Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Be a Beloved Writer - Creating a compelling persona

Sometimes reading a novel is like making a friend. Within the words, beyond the story and the characters, the author seems to be present and available with endearing qualities that make you want to get to know him or her better.

At book signings and conferences, you can see this effect in action as readers line up to meet, chat with, touch, and take selfies with writers they believe they know. I was the one who could barely mutter a word to Maurice Sendak when I got a couple of books signed by him. At the other extreme, I've had the privilege of being mentored and taught by writers I admired, but  long before I reached out to say hello, I felt I knew them. And I devoured their work.

As a writer, you want this. You want readers to pick up your books because they want to spend time with you as well as your characters. It's said that people buy the salesman, not the product. That seems crass in terms of the literary world, but people will read and recommend you if they connect with the persona they come to know in your work.

Note - Your persona as a writer is not you. It is an aspect of you. While I have liked most writers I met in person after reading their novels, none have been exactly what I expected. Some have been, shall we say, less than wonderful in person.

How do you create an engaging persona that shows through your writing? Lots of articles on charm and likability may be helpful here. Just as you can approach other people face-to-face in ways that engage them, you can put moments and language into your stories that connect with readers. It's worth a look to see how you can adapt Winning Friends and Influencing People to the literary world. But rather than reframe that advice, I'll share here what I attempt to do when I write fiction:
  • Have emotions. Ray Bradbury said we always read fiction for the emotional experience. While technique can get you there, I favor the method acting approach of bringing back emotional experiences that are close to what my character would feel and infusing my storytelling with those feelings. I also look at the overall emotions of the story so they flow in a way that is natural. It is too easy to assemble them in ways that clash.
  • Have opinions. It can be rude to disagree with others and speaking your mind can create conflict. But writing is not about being polite. And conflict is at the heart of storytelling. 
  • Be specific. It may seem contradictory, but the path to universal appeal goes through what is unique and individual. The more generic you are, the less interesting. The choices your make and the details you provide reveal the world you know, allowing the reader to bring that world into his or her own. This allows your readers to recognize your humanity as the same as theirs and to connect with you.
  • Address what matters. We all have needs. We all face tough choices. We all have to deal with the pain of loss, abandonment, confusion, humiliation, and guilt. And we all celebrate what is joyful and life-affirming.
  • Be authentic. Dare to tell the truth. Dare to share what you believe. Dare to present an aspect of yourself that is real (and ugly and beautiful). People may respond to a phony in the short term, but it's hard to build a writing career on lies.
  • Care. Respect what you are writing about and need to write it. Respect your readers and want the best for them. Choose your subjects judiciously. Be nurturing. Bring your best. Earn trust. 
  • Be vulnerable. Take risks. Reveal your flaws. Expose your heart. Lay yourself open.
  • Be funny. If you can.
  • Show your talent. Be aware of your natural strengths as a writer and feature them. It might be observation. It might be lyrical prose. It might be twisty plotting. Whatever you do best, share it in every work. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
  • Have integrity. Yes, it's good to be honorable. But the main point here is working toward consistency across the novel. I hinted at this above when I mentioned the emotions across the book must flow in a natural way. With any long work, you'll come to each writing session in different states. Sometimes, almost as different people. This shows in a lot of work. While each of us is complex and contradictory in real life, your writer's persona connects most effectively when it comes across in a more or less unified way.  
This is not a comprehensive list, and you don't need to do everything on the list to engage with readers as a writer. My hope is that it will turn your mind toward this opportunity and encourage you to be more deliberate about this aspect of your work.

There are parts of this process that are difficult and even painful. For me, if it had turned out to be just frosting on the cake, I probably would have stopped working on my writing persona. The most important gift a novelist gives readers is a good story with a satisfying ending. And I've found this focus on creating a compelling persona makes the stories richer. They deliver more. That makes the work worth it.

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