Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Welcome to Forensics and Faith, old and new BGs (bloggees). We’ve had quite a rush of newcomers lately—but you folks won’t remain new for long. Just let your eccentricities show, be ready to have some fun (which may include laughing at yourself now and then, as we humanoids tend to take ourselves far too seriously), and be prepared to learn more about writing fiction (all genres), and you’ll fit right in.
Before we get to our topic—am I supposed to say thank you for everyone’s comments yesterday? That’s sorta like saying thanks for the thrown tomatoes, but whatever. I shall remain a good sport. And true to my promise Deb Raney and Robin Lee Hatcher will be killed off in my next book, thanks to their know-it-allness. (That’s not a word, but it oughtta be.) I shall take great joy in killing off the Prez and Vice Prez of the BHCC (Big Honkin’ Chicken’s Club). While I’m at it, I may as well bump off the rest of its members, which would leave the world populated solely by fearless readers who love my suspense novels.
Oh, wait. That’s Heaven.
One more thing. The brand new issue of Infuze Magazine is running an interview with me, questions posed by our own BG, C.J. Darlington. She asked primo questions; I tried to give primo answers. (She even let me talk about my favorite rock bands, yeehaw.)
Okay, after one interruption after t’other (all of them good, of course), we return to our series on 10 approaches to creating immediate character empathy. As a reminder, here’s our list. The character is:
1. Highly displaying a valued trait such as loyalty, love or courage
2. Particularly good at something
3. Hurt or treated unjustly
4. Wishing for something universally understood
5. Thrust into danger
6. Thrust into grief
7. Caring for others, especially at cost to oneself
8. Unique, attention-getting
9. Attempting to overcome some fear or make a change in life
10. Facing an inner struggle
Today we’re looking at #5: thrust into danger.
Well, this starts out pretty obvious. The danger can be anything from facing nature—a volcano, hurricane, tornado, etc.—to facing a bad guy with a gun, to being pulled into the vortex of a crime, and on and on. As a suspense author, I know all about thrusting my protagonist into danger—fast. These types of inciting incidences can be intriguing and exciting.
BUT—guess what. This isn’t enough.
#5 and #6 (thrust into grief) on our list are alike because they aren’t actual character traits. They’re circumstances. I’ve included them in our list because they certainly can help build character empathy, but a circumstance in itself, however compelling, does not a lovable character make. I can thrust a protagonist into the most intriguing crime imaginable, but if my reader doesn’t see something about that character herself to like, the reader won’t care.
Here’s another point that may surprise you. #5 isn’t enough even when it appears also to be a #1—David vs. Goliath circumstance. I say “appears to be” because most of them really aren’t. Sure, many of the dangers, especially in suspense, loom as huge and overwhelming to the protagonist. But in a true David vs. Goliath circumstance, the protagonist doesn’t have to take on the danger. He/she chooses to fight through an inordinate amount of courage. That’s far different from being thrust into an unavoidable danger and having to deal with it. Now, as time passes in the story, and the protagonist puts up an incredible fight against that unavoidable danger, we can begin to see the David vs. Goliath come into play. But that’s some chapters into the book, and we’re talking about creating immediate character empathy—meaning in the first chapter.
So #1 ain’t really a true supporter of #5 (most of the time), and #6 is also a circumstance, meaning it’s not enough of a support either. Which means you need to draw from #2-4, and #7-10.
In previous lessons I’ve used excerpts from others’ books. Today, I offer one of my own. When I introduce protagonist Annie Kingston in chapter one of Brink of Death (first in the Hidden Faces series), the action starts right away—sirens in the neighborhood. Annie is pulled from sleep by the wailing—a sleep sweetened by a dream of her ex-husband, who left her and their two children, now wanting her back. (#3—hurt or treated unjustly.) Annie jumps from bed to see two Sheriff’s Department cars and an ambulance careen to a stop at the Willit’s house across the street. She runs first to reassure her 12-year-old daughter, who is a close friend to Erin Willit. (#7—caring for others.) Annie tries to look calm, even though she feels she fails “miserably” as she hugs Kelly, telling her daughter to wait while she goes outside to see what’s happening. Annie scurries down the stairs, fearful for her friends, and aware of her weakness. She doesn’t think she has the strength to face more tragedy.
. . . Traces of my dream snagged against my memory, like gauze over splintered wood. Vic making promises . . . then disappearing. For the millionth time I wished him back, despite all he’d done. I wasn’t made to be without him. To raise two kids alone. Always so many crises to handle, and goodness knows I wasn’t good at coping with any of them . . .
Previous paragraph—a sort of mix of #9 (attempting to make a change in life) and #10 (facing an inner struggle).
My goal, even as I wanted to start the action immediately, was to draw readers to Annie by showing both her strengths and fears. She feels weak and inadequate in her lingering grief, even as her actions show her as capable and caring. These two sides of her continue to be displayed as she learns of the murder of Erin's mother, and immediately steps in to help Erin.
In summary, be aware of the inherent weakness of #5. Even the worst danger in the world isn’t enough. Your reader has to care about the character in that danger. Try to employ numerous others of our 10 approaches—without stopping the current action—to create that empathy.
Read Part 7
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Happy Tuesday, BGs. Hope y’all had a great holiday weekend.
Thanks for all your comments from Friday’s post. The bruises and swelling are down. I’m stuck with Band-Aids (haha) on my nose for another week. Then it’s back to see the Doc for a check-up. The stitches are supposed to dissolve—I just don’t know how long that takes. Then we'll see how long I have that tight-corset look down my nose, and the lumpy nostril.
Okay. Tomorrow we resume our character empathy series. Today, as long promised--The Photos. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know the backstory, going all the way back to--what, February? How "a new look" was all Zondervan’s idea in the first place. (“You need a new photo. Your current one is too posed and too . . . nice. We want that mysterious Seatbelt Suspense author look.” Yada, yada.)
Then, as you know, came the first shoot at the lake in Coeur d’Alene. Which yielded not a single photo we wanted to use. So photo flunkee here had to undergo a second shoot—this time in studio in California. From this session, yielding over 200 shots, we were allowed to choose four different ones. Not as easy as it sounds. Like any self-respecting female, I hate all pictures of myself. (This is incurable, men; it’s in our DNA. Live with it.) So I figured finding four good photos would be nigh to impossible. But in the end, we managed. Sort of.
Photo 1. Here’s the main pick. This one will be on my books, this blog, the Web site, etc. Amazing--I actually like this one. I chose it right off. It's kind of a "Love-me-or-I'll-kill-you-in-a-dozen-torturous-ways" look. Hey, what more could I ask for?
Enter: the Zondervan folks (names withheld to protect the guilty). The main Z Person and I were talking on the phone about the four final choices. I told ZP this was my main choice. She and the art director originally had another shot in mind. As for this shot? ZP laughed. “Yeah, I like it too. But it sure reminds me of _____ (actress) in _____ (TV show). You know, the big eyes and mischievous smile.”
Well. It’s a good thing ZP and I are total buddies. (All I same, I’m rethinking her next Christmas present.) Because I did not find the comparison to said actress particularly flattering. And then to hear that ZP, the Z art director, and my agent (who just happened to be at Z that day) all chuckled at the supposed similarity and went, "Yeah, yeah." Sheesh. Nothing like three of your so-called biggest supporters giggling over your mug.
And no, don't ask. I refuse to tell you who the actress is. Because, doggone it all, ever since ZP spouted her spiel, I look at that photo and think of that TV show. I’ll never see the picture again in the same way. "Drat," I pouted to ZP, "what a pal you are. Once in a lifetime I like a photo of myself, and now you've ruined it forever.”
Nevertheless, this shall remain my #1 photo out of sheer stubbornness on my part.
Photo 2. This is the shot the Z folks originally chose as the main photo. Sort of a sassy "I-know-something-you-don't-know" expression. Or maybe it's an “I’ve-been-up-to-no-good, step-into-my-world-if-you-dare” look. Whichever. I like it pretty much. But I think I look kinda smart-alecky. Said as much to my assistant, who therewith replied, "Yeah, so what's new?"
Man, what is it about this photo-choosing thing? Brings out the worst in your friends, tell you what. A sure way to find out how they really feel about you.
Photo 3. ZP wanted this one in case we ever want a longer shot, and I said, “OK fine, whatever; it’s not bad.” It's not all that good either, but that's just my opinion, and what do I know? At least ZP and her cohorts didn't attach some actress's name to it.
Actually, photo #2 is a longer body shot also (I just cropped it a lot), so we could use that one instead of this. I think I prefer the smart-alecky look to this semi-vacant stare. No attitude here. Bo-ring.
Photo 4. Totally different just-for-the-heck-of-it look. ZP was happy with the first three shots, but since we got four in the package, she told me to choose any one I wanted for myself. "I really don’t know what I’ll do with this one," I told ZP. "I’m not even sure I look all that good. But it's just bizarre enough, you know?"
Would you guess that ZP had oodles of fun with this one?
First off, she insisted on referring to my fur hood as a “bunny hat.” Then she told me how she and her two giggle-buds decided I look like Joan Collins in Dynasty. Terrific. Such flattery. Last time I checked Joan Collins was just a tad older than I am. Alas, another photo for me now ruined. I will forever think of this as my “Joan Collins in a bunny hat” shot.
My mother absolutely hates this one, by the way. “What on earth did they do to you?” she cried. The picture hides my red hair, which is downright heresy in Mom's book.
So there you have 'em--the Final Four. Two photos compared to has-been actresses. The third looking smart-alecky. The fourth with a glazed "are-we-ever-gonna-be finished-with-this-shoot-yet?" look.
So have at it, BGs. Go ahead and supply all the snarky “That one looks like So&So in Such&Such comments you want. Remark on the long nose, the uneven eyebrows, the big eyes and whatever else you care to highlight. After my conversation with ZP, I can take anything. Get it out of your system, then we can get on with this here blog.
But the person who guesses ZP’s actress for photo #1 gets killed off in my next book, and that's a promise.
Friday, May 26, 2006
It all started last December, when this little rough patch developed on my nose. I thought it was a blemish that would heal. It didn’t. Finally in April I had it biopsied. Turned out to be a squamous cell cancer—not life threatening, but something that had to be removed because it would grow over time. The dermatologist recommended Mohs surgery, where a surgeon takes out a little skin at a time and sends it through onsite pathology to see if he/she got it all. If not, the doc goes back in and takes a little more. This is a common surgery to have when the thing’s on your face—where you don’t want to cut out any more skin than you have to. And it has the greatest cure rate.
So, hey, no big deal; I’m macho. I just wanted the thing gone. I bopped into the specialist’s office Monday morning for outpatient surgery thinkin’ no sweat. I knew they’d numb my nose, as the dermatologist had done to take a biopsy. This doc would cut a little bit, sew a few stitches and voila. A few days with a Band-Aid on my schnozzle and I’d be good to go.
So 10:30 finds me in the surgeon’s chair. A needle to the nose, and the thing’s numb almost immediately. The doc cuts away. I don’t feel a thing. I do keep my eyes closed, however. I don’t particularly want to see the knife coming at me. I mean, macho is macho, but you don’t have to be ridiculous about it. Then I hear this sound—at first I thought it was something being sprayed. A strange smell arose. “Hey, what’s that?”
“We’re just cauterizing your skin to stop the bleeding.”
This takes a few seconds to sink in. “Cauterizing? You mean that smell is burnt flesh?”
“Yup, that’s what it is.”
Do I dwell on the fact that my nose is burning? Heck, no. The suspense author in me immediately kicks into gear. “Wow, cool. I’ve never smelled this before. What an experience. I’m gonna use this some day!”
Doc makes some comment to the effect that he’s never quite gotten this reaction before.
They tape me up and take the cut piece of skin to the lab. I wait. Thirty minutes later Doc returns. “Sorry, we have to take some more.”
Another shot. More cutting. More cauterizing. I try to memorize the smell.
Another wait. Doc returns. “Just a little bit more.”
Oh, man. This is getting old. “Okay,” I tell him, “but this times it’s do or die. Your reputation’s on the line.”
Despite his nervousness at my dire threat, Doc succeeds this time.
Next up—giving me a mirror to show me the hole he’s created. He’s already warned me that it’ll be bigger than I expected. “The cancer’s like an iceberg,” he explained before the procedure. “You only see the top, but roots go out quite a ways.”
Uh, no kidding. I am now staring at a crater in my nose. Starts at the top and goes over to one side. “Is that thing a quarter inch in diameter?” I ask when I can find my tongue.
He does that palm-down-and-fingers-spread tippy hand motion. “Wwellll. A little bigger.”
I look again. He’s right. Definitely bigger.
Trust me. Over a quarter inch diameter may not sound like much, but a hole that size in your nose looks like you could drive a truck through it. I’m wondering how in the world he’s going to find the skin to close the thing. This ain’t gonna be no two stitches. Boy, howdy, I’ll be scarred for life.
“Man.” I’m feeling a little sick. “Sure am glad I had my publicity photos taken two weeks ago.”
Doc can’t help but agree.
Then comes the worst part—the stitching. Doc’s got to do inside stitches, then outside. First, shots all around the nose to numb everything in the vicinity and then some. Despite this, I still feel a few pokes, and need even more numbing. Doc stitches, tugging enough to pull my nose off. And scrapes something fierce, like he’s trying to clean off dried paint. I have no idea what that’s all about and decide not to ask. The suspense author in me has had enough for one day. Time drags on. My muscles tense and my palms turn sweaty. I’m seriously craving those Lala Land drugs the good ol’ dentist gave me last December. The desire for vengeance on this yanking Doc grows. I start imagining myriad torturous ways I can kill the guy off in my next book. I’m smart enough not to tell him this, however, not when the fate of my schnouzer’s in his frenetic fingers.
About the time I think the Second Coming must surely be nigh, Doc’s finally done. He bandages me up and sends me on my not-so-merry way. “In a year, you won’t even see the scar,” he tells me.
Next day I play good patient and take off the tight bandage to clean the stitches. This is the first look I get at Doc’s handiwork. Oh, man. Eight stitches run right down the top of my nose. Thing looks like a tightly drawn corset. Then a bunch more stitches over toward one nostril. Doesn’t look nearly as neat there. Kinda lumpy. I tell myself this is just swelling.
A day passes. As Doc predicted bruises spread under my eyes and down my cheek. These, along with the swollen, bandaged nose lend me the look of a has been boxer who seriously lost the last fight. Despite Doc’s prognostication of a perfect nose in my future, I have my doubts. I’m thinking scarred forever—right in the middle of my face.
But let’s put this in perspective.
Three years ago this month, God healed me from Lyme Disease. That day I hobbled into the Healing Rooms for prayer, using a cane, unable to stand for any length of time—and a few hours later I was strapping on my running shoes, which had gathered dust in the closet. Since then I’ve continued my five-mile-a-day runs. (Well, except I can’t run for two whole weeks now, because it could induce bleeding. I’m gonna be bouncing off the walls.) I’m healthy and whole. I have the best husband in the world and am so very blessed. In light of all this—what’s a scar on the nose?
All the same, I hope Doc’s right.
Well, I’ve gone on long enough for today. I’ll wait until Tuesday to unveil the publicity photos. (I’ll be taking Monday off.) We did get some nice shots that I’m happy to show you, but the best part of that post will be the dialogue over choosing four shots out of over 200. (That’s a lot of rejected shots.) After that, we’ll get back to our character empathy series.
Happy Memorial Day Weekend, BGs!
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Whatever will America now do with its Tuesday and Wednesday nights?
Okay, on to our series about ten approaches to creating character empathy.
#4: The character wishes for something universally understood.
This refers to desires common to all humans, those so understood by mankind that they don’t need to be explained. The need to be loved and accepted. The need to understand who you are in the world. (This was the desire that we saw briefly in Mara yesterday, as she longed to know who her parents were.) The desire to be healthy, to be happy, to be useful. Etc.
In this excerpt from Rekindled (historical, author Tamera Alexander), we meet the two main characters, Larson and Kathryn, who are married and love each other, yet can’t seem to overcome their emotional separation.
Larson pulled her to him and kissed her again, more gently this time, and a soft sigh rose from her throat. Kathryn possessed a hold over him that frightened him at times. He wondered if she even knew. She deserved so much more than what he’d given her. He should be the one buying her books and things . . . He wanted to surround Kathryn with wealth that equaled that of her Boston upbringing and to see pride in her eyes when she looked at him.
A look he hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
The familiar taste of failure suddenly tinged his wife’s sweetness, and Larson loosened his embrace. He carefully unbraided his fingers from her thick blond hair. Her eyes were still closed, her breathing staggered. Her cheeks were flushed.
He gently traced her lips with his thumb. Despite ten years spent carving out a life in this rugged territory, her beauty had only deepened. No wonder he caught ranch hands staring.
She slowly opened her eyes, and he searched their depths.
Kathryn said she’d never wanted another man, that she was satisfied with their meager life. And the way she responded to him and looked at him now almost made him believe his suspicions were unfounded. But there was one thing that Kathryn wanted with all her heart, something he hadn’t been able to give her. No matter how he’d tried and prayed, his efforts to satisfy her desire for a child had proven fruitless.
In that moment something inside him, a presence dark and familiar, goaded his feelings of inadequacy. He heeded the inaudible voice, and flints of doubt ignited within him. It wouldn’t be the first time Kathryn had lied.
He set her back from him and turned. “I’ve got work to do in the barn. I’ll be back in a while.”
Preferring the familiar bite of Colorado Territory’s December to the wounded disappointment he saw in his wife’s eyes, Larson slammed the door behind him.
* * *
Kathryn Jennings stared at the door, its jarring shudder reverberating in her chest. It was a sound she was used to hearing from her husband, in so many ways. Though Larson’s emotional withdrawal never took her by surprise anymore, it always took a tiny piece of her heart. She pressed a hand to her mouth, thinking of his kiss.
Shutting her eyes briefly, she wished—not for the first time— that Larson would desire her—the whole of who she was—as much as he desired her affection. Would there ever come a time when he would let her inside? When he would fully share whatever tormented him, the demons he wrestled with in his sleep?
She looked down at her hands clasped tightly at her waist. Many a night she’d held him as he was half asleep, half crazed. As he moaned in guttural whispers about his mother long dead and buried.
But not forgotten, nor forgiven.
Knowing he would be back soon and anticipating his mood, Kathryn set about finishing dinner. She added a dollop of butter to the potatoes, basted the ham, and let the pages of her memory flutter back to happier days—to the first day she saw Larson. Even then, she’d sensed a part of him that was hidden, locked away. Being young and idealistic, though, she considered his brooding sullenness an intrigue and felt certain she held the key to unlocking its mysteries. Time had eroded that certainty.
We don’t see Larson treating his wife all that well. Pulling away from her, slamming out the door right after a tender moment. What’s wrong with this guy? If we saw that first we might want to slap him upside the head. But after seeing his own feelings of inadequacy, then seeing “the demons he wrestled” through his wife’s eyes, we can feel for him, even as he makes wrong choices.
These “universally understood” desires are effective devices for softening characters—even those who first come across as selfish or uncaring or mean. For that reason, #4 is a great approach to use for those characters who might be more difficult to like.
I recently read a suspense that I really enjoyed. (I’ll be talking to you about this book and its author soon.) The main character is a rebellious, trouble-making, heavy drinking and partying college kid. Can’t even remember half of what he does. Sound like a character you’d like? I sure wouldn’t. But the author employed #4. One thing this kid desired—he loved a girl. A nice girl. Whom he couldn’t have because of his behavior. Even as I saw him being an idiot, that desire softened him for me. I still wanted to shake some sense into him. But I didn’t dislike him. I more felt sadness at the waste of his life.
#4 is a powerful approach to creating character empathy.
Tomorrow we’ll take another short break from this topic and pick it up again next week. What’s up tomorrow? you ask.
First, the story of what I did this past Monday (it wasn’t pleasant), how I handled it (in all things I’m a suspense author), and how it could affect me forever (but I’m praying it won’t). And if that isn’t enough—also tomorrow is the unveiling of The Photos, oh yes, in all their glory. Brought to you with a behind-the-scenes look at the process of choosing said photos with the help of the folks at Zondervan. Who had a few laughs at my expense. (Really, now, would you want an acquisitions editor and an art director labeling your various looks and dissecting every square inch of your face?)
Read Part 6
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
On this auspicious day in American pop culture I do hereby publicly take my stand as a member of the Soul Patrol.Okay, time to get back to our writing topic. First, one thing I wanted to clear up about my post yesterday over at Charis Connection. (Thanks to Cara, for posing the question.) In the second part of my post talking about the blog tour for Web of Lies, I noted that sales numbers for the book on amazon.com went down. I should have said that sales on amazon increased, which meant that the amazon sales ranking number went down.
Now, on with today’s topic.
#3: Character is hurt or unjustly treated
As I’ve noted before, most of these 10 approaches to character empathy need to be combined with at least one other approach. Some just don’t work well enough by themselves (we’ll see more of this later). Having said that, #3 is one that tends to be pretty strong on its own. It’s human nature (unless you’re sociopathic or plain uncaring) to feel bad for someone who meets injustice. But see how this approach is built to even greater effect in the early pages of Watching the Tree Limbs (Contemporary. Author--Mary DeMuth). We meet protagonist Mara, nine years old, as she’s new to a little town in Texas. Mara lives with a woman she calls Aunt Elma.
. . . Mara missed Little Pine . . . Mostly she missed Nanny Lynn, Aunt Elma’s mother . . . Nanny Lynn taught Mara how to bait a hook, scrape and paint a fence, build a tree house, say simple prayers to God out in the fields, and swift-kick an angry rooster. “I knows you’ll grow up to be someone amazing,” Nanny Lynn would whisper over her as she tucked her between sunshine-smelling sheets. “God told me.”
But Nanny Lynn couldn’t live forever . . . They buried her at Little Pine Cemetery . . .
While Nanny Lynn loved on her, [Mara] never really thought about who her parents were and why she didn’t live with them. Nanny Lynn was big enough to fill her heart and quiet her questions . . . Now whenever Mara asked Aunt Elma who her parents were, Aunt Elma repeated the same exact words . . . “Now don’t you be asking things about them folks, you hear? Truth is, they don’t exist . . .”
In . . . the summer of 1979 . . . Aunt Elma seemed bothered nearly every day with Mara underfoot. “You need more tending to than a cow about to calve for the first time,” she said. “I’m plain sick of your questions, child. Go talk to the rocks or the neighbor cats, you hear? I’m fixin’ to take a nap on my day off. Skit cat, baby.”
A paragraph later, as Mara scurries outside as she’s told, she meets General, the boy who will take her to a park and rape her, beginning the horrific pattern that will continue through the summer.
The inciting incident of rape would certainly be enough to create character empathy by itself. We meet General at the top of page 5. But the author uses those first four pages to make us already sorry for Mara. We see the little girl as parentless, looked after by an unfeeling woman, the only kind adult in Mara’s life now dead. What’s more, she’s new to town and knows no one. This is a little girl who has no place in the world, doesn’t know how she fits in, and has no love in her life. These things in themselves endear this character to us. And we’re not even to the inciting incident yet.
Then, to make it all worse, when Mara meets General, his first words to her are “Hey, Beautiful.” He continues to call her this name. Through his deed even the word beautiful, which should stand for lovely, wished-for things in a little girl’s life, is trashed and dragged through the mud. When even beautiful becomes ugly and dirty, what does a child have left?
I should add that the beginning four pages also lay the foundation for Mara’s aloneness in facing the sexual abuse. Seeing her home life, we can fully understand why she has no one to turn to, especially when General threatens to kill Aunt Elma if she tells.
This is an extreme example of using #3 as the main approach to character empathy. Even so, it’s not used alone. Supporting approaches in this excerpt are: #4 (wishing for something universally understood), #5 (thrust into danger), and #6 (thrust into grief).
This #3 can be a good supporting approach, too. In fact, it can be used effectively in very small bits, because it’s so powerful. Two sentences showing a loving word from the protagonist ignored or rewarded with a hurtful remark can be enough to help the reader bond with the main character.
Tomorrow we’ll look at #4—Wishing for something universally understood.
Read Part 5
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Monday, May 22, 2006
Happy Monday, BGs.
We have a lot going on here for the next couple weeks. I want to get back to our discussion on creating character empathy, and we will--on Wednesday. Turns out today and tomorrow my posts are up over at Charis Connection. I've written a two-day post on "Debriefing From a Blog Tour." Talks about the Christian blog tour idea, how it works, and my personal results. Here's how it starts:
Recently I and my latest novel, Web of Lies, zipped around the country—and world, actually—on a blog tour. (At my own blog, Forensics and Faith, known for its word-coining among other strange things, “blog tour” ended up shortening to “blour.”) These virtual road shows are the latest thing in online book marketing—and they have real merit. Herewith, I impart to you what I learned on my blour du jour.
First, some history. The Christian Fiction Syndicate (blour idea) was the brainchild of T.L. Hines (author of Waking Lazarus, releasing this summer from Bethany). Currently about 60 people have signed up to be a part of this group. (About half participate each month on a regular basis.) A year ago, Tony saw the idea of a literary "blog tour" being hatched, with a couple of places even running the tours for money, then matching authors and their books with appropriate blogs. Tony liked the idea, but wanted to create something a bit different.
First . . .
Please go to Charis Connection to read rest of the post.
Friday, May 19, 2006
Continuing our interview with Chris Well:
8) Do you put Fruit Loops in your coffee?
I have never gone that far, no. Charlie’s obsession with putting extra materials in his coffee is inspired by a former boss of mine who would put chocolate syrup in his coffee; he was the one who told me that coffee is merely the transportation device for whatever else you can put in it.
I only started drinking coffee after I got married in 2002. Until recently, I put hot chocolate mix in it. But lately, as part of a bid to lose weight, I’ve been taking my coffee black. (And it is every bit as horrible an experience as I expected.)
9) What's the best piece of practical writing advice you'd love to give aspiring writers?
Do the writing. No writing is wasted. Do not wait until after you are discovered to do the work—or you will never be discovered.
10) What's up next for you, Chris? Can you give us a sneak preview of your WIP?
I have the next three Kansas City novels loosely mapped out. I have to turn #3 in this August. I am always nervous about giving away details too early, but let’s just say that Charlie has a reason to brush up on his eschatology.
I am also noodling around on some other ideas, including a concept for a different series. I hope to be able to talk about it this fall.
11) What is your favorite way to keep up with pop culture? Is it TV shows, movies, magazines?
If you mean news, I get most of my info about this stuff from the Internet. I also read a lot of books. You’ll notice that most of the pop culture stuff referenced in my novels is actually classic TV and films—so a lot of that is on DVD and I love reading books about old TV shows.
12) What are your favorites (shows, movies, etc) from the question above?
TV: Cheers, Monk, The Munsters, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Columbo
Film: Marx Brothers, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, James Bond, the THIN MAN series, Get Shorty. Anything starring Cary Grant. Anything directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Print: I am currently on a mission to read everything ever written by Agatha Christie.
Musicals: Singin’ in the Rain, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera
Comic books: She-Hulk, Fell, indie comics
MUSIC: Cindy Morgan, Steely Dan, Tonex, Sting, Needtobreathe, Rush, Pee Wee Callins, Beatles, Daniel Amos, Crowded House, Hawk Nelson.
13) Now that you've got a couple of novels under your belt, what marketing/publicity has been most effective in promoting these thrillers?
It is a learning curve. The marketplace is so crowded, and so competitive, that all I can really do is try to win over one reader at a time. Of course, with email and the Internet and blogs, it makes it so much easier to reach and touch someone.
14) Why do you write?
My head is always full of stories. I am always scribbling notes and ideas on whatever scrap paper is handy. The only way to get this stuff out of my system is to write. A lot.
15) I haven't seen much, if any, fiction focusing on forgiveness. I'd like to hear you pontificate on the challenge of writing Christ-centered fiction in general.
The challenge for a Christian artist in any field is to balance the needs of the “art” with the urge to bend it into some utilitarian purpose. The more artful and beautiful a work of art, the more godly it is. The work that stands the test of time is something that was beautiful first, and communicated out of it in a natural way.
As my characters go through their paces, if they do not behave in a believable manner, if the story is not written in a compelling manner, all the good intentions in the world do not matter if the reader has already put the book down and gone on to something else.
16) Chris, I loved Forgiving Solomon Long. From concept to print ready, what does your novel writing process look like?
This is such an involved process, I am posting the answer here: [http://chriswellnovelist.blogspot.com/2006/05/from-plot-to-print-making-of-novel.html].
Thanks, everybody! And many thanks to Brandilyn for hosting this!
Thursday, May 18, 2006
We interrupt our discussion on creating character empathy for the Chris Well interview that I promised you last week. Y'all posed the questions . . . today and tomorrow, you hear the answers. And now, heeeeeeere's Chris!
1) How do you plot a novel? Do you do it in layers? Do you lay it all out or fly by the seat of your pants?
The short answer: I write up a synopsis, then create a “skeleton” of numbered chapters to get a sense of how to space out all the big moments. As I am actually writing the novel—some characters work better, some get pulled out, some stories work one way, others are twisted in new directions—I find that the story drifts into new places.
For the “Kansas City Blues” novels, I take an ensemble approach (not unlike Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series). As such, I come up with the central plot, then build up little stories around it.
I went with this format for the series because Harvest House first signed me for two books—and wanted the second to be a follow-up to Forgiving Solomon Long. But FSL was a standalone novel.
My solution was an sort of “anthology” approach: Each book revolves around a brand-new situation and brand-new characters; secondary characters and subplots develop continuity from one novel to the next.
In fact, that is the only reason KCPD detectives Tom Griggs and Charlie Pasch even exist.
2) From what recess of your mind do you pull such unique plotlines?
Playing “what if” with stories in the news. Snippets of conversations and incidents taken from my life and the lives of people around me.
There is also the interesting chemistry that happens once you drop a character into a scene—it ricochets in directions you did not plan. And every time I write a plot twist I catch myself thinking, “Wait—if I can think of this, the reader can think of this, too.” So I keep changing things up to stay ahead of the reader.
I also draw inspiration from crime writers, pop culture, a wide variety of reading, and the pastors at my church in Nashville, Bethel World Outreach Center. Pastor Ray McCollum (now a pastor in Texas), Pastor Rice Broocks and Pastor Tim Johnson are all three in there—they have inspired everything from bits of dialogue to entire characters. (I just hope they don’t decide to sue for a share of my royalties!)
3) How do you find time to write with all of your other responsibilities?
It is tough, that is for sure. When I am at work, I write my current novel during my lunch hour. Sometimes evenings and weekends, too, although I tend to use that time for other projects (including publicity and promotions for the novels already in print).
4) How do you find the right balance in creating characters that are eccentric and
quirky without taking them over the line to unbelievable?
A lot of the quirks and dialogue in the novels are me just listening to the rhythm, like music. I don’t know the math of it, I just know what sounds right to me.
I have to credit Harvest House with nudging me in that direction. When I turned in some very early pages of Forgiving Solomon Long, the introduction of mob thugs Holland and Sallis was simply a couple of guys going to report to the boss. But my acquisitions editor encouraged me to avoid the mob clichés by making them my mobsters—and I rewrote the scene so they were on the way back from a mob killing, all the while discussing Broadway musicals.
(By the way, Tony Curtis really did come to Kansas City for a stage version of Some Like It Hot.)
5) What triggers a book for you? Do you see a character and go from there, or a
plot line or scene and build characters to fit?
There is a lot of looking at little components and combining them and recombining them into different configurations. The various pieces for Deliver Us From Evelyn included a lot of breaking stories about people in power abusing the media—from tyrannical magazine publishers to dishonest newspaper reporters to bloggers sharing company secrets online. All that plus the missing billionaire—the phrase WHERE IS BLAKE? was inspired by a random sign in an episode of the British spy series The Avengers.
Much of what happens after that is built up as I have to explain why things would happen: Why is it so important for the police to find this man? Why are the cops in the organized crime department involved? And how do you solve a crime when you don’t even know what crime has been committed?
As I got to know these characters and the story had time to develop, I ended up at a completely different place than I expected.
6) Do you worry about your cultural references making your books dated, and what do you do to combat that?
In most cases, you’ll see my characters talking about pop culture in the past tense. No matter how many years pass, the original Star Trek will always be a show from the 1960s. That will never change.
In Forgiving Solomon Long, I struck a remark about “when The Odd Couple comes out on DVD,” because eventually it probably will come to pass. Not to mention, DVD might be supplanted as a technology someday.
7) What kind of research do you put into your novels? What topics do you research?
I research all kinds of stuff, from the history of the mafia to why powdered non-dairy creamer may be flammable to classical opera. When Charlie goes off on one of his lectures—about science or about old television shows or whatever—I draw the loose outline from memory, but I generally have to look it up to make sure he gets the details right.
A few of tomorrow's questions: Chris's advice for writers, a "Sneak Pique" of his new book, and the Most Important Question of All--Does he put Fruit Loops in his coffee?
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Well, seein' as how Chris is gone (major mourning here), if it's not Katherine and Taylor next week, something's seriously wrong out there in votin' land.
OK. Now that I have that out of my system . . .Second approach in creating character empathy:
2. Particularly good at something
Two subpoints here. (A) Emphasis is on the word “particularly.” She’s not just talented at the piano, she’s stunning enough to rise above all others, to capture our attention and admiration with her style, her touch of fingers to keys. (B) This approach involves details. We’re not merely told the hunter is efficient with a gun. We see him in action. He treats the weapon lovingly, with respect, oiling it and practicing with it. He’s portrayed with a keen eye, perhaps inexplicably detecting the smell of prey before it’s ever seen. The proficiency of his hands, the tilt of his body as he sights, his absolute stillness and measured patience until the perfect moment arrives to ease back the trigger . . .
It’s hard not to be drawn to a person with such keen ability, even when that person has clear flaws in other areas.
Anne Rivers Siddons uses this approach to endear Lucy Bondurant to us in Peachtree Road. Not through showing one particular talent of Lucy, but through showing the whole person as breathtakingly talented at life. We meet Lucy as seen through the eyes of her cousin, Shep, when she comes to live with his family. Five-year-old Lucy has an immediate effect on her seven-year-old cousin, and this pull will play out through their entire lives in tragic ways. As we come to see, Lucy is needy and desperately driven, profligate in passion, self-centered, deeply flawed. We could so easily come to hate her and fail to understand Shep’s love for her if we weren’t first drawn to this almost ethereal creature through Shep’s mesmerized eyes.
That spring was altogether too dazzlingly, burstingly full of Lucy . . .
I was shy where she was gregarious; cosseted where she was, of necessity, used to fending for herself; physically clumsy and crippled by asthma . . . where she was bird-slender, swift and agile; timid where she was fearless . . .
And then there was her beauty . . . There was a light, an aura, a sort of halo, like streetlights sometimes wear in mist, that lay at times around Lucy Bondurant. I saw it that first evening, and it did not fade for me until the end of her life. She drew eyes to her . . . Lucy was, from the beginning, too vivid, too alive, too much, for the eminently proper mistress of the house on Peachtree Road.
Lucy was animated and vibrant; life seemed to brim and leap in her so that her transparent skin could scarcely contain it . . . The small blue pulses that beat in her throat and temples seemed . . . the drums of a sort of special vitality, which she possessed in greater measure than most mortals. Her laugh was rich and deep and almost bawdy, and she found things funny that would and did terrify most children of her age, and horrify adults.
She was ferociously bright, possessed a quirky, silverfish intellect that soared and looped and doubled back upon itself; her mind described its own windborne ballet, which few people in her life but I ever really followed . . . She was a dreamer, a firebrand, a small poet, a great reader. She taught herself to read when she was three, and by the time she came to us had spent a great deal of her life in trees and under back porches in the various mean homes Uncle Jim and Aunt Willa inhabited, lost and safe in books beyond her age but not her ken.
As that spring swam into and through summer and toward the crisper hummock of autumn, I was as nearly totally happy as I have ever been in my life, and perhaps will ever be again.
Who could not love Lucy?
Anne Rivers Siddons is a master at characterization. If you haven’t read her work, you really should. Peachtree Road is my favorite because of the complexity of characterization. Note in the above passage how she takes time to describe this character. Yes, Siddons stops activity in the present scene to do so, but she doesn’t stop action. Siddon’s description of Lucy makes us visualize the child in all her effervescence, so that this “telling” passage zings and feels full of motion.
One note—this particular example comes close to #8 on our list (Unique, attention-getting), but because of the focus on Lucy’s abilities and good points (whereas unique can include outrageous and other traits), I’ve used it here.
Read Part 4
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
In our second day of looking at character empathy, I’ve decided to go ahead and list the 10 approaches mentioned yesterday. Then we can take a look at each one over the next few days.
The character is:
1. Highly displaying a valued trait such as loyalty, love or courage
2. Particularly good at something
3. Hurt or treated unjustly
4. Wishing for something universally understood
5. Thrust into danger
6. Thrust into grief
7. Caring for others, especially at cost to oneself
8. Unique, attention-getting
9. Attempting to overcome some fear or make a change in life
10. Facing an inner struggle
Remember that these can relate to either a protagonist or an important supporting character. In the case of the protagonist we can’t completely separate these empathy factors from the inciting incident, which in itself helps create empathy. In fact, as we’ll see, some of these approaches may actually be the inciting incident (for example #5, often found in suspense—thrust into danger). In such cases, however, the character will greatly benefit from at least one more empathy factor being added.
1. Displaying a valued trait such as loyalty, love or courage
From Loving Libby (Romance. Author--Robin Lee Hatcher)
“Not again, Bevins,” Libby whispered to herself as she peered at the horseman’s approach through the latticework of sunlight and shadows. “Not as long as I’ve got breath in my body.”
. . . Bevins wouldn’t break into her house. No, that method was too direct and would get him in trouble with the law. He would take an underhanded approach.
. . . She pressed her lips into a determined line. She wasn’t going anywhere, frightened or not. And she wouldn’t wait for Bevins to make the first move either. She wouldn’t give him a chance to do his dirty work. Not this time.
She grabbed the double-barreled shotgun that rested against the wall.
. . . You can’t scare me, you yellow-bellied snake in the grass. You can’t run me off my land.
. . . Aunt Amanda had entrusted the ranch to Libby, and she meant to protect it and everyone on it . . .
In these first two pages of Loving Libby, we meet the spunky main character. The author manages to create a connection with her immediately because we admire her courage. This is obviously a young woman fighting—alone--a man who’s out to wreck her life. And she’s having none of it. The simple phrases such as “Not this time” let us know there’s a history between these two, so Libby doesn’t come off as acting without just cause.
Also in these first few pages we get a glimpse of a young boy named Sawyer in Libby’s home, whom she wants to protect as much as herself. Shotgun in hand, hiding her own fear, we see her taking the time to reassure Sawyer before she steps outside to face the intruder. This throws in a bit of #7—caring for others. Even in a moment of facing a physical confrontation with an enemy bigger than herself, Libby is worried about a young boy’s feelings.
The author needs to establish the reader’s connection with Libby immediately, because by page three, Libby is pulling the trigger to shoot the man on her land. And guess what—it’s not Bevins. It’s some stranger who apparently had meant her no harm. But she doesn’t discover this until after she shoots him in the leg and he’s on the ground.
The inciting incident: Libby jumps the gun, literally. She makes a big mistake. She could easily appear flighty and foolish. And we wouldn’t like her for it. We’d end up judging her. Yet that’s not what I felt at all about this character. She’s a David against a Goliath. We admire people of true courage. We’re more likely to grant them a mistake, even a big one. And Libby took the time to care about a young boy in the midst of her troubles. On two short pages—instant connection for me. I’ve been set up to be willing to forgive her the mistake.
Now, my connection would soon be lost if Libby left the poor guy lying in the dirt to die. She doesn’t, of course. She brings him inside to care for him.
What if the author had failed to create empathy for Libby before she shot the wrong man? That could easily have happened if the opening focused only on her reaction to perceived danger (#5). We might be wooed into empathy for Libby later through seeing how she ends up caring for Remington Walker. But I’ll tell you something. It’s far easier to create empathy for a character right away than it is to erase negativity. Better to start at zero than at minus ten.
By the way, on the ol’ backstory issue--I’ve only given you excerpts here and there from the first two pages, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that the author doesn’t stop the story for long paragraphs about the past problems between Bevins and Libby. In a few sentences, we get it. The author wisely leaves us with unanswered questions, telling us just enough to invoke empathy and set up the inciting incident.
Have you found good examples of #1 in other novels? See what the author did to make this approach work. Does your character need a strong value trait?
Read Part 3
Monday, May 15, 2006
Happy Monday. Hope all the moms out there had a good Mother’s Day. My daughter gave me a great present from Things Remembered. A tree with many branches, each dangling a small oval photo frame. She filled both sides of the frames with pictures of our family, with an engraved piece at the top for Mother’s Day 2006. A perfect gift for the day.
Sometime this week I'll run the interview with Chris Well--whenever he's done answering all the intriguing questions that you asked him--and a few more. In the meantime we'll begin our discussion on how to quickly invoke empathy for your protagonist or a supporting character—without dumping in a bunch of backstory. (Our discussion on backstory is a good foundation for this topic. Check the topic archives at right for a re-read.)
In talking about this subject, we’re not dismissing the importance of the inciting incident (first major conflict that kicks off the story). In fact the inciting incident has much to do with invoking empathy for a protagonist. But that in itself isn’t enough. You can thrust a protagonist in the middle of facing death, but if the reader doesn’t connect with that character, the reader won't care.
Now, writers and readers know that character empathy doesn’t happen all at once. It should grow with each chapter. That’s human nature—we connect with people as we get to know them better and appreciate how they handle struggles in life. But readers need enough connection with the character in that first chapter of his/her appearance so they’ll want to read on.
As far as beginning the novel in general, I think the surest formula (regardless of genre) goes something like this:
1. Grabber first sentence
2. Provocative first paragraph. This can range all the way from high action to quiet narrative, but it should (A) impart pieces of compelling knowledge while (B) giving rise to multiple intriguing questions.
3. First pages of continued high interest in present story (not jumping to a backstory scene), leading to
4. Inciting incident at end of chapter, with final
By the way, don’t be worried by the use of that word “formula.” It hardly means “formulaic” writing, as there are infinite ways to follow the above steps. Second, these 5 pointers aren’t etched in stone. There are exceptions to everything, and the more we learn our craft, the more we’re able to turn the normal on its head. But ya gotta know the normal real well first. For example, the gotcha first sentence and paragraph and pages might be in a prologue, with the inciting incident and hook coming in chapter one. In that case, we may not even meet the protagonist in the first few pages. Which is fine and dandy when it’s done well. (It can easily be done not so well.) At any rate, when we do meet this charming creature--what's to make us like him or her?
Tomorrow we’ll look at a few of these techniques.
Read Part 2-5
Read Part 6-11
Friday, May 12, 2006
Thanks to all who posted questions yesterday for Chris Well. Guy’s gonna be busy over the weekend, answering your wanna-knows. As soon as he’s done with that task, I’ll run his interview—probably next week.
Also next week I want to start a new topic on craft. So much has been happening around here, we haven’t focused on technique for awhile. I received this letter from a BG (bloggee), with the topic idea:
Based on Genesis scores [ACFW contest for unpublished writers], I sense judges had a difficult time connecting with my main character out of the box. How can we give our characters enough depth at the beginning to get readers to connect without bogging down in backstory that isn’t necessary?
Good topic, wouldn’t you agree? One that’s a real challenge to us writers. If you have any follow-up questions or ideas you’d like covered, you know where to leave 'em.
Now, a few more updates.
1. The photos are in! That wonderful photographer gave me around 380 to choose from, with various looks, and there are many really nice ones. With a bit of attitude, of course. The thought, as we shot the photos—even the photographer kept saying it—“I know something you don’t know.” That worked. I, agent and publisher will be making our choices soon. (We can choose up to four shots.) Man. I’m just glad that’s behind me.
2. Well, a nice surprise. My first suspense was published less than 5 years ago, and already two books are being reissued. After I think about 6 printings, the original Eyes of Elisha is being allowed to run out of stock, so it can be re-released with a new cover. Same for Dread Champion. I received a letter just today from someone saying he couldn’t find a Dread Champion in any stores. Yup, that’s because they’re already all gone. (Although amazon.com seems to have a couple hanging around.) It, too, is being re-released. Both of these books should be out in June or so. I think the new cover for Eyes of Elisha is cool, but ya gotta admit, no new cover can live up to the first one, which won the Zondervan artist two national awards.
3. This summer, as part of Zondervan’s summer fiction sale, Brink of Death will go on sale for $4.97. Now that’s a deal! I can’t even buy the book at that price. Brink of Death was chosen, of course, because it’s the first book in the Hidden Face series. Always, the marketing idea is to hook new readers with that first book.
So all in all, with the re-release of the Chelsea Adams series books, the el cheapo price of Brink of Death, and the launch of the Kanner Lake series with Violet Dawn in August—this is gonna be one hoppin’ summer.
A blessed weekend, BGs. Next week, check back for that Chris Well interview, and some new talk on craft.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
“I strive to tell stories that make people think about faith in a new way. In America, so many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—hear so much religious chatter that they almost become immunized. They think they’ve heard it all. My job is to find a way to fly under the radar and plant some truth in the hearts and minds of readers. It’s the model Jesus used when He told parables.” – Chris Well
Chris “flies under the radar” all right, in the most inimitable way. Through Christian crime novels full of pop culture and zany characters, with that quirky comic-book feel. In his recent release, Deliver Us From Evelyn, gangsters drop a dangled victim over a fifth-floor deck one minute (“Oops”) and blithely discuss TV shows the next:
“We gotta hurry back. The Oz is on TV tonight, man . . . You know, the Wizard of Oz.”
“Really? . . . didn’t know you had such classy tastes.”
“A man can better himself.”
From the back cover of Deliver Us From Evelyn: Kansas City, the heart of America—where the heartless Evelyn Blake lords over the Blake Media empire. Inconveniently, her reclusive billionaire husband and KC mayoral candidate, Warren Blake, has vanished. And a lot of people are climbing on the “Where is Blake?” bandwagon . . .
By day, Chris is the editor for Homecoming Magazine and a contributing editor for CCM Magazine. By night the wild and wooly characters fly. Chris’s first novel, the crime thriller Forgiving Solomon Long, was published last year by Harvest House--a fast-paced, happenin' story complete with chess-playing gunmen and a detective who likes Fruit Loops in his coffee. Quite a feat for this debut work to make Booklist's Top 10 Christian Novels of 2005.
Chris’s writing influences span all the way from C.S. Lewis to Isaas Asimov to Marvel Comics to books on theology. He’s still into comics. Even proposed to his wife under a huge Superman statue. He’s worked in radio. Newspapers. Edited a Christian rock magazine. I’m not sure what the guy hasn’t done. And the guy knows his pop culture. Comics, movies, songs—bring it on. He’ll talk circles around you.
As busy as Chris is, he’s granted us an interview. Only one hitch—his idea: You have to come up with the questions.
BGs, don’t let me down now. I know how creative you are. What would you ask a writer as eclectic and unique as Chris?
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Thanks for the ideas from yesterday on blog blurbs, BGs. You rock. (Drat, can’t even run the phrase “blog blurbs” together and make a new word, thanks to the alliteration.) Some good thoughts. Especially the one from Rose. That was a creative covering of our eclecticism. (Is that a word? Well, it is now.)
And how about that photo shoot yesterday? Wow, was it cool. A photographer with many photos and magazine covers to her name, her assistant, and a makeup artist/hair stylist. I tell you, I’d like to take the latter with me wherever I go. A hair gets out of place, she fixes it. And what she does with makeup! I could get used to this.
The photographer took over 300 photos, in three distinctly different looks. If I don’t get a good shot out of this, it’s entirely my own mug’s fault.
Now, an important follow-up. Last week (Tuesday, May 2) I ran excerpts from an article in Publishers Weekly talking about the value of marketing. The article quoted findings from a study done by RainToday.com, a company that helps professionals market their services. A day or so later, I received a gracious e-mail from the editor of raintoday.com, Rebecca Gould. She’d discovered my post and wanted to correct a quoted error in it. Here’s her e-mail:
I saw your post about our research “The Business Impact Of Writing A Book,” written up in Publisher’s Weekly. I wanted to let you know that there is actually a mix up in the article they ran. They will be running a “corrected note” about it in an upcoming issue.
The article says, "Comparing the average response, the study found that authors who had outside help sold 10,000 copies of their first book and earned royalties of $55,000, compared to 4,500 copies sold and royalties of $25,000 for authors who depended solely on the efforts of their publishers."
What it should say is, "Comparing the average response, the study found that authors who had outside help sold 10,000 copies of their first book, compared to only 4,500 copies without hiring the assistance of a PR/marketing firm. Among all books sold, the average of which was 3 books per author, those who hired a marketing service earned a median amount of $55,000, compared to only $25,000 without outside help."
This makes more sense to me. The dollars seemed like an awful lot of money to earn for that amount of copies sold of only one book, even if they are hardbacks selling for over $20.
Besides the statistics, it’s interesting to take a step back and think about our research results in terms of fiction as well. The power of internet marketing was very strong for the 200 authors we surveyed, and I believe this would hold true for fiction writers, as well. (I see you have a site for yourself and your books separate from your blog.) If you have a website for your book, and you’re able to generate a buzz about it online, it’s amazing how many people you can actually reach. With blogs, RSS, and countless e-zines circulating the web, many people are getting much, if not most, of their news online these days. There are websites and blogs dedicated to virtually any niche topic or genre you can think of, and the power of the internet is only on the rise.
Ah, yes, the power of the Internet. For that very reason—long live the blog tour. (Blour, what else?)
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Remember spitzy? New word coined here in March. Spitzy=spiffy and ritzy. Use it with pride.
Update #1: Guess what today is. Photo shoot Take 2. This time in studio. Hope to get some nice portraiture-type shots with interesting lighting, plus maybe some ooooh-cool shadowy ones. You know, that suspense writer look thing. Hope it works—we have no time for a Take 3. A photo’s got to be dropped into the Violet Dawn back cover very soon now.
Update #2: Auditioning posts are beginning to come in for Kanner Lake’s Scenes and Beans blog. The SBGers (I don’t have to explain this one, do I?) are cleverly creating posts for the various characters after reading Violet Dawn. This is going to be one fun project.
One of the auditioners wondered what she’d gotten herself into. Ane Mulligan calls herself a member of the “Big Honkin’ Chickens Club” (name dubbed, as I remember, by Deb Raney, prez of said club)—open to anyone too scared to read a Brandilyn Collins suspense. When Ane received her ARC, she wrote me a nervous e-mail, sort of an I-don’t-know-if-I-can-do-this. I assured her (again) that the Kanner Lake series is meant to be different from the Hidden Faces series, and that Violet Dawn is not as tense as, say, Dead of Night or Web of Lies. The first act is creepy, yeah, and there are heavy action scenes, and the Big Bad Guy slithers around like he's Black Mamba, and it’s got the fast start of a Seatbelt Suspense—but out-and-out scary? Nah.
A week went by. Then I heard from Ane again:
I actually read Violet Dawn. I have no idea why you said it wasn't that scary. I need to re-dye my hair--it's all white now. I could only read during the day, with my husband nearby. And like someone running from a stalker, the scarier it was, the faster I read!
Sheesh. Just goes to show you how diverse an audience a suspense author has to write for.
Update #3: Forensics and Faith is getting a new face! The blog will be set up to look more like my Web site. I toyed with the idea of changing the name. The title Forensics and Faith is pretty narrowly focused, given all that goes on here, as some of you have aptly noted. Also, it’s got the same initials as Faith in Fiction, so I can’t ever call it F ‘n’ F. (I’d love to blame Dave Long for this, but his site was around long before mine, so mea culpa.)
On the other hand, the name Forensics and Faith has established somewhat of a reputation, so why mess with that? I’m now thinking I might keep the name, but change the tagline regarding what the blog is about to better describe what goes on here.
Which is . . . what, exactly?
Now there's a challenge for you. Can anybody adequately describe this eclectic blog in two or three sentences? Have at it. Sort of like a blog pitch. (I’d coin this term a blitch, but somebody might be reading too fast.)
By the way, somewhere near the top I am definitely going to note what a BG is. Then I won’t have to keep explaining for the newbies. (BG=bloggee, for that new person joining us today.)
Update #4: On the new blog, I want readers to be able to click on a particular topic and go to a separate page just for that topic, rather than scrolling through the archives for that month. Some of our topics are long, so we’d have to have more than one page for them. (I do remember the Never Ending Saga being nearly 70 posts.) At any rate, my assistant needs to find out how to code these separate pages within blogspot. Anybody out there in BGdom know? We’d sure appreciate a quick lesson.
Monday, May 08, 2006
Happy Monday, BGs.
As you know, the topic of Satan’s lies became the spiritual theme for my recent novel Web of Lies, for the very reason that it crops up so often in my own spiritual walk, and as I pray with others. Here is a letter I received last week on this issue, and its follow-up correspondence. I’m running it—anonymously—with permission. I have a sense someone out there needs a reminder of this subject that so prevalently challenges God’s followers. Whoever you are, I am praying for you today.
Subject line: Hi—And Personal Prayer Need
[In 2004] I asked you for prayer. When you laid hands on me, you felt the Holy Spirit communicated that there was a spirit of chaos in our family. If you only knew the half of it. But I won't drag you down in details.
You prayed that I would walk in freedom--which I did for a time--but I feel
that I have been struggling with it, along with our whole family. Please pray for
all of us to walk in freedom from this chaos and especially for me to walk
continually, moment by moment, in freedom. I feel like perhaps it is I who have
let it in.
Thanks so much for telling me this so I can help pray you through it. I'll add you to my prayer card for these very specific needs. Do let me know how things are going once in awhile.
You said, "I feel like perhaps it is I who have let it in." I'm not getting a sense if this is true or not, but I DO know that you can know by the tone of the voice you hear. If it's a gentle, loving, listen-to-Me-here's-what I-seek-of-you voice, it's from God. If it's the demeaning, caustic, what's-wrong-with-you-can't-you-do-anything-right? voice, it's from Satan. God gently, lovingly points out our mistakes and leads us toward righting them, but never demeans us in the process. Satan always brings our very Personhood into it--we didn't just make a mistake, we're totally BAD and WRONG.
It's an honor to continue praying for you.
Response to me:
You hit the nail on the head. I sometimes start hearing that latter, demeaning voice and
think it must be God, because I am so awful, etc. Not a good thing. Please pray that
I can hear God's voice through the clamor. A verse that struck me recently was "my sheep
hear my voice." I know without a doubt that I am one of His sheep, I'm just not sure how
I get so far off the track.
Thank you for your encouragement and prayer.
Friday, May 05, 2006
Happy Friday, BGs (bloggees). Here are the follow-ups I promised to your questions about this topic.
1. Am I deducing correctly that NO ONE really knows which books are actually selling the best--real sales in customers' hands, regardless of where they purchased their copies? That's really an amazing thought in this era of computer data.
Well, not really. It’s typical in any kind of data-gathering that a certain percentage represents the whole, whether we’re talking Christian or secular bestseller lists, the Neilson Ratings for TV, polls and surveys, etc. It’s just the way these things work.
2. What is it with the paranoia about divulging actual sales numbers? Seems like even authors have a terrible time getting a hold of what their book is doing.
That’s because we authors are an impatient, worrisome lot, and we want to know right now. We do get sales numbers on our royalty statements—that is, the number of books the publisher shipped to bookstores, which is different from the number of books sold off the shelves. If those books don’t sell off shelves, we eventually know it because we see the returns on our next royalty statement.
3. Are secular store sales excluded from these numbers [STATS]?
Yes. Christian bookstores are not included in any secular list, such as the New York Times, or Publishers Weekly, or USA Today, or any of the other newspapers lists. Nor are secular bookstore sales included on the Christian bestseller list.
4. How is placement of a book in a secular store determined? I'd love to see your books in the "thriller-suspense" section so non-Christian readers can pick them up. Won't that increase sales too?
There are two sides to this argument. One, you’ve stated. The other is that those who do want to buy Christian fiction know where to go. This does not seem to be changing anytime soon. Thing is, in many stores, such as in Borders, Christian fiction sells well, and the bookstores therefore don’t want to “fix the system if it ain’t broke.” Apparently they don't think it would help sales to mix our books in with others.
5. And finally, regarding the question from a few days ago about the line “Bestselling Author of Violet Dawn” on the Coral Moon Cover. One BG questioned whether the marketing people were “getting ahead of themselves” in making such a statement when Violet Dawn hasn’t released yet. I asked Zondervan about this, wondering if we'd have to change the tagline if Violet Dawn didn't make the list. The reply:
"That will be the tagline no matter what. You ARE a bestselling author and you wrote Violet Dawn. I also assume it will be a bestseller. However, on the remote chance that it isn’t, we can still use the phrase. If we said 'Author of the bestselling Violet Dawn,' that would be a problem."
And that’s the scoop on all fronts. Meet ya back here Monday for some new topics.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
Quick note regarding the questions from yesterday's post and any questions you might add today. I'll address these questions as best I can tomorrow, in a follow-up post. For now, part 2 of our topic: sale numbers needed to make the bestseller list.By the way, if you missed yesterday’s post, please read it first as background.
STATS data are copyrighted, and the reports are available for purchase only by publishers and booksellers. Authors can’t buy the data, even if they’d be willing to shell out the hundreds of dollars it costs to purchase the reports. I’ve seen STATS reports only through my publisher for marketing reasons, as a way of seeing where my sales stand in the industry. (And frankly, in response to apparent CBA accusations about how publishers use STATS data, this has never had anything to do with selling to secular stores. In fact, by definition it’s just the opposite—how do my sales stack up in Christian bookstores, where the majority of my books sell, as compared to other CBA novelists?)
At any rate, because of the proprietary nature of STATS reports, I’m not going to list book titles and their sales for a named month. Instead, I hope to give you enough specifics to answer your curiosity about the bestseller list without overstepping my bounds. Note: these examples are old enough to include the 1000+ stores that used to report to STATS before CROSS:SCAN came along (in other words, before October 1, 2005).
In short, the numbers can vary considerably, depending on how big a seller is at the top of the list.
Example 1 of a certain month of the bestseller list (numbers rounded to nearest 50).
Example 2. This is two months after Example 1. The same book is at #1, but sales are now much lower because that book has been out for awhile. Meanwhile, no huge-selling book has replaced it.
Interesting to see how the numbers shift, isn’t it. While it took more sales to hit #1 in Example 1, for the rest of the slots, it took more sales to hit #2-20 in Example 2. Overall, I’d say Example 2 is more typical in that it’s rare to find that much difference in sales between slots 1 and 2. At the same time, sales of fiction have increased (these examples are over a year old), so if anything, today it generally takes higher numbers to make the list than ever before.
One final important note. Remember that the sales above were only reported from about 1000+ Christian bookstores. For a rough estimate of total sales of the book in a given month, the formula I’ve heard is to multiply the STATS number by 3. Of course, from current lists this formula would be a higher multiple, since the number of stores reporting to STATS has fallen from 1000+ down to around 650.
So--the bestseller lists certainly don't show all sales, but neither does any bestseller list out there. Secular lists work in the same way--sales reported from a set number of participating stores. And secular lists never use Christian bookstore data, while the Christian list doesn't use secular bookstore data. That's why when you see a Christian book hit a secular bestseller list, that book is really selling, because one of its biggest venues for selling--the Christian bookstores--have no representation at all.
Even though the number of participating stores that make the CBA bestseller list has fallen, it's still the most accurate representation we have, and as you can see, it can indicate how books are selling in comparison to one another--in Christian bookstores. The numbers can get skewed if, say, a book has a special promotion only in Family Christian stores, which no longer report to STATS. But at least in my experience, this hasn't happened. When my publisher buys special promotions for my books, they hit all the major Christian chains--Family, Lifeway, Mardel, Parable, etc. Numbers can also be skewed if a book is selling heavily in the secular market, but not as well in the Christian market. Books that hit Costco, for example, or WalMart, or Target, etc.--these sales aren't reflected in the CBA bestseller list. So just because a book doesn't hit the list, that doesn't mean it's not doing well overall.
Still, I remain convinced that the CBA list is a good thing to hit because it's publicity, and because Christian bookstores often pay extra attention to books on the list by reordering additional copies, turning them face-out, giving them special placement on a "bestseller" rack, etc.
Hope I have managed to make sense of all this. Questions? Leave them today, and we'll discuss them tomorrow.
Read Part 3
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
I went back for the last 7 or so posts to gather from the comments all of the suggested topics we might cover. Before we get to the main topic for today, here are a few quick responses to some of the suggestions.
1. Think you could talk your editor into doing a tag-team interview with you?
Gina Holmes has just run a very fine two-part interview with my editor, Karen Ball, over on the Novel Journey blog. Part 1 ran Monday, part 2 yesterday. Do check this out if you haven’t already done so. In part 2, Karen talks about marketing—a good follow-up to what we were discussing yesterday.
2. I checked the archives and only found one on plotting twists, but how about the nuts and bolts of how you plot out the storyline?
Actually, we did a nine-part series on plotting starting on August 18, 2005. That series then segued into the posts on twists.
3. (In response to the blurb on the Coral Moon cover): "Bestselling Author of Violet Dawn?" Does that mean Zondervan already has sales figures for the book? Has Chelsea Adams had another vision? Or are they figuring no other author will sell as many copies of Violet Dawn as you? Or, because you are a bestselling author, do you get to add that to everything you write? Bestselling author of Safeway Shopping List. Bestselling author of Birthday Card to Aunt Phyllis. Bestselling author of Post-It Note: Pick Up Drycleaning After 2:30 Dentist Appt. I have no doubt Violet Dawn will sell handily, it just seems maybe the lads and ladies in marketing have gotten ahead of themselves.
I laughed at this one. The questioner has a valid point. I hope to give an answer in the next few days, but I’m still waiting on some information from Zondervan.
Now for today:
Would you do a post (or have you done one) about the way bestseller lists work? On a CBA title, how much does one have to typically sell to hit that list?
We have touched on the topic of bestseller lists in the past few months, but curious minds wanna know more. And I admit it’s a bit of a mysterious and convoluted subject, especially regarding the number of sales needed to make the list. (Nobody wants to talk actual numbers--that's so . . . crass.) So here’s the info I’ve gathered, some stated before on this blog, and some new stuff. If any of you sees some point I’ve not gotten right, please let me know.
The bestseller list for the Christian publishing industry is based on STATS—a database compiled and sold by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). STATS uses ISBN codes to track actual sales to customers at participating bookstores, which, until last fall numbered 1000+. In other words, it's not the number of books shipped to a participating store that matters, but the number of those books that actually sell off the shelves. Many independent Christian bookstores, as well as large chains such as Family Christian, Lifeway, etc., reported their sales to STATS. Then last October came a few changes.
Beginning October 1 of 2005, a new reporting database came into play—CROSS:SCAN. This database is compiled by the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA). The booksellers were worried that the publishers were somehow using STATS data to further sales to secular stores (this is the bottom line of the argument, as best I can gather), and therefore wanted to come up with their own alternative database, which allows a publishing house to view its own selling data, but not to view data from other houses as comparisons.
Some bookstores started reporting sales to CROSS:SCAN as well as to STATS. Others, such as the Family Christian chain (about 350 stores), pulled out of STATS completely and now only reports to CROSS:SCAN. As a result, reported sales that make up the bestseller list dwindled from 1000+ stores down to a current 650 or so. This trend may continue if more booksellers pull out of STATS.
Confused yet? There’s more. Now, starting May 1, ECPA has scrapped its old STATS program for the “newest generation of channel-wide sales collection and interpretation” called Pubtrack. According to ECPA, Pubtrack “is specifically designed to improve data collection and analysis for both publishers and retailers while simultaneously protecting data integrity and confidentiality.” In other words, Pubtrack is ECPA’s response to CROSS:SCAN, which was CBA’s response to STATS.
Question: Will the new Pubtrack satisfy booksellers enough so that those who pulled out of STATS will become part of Pubtrack? If so, the number of booksellers reporting sales numbers to the database upon which the bestseller list is based would rise again. Which would be a good thing, because in general, the more participants in the database, the more accurate the data. But this realignment may take a number of months, as booksellers decide what to do.
Bestseller lists are titled two months ahead of data. The current one is the May list, reflecting sales in the month of March. So the first list reflecting data from Pubtrack, I'm assuming, will be the July list.
Tomorrow—sales needed to hit the fiction bestseller list.
Read Part 2
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
First, hats off to all of you creative captioners for yesterday's photo. Many of them had me laughing out loud.
And now for today:
A recent issue of Publisher’s Weekly ran an article based on the findings of a study concerned with the efficacy of business professionals writing books in their fields. Does writing a nonfiction book really boost the earning power of a professional? The study was conducted by RainToday.com, a company that helps professionals market their services. While this study does not focus on our realm of writing fiction and marketing novels, it yielded interesting findings that are applicable to us.
Finding #1: Authors who invested their own money in promoting a book saw definite payoff in the sales of that book. Fifty-one percent of the 200 authors who took part in the survey used their own funds for marketing, with the median investment being $4,500. Usually these monies were used to hire an outside public relations firm. This is, of course, in addition to what the publishing houses were doing to market the book (which in many cases can be very little). The average response (50th percentile) found that authors who purchased the outside marketing help sold 10,000 copies of their book, compared to 4,500 copies of books sold by authors who did not invest in marketing. Moneywise, this meant $55,000 worth of royalties versus $25,000 in royalties. (Keep in mind these books are often hardbacks selling at $25 a pop.) The lower and higher selling percentiles found about the same thing—i.e., more than double the sales and royalties of extra-marketed books than those without the marketing investment.
Finding #2: The most effective way to promote a book was through the Internet. Book signings were way down the list. No surprise to me on the book signing thing. But I was surprised about the Internet. Clearly, this is where folks are hanging out these days. And when you think about it, a lot of Internet marketing doesn’t even cost anything. Although google ads, amazon.com ads, etc. certainly can cost.
Finding #3: Sort of an oh-by-the-way finding. The bigger the publisher, the higher the sales for a book. (I would guess that in general, larger houses mean more marketing $$ in the budget for a book.) An average author at a major publisher sold nearly 11,000 more copies than an author with a small press. Authors at mid-sized houses sold only slightly less than those at larger houses. Self-published authors sold way less.
Would these findings be about the same if the survey had focused on marketing novels? I know of novelists who’ve hired outside firms and haven’t seen such returns on investment as this survey shows. However, I’m only thinking of a few cases, which hardly make for a good survey. And no doubt, the most important ingredient is—who is the outside firm, and how good are they at what they do?
In many ways it’s easier to market nonfiction. Easier to find hooks for radio interviews, for example. Also easier to find clustered target audiences. A nonfiction book can be advertised in a trade magazine and hit a strong target market. (In fact, trade magazine advertising was the #2 most effective way to market, after the Internet.) But it's harder to find a magazine with a built-in strong market for a certain kind of novel. Stay-at-home moms may read Good Housekeeping, but what percentage would be interested in mom-lit fiction?
The other thing this article doesn’t note is how much the publishing houses were spending on marketing in the first place. Sometimes the house will spend its own money for the outside publicist. Of course, even then, it’s all relative, depending upon how much the firm is being paid to publicize the book.
Bottom line, this survey reminds us that publishing is a business. It’s typical for people who want to start a business to have a marketing budget. Yet in writing books, authors so often don’t consider any marketing budget at all. If you look again at the average findings of this survey, you’ll see that, in general, authors spent about 8% of their earnings on extra marketing ($4,500 out of $55,000 royalty earnings).
Something to think about.