does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, March 27, 2010

“Write What You Know,” Marketing, and Me

Every writer who has taken a writing class or received a critique has heard, “Write what you know.” It is a good rule, encouraging depth and originality. Defining What I Know, though, can get really complicated. Of all the various facets of a person, which is worthy of being mined for a story? To make self branding effective, should a writer always aim her pick at the same pile of rocks? And why does this matter in the quest to publish one’s novels?

My novels and short stories address such disparate subjects as religion, Latino culture, the immigrant experience, life aboard a boat, the business world, the challenges of poverty, illness, addiction, et al. What I Know comes from having sojourned among the religiously devout as well as the devoutly atheist. I have lived in a mountainside shack and have worked in the White House. I have mingled among the wealthy and powerful and have lived among the humble and destitute. I consider both English and Spanish to be my native tongues. This is the What I Know that has fed my writing.

Viewed singly, samples of my writing might be construed by a marketer to fit any of the following genres: literary, religion/spiritual, ethnic, multicultural, adventure, inspirational, politics, and business. In my understandable reluctance to force fit myself into any single genre, I apparently am not unique among authors. I can hear my compatriot writers chant, “I am not a uni-dimensional being.” The problem is that this self-reinforcing sense of specialness will not help us facilitate our work’s journey from computer disk to bookstore.

I come from a business background and deeply respect the business world’s imperative to create market segments in order to sell effectively. Certainly, in the publishing realm, we recognize that the market for a John Grisham novel might be different than that for a Salmon Rushdie one. If I want someone to invest real money to publish and sell my books, I have to be mindful of market realities. If good writing has its rules of engagement so does good business. Stacy Glick from Dystel & Goderich says it best. “I usually find this [inability to choose a single genre] problematic for the simple reason that a book that is described this way often suffers from an identity crisis, and publishers want to be able to clearly identify how a book will be positioned, marketed, promoted, and at its most basic level, where it will "live" in the bookstores….”

Practical person that I am, I acknowledge that if I want to achieve my publishing dream, I must take a stand about the nature of my work, i.e., choose a genre. This is true even if I believe that all the genres listed above, while each a possible fit, miss the point of my work. I write, I like to think, not about my chameleon-like residence within any of the multiple genres, but about my pilgrimage across their boundaries. If I’m going to play with other people’s money, though, I think it’s a fair requirement to follow their rules.

Luckily for me, I have been told that the quality of my writing is good enough to fit into that, itself, amorphous genre known as Literary. From now on, whenever I write a query letter to an agent, I will call my work literary. Sure, Literary is apparently not selling at the moment, but the issue of publishing fads has to be the subject of another post or else this already long one will never end.

Perhaps for me, though, What I Know is Not Belonging. One of my blog readers once said that “belonging to not belonging” might better define my writing. She wrote that in a comment about my short story “The Cry of Lares,” where the protagonist talks about living with a dual awareness of “…who I’ve left behind versus who I’ve taken up with.”

My deep suspicion is that many of us live with a sense of Otherness that we mask by fostering intense attachment to some group, be it school, nation, sports team, culture, family, advocacy group, etc. My other suspicion is that, in our increasingly mobile and interconnected world, more and more of us will navigate the interstices of previously rigid national and cultural boundaries. In the here and now, though, publishers, agents, and authors must acknowledge those boundaries.

Does this mean that the commercial realities of publishing will favor those who can self define easily at the expense of those squiggling across borders, when ironically the latter might represent an increasing percentage of writers and readers? What do you think?

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Sun Singer said...

I often argue that what a writer knows is a collection of a thousand things about the human condition that have come to him or her through experience more than having an expertise in a particular subject matter, genre or style.

The point of saying this is an attempt to set aside the notion of young writers that writing what you know means having first hand experience within some of the larger-than-life arenas of bestselling fiction. Young writers as how they can possibly compete with famous authors who have the time and money to visit exotic locales, conduct interviews, pay for legions of researchers or develop fiction out of former careers as high-priced hookers, advisers to the rich and famous, crime of all kinds, and infamy of the variety that makes the front page.

All of that sells, to be sure, but Joe and Sally in Two Egg, Florida and Bill and Jean in Big Fork, Montana can't compete when "what you know" must be larger than the everyday lives of most writers.

Yet, I understand the need of publishers to pigeonhole books and authors, create brands and genres and identifiable shelves. I, too, have used the "classification" literary, not out of presumption so much as a way of saying I don't write beach reads. But I worry about the classification, for it might also be interpreted as I don't write anything that will sell.

Marketing is a puzzlement when its connected with the arts--how to we ramp up excitement about our work without prostituting it through identifications with current fads or purple back-cover copy. I don't resume to know.


Judith Mercado said...

"Marketing is a puzzlement when its connected with the arts"

Indeed. They often even seem incompatible, but since writers have been published and have been successful, it must not be an impossibility to be both artist and commercial success. I just have to figure out how to do it.

Thanks for stopping by, Malcolm, and good luck to both of us.

Brent Robison said...

Joining this discussion very very late, but it's a never-ending concern. When I self-published my book a year ago, I was not only writing what I know but in a genre I know: the most uncommercial of all, literary short stories. The collection has spiritual/philosophical underpinnings that in my view are crucial but are so subtle that most likely the "spiritual" label won't stick. But I suspect they also undercut the book's "literary" market success. I understand the business need for categories, but (sigh) I cannot write to a market. And I resist the branding idea because as you say, I am not uni-dimensional. So I go along slowly (I mean REALLY slowly) seeking the public that wants this type of work. I count on the long tail, and go on to the next project.

Also appreciated what you said about "not belonging." The poetry of my friend Djelloul Marbrook may appeal to you. Here's my review of his prize-winning book:

Thanks for your insights--

Judith Mercado said...

Brent, I so appreciate your thoughtful and intelligent contribution to this discussion. I suspect there is no such thing as coming late to this discussion. It will probably still be ongoing, though not necessarily on this blog, years from now. Thanks for the link. I will go read it now.