Being an explanation of why for novelists the notion of branding is fraught with peril…
Wally Olins, branding guru, died in April. According to an Economist review of his posthumous Brand New: The Shape of Brands to Come (Thames & Hudson, London, 2014), branding is “about knowing who you are…and showing it.”
It sounds simple but for a novelist it is not.
Writing is both a verb and a noun, a process and a product. The job of a writer is staged: creating then selling. That is, art then commerce. Stepping from one mode to the other involves a profound rearrangement, a state change, as I found out on US publication of my most recent novel, Hild (Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 2013).
To learn to create the kind of novel I aim for, to conjure another time and place with the authority to immerse a reader—to run my software on the readers’ hardware—took years of two different and contradictory practices: disciplined focus on craft, and a kind of unmoored wandering to find my voice.
Basic craft isn’t too hard: if you have the instincts, any competent teacher and/or editor can help you hone them.1 To reach a more expert level, though, requires personal study, and work, lots of work. The only way to learn a novelist’s craft is by doing. By doing over and over until it feels exactly right. There are no shortcuts. There might be times, yes, when we write on our own bow-wave, when we conjure a brilliant story or novel from thin air without much experience, but the trick is being able to do it again. And again. And to understand why something works, or why it doesn’t—and how to fix it. Eventually we understand our tools so well that we know immediately if an idea is worth trying to capture or not.
It’s expert-level craft that creates the conditions for immersive fiction: the ability to trigger a reader’s mirror neurons.2 When I immerse a reader, he lives inside a character for a while; he not only sees what my character sees but smells the rain-wet hair, hears the suck of mud under her horse’s hoof, and feels the catch in her mount’s gait. He thinks her thoughts, and learns her lessons; he dreams her dreams, just for a little while.
But all the craft on the planet won’t take the reader there unless the writer has been there first, unless the writer understands the character and her world so well it has become a kind of felt experience. Research isn’t enough. Research alone leads to regurgitated passages in novels so superficially digested that readers3 can see the bones of the original distorting the story. If they were immersed at all—a big if—that doesn’t last. True immersion requires far more than authority of researched detail; it demands a kind of in-dwelling. Writers must know their imaginary time, place, and people: the light, the smell, the texture. We must know it as lived experience, to understand muscles sore from warping the loom with wool we’ve spun and carded and dyed, sheared from sheep we’ve raised and bred, on hills we own.
The writer must find a still, quiet place4, one free of distraction. It’s only from that place, real or metaphorical, that she can dwell inside her creation, or wander to find her next.
The writer as artist is a kind of shaman: we explore unknown territory and bring back maps. There’s no training course and no useful certificate5; we have to find our own voice, our own path. And the path for every novelist—and every novel—is different. It is not signposted (because if it’s been visited many times before it’s not art but cliché, which is not our business here). We have to wander before we find the path, and then climb the path alone. Every new novel is a journey; every new journey a risk.
Writing Hild was the biggest risk as a novelist I’ve ever taken. For a variety of reasons it felt impossible6. In the end I had to simply begin: leap into the void in the hope that my words would catch me. They did, they always do, but the book wouldn’t be what it is without hurling myself into the unknown without distraction. In other words, writing a novel is a risk that demands a particular freedom: I can’t leap until I am untethered.
Adrienne Rich, in “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” wrote:
For a poem to coalesce…there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed, freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away… You have to be free to play… For writing is renaming.
To support writing, the process of creating the product for sale, a writer must feel unfettered. We can’t afford to be bound by what has gone before—even our own work. But to support the novel itself, the publication and sale of the product, a writer needs another skill set entirely.
Hild is a novel set in seventh-century Britain. It is not a fantasy; the eponymous main character lived fourteen hundred years ago; she was real. In my version of her life, she is not a lesbian. Yet the first review of the book begins, “LGBT scifi writer Nicola Griffith…”7 And another refers to “lesbian fantasy and crime writer Nicola Griffith.” In other words, what was being reviewed was not the book at hand, but me, the author, and my previous novels8. The book and I were being labeled Genre/Queer, branded as Other.9
Branded. It’s a brutal word for a brutal practice: a label burnt into the hide without permission. On a cow a brand marks an animal that belongs to a herd. Yet to create art the artist must be as free as possible from the herd mentality: neither belong to any group nor follow any but our own particular, often peculiar path.
So how do I counteract the influence others’ perception of Where I’ve been on Where I’m going? Is it even possible?
As a writer my ultimate consumer, my target audience if you like10, is the reader. Not immediately, of course. These days, generally speaking, when a writer finishes her first book, her initial audience is a potential agent. Once she’s found her agent, the agent helps her find an editor/publisher. The publisher then finds the right media editors/producers to help spread the word—but it’s not the writer’s job to go after them, it’s the publicist’s. The writer’s job is to go after readers.
But long before she can get to the readers, she will be asked—by one or all of those agents, editors, publicists—about the size of her platform: If she has a blog or radio show, how many unique visitors/listeners? If she’s on Twitter (and she’d better be on Twitter), how many followers does she have?
I’m lucky. I’ve been interacting with readers since the Ask Nicola11 feature of my first website nearly twenty years ago. I have four thousand Twitter followers (most of whom in turn have many followers). And I’ve had the same editor for my last three novels (though at different houses). No one needed to ask if I was comfortable and competent with social media. The publication of Hild, I thought, would not be hard or different.
In terms of communication, the primary job of a novelist is to talk to readers. This job begins and ends with the book. Given that readers are, essentially, consumers, and, according to Olin, “consumers crave ‘authenticity,'” if the novelist wants to speak to her readers outside the confines of her book using, say, social media, she needs to tell a story about herself on social media that matches the story she tells the publicists. The publicists in turn tell media producers a story about her/her novel that ideally matches the story she is telling his followers on social media.
You see where this is going?
Reputation and identity, Olin tells us, have similar meanings. Oh yes. In order to publish books we have to prove that we can sell books. To sell books we have to tell a story about them: we have to brand them. We have to build them an identity. We have to build ourselves a reputation. In so doing, we brand ourselves. That’s part of what hurts: it’s us who drive ourselves into the cattle chute, us who picks up the glowing iron, us who burn the label deep into our hide. We scar ourselves.
Carolyn Buck Luce, a partner at EY, which until 2013 was Ernst & Young (I’m guessing a brand consultant advised them to change), tells Sylvia Ann Hewlett in Executive Presence12:
You’ve got to have the vision and write the path. It’s your responsibility to figure out how to align your talents and gifts to the culture so that, long-term, you achieve your goals. When you are the curator of your authenticity, you can invest intentionally—and then it’s a win-win for you and your company. (Hewlett, Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success; HarperBusiness, New York, 2014)
Here she is talking about aligning with specific corporate cultures rather than art. Corporate culture likes to align itself with corporate values, which in turn support the corporate mission. In other words, people who work for a company are supposed to believe in what the company is trying to do, and the way that they do it. They may have a wonderful vision, fabulous talents, but if they don’t fit, they don’t belong and will eventually be unsuccessful.
Whatever other goals a corporation might hold, one thing it must always do, particularly if it is publicly held, is to make money. Much corporate money-making is about market share: fighting to take a bigger slice of the pie than rival corporations.
Publishers are corporations. It’s in their interest to sell as many books as possible. Art might be what lies between the covers of the book and its potential for speaking to those who read it, but it’s commerce that gets that book into the hands of readers.
Novelists are expected to get behind the book and push. I was prepared.
Hild’s publication took me by surprise. Buzz began much earlier and lasted much longer than I’d anticipated. I enjoyed it at first. Then I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable blowing my own horn, talking about myself and my book all the time: the notices and reviews, the honours and appearances, the interviews and photos. It didn’t fit my need to also move unnoticed through a crowd, to observe, to roam freely. I wanted to vanish back into creation mode.
However, a combination of unforeseeable factors13 meant I didn’t have much else to discuss that was relevant to my book, engaging, and uplifting enough to boost sales/my brand. So I talked grimly on.
A writer spends a lot of time on a high wire strung between art and commerce. Sometimes we lose our balance.
Writers are not corporations; it is not our job to fight to take bigger slices of the pie than other writers. Perhaps that’s what our publishers believe is our job but I disagree. Our job, as the artists, as creators, is to create art so delicious, so sustaining, that readers are hungry for more. Our job is to grow the pie.
In my late teens I read that Sarah Orne Jewett, a nineteenth-century American novelist, used to spend six months of the year isolated in the countryside, writing. Then she would come to town for months to be sociable, to mingle, support the book, drink her fill of people. Then back to the glorious freedom of unconnectedness and dreaming, wandering until she found the path, and climbing it. I have been longing for something similar ever since: to spend half the year free to think in seventh-century metaphors and dream in the poetry of Old English. I want time to wander into unmapped territory.
It will have to wait. Hild is just out in the UK and will soon be released in the US in paperback. I have planes to catch, interviews to give, blog posts to write and feeds to maintain. And in many ways I love it; I love talking to my readers. It’s why writing-as-product distracts me so much from writing-as-process. Creating, wandering those wild crags, is exhilarating, but it can be daunting, too. Being with the herd sometimes feels easier.
I have learnt a big lesson: make sure publication on both sides of the Atlantic is synchronous and seamless. Get all the sociable marketing and support done at the same time. And then come home, turn off WiFi, and let the phone battery die. Roam free.
To be followed by Branding: How I Do It, an explanation of how as a novelist I have branded myself—and been branded by others—and what can be learnt from my triumphs and mistakes.
1 Sadly, I suspect that the incompetent outnumber the competent.
2 A mirror neurone is a neurone that fires both when we act and when we see someone else perform the same act. Mirror neurones are found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex. The mirror neurone system is what helps us understand the actions and intentions of other people; to recreate others’ experience inside ourselves. Some argue it is the foundation of empathy.
3 Guilty. I could name the (unacknowledged) sources of more than one bestselling historical novelist.
4 It doesn’t have to be literally quiet—in an urban setting that’s sometimes asking the impossible—but it does have to be isolated in terms of other people for predictable periods. Without the app Freedom, for example, Hild would never have been written.
5 MFAs are useful for two things: being paid/supported while you practice your craft, and proving that you can teach others to get an MFA.
6 I talk about some of them here.
7 I’m still puzzled over my apparent multiplicity: I am lesbian and gay and bisexual and trans all at the same time…
8 None of which, by the way, is fantasy.
9 The further outside the perceived Norm—which in literary terms is straight, white, male, middle-class, and able-bodied—we as a writer live the more firmly we and our work are nailed to a category, expected to appeal only to readers who themselves belong to that category. I have a trinity of nails: a woman who writes about women who love women. To make matters worse, my protagonists tend to have agency—not always a popular stance with critics when they are used to equating Other with Victim.
10 I’m not sure I do. A target is something you hit. A brand is a deep mark, most usually a burn scar, applied to chattel.
11 Now a healthy blog.
12 Perhaps Hewlett would not characterise it this way but it seems like an executive-level self-help book on personal branding: how to build a reputation portable between corporate jobs.
13 My health, which essentially kept me pinned to a chair for six months. Details here if you’re interested—but be warned, it’s long.
First published in The Weeklings, 2014