Discovering my personal brand

When I started writing my first novel in the autumn of 2012, I didn’t have a clear idea on who I wanted to be in the world of publishing. I wasn’t approaching it in mercenary terms; if I simply wanted to make money, I’d write supernatural romance.

I’ve written for money, of course — technical writing, marketing communications, corporate training — but that’s to pay the bills. For me, writing fiction is an avocation, not a vocation. I would like to enjoy a supplemental income from it, but I’m not planning on changing careers. The truth is, I enjoy my work (I’m an instructional designer), and I particularly enjoy the steady paycheck and health insurance. The job allows me to pursue art for its own sake.

Even so, I’ve found it natural that people want to identify me as a certain kind of writer. Since writing my trilogy (three novellas that add up to one long novel), I’ve found friends saying “he’s a science fiction writer.” At first I didn’t like this; I’ve barely started producing, and didn’t want to be pigeon-holed. Now, however, I accept it, because I have a sense of who I am, as a writer.

I write science fiction that wouldn’t embarrass my kids or my grandmother.

It’s a trait I particularly admire about Isaac Asimov’s work, in addition to its clarity. You can let your fifth grader read any of his books without worrying about age-inappropriate sex or cursing.

I’m not a prude. Cursing and sex don’t bother me, personally — in fact, it amuses me how insensitive we Americans are to grotesque violence (which we’re unlikely to see in real life), and how freaked out we get about naked people (which we will see often, if we have lovers or spouses or little kids who want to run free).

The problem with cursing and sex is not that they’re inherently bad. It’s that they alienate a certain audience, and I’d rather have their attention than lose it in exchange for titillation. In short, the cost of cursing and sex is too high for me.

A fellow (and much more successful) self-published science fiction writer, Andy Weir, recently wrote a novel called THE MARTIAN. It’s a good book, and I recommend it; I read it when he published independently on Amazon, and gave it a good review (it’s now been packaged and republished by Random House).

However, the first line of the novel slams the door in the face of kids (or their parents) and older people who are more sensitive to language:

I’m pretty much f*cked.

There are ways other than cursing to show how dire a situation is, or how defeated a character feels. These are stylistic choices, and Weir clearly is talking to fellow adults. That’s perfectly fine — it’s just not what I want to do exclusively.

When I wrote my first book, 300 MILES TO GALVESTON, I was thinking of my (then) 11 and 14 year old daughters. I wanted them to read it. I also wanted the ladies at my neighborhood church to read it (both my grandmothers died long ago, so I’ve adopted new ones). I only realized after writing three books that they helped me define my style.

Today, I don’t mind being referred to as “the science fiction guy.” First, I love science, and writing hard science fiction (ie with science and tech that’s possible, not magical) gives me a great excuse to read more science and watch more scientific documentaries. Second, I don’t mind being associated with writers, like Asimov, who defined the style. Third, as much as I can enjoy fantasy, I don’t believe in magic, and I think to produce good fantasy, part of you has to believe.

The truth is, across my adult life, I’ve enjoyed church without believing in the supernatural. Likewise, I’ve enjoyed Japanese martial arts without taking ki (body energy) literally. It’s a conundrum to some of my believer-friends, but as much as I try to reconcile these aspects of myself, I can’t.

I see magical ideas as metaphors — with value. This is what separates me from hardcore materialists, who think anything abstract is crap, and from conservative supernaturalists, who think you either believe xyz or you don’t, end of discussion.

My life is shaded with greys. My mind isn’t willing to toss out scientific discovery to fit Bronze Age mythology, yet at the same time, it also isn’t willing to throw away centuries of cultural development and insight to the human soul (or mind) just because I don’t believe in miracles. This is who I am, and at middle age, these opinions are not likely to change.

Those groups that can’t accept me are like book reviewers who criticize my work for not being like THE HUNGER GAMES: I can worry about not being accepted, or I can recognize that they’re not my audience, or my tribe.

What I’ve discovered in life is, defining yourself is neither a solo act, nor purely determined by others. When sincere, it’s a combination of influences, subjective and objective, producing a genuine whole.


4 thoughts on “Discovering my personal brand”

  1. Interesting post! I think our society’s oversensitivity to sexual themes is ridiculous (I can’t believe that our courts allow censorship of some pretty innocuous words in schools!), but I tend to avoid novels with unnecessary sex scenes and cursing.

  2. Thank you.

    I agree, our censorship standards are a little nutty. I recently started watching HANNIBAL on Amazon Prime. I like it a lot… but I was stunned to find out that it’s an NBC show that broadcasts at 9 pm Central (my time zone). There are scenes where people’s bodies are displayed with their skin flayed off and hung on wires to look like angel wings, for example — I mean, this is as grotesque as SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which 20+ years ago was an R-rated movie. I guess I’m just getting old, or cultural standards are changing, but to me, that’s not public broadcast material. At the same time, they can’t show a woman’s nipples. It’s just silly/confusing.

  3. Terrific post Rick. I really like how you define your authorship style, and that you do so in the context of Authors in general. I’m a fan of both Asimov and Heinlein, two distant points on a spectrum. I had a thought on your comments about violence in media.

    I recently discovered that I’ve become a lot more sensitive to displays of violence, when I couldn’t sit through a replay of my friends Warcraft game session. I know that Xbox games are not even close to HANNIBAL in terms of horror or realism, but I found my self getting upset and clicked off after a few minutes.

    I think that my sensitivity came from not watching any TV for the last several years. So I haven’t seen any violence in years. My life got busy with a baby and I decided that I prefer to spend my little bit of free time on hobbies and the net, which are often the same thing. If I see any TV, it’s baseball or a Movie my wife and I can both watch. So I have been living a relatively sheltered life and find that I can not watch violent displays that wouldn’t trouble most folks at all.

    As for nudity, I suppose that I wouldn’t mind seeing it, but I haven’t attempted any specific experiments to test my, um, sensitivity.

  4. Thanks!

    Agreed re Asimov and Heinlein — a spectrum of (practically) socialist to libertarian. I’m reading more about both, now that I’ve entered their arena. They were buddies at the same Navy base in Philly during WWII. Science fiction was a very small world back then.

    It’s interesting to hear that you can get re-sensitized to violence. For me, it was having children of my own that made certain forms of violence intolerable — I can’t watch Law & Order Special Victims Unit, which Rose (13) loves. It’s mostly kids getting kidnapped, raped, and/or murdered. That kind of thing makes my chest hurt, now, so I let her watch it solo on her laptop.

    I still watch TV, but it’s almost entirely over broadband, either Netflix, Amazon Prime, or the local PBS station’s Roku channel. I probably watch a dozen documentaries a week (history, engineering, science). I’m actually buying an HD antenna today so I can watch the re-launch of Sagan’s COSMOS tomorrow, with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Very excited about that.

    Re nudity… is internet porn still a thing? I may have to investigate. 🙂

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