Everything I write is art. Everything other people write is commercial bullshit.
I’m sure that’s what a lot of writers tell themselves. I was one of them a decade ago (and I didn’t get much written at all).
Today, I’m happy to say I have no hang-ups about writing “commercial bullshit.” While I’d love to write the next Great American Novel, I’ll settle for writing a book that gets people talking. In fact, I’d argue that should be the goal of every writer.
If you’re not writing something that’s worth talking about, why the hell are you writing? People will talk about your work when you stir something beneath the surface of their psyches. They’ll tell their friends who will tell their friends and soon you might end up with more than 15 sales.
What’s a purple cow?
The most important lessons I learn about writing don’t always come from other writers; they come from marketers. Marketers don’t hold pretensions about great art.
Or, if they do, they view great art as something that reaches the widest numbers of eyes, ears or mouths. The art is in the number of people reached.
Seth Godin, one of our age’s master marketers, has long argued that the business world has shifted from making so-so products and outspending your competition on advertising to making phenomenal products and letting the product do most of the advertising work for you.
That’s precisely what a great book does. It builds its own word of mouth. It becomes what Godin would call a purple cow.
“A Purple Cow is a product or service that’s remarkable,” Godin writes. “‘Remarkable’ simply means that a customer is willing to make a remark about it. If you can create remarkable products, people will talk about them. If that happens, the word will spread and your sales will grow. That explains the success of most every fast-growing company of the last ten years.
Are you invisible? Or remarkable?”
As writers, we have to ask ourselves the same questions. Is our book invisible? Or is it interesting enough that someone might actually bring it up in conversation?
Look at your book from an outsider’s eyes. Is there something in its that’s truly remarkable? Is there something that makes it different from the 33 other books that are published every single hour in the United States?
If the answer’s no, it’s time to crumple up that bland manuscript and start working on something new (it worked for Chuck Palahniuk after all). Slap some udders on your own purple cow and show him to your writing group.
Great writing makes you feel like you’re dancing on the edges of your comfort zone. If your writing doesn’t do that, your cow’s not purple enough. Great writing, like great products, is about taking chances and shooting for the moon. That’s the only chance you have at creating something worth talking about.