The anti-ick guide to building your brand as a writer

A new year always serves as an opportunity for reevaluation. Self-evaluation, if you're a writer and stuck, as ever, in your head.

For the new year, I signed up for TRUE, a 30-day yoga journey with my favorite online yogi, Adriene Mishler. The first email struck me down. It included these lines:

TRUE invites you to go on a ride back to… you. 

What feels like you. 

How you show up.

How you move. 

What feels true?

I've been struggling to write as of late, completely exhausted by life. We often say that life gets in the way, but rather, life is the way, and I want to really live it. In the past, I would come out swinging at the new year, declaring that I'll write THIS MANY words every day and how I'll finish my book in the next month, if not sooner.

But that isn't going to happen this year, (maybe not any year; why do we put these pressures on ourselves?) and I'm proud of it. You know how you have these long-term writing goals that you want right now? They each begin with "really, really":

  • I really, really want to quit my job so I can write full-time.
  • I really, really want to publish a book by the time I'm [INSERT ARBITRARY AGE HERE].
  • I really, really want to be on The New York Times Best Sellers list.
  • I really, really just want someone else to read my writing and say it's great.

For me, friends, what I really, really want this year is admittedly huge and will have the longest-lasting impact on my writing life. No, it isn't a major trade publication, earning a movie option or landing that ever-elusive literary agent. I want to define my writing brand and orient my work toward that end.

Before you ick out over the word "brand" when it's applied to a creative craft, let me share how I'm defining this: I want to figure out who I am as a writer, what my voice sounds like, the type of stories I want to tell, the messages I want to impart. Phew, that's a big one. But I think it's time.

Photo by  J. Kelly Brito  on  Unsplash

Side note:

If you've been following along for awhile, you might already have taken part in The One-Week Daily Writing Devotional. It's a seven-day deep dive into parsing who we are as people vs. who we are as writers.

Click below to join, if you'd like (it's free!):

My first short story collection, Cheers, Somebody, was published last year by Vine Leaves Press. I love this collection, which I wrote and edited over the course of about 10 years, because it shows me how much I've grown since creating these stories. There's a massive difference in the stories I wrote then and those I write now in tone, subject matter and character development. I've learned a lot since then. In 2022, I'll have learned a lot since how I'm writing in 2018.

But I think the new year is the perfect time to establish who we are as writers right now, who we really, really are, and how that definition will move our work forward. If you'd like to join me in this, below are the three things I'm doing to build my brand.

(And by the way: This brand you establish for your writing self never has to be shared with anyone. It isn't that kind of hello-you-can-find-me-everywhere-now brand. This is work we're doing on ourselves, for ourselves. That makes it yummy and doable and mistake-making-able.)

Write your mission/credo

At some point, you've been asked why you write, and the answer that so quickly jumps to the tongue is (say it with me now):

"Because I have to. I can't not write."

OK, OK, OK. We get it. It's in your bones. But what do you do with that urge and skill? Thinking in terms of a set of beliefs around your work is the easiest way to craft a mission or credo. Let this be free-writing, without backpedaling or judgment.

Here's my attempt, without editing out any perceived weakness:

  • I believe writing makes me a better partner because I feel accomplished, and achievement satisfies me.
  • I believe I have it in me to create relatable characters who are flawed and not always lovable.
  • I believe writing gives me purpose and meaning, and that I can use my work to connect with others.
  • I believe this is what I'm meant to be doing, forsaking all other lines of work.
  • I believe the biggest obstacles to my success are not the industry but rather:
    • Wasting unrelated time online
    • Telling myself that making money through other avenues is more vital to my family's bottom line than it is
    • Overcommitting myself to other projects or people without being asked to

How are you moving your work forward?

Here's the to-do list part. What are you going to do to take yourself from "this is who I am and what I believe about who I am" to "see? told ya so."?

For me, it looks like this:

  • I am committed to writing more often and with truer intent this year.
  • I am committed to continued criticism of the "breaks" I take from writing to study whether they're inspirational or excuses.
  • I am committed to my vulnerability in having my partner be the breadwinner.
  • I am committed to reading more work by people who don't look like me.

How do your commitments look? What precise steps will you take toward their reality?

Here's my own list:

  1. Pick one of my many in-progress, set-aside projects and throw myself into it. Pledge myself to it. Own it. Say out loud that Project X is what I'm working on.
  2. Whenever I'm not writing, I'll ask myself, "Is what I'm doing right now more important than Project X?"
  3. When presented with a paid opportunity, I'll be honest with myself about whether I want to do it because it's exciting and I'll learn from it or it's solely because of the money.
  4. Intentionally seek out work by writers of color, writers of different faiths, writers who aren't American and LGBT+ writers.

If visual reminders do it for you, write your list by hand and tape it on the wall near your workspace. I'll do the same.

Who are your readers?

For whom do you want to write? What's their age range? (If you're looking for help figuring out at what grade level you're writing, you might try Hemingway Editor.)

What do your future readers care about? What makes them angry? What thrills them to no end? What problems are they trying to solve?

Where are these future readers? Does it help your process to connect with them online or in person to learn from them? (Here's your opportunity to find community with other writers, as well.)

Maybe all of these answers change depending on your project, and that's totally OK. I don't know about you, but I want to write picture books and a young adult series and adult thrillers and literary fiction and long-form creative non-fiction and poetry and plays and ...

I want to try my hand at it all to learn what I can and can't yet do.

I want to play.

And then, who are the writers with whom you align yourself? List those favorite authors, the ones who craft sentences that have your mouth hanging open like a codfish, in awe. Off the top of my head, I'd be lucky to one day be among Jhumpa Lahiri, Colum McCann, Angela Flournoy, Karen Russell, Carmen Maria Machado, M.L. Stedman, Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro.

If you own your favorite writers' books, then really own them. Write in the margins. Underline the passages that make you think, "Wow, that's a good one." Then, whenever you are procrastinating and pick up a book to flip through, your eye is easily drawn to the stirring bits, which just might rouse you enough to soldier on.

Who else should I read and learn from?

The education, thankfully, is never over. Isn't it just absolutely grand to be a reader?

Remember: You don't need a writing retreat or conference in order to become a better writer. You simply need to study the masterful writers, play in your own creative work and stave off distractions.

I want to read books that were written in desperation, by people who are disturbed and overtaxed, who balance on the extreme edge of experience. I want to read books by people who are acutely aware that death is coming and that abiding love is our last resort. And I want to write those books.
Sarah Manguso

Bonus: Grow your readership (yep, it's marketing)

This step is only if you desire to establish this brand publicly. That might mean starting a blog (hey, like this one!), guest-posting on other blogs (psst! I sometimes invite guest posters to contribute here, so drop me a line if you have an idea to pitch), building an email list, routinely contributing on every social network under the sun, joining an online or in-person writing group, submitting your work so you can build your portfolio, etc.

Others have written much more comprehensively than I about marketing and serving within your niche, so I'll let you go off on a Google search of your own.

What I can speak to in marketing includes:

Being part of a community

Email marketing

Content marketing

Orienting your creative work toward publication (a marketing of sorts!)

So ... what now?

I hope this prompts you to evaluate your writing life to define what feels true. As for me, I'm off to tackle my commitments. That may mean less regular posting for now, though in the meantime, I would still really love to hear how your work is going. If you're up for it, I'd much appreciate you answering these three questions about your writing life. This will help me make sure future blog content applies to the hard work you're doing making time to write and kicking bum.

If you want to catch a little fish, you can stay in shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.
— David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish

Want to win an autographed copy of my book, Cheers, Somebody?

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