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On Writing, Marketing, and Being Who You Are

January 26, 2010

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.

Blah-blah-blah.

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.
πŸ˜€

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.

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37 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2010 2:18 pm

    I’ve heard what you say to teens and I wish I’d had you speaking to me when I 15. It might have helped me through those struggles to nonconformity. Being yourself is so difficult when you’re still searching for just what that means. Hey wait! I am! Keep talking, Michelle! πŸ™‚

  2. lynnvisible permalink
    January 30, 2010 12:40 pm

    Wonderful post.
    – Julia DeVillers

  3. Natalie Aguirre permalink
    January 30, 2010 8:49 am

    I really enjoyed this post. It’s hard as an aspiring author to be who you are rather than be what the agents, publishers, and blog world tells us how we have to be. I like you am not sure I enjoy or have the time for it all. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of being who we are.

  4. January 30, 2010 12:24 am

    Love this post, Michelle. You are living your talk — being who you are!

  5. January 29, 2010 7:29 pm

    How wonderful that you are encouraging young people to “Be Who You Are” Michelle. The older I get the more firmly I know this to be true. Let your voice speak clearly from your heart and know that your tribe will find you. Thank you for your wise and authentic words.

  6. angelica permalink
    January 27, 2010 4:17 pm

    I found your site through my grad school listserve (its Pepperdine University in the LA area, where we talk about issues going on in our respective organizations and ask for resources, post interesting comments, events, etc.) and found your comments about authenticity and being true to yourself resonate to what we learn in our program (its organization development, btw). I like the way you phrase being authentic. Regardless of background (writer, org development, etc.) and age (teens, adult) — if we’re living life truely, we’re being true to ourselves (or at least attempting it). And I agree, it is scary. Its reassuring to see that even when you pursue your dreams, you don’t automatically reach nirvana and everything falls into place. There is always the pursuit of “happyness” — like the movie says. I’m trying to get there — living life authentically vs what I’m expected to do. It takes courage and chutzpah to live life fearlessly and its not only your successes that make you who you are but most importantly your failures because that shows your true character, when its not its best form, and when you’ve fallen, you’ve gotten back up — because that’s the struggle sometimes – fear of failure and not getting back up when you’ve fallen.
    Thanks for creating this space.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 28, 2010 12:12 am

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Angelica! I’m from Southern California, and I remember Pepperdine as having a beautiful campus!

      It IS an ongoing struggle – not only to BE who you are but simply to figure out who that is. We change through life as well, so the person we are at 16 isn’t the person we are at 30 or 40 or 60. All of this means that we *do* have to look inward from time to time. To… recalibrate our goals and needs and desires. One thing I’m sure of, though, is that there is no limit to the number of times you can reinvent yourself. I’m so grateful for the endless opportunities to be better and truer to who I am.

      Stay in touch, hon!
      ❀

      MZ

  7. January 27, 2010 7:54 am

    Great post, Michelle. I love just talking to you about life in general, so I think you should definitely keep doing what you’re doing. You’re such a lovely person πŸ™‚

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 28, 2010 12:13 am

      I feel the very same way about you, hon.
      ❀

      MZ

  8. January 26, 2010 11:39 pm

    Wonderful blog post and so true too! I’m so grateful that you connect with people the way you do. I feel truly blessed that I’ve gotten to have the conversations with you that I’ve had. I think the message of “be who you are” is a great message to share with others, because it’s one of those things that many of us forget to do.

    Keep being awesome! πŸ™‚

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 28, 2010 12:13 am

      I feel just as blessed, Erin. I look forward to our interactions more than you know, and I always follow your activities and thoughts with much love and good wishes.
      ❀

      MZ

  9. January 26, 2010 8:49 pm

    I love this! It makes so clear that there’s not any one “right” or “wrong” thing to do. If we can tune into what really impassions us, chances are there will be a dozen or a thousand or a million people who dig that thing. So find it, and do it. (Hope it’s OK if mine is hosting authors, etc. I just really like getting books out there that have meant something to me–and helping writers get a foot in one door or another.)

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 28, 2010 12:16 am

      Exactly. And I actually think our odds of really connecting on an authentic level are so much greater when we’re just living TRUE, you know?

      Thanks for stopping by, Jenny!
      ❀

      MZ

  10. January 26, 2010 7:40 pm

    Hi Michelle πŸ™‚
    Thank you for the heartfelt & interesting post.
    I enjoy connecting with fellow booklovers too.
    Being yourself is great advice.
    Love & Best Wishes,
    Rob

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 28, 2010 12:15 am

      Thanks for reading, Rob!
      ❀

      MZ

  11. January 26, 2010 6:11 pm

    ove this – ill add to my marketing round up this week on friday πŸ™‚

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 28, 2010 12:14 am

      Thank you, Shelli!
      ❀

      MZ

  12. January 26, 2010 6:10 pm

    Oh, I loved this post!! ❀

    Big hugs to you, Michelle. I wish we could meet in person one day – I know we would get along brilliantly.

    Thanks for these wise words.

    Kaz
    xo

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 28, 2010 12:15 am

      I heartily hope we will have the opportunity, Karen. I know we’d be fast, in-real-life friends.
      ❀

      MZ

  13. GalazzoBoy permalink
    January 26, 2010 4:43 pm

    That’s the real Mrs. Z I know and love!!!
    This is definitely one of the most meaningful things I think an author can tell their fans/friends/family. Plus, it’s just so you. πŸ˜‰

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 26, 2010 5:19 pm

      You came to my blog!!!!
      πŸ˜€

      Thanks, Sweets. It’s sometimes just as hard for me to be who I am as it is for the rest of you, you know?
      ❀

  14. January 26, 2010 4:08 pm

    GREAT blog, Michelle. Writers are all just people, no matter how masterful they seem to their readers, and it’s so neat to see that side. Magic, fear, anxiety, joy? I identify! And what a wonderful way to describe the last year. Here’s wishing you much more magic and joy!

    PS I can’t get over how often I see Gaiman referenced these days! When I curled up with his comic BLACK ORCHID, there wasn’t even any SANDMAN yet, and no one had heard of the guy. Now, he’s everywhere! Love it when great writers get great recognition. Like you!

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 26, 2010 5:20 pm

      That was one of the things that struck me about the article, Savvy – how long he had to wait to become even a little “mainstream” (if you can call his cult following mainstream!). It’s a reminder that, as cliche as it sounds, this IS a marathon, not a sprint.

      Lucky for me that while I hate to run, I DO have an iron will. I’m no quitter – and neither are you.
      ❀

      MZ

  15. V.M. permalink
    January 26, 2010 4:04 pm

    For a writer still trying to finish his first manuscript this was the perfect post for me right now. Been changing from first to third person narrative and reading this is inspirational to me. Thanks for a great post Michelle.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 26, 2010 5:21 pm

      You’re welcome, Brian. The important thing is that you ARE still writing. And there’s no greater precursor to success than that.
      ❀

      MZ

  16. January 26, 2010 3:16 pm

    Thanks for being so open, Michelle. Very inspiring.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 26, 2010 5:21 pm

      You’re so welcome!
      ❀

      MZ

  17. January 26, 2010 2:22 pm

    Nice! YES, yes, yes, Michelle.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 26, 2010 5:22 pm

      ❀

      MZ

  18. January 26, 2010 1:41 pm

    Very well said!

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 26, 2010 5:22 pm

      Thank you, Bev! And thanks for stopping by!
      ❀

      MZ

  19. January 26, 2010 12:01 pm

    Michelle-
    What a great, inspiring post. I recently started a blog and found myself struggling with content. I tried mirroring published authors who I admire. I tried having themes for specific days. None of it was working for me. I do it with my writing as well. So and so uses a play list. I must use a play list, too. Um. No. I have over 13 hours of music in one play list and another ten hours in another one that’s just instrumental and movie scores. I can’t cut it down to a nice, neat 15. That’s not me. And I’m okay with that.
    To outline or not to outline. I’ve tried both. I’m a short story writer so I never used an outline. Now, that I’m tackling a novel length story, I decided to give it a-go. It’s good and it’s bad. I like having some idea of what I want to do, but I also like tossing it out the window and letting my characters lead the way. I do have an ending. I like knowing that. Gives me a place to try to get to. Whether it will end there or not, I like the goal.
    I think it’s great the way you connect with your readers.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    ~Danielle~

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 26, 2010 5:23 pm

      It’s amazing to me how long it can take to find some semblance of confidence and strength of purpose – and how easy it can be to lose along the way. The very fact that you, too, turn inward says volumes about you as a human being.
      ❀

      MZ

  20. Jenny permalink
    January 26, 2010 11:45 am

    I love this post! You are spot on with your message, too. I’m always shocked how you remember things I say. I’ve even started taking omega 3’s to try to keep up with your memory capacity;) I love that you are always, you<3

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 26, 2010 5:24 pm

      Lmao! Very funny, you! Believe me, I forget things from time to time… Just not YOU and all the other amazing people who make up my online family.
      ❀

      MZ

  21. January 26, 2010 11:42 am

    Well said and spot on! Of all people, we artists need to figure out who we truly are and follow that path or, really, what’s the point of creating art? Inspiring. Thanks.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      January 26, 2010 5:25 pm

      So true, Claudia. Getting published is not, it turns out, a destination. It’s just one of many stops along the way to the ultimate end…
      ❀

      MZ

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