March 01, 2011

To Be Or No To Be…Plat(form) Is The Question

To Be Or No To Be…Plat(form) Is The Question

by SJ Hodges

I wake this morning and find an email from an old friend in my inbox. Excerpts from his new novel. He’d like some feedback. Wants to know where to shop it. How to shop it. As a ghostwriter, I’ve dipped my pinky toe in the publishing pool. Been lucky enough to sell fiction off a proposal (when that was still possible), muscle a unheard-of memoir into a movie deal (when that was still possible) and will soon head back out in the market with a currently unnamed reality TV star’s life story. I have skirted around the periphery of the industry, clinging to the coattails of those personalities with “platform” in order to stay on the shelves. My friend has never ventured into books. As a screenwriter, he’s battled other demons. The kind who wear Armani. The kind who hire interns to read on their behalf. A different kind of beast. This is why he thinks I might have sage words to share.

I respond favorably to his excerpt. A whole world contained within a few pages. It’s nice to hear his voice in my head again, after so many years on opposite coasts. I write back with encouragement and suggest that he finish the complete manuscript before showing it to agents or editors. With the major publishing houses in massive transition from dinosauric to digitized, an unpublished, “brand-new” writer with great talent, a half-finished manuscript and no platform is easily cast aside.

It used to be that product created platform. Now, platform creates product.

First time novelists are told to launch a website, to start a blog. Or contribute to blogs. Or to blog tour. They are encouraged to tweet. No, they are expected to tweet. They’re told that their followers need to number in the thousands. No, the hundreds of thousands. I login to Facebook each day to find double friend requests smiling back at me with the same photo attached. Writers, actors, directors setting up two separate accounts: one professional, one personal. Platform, platform, platform.

I know what it takes to put the platform on the page because I’m the one actually typing up that proposal. The one that will land a six-figure deal for someone else. I’ve seen the remarkable numbers that some aspiring authors bring to the table. I’ve mastered the careful calculations necessary to estimate past and projected media impressions – broadcast and print. I’ve learned the term “back-of-room merchandising efforts” and can, without blinking an eye, recite a massive list of alternative income stream opportunities. I’ve massaged the statistical analysis of demographic draws to more favorably represent my clients and I should have a PhD in branding, trending, promotional packaging…

It can be paralyzing.

It can kill creativity.

It has nearly killed my first novel.

To write in the face of obscurity. This is nothing new. From the moment the first person ever carved into a cave wall, every writer’s greatest fear is to have opened the vein allowing their life to spill and splatter and spurt onto the wall, onto the page and to have that effort go unrecognized, unappreciated, unheard. It’s just now…publishers and agents have the actual numbers to confront you. They’ve got the hard evidence, the proof…you most definitely are not Ashton Kutcher. You. Are. Unknown.

Still, I write. And my friends write. And we email each other excerpts of our work and ask for feedback. We tweet, wax poetic on our Facewalls and ask for connections. On the bad days, when the words are slow to form and Charlie Sheen instantaneously accumulates 150,000 followers on Twitter without even tweeting, I try to remember the stillness and quiet perfection of my days at The MacDowell Colony where every year, 250 artists, some known, most unknown, wander among the woods, hunker down in cozy cabins and create.

It was enough, those days at the MacDowell, to be alone in the woods. To write, to eat, to share wine with newfound friends. Having no connection to or awareness of the business, it was a freedom. There was happiness to be found there. Beside the fireplace, with a warm thermos of tomato soup watching fluffy flakes of sugary snow drift against my front door. After seven years spent on the sunny beaches of L.A., I can watch snow fall for hours.

It was enough, the writing. It was enough to sustain me.

It is a feeling I often try to conjure as I walk my daily tightrope stretched between creativity and commercialism, meaning and marketing, product and platform. As I program my days into chunks of time: minutes to wake, minutes to eat, minutes to shower, walk, return calls, build a website, meet a new contact, and oh yeah, write.

I click on my inbox. Find another friend’s new chapter on the screen. Read it. Love it. Want to hear more. And in that moment, I choose not to calculate her media impressions. I choose not brainstorm tie-in merchandising opportunities. I choose not click to follow her tweets. Instead, I send her words of encouragement. Then I say those same words aloud to myself. Creation for the sake of creation. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.

In the sunny confines of my Santa Monica office, I close my eyes and listen for snow.

SJ Hodges writes for the stage, tv, screen and print. She can be contacted via Facebook at The Constant Creator and followed on Twitter @constantcreator.