If, Then

Remember those Designer Imposter cologne commercials? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry–it just means that you’re young… and that you probably have better taste than we did in the 80s and early 90s.

Designer Impostor fragrances were a line of imitation colognes, and they were obviously popular enough that they generated enough revenue for the company to afford to produce a state-of-the-art (for the time) commercial featuring an animated bottle of Primo! (their answer to Giorgio, which was THE scent among high school kids and young adults of my generation) walking the red carpet at a Hollywood premiere.

“If you like Giorgio,” the commercial purred, “then you’ll LOVE Primo!”

Well, I didn’t like either. I wore the original Calvin Klein, “Calvin,” in the blue bottle, but I digress…

Apparently the price was the thing that would make you choose the poor man’s version of Giorgio over the original, which was the whole point of Designer Imposters. And I guess, for the most part, the ones I recall smelled enough like the originals that most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, but had I given in to the marketing, I would have known, and that wasn’t okay with me.

My point–and I do have one–is that there is no substitute for the original. I wrote about this in my first blog post “You Are Not Stephen King (And Why That’s A Good Thing),” and I would have left it there if I didn’t see, on a daily basis, indie authors on Twitter try to sell their work by saying things like “If you’re a fan of the books of (insert name of bestselling author), you’ll love (insert title of author’s novel)!”

I am a reader as much as I am a writer, and I am an indie author who wants very much to support other indie authors, but when I see this tactic used in the marketing of a book or (worse) in the book’s description on Amazon or Goodreads, I am turned off immediately and I flashback to that godawful Designer Impostors commercial.

To begin with, this cheapens both the original work and the work being compared to it in the hopes of increasing sales. If the book is good, and the writing sound, and the characters likable and relatable, and the situations intriguing, why would I have to be a fan of, say, the works of Charles Dickens in order to appreciate and enjoy a novel about an orphan boy in Victorian London? And Oliver Twist is one of my favorite books, but that doesn’t mean that I will automatically love every other novel written about orphans and pickpockets and Victorian London since.

Which brings me to my second point: it insults the intelligence of the potential reader (in this case, me) to have an author tell me up front that regardless of merit, I am going to love their book because I liked another one. It doesn’t work that way, I’m sorry to say. As a writer, your work should stand on its own merits, not on the fact that you think it’s just as good as this or that bestseller. The reader will decide that.

I make it a point not to compare my book to other books, mainly because I want it to stand on its own. As writers we are absolutely inspired by other writers whose work we admire. It’s inevitable. But when we resort to name dropping other authors and their works in an effort to sell our own, it smacks of desperation and, worst case scenario, that we know it isn’t good enough to succeed on its own merits… but if you like THIS OTHER NOVEL, then surely you’ll LOVE mine, because mine costs less! Just like Designer Impostors.

Don’t do it. And if you’re already doing it, stop right now.

Tell me about your book. Use the best words in the best order to make me want to read it, and I probably will. I read everything, from old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys to current NYT bestsellers, and I pick what I read based on a catchy title, an impressive cover, a description that hooks me, and maybe two or three reviews on Amazon. If there’s a sample of the novel available, even better! A review on NPR has been known to work, too.

But don’t cheapen your work by feeling you have to name drop in order to sell it. No one benefits from that–not the writer, not the reader, and not even the author whose work you’re comparing yours to.

 

“You are not Stephen King.” (And Why That’s A Good Thing)

I write. I write short stories and novels and the occasional political diatribe on social media… and now this blog. Mostly fiction, though.

I have always written–and by “always,” I mean since I was about 10 years old and figured out I really enjoyed telling stories as much as I learned reading them. I was nine when I realized that I loved to read, which I would realize when I was older should always go hand in hand.

We had a lot of books around our house: mass market paperbacks for the most part, though we did have a set of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels that I attempted to read on more than one occasion only to quickly realize I wasn’t ready for them. Mostly, though, I read what I could get from the library at school, but at some point in the summer of 1982, I ended up with a copy of Cujo in my hands and my world has never been the same. I know some people say that, and what they mean is that there was a shift in a new direction, like a fork in the road and they went to the left instead of staying straight, and the road to the left basically ran parallel to the one they started on… but I mean everything about the way I read and about the way I wrote changed the second I read that first line:

“ONCE UPON A TIME (and here you had to turn the page) not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.”

I devoured the book. Then I devoured Salem’s Lot. Then The Dead Zone. Then Christine. Then Pet Sematary.

I could not get enough of this man or the stories he told or the way that he wrote them. This was writing that mirrored the way people actually lived their lives; the dialogue was written exactly the way people spoke; when he went into a character’s mind, it was the way I (even at 12) actually thought through situations. I was blown away. This man was a genius, even though I didn’t understand enough about writing or literature to know that then.

I promptly adopted his style as my own.

I think that’s standard operating procedure for fledgling writers: to take the style of a writer they admire and write in it. I think it’s a great way for someone to learn techniques that are outside the scope of established rules of grammar, and seriously–who better to mimic than the icons? Stephen King is a literary god, and if I could just teach myself to write exactly like him, I, too, could be a literary god. This was my plan.

And I will say this: I never wrote as prolifically or had as much fun doing it as when I was trying to keep up with Stephen King. It also probably helped that I wasn’t old enough to drive or have a 9 to 5 job. I went to school and I wrote. Then I graduated high school and started college. Things got in the way. My life changed. I was no longer a kid, so I had to go be an adult. I wrote when I could. I read other authors and realized they, too, were just as genius as Stephen King. Maybe I’d had it all wrong; maybe his style wasn’t my style. I experimented with other styles. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

I read as many Oh, You Want To Write A Book books as I could, convinced that one of them held the secret to why I was getting older and my writing wasn’t getting any better–or published. The rejections piled up. I thought maybe it was because I had abandoned my (read: Stephen King’s) style, so I tried to go back to it, but it was easier said than done. I reread all the books I’d read as a kid, and then I read On Writing and THAT, dear reader, was when it clicked.

I actually said it aloud to myself: “You are not Stephen King.”

Apparently, the simple act of not being Stephen King was not enough. I needed to be told, and since there was no one else to tell me, I had to tell myself: I am not Stephen King.

I do not have to write and publish multiple novels every year (and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t, because I am not a full-time writer… at least, not yet). I do not have to mimic every trick he employs, I do not have to take his ideas and do my own poor man’s version of them. I don’t have to write upwards of 10,000 words a day (again, because I am not a full-time writer).

I am not Stephen King. And neither, dear reader, are you. And the good thing is this: we don’t have to be.

The instant I gave myself permission to stop trying to be the next Stephen King was the exact same instant that my writing was born, forget all those books and stories I wrote when I was basically just copying Stephen King (and believe me, I have disposed of and forgotten every single solitary one of them). I suddenly had my own style, my own techniques, my own rhythms… and it was like I was 12 years old again. Writing was fun for the first time in years–except when it wasn’t, but that’s another blog post–because I had discovered myself as a writer.

So I dared myself to write a book. I settled on a daily word count (and it is nowhere near 10,000… with which I am perfectly fine), and I set aside a specific time every night that I would sit down in front of my computer and I would write until that word count was reached. I exceeded it more often than not, but there were days that I didn’t even come close and yes, I felt like a hack who would never finish anything in his life and why was I even bothering? But I showed up every night at the same time and I sat there until the words came, then I wrote until the goal was reached, and eventually I had a first draft.

Then I sat down every night at the same time and I edited. I took things away, I put things in, I rearranged things. Then I had a second draft.

Then I had a third draft and finally, after a year and a half, I had a completed book of stories.

I am not Stephen King. I am also not Danielle Steele, George R. R. Martin, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Dean Koontz, or Tom Clancy. The great thing about all of those writers is that they are themselves, and we get to experience their stories and be inspired by them. But we don’t have to write like them, and that, dear reader, releases every single one of us from any doubt about ourselves and our abilities as writers so that we, like they, can just write. In our own voices, in our own styles, in our own time, and at our own pace.

If you are reading this and you are a writer, whether actively or passively, I wish you well on your journey to realizing you are not (insert the name of whatever writer you idolize) and finishing and publishing your own book.