The First J.M. Phillippe
Earlier this month, Bethany Maines shared the question so many authors struggle with: “what other authors are you like?” As the Olympics finishes up this week, it’s pretty obvious that comparison is inevitable for anyone in the public eye — particularly women (as the journalists covering the Olympics seemed to only know how to talk about female athletes in relation to male athletes). This is why Simone Biles is my new favorite role model:
Because when it comes to describing my writing style, or even trying to find the right mixed-genre combo to describe my first novel, Perfect Likeness, I am often at a loss. “I write like me,” I want to tell people. Unfortunately I am not a household name yet and thus can’t compare myself to only myself. (I may need some writing equivalent of gold medals first.) I have to try to find someone that is writing like me, who people like, to compare myself to. Preferably a best selling author so that people think “oh yeah, I love that person!” and then, you know, buy and read my book.
We can’t all be Simone Biles. Or J.K. Rowling. Or Stephen King. Or “put your Big Name Author here”. In fact, most authors I know in real life are pretty happy to be in the competition at all. We’re not looking to medal — we’re just hoping to get one or two (hundred, if possible) devoted fans.
The other big issue with “who are you like?” is that it taps into one of my biggest insecurities as a writer: that I don’t have a unique voice (or a unique story). Look, at this point, three out of five people I talk about my plots with pipe up with something along the lines of “it’s just like that other book/that movie/that video game/that song/that esoteric piece of art I did my PhD thesis on.” (Okay, maybe not that last one, but wouldn’t that be cool!?!) The “It’s All Been Done” record (go ahead and cue the Barenaked Ladies song) playing in my head is responsible for at least 60 percent of all my anxiety-filled blank-page moments.
The LAST thing I want is to write something just like any other book, or just like any author (yes, even the best selling ones). I have fought long and hard with myself to come up with something that didn’t sound to me just like everything else I’ve read. In fact, the biggest reason I write is because I don’t feel like I have read anyone else quite like me.
Which sounds great — all the way up until you have to market your book and someone asks you “what else is this book like/what other author are you like?” Because unlike gold medalists, there are A LOT of different authors and books, and people want some sort of sense of what they are going to get themselves into before committing 300 plus pages to a story.
What this means is that the writer part of myself is often at odds with the marketing part of myself. The writer part of myself wants to jump genres and experiment with writing style and format. The marketing part of myself wants to create a brand that people will recognize so that they can say, “oh, that’s a J.M. Phillippe kind of book.” The marketing part of myself knows that it takes more than a single event to make a gold medalist; there are years of dedicated practice behind that moment. There are hours and hours (and yes, even years) of constantly working at it for most writers to become Big Name Writers. And an essential part of that work — however much we may hate it — is creating a Big Name Brand.
I don’t have a good answer for this constant push and pull between these two sides of myself (but I do have a great recommendation for a comic by Nick Seluk called The Awkward Yeti, featuring Heart and Brain, which basically sums up my eternal struggles against myself perfectly):
I think the struggle is going to be a constant one. And nothing brings it to light more quickly than someone asking me what other kind of writer I am like. I always have to fight the urge to say “I’m the first J.M. Phillippe.”
But maybe someday, I will be the author that others compare themselves to.
This blog post is from The Stiletto Gang blog, posted on 8/16/16.