Oct 16, 2010

Focus your author identity (Yeah? Yeah.)

I'm not going to tell you how many times I had to abandon this post and begin again because I didn't have enough focus--ironic, yeah?  (Okay, five times. I restarted it five times.  Also: I suck at keeping secrets.)

I'm warning you right now:  I'm talking about a topic you probably already know about and many of you don't like the word associated with it, so I'm not going to say it.

What you need is focus.

Go back to basic essay composition:  thesis, supporting ideas, conclusion.  Everything relates back to the thesis.  It's not enough to write a well-turned phrase.  You also have to have something to say.  The thesis helps a reader understand your point.  Communication with the reader is good.

When you're writing a story, it's a good idea if you the author know what the story is about.  You know:  the thing that holds the story together.  The focus.

When you're writing a scene, you should know how that scene fits into your story and why it's important. You should know how to focus the scene so it makes your point.

All these are craft-oriented examples and generally accepted (except in experimental forms, which are beyond the focus of this essay).

Remember:  readers need focus if you want them to stay with you.  (If I suddenly started talking about ducks and geese and ignored this essay on writing, you'd be confused--and a bit annoyed. And really, ducks and geese are fine topics.  I rather like them.  And also many species of birds.  But they're not the focus of this essay. You may already be irritated by this parenthetical note because it strays so.  Annoying, yeah?)

When you're presenting yourself to readers as an author, they'll be looking for your focus the same way they look for the focus of your work.  Are you that travel writer who talks about food?  Maybe you're that guy with the humor column in the newspaper.  Maybe you're that creepy author who signs his name in blood at book signings.  Maybe you're even that romance writer who also writes mysteries and has two names but we can usually only remember one of them.  Or you're that psychologist guy from Colorado who writes mysteries.  Or you're the one who writes YA free-verse stories about addiction.

I'll say it again:  just like in your writing, readers are looking for your focus.  They want to know what you're about.

Can you be more than one thing?  Sure.  Just like I can write about ducks and geese anytime I want, but I'm going to annoy you if I keep bringing it up here.  (It's Canada Goose by the way. Canadian geese are honkers with a Canadian allegiance.)

If you mush up all the things you want to be, if you run together all your gorgeous, vibrant colors, you end up a very pretty shade of mud.

You're that one writer.  You know:  the one no one can remember.

And yes, someone will bring up authors who are known for more than one thing, but the fact you're identifying each thing separately? That means they didn't get all mushed together.  They are separate, wonderful parts of the same person.  Like a double scoop ice cream cone, each scoop remains separate.

If you want to do this, it's best if you have something unifying:  like the ice cream cone identity.  What other than genre holds all your work together?  Do all the different stories balance precariously atop a grand family name with deep roots?  Or maybe your genre scoops all find themselves adrift at sea.  Maybe your characters are all named Jim and you can be that author with characters named Jim.

Readers don't want to know your focus so they can limit you.  They want to know your focus so they can remember you and understand you.

At a party, a fine host will make an introduction between guests by telling them something they share in common:

Host: Jim, this is Johanna.  She's an author who enjoys ducks and geese.  Johanna, this is Jim.  He's a goose in the books of that one author whose books all are about characters named Jim.

Johanna:  It's nice to meet you, Jim!  I love geese!

Jim:  Honk!

Probably you're not going to have something in common with all readers.  Probably all readers are not going to like your writing.  That's okay because there are a lot of readers and a lot of writers.  If you make your focus clear enough, you'll be introduced to readers who are apt to like you.

Host:  This is Johanna.  She writes humorous YA fantasies about a paranormal girl in The New West.  This is Jim.  He's a clairvoyant character in the works of that one author who always names his characters Jim.

Johanna:  It's great to meet you, Jim!  I'd love to hear your thoughts about Claire.

Jim:  I knew you were going to say that.

So here's the thing:  Readers need a focus to remember you.  If you provide mud, they probably won't remember you unless one of two things happens:

1. Your publisher provides a focus for you.

2. You do or say something so foolish it creates an identity you do not want.

I'm sure there's a number three possibility here wherein you're discovered by someone amazing who loves your work.  But you still have to own your own cool.  Being tangentially related to cool is not enough.

How do you avoid being pigeon-holed by a publisher, being marked forever as the hopeful author who picked fights with agents, or being the wannabe writer sibling/friend/spouse of the famous dude?

You define yourself.

You tell the world who you are.


You say it so many times you can say it in your sleep.

You pitch it.

You put it on your website.

You make a logo.

You create yourself a focus so clear that it morphs into its own weird pitch.

Host:  This is Johanna. She writes those weird paranormal stories set in future Idaho.

Jim:  I think I've heard of you!

Johanna:  Aren't you the one with all the characters named Jim?  I keep seeing them everywhere!

Oh.  And also:  Branding.  (I'm bad at keeping secrets.)


  1. LOL - Delightful post, Johanna...and an excellent illustration as well. :-)

    I'm currently creating several brands for myself, three genre brands and one general "umbrella" brand to tie them all together. It's a ton of work and has to be done with care...but there's really just no other way when my genres are so far apart.

    I have to admit, it's kind of fun though. Instead of just one logo and "definition"...I will eventually have several. I do love variety. ;-)

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Johanna Harness, LK Gardner-Griffie, Rusty Fischer, Reader Writer, Whiz Buzz and others. Whiz Buzz said: Focus your author identity (Yeah? Yeah.): I’m not going to tell you how many times I had to... http://dlvr.it/76SKM #favblog #writers [...]

  3. Great post. I have serious doubts when writers say they only focus on creativity. That makes me things one of three things - 1. he/she is a genius 2. he/she is lying 3. he/she writes the books I would never buy

    I have never met number 1 so far.

    Creativity is great of course, it's absolute must to write stories that make people see a world in a new way, but without focus, it would be just a big old ramble.

    And you are also correct in suggesting that all the geese stuff was annoying :-) But I get the point.

  4. Great post. Focus is always a good thing. Whether we're focusing on our writing brand or water fowl.


  5. Great post!
    Canadian Geese are awesome. I wonder what they taste like.
    Because I'm that paranormal romance author who will eat anything...and I love cheesy horror movies.

  6. Hi, Joanna! You're that writer who likes geese and can't keep a secret, aren't you?

    I'm that writer who writes fantasies, mysteries, comedies and recipes.

    See you on Twitter!