Saturday, March 26, 2011

What's your Brand?

Branding. The not-so-new buzz. The term seems to be dropping into every conversation these days like a pesky mosquito on a sweltering summer night.

I understand, of course, the concept of branding, which is not at all new. The idea of stamping oneself or one's product with a recognizable symbol goes back to the caveman's club.

Childhood memories of Mr. Whiffle (representing a particular brand of T-paper, as my granny delicately called it), Ronald McDonald and Minnie Pearl's price tag dangling from her straw hat bear evidence of the effectiveness of branding. If promotion has been successful, you see the symbol and you instantly think of the product or person it represents.

I can't look at a boob pop without thinking of Dolly Parton, so effective are her Dolly Lollies in Pigeon Forge.

It's not so easy for writers to brand themselves. Well, maybe not Stephen King or J.K.Rowling, who are successfully branded in their respective genres. But what about us lesser mortals? Especially those like me who dabble in different genres? What is my brand? What could possibly set me apart from other writers to make me instantly recognizable?

Surprisingly enough, I found out last week at a writers meeting.

About fifteen of us were seated at tables forming a square in a large room when a new writer walked in. Having never met any of us before, she looked around shyly as she took her seat and I noticed her glance settle on me. She continued to stare (in a friendly sort of way), and when, a few minutes later, she was asked by the leader to introduce herself, she blurted out, "You're Debora Coty, aren't you?"

"How did you know that?" I asked with a creeping suspicion that the IRS was sinking to new levels with their spying.

"It's the hat," she replied, nodding at the black floppy hat adorning my head. "I've read you for years and in your pictures, you always seem to be wearing a hat."

Well blow me over with a feather. My hats? I've worn hats for decades, mostly because they're kicky and fun and I don't like to wash my hair every day. The fact that they weren't cool or trendy never bothered me. My kids grew up rolling their eyes over my hats and begging me not to wear them when their friends were around. Why, I have stacks and stacks of hats cluttering my closet. It looks like the Cat in the Hat exploded in there.

But somehow it never occurred to me that people might actually associate me with my hats. I guess since I couldn't see them atop my head, I figured nobody else was all that aware of them either. Funny how we never really see ourselves as others see us.

Anyway, I started paying more attention to how many pictures there are on my website and book covers and business cards of me in hats. Quite a few, to my surprise.

So are hats part of my brand? What do you think?  I'd love to hear if you (my other three readers) consider hats part of my persona as a writer - like Alfred Hitchcock's round belly or Clark Gable's mustache.

Or maybe just symbolic of the goofy, lazy girl who doesn't invest in shampoo.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

P as in Ptooey

I always thought it devilishly ironic that God called me to be a writer. For most of my life I've struggled with what my speech therapist friend calls dysnomia - the inability to come up with the word for which I'm frantically searching.

I suppose I come by my affliction naturally; I grew up with my mother reminding me to throw my dirty clothes in the refrigerator and to make sure I took my toothbrush to church.

Although my retrieval system appears to be a bit more sluggish since I passed fifty, some days I can pull those elusive rabbits out of my mental hat before the tree out front grows a new branch and feel like I've actually done pretty well.

Today was not one of those days.

On my early morning prayer walk around the neighborhood, I noticed a beat-up pickup truck parked on my street with a large fellow smoking inside, taking in a panoramic view of all the surrounding houses. He was in no apparent hurry to be elsewhere.

Okay - no harm, no foul.

Forty minutes later, when I took my dog out for his dooty duty, I caught a glimpse of said truck still loitering in the same spot with said slacker now in the passenger seat still gawking at said houses.

Now, normally I wouldn't consider sticking my nose in someone else's abnormality, but we've had a rash of neighborhood robberies lately, including my next-door neighbor, whose house was sacked in the middle of the day after a suspicious van had been seen parked down the street while two fellows with clipboards went door-to-door doing a "survey."

So I wasn't taking any chances. I jotted down the truck's description and tag number and made an immediate call to the sheriff's dept. Wouldn't hurt to just check him out.

The problem came when the dispatcher asked me to clarify the tag letters I'd just told her and I drew a complete blank. The first one was a W and for the life of me, I could not think of any W words (well, there's one right there, isn't it?) Then came a B and P and wouldn't you know, I was a deer in headlights.

Finally, after staring at the blank screen in my head for what seemed an eternity, words finally appeared. Strangely enough, they were words I rarely ever actually say aloud. I spit out, "W as in wombat; B as in boob; P as in pinhead."

Oh, for pity's sake. And I call myself an inspirational writer.

As soon as the dispatcher unsuccessfully stifled a snicker, and my husband stumbled out of his home office laughing like a dadgum hyena, I felt M as in embarrassed. With a little luck, she'll never know who I am. Please tell me police stations don't have caller ID.

I wanted to explain to her that writers are sometimes X as in eccentric but more often K as in Crazy.

But I have a sinking feeling that she'd just roll her I's.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Busting Ghosts of Haunted Writers

I've been re-reading Anne Lamott's highly respected how-to for writers, Bird by Bird, and several thoughts really resonated with me.

First of all, the title itself is the first lesson any writer must learn. Anne describes a time from her childhood when her older (high school aged) brother was completely overwhelmed by the enormity of a school report on birds that he had put off the entire semester until the night before it was due. Anne's father, with words of wisdom that apply to all facets of life, advised his son that the only way to accomplish any daunting job was to break it down into small tasks.

"Take it bird by bird."

Wonderful advice for writers, of course - especially those facing the mind-boggling task of writing a book. I know when I've signed a publishing contract and the initial glee and jubilation has passed, I often find myself facing a blank computer screen with panic rising in my belly.

Where to start?
What topics to cover?
How to break the chapters up?
How not to break me up in the process?
I just can't do it! How could anybody do this?

It's ever so helpful to take my eyes off the humongous aviary flocking with thousands upon thousands of winged creatures and focus on one little wren. Ahh. Now that's do-able.

Anne also speaks of literally looking at your work through a 1" square frame in order to concentrate on one small section at a time. She actually keeps such a frame on her desk. It reminds her that the most giant puzzle (book) starts with tiny pieces that must be dealt with one by one. Bird by bird.

Another of Anne's statements really resonated with me. She was speaking about the voices in your head that distract you from writing, and called them "banchees and drunken monkeys." Oh, so extremely well said. I couldn't label them better - the screaming banchees of urgent interruptions that just can't wait (real or unreal).

The drunken monkeys that swing your fickle thoughts from tree to tree and everywhere in the jungle but where they're supposed to be. For people like me - a step beyond ADD - those darn monkeys are a huge challenge to productivity. It's amazing how much ground those monkeys can cover in no time, especially if you're fighting a deadline like I am now.

I really must get out my tranquelizer dart gun and pick off some of those drunken monkeys. Today.

And finally, Anne spoke of the "ectoplasm" of a fictional character - finding out what holds him together. His essence. Is it faith? Work? Hope? Relationships? Loyalties? Longings? (My contributions.)

I like that ... ectoplasm. The word alone dredges up visions of Bill Murray in Ghost Buster garb. I picture green goo dripping off chandeliers and globbed all over basement library card catalogs.

But the point is well taken. Ectoplasm is the internal make-up of people, real or fictional. The evidence of their presence. Not only is it important to discover the nuances and foibles of our fictional characters, but how about in real relationships as well? How often do we really study the ectoplasm of our potential friends or even foes? Not often enough, I fear.

So who ya gonna call?

Maybe Anne Lamott.