While reading Be the Gateway: A Practical guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience, Dan Blank reminded me of something I often told my students in the college classroom:
People don’t buy things; they buy experiences.
Put another way, “they buy the feeling that things give them.”
For example, if you’re a Gen-Xer, think about the experience of a Sony Walkman when you were a teenager. Or what the slogan “I want my MTV” was really about—certainly not only having access to a cable channel. In more modern times, what makes someone buy a Toyota Prius as opposed to another car? What makes someone prefer an iPhone to a Galaxy? Or a Kindle e-reader to another device?
We can apply this to fandom as well. What makes some people Star Wars fans and others Star Trek fans? Or fans of classic rock as opposed to new wave? What experience does any particular film, or television series, or band, give them? How does it make them feel to follow a particular sports team?
I often talked with students about this in the context of writing and persuasion. When applying the rhetorical appeals—to credibility of character, to emotion, to reason—how does one sell an experience as opposed to a product or an idea? What narrative can you create that the consumer/fan will then adopt?
Books are boundless experiences. What is the reading experience you want to have with any particular book or author? How do their stories make you feel? What personal stories do you bring to your reading experience? What how has it changed after you’ve read a particular book, be it fiction or non?
Dan Blank posits this: “When you understand the narratives your ideal audience seeks, you know how to engage those people.”
I’ve been thinking about this in regards to my novels and the connections and engagement I want my writing to make with my readers moving forward, and I’ve been challenged by that statement. Do I understand their narratives?
In other words, what is the experience of an Elisa Lorello book? What do I want it to be? What are readers bringing to the purchase and the reading of an Elisa Lorello book? What do they want to feel? What is their story?
I’ve often struggled to pinpoint the “ideal reader.” My approach to audience has always been self-centered in nature: I write the books I want to read. So often what I write comes from whatever emotional place I am in at the time. For example, when I was contracted to write Pasta Wars, I had just gone through a sort of breakup, and it had brought up some deep-seated rejections. I needed to heal, but I also needed to laugh. Thus, I’d set out to emphasize the comedy in “romantic comedy.” I also love stories like Chocolat or Like Water for Chocolate, in which connections between food and emotion are explored. I’m a picky eater, but I want the foodie experience! Thus, I created the experience of food and eating as a love affair.
Recently I wrote in my revised author bio that all of my books, in one form or another, explore the idea of living authentically. I further wrote to a friend that “I’ve set a new intention: for my novels, writing, etc. to be a gateway for readers to experience their own aliveness and authenticity.” More superficially, I would add that I want them to laugh, and even to become verklempt. I want them to fall in love, be it with the characters, the story, or something featured in the story, like a Junior’s cheesecake or a New England town. Or perhaps even with the writing itself. But I wonder: is that what my readers want?
I don’t have the answer to that question at this time. But I want to spend the next few months finding out. In the meantime, I can tell you what the experience of writing my latest first draft has been—it’s been a challenge at times, like getting back on the horse, so to speak. It’s been emotionally therapeutic at other times. Most of all, it’s been fun. I look forward to the next phase: revision.
If my memory is correct, I started my first blog back in 2007 or 2008, when blogs were a gateway to social media and recognition. I didn’t know what I wanted it to be at the time, or whom I wanted it to be for. I mostly wrote about writing and rhetoric, but shortly into it even I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow it.
Flash-forward to last week: while revising my author bio, I included a Donald Murray quote “As we read someone else’s story, we write our own” in the draft. It had been a long time since I’d used the quote, and I wanted to make sure I’d gotten it verbatim, so I Googled it.
The first two hits turned out to be from two blog posts I’d written in those early days, back before I’d even had an author website and I was using Blogspot.
I read the posts for the first time in ten years, and thought, Hey, that’s not bad. I scrolled and read a few more. It was like meeting an old friend, seeing where she’d been and where she is now. She’d grown a lot.
Blogging has always been a strange beast for fiction writers. Over the years we’ve been told to “build a platform,” “create epic content,” and “get your writing noticed,” all before you sell your first novel. The pressure increased when it came to social media content. It’s a lot easier to focus when you’re a nonfiction writer specializing in a particular subject. But for fiction writers, content—especially blog content—has always been a head scratcher. What was a fiction writer going to blog about that would make readers want to buy their books? “Write short fiction,” they’d say. “Write in the voice of your characters.” “Write about subjects related to your novels.” “Write about the writing process.” “Write about other books.” “Feature other writers.” “Write autobiographically.” “Make it all about you.” “Don’t make it all about you.”
And so on.
Don’t even get me started on how to make it “epic.”
But that elusive they never seem to talk about making a connection with readers for the sake of…well, making a connection. There’s always something else riding on that connection.
As time went on, I tried to clarify my purpose and audience. It was for writers. No, it was for readers. No, it’s for readers and writers. No, it’s for readers of books like mine. No, it’s just an occasional update for readers of my books. No, it’s just a vehicle for when I have something to say that’s longer and more in-depth than a Facebook post.
I never quite got it. But I always wanted to.
Then, a couple of years ago, I started a new blog on a new site as an extension of my sourcebook The Writer’s Habit. The idea was to start The Writer’s Habit Academy, complete with online courses, specialized coaching, and developmental editing.
I’m going to be completely honest and show my ass here: despite my coming up with a lofty “why” (“to foster a love and passion for writing in others,” or something like that), the home truth was this: I wanted to make money.
I had dollar signs in my eyes, and little else, despite the denial I was in.
In my defense, my own writing career was falling apart. My monthly royalty checks, which had once been in the high four-figures and sometimes even five, were quickly dwindling to a far from sustainable amount. I was in panic mode. And few people see straight when they’re in panic mode, especially when they don’t realize they’re in panic mode.
It’s not that the blog was a bad idea. It’s that it was, in hindsight, inauthentic. I’d taken an online course (one that, to steal a term from Dan Blank, could be described as a “best practices” course) from someone who’d made a lot of money as the result of blogging. To look back and read those posts now, most of them feel contrived, trying too hard to get Likes, Follows, Clicks, Shares, and move up on the Google search chain. Incidentally, the most popular post was the most genuine: a tribute to Judy Blume.
I’d had grand plans for that blog, and the business it would catapult. What I didn’t expect (but what makes perfect sense now) was that I would burn out practically before I even started. My intention of posting once a week quickly turned into once every other week followed by once a month, and I found myself dreading the task every three weeks. Where I’d thought I’d have a trove of topics to choose from, I found myself scrambling to write something of interest, something that would fit into “The Five Best Writing Tips” kind of mold.
And then I discovered an even more harsh truth: I didn’t really want to teach writing anymore. At least, not as a small business.
So then I tried to revive what I call my author blog, the one on my website, and once again did so for the purpose of trying desperately to find something that would catch fire and, more importantly (or so I thought), convert to book sales: A Year of Nora Ephron series (I think that fizzled out after three posts). Cover reveals. Giveaway announcements. I tried to post regularly. I tried to write with purpose. I tried and tried and tried. But nothing stuck.
It had all been a massive letdown. I felt like a complete failure. I felt foolish for having been taken in by this course, and ashamed of the truth of why I’d allowed myself to be taken in. I felt rudderless. Being a writer and a teacher had defined me for the better part of fifteen years, if not longer. But I couldn’t even sustain a damn blog. My livelihood was disappearing right before my eyes, and I couldn’t save it.
And then, at the beginning of this year, I took an indefinite sabbatical from the whole thing—writing, publishing, teaching, promoting, you name it. I suspended my mailing list. I took a social media break. I dropped out.
And I went to pieces.
In short, I fell into depression. I was grieving not only the loss of my career and livelihood and all its successes, but also, and especially, the loss of my joy for it. None of it had been fun for a good two years. I confronted the fear that it had only been fun because it had been successful.
Could I ever love it again if I never made another dime from it? Did I want to be an author if it wasn’t sustainable?
With time, therapy, and a part-time job at an independent movie theater, I began to climb out of my funk. And as I confronted these fears and losses and made peace with them, I found myself reconnecting to something I’d lost in all that panic: connection.
It’s easy, especially when you’re at the peak of success, to forget that there are human beings behind those Likes, Follows, Click Rates, Sales, and Shares. It’s easy to become so blinded and pressured by the analytics that you forget what made them:
One reader at a time.
One reader who read a book I had written and loved it. Was inspired by it. Laughed. Cried. Loaned it to a friend. Recommended it to their book club. Wrote a review. Shared it on social media. Took the time to let me know personally what it meant to them.
That’s what I loved. That’s what had inspired me. That’s what made it fun. That I could do it for as long as I did as a full-time, sustainable job was a dream come true. And I’m not going to lie: I still want to do so. But I’m no longer terrified of not being able to.
Last week, I completed the first draft of a novel. Like all first drafts, it needs a lot of work. It needs focus and direction. It needs pacing. It needs depth. It needs fleshing out of ideas and characters and the story itself. As Andi says to Devin in Faking It, “There’s so much here that’s not yet on the page.” The possibilities that live within the flaws.
What makes this first draft a big deal, however, is because just a few short months ago, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to write another book. I wasn’t sure I’d even have another idea, one that nagged at me until it was born.
Moreover, I liked it.
And that’s the way I’m feeling overall these days. I’m reviving my newsletter. Updating my website and author bio. Posting on Instagram. I’m conversing more. And I’m not doing it for dollars. I’m doing it because it’s fun again. I’m doing it because I want to make connections again.
One reader at a time. Even if it’s only one.
So I guess you could say my sabbatical is over.
And yes, as I write this, I’m having that blogging itch again of wanting to say, This time it’s gonna be different. I’m going to blog every week and it’s going to be great. It’s going to have authentic purpose and audience and, most of all, consistency. I’m going to be committed, dammit. One post per week. It’ll be awesome. And its purpose won’t be lofty, and it won’t be self-serving, and it won’t be for the purposes of platform or conversion or affiliate marketing or anything I’ve ever tried to conform it to. It will be for the sole purpose of connection and conversation. From me to you, and between me and you. And not you, “ideal reader” or “target audience” or “potential book buyer.”
Because I love you. Because I love it. Because it’s fun.
Remember in You’ve Got Mail, when Frank asks Kathleen if there’s someone else in her life and she answers, “No. But there is the dream of someone else”?
I’m not making any promises about a successful, lasting return to blogging. But right now, I’m loving the dream of it. Of everything.
I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.