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Building an Identity

I might be wrong about this, but I feel like the concept of "Writer" as a career has changed in the last thirty years.

When I was a kid, I was under the impression that being a Writer just meant that you write and sell your stuff to a middleman - either a publishing house or a magazine or whatever - and then they repackaged your work for suitable audiences and paid you dividends depending on how popular your work was.  I thought this made a lot of sense and it was a good plan.

But today, it seems like being a Writer is more like being a Personality.  You don't just generate content - you create a whole brand of yourself, and that's what you spend most of your time doing.  I'm thinking of writers like Ben Croshaw, who had to invent himself as "that fast talking guy who reviews video games" before he could get Mogworld published.  Or David Wong, who made himself into an absurdist comic with his movie reviews on Pointless Waste of Time before he could get John Dies at the End published.  (Wong now edits Cracked.com and seems to have had his personality molded into a larger, more corporate-y brand that absorbs everything on that site - but even so, his follow-up to JDatE fits the mold.)

The path to being a Writer now seems to be that you start a website and build up an identity first, and then get a book published.  It seems like you have to have a full business plan thought out before you even start writing.  And while I'm sure I'll appear even more naive than usual when I use the phrase "business plan," it's a source of much panic and anxiety for me, so it's worth writing about.

To be clear, I'm talking about something different than Style.  A writer can have a distinct Style no matter what they're writing about.  To jump mediums for a minute, consider Steven Spielberg - even though his movies have touched all genres, he still has a distinct Style that simply comes from him investing himself in his work.  And that's not problematic at all.  Style is just the side effects of the natural expression of an Artist, and there's nothing that can (or should) be done about that.

No, I'm talking about something that feels more confining.  Let me put it another way.

Suppose I manage to achieve my dreams this year and I get I Need a Job published.  That book is (meant to be) a realistic comedy and a coming-of-age story about a young woman.  The next book that I might try to get published is Co-Pay / The People That Live (Title TBD).  Co-Pay is another comedy, but this one has a science-fiction bent to it and has nothing to do with coming-of-age.  It's very different than I Need a Job, but it's at least still a comedy.

Does this now mean that I'm a Comedy Writer?  And if so - what does that mean if I want to write something that isn't comedic?  In fact, should I even try to do Co-Pay as a follow-up?  I might gain an audience of young Hipstery women from I Need a Job who enjoy realistic, grounded fiction and then lose a large chunk of them once they find out my next book involves fantastical science-fiction.  And then what do I do if I want to switch from that to Don't Be a Dick, which is neither grounded or science-fiction at all?

Do I need to worry about defining my genre now, and do I need to make sure that I craft all of my stories around one central Personality?  And if so, what happens if I don't like it ten years from now?  What happens if everybody thinks of me as "That Funny Guy" and I get cranky and miserable?  Should I plan for that by having seven different aliases?

And while I'm at it, should I be planning different websites to promote each of my Personalities?  And how should I be promoting them, if at all?  Do I need to start making friends with people who can draw good cover art just in case I do need to go into self-publishing?  Oh, God, and then I have to worry about marketing and sales and stuff, too.  Since when did writing become so complicated?

I envy actors.  An actor gets to be a storyteller on a very pure and basic level.  For that one performance - be it a movie, a play, a TV show, whatever - they are focused only on one character and one story.  And when the performance is over, they move on to something different and focus all their energy on the next story.  At no point do they have to brand themselves as "that funny guy" or "that sad guy."  They just act.  Sure, sure, some of them get typecast, but that's more a side effect of a fickle public than it is a failing of the system.  The initial expectation is just to act.

Ugh.  I'm talking myself out of writing stories again simply because I fear whether or not there will ultimately be a point to it.  If a novel has no chance of being sold because it would contradict my business plan / Personality, then it's just a distraction, isn't it?

But then again - why can't I write a loving children's book about a valiant knight and then follow it up with a sex-horror about a talking penis?

Maybe good writers just go for it and say, "Screw what everyone else thinks.  Branding is for those who can't create."  I wish I could be that carefree.  That's not me, though.  It takes a lot more confidence than I have to just not give a crap.

Maybe my Personality will just be "that indecisive asshole who's always rambling."