On Brand vs. Product and Author vs. Work

Weekends are typically geekfest-type affairs for me, because they often involve hanging out at my father’s place watching movies, talking about geek news, and herding perpetually-hungry cats. Generally, they don’t lead to anything that can be mistaken for “shop talk”.

Last weekend, however, we kind of just wandered into it. While talking about the books we like reading (at the moment, it happens to be The Dresden Files – because I’m in the middle of a series re-read and Dad is on the verge of finishing the latest installment, “Skin Game”), I noted that my father had always been an author loyalist rather than a series loyalist. That is to say, he tended to choose books, TV shows, and comic books based on WHO wrote them rather than what or who the story was about. For example, my Dad collected the Alan Moore run of The Swamp Thing and, as far as I could tell, it was the only run of that comic he actually completed. Another thing: while Dad’s mostly a DC fan, he has no problems getting into Marvel when his favorite DC storytellers move on to work with them – Paul Dini comes to mind. And it really doesn’t matter what genre or form he writes in; Dad will read Neil Gaiman’s work.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind. In fact, I love that I practically inherited that from him. But it did make me wonder why he’s so author-oriented.

Dad’s simple answer? “It’s because working in advertising made me care more about the BRAND instead of just the product.”

Reading in Between Brand Loyalty
The brand I’ve been “branded” with since I was a child.

Brand vs. Product

For those of you who haven’t grown up with the lexicon, it may be easier to think of it this way:

  • a brand is how you PERCEIVE and IDENTIFY with a company
  • a company’s products are the items they actually produce

Many different companies can have the same product, but the branding attracts a different audience for each of them. Pepsi and Coca Cola may both produce refreshing drinks, but Pepsi resonates more with the “bleeding edge cool” identity while Coca Cola resonates with “family- and friendship-focused” identities.

Never thought of myself as cool, so that’s probably why I’m pretty attached to Coke.

In short, branding creates uniqueness for a product that would otherwise be considered run-of-the-mill. Branding is the story that people buy into, that help them emotionally connect with the products they buy. Why do you think there are so many Apple loyalists out there? It’s because its brand story is one of creative innovation, which people have come to admire – and its dearly-departed evangelist Steve Jobs told that story well.

It’s no wonder, then, that the way my dad – a veteran copywriter – sees it, branding is always best attributed to the storyteller that supports it. In fact, I’m inclined to agree that without the proper “author”, a brand won’t be able to take off.

Author vs. Work

There are two things I’ve learned over the course of my love affair with reading and writing:

  • an author’s voice is not limited to style; it also includes themes the author authentically connects with
  • the author can produce work for different genres or in different forms and still retain their voice

Authors are often encouraged to create a particular “voice”, an approach to storytelling, that can be associated with them. That’s why you can easily distinguish the humor of Carl Hiaasen from the humor of Christopher Moore, even with their fairly similar affection for somewhat absurd situations (though Moore’s absurdity is clearly more fantastical in nature, with his vampires and angels). Essentially, you can say that authors are predisposed towards branding in their writing; no matter what work they produce, they always “sound” like themselves and create a sense of familiarity and relatability for the audience they attract.

In other words, authors were brands long before the Internet made personal branding a thing.

For most writers, the branding thing requires them to adopt nom de plumes that allowed them to switch genres; look at Nora Roberts, who was known to have written as JD Robb, Jill March, and Sarah Hardesty. Each pseudonym she used is a sub-brand that represents the PRODUCT that readers can expect to get out of them – that said, Robert’s penchant for strong character development and romance STILL shines through most of the stuff she’s written.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. We can all quibble over whether or not Spike Lee is worth the praise piled on him; but we can’t deny that, as a storyteller, he has a very unique and recognizable voice despite having covered various genres in his work. And, as we all know, my hero Neil Gaiman regularly switches from writing articles to adult fiction to children’s fiction to poetry to comics without losing his identity as a writer.

That’s why people like my dad get invested in authors rather than plots; no matter how cool the product is on paper, it’s always the brand that they connect with – and storytellers make the brand come alive.

 

Personal Thoughts: Companies Can Lose Customer Loyalty When They Forget Branding and Get Their “Authors” Wrong

When I was growing up, DC stories felt like they were all about near-epic heroism from very different characters (which serve as “sub-brands” to its “epic heroism brand”). Sure, Batman’s awesome; but in their own way, so are Superman and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern and The Flash. Each character had a fan base that was attracted to its “brand”. I admit it got cheesy sometimes, but I’d like to think that they mostly stayed true to branding.

When it became clear that DC and its partners wanted to capitalize on Batman’s ever-increasing popularity by rebooting every other character to have a Batman-ish element, I basically lost faith in the company and its partners. Don’t get me started on the WB decision to hire Snyder and Goyer, who have unintentionally loogied on a character brand by virtue of being the wrong “authors” to hire for a Superman story. Nor am I going to go on and on about how they decided to align animated stories with the grittier comics instead of applying the superior storytelling of the animated stuff to influence their comics (I may be biased because Young Justice should not have died).

I’m not saying that every DC thing right now is bad. I’m just saying that they occasionally forget that their brand is MORE than Batman. I’m saying that this publisher should remember that each character is a brand within their brand (a brand identity they keep forgetting) and each have stories that are appropriate and not appropriate for them. And I’m saying they should understand that they should be mindful of the storytellers they choose for each story.

I’ll still give some of their stories the benefit of the doubt. But now I’m cheating on them with other comic companies – especially if the storytellers I love moved to the competitors.

 

Quick question – what are your favorite brands/authors, and why are they your favorites? Did you have a favorite brand/author that stopped being your favorite? If so, why? Do feel free to comment! 

Are Writers and Readers at Odds?

Hear me out. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now.

Tweet of Old
See?

It’s just that I occasionally run into bits of news about writer’s rights when it comes to publishing (modern and traditional) AND news about readers being relatively unhappy with independently-published books. On one end, we have a discussion over empowering writers. On the other end, we have a discussion over people expecting to get paid for really crappy work.

I know there’s a middle ground somewhere; I think Wattpad is a great place to find great work for free AND get feedback for your writing (so you’d know if people would be willing to pay for your stories). But it seems that I persistently find places where the debate over publishing pits readers and writers against each other, even if the readers ARE the the writers and vice versa. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the fact that we’re on the Internet where everyone has a voice (and, as my Dad says, everyone gets the license to whine about everything), or if it’s simply because self-publishing and ebooks just made book creation and consumption much easier.

All I know is that there are disagreements over this out there, and that I’m pretty sure everyone is at fault.

With regards to the writers

Again, one of the complaints people have over the new world order is that so much crap is being produced out there. Before you say anything, I’d like to point out that you don’t find these feces-laden work exclusively in self-publishing–traditional publishing has its ridiculous share of this stuff (which, incidentally are better promoted and are therefore passed off as exceptionally good). In fact, there are really good indie books; but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the crap.

In the case of “new” publishing, I suspect that the proliferation of crap is primarily due to the fact that it is “sold” to aspiring authors as “easy and affordable”. You don’t have to deal with jerkwads who will try to cheat you out of your hard-earned money. Yay, right? Unfortunately, many writers have taken this to mean that they can now get away with not investing as much money into their work–that is to say, a good chunk of them don’t even bother with professional editors, book designers, and the like. They just throw that thing out there and expect to earn lots of dollars for it or something, even if it’s likely that no one would want to read that thing FOR FREE. I think some of them even resent the fact that “people cannot appreciate their artistic vision”, which was probably born out of a gross misunderstanding of the advice “just write!” (I’ve come across some writers who completely ignore the “THEN polish!” bit).

Meanwhile, bad writers are also getting picked up by traditional publishers–possibly in a desperate and misguided bid to compete with the apparent success of self-publishing. I suspect that in their rush to publish all the things so they can capitalize on/discover the hottest trend in books, they also basically forgot the value of quality control. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I’m seeing more gag-worthy printed by big name publishers right now. This is horribly depressing, if you consider the fact that many writers out there expect the publishers to polish their work for them. It used to be a fair assumption, especially when you apply it to well-known publishing companies. But these days, it doesn’t seem to be a guarantee. Couple this with publishers opting to pay more for concept rather than actual talent and craft (thus making many writers focus solely on concept), and we end up in a horrible state of affairs.

With regards to the readers

This is not to say that readers have not had a hand in this. While readers like myself DO complain over the lack of quality, I can’t deny the fact that a cool concept does tend to bowl people over – I sometimes buy a book because I like its premise; although it occasionally results in my disappointment because the hook’s significance in the storytelling turns out to be superficial at best.

Allow me to use non-book examples here. If you look at the geek community–which seems to have grown significantly over the last few years–you will see just how easy it is to get excited over certain ideas. At the San Diego Comic-Con, a huge contingent erupted into cheers when it was revealed that the second Superman/Man of Steel movie will have Batman and that it will take inspiration from the Dark Knight comics series. Yay! Batman vs. Superman! This sounds SO AWESOME! Of course, there is no actual guarantee that this WILL be as awesome as we think it is–as optimistic as many of us are over this, we also can’t deny the fact that this could turn out to be a big, big, mess that will turn us against the very people who are trying to give us what we want: something really, REALLY cool. The problem is that we never really explain to them properly that the “cool factor” only works if you put it in the right kind of context. We just tell them (through our Internet fangasming) that so-and-so scene is legendary and should be included in the movie version or something.

As such, I think readers mislead a lot of people–including themselves–into thinking that the new concept is everything they need; sometimes, they completely forget that the concept itself only worked because of skillful execution on the part of the people who worked on the piece. Readers, especially fannish readers (and we have to admit that we are legion these days), often fail to articulate that they need more than an interesting premise for the book–they need a seamless reading experience that they find difficult to get out of. This means no misspellings, no confusing sentences, no plot inconsistencies that will niggle at their brains for the rest of the story (or make them stop reading altogether. As a case in point: The Dresden Files has an excellent concept AND its storytelling was phenomenal. There are cool bits, and they are cool because they are assimilated in the plot. Why is it so hard to do?

There is hope

Thankfully, there are writers out there who insist on making sure that anything they plan to publish is good before they actually publish them. There are also readers out there who take the time to explain in detail why an awesome moment works in one story, but doesn’t work in another (I wish I can do that, but I can barely even remember to eat lunch sometimes). There are people who decide to take on that kind of responsibility, and I have to admire them.

But they can’t do this alone. Fellow writers, we have to remember that we’re creating these things so they will be read–and we have to make sure that the reading experience is not painful for readers. Fellow readers, this hype-complain-hype cycle is helping NO ONE. We have to stop being so reactive and start really thinking about why we like the stories we like and help storytellers become better writers. We can help each other, I know we can! At the end of the day, we all love great stories; shouldn’t we try to make it work together?

 

On Figuring Out My Superhero Story

So I just read a superhero story. A DAMN GOOD superhero story. It’s written by (our family favorite) io9 writer Charlie Jane Anders, and you can read it in Apex magazine.

You need to read it. I mean, right now. I can wait.

Stories you love to read
It’s one of THOSE.

Done? Great, right? By the time I finished reading it, I found my mind racing. The family and reincarnation angle, the POV, the female superhero–they got woven together in a way that engaged me and made me care about the characters. The world building–despite the fact that the setting does not get in the way of plot movement–is extremely solid. In many ways, it reminded me of some of the stories told in Astro City.

It also kind of made me think of my own superhero story and how much of it sucks in comparison. ><

As it is, I’m finding it very difficult to stitch the different little “human” and “hero” moments of my character together. Occasionally, I also find myself distracted by the other superheroes that pop up in the original incarnation of the story; primarily because a couple of them have some VERY strong connections to a major story arc that moves Liberty into a new heroic phase.

I’m specifically talking about Egg and Maboroshii Tofu-sama, who are both genetically linked to the baddies in this specific story. Egg (created by my sister Addy) features prominently in Act 1, in which all hell STARTS to break loose. Act 2 turns Tofu-sama (created by my friend Ren) into one of the catalysts that force a change in Liberty’s superheroics, as he is considered to be a close friend by Ean Garcia–that’s Liberty’s secret identity. I’m currently working with my sister to flesh out everything so I can hopefully make something cohesive out of the mess of ideas I’m dealing with right now.

While I do plan to keep many of the elements of the original plot–specifically the major events that my brilliant sister orchestrated so many years ago–I’m also changing things to allow for some darker themes later on. For example, Ean and Chiaki Junpei (Tofu-sama’s secret identity) started out as pop stars; in the revamped storyline, however, I find it more plausible for them to be something more low-key but still ridiculously flashy. So I’m thinking that they should own an image consultancy business together. Enye, Ean’s lookalike (younger) twin sister, was originally the songwriter to her brother’s pop singer. Now, though, I’m inclined to turn her into a journalist of some sort. She’ll probably be the type who’ll do the fluff pieces so she’ll still have time to look out for her brother. I’m also considering changing the name of the setting. We called it Nuna Payatt, but I haven’t gotten the permission to use it from the person who came up with that (she does awesome cosplay, that girl).

Strangely enough, I can’t imagine changing anything about Egg–who is a kitty that turns into something that looks human–and his caretaker/Mom Ingrid Klein–who happens to be a photographer. If there’s anything I’m inclined to change about their end of the plot, it’s the type of publication that Ingrid works for. Originally, she shot photos for Kakkoii~!! Magazine (which focuses on fashion). Now, I’m considering turning Kakkoii into something closer to a news blog (where Enye also works; see how well it seems to tie together?). It will, of course, still be owned and run by the same people because I simply can’t write this story without the effervescent Love Yamamoto and her long-suffering associate Ludwig Volkakov. I ALSO don’t think I can change anything about Jeun, who works as Chiaki’s poor, put-upon assistant. Because she’s the person who makes that megalomaniac seem ALMOST human.

It’s a lot of work, but I’m hoping that I can do this without screwing it up too much.

Thankfully, Charlie Jane’s short story is inspiring me (instead of discouraging me) with its awesomeness right now. I’m scribbling on my filler notebook as we speak, so I can hopefully jot down some scenes and plot points when I get home later.

Oh, in case you’re wondering about Egg and his human, here’s all you need to know about them:

Egg vs the Bath
Again, drawn by my talented sister.

So you understand the REAL reason why I can’t let these characters go. Thankfully, my sister is okay with using them in the new version.

On People Disrespecting Logic in Plots

Over the last couple of weeks, I kept finding myself repeatedly exposed to stories that had plot points that made no sense. I’m not going to list all of them here, but please trust me when I say that there are enough of them to piss me off. Why do they piss me off?

Because they got produced, and people are paying for them.

Nerd rage activate. (Image from Wikipedia)

It’s like people decided that if you have enough pretty elements in the production, everyone else will completely ignore the fact that a whole lot of the story makes no goddamn sense. Who cares about logic in narrative? Narrative is all about FEELINGS, right? And visuals bring in more feelings, right? So fuck the story and let’s just throw in as many cool things as we can into this thing so we can give the paying public enough feels to make us rich and shit. Fuck the plot. Let’s just pander. Pander pander pander. Nobody wants to think when they’re watching a movie or a play, or reading fiction.

I guess this wouldn’t hurt me so much if I didn’t care about the craft of telling a story and didn’t work so hard at making sure that any novel I publish would make sense.

It’s just that I know, from years of experience, that the cool bits only become REALLY cool when it’s rooted in a solid, logical narrative. I don’t care what you say; you have to make sure that whatever happens in the story makes sense. Don’t deus ex machina all over the place just because. That’s just fricking lazy. You have to remember to take everything that’s happened so far into account before you get your character to do anything. Yes, this includes narratives in which you shuffle scenes around so they wouldn’t be happening in chronological order. Stuff needs to be explained. Hell, you can even use long blocks of exposition to do that if you want (though it’s inadvisable and it’s another pet peeve of mine) as long as you don’t have that one supposedly dead dude showing up at the end to kill the big bad FOR NO GOOD REASON. That just jars me out of the experience and makes me want to walk away.

Except, you know, I can’t walk away. Because I have this burning need to tell you and your descendants where you went wrong with this story.

Look, I’m a fan of fantasy and a bunch of other stuff that requires suspension of disbelief. But that doesn’t mean that I’m okay with you totally disrespecting logic in plots and throwing them out the window because it would be cooler that way or because you want it to end the way you always thought it should end, sense be damned. If you’re going to insist that Christine and the Phantom have a little boy together, then you damn well better make it feasible in the context of the ORIGINAL Phantom of the Opera story in which the Phantom seemed to have no real human connection until the very end, when Christine kissed him to save Raoul.

*cough*

I guess I should just fess up and admit that most of this post has something to do with the fact that I watched “Love Never Dies” (Andrew Lloyd Weber’s sequel to “Phantom of the Opera”) on HBO over the weekend and found myself screaming “why the name of hell did you have to do this?” repeatedly for two hours. The production looked amazing and some of the melodies really stay with you. But I just can’t get over the improbability of the child if you take the original into consideration. Which you should. BECAUSE THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE A SEQUEL.

Other stuff inspired this post too, but I don’t think I want to bring them up anymore. They’ll just make me mad. The way Jonathan Kent in “Man of Steel” made me mad because that version only would have worked if they did “Birthright” all the way instead of just drawing bits of inspiration from it. Except they didn’t – they took the Jonathan and didn’t do enough of the Martha to make up for it. So they ended up with a Superman who had no real solid moral grounding upon which you can base his “super-ness”. If you try to bring up Jor-El, I will CUT you because he didn’t cut it as a father figure either. Don’t you dare tell me that he did. And I’m not even getting into all the OTHER stuff that made no real sense in the film. Like that kiss between Lois and Clark. Because WHEN exactly did they have time to develop the hots for each other?

Dammit. I said I wouldn’t bring it up.

My point is that logic is important in plots. If it’s not there, then there’s nothing for us to take in from all this. And that’s what’s making me angry. Stories, apart from making us feel something, help us LEARN something. Without the logic there, it’s difficult for us to learn anything. And it’s a waste. It’s a shame.

I think I’ll have that drink now.