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Decoding the Writer’s Platform: Part III

“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.

What Informs Your Voice

What Informs Your Voice by Charli Mills 2015

 

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 KeyAuthenticity 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.

Consistency of Application

Consistency of Application by Charli Mills 2015

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:

  1. Do you have a writer’s bio?
  2. Do you consistently use your writer’s bio across all media?
  3. Where do you practice your voice?
  4. What is unique about your writing and can you describe it?
  5. 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.

  1. Is it a place for you to communicate or share your writing? Then treat it like a publication and give it a title.
  2. Is it a place to attract clients for your freelancing on the side? Then name it like a business.
  3. 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.

August 6: Flash Fiction Challenge

Carrot Ranch Flash FictionSwirling somewhere in the cosmos is a horse I once rode. A nameless palomino, or maybe he was brutishly large and black. I can’t remember. But I remember how I accessed the other world–

Running clockwise round and round the coffee table my father built of oak slabs, I galloped on bare feet to the 8-track by Johnny Horton.  As he sang, “In 1814 we took a little trip; Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip’…” I took a little trip of my own, transported. No longer on feet, I was now blazing through places on the back of my steed. I ran along the Mighty Mississip’ and hopped up the mountains, north to Alaska and even sunk the Bismark to the bottom of the sea. How that 8-track of battle tunes by a cowboy troubadour filled my young imagination in the late 1960s!

As an adult, I have some empathy for the family that raised me. I was always embarrassing them with my imaginative ways. While I don’t remember, the adults told me I once carried around an imaginary frog in my hand that I chattered to non-stop until one patriarch had enough of that nonsense, swiped the invisible frog away, threw it on the ground and stomped it to death. I bawled for three days.

I was a girl and supposed to like dolls (which I did, but my Barbies chased outlaws on horses and were war heroes in their Kleenex box battleship). You might say that Johnny Horton led me to the adventures my imagination sought. I didn’t outgrow the table-transformer for a while, mostly because I don’t think my parents actually knew what what going on, that while my little legs still ran in circles, I was actually somewhere else. Perhaps after the frog incident I learned not to show off the things I brought back from that world.

But I did reveal to others the secret of the table. It was 3rd grade and I informed  the girls next door that if we all ran fast around the coffee table to the Good, the Bad, the Ugly 8-track we could enter a cave that led out to this place where there were covered wagons and horses. My music was becoming more sophisticated, more intense yet still distinctly western. Somehow, the Beatles never worked. Not only did they ride with me, but we rode away from the table and out the door. The world was the other world and we played hard in it.

Before I start feeling to sheepish for bringing up my “wild imagination,” as it was called, I want to honor it with three real gifts it gave me:

  1. I can imagine anything. This is a terrific tool for problem-solving because I can access my brain to try different solutions and outcomes. When developing a story with characters and dialog, I can easily imagine voices that aren’t my own. Maybe I can still channel my inner-frog.
  2. History connects me. I can look at a place and imagine others there long before me. Each piece of broken purple glass, abandoned schoolhouse or obscure record of postmasters from 1880 has meaning. It often helps me understand the world today. Perhaps this is the gift from Johnny Horton who found music in history, too.
  3. I can be transformed. It’s easy for me to feel music, to climb inside a good book and go places I’ve never been to before. In transformation, I develop understanding of different cultures and empathize with human plights outside my own experiences. I feel less contained in one space, free and joyful.

So what got me thinking about my imagination? Well, one of our Rough Writers, Geoff Le Pard, said this last week in his post, That’s cracking, Grommit:

“I love the idea that we are so close to something else, within a  paper of another world, close enough to sense it but not experience it. Multiverses. It’s an area, ripe to explore in fiction.”

The phrase, within a paper of another world, made me think of those wild rides I used to take around the coffee table, how the world became so real for a time and then it slipped away like the closing of a book. Yet hints of it still linger, which is one reason I write fiction. I get to visit another place, time and possibilities.

Whether or not multiverses exist or that it’s an argument for the philosophers and not the scientists is debatable. But I agree that it’s ripe for fictional explorations. Today we are going to explore multiverses in fiction. As writers we can experience it in our imaginations.

Since this is a deep subject and possibly even a new concept to some, let me explain a few possibilities for fiction regarding a multiverse which is essentially an alternate or parallel world. And for those who are keen on the subject, bear with my meager understanding. Here are some ideas:

  1. Time travel, back in time or into the future. It can be ancient, or yesterday.
  2. Another dimension which a character can access beyond his own. A world that exists to his simultaneously.
  3. Space travel that enters wormholes and emerges elsewhere.
  4. A child in a living room accessing the North Pol.
  5. An event that already occurred but is now re-animated on the front lawn.
  6. A character discussing the theory, or using it to explain historical events or predict the future.
  7. A character debunking the theory.
  8. Describing a familiar scene or event told as a parallel universe.
  9. Two separate characters from separate worlds colliding.
  10. An unseen world like an army of pickles living in the frig.

One of my favorite authors is Robert Jordan who penned the fantastical epic series, The Wheel of Time. He was a history buff, served three tours of duty in Vietnam and taught himself to read, starting with classics. He employed multiverses to the utmost: a wheel of time that repeats its ages and people; dimension-bending characters; a protagonist that exist in someone else’s head. To read it is a grand ride around the coffee table.

Do you have a favorite book that employs multiverses? Here’s a list if you are interested in exploring beyond a single universe: List of fiction employing parallel universes.

August 6, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) craft a multiverse situation, setting or character(s). Write about another world, intersecting worlds or the people who populate them. Do you go back in time? Forward? Sideways? Is your story a discussion over the reality of multiverses? Tap the keys and see where your imagination leads you. Respond by noon (PST) Tuesday, August 12 to be included in the compilation.

Naming Wild Bill

Hickok awoke to distant drumming. Since his release in matters concerning the shooting of Cob McCanless, he’d joined the Union Army as a civilian scout. Alone in the muggy backwoods of southern Missouri this nightly interruption continued. Soon the child on horseback would gallop past. A girl with auburn hair like his, wearing strange clothes the color of southwest turquoise. Each night she grew older until she drew up her horse above his bedroll, fully grown. She leveled a queer black gun at him, saying “Wild Bill, you shot my kin!”

No one had ever called him that before.

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Rules of Play:

  1. New Flash Fiction challenge issued at Carrot Ranch each Wednesday by noon (PST).
  2. Response is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
  3. Response is to include the challenge prompt of the week.
  4. Post your response on your blog before the following Tuesday by noon (PST) and share your link in the comments section of the challenge that you are responding to.
  5. If you don’t have a blog or you don’t want to post your flash fiction response on your blog, you may post your response in the comments of the current challenge post.
  6. Keep it is business-rated if you do post it here, meaning don’t post anything directly on my blog that you wouldn’t want your boss to read.
  7. Create community among writers: read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.
  8. Each Tuesday I will post a compilation of the responses for readers.
  9. You can also follow on Carrot Ranch Communications by “liking” the Facebook page.
  10. First-time comments are filtered by Word Press and not posted immediately. I’ll find it (it goes to my email) and make sure it gets posted! After you have commented once, the filter will recognize you for future commenting. Sorry for that inconvenience, but I do get frequent and strange SPAM comments, thus I filter.

 

The Ordinary World

Tips for WritersI’m pondering my own ordinary world to better grasp the hero’s journey.

I’m just a writer, trying to undo the 9-to-5 rhythms that tethered my body and mind to desk and duty for years. Most of us can recognize the “career path” or “job market.” We make it ordinary by showing up every day with our rituals of Starbucks or bagels in the break room.

We taxi kids throughout each grade as if they are in prep-school for the ordinary world.

And one day I walked away. I resigned the position I loved, but one that had fatigued time from my bones and imagination from my days. Under ordinary circumstances, though, I would have stayed employed forever. I would have sprinkled my suburban yard with sun-gold tomato seeds and left wild places for weeds to harbor bees and butterflies; I would have barbequed brats and swilled canned beer with my neighbor. And called it good…enough…

But I walked away from that. Not kicking and screaming, or trumpeting and heralding, but with sadness and fear. Like a hero, I didn’t answer some call to be a writer. Oh, I wanted to; I longed for it; dreamed of it enough to take annual pilgrimages to writing retreats or conferences. I joined a terrific writers group. I bought books on the craft and I dutifully paid monthly on the student loans that earned me the writing degree that allowed me to work in marketing and management and business communications.

Stories skimmed the surface. They bubbled from time to time, breaking the waters like a turtle searching for a place to bask. I wrote a few starts; a few shorts. I taught my team to write cinquains and I loved the months that it was my turn to lead the writers group in Saturday morning prompts.

I had money, support, stories still in my blood. Why walk away from the ordinary world? After all, it was quite comfortable.

Ah, comfort. The comfort zone. Who wants to enter the abyss or cave–otherwise known as the “supreme ordeal.” Are you kidding me? Ordeal? Let’s not.

And truly that is insight to the not-yet-a-hero character. The ordinary world defines her–or his–comfort zone.

Consider the opening to the epic series, “Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan. The first chapter is about an ordinary world, despite the its opening line, “The Wheel of Time turns, and the Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.” We know it’s going to be an epic, but first we must see how ordinary the one-day-hero is. We see him in a thin cloak with wind gusting at his back; a sheep-herder’s son on the a walk into a very ordinary town. He’s just a common boy, nothing more.

Recently, I watched two movies that are classic hero’s journeys: “Gravity,” and “Captain Phillips.” The first opens up with Sandra Bullock’s character performing an ordinary service, albeit in an extraordinary setting. But she firmly focuses on staying in her comfort zone; she’s just doing a job. She’s an ordinary astronaut, not a maverick. In the second movie, we see Tom Hanks’ character preparing to go to work as a sea-faring cargo captain. He’s talking with his wife, discussing job opportunities for their kids, driving to the airport. He’s just an ordinary guy with a job.

The comfort zone of the ordinary world is what brings magic to the writing of a hero’s journey. Bad things start to happen, mentors show up to help, but we struggle to stay comfortable. Without that ordinary world perspective, we would not understand how transformative the hero’s journey is.

If the hero jumped right into being heroic, there isn’t the growth of tension or the deliverance of the elixir in the end. If we charge out on a white horse and win all the battles, our stories become predictable and ho-hum. But we can each understand what it is to struggle to stay comfortable and ordinary; we can hold our breath as trials and tribulations begin to mount; we can cheer the common sheepherder who emerges the Dragon Reborn.

If I hadn’t had a series of unfortunate events push me from suburban home and secure career, I wouldn’t fully comprehend how incredible it is that I can walk outside my door and see elk romping past in a gang. Then I can fix my coffee, write my words and share stories. It’s become my elixir. It’s not safe–I barely make enough money to get by; I rent this lovely home but it’s not mine; no one promises to publish what I write.

It’s no longer an ordinary world. So consider that when you think you have to open your novel with 100% thrill and action. Set the ordinary first.

And I’d love to hear from any writers about how they have done that! How do you set the ordinary world while hooking the reader into an extraordinary journey?