Most of us are cynical enough by now to see that life is all about branding, whether we're being bombarded by ads for colleges, books, cars, shampoos, or a new designer line of t-shirts ($90 for a white GOOP t-shirt, Gwyneth Paltrow? Really?) Brands are built via movie placements, billboards, your Kindle's sleep screen, your radio station, your Twitter Feed and Facebook page. Sure, you can DVR your favorite TV shows and zip through commercials, but there's no hiding from the marketing trolls.
I know this. Yet, somehow I was still shocked when a writer friend recently asked me to change her quote after I interviewed her for a magazine story.
"I can't say that sort of thing in print," she explained. "I've worked hard to build my brand, and I need to be consistent."
"Uh, okay," I said. I edited the quote, but I was stunned. When did writers start being brands?
This question led me through a maze of other squirrely musings. If you write a memoir, are you forever a memoirist? Is a writer of so-called "women's fiction" always doomed to have a slender woman's body parts on her book covers? What happens if a thriller writer dares to try his hand at romance?
Did Mark Twain have a brand? Was it "Southern novelist and humorist?" What about Hemingway? "Lion hunter, womanizer, and minimalist?"
These questions really made my head spin as I was redesigning my web site. (These days, a writer without a web site is like a McDonald's without the golden arches.) I had a perfectly lovely website -- one that I paid to have built when my first book was published -- but it was constructed using a software program that made me sob like a napless toddler every time I tried to navigate it, so I decided to switch over to every writer's best friend, WordPress.
In the process, I had an identity crisis. What was my brand? Who was I?
I hadn't felt this confused since trying to follow the plot of those Bourne movies. My first book was a memoir. My second one was a novel categorized by some reviewers as literature, by some as women's fiction, and by others as that poor stepsister of women's fiction, "chick lit" (which everyone knows is sexier and will probably catch the prince's eye at the ball).
My third book, The Wishing Hill, is being published by Penguin in spring/summer 2013. It, too, is a novel. This one, though, is decidedly not chick lit, and more women's fiction/literature. However, my next book -- the one I'm writing right now -- is a paranormal novel featuring a dead voodoo priestess.
Oh, and I also write humor essays and feature articles for national magazine s- -usually about parenting, psychology, or health.
So, who am I? What's my brand? Do I have to spell it out in a theme of five words or less?
It would certainly be a lot easier for marketing purposes if my work could fit neatly on one shelf in a bookstore (even a virtual one). Think of bestselling writers who have household names, and you'll see what I mean: Elizabeth George writes British mysteries while Toby Neal sets hers in Hawaii. Stephen King writes books that make you look under your bed at night. John Grisham is known for his legal thrillers; each of Jodi Picoult's novels is women's fiction with a contemporary news hook; and Elin Hilderbrand writes books about women falling in love on the beach. See what I mean?
On the other hand, what about writers who ignore the rules? I've just finished two splendid books by writers who dare to scribble outside the lines. One was Wild, a terrific memoir by Cheryl Strayed, whose first book was a novel and who is widely known as an advice columnist by the name of "Sugar." Another is Carsten Stroud's skin-crawlingly creepy book, Niceville, a horror novel along the lines of Stephen King, but one that reads like a police procedural with snappy bad guy dialogue worthy of Quentin Tarantino or maybe even Raymond Chandler. Previously, Stroud was known for his nonfiction and more standard crime novels.
What about Tom Perrota? His early novels, like Election and Little Children, were satirical edgy domestic dramas. Then he gave us The Leftovers, which crosses over into another realm ( literally), as he explored what would happen if there really was a Day of Rapture where only some residents of a certain town were chosen to be whisked into the heavens.
How do you brand Tom Perrota, other than calling him "brilliant?" And don't even get me started on writer Neil Gaiman, a man who grinds through every genre like a happy kid with one of those multipacks of tiny cereal boxes. Gaiman has one quote on his Amazon page that says what I feel: "I make things up and write them down."
At the end of a good day, that's what any good writer hopes to do.
Ultimately, I decided to stop worrying about my brand and just put myself out there. What I want people to be able to do is find me -- and find out about me. I chose the tag line "Writer and Red Dirt Rambler," because my favorite place on earth to write -- and ramble -- is Prince Edward Island in the Canadian Maritimes.
Whew. Thank heavens that's over. My new website will be live soon. Meanwhile, I can go back to making things up and writing them down.