Yesterday Gina H. gave me my belly laugh for the day. Her “pointy-eared” character was a ghoul, not a dog. Oh, man. I should have known, coming from one of those supernatural suspense writers. They’re almost as strange as those sci-fi types. But not quite.
At any rate—see how my assumption led me down the wrong path? And after all our discussion on assumptions . . .
Our other Gina--Gina C.--asked a question on another topic: Is there an unwritten rule as to when you should introduce your main character? Brandilyn edited the beginning of my chapter two a few post ago where we meet my main character Michael for the first time. Michael is mentioned in the prologue and chapter one, but now I’m thinking of adding a scene introducing Michael earlier. What do you think?
Gina, a short prologue with someone other than your main character is OK, as long as it's a major player. (I've often used the prologue for the crime or to introduce the antagonist.) But I'm concerned about not introducing the main character until chapter 2. Reason is: your inciting incident should happen to your protagonist, right? Even if it's a two-part inciting incident, such as a crime being committed, then your character is drawn into it. If we don't see your protagonist until chapter 2, then I'm assuming that inciting incident (or at least the second part, which draws him in) isn't happening until then. And that's a big problem. You want to get to that incident as soon as possible. The reader is waiting for that moment when your protagonist's world is rocked. I'm left to wonder if your first chapter is either not needed at all (maybe it's backstory), or if it can be moved until later.
Back to our current topic. Gina H. asked this question (and it was echoed by a similar one from Gina C.): My first novel is women's fiction with a touch of supernatural suspense, the second is a thriller (Peretti meets chick-lit), and I figured my brand ought to be supernatural suspense. BUT: I've got the craziest lady in my head trying to tell me her story which is NOT a thriller, just a quirky women's fiction, maybe even literary. I know they tell you to be a brand, what to do?
In a way we’re mixing words here. Gina, you’re talking about jumping genres. Which does have a lot to do with branding, but they’re not exactly the same. I suppose you could say writing in a certain genre leads to your brand. At any rate, if you want to write in different genres, go ahead and do it. I certainly did, and loved them both, and there are plenty of novelists who do. You may well be published in both. But getting published isn’t the end. That’s only the beginning of building your career. And the experience of many novelists out there, ABA and CBA alike, shows that it’s easier to build sales faster when you remain in one genre. That’s because readers begin to know what to expect from you. Two genres are hard enough to build readerships in, but then when you add a third . . . that’s really spreading yourself thin. In the end, I decided to choose to stick with the suspense genre in order to build my readership there. Before, while I was building my suspense readership, my women’s fiction readership suffered, and vice versa. Now with every book I have more of a chance to increase sales. People know what they’re going to get from me. I think this is true of many of those novelists who write in different genres. Again, it's not that they're not being published. Question is--is the jumping around best for building sales? In the end, it may depend on what's more important to you.
So back to the tagline thing. How did I figure out my own, Don’t forget to b r e a t h e . . .?
I had about five books with Zondervan at that point—three women’s fiction and two suspense. I wanted a tagline for myself, and I was used to coming up with this kind of thing from my past marketing business. But finding a tagline that described my writing in these two very different genres was difficult. (See what I mean? From the very beginning, positioning yourself in the marketplace when you write in very different genres is going to cause problems.)
So, here’s the common misnomer. A good tagline isn’t really about what you write. It’s about how readers respond to what you write. To figure that out, I went to reviews of my five novels on shelves at the time, and reader letters. (I always print out reader e-mails, and keep them separately in a file for each book.) So I went through and read everything, which took awhile. As I read, I wrote down themes that seemed to come up often. For example, with my suspense, people used “edge of my seat” a lot, and words such as “twist,” “surprise,” "page-turner," “couldn’t put it down,” etc. (Notice, these are all the good letters, haha.) And a lot of them mentioned "breath" in some form. “I held my breath,” or “I couldn’t breathe,” or the story “took my breath away.” In my women’s fiction, many mentioned the characterization, the emotion, various characters. And—funny thing—here, too, breath was mentioned a lot. This was in the context of, “I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe” or “the tension of not knowing what was going to happen to such-and-such character took my breath away,” or “I got all choked up,” etc.
Of course, it took some time to see that this breath thing was the most common factor between the two. It became a purely objective task, listing words and phrases, then putting marks by them as they were repeated, and finally seeing what came out on top.
So I had the “breath” thing. Or maybe “breathe.” But as a close second and third, I also had a lot of “deep characterization” type comments, and comments about being surprised by the plot. At first I started playing with all three thoughts, trying to see if I could put them both into one pithy, punchy phrase. But I couldn’t do it. They were too disparate. After a number of days, I gave up and started playing with the “breathe” thing only. I felt it best covered all three thoughts. Breath can be snatched away because of characterization, and because of a twist/surprise. I listed all sorts of phrases and ideas—anything I could think of at the time, no matter how silly it sounded. The first task was just to get thoughts down, then try to refine them.
In the RT Bookclub (then called Romantic Times) review of my first suspense, Eyes of Elisha (this magazine reviews all genres of Christian fiction, not just romance), the reviewer used the phrase “Don’t forget to breathe.” That phrase kept coming back to me as I narrowed my thoughts down to the “breathe” thing. And finally, I thought, “You know, that’s it.”
I ran it past the marketing guru at Zondervan. She said, yeah, go for it. So I did. Whole hog. On my Web site, had a visual logo created, and business cards, and stationery, and envelopes. The whole nine yards. I was cool-o. I knew who I was.
I still had a lot to learn about branding.
Read Part 3