Strap a Shark Fin to Your Head

Yesterday my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary and — as one does — went out to dinner at a small, quaint Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, a place we’ve been meaning to try since we moved here a year and a half ago.

The place was lovely, the service superb, the food well balanced and we were having a great time when, from the table next to us — occupied by men in matching polos and women in business attire — came the following piece of advice: “You need to do something to stand out. Strap a shark fin to your head or something.”

This was said in an absolutely serious way, and I still can’t keep from giggling when I think of it.

As a writer, whose younger son is — or at least is supposed to be, I don’t breathe down his neck all the time — applying for engineering internships, I am familiar with the need to stand out. For most of us, be it artists, job applicants, or what have you, the big problem is how to stand out in a packed field.

Sure, you might be the best space opera writer in the world, but if people have no reason to go find your books, you’ll never reach enough of an audience to make a living. Or you might be the most competent engineer in your class, but if you don’t have the contacts to put a behind-the-scenes word in with someone hiring engineers, what you’re going to end up with is trying by sheer blind luck to hit upon the combination of keywords that will get you picked up for an interview. In either case, the odds are long.

However, the advice to strap a shark fin to your head, however effective it might be at getting you attention, is terrible in the long run. You see, while you’ll certainly be looked at if you have that shark fin sticking out of your hair, and you might even get a laugh if you announce yourself as “land shark,” it is unlikely to get you a sale (I believe the people at the next table were salesmen of some sort) or a job. And even if it works for one sale and one job, it is unlikely to build a career.

It is what is known as “a gimmick.”

In art, and in writing — which I still refuse to consider as an art form, since, really, it’s more of an honest craft, like clothes making or throwing pots — gimmicks do sometimes work, or at least they work for a time. But even then, in the end, they have a way to blight your chances.

I know that when I was deep in the political closet and I couldn’t be myself, or write about the things that truly matter to me for fear someone reading my books would divine my political opinions, I defaulted to gimmicks. They weren’t very gimmicky gimmicks, mind you. Since I couldn’t write about the things that obsessed me, like politics, I wrote about things that interest me, like history. So I kept trying to come up with the historical novel that would get everyone’s attention. Some of them did, for a while, and the gimmicks did keep me selling, but they weren’t good enough to build a long-term career on.

As I said, you see that a lot in my field, including the never-ending quest for the “hot new thing.” This is less of a “thing” now that indie is a possibility. There is less room to try to second guess what the publishers are looking for, what they’ll consider the next “big thing” and what you should try to imitate.

A lot of people wrote vampires when Anne Rice had her big success, and then again when Twilight hit. A lot of people have tried to recapture The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey. These are gimmicks too, though they fall more under the heading of trying to fit in with the crowd who are wearing shark fins on their head. They’re still shark fins.

In the end, if you get a customer’s or employer’s or reader’s attention with a shark fin, you have to keep it up, somehow.

And the only way to keep up the attention you captured by doing — let’s face it — something outlandishly silly is to keep up the silly and the outlandish, with a sort of frenetic persona. The only place I can see that working is car sales. And even there, I understand it depends on the dealership.

Terry Pratchett said that ultimately the key to success in life was to be yourself as hard as you can. I suspect that’s right. At least with me, the more I work on what I want, and do it with all my attention and all my art and craft, the more likely I am to do well.

I suspect that’s true for everyone in every field. Sure, it might take you a while to stand out in a field filled with jokers with shark fins on their heads, but sooner or later people get tired of the smell of putrefying fish and look around for talent, competence, or sheer fire.

If you’re an individual, you’re more likely to stand out by being your authentically individual self than by wearing pieces of fish on your head, even metaphorically speaking.

It fits in with the advice of another writer, David Weber, who said the secret to selling your tale to readers and carrying them along for the journey was the confidence in your voice. If you sounded like you were sure what to do, people would endure any amount of contradictions or clumsy passages in the story. On the other hand, if you sounded tentative and hesitant, no one would read you, even if you proofed every single word.

So, you need to stand out. Start with excellence, and with being yourself as hard as you can.

In writing, in sales, in jobs, in life, your authentic voice, your authentic self is likely to pay off way better than fishy headgear.