On why I am not a brand
I’ve been struggling hugely lately. Familiar story, I guess, but I’ve got too preoccupied by distractions and one of the distractions is the plethora of information about how to be a writer. Stupidly, I have read dozens of articles (only some of them spoofs) about how to run your life as a writer, get a million book sales, write perfectly and build your writerly platform. It is inevitable that it has only increased my depressed mood and done nothing for either sales, skills or productivity. It had however given me the most massive boost of low self esteem, self-doubt and even self-loathing because I feel incapable of the majority of the changes apparently essential to my “career” as a writer. Indeed, after a while I have begun to think that perhaps I cannot write. It would seem that not only have I been doing all the peripheral things wrong (like my blog) but also I simply can’t write at all.
One of the earliest pieces of life advice I was ever given was by the landlady of a local pub who also worked as a bar-maid in the club run by my father. She wrote it in my autograph book when I was about nine, when autographs were a bit of a craze at school. It was simply this quote from Shakespeare: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day,Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
At nine, I had no clue what it meant but it has stayed with me.
At ten I began my first novel. My earliest books were what might now venture into the avenues of fan fiction, though I never used characters from books or TV, but rather the styles or subject matter of favourite authors like Agatha Christie and others. I wrote a number of mysteries, using the concept of a killer employing nursery rhymes as clues for some hapless detective. I have one or two still, taped up in a big cardboard box. I don’t think I will ever look at them but I can’t bear to destroy them. In my teens I wrote more “hard boiled” than “cosy” and when I got one of my teachers to read the latest one, it changed my direction though I didn’t know it at the time. Leaving aside the rest of the conversation, which encompassed the book, he told me this: “I don’t see you writing detective fiction for the rest of your life. You’ll move on to something that is quite different. But it’s up to you to find it.”
That incident was a pretty seminal one for me. It knocked me off balance and also off course. I stopped writing for a while. I stopped seeking to emulate the authors I’d enjoyed, the genres I’d been reading. The teacher (Mr O’Callaghan, for what that’s worth, as more than thirty years on, I suspect he has gone to his rest a long time ago) wanted me to read more, and read so widely that even now, while I do enjoy the odd thriller, there are few genres I will not explore even in passing. (I dislike romance, and erotica intensely, though). A degree in literature meant I read some amazing books and it brought me up short as an aspiring writer because with that much brilliance in the world already, what had I to offer, with my shabby and shoddy attempts at already over-subscribed genres?
On an unconscious level I think I began to move away from the rigid lines of established genres and when I began to write again as an adult, nothing has ever fitted neatly into a slot. The nearest has always been that catch-all of literary fiction, stories that don’t fit conveniently into a comfortable category and focus far more on character than they do on plot (as a general rule). But that has meant that in the days when I was trying to find a publisher or agent, it was an impossible task, and now as an independent author, literary fiction is pretty much up there among the hardest genres to sell.
This is where my rejection of being a brand comes in. I’m not selling a product; I’m selling something that has emerged from my creative unconscious. There is a kind of unspoken contract with the soul in this sort of case: you agree to accept and work with whatever comes out of the interior process, and should you start rejecting it as not being commercial enough, there is a real risk of the whole flow simply stopping. In theory I could still write a thriller, according to the market at the time. But I am convinced it might well be the last thing I write for a long, long time. My writing process has fragile wings and a vulnerable heart; I let things emerge, follow them and see where they go. I have little conscious control of where a story takes me. And that is me, a part of my journey into who I am created to be.
It means I change and shift and develop. If I were to obey the dictates that insist that I continue to write the same genre, the same sorts of stories, to give my covers instantly identifiable “look”, to seek the same reader-market, I would become paralysed. The voices in my head would cease. I’ve often thought that the very term branding is a painful sounding one; the brand it makes me think of is that burned into the hide of an animal bred for consumption, simply marking it as the property of one person. Such animals rarely have personal names and identities and they conform to precise specifications. I’m all for the quirky, non-conformist, hand-crafted and unique, where the stone rejected by the builders becomes the capstone. In some hard to define way, my stories are ME, and I am not a steer with initials burned into my bum. Like my stories, I have my themes and recurrent issues, but part of my journey is sharing those and while I suspect I may never sell millions, I may touch thousands of souls.