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“Value of Voice to Branding”
“That’s Charli Mills, the country western singer,” my friend announced to the young man behind the desk at the Iroquois Hotel. We were in NYC to present at a marketing communications conference. I don’t sing.
Yet the young man looked at my name, began to nod as if he recognized it and said, “I have your CD.” As we walked away my friend smiled broadly and said, “You have the best name for a country western singer ever, Charli Mills.”
And she would know. Not because she’s in the music industry but because my friend is one of the top brand marketers in the nation — a published author on the subject and a successful launcher of store and product brands. She understands the importance of details, consistency and, of course, perception.
Our joke is based on the perception of my name. When we first met 15 years ago, she later confessed to me that she went home to her husband and insisted that with a name like Charli Mills, I had to be a country western singer!
While I don’t sing, I do know the power of voice.
In Decoding the Writer’s Platform: Part II, we discussed branding and how my own brand evolved around my name into a persona of a buckaroo writer. My story is simple — I went from riding horses to writing stories. It’s a catchy way to introduce my bio that might otherwise read like every other writer’s bio (education, career, publication). It also gives me a playful tagline: “Wrangling words for people, roping stories for novels,” and creates a fun way to build a literary community on a “ranch.”
However, my brand also has a voice. It’s playful, welcoming, encouraging and positive. The heart of my writer’s voice is a reflection of my personal journey to write into my truth. I seek to observe, understand, explore and imagine. How I arrange my words, punctuation and vocabulary selection is the expression of my voice. My voice infuses the stories I choose to tell.
A writer’s voice is unique. Think of it as the ingredients and mix of your cupcake — it’s what develops your unique flavor. Voice is also part of your craft. If you make sloppy cupcakes (careless misspellings, lack of punctuation style, heedless of story structure) your branding will reflect how readers perceive you. Yet if you are too rigid and always follow the exact recipe for common cupcakes (essays, posts, stories) you will not create anything distinct.
As a writer, voice is more important than having a cool logo or a fun image.
Therefore, you need to know your craft, yet cultivate your own voice. If you understand that you abandon specific rules of commas you have choices: learn the rules, hire an editor or accept that it’s part of your style. Only you can decide which is best, but know that it impacts your readers.
Let’s pause a moment for an example of how craft choices shape voice. I just wrote, “know that it impacts your readers.” I did not write, “know that it effects your readers.” Because of word confusion, I learned to substitute. I rarely ever think of effect anymore; impact has become entrenched in my lexicon. And countless editors have accepted my word substitution. It’s part of my voice, and is based on my understanding of my own use of language.
To know your voice is to know yourself. You are your brand. See how this connects?
When it comes to your brand, branding and voice, you will read this consistent principle over and over:
Authenticity is key to opening the door to a rock solid writer’s platform. It’s cliche in the sense that it is a common truth. This is one cliche you need to adhere to as a writer no matter what your goals are. It’s a guiding principle to all relationships. At any given component in the writer’s platform, a lack of authenticity can make readers distrust who you are (branding), shut down (community), cast doubt upon what you write (credibility) and diminish your readership (audience).
Be who you are or build the credible persona of you as a writer.
The latter does not mean create a false identity (that’s not authentic). Just as a person creates a professional identity as a lawyer, teacher, dentist or dog groomer, so can you create a writer’s identity. This is for the writer who wants to maintain a measure of privacy. You would decide which attributes about yourself to share. You could generalize personal information — share that you live in the Pacific Northwest rather than Elmira, Idaho.
In order to connect with others (branding, community, credibility and audience), you need to reveal enough of your authentic self to be a real person. Think about your favorite author. The more you liked your favorite’s books, most likely, the more you wanted to know about this author as a person. Every book has an author’s bio for this reason.
Your level of intimacy with your readers becomes a part of your voice. Remember that because if you are distant with your personal details and all of the sudden you begin posting about your messy divorce, readers will react to the change as if you began yelling. However, some writers do yell! It’s part of some writers’ voices. Know yours and use it consistently to portray who you are.
If you want to be in control of your brand, be in control of your voice. Branding becomes a shared experience with other people you interact with and they will come to expect an authentic experience.
What does “used across all media mean”? It means that you set up all your public places with the same shingle. Back to cupcakes. If you want to distinguish your cupcake from others, have a brand that others will recognize as your cupcake. Think of your public social media, your website, your author’s page (in your book or on Amazon, Goodreads or indie distribution points), your press releases, your guest-post bios, your book-signing posters, etc. as your retail space. If you are selling your cupcake, make sure you are recognized across all forms of media. This includes your voice.
A well-known writer will have a recognizable voice.
Even masters can’t replicate another writer’s voice. Robert Jordan set out to write a 12-book series called the Wheel of Time. His untimely death occurred after he published Book 11. He was a masterful story-teller and a NY Times Best-seller many times over. He left behind notes and unfinished scenes for Book 12. His wife and editor hired another master and NY Times Best-seller, Brandon Sanderson, to complete the series. He actually turned Book 12 into a trilogy and he wrote to Robert Jordan’s readers:
“I cannot replace Robert Jordan. Nobody could write this book as well as he could have. That is a simple fact…I have not tried to imitate Mr. Jordan’s style. Instead, I’ve adapted my style to be appropriate to the Wheel of Time.”
Only a writer who knows his own voice could have accomplished what Brandon Sanderson did. He knew he could never copy Robert Jordan, but he could adapt. As a reader, Book 12 is noticeably different. However, the plot and characters continue and it’s a better alternative than to never knowing the end of a story that size!
Voice is an important consideration as you build your brand or apply your branding. Here are some useful questions to ask yourself as you examine your branding or build it:
- Do you have a writer’s bio?
- Do you consistently use your writer’s bio across all media?
- Where do you practice your voice?
- What is unique about your writing and can you describe it?
- How do others describe your writing voice?
While we are not yet to the application part of this series (which is marketing, or expanding your writer’s platform) it can be helpful to consider your current state of branding. It is, after all, the bedrock of your platform. Without an identity, how can you engage community, build credibility and attract audience?
Some writers are uncertain about naming a website or blog. Should it be your name? It can be. If all you want to do is build name recognition, use your name as you want it identified. My name is Annette Marie Mills. No kidding. My nicknames include Netsie, Nan and Charli. And I have a maiden name. Holy buckets, how did I ever pick a name from that jumble? I went with what I’m most comfortable with and I’ve consistently used one name, no initials, for over 15 years.
But you are reading this at CarrotRanch.com, not CharliMills.com. Carrot Ranch was originally my business name and it evolved into a literary community. My name is a landing page on this website, and I own this digital real estate so I can apply different tactics to use that page according to my own goals.
My second active blog is Elmira Pond Spotter. It is named not for an author or a business, but as a publication. That blog has no pages; it is strictly my place to practice my voice through creative non-fiction. It is my brand of story-telling. However, my personal photo is the same one used here, as my gravatar, on my FB page, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and for my writer’ headshot. Same with my bio. Carrot Ranch doesn’t reach across all my media, but is linked to all my media, including my email signature. That’s branding in action
If you have a website through WordPress, Weebly, Wix, Blogger or others, then you have valuable real estate that you own. Social media is like renting. You rent a spot for your brand on G+, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and more. You can’t control your branding there beyond consistently applying your brand.
However, you can control your own website or blog. You own that space. Use it to build your brand.
- Is it a place for you to communicate or share your writing? Then treat it like a publication and give it a title.
- Is it a place to attract clients for your freelancing on the side? Then name it like a business.
- Is it your author’s platform to attract an agent or readers to your book? Then give it your name.
Your website pages are where you build your branding based on your brand. You can set up a landing page for different purposes. You can establish categories for your blog posts. Or, you can set up pages to house different categories of writing. It is flexible and you own it. Shape your website around who you are as a writer and what your goals are.
Let your voice be heard. Let your voice be your branding spokesperson.
Basics are important. When I was advanced to a pre-algerbra class in 7th-grade, I missed crucial math basics that were taught that year in regular class. It wasn’t until I was 30-years-old that I would learn those missed basics. Suddenly math wasn’t so difficult. That’s why I’m breaking down the components of the platform so you can understand the basics and decide how to use each as a building block.
The purpose of this series is to teach other writers the marketing basics that form what a writer’s platform is and how to use it.
For twelve years, I was marketing communications manager for a natural foods cooperative in Minnesota. I built a national reputation as a brand manager: I built the co-op’s brand through communicating stories, wrote a brand case study for a marketing workbook, presented workshops on the topic and was the subject of numerous magazine articles. When I left, I freelanced over 30 articles on branding.
My personal brand evolved from my specialty; I was the Brand Buckaroo. It stuck in the minds of those I worked with, taught and networked among. I had fun with the buckaroo image, even though I was strict with our store’s branding. I created a western-themed “Branding 101” continuing education course for our workplace. Thus, staff nicknamed me, “The Sheriff.”
When I turned over the store brand to my predecessor, I kept my buckaroo image. After all, I truly was born into a buckaroo culture which shaped my natural inclination for story-telling, and I was headed west to write. I had to shape a new idea for my platform because I was identified with business and freelancing when I wanted to be identified with literary writing. Buckaroo writer and Carrot Ranch became my branding foundation.
My strongest writer’s platform component is branding. This is also an example of how your platform does not have to be like mine. I love branding, I understand it at a deep level and I use it strategically. It’s fine for you to have a simple brand that others experience. But you need to think about what it is.
As a writer, you are the brand; how others experience you and your writing is branding.
A brand creates physical, emotional and intellectual triggers in the mind of the reader. A writer’s brand is unique, identifiable and visual.
Your name, photos and even the symbols, fonts and colors that you use in your social media, marketing collateral and public relations all add up to your brand. Writers are like cupcakes: the outcome between cake, frosting and decoration is endless. Build your brand like a cupcake and be consistent thereafter.
You don’t change who you are once a month, so don’t change your brand after you’ve established it. Keep your brand as close to who you authentically are, what you write and what you publish. Be your own cupcake and maintain your personal recipe.
This doesn’t mean you can’t re-brand. Sometimes it takes a year or two to get a feel for who we are as a writer. Sometimes we begin with free templates or generic colors and fonts to set up our initial presence. As you evolve, so will your brand. Therefore, let your brand grow into something more definitive.
Take a vanilla-chai cupcake, for example. In the beginning, you put out a flavor that rocks the cupcake world. But your cupcake looks, well, overly vanilla. You spice up the look, give the decoration a flair and you’ve re-branded. But it is still the cupcake others have come to recognize and want. You are still the same writer.
What if you no longer want to be a vanilla-chai cupcake? Maybe you started out writing romances because that was the easiest way for you to earn money as a writer. Now you want to write epic political thrillers, definitely a jalapeno-dark-chocolate kind of cupcake. You are a different writer. Develop a new brand (that’s why some writers have multiple pen names, thus multiple brands). Keep in mind that managing multiple brands consistently is complicated.
Branding goes beyond the visual cues and becomes an experience.
Branding occurs the moment a reader takes a bite of your cupcake. You are not in complete control of your branding. No matter what you do, you can’t make every person like your cupcake. Maybe someone likes the idea of vanilla-chai and someone else thinks it looks too bland. Both may or may not like the taste. It’s perception. And you can’t waste your time trying to change the perception of another. Focus on those who connect to your brand.
Your branding is based on how others experience your:
- Image of who you are as a writer
- Quality and style of your writing
- Level of professional manners
- Emotional, intellectual or physical connection with your readers
Branding is how others experience the visual cues of who you are as a writer. The quality and style of your writing adds to that image. How you treat others on your blog, their blog, Amazon reviews, at book signings, in the media or in correspondence to publishers is a measure of your professionalism. Think of this as manners or customer service. All this leads to connectivity with others, or not.
If your branding isn’t connecting with others, go back to the most basic element of who you are as a writer.
Be authentically who you are: that writer who likes ballet, lyrical sentences and collects Victorian dolls. Or that writer who wiggles at the sound of a race car revving an engine, collects all things Coke-a-Cola and writes terse dystopian YA. Don’t be pictures of your iguana or sprinkle your website with cartoon butterflies if you write modern spy novels, unless you can tie it to who you are as a writer in a way that others would understand.
Think about your own attributes, interests and strengths. Think about personal relationships.
- What do you connect with about yourself?
- Why do you write?
- Who do you connect with as a kindred spirit?
- How do others perceive you?
- Ask a friend or family member to be a mirror of you at your best.
Think about longevity. Will your branding work in the future? My buckaroo brand has been with me throughout my career. It evolved from marketer to writer, and is something I can imagine in the future. I can visualize myself at 92, wearing my buckaroo hat and turquoise boots to a book signing. That I arrived by walker or horse doesn’t matter. That my book is a western, eco-thriller or chick-lit doesn’t matter, either. The buckaroo is me, not my books. My branding is built around my ability to tell stories and make emotional connections: Wrangling words for people, roping stories for novels.
Let’s examine some existing brands so you can get a feel for branding and how it works for a writer’s platform.
Norah Roberts. Her official website is clean, professional and has a romantic flair without being over-the-top. Her picture is fun and you can almost imagine her as one of her jet-setting characters. Even her husband fits the brand of a handsome spouse to the world’s top romance writer. The colors are modern and not gender specific (no obvious pinks or frills). Go to her blog and you might be surprised to find it plain and simple. She’s approachable, enjoys fun times among girlfriends, uses party-left-overs to make a vat of chicken soup and has the same complaints as others on the east coast about the long winter. Her branding is engaging and despite her opulent life, she connects with her readers by being her authentic self. Note: go to her J.D. Robb page and see how different the branding is there.
Clive Cussler. Actually, his website is under a re-brand, which is good because the design looks dated. It is heavily focused on his many books, but note that a photo of him dominates over the bookselling. Clive Cussler is the brand. He makes a surprising statement: “I have never considered myself as much a writer as an entertainer.” His branding is that he is the grandmaster of adventure. He’s lived a life worthy of fictionalized tales in adventurous novels. He is not as approachable as Norah Roberts, but he welcomes readers to his website and feels present. He does not blog. All his books are housed on this one platform.
Wine Wankers. This is blog is one of the best blogging success stories from branding to community to credibility to audience. Conrad (one of the wankers team) was among the first to follow my blog. I thought he was a nutcase. His picture made me think that this was some creepy dude that I would not want to follow anywhere, but I do look at other bloggers’ sites when they follow me. I laughed when I got to the site and read, “Smile 🙂 You’re at the best wine blog ever!” Why does this creepy picture work? First of all, it actually represents the three-man team with a knack for branding humor. The other part of their branding is an authentic enjoyment of wine beyond the pretense of the industry. It’s a wine blog for the common person who happens to love wine. They are Australian, thus they focus on their region. From their branding and community they built up credibility and the site is among the most influential on the internet. And you bet that equates to a large audience.
Here’s a chart of branding specifics that you can use to define who you are as a writer to others:
Tell me about your branding in the comments. Do you feel it is an important component of your platform? Why or why not?
“The 4 Building Blocks of a Writer’s Platform”
You will find a surplus of media discussing the writer’s platform. It’s a writer’s visibility and what a writer uses to sell books. It stands in the balance between craft and creation.
Mostly, articles on the topic agree, but each article offers different examples of building blocks. It can seem overwhelming. You might look at all the gathered lists and think, “I have to do all that?”
First, understand two points of differentiation:
- You build a writer’s platform.
- You use your platform to sell books.
Often articles about platforms mesh these two points, combining building with application. Yet, if you were to build a boat, you wouldn’t include steps in your blueprint that described how to sail it. Sailing the boat is different.
What can get confusing with platform building is that we continue to build after we’ve set sail. Think of these two aspects (building and application) as separate systems that work together in harmony with our writing craft.
As you can see in the graphic, a platform is a two-cog accompaniment to the big gear of writing. This series will examine what a writer’s platform is and define it’s components clearly before getting to the system of application.
A writer’s platform is characterized by four building blocks:
All those ways to build platform listed in most articles can be placed in one of these four categories. It might bring relief to know that you have four blocks with which to build. It also might encourage you to know that different writers can focus successfully on different block configurations or thickness.
Writers don’t need to conform to one platform fits all.
A tactic is a means to an end. In marketing, a tactic is the action to accomplish a goal. When you read articles that list ways to build platform, you can categorize the tactics before deciding if it is one for you. Use the ones that fit your goals.
Not all writers write for the same reasons or expect the same outcomes.
For example, the following is from a Writer’s Digest blog article about building a writer’s platform:
- A website and/or blog with a large readership
- An e-newsletter and/or mailing list with a large number of subscribers/recipients
- Article/column writing (or correspondent involvement) for the media—preferably for larger outlets and outlets within the writer’s specialty
- Guest contributions to successful websites, blogs, and periodical
- A track record of strong past book sales
- Individuals of influence that you know—personal contacts (organizational, media, celebrity, relatives) who can help you market at no cost to yourself, whether through blurbs, promotion, or other means
- Public speaking appearances—the bigger, the better
- An impressive social media presence (Twitter, Facebook, and the like)
- Membership in organizations that support the successes of their own
- Recurring media appearances and interviews—in print, on the radio, on TV, or online
All ten tactics are valid and from an expert, Chuck Sambuchino, who wrote an entire book on the topic. However, I don’t know about you, but when I read this I feel doomed to fail already. Public speaking appearances? A track record? Impressive?
Let me break down the list for you and then you’ll understand why it’s intimidating. Numbers 1 and 2 are audience. Numbers 3-10 are credibility. No one starts out an expert, yet this list reflects that level of expertise.
If you are an aspiring, new or emerging author it can be discouraging to believe this is what you have to do to build a platform. You start with what materials you have and you build up.
You don’t get to the master level without a platform.
This is why it’s important to understand that all those articles list tactics that you can categorize. Some articles confuse audience with community or brand with credibility. It’s important to recognize the difference and be able to pick and choose tactics according to your purpose.
From a marketing perspective, a successful writer’s platform is like a staircase building up from the bottom:
First you establish your brand because the platform is about who you are as a writer. This is your platform, not your cat’s. You build community, credibility and eventually that ever-so-important audience. This would be a strategy for building your platform.
In truth, our efforts probably look more like a game of Tetris:
And, we might focus more on building with one block category over the other. That’s fine as long as you understand that different tactics achieve different results. Once you get building, you’ll also notice that certain tactics overlap others.
Be sure to give thought to each building block in your platform.
Over the next four weeks, I will focus on each category. I am also looking for volunteers to use as case studies. The benefit to you is that I will help you understand your own platform building efforts. If you are interested, please shoot me an email at email@example.com.
It’s no mystery that if you are going to be a writer who wants to be read you will need to establish a writer’s platform. In fact, a platform is a vital component to getting published. Literary agents, publishers and even indie or hybrid outlets will most likely expect you to have one established.
Craft is what you write whether you compose graphic novels, memoirs, poetry, genre fiction or academic literature. The end product in print or online is your creation. Platform stands in the balance between craft and creation:
With my first manuscript up for sale, I’ve given much thought to my own writer’s platform. Because I have a background in marketing communications, I have an understanding about basic marketing principles.
A platform launches one’s writing the way a rocket platform launches a space shuttle.
Despite the abundance of media on the subject of platform, I still felt that some areas were nebulous. How can my platform be a shining star for my career if its obscured in space fog? I need to clarify just what my platform is and how it can be effective to my goals.
And let’s pause and consider career and goals for a moment. The reason platforms are different is because different writers have different goals; different publishers have different expectations; thus different platform serve different roles. As you read, consider where you are at on the writing career spectrum:
There’s no right or wrong to why you write. It might satisfy your need to express and you enjoy creating word art among other word artists. You might have a compelling story to share. Maybe you’ve harbored a dream to be published one day. You might even decide that an income-generating career from written communication is one to pursue.
Be clear and know why you write. It matters to your platform.
March 28-29, 2015 I attended the LA BinderCon, “a symposium to empower women and gender non‑conforming writers with tools, connections, and strategies to advance their careers.” I was a scholarship recipient and expressed my need to better understand where I was in my writing career. I built a social media platform, a literary community and have a publishable manuscript. What next?
My biggest light-bulb burning moment clicked when I recognized certain repeated themes, community being one. I also asked questions, listened and came home with gaps in my knowledge filled. I was inspired to return to my personal essay roots after believing that outlet was long dead. I better understand how the markets have shifted, not declined.
Richard Bach once said, “We teach best what we most need to learn.” With that thought in mind, the best way for me to assimilate all the knowledge and information I gained in LA at BinderCon is to break it down into a series of posts. After much consideration, I see that decoding the writer’s platform is essential to my success and most likely to yours.
In fact, many in my community are deliberating issues stemming from platform building. Some mention the workload and others question its effectiveness. Norah Colvin wrote recently about Making Choices. Yes, we do. And I hope I can share timely and practical insights so that you can feel confident and good about the choices you need to make regarding your writer’s platform.
Therefore, I’ll combine what I gained with what I know about marketing in a series, Decoding the Writer’s Platform. Here is what I’ve outlined:
- The 4 Building Blocks of a Writer’s Platform
- Building Block 1: Branding
- Building Block 2: Community
- Building Block 3: Credability
- Building Block 4: Audience
- What You Do with Your Platform
- Time Management & Effectiveness
- Keeping Craft Creative
- Why Community Matters
- Platform Tips From the Stars
As this develops, I welcome comments to foster discussion of this topic. Examples of what you’ve learned, stories of success and questions will help us all as we decode the foundation of our careers as writers, whether we write for fun, business or realms in between.