Monday, November 25, 2013

How to Talk About Your Writing During the Holidays

It doesn't matter if you are a first time writer or a New York Times bestseller. Inevitably, there will come a point where you feel compelled to discuss your craft in a public or semi public forum. Maybe it's over Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it's at a cocktail party. Wherever it is, it makes sense to have a plan on how to deal with this situation before it comes up. A writer who can't describe their own book is sending the wrong message.

The Goal of the Discussion
Keep in mind, I don't really want to have a trite conversation about my books. The idea of reducing 75,000 words and a year of toil into a 5 minute uninformed conversation isn't my idea of a good time. I would love to have an engaging dialogue about the theme, characters and twists in my plot, but the odds of that happening are close to zero. So the compromise I came up with is part diplomacy and part marketing. I want to say just enough to end the inquiry politely and if I'm lucky increase curiosity about my work.

Disclaimer: If your work is controversial, sensitive or not suitable for the situation you are in, it might be best to avoid all discussions about it. The holidays are stressful enough. The last thing you need is your cousin accusing you of giving grandma a heart attack because of your Fifty Shades of Gray slasher horror comedy novella.

The Diplomatic Marketing Method
Diplomatic marketing is a four part process:
  1. Setup is where I announce or introduce the fact that I'm a writer. This is the easiest part. Someone you just meet asks what you do or someone you know asks how your writing is going. The key is that I don't set up on my own. If no one asks about my work, I don't discuss it. Blatant self promotion is a faux pax I try to avoid.
  2. The Pitch is where I give the "famous bastard child description" of my novel. The idea is to transform a complex, nuanced narrative into something that anyone familiar with popular culture can digest and understand.  This will often wind up sounding like a Hollywood cliche, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
  3. If the pitch generates interest, my next goal is creating anticipation. In the flirt stage I tease something about the story, but I make it clear that if they want to know more, they'll have to read the book. This could lead to a semi earnest claim that they will 'check your book out' or in extreme cases they might try to download your book on the spot (hint: it pays to make sure your book is available online before the party starts, just in case)
  4. Finally I deflect the conversation. In most cases, people aren't asking about my work because their dying to hear about my story. They ask me what I'm doing so I can turn around and ask them what they're doing. This is a natural social dynamic and since I don't want to talk about my book longer than necessary, I'm happy to help. There are several directions I can go; are they thinking of writing a book? what are they reading now? what was their favorite book? The direction doesn't really matter. The discussion of my book is effectively over until the next casual conversation starts. Then I just repeat the process.

Diplomatic Marketing in Action

A typical cocktail conversation goes something like this:

"So what do you do?"
"I'm a writer. I actually own my own publishing company."
"Really? What do you write about?"
"I working on a criminal espionage novel now. It's sort of a mix between Scandal and Homeland."
"Really, I love Scandal. Did you see the last episode?"
"I haven't had a chance to yet. What happened?"
"It was great. Blah, blah, blah."

Of course, there are several ways this conversation could go sideways. Maybe they never heard of those shows your referenced or they hate them altogether. Maybe they want to tell you about how all self-published books are crap or about all the money you won't make. Maybe they'll try to force their vague "idea" for a book on you as if you don't have enough of your own and they're too busy or important to write their own book. There's no way to get around that. 

On the other hand, the conversation could go unexpectedly well. The person you're talking to might turn out to be a fellow author eager to discuss business and craft. They could have a relative or spouse who can help improve your finished product. They might even buy your book one day. You won't know what will happen unless you try. Diplomatic marketing isn't foolproof, but it's better than going in blind.

In The Successful Novelist,  David Morrell advises authors to never reveal their role as a writer in polite conversation. This is one of the many areas of the book that I disagree with. For all its potential pitfalls, talking about your work in a thoughtful and concise manner can lead to connections and readers. Even if the conversations don't go well, you'll gain valuable practice learning how to pitch. It's a skill that might come in handy if you ever find yourself trying to get that novel turned into a tv show or movie.

So how do you talk about your books during the holidays? Leave a comment and let me know.

Have fun.

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