Friday, 22 July 2011

9 Rules for Mining Your Private Life for Publicity

I can remember clearly the phone call from the publicist for my first novel Adultery for Beginners:  

Publicist: Magazine X wants to do an interview, so does Newspaper Y - are you happy to talk to them?
Me (squeaky voiced with excitement): Yes, of course.
Publicist: They want to know how much of the novel is based on real life.  
Me: Bits - it's based round the area I used to live in -
Publicist (cutting me short): They want you to talk about your adultery.
Me (even squeakier voiced): But I haven't been adulterous, it's all made up.
Publicist (after long pause): So you haven't had an affair?
Me: NO!
Publicist (sighing): I'll let them know, and then get back to you.

And that was that.  No real-life confession of affairs = no press interview.

The media is hungry for real-life stories, which is a problem for writers who want to maintain their privacy.  They want dramatic/sordid/sex-based stories which if you're leading an ordinary sort of life you just can't supply, even if you wanted to.  I recently was interviewed about the time my daughter was mugged.  It was a dreadful event but it brought us closer together and became a positive experience.  The journalist brought the interview to an end early because she knew the magazine wouldn't run it - we were too ordinary a family, there wasn't enough dysfunction. They wanted the character journey/story arc to be more extreme - just as you would for fiction.

So, if you're mining your personal life for publicity.... 

1.  Be aware that it's the murkier stuff they're going to be interested in, not the happy stuff you'd share with anybody.  Writer publishes book is, sadly, not news.

2.  Remember they're looking for a strong story arc if you're pitching ideas.  If you're happy now, you'll have to provide the misery earlier.

3.  Sex and money are always popular themes.

4.  Look for strong story lines.  Affairs, rags to riches, triumph over disaster etc.

5.  If your story impinges on anyone who matters to you, even obliquely, run it past them before you tell the world. People who matter to you are worth more than any amount of column inches.

6. In my experience, people get disgruntled over the stuff you thought was completely innocuous, whereas the stuff you thought might cause problems passes without comment.  

7.  Never, ever read the comments if the article is published on line.  Don't be tempted to even sneak a peak. If you don't believe me, look at the comments under any article about Kate Middleton and see how quickly it degenerates into people being unpleasantly judgmental about things they know nothing of.  There are a lot of people out there with grudges and no inhibitions when it comes to being nasty to strangers. You can't stop them writing it; you can stop yourself reading.

8.  I've only had nice feedback from the public about what I've written about my private life (caveat: I follow Rule 7), but I've heard of other writers getting into trouble. One writer even had excrement posted through her letterbox after writing about where she lived in not 100% glowing terms.  Tread on other people's toes very carefully.  They may know where you live.

9.  Think very carefully about whether it's worth it.  I don't think articles about your private life sell novels, unless they're related to the subject of your book. You can monitor the response using your Amazon ratings - I've seen them leap up after a favourable review, when a full-page article about my life hasn't made any difference.  

10.  If in doubt, don't.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post - it's a long way off for me (if ever) but good to know in advance how it all works :)

Zimzamzim said...

Very helpful and wise advice. Rule no 5 is particularly true; there is a rash of autobiographies coming from my home country at the moment and I know that more than a few friendships have been ruined by revelations in them.

I wont be surprised to hear there have been some court cases too.

Sarah Duncan said...

I must admit, I wish I'd known these rules before I started. Luckily I don't have much stuff to hide!