Monday, November 16, 2009

Writing with a reason

Is there an ulterior motive buried in your fiction? Is your plot a fun ruse to seduce readers to the dark side of chocolate? Are you making the case for a social cause like the elimination of injustice or world hunger? Or are you merely trying to convince people that good always defeats evil, love does indeed conquer all and mom’s advice really was the best?

In other words, do you have an author platform? Is your writing branded?

If you’re wondering what these things are, so did I at one time. A platform is more common among non-fiction writers; my colleague Stephanie Jones, for example, who writes about sexual abuse. Her book details a personal journey that has served as a springboard to speaking engagements with victims’ rights, support and advocacy groups, and freelance articles on spin off topics.

Branding gets a lot of attention among fiction authors because it helps define a reader’s experience of your work. More than a name or tagline, a brand is about expectations. In a grocery store, for instance, shoppers may attach higher hopes to flavor from a Sunkist orange than they do to the generic fruit in the next bin. Likewise, readers expect very different books from Toni Morrison and Stephen King.

As a horror author, are you known for your skin-crawling slasher scenes? Are you a romance writer known for gut-wrenching relationships? Are you a thriller writer known for page-turning plot-twists? Do you feed your readers a consistent diet that keeps them coming back to your table of titles?

It took me awhile to figure out who I wanted to be as an author. Paranormal romance tagged me long before I recognized the genre as what I wrote. Once I conquered that identity crisis, however, others followed. Fantasy/paranormal romance covers a big, broad range. I wasn’t sure how to stand out in that spectrum. I spent close to a year developing my tagline of “supernatural stories of passion and suspense” and creating the web site and materials to support it. I like the fit.

I also like the fact that beneath the marketing aspect of what I write (which is really what platforms and branding are all about), I have found that the stories of my heart revolve around second chances. More than anything, I love giving my characters another shot at something gone awry in their lives. When I can, I try to tie the struggle to a tangible current event. In, a couple’s second chance at finding each other happens amid the very real backdrop of sudden unemployment.

Though I don’t claim a platform, I find that the current event tie-ins help get the attention of people who may automatically bypass my genre as something they don’t like. The second chances and contemporary settings might win them over in ways psychic dreams and guardian angels don’t.

When I can, I do plant social seeds. In Where Souls Collide, I dealt with the downfall and transformation of a local newspaper. And I think we’re all aware of the plight of traditional media. In, I hope I paint an honest picture of what it’s like to lose a job and fear for your future. Again, how often do we hear about the country’s growing unemployment rolls?

There are many ways to sell yourself, make a point, brand your fiction, or elicit a smile (or scream for some of you). Does your writing do double duty? Or is it enough to simply entertain? I'd love to know your thoughts.



Kaz Augustin said...

Great post, Stef, and very thought-provoking regarding branding. It's really opened up the entire concept for me.

Ambiguity. I like writing about ambiguity and about characters either not being, or not fitting, in the little boxes they're supposed to be in. Would love to know how others view their own work through this lens as well.

Lydia Smith said...

I hadn't thought of this before but I am now. Although I do have "causes" I care deeply about I never thought I included them in my fiction writing but now I see that there is an underlying issue in my WIP about parenting. Wow! That was insightful. Thank you.

Liane Spicer said...

Hm. I've deliberately slipped a cause or two in there, and I'm sure that if I look closely I'll find that my subconscious has coughed up a number of ulterior motives too.

The ad term 'branding' brings all my juvenile, gut resistance to the fore. Why should I pigeonhole myself and my writing? I have to will myself to be realistic and view this as good business practice. Since I experiment with different genres, I hope to overcome the 'reader expectations' issue by using different (brand)names for different types of fiction.

Guess I'm still trying to decide who I want to be when I grow up.

Btw, Stef, I'm a huge fan of second chances - in fiction and in life! And like Kaz, I'm fascinated by ambiguity and paradox, and I tend to explore these in some of my fiction. In my second romance novel there was so much ambiguity surrounding one character I couldn't decide whether he was protagonist or antagonist. Wrote him one way, then when my agent picked up on the ambiguity, wrote him the other.

Unknown said...

Kaz, Linda and Liane -- One of the things I learned as a journalist was that there's really no such thing as objectivity. Because everyone brings themselves into their perspective, and thus their writing, at best, even a reporter can only strive to be fair.

I think the same applies to fiction. As much as we use our imaginations, our stories can very much be influenced by who we are -- intentionally or not. As one who's spent many years as a professional communicator, I say if we're aware of this, we might be able to help sell our books if the perspective we offer happens to be timely -- i.e., marketable -- as well.