On Writing, Marketing, and Being Who You Are
If you’ve ever heard me speak to a group of teens, you probably know that my primary message isn’t about writing.
It’s about having the courage to be true to yourself. To stand for what you believe in, even when it’s hard.
No, ESPECIALLY when it’s hard.
I talk endlessly with teens about resisting the sometimes incredible pressure from others to be something other than who THEY believe they are, because if you’ve ever talked to a teen, you know there’s usually tremendous pressure from parents, friends, guidance counselors, etc., to pursue a path counter to the one about which the teen feels passionately. I tell them about my journey from Sales and Marketing Director (where I was miserable) to starving writer (where I was more fulfilled than I ever thought I’d be). I tell them about the sacrifices I had to make along the way (like no vacation for seven years) and the ones I’m still making (like no medical plan) because, while I want to encourage them to be who they are, I also want them to be realistic about the choices they’re making and what they’ll get – and give up – in exchange for living that life.
Anyway, you would think finally becoming published would mean that I’ve figured out who I am. That I gave everything up only to have the opportunity to actually live my dream and therefore, don’t have to look inward anymore.
But that really couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m constantly looking inward, and it surprises me how often, even now, I come back to that massage of being true to yourself.
Most recently, I found myself reflecting on this past year and all of the magic and fear and anxiety and wonder and joy it’s brought me. I’ve relived so many of the moments, both high and low, and I’ve been looking FORWARD, too. I’ve been thinking about the tremendous amount of time, energy and angst that went into marketing my book (and I don’t know if any is as anxiety-producing as that first one). And marketing myself, too, because as the line blurs between our everyday lives and the virtual one we live online, between our in-real-life friends and the ones we make in the blogosphere and on Facebook and on Twitter, it is as much about that as it is about the book, whether we like it or not.
Here’s the thing I think I’ve finally figured out; even here, it takes courage to be who you are. I spent months trying to emulate other successful authors in their online approach. Blog about writing. Hold contests. Host other authors on your blog to drive traffic.
But the truth is, none of that is me, really (well, except the contests where I get to spend money putting together swaggg!). I spend so much time thinking and talking about writing, I don’t always want to do that online. Plus, it’s still surreal for me to think anyone thinks *I* have something of import to say on the subject. The truth is, I still feel a novice most days. I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer, ruled almost exclusively by instinct and the euphoria-filled vision that accompanies the writing of my drafts. I still have so much to learn, and there are other authors blogging writing-related subjects better and more prolifically than I ever could, anyway. I do host other authors, but not often, mostly because I’m too distracted to coordinate with them ahead of time. If you see someone else on my blog, it means that the planets have all aligned just so and I’ve actually managed to ORGANIZE something in advance. *gasp*
You want the honest-to-God truth? I like chatting with you guys. It’s not a marketing device. I like talking about work and school and kids and reading (as a READER, not a writer) and life. I remember pretty much every single one of you, even after a brief encounter on Twitter. Without trying, I remember when you have a big test, a fight with your parents, kids, or best friend, a problem at work. I remember when you’re sick and when you buy a new car and when you go on vacation. And it’s a lot more fun for me to just… connect with you, you know? To ask how your test went or if you’re feeling better or how you enjoyed your vacation. These conversations are more meaningful to me than passing on information about finding an agent or researching publishers (especially since this information is so widely available).
Really, I’d just rather pass on my recipe for homemade granola than pelt you with Prophecy marketing 24/7.
For a long time, I just felt like a big #marketingfail. My only strength, really, was getting to know you, and I didn’t see how that could possibly fit into any kind of concerted marketing effort for Prophecy. But then, a couple of months ago, I started feeling like the universe was sending me a message. I know that sounds all New-Agey and everything, but listen, every now and then, a message seems to be repeated over and over through various sources, and I start to feel that I’m meant to hear it. Then I pay attention.
In this case, I came back to my Be Who Are message. I spoke about it, as I always do, to teens, and I started hearing its echo not just in my writing (because I’ve been being who I am there for at least five years), but in my marketing and in my presentation of myself to the world. How can I tell teens to be who they are if I’m still trying to live up to someone else’s expectations of what marketing looks like? Of how it’s “always” been done?
Right about the end of last year, I resolved to work less at doing what other people expected me to do to market my books and to focus more on what I LIKED to do. On what was natural and enjoyable for me.
Then, within a two weeks, I read two articles on important people in the publishing world. They were two seemingly different writers who had made their mark by doing things completely counter to what was accepted and expected at the time. And they weren’t doing it because they felt they HAD to. On the contrary, they did it with sometimes tremendous opposition and criticism.
The first was James Patterson in an interview with the New York Times. As a former advertising executive, Patterson approached his book campaigns like he would approach any product – by thinking about the target market and where and how to best reach them. Then, he focused on producing enough work to ensure an ever-growing backlist of titles, almost guaranteeing him year-round the kind of placement most authors only see when they launch (if they’re lucky). His methods were sometimes questioned and often downright criticized, but he BELIEVED in what he was doing, and when others pushed, he pushed back. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of Patterson’s or whether or not you would choose to do things the same way. He did the things HE thought were best, and he fought for the right to do it that way.
Neil Gaiman made his mark on the reading and writing public both through his incredibly inventive work and a “seemingly transparent window into his process”. At a time when blogging was considered bleeding edge, Gaiman was one of the first to connect directly with his readers online, tossing on its ass the notion that writing should be a process reserved for an elite, literary few. He established contact directly with his readers, ensuring (in my favorite quote of the interview) that, “I’m nobody’s bitch.”
I think that will be my new motto. Plus, I have to credit Gaiman for, finally, putting to rest my deep insecurity over the fact that I wear almost exclusively black.
And while it might seem that these two writers are polar opposites in their approach, they actually have one, very important thing in common; they are 100% themselves. They have made their names both by creating work that speaks to their audiences AND by being authentic. By being true to themselves even when it has meant being overlooked, pushing back on their publishers, and defying the “expected” modes of behavior and strategy for someone in our profession.
THAT is inspiring. A validation of everything I’ve believed to be true and somehow still question from time to time when riddled with fear, insecurity, and anxiety over my work and my place, now and in the future, in the world of publishing.
So I’ve just decided to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ll pass on some writing and/or publishing advice if the mood strikes and it seems important. I’ll keep you posted from time to time about stuff having to do with the Prophecy trilogy and my future work.
But most of all, I’m just going to keep talking to you, okay? I don’t know if it’s going to sell more books, but I’m going to keep laughing and posting crazy videos and pretty dresses and interviews with cool teens and Open Mic (because I LOVE reading your work) and everything else that embodies who I really am. I hope that’s okay, and I hope you enjoy getting to know me as much as I enjoy getting to know you.