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Author Branding Lesson 2: Tame the Dragon

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If we learned anything from How to Train Your Dragon, it’s this: to tame a dragon, you need to understand him. Hiccup’s experience with Toothless in the ravine showed him that there were things dragons were attracted to, things they were repelled by, etc. They had simple needs, just like him, and they had personalities.

Your branding, your marketing, is often more about understanding and embracing what you have to work with than trying to fight it or change it.

That difficulty you have choosing a genre? Embrace it. That habit you have of killing off your lead’s love interests? Use it. That funny quirk where you can’t stand a messy desk when you write? The chaos of your life because you juggle a full-time job and five children? Yes, all that can work in your favor — if you know how to use it.

It’s all in how you look at it

Remember the lists you made last week? The one with the stories you’ve written and your favorite movies and books? Pull it out and look it over. What patterns do you see?

  • Are all your stories in one genre? Stephen King is known as a horror writer, no question.
  • Do many of your stories deal with similar themes? Star Trek told stories for decades about social issues and civil rights.
  • Do your lead characters have similar profiles? Joss Whedon is known for his strong female leads and his habit of pitting them against monsters.

Note: Even if you’re starting out and haven’t finished a single story, you can begin to get a feel for who you are as a writer if you look at the story ideas that you’ve had. Are there patterns there?

Let’s look at the list you made of the movies and books you have loved the most over the years. There are nuggets of gold there, too.

  • Do any of your favorite movies, TV shows or books have a fan community online? Star Wars, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, The Princess Bride, My Little Pony, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Fringe, Arrow, Dragonriders of Pern, The Dresden Files, the list could go on and on — from big franchises to one-hit-wonders, there are online communities for many, many fandoms.
  • Are there any similarities between the types of stories you write and the types you consume for your own enjoyment? Look beyond genre. It might be that you like old hard-boiled detective novels, and you didn’t realize that this influenced the way you wrote the cowboy who rides the unicorn in your fantasy quest.

You need data first

Before you can analyze things, you need data. You may have a good sense of your own writing and what your stories are about, but many times it is the outside eye that sees the patterns in your work that you do not. Also, whatever your intentions as you write, your readers will bring their own interpretation to your work, and their insights are valuable.

It’s time to start another list: What have others said about your writing?

  • If you are published, what do the reviews say?
  • If you are in school, what do your teachers say?
  • Ask your critique partners, writers group, editors, beta readers.

It may be scary, but you need to know. And you need to know more than just “Is it a good story?” or “Is it ready for publication?” or even “Did you like it?” You need understanding and insight. You need the confidence and tools that will put you on the back of this marketing dragon and enable you to ride it into the sky.

In the assignment below, I’ve provided a few questions you can ask people who have read your work that may elicit the sorts of answers you need. Be brave. Reach out and touch that marketing dragon’s nose.

You won’t regret it. It’s the first step towards an exhilarating ride.

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Action Item

Contact 3-5 people who have read your work and ask them what they see in it. (If you haven’t shown your work to that many people, then get going! That comes first.) Trying using some of the following questions to get the sorts of responses you need:

  • Does my work remind you of any other stories or authors you know?
  • Who do you think would enjoy my stories? (Young adults? Fans of Star Wars? Intellectuals?)
  • What are the strengths of my writing? (Descriptive passages? Dialogue? Interesting characters? Fast-paced plots that keep you reading?)
  • How do you feel while you’re reading my stories?
  • How do you feel after the story is over? What sticks in your mind?
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Author Branding Lesson 1: Know Thyself

Do you know who you are?

Last week we took Luke Skywalker as an example of the power of discovering who you are. But how did he start out? At the beginning of the original Star Wars saga, he is a young man on the cusp of manhood. An orphan raised by his aunt and uncle as a farmer on a barren wasteland of a planet. He dreams of being more, of leaving the dunes of the backwater and making a difference in the galaxy by joining the Rebel Alliance. It’s a big dream. It’s a noble dream.

But he’s clueless, isn’t he?

He doesn’t know that he is especially strong in the Force that empowers the Jedi to do miraculous feats. He doesn’t know that his father is the right-hand enforcer of the evil Emperor. He doesn’t know that the princess in distress is his twin sister. He doesn’t know that the random scoundrel he hires to escape Tatooine will become a loyal friend and save his life — and indeed, save the galaxy from the Death Star by protecting Luke long enough to destroy it. How would he feel if he knew that his wise, old mentor had critically maimed and left his father to die in the fires of a lava river on Mustafar?

Luke Skywalker confronting the truth

You are a writer. You are in love with story, and especially the one you are working on right now. You have poured — or are ready to pour — your life blood into this noble cause and hope to change the world. Or at least to transport your readers to a new world while they read, leaving them with new memories and perhaps a fresh perspective on their lives.

As you navigate your publishing journey, you’ll make discoveries along the way. That princess you kissed? Yeah, she’s your sister. That villain who chopped off your hand? Your father. As new facts come to light, learn to leverage them.

Maybe your post about your favorite Doctor Who coffee mug gets more shares than anything else. Use that. Maybe you surprise yourself with your eloquent passion as you comment on a meme about PTSD. It’s something you’ve experienced and worked through, and you realize you have a lot to share on that topic. No wonder your protagonists wrestle with it.

 

Self-analysis is critical to branding

If you’ve never been one to journal your thoughts and feelings, that’s okay. This isn’t that kind of analysis. This is business. This is (gasp!) marketing. We’re going to start with looking at our past, but it doesn’t stop there. The past is only one influence on our future. The choices we make now are far more powerful than anything that has come before. In the coming weeks we’ll face the mirror and make some honest, compassionate decisions about what we see.

Action Item

  1. Page one: Think back and jot down the major turning points in your creative life.
    • The moment you decided you wanted to write. The contest you won that spurred you on. Joining that critique group that improved your craft. Attending that conference where you met your agent. The encouraging comment from a mentor. Etc.
  2. Page two: List the stories you’ve finished (or if the list is too long, list the ones that seem significant or memorable to you).
  3. Third page. Make a list of the books, TV shows or movies that have stood the test of time for you. The ones that you’ll never forget, the ones that you still enjoy, the ones you recommend.

Over the next few weeks, come back to these pages and ponder them. What trends do you see? What themes seem to rise to the top? What attracts you, what inspires you, what do you emulate in your work? Do you like what you see, or would you adjust your course?

BONUS: Get a folder or binder and label it #SpecFicCollective. Put the pages in it. Keep it handy.

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Author Identity: The hero must discover who he is

Remember Luke Skywalker in the very first Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope? He was a clueless farm boy stumbling into one of the greatest power struggles in the galaxy.

Luke Skywalker on Tatooine

Now think about Luke as he appeared in The Return of the Jedi. He was confident, he had a plan, and you could see peace and determination shining through his every word and deed.

He knew who he was. He had embraced his identity as a Jedi with power of the Force and as the son of Darth Vader, right-hand of the evil Emperor. He had decided to save his friends and continue the fight against the Empire. When hardships hit, he did not waver. When things looked impossible, he did not give up. Ultimately, his unwavering faith saved his father and defeated the Emperor.

Luke and Vader after the Emperor is defeated

When you know who you are, you are unstoppable.

Take a look around the entertainment world. It is not the most talented, most unique or wealthiest that are the most popular.

Successful entertainers know who they are and what they are about. They have found effective ways to communicate their identity to the world. This is often called branding and authors need it, too. People are drawn to others who have a sense of purpose or a strong sense of identity. It speaks to our shared inner need for meaning in life. When we see someone who is committed to a passion or a cause, we admire it and often we yearn to be part of it.

But how do we get there?

Brand Identity is a process

Sometimes, you know from the very start what it is you want to be. When I was in my late teens, I wanted to become “the Stephen King of light and goodness”. His stories were amazing, but so dark. I wanted to be prolific and popular with stories that focused more on the light than the darkness. My goals have shifted somewhat over the years, but that’s a good example of choosing an identity up front. If you choose a memorable identity and gear every story and every aspect of your online presence towards that end, a strong brand can be established very quickly.

Other times, you begin knowing only that you want to write. Stories bubble out of you. Maybe they’re all similar, maybe they aren’t. You write what you feel like writing. Over time, an author’s style and voice and story tendencies come through. A brand can occur organically and over time.

Authors have built their careers both ways in the past, but in today’s saturated market you need a strong brand now. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. It can change over time. You may need to experiment a bit to make it memorable and engaging.

Your brand identity is the magnet that attracts others to you and your work. But it also has great benefits for you. It provides a compass for direction and a way to assess priorities and measure success. We’ll talk more about these benefits in future posts.

Action Item

Make a list of 6 well-known authors. Next to each name, write down what you think their brand identity is. “Suspense author” or “writer of creepy, complex plots with large casts of characters” or “the queen of forensic murder mysteries”.

Now go to their websites or scan through Amazon.com’s descriptions and endorsements of their books. What identity do you find reflected there? How are they described by others?

Share one or two of your findings in a comment below.

 

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