Brand Is Not Evil: Learning to be our ‘authentic’ selves

I hear a lot of conversations on the blogosphere and in the Twitterverse about author brand. This is an ongoing dialogue and a topic that won’t go away anytime soon. Maybe in the post-apocalyptic world, we won’t be worried about things like “author brand.” We’ll be too busy pillaging for ammo and trying to take out as many zombies as we can with a single blast from a sawed-off shotgun. But alas, here we are, zombie-free—for now…

I’m currently taking a workshop with the talented and entertaining Kristen Lamb called “Blogging to Build Your Author Brand.” It’s meant to take the fear out of blogging and social media for writers. And you know what? It’s working. Workshop participants are opening up to each other, asking questions and sharing stories and advice. We’re making mistakes, learning, laughing, and creating, just as we do as writers. We’re not learning sales techniques or gimmicks. We’re just being who we are. What we’re learning is how to communicate that more naturally when using technology. We’re learning how to join the conversation.

At my day job, I work in public relations for a large research university. On a daily basis, I weave the university’s brand into my work. I rarely write marketing copy; I mainly write feature articles–narrative journalism. In short, I tell stories.

Now, wait. I know that brand for writers is different than brand for organizations. But at its core, it remains the same. The technique is different, but what brand is doesn’t really change. It changes its shape, but not its essence.

Take, for example, a university. It might have 10,000 students, 100,000 alumni, 1,000 faculty and staff members. It might have sports fans and donors and prospective students and parents of students. And you know what? All of those people have a story. They have a tie–for many of them, a very emotional one–to that school.  And those ties can be powerful things. So what’s a brand? A brand is the common thread that runs through those stories. A brand is the university’s strengths, what it has to offer, what people can expect of it, what it consistently delivers.

People tend to vilify brand or over-complicate it. We think brand is something corporations use to lure in buyers and stay in the black. And maybe sometimes brands are used that way. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only way–or, quite frankly, the right way–to use a brand. The best brands work because they are authentic.

I would argue that a brand is more than just a name + product. At the end of the day, Starbucks isn’t just about coffee, it’s about community. Yasmine Galenorn’s books aren’t just paranormal romance novels, they’re stories about healing, belonging, courage, and seeking meaning and connection in life. They’re about sisterhood and friendship as much as they’re about romantic love. And I love to read her blog because she seems so genuine. She comes off as a very open-minded and compassionate person, but also one who says exactly what’s on her mind.

There are lots of writers out there. But say you write paranormal romance. Well, there are lots of paranormal romance writers out there. So what can we expect of you? Who are you? What do you have to offer? Will you make me laugh? I had to stop reading Jeaniene Frost’s books at night because my laughter roused my husband from a sound sleep. Are you so red-hot we have to take an ice-cold shower after we read your books? Are your books sweet and uplifting? Will you make us cry and then put our hearts back together in the end?

Kait Nolan gave a commenter on her blog some great advice—advice that helped me too, because, while I work with brand for organizations at my day job, applying brand to myself as an author is a different ballgame. She said:

“YOU are the brand. No matter what you write, YOU and your name are the thing that needs branding. That’s what you have when you don’t have books out. You have YOU and the reputation and relationships you build. Which is really what social media is for. … What blogging and social media does is SELL YOU.”

(Check out Kait’s blog post about “Social media Ennui,” which spurred some really great conversations.)

Can we go from hermit crab to butterfly?

Since we’re writers, we are by nature thinkers. Many of us run the risk of over-thinking. Thanks to Kristen and Team WANA1011, I’m starting to come out of my hermit crab shell and be more of my authentic self. It’s impossible to connect and be yourself when you’re hiding away in your hermit crab cage.

Before we vilify brand, maybe we should think of it this way: At its best, brand is genuinely, authentically, and purely us. What draws us to the page? What do we love? What are we passionate about? If we write what we love, brand should come naturally.

No, you are not just a brand. You are a complicated person. We’re all complicated. But you have a brand, whether you realize it or not.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Am I right? Am I just another PR gal, full of crap? Did I drink the Kool Aid? Seriously, I want to know.

Are you there, Web? It’s me, Janelle.

Today, I’m blogging about social media for writers and my experiences so far, what’s gone well and what hasn’t. I’m hoping you’ll chime in and share your experiences, since we’re all at different stages in our careers.

See, my goals for 2011 are fairly straightforward: Besides finishing a complete, start-to-finish draft of my current WIP, I’m also working to build an online platform so I can talk reading and writing with people who share my passions. I don’t expect that this will magically happen by the end of the year. But I want to build a solid foundation.

I started out with LJ last fall and am pretty happy with how it’s going. My blog isn’t getting tons of hits, but I’m meeting really cool people and I’ve found a lot of other blogs that are helpful and enjoyable, so I’m pleased with my progress. I just started a professional Facebook account and am “patiently” tending to it. Later this year I hope to expand to Goodreads and Twitter. The first time I tried this, I started everything at once. Didn’t really go so well. Lesson learned: It’s a lot like juggling. You start out with a couple things and add incrementally as your skill grows.

I’ve found people and resources that have been especially helpful. Here are a few:

       1.) Crit partners: This one is an oldie for me, but a goodie. It’s not about social media per se, but social media can help you meet future critique partners. I’ve been critiquing since I started taking college creative writing classes when I was still in high school. (Yes, I’m a nerd. Please don’t give me a swirly.) When I got to graduate school, I met a group of wonderful people who were as passionate about writing as I was. A few of us lived in the same area, so we started meeting. That was way back in what, 2006? (Amelia and Kathleen, correct me if I’m wrong!) They’re dedicated, talented, and, not least of all, honest. They care about my work as much as their own, and they push me to take it to the next level. Every writer needs a fellow writer or two to critique her work and give honest, helpful criticism. Not nit-picky stuff or something that’s just plain mean. Having another writer read your work means that you’ll get feedback that a non-writer can’t provide. A non-writer can say, “I don’t like this scene,” or “It was hard to get into.” A writer knows the tools and lingo of the trade. They can say, “This character is inconsistent. You need to develop him more.” Or “These scenes don’t have enough conflict; they’re not moving the plot forward.” Or, “Heighten the tension.” And we need that if we want to grow in our writing. They also provide the kind of support only a fellow writer can provide.

       2.) Rachelle Gardner: One of my crit partners turned me on to Rachelle’s blog. Rachelle’s advice applies to any writer in any genre. She is honest about the hard work of writing but also inspirational.

       3.) Kristen Lamb: I read Kristen’s blog and make frequent use of her book We are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. I found her book first via an Amazon search. Kristen talks a lot about brand. Don’t cringe! Branding is not the evil corporate, soulless endeavor you’re thinking of. This is different. But that is another journal entry. She also gives commonsense advice about how to build your social media platform.

4.) Kait Nolan: Kait offers insight and honesty about writing and building a platform. She doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and she provides great, practical advice. She’s also an indie writer. It’s hard in the days of self-publishing to go indie. I don’t know why indie writers have it so much harder than those who go indie in any other art form, but that’s a blog entry for another day (seriously, coming soon). Until I read Kait’s blog, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as indie writers. All I knew about were the extra-speshul snowflakes who were certain every thought inside their noggin was per solid gold. But there are indie musicians, right? Of course—I’m friends with one of them, and she’s damned talented! (Rock on, Electrik Emily!) People like Kait are challenging perceptions and paving a new road. Whether you want to go indie or take the traditional publishing route, I’d encourage you to check her blog out.

        5.) Romance Writers of America: The national organization also has local and subgenre chapters that you can join. The dues are reasonable, the people are friendly, and the resources are great. There’s a monthly print magazine, but equally useful are the RWA e-Notes e-mails that include, among other things, links to articles about romance writing and the writing market in general. There are plenty of conferences, retreats, contests, e-mail loops, and online workshops to join or attend. It helps to know that, as Kristen says, we are not alone.

OK, so those are just a few. And I’m just starting out with blogging and social media in general, at least as far as my writing is concerned. I’d like to come up with a detailed plan, but growing a social media platform, like growing as a writer, takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

As Tiffany Trent said in a recent post of advice for writers, “Patience, Grasshopper.” Tiffany, what is this patience of which you speak? And where can I get some? I’ve always joked with my husband that patience is a virtue, just not one of mine. Well, this fire sign (seriously, Sagittarius with Aries rising. What were the stars thinking?) is growing. Yeah, it’s hard work. I’m OK with that. We’re writers, and we’re climbing uphill with boulders strapped to our backs. I think I’ll call it endurance training.

Social media isn’t just about building a platform. It’s about remembering that we’re not the only ones climbing the mountain. It’s about meeting people who can support you and whom you can support through each step. It’s about learning, about conversations, about friendship and personal growth. And you know what? I might just be picking up a dusting of patience along the way. But that’s still to be determined. 😛