Writing: Flagrant Self-Promotion
So you’ve written a novel. Never mind that it took three years of endless drafting. Forget about the lost weekends and evenings when it seemed that everyone else was out living life while you were sitting before a computer screen trying to write about it. And don’t even think about that furious roller coaster of alternating self-belief and self-doubt. The real work is yet to come: you must find a way to sell it.
If this novel is your first attempt at fiction, you may find it difficult. All the writing you’ve done—all the ad copy, the brochures, business plans, grants applications, technical manuals, etc…—is rendered meaningless if you’ve written a novel and are looking to have it published. None of the earlier stuff counts. It’s all about your experience writing fiction that matters.
You must re-invent yourself and make it look good.
This topic is considered so important that the Australia Council commissioned a 92-page booklet exclusively for writers called The Art of Self-Promotion. Separate titles are being prepared for musicians, dancers/choreographers, visual artists, and composers. In the introduction, it emphatically (and rather delightfully) states that the booklet does not deal with selling books, the craft of writing, or other aspects of the business, such as filling out tax returns.” Although Australia Council booklets on the latter would be useful to all artists, I’m sure.
The Art of Self-Promotion is full of good ideas. I flip through it and see sections on approaching agents and publishers, and how to handle public readings, talks, and book tours. There is a chapter devoted to networking and another on targeting and handling the media. In my case, being a contented recluse, all of this seems dizzying. Does it mean that I have to go out there and actually talk to people?
I return to Chapter 1 with a deep sigh. The first order of business is to come up with a strong writer’s CV. A sentence jumps out: “If you are at the beginning of your writing career, you’ll need to make a little go a long way.” I learn that I need to include a personal profile, review grabs, membership in professional associations, a list of awards and grants received. As straightforward as all of this may seem, I have a couple of problems with it. First, I find this kind of writing rather dull. But more importantly, I am reluctant to do it at all. I have never sold a thing in my life. Even when my children bring raffle tickets home for a fundraiser, I tend to buy the lot outright, rather than prevail upon friends to contribute to the cause at hand. But while I might avoid selling raffle tickets, in order to publish my book, I have no choice but to sell myself. And there’s the rub.
Half an hour later, I’ve written nothing. I’ve spent the entire time Google-ing Ludovico Ariosto who, I remember from a university literature class, wrote a long poem about 500 years ago to promote a powerful Italian family. Because of the fractured politics of the times, the Este family of Ferrara found themselves in need of some good PR. So the Duke of Ferrara did what any rich, ambitious ruler living in the Renaissance would do. He hired the poet of the day to spin his family history into something more acceptable. This begins to make more sense when I read on one web site that, because many cultural novelties were first tried there, Ferrara might be called “the Hollywood of the 15th century”. We all know there’s nothing like a blockbuster to mobilise public opinion and rejuvenate a family’s position. What the Duke got, however, was perhaps more than he paid for. Ariosto wove the history of the Estes into a two thousand page poem known as Orlando Furioso, all about the medieval adventures of the furious Roland and his boss Charlemagne.
For a two thousand page poem, it’s a rollicking good time. There’s the beauty Angelica who possesses such allure that soldiers from both sides of the battles abandon their posts to chase her through the forests of Europe. If I remember correctly, the magician of the story feels sorry for her and gives her a magical ring; one which, when placed in her mouth, renders her invisible, thus making escape from hoards of men possible. She traipses around Europe both visible and invisible for the entire two thousand pages. Then, in the end, just to show that love is indeed blind, when she might have been the wife of any Prince, she falls in love with a brutish farmhand and lives out her days among pigs and donkeys.
Then there is the love affair between Bradamante and Ruggiero, who fight on opposite sides. Much of the poem sets up that these two will overcome personal animosity, as well as other odds, to marry and found a family that will become one of the major dynasties in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. You guessed it: the Estes.
Ariosto wasn’t averse to mixing contemporary political commentary with his courtly poetry and his duty to the commissioning Duke. The governments of his day were shocked and appalled by a new German invention, the cannon, which they felt destroyed the spirit of chivalry. So while he was busy rewriting the Este family history, he changed a few other historical facts as well. In Ariosto’s version, the Italians first invented the cannon during Charlemagne’s time. But being wise and recognising just what horror such an invention would unleash, perhaps changing warfare forever (if only he knew how much), they did what any wise, altruistic nation would do: they sunk it in the middle of the sea. Ariosto plays out his joke even further. The Germans didn’t re-invent the cannon. They simply fished it out of the sea, gave it a good cleaning, and took credit for the invention.
The word ‘invention’ brings me back to the present moment and the task at hand. All this swirls in front of me: the need for good PR even in the Renaissance; writing facts in an interesting way; promoting myself as a writer. I feel more comfortable with the idea of self-promotion now than I did before I distracted myself on the internet. The fact that the Duke of Ferrara recognised its importance 500 years ago helps me come to terms with the idea.
However, my ambivalence is not entirely gone. I suppose as long as there is the internet and half remembered facts from my university days, I can avoid composing my writer’s CV for quite a while. But not forever.
Because after I complete the CV, I need to write synopses for the two manuscripts I’ve written. There’s the ‘pitch’ synopsis, which is short, to the point, and exciting. And the regular synopsis, which outlines the plot, the themes, and the major conflict. The pitch synopsis, I’m told, is one page, and the regular synopsis no more than three. I’ve also heard that you are supposed to be able to describe your work in one and three sentences. Then I need to write out templates for cover letters—to publishers, agents, newspapers.
Writing the novel is only half the job. But there’s also a lot to do before you can sell yourself. Before the agents, publishers, book tours, and dealings with the press, you’re going to have to acknowledge that flagrant self-belief is part of what will make it all happen. That and perhaps the inventiveness of Ariosto.
Article first published in Arts Hub in 2005.