A hot topic in Renaissance/early modern studies a couple of decades ago (and still a lynch pin of Shakespeare criticism and the like) was the idea that with the transition from feudalism to early capitalism people started to view themselves less as constant objects formed by the divine and the accident of their birth (rank etc.) and more as malleable material which they could themselves transpose into something new. They could, with a little money, throw off their peasant heritage and become merchants or landowners. They could learn the sophisticated ways of the court and buy its trappings in the form of clothes, education, and those skills considered essential to aristocratic life. Selfhood was suddenly in flux, something the individual could—with a bit of luck and good judgment—fashion for him or herself. People could make and remake themselves from scratch.
Fashioning is a good word for it, because it suggests how dependent such shifts were on popular consent, on trends, and even on fashion in the sense, simply, of clothes.
But I’m not here to offer an essay in literary history. I’m thinking about this as a model for the way writers see themselves.
When we write a book, we imagine our story, our readership and we adapt ourselves to fit the appropriate model. If we don’t, in all likelihood, our book fails. If we get it right and the book succeeds, we build an identity bound to the idea that we are authors of a particular kind of book. Success breeds a desire for more of the same (or at least in the same vein) and before we know it, if we’re lucky, we have what marketing people call a ‘brand’: a strong, and generically specific association that readers link to our names.
I began my writing career (like Faith) as a thriller writer, something I am being reminded of forcefully today since I am at Thrillerfest in New York. When I started writing fantasy—and again when I started writing YA—I had to reinvent myself a la David Bowie (only without the make up) or Madonna (only without the… well, everything, really).
This kind of self re-fashioning is particularly important if your previous career has stalled. Now, you need to convince the publishing world that you can completely transform yourself and offer a wholly new kind of story in conception and execution. If you merely tweak the old formula, it looks like More Of The Same, and if you don’t have the sales record to back it up, that will make pubishers look askance when you try to sell your new work.
This is a hard truth about publishing which we’ve touched on before at MW but it bears repeating. If your last book was considered a failure, you should probably consider doing something completely different for your next one. Even successful series grow tired in time. I was talking yesterday to an author who has done almost 10 books in the same series, and while the first few were extremely successful and the last ones were critically better received than the first, the sales numbers have dwindled as tastes have changed. His publisher now wants him to come up with an entirely new approach: a refreshing of his brand. He is paralysed and demoralised by facing such a shift in direction, and feels (understandably) that it amounts to a rejection of all his previous work.
Publishing remains an industry in turmoil where everyone seems to chase whatever bandwagon seems to inexplicably dominate the market (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?). In such a climate, writers have to be conceptually nimble, not just in the way they conceive of their stories but in how they imagine themselves.
So here’s today’s challenge. Imagine your current WIP is published but fails to really take off. Your agent calls: You need to do something totally different. You need to rethink your brand. So, what will it be?
I’m not asking you to pitch actual stories, just to consider what area you might consider moving into which is different from what you are currently doing. How might you refashion yourself?