Copyright © 2013 John Klawitter
In Creative Writing 101, they teach you to find your voice, and, while that is true on so many levels, the meaning tends to thin and drift off like morning fog over the rifle range at Fort Ord, when it should be settling in like a bullet to the center of your writerly awareness.
Not knowing who you are, or worse, selling yourself as somebody else, can be the death of a writer. There are a few tricks to help you avoid this: First—and simplest—is to live your life in such a way that every day is an adventure, an amazement. I suspect sheer wonder is what keeps Stephen Hawking alive in the prison of that pain-wracked and withered body of his. Surely, none of us should belittle the power of wonder. I think, therefore I am…how utterly amazing! Then too, it helps to feel gratitude for the lessons learned, whether you agree with them or not. Whether it’s the heart rattling escape from the pervert stranger who wanted to give the young you a ride home from school, the vile, drunken dad who beat your sister, or the bullet that missed your right ear by inches on a street in Saigon… Life lessons, maybe we could call them.
Okay, but we’re supposed to be talking about marketing here, and this sounds a lot like writing true to the bone. Well, yes and no, or rather, yes and yes. You see, the same principles that provide your writing with the richness and clarity that make it uniquely your own also apply to presenting yourself in the marketplace…to readers, to agents, to personal managers, to publishers and editors—to everybody who matters in your professional life. Here’s the defining notion that should settle all else in place for you: Successful novels depend on the author’s image nearly as much as the work itself. We could talk the obvious, of Hemingway and Jack London and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but let’s talk about you and me and the particular problems we face in a brave new publishing world glittering with possibility and cluttered with competition.
Now, am I actually demanding that home-bound writers get the hell out in the so-called real world or they won’t be valid? No, quite the opposite. They already live in the real world. I’m saying that writers with middle management or small town or regional flavor experience will enjoy a particular sharpness when they present a story from the point-of-view of a housewife or a mail carrier or a middle manager at a farm implement store—in situations they know well from real life, the things that have cut them personally to the bone. Consider the to-the-bone honesty of the character of Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County. Robert, her inciting antagonist/love interest, is an interesting guy, but that story would be nothing without her life experience, her hopes and dreams, and her sacrifice for her family. Here’s what Wikipedia says of Robert Waller: “Robert James Waller (b. August 1, 1939, Rockford, Iowa) is an American author also known for his work as a writer, photographer and musician.” Hmm, that particular apple didn’t fall far from the tree, did it? Obit and local sports writers, wedding snappers and family portrait preservers, and guitar and banjo players are a dime a dozen. Yet here we have Waller, turning out a gem.
But, again, do I really stray from marketing into the art of writing? Maybe, a little bit. And yet, I’d like you to consider Robert B. Parker’s photograph on the back of every Spenser novel that he ever wrote—the dark leather jacket, the jeans, the hunting dog, the thousand-mile stare into your soul. That’s Spencer all right, and his dog Pearl. Parker is living Spenser. Or find an old Louis L’Amour novel, thumb to the paragraph after the story where he tells how he’s personally walked or ridden horseback on these trails, sipped from those streams, sweated across those deserts. It is a powerful selling tool to present yourself as yourself.
Okay, all that, but what about me? At writer’s conventions and such I’m sometimes told, Yeah, it’s easy to say that, with your credits. The truth is, I nearly did get my ass shot off on Le Loi Street in downtown Saigon. And I have bummed around extensively in the ad biz and show biz. But I’m leaning into my own particular stiff and chilly wind; you see, I have wonderful, interesting life experiences, but so do tons of other keyboard pounders, heavily credentialed souls who scribble about film production and ad campaigns, and, incidentally, get one’s ass nearly shot off. I think I know who I am: A guy who gave up a graduate fellowship in English at a major university to go see a war as had his boyhood heroes Hemingway, Crane and maybe early Mailer. A guy who has been a copywriter, lyric song writer, screenplay writer, Creative Director, documentary maker, film and video maker, producer, director, studio executive, freelance creative service, head of a multi-million dollar production company, head of a creative team at a major studio…ho hum, just like a hundred other guys with even better credits! And yet, that’s the life experience I’m trapped in. I damn well better see the wonder, or I’m just another dead writer scribbling, or however that goes. I know that when readers are thumbing through Amazon.com, it does help to know that Hollywood Havoc and The Heart of Desire are actually written by a guy who has gotten drunk in the Chez Renez whorehouse in Da Cau and been in a screaming match with the head of Disney.
And how is that any different from Robert Waller, living in Iowa, or you living where and how you do? Know your heart and then write from it, and then share with your prospective readership the things that make you uniquely you. If you tell it, they will come.