Adventures with Words, Newsletter 15, March 2024

Adventures with Words, Newsletter 15, March 2024

Hello, this is being written in late February, but Feb being a short king, it will likely be March before this newsletter goes out. And that’s alright because March is my favorite month. Of all the days in the month of March, the 14th is my favorite. Not just because it’s Pi(e) Day – which is awesome all on its own – and not just because it’s Albert Einstein’s birthday – but because it’s also my birthday. And this year my birthday number is 60 which doesn’t seem possible. I mean, I was just 30 something a little while ago, right?

Let’s just dive into what’s on my mind lately…. 

Branding, or Creating a Version of Yourself that is Marketable

If you’ve spent any time in online writer-space, or any kind of creator-space, you’ve heard lots of smart people talking about the importance of branding.  No, not the permanent scars created by hot metal, rather the branding that helps you sell yourself and your art. As a ‘creative’ who someday wants people to enjoy what I create, the predominant wisdom is that I need to create a brand, which is to say a carefully selected and curated portion of who I am and what I create that can be communicated easily in an image, short post, etc. We see it all over. Whether it’s gardening, home cooking or some other activity being presented, the person doing the presenting has chosen an approach that is recognizable from the thumbnail of the video. Maybe they always shoot in a specific location, or they wear a special hat, or something of that sort.

My struggle with all this is both in constructing my brand and in doing the work to promote myself using it. What is a version of me that I can market? And do I want to?  And how much time am I willing to spend on this effort?  I keep coming back to the same answer – ‘I don’t wanna’.  I want to write, to create. When I’m not doing that, I want to enjoy cooking, spending time with my family, gardening, reading – the good things in life. 

Mega-creative Charlie Jane Anders, in a recent issue of her newsletter, Happy Dancing, expressed some of what I’ve been feeling:

I've always hated the idea of turning a human being into a brand, for much the same reasons that I hate the concept of careers: it's gross, people aren't commodities, we all need to be free to contain multitudes and to occasionally flake out. I'm not my creative work, and my creative work is not me. Plus creating a personal "brand" inevitably turns into questions of "authenticity" which are fraught as hell for a lot of marginalized people — and being "authentic" online can easily mean presenting a version of your marginalizations that "mainstream" (read: privileged) audiences will find interesting and entertaining.

So why sweat it? Why not just let it go? Because even the big traditional publishing houses expect authors to put effort into marketing their work. Because unless you are a BIG NAME in publishing, they aren’t devoting much money trying to sell your books. 

I follow numerous writers, agents and other folks in the lit industry on social media, many of whom have done all of this very well. They have a presence, a style, a method. Looking at those examples makes me tired, honestly. I don’t want to have to learn how to edit videos or create charming little Canva images on a regular basis. I’ve got a full time job, I’ve got family and a bunch of other things along with the work of writing. 

And what would my brand be, anyway? What narrow yet authentic slice of me that is promotable?  Dad-core trans guy who cooks and gardens and loves his cats? Socially-adept introvert who needs frequent battery-charging interludes? Nerdy semi-obsessive who loves pie? I have eclectic interests and narrowing down to just a few for the sake of marketing clarity would be difficult and artificial. Do I want to live my life as an extension of my marketing plan? As Charlie Jane notes in the quote above, we contain multitudes. Am I being real and authentic if I only share my cooking adventures and cuddle time with my cats, but exclude the queer anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-mainstream political rants? Do my democratic socialist, queer, trans anti-white supremacist political beliefs create an unwanted distraction from my creative work? 

And ugh, the whole concept of ‘Authentic’ has become one of those terms that no longer means what it used to mean now that it’s a marketing term. A word that becomes a marketing term has a limited shelf life as anything meaningful, it’s as full of juice as a thoroughly chewed piece of gum. For other examples, I present artisanal, gluten-free, organic. 

All that is to say, I don’t know what the hell to do about this branding thing. I am planning for a future when I have an agent and that agent sells my book(s) to publishers. Those publishers will expect some kind of marketing from me. And even if I hire someone to help with that effort, I’ve still got to buy into some kind of image, a brand, that is bundled up with my creative work in order to generate sales. 

Again, ugh. 

And that’s not even considering where to build the brand. Social media is an ever shifting landscape of platforms and popularity. I’ve hopped from platform to platform like Mario, trying to find the place with the right ratio of community vs. control, and I don’t think that exercise will ever end. Over and over, a space that offers community, mutual support and positive vibes degenerates into a cesspool of the lowest common denominator once the platform is successful enough to attract big money. When money becomes the goal, community becomes the product and the rot sets in. Boing! Time to hop to another platform. 

Yes, it’s as disheartening as it sounds. Nothing happens without the hustle. And the hustle is endless. For the time being, you are reading the primary delivery vehicle of my marketing. So if you know of others who will want to stay up to date on what I’m doing and what’s going on with my book, please invite them to subscribe as well.

What’s going on with the Elephant Ears?

None of that matters unless I have something to market. In the last issue, I whined a bit about having to do big rework on my first fifty pages and then conceded that it was getting better in the process. I am now working on section 2, which is about 40 pages. As I did with the first fifty, I’m going from top to bottom, tweaking and aligning, doing the necessary revisions, edits, getting out the tape and spackle, doing the finish carpentry. I’m still learning things about my characters and the story and that’s the fun part. I mean, it’s all fun, though I do have to stop at some point and call it good.

The goal is to query agents at the end of April – 2 months away. Besides having the partial and full manuscript ready to send to interested agents, I need a query letter (that I can customize as needed), synopsis and a list of agents I want to work with. The good news is, I’m working at a good pace and believe I can make that goal.

What I’m reading

I’m reading the second book in a YA mystery trilogy, Good Girl, Bad Blood. The first book, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, was so much fun, I bought the boxed-set trilogy by Holly Jackson. I got them to read and also dissect.  The protagonist is similar to the one in my book and they both decide to go with their guts rather than settling for the narratives proposed by police. I love the way the characters are so individual. Jackson put so much detail into character voice, quirks, habits,style – there’s a lot to admire. 

I finished Dinners with Ruth by Nina Totenberg recently. Nonfiction writing by a good journalist is a treat. The book takes us along as Totenberg develops into the NPR powerhouse she is now and how her life was intertwined with that of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  This is a memoir and a history of the world of journalism, law and gender politics from the 60s to now. I did cry when RBG died and again when I read about it in the book. There’s your content warning.

Another nonfiction recent read was Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. It’s a hard read, ya’ll. Nothing surprising – our justice system has a history of inequality due to race and class, the prison industrial complex uses slave labor, and once you’re in prison on death row, it’s really hard to leave. Stevenson tells many stories about his work as a lawyer trying to bring justice to inmates on death row and incarcerated children. It’s inspiring and sobering and doesn’t always deliver a feel-good ending, because that’s reality.

Last up this month is a decidedly fiction offering by Lee Mandelo, Feed Them Silence.  Mandelo’s writing is thick and tasty, full of unusual and unexpected situations. In this book, a scientist and a wolf are linked by neural nets and what could possibly go wrong with that? I wouldn’t call this a feel good novella, just one really well written and very thought provoking. Crunchy. 

That’s it for now. Remember to eat pie on the 14th and if you’re in Olympia on March 9th after 6 pm, stop at Northwest Beerwerks to help me celebrate my upcoming transition into the possibility of even more age-related discounts I don’t use.

Have a great month!

Making Contact

Here’s where you can find me online:

  • – my blog
  • @CKCombs_author – Instagram, BlueSky, and Threads 

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