What Writers Can Learn from Musicians

DSCN1951I’ve spent a lot of time in the car recently, listening to audiobooks and music on SiriusXM. I admit it, I have become a raging fan of satellite radio. (My favorite channel is 30, The Loft. My husband’s favorite is Outlaw Country.) Out here in the West, with miles of open country between towns, without satellite radio you either put on an audiobook or fiddle endlessly trying to get a signal from an FM station. Love my SiriusXM.

The other day I was listening to an interview by a DJ with a musician. The DJ asked him about his eclectic tastes in music: blues, jazz, rock, folk. Was diversity like that important to him? He said, yes, but — and this is what stuck with me — if you want to make money in music, you have to have something that appeals to a wide range of people. Some like blues, some like jazz.

This struck me as antithetical to what we often hear in publishing. Brand yourself! Write a series! If someone reads a book they like by you, they will want something similar next time. Hook them! Give them more! 

At a convention once a well-respected, well-published novelist said, rather chagrinned, that he had to continue his series because “that was the product they wanted.” They: his publisher. Another throwaway line that stuck with me for years. To refer to your novel as “the product” — okay, to a publisher it is a commodity, I get it — seemed so wrong. It still does. Your novel should come from deep inside you, should give us a glimpse of what makes you tick, what puts the twinkle in your eye, what keeps you awake at night. If you view it as “a product” I wonder if it will come from that deep place, or will it be written for the marketplace.

Musicians went through the digital disruption phase we’re experiencing now in publishing decades ago with Napster and iTunes. Many of them ended their record label deals and went indie. Many went straight to indie. Like musicians writers wanted more control over their careers, their output, their money stream. They developed strategies to give away songs to get buyers to purchase the album, they went completely digital, they went back to vinyl, they make videos for youtube, they tour, they don’t tour. All sorts of ideas that writers can learn from. Experiment with marketing but control the “product,” the essence of what you do. Don’t make compromises with what only you can do.

We had a little discussion at the novel-writing workshop last week. One woman objected to even the whiff of marketing or audience, saying that not everyone is interested in having their work read. I agree, but most are. Most writers want that two-way communication with readers. They want to be heard. Writing, unlike most music-making, is solitary. When the work is written, rewritten, polished to a shine and sent out into the world, writers want to be read. If you’ve graduated from amateur to professional, you want an audience, whether you’re a writer or a musician. Just remember, I always tell students, only you can write your book.

new pretty dreams 2-12Although I’m mostly a crime writer last year I published a book that meant a lot to me, All Your Pretty Dreams. (It was originally called Squeeze Box but I feared the anti-accordion lobby.) I started writing this book in 1997 as a Pride and Prejudice pastiche set in an isolated Minnesota town. Originally the schtick was that the town had the only lake without mosquitoes in Minnesota. I dropped that idea, dropped the manuscript itself for years. But it wouldn’t go away, the idea of a family polka band as the Bennetts of Longbourne. It was silly but that’s what I loved about it. Finally I spent one summer figuring out how to actually write the damn thing. It’s different from my other books. Nobody gets killed. But there is a birth, a death, and a change of heart. Just like Darcy and Elizabeth.

The sales of this oddball book have not been amazing in the year since its release. But it’s gaining an audience, slowly. Recently I’ve gotten reviews from people who have read my mysteries and gave this one a try. That’s all a writer asks. Give me a go. Just like a musician who writes blues for blues lovers and folk for folkies.

Have you discovered a musician lately? Where did you find them? On the radio, on the internet? What about a new writer? How did you find them? Discovering musicians is just like discovering writers. If somebody sounds interesting, give them a go. You never know. You may find your new favorite writer.

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