and it's good for the actors to have a paying gig so they can pursue their art elsewhere, occasionally making enough to buy a writer a drink. In branding, this is what is known as a win-win.
Very few writers are brands. J.K. Rowling is; she's all Harry Potter, all the time - or was, until "A Casual Vacancy". The excellent Scottish mystery writer Ian Rankin might count as a brand; even the jackets of his books look the same, they all take place in Edinburgh and involve the police. You know what you're getting with Rankin, and it's that desire to return to his imaginative world, again and again, that brings you back. This is close to the world of brand.
Even very successful writers are not necessarily brands. Margaret Atwood for example: a great writer, but a brand? Don't think so: during her long career she's done everything from poetry to non-fiction to speculative fiction to Canadian Gothic to...well, you name it. She transcends brand.
Let's not confuse branding with a writer's distinctive voice, personality or popularity. You can have all those qualities, be as famous as hell, and still not be a brand. And why would you want to be? Often, the quality that makes a writer's work so compelling, that causes a reader to sit, and read, and perhaps even to read again, is something very anti-brand. Something that comes from the writer's heart, gut and memory. It's very hard to truly brand that; in fact, it can be hard for the writer to recapture that unselfconscious beauty in their own work if, while they are writing, they are thinking: I must stay true to my own brand.
It's true that people can be brands but sadly, writers aren't rock stars. Books take a tragically long time for most of us to write, making building ROI (return on investment) tricky. And although everyone may want to know what Bieber ate for breakfast, when it comes to writers, your readers are more interested in simply reading your book. They probably like your characters more than they like you. In other words, it's the writing, stupid. (Oh no -- now I'm misquoting George Bush Senior.)
Perhaps, though, I'm being a bit of an old stick-in-the-mud about the purity of brands. Perhaps you, if you are a writer, still really want to be a brand.
Fine. I'll humour you. And so, I offer the Terri Favro (TM) Guide to Self-Branding (2013 Edition). Build your brand in 6 E-Z Steps!
1. Choose a colour palette and stick to it; that's right, all your clothes, all the time, in the same range of colours. (Just so you know, I already have dibs on PMS (Pantone Matching Systems) 185.) Dressing your children in your brand colours is also a good idea. It won't hurt the kiddos to support you, their parent Brand.
2. Assemble a legal team to develop boilerplate that is mandatory every time your name is mentioned. Be a stickler about this: don't just let some pezzonovante from CBC Radio mention your name on air without the proper qualifiers. Be tough. You're a Brand! Make sure you control that message!
3. Make a commitment to providing CRE -- "Consistent Reader Experience." This means writing the same story over and over again, or at least writing stories set in the same place, with the same characters. If you must switch it up -- say, moving from short stories to poetry, or experimenting with a novel entirely written in the second person -- start a sub-brand.
4. Identify your psychographic-demographic cluster. We all know about Yuppies (Young Upwardly Mobile Urban Professionals) and DINKs (Double Income, No Kids), but there are hundreds of clusters. Are you an Urban Bohemian? A Town & Country? A Canadian Elite? A University Enclave? Find out! Then self-identify on your Twitter bio and letterhead. I, for example, could be 'Terri Favro, Brie & Chablis'.
5. Always refer to yourself as 'we': brands always have an entourage, staff, hangers-on, consultants, etc. There is no "I' in 'Brand'.
6. Become an identifiable enough voice as a writer to be an object of parody. This is Brand Nirvana. True brands are so strongly branded that it's easy to make fun of them.