The Pains of Self-Promotion

19 07 2011

Nathan Bransford is  a former literary agent turned children’s book author and everyone interested in writing and publishing should be following him. His blog is filled with insights about writing, his archives full of advice about querying agents, and his audience very knowledgeable and delightfully opinionated. He’s also had quite the busy week since he posted something to promote his book, Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow. His readers pounded on him pretty hard for this piece of self-promotion and he took his post down. Though I’ve never personally been in a situation where I’ve had the entire internet jump down my throat over something, I can imagine how he felt and I can imagine it wasn’t very good. As others on Twitter reminded him, the people who have a stake in the matter and the people who are actually in the know about these things, i.e., the experts, the fact is that it’s his blog and he should feel free to post what he wants in the manner he wants. Further, if he doesn’t promote his book, who will? Now the post is back up along with another on the nature of self-promotion and it’s to this one that I’d like to contribute my feelings on the subject, primarily from the point of view of a consumer, but also from someone who has also had to promote himself at times, someone who understands that necessary evil from a lot of different perspectives and as someone who tries to see things from the author’s perspective and how difficult it can be to not only get a book written, but to get it sold.

Right now, the nature of book publishing is changing dramatically. More and more books are being published and publishing houses are doing less and less of the promotion. Their budgets are stretched so thin they can only really promote the books that are already guaranteed bestsellers, so that if you’re one of the ones lucky enough to have a book coming out with an agent and publisher and the entire traditional path, you’re most likely going to see next to nothing done to sell your book beyond its distribution and the most basic of marketing. Self-publishing, which is now and will increasingly challenge the traditional modes of publication, is entirely reliant on the authors to promote their own works.

The problem, of course, lies in the fact that nobody likes to be overtly marketed to and authors in general tend to be somewhat clumsy about actually doing their own promotion; it’s consistently referred to as the thing they’re least comfortable doing. The stupidity of it all is that we as consumers are marketed to all the time. You’re hit with advertisements everywhere you go, all day long, from faceless companies selling products that you probably couldn’t care less about. And the funny thing about it is that we don’t really complain about that at all. But the second a small voice squeaks out and says, “Hey, I wrote a book, would you be interested in buying a copy?” out come the pitchforks and torches. Why is it that we’re totally okay with companies we don’t really like bombarding us with marketing, but we refuse the same to authors whose works (or at least the idea behind those works) we love? Because we’re all jerks, that’s why. We love to kick the underdog. We need to quit that.

The other half is that authors really do stink at marketing and promotion. They’re the worst at it, which is extraordinary because they already possess all of the tools they need to be fantastic at it but somewhere along the lines it all misfires. I mean, think about it: they can write well, they’re generally capable of empathy and seeing things from multiple perspectives, but a teensy bit of self-consciousness about the prospect of promotion causes them to fumble. Ask one to promote someone else’s work and they’ll do so with gusto and flair. Force to promote their work and you get: “Eeep…. my book you buy please? I no eat have in 16 days.”

That’s why I think authors should really take the time to read up on the subject and become comfortable doing it. It’s going to become more and more of a reality for them, so might as well. There are scores of books on the subject and many of them quite good at demonstrating what I think already most authors know but could stand to be reminded of. Because there is something good about marketing, too. It’s not monolithic evil, even if it’s the dark side with which we’re most familiar. Good marketing and promotion puts good products and good writing in the hands of the people who’d get the most out of it but would be unlikely to find it any other way. If you feel good about a work you’ve written, you’re doing a disservice not getting it out there. There is more to it than just “look at me” and actually, by having a popular blog and a trusted following, Nathan has already done it. If I could recommend a couple books, I’d read anything by Guy Kawasaki (Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions would be a good choice) or Bob Gilbreath’s The Next Evolution of Marketing: Connect with Your Customers by Marketing with Meaning or read Seth Godin’s blog. None of those addresses the specifics of marketing a book, but I consider that a feature. These are the guys who understand marketing at its most simple and I think most authors are capable of extrapolating from that a strategy to market themselves. Maybe at the least they’ll see that marketing isn’t the dark side.

For what it’s worth, I think everyone should read a couple books on marketing, not just authors. We’re all engaged in self-promotion all the time to a greater or lesser extent and if you’re not comfortable with saying anything good about yourself and what you can do, well, you’re probably going to have a hard time at your next job interview. So, maybe don’t read those two books which are a little less helpful in that regard but read something else and read Seth’s blog for sure. It’s all about realizing the value that you have in yourself and in the work you do and that you’re doing a favor to others by giving them the opportunity to be aware of it. Don’t just make it about money. We’re all more noble than that.

Finally, there’s the contingent that refuses to think that any promotion at all is unnecessary and is, in fact, harmful. To them, I kindly say “stuff it.” They don’t understand and they’re the exact reason you can’t just count on word of mouth or the quality of good writing to rise to the top simply be virtue of its awesomeness. The universe does not, in fact, take care of anyone that way and it’s exceptionally naive to think it does. One of the comments on his post actually said that. It also said that he should either charge for his blog or shut up, also known as a “false dilemma” in informal logic. I can’t stand people like that.

This, by the way, again reinforces in my mind the reason we should put more faith in the experts, those with authority, even at risk of being labelled “elitist.” The trained critic, not the Amazon reader comment, I think has the best chance of being our expert promoter of fine writing in the future, but I think that’s a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that there are too many works and too many voices out there and it’s a sea of noise. Careful promotion that peeks out above the water has the best chance of getting the word out about the great works out there.

Thinking about Plot for NaNoWriMo

29 10 2010
William Faulkner's Outline

William Faulkner's mad outlining skills.

Things have been so busy around here and I’m so far behind on planning for NaNoWriMo, it’s not even funny. But it’s been a good week between finishing some pretty hefty job-related stuff, visiting an old friend, quite a bit of gaming and still managing to get to the gym. I definitely need to get on the ball, though and this weekend is going to take some finesse to plan out and get all the things done that need to be.

Among the varied sources of articles on the web about NaNoWriMo, I’m particularly grateful for Paulo Campos’ Countdown to NaNoWriMo series that he’s been putting together this week, which is good advice for any writer, but for as much writing is about to go on come Monday, it seems downright essential. You can find them on his blog, Yingle Yangle (I linked to all of the NaNoWriMo articles, but the rest seem like very good reading too). The series focuses primarily on good outlining and time-management skills. In other words, exactly the things I need help with the most.

I basically need all the help I can get with plot. I think it’s an unfortunate side-effect of being trained in literature that you tend to focus so heavily on character and psychology that you lose sight of the rest. Take, for example, the figure of Emma Bovary, about whom I could go on and on and try to understand from many different angles (feminist, social, economic, and the list goes on). Flaubert’s plot is, on the other hand, slower-paced than contemporary writing and is a little heavy-handed 19th century soap opera. It’s a good plot, don’t get me wrong. I think the novel is absolutely top notch and they don’t build ’em like that anymore. The pacing isn’t the same as what one sees in today’s heavy genre fiction, however, which makes up most of what’s out there. So, from my background, I’m pretty sure that I can come up with good characters, most of what I personally know about plot is pretty old-fashioned. A good bit of it is Aristotelian, it’s that old-fashioned. For what it’s worth, I’m aiming to write something in-between strictly genre and strictly “literary” and mostly, to be totally honest, I hate both labels and would just as soon focus on the writing itself.

I am still really looking forward to it. I plan on updating with my progress here starting on Monday and hopefully I’ll get through it okay. I’m also considering going to some of the write-ins put together by the good folks managing the Nashville writers. Might be a good way to meet some new people and get out a bit more. Mostly, I need to quit sleeping so much. I’m not used to this who 8-9 hours a night thing. I know it’s healthy, but unless they’re adding hours to the day, I can’t afford more than 6!

Name Game for NaNoWriMo

8 10 2010
The film's famous sequence where Jack sticks h...

I officially registered for NaNoWriMo yesterday and I’m totally excited about doing it this year (for the first time). I feel pretty confident that I can do it, but I know it’ll be a new challenge for me, so I’m keeping my mind open about all of the potential pitfalls that are surely going to snag me up at some point. Because I’m so inexperienced, I’m not even sure what they could be, but that’s part of the charm.

What I am doing is starting to sketch out some ideas, outline the plot and think about the characters. The latter is a big problem for me and something I seem to struggle with every time I try to write something, since most of the names I come up with are either far too common to be interesting or too heavy-handed and unusual to be believable. And I think this is a pretty normal problem to have. I want to have a regular guy in there with the usual problems, but I also want everyone to be exceptional. Jack won’t cut it. Jack is not a unique snowflake. Unless you’re Stephen King who can make a really scary, classic Jack.

So, again I’ll struggle not to name my main character George Gordon Byron or Steve, but rather I’ll agonize and stare at the paper until I find something that’s just right. But what always really strikes me as weird is that when I see other people’s character names, I find them so completely natural and I accept the names almost universally without question. Yes, I suppose if someone named a modern gothic hero Edgar Allen, I’d probably raise my eyebrows (and then laugh and toss the book in the dumpster), but that almost never happens.

I did look around and see what else was out there on the interwebs to use as a resource, coming across this article on a baby naming site. I think the most salient point here is that exotic names are for “romance novels, soap operas and strippers.” This gives me a chuckle and makes me want to write an action/adventure story about a team of zombie strippers, but I think I’ll suppress that urge (but hey, Anthea, you’re welcome to the idea if you want to run with it!).

Archaisms, ugh

7 09 2010

We made it back to Nashville in one piece and had a really great weekend with my family. Especially the kids had a terrific time swimming, riding horses, chasing mules on the “Noodle Wagon” (the funny name given to their Polaris Ranger, which they use to patrol the property), going on paddle-boats, riding with my mom on her 4-wheeler, playing with the dogs and just generally enjoying the lake, which was at its most beautiful and helped to no small extent by perfect weather. It’s definitely nice being this much closer and able to get down there and we’re already planning our next trip.

And now back to your regularly scheduled websurfing…

I woke up early this morning and, as usual, I started off by just clicking through my emails and RSS reader junk. Among them was a discussion thread I’ve been following on Goodreads where people are commenting on whatever book they’ve just finished and I found myself wincing not at the poor writers (they’re not the most pleasing in the world to see, but my expectations are low anyway) but at the horribly stilted ones:

“I too am loathe to peruse other works whilst reading his book.”

(I made that sentence up, but it’s very close to the original I saw in the discussion thread.)

That’s just painful. I dislike the position of “too” between the subject and verb, a very tacky “I, too” flourish that I noticed the author uses every single time she shares something in common with someone else. I know this because I checked her posting history, which says at least as much about how sad it is that I spend my mornings this way as it does her style. It’s as if she’s incapable of putting “too” at the end of a sentence. For example: I find you to be a really annoying, too. Wasn’t too hard.

More than that, though is “whilst.” Why not “while?” That particular word choice got me thinking about the use of archaisms in general. Now, before I get too pissy about “whilst,” I want to be clear that I’m talking about usage in standard US-English. It could be that a British English writer would feel more comfortable with whilst, but even then, most of what I’ve seen suggests that it’s at best archaic and stuffy there as well. In this case, the person who wrote the offending sentence is an American 6th grade social studies teacher. She has no excuse.

Archaisms, as a rule, just come off wrong and I don’t mean for that to sound like I’m an absolute prude. It can be funny. One of my closest friends frequently uses the word “mayhap” instead of “maybe.” It’s meant ironically, though, because I know the guy and it’s normally so incongruous in every context that it cannot be taken seriously. You can occasionally play up a funny sentence with a funny, out-of-place, William F. Buckley accent. There’s even a chance you can slip one in there occasionally in a witty or clever way, but normally there’d be some clear indication of irony while you did it. Sometimes, instead of saying “thank you,” I might say “Merci.” It’s a gag. I play it up and smile. It’s not serious.

No, no, here I mean the “whilst” coming into play in a strictly non-ironic, faux-intellectual sense. The problem with archaisms, used in that way, is that they’re off-putting and amateurish, so sayeth (ha!) H.W. Fowler in 1908:

The guilt of such peccadilloes as this may be said to vary inversely as the writer’s erudition; for in this matter the learned may plead ignorance, where the novice knows too well what he is doing. It is conscious archaism that offends, above all the conscious archaisms of the illiterate: the historian’s It should seem, even the essayist’s You shall find, is less odious, though not less deliberate, than the ere, oft, aught, thereanent, I wot, I trow, and similar ornaments, with which amateurs are fond of tricking out their sentences. This is only natural. An educated writer’s choice falls upon archaisms less hackneyed than the amateur’s; he uses them, too, with more discretion, limiting his favourites to a strict allowance, say, of once in three essays. The amateur indulges us with his whole repertoire in a single newspaper letter of twenty or thirty lines, and—what is worse—cannot live up to the splendours of which he is so lavish: charmed with the discovery of some antique order of words, he selects a modern slang phrase to operate upon; he begins a sentence with ofttimes, and ends it with a grammatical blunder; aspires to albeit, and achieves howbeit. Our list begins with the educated specimens, but lower down the reader will find several instances of this fatal incongruity of style; fatal, because the culprit proves himself unworthy of what is worthless.

Imagine if you had an American friend who could not help him or herself from slipping into a ham-handed attempt at a British accent anytime the topic of conversation shifted into any part of the spectrum of low-to-high culture above, let’s say, Twilight. Yeah, that. Wouldn’t that be a little annoying? Writing is no different. Case in point:

I am not of the school that says that writers should write in the same manner in which they speak. I think written language really should be more organized, more thoughtful, more correct and even more ornamental than your standard speaking. Ornamentation is pretty dangerous business, though. Go too far and it becomes as gaudy and obnoxious as Dolly Parton’s hairstyle. Less is more.

The real risk is that you alienate the reader. Good writing connects the reader to the words and ideas. It doesn’t have to be invisible, because sometimes the medium is the message. It is possible to write elegantly and even with a little flourish without going over the top and it can clearly be artistic without annoying. Normally, the offense of ‘conscious archaism’ is the result of incongruity of style. If you were writing a poem, you really could go hog wild. If you wrote a literary novel, you could probably be more sophisticated with your word choice. I enjoy just as much about how a good writer writes as I do what he or she is writing about. For a great example, go to Google Books and look at the preview of Franzen’s Freedom there. Skip down to the bottom of page 6 where Franzen describes Carol Berglund and read that paragraph. Franzen is an incredible writer and there’s a lot of depth to not just the character, but the way he describes her. For me, personally, this is a blog and I try not to be too fancy (not that I’m really capable of it anyway) and I’m pretty sure that the standard internet discussion board is not the place for a whole lot of gilded diction, especially when you’re talking about your favorite science fiction novel.

“I’m very anxious not to fall into archaism or “literary” diction. I want my vocabulary to have a very large range, but the words must be alive.” – James Agee

All the Good Ideas are Old Already

19 08 2010
It's Arguable Whether I Had Any in the First Place

Image by Lucia. . . via Flickr

‘Originality is merely an illusion.’ ~ M.C. Escher

Originality is something of a pipe dream. I worry that what I’m writing looks too much like somebody else’s work. I like something of theirs and I have to work hard to make it different and my own. I don’t feel like I’m copying, but I worry that someday some reader will think, “well, he just lifted that from so-and-so.” I don’t want to get into too many details about some of the projects I’m working on until they’re closer to fruition, but I know that there’s an element that is similar to a movie that came out a few years ago, a movie based on a book that I’ve never read. It’s not identical. It’s not even close to identical and in fact, I had the idea all by myself while driving several years ago before the movie or the book even came out. But because there’s a common theme, I worry. Worrying, my friends, is what I do.

This is something that has always plagued me in my academic writing, too. There, at least, I always felt I had a somewhat novel approach, but part of the discipline in academic writing is that you recognize that your observations, your thoughts come from standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. A professor I had in Germany once told us in class that it’s the most useless worry. “Just cite everything,” he’d say, “you’re lucky if 5% of what you write is new.” The tradition is centered on the literature survey and good papers cite often and cite well those who came before and led to something that is only new by a small degree.

For some reason, we expect a lot more from our fiction and, when I consult the logical side of my brain, it seems clear that that’s a really unfair standard. All the good stuff was used up a good 2,000 or more years ago. The Roman playwright Plautus took most of his ideas from the Greek Menander. Shakespeare “borrowed” his plots from an array of sources, including Plautus, the Greeks, and various other historical sources. Contemporary authors do it all the time. How many vampire books are there now? They all tip their hats to Anne Rice. I mean, Lestat sparkled before sparkling was cool. Anne Rice came from Bram Stoker, who came from other storytellers, and so on. Jonathan Franzen is influenced by DeLillo and Pynchon. End of the day, it’s not plagiarism.

I’m grateful to Orson Scott Card’s rendering of it:

Many writers, however, far from borrowing or seeking to be “influenced,” are desperately afraid of inadvertent influence to the point of paranoia. Since every good idea has already been used, getting too anxious about such chance resemblances is a waste of time.

Here’s my rule: Any idea you really like that absolutely works for your story is your idea, no matter who else might have used it before. The only limitation on this is what the audience will stand for – if you end your novel with the hero standing before a fire and the only way the ring gets thrown in is because someone else bites off his finger and then falls in, well, your audience is likely to be a bit disgusted – the resemblance is too close, the source way too well-known. Only if your intent is humorous can you get away with it.

You should not be penalized for having read widely, however. If your story has elements that you recognize as being similar to a book by someone else, so what? As long as it’s your own story, and those motifs feel important and true within the context of your work, they’re your ideas now.

The moral of the story is to worry less about those influences and old stories we have bouncing around in our heads and more about making those things our own. There’s always a fresh twist and an authentic voice to be given to whatever and, really, I think a part of the human experience takes a little comfort in know that we’re not being bombarded with the terrifyingly new every five minutes.