Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Dreaded P-Word by Penny Dolan.

“Platform.” Grrr!!! 

Platform is one of the worst words in the world. “Platform” is what I’ve heard an author is supposed to build. It is definitely the opposite of writing.
I imagine an author platform as a kind of hammered-together, high-above-the-crowd kind of stage, constructed from the strained struts of these or those book titles. Every cross-timber is fastened firmly by pointed blogs, various on-line presences, knocked into place with the ever pounding hammers of social networking. 

 Even then, once set up, the author platform needs constant maintenance so it can grow brighter and brighter with every media mention. Doesn't it?

Certainly, the platform must be big, so there’s no danger of sudden plummets off the edges. At times there may be room for a few select authors alongside but essentially the author platform is a one-person kind of space.

I find that idea sad and scary. Alone up there. Think about it.  Here’s a question - and a few answers.

Why does one need to build a "platform"?

A "platform" is so that others can hear you talking above all the other voices.
But when I write, I’m only speaking to one person, in their head. That’s where any of my decibels come, inside my story, not at a rally.

A "platform" is so that the audience can see you above any others.
But I want to be seen through my words and through the characters in my books. That’s where authors are properly “seen”. Writing isn’t a catwalk, not in itself. Besides, it’s an impossible task. There’s a whole crowd of “platforms” now and there’ll be more by the time you’ve read to the end of this post. Assuming you do. Thank you.

A "platform" is so the audience can watch and admire your performance.
This feels like the age of the author as entertainer, or even the entertainer becoming author, as the ill-destined TV Book Club seemed to believe. But the writing doesn’t take place while wearing the Showcoat, or not in this house anyway.

The Showcoat is all about using one’s performance skills to give them out there a good time. The Writing Coat is all about keeping one’s behind on the seat, alone, for long hours. Besides, some of the best children’s writers are not natural entertainers and why should they be? The books speak for their authors. The comfortable introspection needed to build imaginary worlds – or adapt real ones – is miles away from the “Look at me dancing!” approach.

Children’s authors often find it wearying acting the Universal Showtime person, called in to entertain during the big Book Weeks and Literary Festivals and returning home to keeping up with the next round of Showtime demands. Some are even – gasp! - hanging up their blogs and stepping back to spend energies and time on the writing.

But isn’t a "platform" there so  you can go places?
Oh, platform as in Harry Potter. Now you see it. Now you don’t. Only magical people allowed. Hurry, or you’ll miss your chance. 

It seems to me that that particular platform can breed the kind of anxieties that make it hard for a writer to settle into their proper writing. The hours get eaten up by admin, or preparation, or crafting just the right tone of email instead of doing the real work on the page. 

(Or choosing the right shoes. Definitely not platform shoes.)

 Oh, wait a moment. Who is that speaking?

Pardon, mes petits! Je suis Madam Defarge. J'ecoute le mot “platform?”

Oh yes, There’s that other “platform” effect. Ker-chunk. It’s a bad place to be when you feel you're not wanted any more.

Of course the “author’s platform” offers opportunities, fun and occasional bad pinches. However, once the platform becomes your life, you might be in trouble. 

Especially when your books go out of print or when the audience is lured to something brighter (or even greyer.) The publicity platform can be a tricky, rickety place - and its wobbling under me right now.

Writing makes for far firmer ground. Keep at it – and good luck!

Penny Dolan

Penny's latest novel is A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury), shortlisted for the Stockton Book Award, The West Sussex Book Award and the Historical Assocation Primary Fiction Award.


Liz Kessler said...

Penny, I think this will probably touch a nerve with a lot of people.

It's such a hard balance, between what we really want to do (write our books) and what we know we have to do to get our books 'out there'. How do we stay true to the essence of what we are, and at the same time give our books the best chance of reaching readers who we hope will love them? At times, it feels like a very tricky juggling act.

Brave and interesting post!


Joan Lennon said...

Oh, Penny, this is just how it feels but where to find the courage to stop dancing?

Thank you for posting!

catdownunder said...

I get vertigo. Do I really need to get on a platform?
Seriously, I do not like trying to stand out in the crowd. A writer's words should speak for them.

Jenny Alexander said...

Very thought-provoking, Penny - and beautifully written - I'm sure your post will strike a chord with lots of writers, as Liz says.
It almost feels to me as if the platform becomes another aspect of the writing - I enjoy my various blogs because you're writing and talking to readers instantly about what you've written - but there's no denying it takes a massive chunk of time away from book-writing. However, appearances and performances feel like a rather more random distraction for a writer, I must say.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Really brilliant post Penny! Having just been at the IBBY International Conference here in London I'm in awe of the platform performances of some... Michael Rosen Peter Sis and Shaun Tan to name a few... genuine, thought-provoking and self-effacing where the books and love of words and illustration were the most important thing and not the man behind them. (A few other 'performers' seemed to be looking more for Oscars,)

And as you say the platform brings to mind Anne Boleyn about to be beheaded.

Tam said...

I actually enjoy doing author events but I do a lot of am dram so it comes fairly easily to me. I like Twitter for the interaction and information. Pinterest is pure indulgence. Blogs, on the other hand, feel like more work for less gain.

The best thing about doing a children's author event is the audience - as long as there is one. There's nothing more soul-destroying than talking for the benefit of two elderly ladies who turned up by mistake and their dog.

Penny Dolan said...

Good to know I am not alone! Tam, I love putting on the Showcoat and doing events and being with children but I know that feels to me a whole different mindset to the reflection needed for writing.

While the blogging is fun and useful practice, it's also not working in the world of fiction - though it may be for some, or perhaps their lives are that interesting? It's also - slightly - written in a "performance persona". My blogging head definitely isn't the same as the one that Adele calls "Novelhead". And, as Cat says, the writing is the core.

The "platform" thing certainly needs juggling (and dancing) skills in terms of time and energy, Liz & Joan.

On reflection, I think what matters is the content of any performance. The names you mention, Di, speak as if they are looking beyond themselves and their work and out to a wider world. (A tiny aside. But why do such speakers all seem to be men?)

Jenny, I think your lovely blog/s work because they are always so much part of your creativity and approach. Talking, not performing.

Katherine Roberts said...

Two ways out of this dilemma are:
(a) Stay small and insignificant so nobody cares what you say on your rickety platform, and if it falls down nobody will laugh at you because - well, nobody's watching anyway, except for your friends.
(b) Be a really, really mega best-seller so you can say "no" and nobody will care because you don't need your own platform - other people (who are much better at it than you) are busy doing all the shouting for you.

I am aiming for (b), naturally.

Liz Kessler said...

Penny, I just spotted this cartoon via Twitter, and it seems very appropriate to share here...


Penny Dolan said...

That's brilliant as well as appropriate, Liz! And - I fear - how some people may think.

(Copied the link into google to reach it.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Fantastic Penny!