In October of 1983, my husband jumped into a war zone known as Urgent Fury. As far as battles go, the one for Grenada barely registers. In fact, the US government declares 1983 as part of a “non-combat” era. However, the reputation of my husband’s elite unit of US Army Rangers earns him respect regardless of where he served.
He volunteered for the Army in 1981, volunteered for Airborne school, and volunteered for the Rangers. He had to pass three phases and accept an assignment to a Ranger unit. He also qualified as a combat diver and managed his unit’s Zodiacs. He emphasizes that he volunteered for service and dangerous duty, something he’s fiercely proud of achieving.
But it’s made for a rocky after-service life.
Not only did my husband bash his knee on that Grenada jump, but he also struck his head twice. Just a week before, he took a hit to the head that knocked him out. None of these incidents warranted a Ranger seeking medical attention and wouldn’t be worth mentioning decades later had it not been for puzzling changes in his cognition.
He’s needed a total knee replacement for 35 years. As he aged, chronic pain aggravated combat PTSD, the kind rooted in survivor’s guilt and anger – the fuel a soldier is taught to use but not neutralize. While seeking VA treatment, we discovered an alarming loss of processing ability linked to long-term effects of subconcussive hits.
So how does my husband’s military story relate to the authenticity of my author brand?
Much of the fiction I write explores the lives of veteran spouses and women in history. The world marginalizes the role of women in history, and that’s where I excavate stories for my literary art. For my first novel, I decided to write a contemporary story that wouldn’t require intense research. Something close to home, like women who marry soldiers.
Seven years ago, I set out to complete the first draft, and during that time my husband’s complex service-related issues surfaced. I became his strongest advocate, battling what singer-songwriter, Mary Gauthier, calls “the war after the war.”
Each week, I write flash fiction at my literary community called Carrot Ranch, using a character to explore what veteran spouses experience. When circumstances took a dive into the worst, and we became homeless in 2016, I followed my husband across the west as he tried to find work.
Every day, I considered abandoning ship, craving stability. I explained to him that I didn’t doubt he would protect me from danger below a bridge, but I lost faith that he would not defend me from living under one.
I had a modest income from writing contracts and could have left him. But this was the man who got me through my most challenging period, confronting childhood sexual abuse.
So, I stayed. I wrote. I wrote about our experiences. I wrote for the brand communications of clients. I wrote about my character who had her own former Ranger to comprehend.
We landed in the remote Keweenaw Peninsula, the thumb of copper-rich land that juts into the belly of Lake Superior from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Our eldest and her husband provided a place for us to live in their home while we sorted out my husband’s conditions. After a year, we had secured medical and mental health care. The Vet Center, a legacy of Vietnam Vets, provides support for the spouses of combat veterans, a rarity.
That’s when it hit me – I was one of the marginalized women I track down in forgotten history. It changed the dynamic of my novel, and I began to include the stories of these women, who, like me, served their nation by serving as advocates for difficult veterans – the ones we read about in statistics and cluck our tongues over high suicide and homelessness rates.
I began to understand the frontline where I served alongside these women for which society gives us no names.
A recognizable analogy from the military goes like this: There are sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. They say that the sheep are everyday people who go about their lives not believing in evil. The wolves are the evil that exists, preying upon the sheep. They know violence. Sheepdogs know violence, too, but they protect the sheep from the wolves. The sheep tolerate sheepdogs, but don’t assimilate with them. This analogy explains the isolation that military and veterans experience. But it fails to recognize those who marry sheepdogs. Who are we?
Like Johnny Cash who wore black for the oppressed, I wear my husband’s old field jacket in my official author headshots to call attention to the spouses who stick it out. We know our spouses are broken and we don’t desert them because of it. Instead, we push for help, we advocate for care, and we honor their service. For the men and women who saw combat and for the men and women who hold their combat veterans afterward, I wear my husband’s shirt.
That’s the story of my brand icon, which caused a minor shirt-storm on Twitter, calling my gender, age, and size into question. What right did I have to wear the shirt?
Another author, with his own set of credentials, questioned my choice of clothing. His creds are apparent and documented in Wikipedia. His name’s not worth mentioning. He called out a woman with Ranger tabs and unit insignia because those who serve in elite military units loathe posers. I get it. But he further demonstrated how little respect the spouses of combat veterans receive. He actually validated a cornerstone of my brand – that I’m part of a marginalized group of women whose stories I write.
Do you have a deep or compelling story behind your brand or pen name persona?
Think of Rachel Thompson. She infuses her brand with two sharp points of credibility – she survived sexual abuse and corporate marketing. Rachel masters her credibility with published books, popular Twitter hashtags and chats, and a persona that tells you she has evolved far beyond surviving. Rachel writes and advocates with an expertise that we trust. She’s credible because she’s authentic.
As an author, you have to do more than retain your credibility. You first have to recognize it, and then cultivate it.
My first step into literary art was not as my role of a veteran spouse. That evolution came later. My initial point of credibility had to be my ability to create literary art. Sure, you can write and say things like, “I’m looking for readers who get me.” Okay. So, you have ideas, storylines, and characters that disturb your waking hours with their presence. Likely, you have passions. You better have a vision for what you want to write.
Creativity can look like chaos. But your brand needs to be:
You’ll not get credibility with a chaotic brand. Unless, of course, chaos is indeed your brand (but I doubt it).
As an author, you are your brand. It’s often one of the most uncomfortable ideas of authorhood. It feels as if you lose privacy when you are your brand, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Just because I share some of my personal hardships associated with identifying as a veteran spouse doesn’t mean I lose control over my privacy.
Be deliberate. Pick and choose where and when to share your details. Stay aligned to your authenticity. Don’t invent details – save your imagination for your fiction. However, be creative. Rethink who you are as a writer and be prepared to evolve because you will grow and change. Make sure the core of your brand stays identifiable as you, as an author.
What if you have a pen name or a persona? Again, be deliberate. Some authors choose to include details that connect them to elements they write about, like fairies or anime. I know historical writers who like to emphasize a wild west connection. I take on some of that, too. I was born into a buckaroo culture (cowboys from California influenced by the vaquero traditions of ranching and horsemanship). I use it as a fun vibe more than a backstory, and you can do something similar.
You can create your persona or pen name brand from real details. Never deceive. You’ll lose credibility faster than a fad falters.
How do you build credibility? Here’s where you need to adopt the mindset of a professional. Being an author might be exciting but doesn’t get you off the hook for being skilled. Writers often have many innate abilities, including imagination and storytelling. Identify your strengths and commit to plugging any skill gaps, such as grammar issues.
For example, I’m a professed comma splicer. My theory of commas is based on putting the punctuation marks in a shaker and sprinkling liberally across my sentences. I will likely die trying to overcome my comma confusion. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to learn, practice or invest in professional software, such as Grammarly or ProWrite.
Beyond skills, think of your experience. I’m a firm believer that every role or job I’ve tackled held gifts for later use. If you work a day job, think about your experiences to give you credibility. Even though I left my marketing career to pursue my dreams of literary art, I use my former profession as an author. It gets me writing gigs and has helped me develop workshops to teach authors specific elements of marketing. I excelled at branding, so I use that experience to further my own brand and help other authors develop theirs.
Achievements are your shiny stars to hang from your brand. Think of literary contests you’ve won, stories or books you’ve published, awards your writing has earned, or reviews that make you dance on your tippy-toes. Think of these as your proudest moments. Look for them annually and contain them in your brand communication. Be deliberate. Pick which achievements to further or build up your brand.
Use your author credibility for mobility. Where can it take you? If your experience relates both to your brand and specific audiences, then make those connections. One literary device I use is the hero’s journey. I use it to teach veterans the power of telling their journeys into the cave and sharing elixirs from their experiences.
I call it the veteran’s journey, though, because hero is a touchy word, especially among combat vets. It furthers my credibility within the veteran community and lets me give back an empowering tool of storytelling for healing through literary art. Think about what powerful connections you can make to take your brand to another level of recognition.
Finally, have a credibility crisis plan. This is where you’ll be grateful for thinking about your brand and brand stories deliberately. Had I worn the shirt in question in my author headshots because I thought it was a hipster thrift-store find, I might have insulted the military community.
Be sensitive and be prepared. Don’t react defensively but do respond promptly. My shirt-storm was brief because I got an early head’s up, and once I had an authentic story to back up why I wore the shirt, commenters backed down. Be professional even if others are not. (Unless your brand is not to be professional).
Credibility will fuel your career. Be deliberate. Be authentic. Then, when that New York Times best-selling author calls out your brand, you can be prepared to be noticed.
The Congress of Rough Writers by Charli Mills
The result is a strangely compelling, very enjoyable experience where these little vignettes transport you quickly from scene to scene in a dizzying array of place, colour, texture and emotion...A fascinating book packed with bright ideas and worthwhile material. I was greatly entertained by the stories and essays and so taken with the idea that I thought I would give it a go with a 99-word review...
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Charli Mills, writer and lead buckaroo at Carrot Ranch Literary Community, received a BA in creative writing in 1998 and began telling business brand-stories thereafter. By 2010 she earned the Master Cooperative Communicators designation, recognizing career achievements. She won multiple national awards for writing, publishing, and her presentation, “Telling a Compelling Story.” In 2018, she published her literary community’s, “The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology, Vol 1,” which earned a 5-star review from Readers ’Favorite. Branding remains a cornerstone of Charli’s career success. She conducts brand audits for authors to build strategic platforms to reach target readers.
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Rachel Thompson is the author of newly released BadRedhead Media 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge: How to energize your book sales in a month - created to help authors market their book. She is also the author of Broken Places (one of IndieReader's "Best of 2015" top books and 2015 Honorable Mention Winner in the San Francisco Book Festival), and the multi award-winning Broken Pieces, as well as two additional humor books, A Walk In The Snark and Mancode: Exposed. She owns BadRedhead Media, creating effective social media and book marketing campaigns for authors. Her articles appear regularly in The Huffington Post, IndieReader.com, The San Francisco Book Review (BadRedhead Says…), 12Most.com, BookPromotion.com, and Self-Publishers Monthly. Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs and two live Twitter chats: #BookMarketingChat (co-hosted with TheRuralVA, Emilie Rabitoy) and #SexAbuseChat, co-hosted with C. Streetlights and Judith Staff. She hates walks in the rain, running out of coffee, and coconut. She lives in California with her family.
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