Wednesday, October 26, 2005

World's Worst Dental Patient--Part 3

First, BGs, an announcement. I will be at Glorieta writers conference today through Sunday, so I won't post Thursday or Friday. Not sure about Monday, since I post the night before, and I'm getting in Sunday night. But I'll be back next week--I promise.

And now, back to the dentist . . .

Doc takes the mirror from Miss Hygie’s hands so casually, as if he hasn’t just shattered my nerves in a million pieces. He offers it to me. “Please hold it so I can show you a few things.”

I twist in my chair to look at him, wild-eyed. “Huh-uh.”

He tilts his head in a here-we-go gesture. This guy’s been my dentist for a long time. He knows underneath the shuck and jive is a Big D wimp times a thousand. Squared. “Come on now, holding a mirror is not going to hurt you.”

My jaw’s clamped down like it’s been wired shut. I’m not sure it would open with a crowbar. “Hm-mm.” I shake my head.

Doc turns to Miss Hygie. “Good thing you took those X-rays, or I never would have seen that problem with this one.” He points to the lighted charts.

Miss Hygie looks so pleased with herself I’d like to knock her into the next room.

And I know what the doc’s doing, cunning medical man that he is. He figures not knowing will be worse for me than knowing. Without a doubt he’s lasering right into my mind, seeing the imaginings of ten Big Ds drilling my mouth at once like it’s some newfound oil well. I tell myself his manipulations won’t work, not at all. Even as my teeth begin to part.

“That’s my girl. All right.” Doc keeps a pleasant face. He is always pleasant. He even rubs my arm in sympathy. It’s hard to hate a dentist like this.

I turn all my malice toward Miss Hygie, who’s posed in the doorway with in smug victory. I want to tell her I kill people for a living. That I know more about poisons and spiders and blood splatter than she’ll learn about choppers in a lifetime. But the doc’s already managed to stick two fingers into my loosening mouth. My guess is he saw what was coming and wanted to head it off at the pass.

“Come on, you going to bite my fingers or will you open up your mouth?”

If only he were Miss Hygie, the answer would be so simple. As it is, I open up all the way. He pushes my mirror-holding hand up so I can see my own reflection. I have looked better on a sick bed after losing every bit of content in my stomach.

Doc proceeds to show me three wayward teeth. One, with a large filling, is cracking. It needs a crown. The second, Miss Hygie’s favorite, is a huge new cavity gracing the X-ray. It’s too deep for just a filling. It needs a crown. A third tooth needs a filling. If I don’t do them—soon—one of those teeth is likely to break. Then I’ll be in real trouble.

It’s all over in sixty seconds. The proof, reflected in the mirror shaking in my hand, of over two hours of needed dental work. Half at least claimed by the Big D.

I can’t talk. I can’t swallow. I can’t breathe. Doc waits until I get hold of myself. My hand lowers the offending mirror. A lopsided smile finds it way to my face and stretches my lips like some gargoyle’s. “Hey, Doc.” My voice sounds like the Tin Man’s, but I press on. “I hear you’re into drugs these days.”

He frowns. “Drugs?”

Miss Hygie speaks up like the know-it-all she is. “She means sedation while you work.”

“Oh.” He nods. “Yes, sedation. I’ve been doing that for about a year now. You thinking you want that?”

What, did I just walk into this guy’s life yesterday? “Doc, it’s me you’re talking to. I will die if you do this work on me.”

He wags his head. “Well then, you’re a perfect candidate. We’ll do it. You take a pill about an hour before you come in. Have someone drive you here. Then we’ll give you another pill, and we’ll just wait as long as it takes until you’re relaxed.”

Sounds like a plan. Sleep through the whole thing. There’s only one problem. I’m bad with pain killers. In fact, I flat out can’t take them. I may never get out of this guy’s chair if I do. I tell him this.

He shrugs. “No problem. Maybe you’ll only need the one pill then. Don’t worry, the stuff wears off fast. Just have someone ready to drive you home.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay.” I crawl out of his chair, mentally scrabbling for all the attitude I can get. If I don’t find it about now, I’m going down fast. I grab my purse, ready to jet

“You been eating a lot of sugar lately?” Doc stops me.

My head pulls back. “Okay, so I’m an Atkins flunkie. So is half the world.”

“Does that mean yes?” He won’t let this go.

I give him an exasperated look. “I’ve been known to eat a few speckles in my day.”

“I thought so. That new cavity looks like sugar to me.”

To this I have no reply. I head for the front area. Doc follows me out. “All right, let’s schedule this now.” He knows me.

“I can’t. I have to check with my husband when he can drive me. He travels a lot.”

“Then talk to him and call me within twenty-four hours. If you don’t call us, we’re going to call you, okay?”

My lips stretch. “Wow, doc, didn’t know you need the business that bad. You buy a new house and can’t pay your mortgage? Spend too much dough on a spiffy sports car? That’s what happens in a mid-life crisis, you know.”

A gal behind me in the waiting room snickers.

That mouth of mine keeps chattering. “Tell you what, you can have my firstborn, will that help?”

He gives me a look. “Call me, hear? You really need to get this done.”

I point both fingers at him, like double barrels, and give him a final grin. “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

I tootle out the door with a wave.

Big D Day isn’t scheduled yet. But it soon will be. I may die, but I have no choice.

Wonder what drugs will do to my sarcasm level?

Read Part 4

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

World's Worst Dental Patient--Part 2

Miss Hygie is done with her tooth polishing gig. The enigmatic X-rays are perched on the little light thingy on the counter, taunting me. I squint at them, telling myself they look perfect.

Little needles are poking at my nerves. I can't stand the waiting much longer. Nervousness itches at me like a cheap shirt. My defensive sarcasm revs, just waiting for the doc to show up.

Speak of the man. The dentist makes his entrance.

I fling on my wise-cracking smile. “Hey, Doc, where ya been? Haven’t seen you forever!” Yuk, yuk, grin, grin, like the guy's my long lost friend.

“Hi, there.” He grins back. “I’ve been right here. Can’t say the same about you.”

This guy knows how to handle me.

Miss Hygie’s backed up in the doorway, watching. I'd swear she still wears a smug expression over her victory with the X-rays.

Doc studies my face. “Your hair’s longer.”

My lips are moving, but I’m thinking diagnosis, diagnosis. I have no idea what’s coming out of my mouth. “So is yours. Hey, looove that spikey gel look. My teenage daughter would think it’s cool. You goin’ through a midlife crisis?”

He shakes his head, looking at my chart. “I’m getting it cut tomorrow.”

“Oh, I think you should leave it. Grow it to your shoulders maybe. Then you’d really look awesome. Like some surfin’ dude down at Santa Cruz.” Yuk-yuk.

He’s leaning toward the X-rays. “Man, you’re hard on a guy. Remind me to never mention hair to you again.”

I barely hear this. I’m watching him study the gray shots of my teeth. “Really, doc, you look good. For a dentist.” My voice wavers a bit. I am definitely losing my momentum.

“Okay.” He turns toward me, picking up his little mirror instrument. “Let’s have a look around.”

Let's not.

He plops in his rolling chair and positions himself behind my head. I open my mouth like the good girl I am. My eyes cut far right. Over on the counter lies a hand-held mirror for patients to use. This is a bad mirror. Very, very bad. The doc will only ask Miss Hygie to hand it to me if he wants to show me something in my mouth. This something is never positive. Hey, look at these perfect snappers! No drill need touch these babies! Oh, no. The mirror is to prove to a patient the horrendously awful state of her most miserable and mucky mouth. Your gums are decaying, your teeth are falling out. Pull out the Big D, or in twenty-four hours your lips will fold inward like dried prunes!

If the doc asks Miss Hygie for this mirror, I am doomed.

He looks around inside my mouth, making those little mm-hm doctor noises. I want to ask what he’s seeing, but my jaw is cracked open, and his hand’s stuck between my choppers. I hang on to the chair handles for dear life, trying my darndest not to think of the Big D. Study the boring white ceiling, thinking doc oughtta have a screen up there with a TV playing just to occupy my mind. Any program would do. Lassie in Japanese. Commercials in Farsi.

Don’t ask for the mirror, don’t ask for the mirror.

Lord, help me, here it comes. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, my mind starts a masochistic, all-five-senses memory of the Big D. The vision of that thick silver needle. The high whine that makes my fingers curl. The jolting pain deep in my brain when it hits a nerve. The feel of little flecks hitting my tongue, the sickening metallic smell . . .

I will not meet the Big D and live to tell about it.

“Uh-huh. Well. Hm.” Doc continues to talk to himself. He rolls away from me for a minute and restudies the X-rays.

Oh, man, oh, man. Please, God, don’t let him ask for the—

He rolls back to my side, glancing at Miss Hygie. “Hand me that mirror, will you please?”

Read Part 3

Monday, October 24, 2005

An Early Read of Web of Lies

I interrupt my dentist story to make an announcement. (Well, didn’t I tell you from now on you won’t know what to expect?)

Last week my assistant sent out an announcement to all my Sneak Pique subscribers about the contest to win an ARC (advanced reading copy) of Web of Lies. ARCS will be mailed to 25 winners the first week of November—a good 2 ½ months before the book is released. The requirements for getting your name put “in the hat” for the drawing are quite simple.

Over the weekend I realized that all who read this blog should have a chance to enter the contest. You deserve to hear any special news from me, since you do me the honors of coming around to read my posts. In turn, I hope you’ll help spread my news to others. I know some of you are signed up to receive Sneak Pique. But for those who aren’t—here’s your chance to enter the contest. Some of you may be used to reading Sneak Pique through my sending it to the ACFW loop. But this contest has been reserved only for Sneak Pique subscribers, and so wasn’t sent to ACFW.

If you didn’t receive the Sneak Pique e-mail and would like a chance to receive Web of Lies free—and way early—please follow these instructions:

1. First, you’ll have to catch up with the Sneak Pique subscribers by signing up for the newsletter. Click on the blog link over to your left to subscribe. Your inbox will not be inundated. You will receive the newsletter every other month, featuring my news, inside scoops on other Christian novelists, and info about new Christian fiction in all genres.

2. Go to this link to view the contest e-mail and see the front and back covers for Web of Lies. (The back cover has a way cool skull.) Follow the instructions there to enter the contest. (You can copy the graphic and paste it into an e-mail to send to whomever you wish.) Make sure to remind the folks who receive your forwarded e-mail to follow their simple instructions. They really are easy. Yet you would not believe how many people aren't following them.

That’s it. Here’s hoping a lot of you BGs will be reading your free copy of Web of Lies soon. And a major thanks from me for telling others about the book.

Tomorrow—yikes. It’s back to the dentist.

Friday, October 21, 2005

World's Worst Dental Patient--Part 1

Hey, BGs, thanks so much for all your ideas! You folks are a plethora of productivity. I actually think I shall use them all. Keep you on your toes wondering what’s coming next. Might post for days in a row, then . . . not. For a day or two anyway.

Becky brought up marketing as it pertains to my blog, and that’s a very good point. Originally, I started blogging ’cause my editor told me I should. Great way to connect with your readers, she said. At first I figured writers and my readers were coming around. (Granted, there’s crossover there.) But after the NES was done in June, the discussion turned to the how-tos of writing, and so while I think more writers have come, my readers who aren’t writers may have less reason to keep coming back. So I do have to start talking to those folks, too.

I’d still like y’all to leave questions regarding writing whenever you’d like, whether on topic or not. I don’t mind answering questions, and it gives me a topic to write to. Between the questions, I shall post about . . . what I shall post about. ValMarie, you left a good question yesterday about writing back cover copy. I will answer that soon.

By the way, Janet—you mentioned Canada. Yup. A market to work on. One I just talked to my agent about.

Today, I shall begin a story, continued on Monday. You see, this afternoon, I had a difficult appointment. I had to go to the dentist.

I am the world’s worst dental patient.

It was just for a check-up, mind you. Doesn’t matter. I so much as hear the Big D (drill, if you have to ask) while I’m in the waiting room, and I start to shake.

There is this strange side that comes out of me whenever I’m nervous at a medical appointment. I turn into a stand-up comic. With a sarcastic edge. I mean, the stuff just rattles out of my mouth. You’d never guess, meeting me at such a time, that I’m really a nice person. The docs give me these pained smiles and somehow put up with my shenanigans. Their nurses and assistants flat out don’t know what to do with me.

Well, some don’t.

Today, the dental hygienist sees me first. She gets to do the preliminary fun work like poke at my gums, scrape down my teeth, floss and polish. She settles me in the chair, snaps the paper towel thingy around my neck to catch drool (which in my case is highly likely), and smiles brightly like some counselor on welcoming day at scout camp. “How would you like to take some X-rays?”

I give her a you-gotta-be-nuts look. “I would absolutely looove to.”

Her smile slips a little. “Well, we don’t have to if you’d rather not, but it does help with the diagnosis. Sometimes cavities can only be seen with an X-ray.”

Cavities? Cavities mean the Big D. Big D very, very bad. Turn macho Brandilyn into Jello. I look Miss Hygie in the eye. “I can’t imagine a better reason to tell you no.”

She turns her back on me, leaning over my chart. “You haven’t had them for two years.”

“Two years? Can’t possibly be that long.”

“It’s true.” She raises her eyebrows at me. “And you really want us to do all we can to diagnose you properly, don’t you? Otherwise, we could miss something. Then just imagine how much worse your next visit could be.”

We lock eyes. She maintains a perfectly pleasant look on her face, but I am suddenly wary. This woman’s a formidable foe. She’s honed onto my fear spot like some heat-seeking missile. If I don’t get those X-rays now, I could spend long months worrying about what could have been found. By the time my next dentist appointment rolls around, I’ll be blathering pure inanity.

She flashes an encouraging grin. “They don’t hurt, you know.”

I flick a look at the ceiling. “Like heck they don’t hurt. About eight different times, you stand this sharp slide on its end in my mouth, tell me to bite down on it, then you disappear. By the time the machine goes Bzzzt and you return, the thing’s stuck in the top of my mouth so deep, I’m thinkin’ it’s gonna come out my nose.”

She blinks. “Tell you what, we’ll just take four. The quadrants.”

This lady oughtta be in sales.

In spite of myself, I consider the compromise. If I don’t do the X-rays, I’m going to hate myself in the morning. If I do take them, and they show something awful, I’m really going to hate myself. However, the latter choice is prudent. And even a sarcastic stand-up comic understands the power of prudence once in a while.

I take the X-rays.

On to the poking and scraping of teeth by Miss Hygie. I endure this, thinking of those X-rays, sitting there like ticking time bombs. Waiting for the doc to walk into the room and make his pronouncement.

Something tells me I am doomed.

Read Part 2

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Marketing--Day 3

A short post today. I think I’ve about covered the basics of marketing. One question from yesterday—does buying from count toward the CBA bestseller list? No. The sales have to be from Christian bookstores. But hey, if you don't live near a Christian bookstore, ya gotta do what ya gotta do. Any sale, of course, helps an author. But you should be aware of those sales that prompt a book toward the bestseller list.

And Janet's question: Is this why it's so hard for a CBA book to cross into ABA? It's not so much the separation of bestseller lists that make CBA books hard to cross over. It has more to do with marketing and proper positioning of Christian fiction in secular stores. Christian novels are put in their own section, so, for example, a suspense reader perusing the mystery/suspense shelves in B&N won't run across my books. To catch the attention of that suspense reader, my publisher would need to buy space at the front of the store. Yes--those books that you see when you enter any big secular chain store--big bucks were paid to place them there. The space is bought, not earned through store recommendation, or sales, or quality, or whatever.

If there are any other questions, please shoot them over. I’ll do what I can out of my limited knowledge to answer.

Wonderful BGs, I have to tell you that I’m finding it more and more difficult to keep up this blog. We’ve covered a lot of topics, so I’m finding it harder to come up with new ones. And the posts often take quite a bit of time to write. What I hate to let go is the community here. You all have been so terrific to me. But time constraints and greater responsibilities in writing and making sales numbers are making this difficult to continue. I really don’t know what I’m going to do yet. If anyone has any creative ideas out there, I’d love to hear them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Marketing--Day 2

So what do I know about the inner workings of marketing in a publishing house? Probably not all that much, but I’m willing to tell you what to do know. Or at least think I know. If I make a mistake and somebody out there knows I’m wrong—please do set me straight.

1. There are different strata of authors in a house. Some get more marketing dollars than others. You’d think this would be chalked up to mere seniority—who’s been publishing with the house the longest. Ain’t necessarily so. For whatever reason (and the reasons are myriad) some newcomer might really strike the house’s fancy with a first-time book. The house will think the book’s the best thing since sliced bread and decide they can sell more than the usual amount for a new novelist. End result—more marketing dollars. On the other hand, an author can be with a house for a long time, loyally writing one book after another, and for some reason, the house just doesn’t get all that enthused. Result—same amount of marketing dollars for each book, probably closer to the lower level.

I wish I could say it’s as cut and dry as writing a fresh, incredible story. Not that writing a fresh, incredible story won’t help excite the house. It’s just that this isn’t always the case. And neither are the books that are given the lower marketing dollars necessarily the more mediocre books. We’ve all read books we think should sell better, and we’ve all read books that sell great, and we wonder why. Could well be due to the amount of marketing dollars put behind the book.

2. I think the best thing my house can do for me is buy the ad placements in flyers for chain stores such as Lifeway, Family Christian, Mardel and Parable. The stores have large databases of their clients, and they send these flyers to them. So first, these ads mean advertising to targeted readers. Second, often the stores will sell the books at a discount—maybe a couple dollars off. Lemma tell ya somethin’—in CBA, cheap sells. Third and most important, ads in these flyers often mean that the stores will give special placement to the book. Often it’s a pull-out placement at the front of the store. That’s to-die-for space, ladies and gents. Special placement sells more books than probably anything else. The customer—who might not even be there to buy your book—is face-to-face with your cover as he/she enters the store.

The promotion in each chain runs the life of the flyer, which is about a month. Some stores print flyers often, and all the flyers ain’t created equal. For example, Parable may print about 10 flyers a year, but there are only two that all Parable stores are required to use—the spring one (around Easter) and a fall one. So for max effect, you want your book run in one of those two flyers.

It’s best, if you’re going for multiple chain placement, to have the book featured in flyers for the various chains at the same time. Soon after the book comes out. This gives the splash nationwide. In an area where there’s no Mardel, there may be a Family or Lifeway, etc. The more customers are buying your book all in a given month, the more likely you are to hit the bestseller list.

3. Other authors may disagree with me, but I think the bestseller list is a big deal. I’m always very grateful when I hit it, and disappointed when I don’t. The bestseller list for the Christian market is based on actual sales in certain Christian bookstores in the U.S. and Canada. Not every store reports its STATS sales for the list. Sort of like the Neilson ratings for TV, a certain number of stores are meant to be a sampling of what’s going on in the nation. I think it’s about 1500 stores. At any rate, “actual sales” means when a customer buys the book. It does not mean how many books the stores buy to place on their shelves. Major difference. This bestseller list only includes sales from Christian bookstores, so sales from all the secular stores like B&N, etc., don’t count toward it. (By the same token, secular bestseller lists like the New York Times don’t include sales from Christian bookstores. This is why it’s really amazing when a Christian book hits the New York Times bestseller list, because so many of the sales aren’t even counted.) Because the CBA list doesn't report secular sales, a book can be selling very well through alternative sources—chains like B&N, Borders, etc.; “big box” stores like WalMart and Costco; and online, such as—and still not make the Christian bestseller list.

I think making the list is important because it begets more publicity. Christian bookstores pay more attention to books on the list, particularly the top 10. They may be pulled out for special placement as “bestsellers.” Clerks are more likely to be aware of them and handsell them. Secular bookstores pay more attention to books on the Christian bestseller list, too. They're more likely to stock copies of bestsellers in their Christian sections. The bestselling book is also listed on the CBA Web site as a bestseller ( , and in market magazines. In short, making the list can start a positive cycle. Sell books and make the list, which helps you sell more books, which puts you on the list, etc. If you want to do the most for a Christian author, buy his/her book at a Christian bookstore (and hope that store is one that reports STATS for the bestseller list.)

The fiction bestseller list for the Christian market has seen its share of changes. About, oh, four or so years ago, we had two lists—paperback and hardback. Problem was, there aren’t that many hardback novels in CBA. (There were even less then.) The paperback list went to 15, and the hardback list went only to 5. Then the lists changed to three—one for romance, one for historical, and one for everything else. No delineation between hardback and soft. A crazy bunch of lists, if you ask me. Romance and historical needed their own lists? Three lists made it kind of too easy to get on any one of them, and I think making the list lost some of its oomph. About a year ago the lists changed again—this time to just one, going up to #20. Hardback and paperback lumped together. Now it’s downright hard to make the list. You’re not likely to do it with spot marketing. It’s gonna take a concentrated effort to get those books specially placed in lots of Christian bookstores at once in order to have a chance at making the list.

4. Ironically (to some, anyway), the more books an author sells, the bigger the marketing package for that author. The house will always be looking to push the author to even higher sales while keeping the ground that author has already gained.

Questions/comments? If I can find more in my brain to pull out for tomorrow, I will.

Read Part 9

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Marketing--Day 1

Another huge thanks to Terry Whalin for yesterday’s post. BGs, I didn’t notice until the evening that the comments link wasn’t working most of the day. Many of you may have tried to thank Terry or ask a follow-up question—and couldn’t. I’ve alerted him to check today’s post for comments that may pertain to yesterday, so please try again today.

Other questions from last Friday’s post about marketing were pretty general. What goes on in the publishing house to market a book? And what can you do to help?

All novels aren’t marketed the same—that’s the sad fact. All too often a house will acquire a new author and pretty much stick the book on the shelves. Oh, the book’s appeared in the house’s catalog and been pitched by the salespeople to book buyers, so stores know about it. But how do the customers who buy the books from shelves know about it? They usually don’t. They’re left to somehow run across it while browsing. And given that it’s a new book by an unknown author, it’s likely that it will be shown only spine-out, rather than face-out.

What’s an author to do?

Here’s where the books such as those Terry mentioned come in. I’m not going to recite the things these books talk about, such as how to hook the media to interview you, and on and on. Instead, I’ll focus today on reaching people already within your sphere of influence. Here are some easy things to do:

1. Join e-mail loops such as American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and others centered around writing and reading. These loops put you in touch with a lot of people you couldn’t otherwise contact. It’s great to be able to tell such loops about your book and talk up any contests or free drawings you’re holding to promote the book. When my first novel was published in 2001, ACFW was a whole lot smaller than it was now. But being on that loop definitely gained me readers. One very important note—you’re not on these loops only to receive. A published author can do much to help others—and you should.

2. Put up a Web site, even if it’s basic. Get permission from your publisher to run the first chapter of your book. This can help get people hooked on the story. On my site, every book includes the prologue or opening chapter. Put this Web site address on everything you can. For example, if you order labels with your return address on them to use in paying bills, you can make that fourth line your Web site address.

3. Start a newsletter. But be sure to send only to folks who sign up for it. They have to choose to opt in after receiving an invitational e-mail. (This is where my assistant comes in, as I don’t know the technicalities of how these software programs work.) You might try to find something unique to include in your newsletter that will bring you more readers. That is, something that is outside your own news. For example, in my newsletter, Sneak Pique, I answer reader questions about other Christian novelists, and I run blurbs on the latest releases in all genres of Christian fiction. So even those not necessarily interested in my books may sign up for my newsletter as a way to keep up on the market. I’m doing other authors a service, and at the same time, gaining readers for my newsletter. Maybe some day those otherwise uninterested readers will try one of my books out—and naturally see how positively brilliant it is.

4. Ask your publisher for overruns on the cover flats. Don’t let a publishing house fool ya—these things don’t cost much at all once they’re up and running on the press. You can use the entire flat as a huge postcard, complete with excerpt of a scene and other info on the back. These oversized pieces of mail cost 49 cents to send, so don’t mail them to the world. But do send them to friends and family and your Christmas card list. I also send them to my growing database of church bookstores/libraries. I ask my publisher for 500 flats on every first printing. Later, if I need more, I can get them when the book goes back to print. You do have to request this early, however. You can also cut the flats up if you want and send only the front cover as a postcard, with info on the back.

Of course, this all depends on your budget. I also spent money to print bookmarks, my full stationery package, and business cards. Not to mention having an artist design my logo to go on all these things (and my Web site).

These things are quite basic. They won’t net you millions of readers at once, but they’ll help start your reader base. Truth is, usually in writing, building that base simply takes time. Each book should be expanding your readership to some degree. But you really have to help do this. It’s not all up to the house. They can reach people you can’t reach—and you can reach people they don’t know about. You have to work together on a team.

More tomorrow--the house's side.

Read Part 8

Monday, October 17, 2005

Proposals and Marketing

On Friday a few questions came in about various aspects of marketing. Lynetta mentioned reading Terry Whalin's Book Proposals That Sell, an excellent resource for putting that winning proposal together. Lynetta wondered if a proposal for fiction needs to include a marketing plan, as those for nonfiction do. Well, Lynetta, you went and used the "P" word on me. It's right up there with the "S" word. I know so little about proposals and synopses. But instead of begging off due to my ignorance, I asked The Man himself, Terry Whalin, if he'd be willing to answer the question. Terry came through in spades. I'm going to run his thorough answer today, then tomorrow we'll pick up with the other questions about marketing. So without further ado, heeeere's Terry!
First, I appreciate this opportunity from Brandilyn to answer whether a fiction book needs a marketing plan to catch a publisher’s attention. It’s a good question. Let me give you a bit of my background so you see why I’m answering this question. I’ve published more than 60 nonfiction books and I’ve been a book acquisitions editor for the last four years. While I had written a lot of books, it was a complete revelation when I became a book editor. I began to understand the economics involved and it’s important for every author to understand these dynamics—whether they write fiction or nonfiction. I provide a bit of this information in my book, Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success. While somewhat focused on nonfiction, you can learn a lot about the publishing process no matter what you write from this book.

Here’s the financial information that I didn’t understand (since I’ve never self-published): for every book (fiction or nonfiction), a publisher is going to spend $50,000 to $100,000 (real dollars) to take your manuscript and turn it into a finished book. These numbers are with a modest advance to the author (say $5,000) and zero marketing dollars. These costs are production, cover design, editorial work, etc. on your book. Publishers receive thousands of submissions from would-be authors. I’m the part-time Fiction Acquisitions Editor at
Howard Publishing. I’m looking for six to eight full-length novels a year—and I’ve received over 250 submissions from individuals and literary agents. I’ve rejected some quality fiction because of the volume and limited spots. And that is just my story so imagine these numbers multiplied on other editor’s desks. And if you read Book Proposals That Sell, you will see that editors do a lot more than read manuscripts.

Let’s pretend for a minute that you are the editor and have to wade through these volumes of material to find the books for your list. You have two manuscripts. Both manuscripts are excellent, fascinating stories. One manuscript has a marketing plan and the other doesn’t. As the editor, you will be held accountable for your choices (within the publishing house). It’s a business to sell books. Which manuscript will you choose to champion to the other editors, the publishing executives (sales, marketing, etc.)? Editors risk for their authors. Your challenge is to prove to be worthy (actually more than worthy) of this risk.

Later this month, at the
Glorieta Christian Writers Conference, I’m teaching an hour workshop, What A Publisher Looks for in a New Book Idea. Whether fiction or nonfiction, I’m going to focus on how you can make your book stand out for the editor. While I’m not going to give you the contents of my workshop, let me give you several ideas and resources to figure it out. Everything that I’m going to write is based on the assumption you’ve learned your writing craft and produced an excellent, page-turning novel that is appropriate for a particular publisher. A big part of you may resist even creating a marketing plan. Isn’t that why you go to a publisher instead of publishing it yourself? No, you go to a publisher to use their marketing efforts in combination with your efforts to sell more books (and to have your books in the bookstore—a closed system for self-publishing—which is another discussion). Publishers love authors who “get it” and understand they need to roll up their sleeves and take a bit of their energy to market the books to their own network. Also publishers always want to do more for their books especially when they release. Yet they have 20 books to shepherd through this process—and you have a single book. Who is going to be more passionate about the book? It’s you as the author—well show a little of that passion in your marketing plans for your book.

You need to be reading some marketing books and here’s a few titles to get you started:
Beyond the Bookstore, How to Sell More Books Profitably to Non-Bookstore Markets by Brian Jud. Over half of the books sold are sold outside of the bookstore. This book includes a CD to help you understand these markets and create your own plan. Please don’t say you are willing to do radio interviews or appear on Oprah (yes, I’ve seen new authors put this repeatedly as their marketing plans and it reveals you know nothing about selling books. Of course you will do radio interviews and appear on Oprah (however unlikely it is to appear on Oprah). Publicize Your Book!, An Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book the Attention It Deserves by Jacqueline Deval. I met Jacqueline several years ago at a conference in New York City. She’s a publisher at Hearst Books and has led numerous successful book campaigns as a Director of Publicity. She knows proactive authors help sell books and has wise advice about how to be proactive but not high maintenance (something publishers avoid like the plague). The techniques in this book will give you practical ideas for your marketing plan. You have a network and the question is: how will you tap it and use it to sell books? Check out PyroMarketing by Greg Stielstra, Harper Business. This book is brand new and will help you see how you can stir people to purchase your book and why mass marketing techniques are ineffective. To get a taste of this book, read this free introduction (I got from Greg—who is the new Vice President of Marketing Christian Books at Thomas Nelson Publishers, the ninth largest publisher in the world). Next take a look at bestselling fiction author, Debbie Macomber, who won a Quill Award last week in the romance category. She has over 60 million novels in print. Bounce the ideas of PyroMarketing (particularly the saving the coals portion) against this page in her guestbook. I heard a “rumor” unverified that Debbie has over a million names on her own database. See why she beat Nora Roberts (who had two romances nominated for the Quill Award)? Debbie understands what most beginning (and many published authors) don’t understand.

Finally can you bring your publisher a deal from the beginning that will sell at least 5,000 books? It’s not a crazy question since 70% of special sales are something that the author begins. For some creative ideas,
check out Jerry Jenkins’ site (not the Left Behind author but another Jerry Jenkins). Most of these ideas are nonfiction but put your own spin on it. One quick example, your book has a main character with an eating disorder who through the course of the book, gets help and is on the road to recovery. Can you open the door for your publisher to cut a deal with New Life Clinics to purchase 100,000 (wild number maybe 5,000) copies of your novel to give to their patients? Some of those patients will never read a how-to nonfiction book but will consume your novel and get lots of ideas from it for their own life. New Life could have their own cover or a special explanation letter in the front or any number of other special things to make it their own book. Now these books are not money makers for the publisher or the author. They are heavily discounted but they spur interest and people talking about the book and they do stimulate bookstore sales. See how you’ve distinguished your book from anything else on the editor’s desk?

I’ve gone on too long but I’m passionate to tell authors about this process of creating
excellent book proposals. Publishers are looking for true partners in the process. Yes, they are looking for excellent storytellers but they need authors who care about selling books.

Read Part 7

Friday, October 14, 2005

Branding--Day 5

Hey, y’all, thanks for the feedback yesterday. Some interesting stuff.

Gina H. said: I would just add that your writing doesn't waste my time. Your tight writing and lots of white space appeals greatly. You don't waste words. I'll bet most of your readers are BUSY.

Thanks for this, Gina. Not a word I’d thought about, but I agree with you. I’m adding "busy" to my list of community descriptives.

C.J. said: I really like how you take the time for character development AMIDST the roller-coaster ride.

Yes, I do like to focus on character, perhaps more than some suspense writers would. The idea of characterization amid the suspense is one of the factors that helped lead to the “More than meets the eye” phrase.

Domino said: I've got your one-word target audience: Non-weenies! . . . I think you attract more than your target reader, but to refine the brand, you ignore the fringe readers and only describe the die-hard fans. Right?

Non-weenies. Hey, I like that.

I wouldn’t say it’s so much a matter of ignoring the “fringe” readers, or the ones that don’t fit the mold. It’s more looking at the conglomeration of words that surface to explain that community as a whole, then figuring out the best phrase to describe the conglomeration. For example, most “weenies” don’t read my stuff. Those who do—even if in the harsh daylight and surrounded by people (and I do have readers say such things)—still are being daring and adventuresome in that they’re breaking out of their mold. Despite the intensity of the books, they’re drawn to the stories for some reason. On the flip side, a lot of my readers might say, "Oh, come on, they’re not that scary at all.” Yet they’re still drawn to the books—maybe for their twists to solve and the characterization? Who knows. At any rate, the various descriptive words used for my community still do cover these fringe readers somewhat.

Lynette said: I noticed you don't add a "spiritual" quality to your target audience. Was that intentional, or is it something that comes along in the reader experience? Because I know you have definite spiritual messages in each of your books.

Yeah, this is a good point. This wasn’t intentional, but the natural outcome of my mindset. It comes from my thoughts when I go to write a book. I don’t think “Christian story.” I plot the best suspense story I can, and somewhere from those events, the spiritual part arises. I don’t see my readers as necessarily Christians or non Christians. I see them more as those who enjoy suspense.

Yes, there are plenty of authors who say they write for the unchurched, or the backsliders in the choir, or whatever. I think that’s absolutely legit. It does help define the aura of their stories. I just doesn’t quite fit for me.

D. Gudger said: Here's an off topic question that is niggling in my brain as I am currently reading multiple books ... why do so many authors make their protagonists (especially female) skinny, shiny-haired, and very, very pretty? What about the readers who have been ostracized and passed by for promotions b/c they don't fit the "American Ideal" of beauty? I must admit, I really LOVE Chelsea Adams - especially in Dread Champion - people think she's a freak and I can relate so well to that.

I find this very interesting. Yes, D.G., Chelsea is looked at as a freak, esp. in Dread Champion. But she’s also slim and very pretty. Yet the latter doesn’t seem to bug you. In Chelsea’s case, a pretty protagonist is nevertheless shunned, and her looks get her nowhere. Nor does she give them much thought. Maybe it’s not so much the looks of the character as how those looks are used. ?? Do you think that could be?

Karen said: Can you say how your brand might have changed since you were first published in fiction? I know it's hard to brand right out of the gate, but did you know who your audience was at first?

No, I couldn’t possibly know as well. First, because I was writing in two very different genres. So I had dual communities of readers. Second, even if I just focused on my suspense, I hadn’t written enough novels yet. My first two suspense novels were about a woman who has visions (Chelsea). Some may have therefore tried to put me in the supernatural suspense subcategory, when that’s not really where I belong. So I’d say, in general, it just takes having a few books under your belt before you can go through this process and really get somewhere.

Again, I really appreciate the feedback and help on this. You've given me some extra things to think about.

Next week we can turn to marketing if you like. I'm not quite sure what you want to discuss. You already know the basic stuff I do to market--Web site, blog, newsletter. I also do a few mailings. Is this the kind of thing you want to know? Or more what happens at a publishing house? (Which I know some about, but surely not everything.)

Be back Monday with . . . um, whatever you wanna talk about.

Read Part 6

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Branding--Day 4

Oh, boy. Guess what I got yesterday afternoon. My editorial review letter on Violet Dawn. All 16 pages of it. That’s right. Sixteen. Yikes.

Actually, I’m thrilled and a little scared at the same time. Scared at having 16 pages of things to consider and fix. (Five or six of which are major things, the rest minor to little details.) Thrilled because I know, at the end of the process, I will have a much better book. I always do. God love those editors! Nothin’ beats a deep, hard edit for an author. I tell you the truth—if you receive a “fix these two little things and we’re good to go” editorial letter, be wary. In my opinion, a good editor’s gonna find lots of things to fix, no matter how great an author you might be.

At any rate, I shall certainly stay out of trouble for the next couple of weeks.

Back to branding. I wanted to pick up from yesterday and tell you a little about how I went through the assignment Tom Morrisey gave us to do—filling out the questionnaire about my “target reader.” At first, I had trouble with this. Anything I thought of, I immediately rejected as not good enough. (Sheesh, no wonder I have trouble plotting.) When we broke into groups of three and talked about it, the other two in my group helped me get a handle on things. I’ve also thought more about this exercise since then, and revised my findings somewhat.

Remember that the bottom line of the exercise was to decide upon two things: (1) the one-word value for my product, and (2) the phrase that describes my community of readers.

Cara said something interesting in her comment yesterday regarding her mindset when she reads one of my books or other suspense novels: Probably a mix of escape, adventure, and learning something, too. I've never been a forensic artist. But I like to learn about it while I try to outsmart the writer in solving the crimes/mystery.

This resonates with what I came up with regarding my reader. For the one-word value for my product, I’ve ended up with: Dramatic. I think readers come to my books expecting that roller coaster ride, intensity of murder conflict and character emotion, and twists. I think my readers envision themselves (as they read my book) adventuresome, action-oriented, able to handle tension, strong even when they’re spine-tingled. And one more important thing, as Cara mentioned. They see themselves as intelligent puzzle-solvers. They know I’m going to try to catch them off guard through a twist or two, and they’re looking to figure out that twist ahead of time. If they figure out the twist, they’re proud of themselves. If I fool them, they’re more than willing to grant me kudos for it.

The phrase I’ve ended up with to describe my community of readers is: More than meets the eye. (Actually, one of my group members might have said this first; I can't remember.) I’m going to continue to think on this, and maybe I’ll refine it, but I think it hits the mark pretty well. It’s an aggregate of various words that describe my readers, such as: rollercoaster riders, puzzle-solvers, unbridled, daring, adventuresome, learners, confident. My readers may be quiet computer techs during the week, or moms, or teachers, etc., but when they approach one of my stories, those words are what they become. They are multi-faceted people. The “More than meets the eye” phrase refers both to these levels of layers within my readers and their twist-solving approach to my stories, for they know that within the plot there’s more than meets the eye.

The cool thing is, after I went through this process, I saw how the answers do fit with my “Seatbelt Suspense” brand descriptor, and the tagline, “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e . . .”

From this exercise, I’ve come away with a better idea of who I’m writing for. Who I’m trying to please as I plot that next book.

BGs, I’d love your feedback on this. Do you think I have it right? What would you add? Disagree with?

After all, I’m used to a hard edit.

Read Part 5

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Branding--Day 3

Day before yesterday Bonnie asked if I’d covered writing a synopsis yet. Um, no. Bonnie, you’re new here, so I’ll forgive you for saying the “S” word. Thing is, I really don’t know how to do them very well. As things turned out, I never had to write a detailed one, so I’d be a poor teacher at it. My last proposal spent most of its pages giving the aura and stating the case for the series (Hidden Faces). I included the premise for the first book, then finished off with something along the lines of, “and exciting stuff will happen.” The next two books in the series got one-liners. The series ended up with a fourth book, but that one wasn’t even proposed, so it got zilch.

Like I said, I’m lousy at synopses. Hope you stick around anyway, Bonnie.

Okay. We’re finally back to branding.

A couple weeks ago at the Zondervan novelists’ retreat, I heard a very interesting presentation on branding given by Z novelist Tom Morrisey. By the way, if you haven’t read Tom’s novels, you should. They’re especially great for men. And anyone who wants to feel adventuresome. He’s written stories about Nascar racing and deep sea diving and all sorts of cool stuff. Please visit his intriguing
Web site to read about his books. I’m using this info from his presentation with Tom’s permission. (And no, he didn’t bargain for the plug. He just deserves it.) I should add that Tom is kind of Renaissance guy. Another thing he does is write freelance marketing copy and figure out branding stuff for some American companies you might have heard of. Like Ford.

Yesterday Lynette asked how I envisioned my readers. Great question, as this is exactly what Tom’s presentation was about. Tom started by using Zondervan’s best-loved sentence, “It’s not about you.” (If you don’t get this joke, I’m not going to explain it.) He then used this quote about brand: “Your … brand is the gut response generated in your customers when they see your logo, hear your name or use your product or service.” He used Harley Davidson as an illustration. Harley definitely has brand. And that brand doesn’t come from the metal and engine and parts that make up the machine. The brand comes from the community of people who drive Harleys. So—if brand is about the people who use your product, and not about you—who is your customer? In our case, who is our reader?

An author’s brand is determined by his/her target reader. A target reader is not the author’s average reader. The target reader is the persona that your reader dreams of being as he/she reads your work. The aggregate of these dreams is your image brand.

Harley example again. Many Harley owners look like the mild one during the week. Then they shed that image on the weekend for the wild one image and mount their Harleys for a road trip. The Harley image comes from these weekend personas.

What do your readers “look like” on the weekend?

Tom then had us “create the character” of our readers. Remember, these target readers (the readers we’re writing for) are the dreamed personas—what our readers want to be, or envision themselves to be as they read our books. Tom handed out questionnaires that we had to fill out about our target readers. They included questions like: favorite thing to do on a weekend (other than read our books!), music listened to, who influenced the reader most, favorite actor, who would reader turn to for help in making a decision (other than God), what kind of clothes the reader wears, what kind of watch, what’s in his/her living room, whose photo is on the desk, where does he/she live, where does he/she get away to? Then the open-ended question: what else do you know about your reader?

From these aggregate answers, we were to come up with the one-word value for our brand. For example, Harley’s value is: Freedom. Fits, doesn't it. You think of the open road, wind in the driver's hair, power to let loose, etc.

Finally, we were to come up with a few words or a phrase that describes our community of readers.

Interesting, huh. I'll stop here for the day. Whatdya think?

Read Part 4

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Follow-up Questions/Branding

A couple questions from yesterday, having to do with beginnings.

Camy: I'm a suspense reader. I only give a book a couple pages before I decide if it's interesting enough to continue. But is there such a thing as too little time devoted to help the reader understand and empathize with your character? How do you determine the fine line between too much information and too little info to gain reader sympathy?

Hard to give a pat answer to that question that will be appropriate for every novel. But since you’re writing suspense, remember that your readers will probably have that same short attention span at the beginning of your book that you have when reading books. So make the opening as compelling as possible. Where can you start your story with the biggest bang? It may not be the scene that immediately comes to mind. For example, you mentioned the prologue in Brink of Death, and how it drew you in. I didn’t have to start there. I could have started with the protagonist, Annie, pulled from bed when the sirens tear up her street. But the young girl’s third person POV was the more compelling start, even though the rest of the book would be in Annie’s first person account. Once you’ve decided on that biggest bang, how minimal an amount can we know about the character to pull off the scene? Sometimes this is really hard to judge in our own work, and we need the “fresh eyes” of critiquers.

D Gudger: If the I.I. happens apart from the main character who becomes entangled later on, is it okay to start with the character's entanglement with the I.I. and then sprinkle the I.I. in as back-story throughout the novel?

Yes, if the slow leak of details about the crime better fits your plot. (As I could have done in Brink of Death, mentioned above.) Just make sure the “entanglement” beginning really rocks.

Okay, a couple days ago we had some interesting questions on branding/marketing. As I answer, please remember I don’t think I’m any expert on this. Check my opinions against others’ opinions. I can only go on my own experience and all I’ve observed about others in the writing field.

ValMarie: I had a question about focusing on one genre and its affect on sales. One solution in the ABA world (if a writer is "fast"-able to produce several books in a year-and wants to work in more than one genre) is to use a pseudonym for the different genres. Is it common to use pseudonyms in this way in the CBA market? Is it a possibility at all?

It’s not common yet. I think we will see it more as the market grows and matures. But the writer would have to be selling a lot of books. To establish a pseudonym, a house is taking a known, sellable name and putting it back at zero. Mucho marketing dollars have to poured in to bring up that new name, even if it’s openly stated that the pseudonym is such-and-such known author’s pen name. And on the author side, all marketing also must be duplicated. For example, I have a newsletter, a Web site, a brand and logo, etc. If I adopted a pen name for another genre, I’d need to have the same for that name. I’d be doubling my time spent on marketing. (The mere thought makes me tired.)

And—perhaps the biggest argument against—an author only has so much time. Let’s say we’re talking about a two-book a year author, who writes in her name for suspense and a pen name for women's fiction. Instead of producing two suspense books a year, that author will now only produce one, then go do the women’s fiction. So while the name and brand thing might work, sales in each genre are still very apt to build more slowly, because the author’s energies are divided, and readers wait longer for their type of book.

Gina Holmes: I did not know The Romantic Times reviewed all Christian fiction. Very useful. Thanks!

Romantic Times is now known as RT BookClub. I think they probably changed their name to reflect the fact that they’re reviewing all genres of books. This is a secular magazine that accepts Christian fiction, reviewed by a Christian. Most Christian houses regularly submit their novels to RT to be reviewed.

Karen Wevick: I think the most sage advice I've heard about getting a first book published is to not worry too much about the advance, and push for marketing budget as much as you can. What's your take on that?

I think you’ll find this a controversial topic. The advice sounds logical enough, but it’s laced with problems. First, the less a house pays in advance for a book, the less dollars they have at stake. A house pays an advance based on a formula that takes into account how many books the house thinks it can sell in a given amount of time. This formula can vary from house to house. As an example, if a house offers, say, $50,000 as an advance, their set formula has shown that they can sell enough books in the first year to make up that advance. That amount of sales now becomes their goal. Do you want to take that advance down to $30,000 and reduce the goal for what they have to sell?

But, wait, you might say. If you take that $20,000 from the advance and put it into marketing for the book, they’re still paying out the same amount of money. Technically, yes. But reality is, it’s hard to negotiate certain marketing terms and then hold the house to them. This is an area where it’s easy to promise a lot, perhaps very sincerely, that in the end just doesn’t get delivered. At least this is what numerous agents have told me.

In short, I’d go for the money. Remember you get half the advance up front. (This is another argument for going for the dollars--the house has put up more money for your book up front, which means they have more at stake earlier.) If you want to do some extra marketing yourself, set that money—your money—aside for that purpose. At least then the choice is yours whether it ends up getting spent on marketing or a new roof for your house.

Tomorrow, further lessons I learned about branding.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Follow-up Questions

Happy Monday, BGs.

Well, we kinda got dual tracks doing on. Gina C. had a follow-up question regarding her wip. Then others chimed in with their own questions/comments about beginning a story. I’m going to deal with this subject for today, then tomorrow, I’ll address the questions from Friday that came in about branding.

From Gina C.: Thanks for addressing my question. I have a lot of rethinking to do. You mentioned in the archives that “the inciting incident is the first big conflict that kicks off the story,” something that “rocks your characters world.” I’m trying to get a handle on this inciting incident thing because I think my WIP has two. One is the meeting of my character’s ex-fiancĂ© which rocks his world and the second is the discovery someone he’s worked with has been kidnapped. If I introduce my character in chapter one with the person who gets kidnapped, then in chapter two have his world rocked by his ex, is that enough of an inciting incident?

Gina, what is the main conflict in your story? Is it the kidnapping? If so, the scene of the kidnapping is the inciting incident (I.I.) for that main plot. Perhaps the ex fiancĂ©e thing is a subplot. Subplots often have their own inciting incidents, especially if they’re pretty big subplots. Your character seeing his ex after a number of years would be that inciting incident.

Typically a suspense would be started with the I.I. for the main plot. However, reasons can arise for doing the subplot’s I.I. first. As I mentioned awhile back, I did this for Dead of Night, with the I.I. for the subplot in chapter one, and the I.I. for the main plot in chapter two. I did this for two reasons: (1) The subplot was a big one and would play into the main story in a major way, (2) I really couldn’t have done them the other way around, because once the I.I. for the serial killer main plot occurred, the circumstances wouldn’t be in place for the I.I. of the subplot to unfold as I wanted it to.

Bottom line, I suggest you work out in your own mind what your main plot is and what your subplots are. (There may be more than one subplot.) Then plot each one to flow in and out of the main story, having the subplot(s) eventually affect the main plot in some major way. I think once you get a clearer picture of your story in its totality, you’ll better know what I.I. to start with.

Question from Jason: Well, you've opened up a can of worms I'm afraid! I read your comment about prologues, and I have to ask about my situation. My WIP has a throw-away character (a Thai fisherman) discovering the body of the protag's brother. Initially my next scene was introducing the protag (a medical student) in the midst of chaos in the ER. After things calm down a bit, she gets a call that her brother was killed. I was told by a critique friend I needed more time in the protag's world to set up the changes she'll go through, but that delays finding out about her brother's death. Any thoughts?

Jason, you have the classic two-part inciting incident of a suspense or crime novel. (1) Crime occurs, (2) protagonist becomes entangled in it.

It’s hard for me to answer this without reading these chapters, but here’s my gut reaction. As I’ve often said, in suspense, you don’t want to take a lot of time with set-up. Something better happen pretty quickly that’s a major attention-getter. You gotta do whatever you gotta do to keep those pages turning. Is taking a whole scene—or at least a number of pages—setting up your protagonist’s world going to be compelling? I’d argue that you don’t need much time to show her real world. You’re quickly going to get bogged down in backstory of this character if you’re not careful.

But here’s another way to look at it. How compelling is the prologue? You show a “throw-away” character finding the body. I’m a little worried by this. If you mean that we never see that character again, I’m not sure I’d use such precious pages as the opening of your story on a “throw-away.” But that issue aside, how compelling is this “find?” If it’s really a page-turner, you might have a little more time in the first chapter—like maybe one page, or two—to set your character’s world. Because the reader is already on the high momentum of your prologue and is gonna be willing to give you a page or two. It’s like a roller coaster coming down a hill, and its riders having a quick breather as it goes up the next. Therefore, the more time you take to set your character’s world in chapter one, the more compelling your prologue had better be. If you need that extra time in chapter one, you might look at changing the prologue. What if, instead of the body being found, we see the crime take place? You can obfuscate details like exactly how it happens, or who does it, if you don’t want to reveal those things right away.

As an aside, I’d like to make an important point, as illustrated by the above. Many times, when we’re at a problematic point in our story, the answer doesn’t lie in changing that part. The answer lies in changing something before it that will better prepare the reader for that part. I can’t say for certain if that’s the case here, Jason. But it’s something to keep in mind as you’re weighing your critique partner’s opinion against mine. If you decide your critique partner is right, and you give extra time to setting up your protagonist’s world, take a second look at your prologue and make sure it’s as strong as it can be.

Grady had this comment: Starting off a story with action or a main event IS completely effective, but doesn't work for some stories. Lots of sci-fi starts out with the characters going about their normal business before the action starts. It gives time to introduce the bizarre setting and impossible abilities.

I agree with this. Sci-fi and suspense are very different, and readers’ expectations are very different. I think a big part of sci-fi is that the readers are looking for a unique and fascinating world. Even so, I still say be careful not to add too much backstory that the opening drags. Readers start a book waiting for that I.I. Don’t make them wait too long.

Pammer asked: I was also going to ask where to drop in on the story. I start with the heroine getting the first note, which I hope grabs the attention, then normal life intrudes but she sees it differently because of the note, everything has changed and she has lost her security.I was told that I needed more time in her ordinary existence to state her GOAL (which I do in the first chapter as it is) and to get the reader to care about the heroine, but I'm afraid it will bore them. Any advice for romantic suspense writers?

Again it’s so hard to answer questions without reading these pages. The best I can do is bring up things that might get you looking at the issue in a new way, and then you can better decide what to do.

In general, if you’re writing romantic suspense, I’d say get to the I.I. as quickly as you can. There are plenty ways to show a person’s “normal world” in the midst of the chaos created by the I.I. You simply weave that backstory into the current action. Pam, you might look at the beginning of my Brink of Death for an example. The opening scene jolts immediately into an intruder in the house, but in the midst of that crime, you get a pretty good picture of the young girl’s normal world. (You can read this prologue on my Web site.) Then in chapter one, the protagonist is pulled into this crime immediately, but again you see bits of her normal world in the midst of the chaos.

On the other hand, if you need to take a couple of pages to set up your character, do it. But do it only if you really have to. Think of that 30-second browser in the bookstore, reading your first page as she decides whether or not to buy your book. Is there enough on that page to pull her into your story?

I’ll return to branding tomorrow, unless we’re pre-empted by a lot of follow-up questions on this topic. If so, we’ll do it the day after. But don’t worry. We’ll get there.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Branding--Day 2

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

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Marketing & Branding

Thanks so much to all you BGs who left birthday wishes. Y’all are terrific. And welcome especially to those newer BGs who left comments for the first time. Hope to hear more from you folks.

A few comments I’d like to respond to:

In my novel, I say, "the master gave him a scratch behind his pointed ear." Since we're in the creature with the pointed ear's pov, should I not have said that? It stops me each time I read it to ponder if I shouldn't cut that.

Gina, two thoughts from me. First, yes I think you should cut the pointed ear part. Since you’re in the canine’s POV (a doggone interesting one, by the way), it sounds strange for the dog to be thinking about his ears being pointed. He's certainly not looking at them. He’s into feeling that good ol’ scratch behind 'em, and that's what counts.

Second point in general: When a passage bugs us like this one did Gina, we need to pay attention. If your eye snags on a line every time you edit, something’s there. You might not even be sure what it is. If you’re not sure, ask opinions of critiquers or something, but pay attention to that gut feeling.

At the National Book Festival I spent the day in the Mystery and Thrillers tent and heard a wealth of advice from the likes of Nevada Barr, Sandra Brown, and David Baldacci. John Sandford said to include a strong smell in the first scene. It will draw readers in better than anything else, he said.

Thanks for that feedback, C.J. Ah, yes, John Sandford. I’ve taught him well.

I think I may have had an ah-ha moment on show v. tell. Showing doesn't necessarily mean adding more description. It means showing the actions of a person v. telling what a character did. Is that close??

Closer than close, Cara. It’s right on the money.

How about "Leila drew closer, swaying with seductive grace."

Yes, Wayne, this sounds better. Drew is a stronger verb than came. It would be great to strengthen the verb even more. Maybe use swept?

Okay, so, we’re on to marketing. For today, I’m going to talk a little about that word you’ve probably all been hearing: branding.

This word gets tossed around a lot in our publishing world. Most folks think “branding” comes down to figuring out an interesting tagline to stick after your name on e-mails—a tagline that captures the essence of your kind of story. (Some may call this a logo instead of a tagline.) As a result of this thinking—and the general talk that everyone needs such a thing—authors rush to figure out something to put after their name on e-mails and on their Web sites. I’ve seen so many new authors do this, including many who aren’t published yet. Even for those who’ve published a few novels, I’d say it’s way too early, for two reasons.

First of all, branding is way more than this tagline. An author needs to really understand what it’s all about first.

Second, speaking of the tagline itself, the effective use of the tagline means it’s put with your name everywhere. On your Web site, on your business cards, eventually on the back covers of your books, on your e-mails, etc. Little by little, folks begin to know this tagline and think of you. That’s the whole point. It works as a marketing tool to point out the uniqueness of what you write.

Most of you probably know the tagline I’ve had for a number of years now:

Don’t forget to b r e a t h e . . .

It takes time to build recognition of a tagline. So you have to use it and use it and use it as you write one book after another. And if you’re going to use something that much, it had better be on target. It had better really represent you and what you’re writing. This is why deciding on a tagline as a new author is jumping the gun. I’d argue you need a number of books under your belt first before you begin deciding what you’re all about. New authors jump genres, change courses, etc. If you do that, you’ll need a new tagline. Then all the velocity you’ve gained with recognition of the old one is nixed, and you have to start over. So what good did it do you?

Bottom line, don’t jump into this just because you hear the word “branding” tossed about everywhere.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you the process I went through to find Don’t forget to b r e a t h e . . ., and how I’ve continued to refine my brand since then.

Any thoughts, y’all? Issues about branding you want me to address? I hardly consider myself an expert in this process, but I can at least tell you what I’ve learned over the last few years.

Read Part 2

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Description--Day 4

Hm, this date looks familiar. That’s because it’s my birthday. My 49th, to be exact. (No, it’s not “and holding.”) I heard that more babies are born on Oct. 5 than any other day of the year. This is because it’s the due date for babies conceived on New Years’ Eve. Fact or fiction? Don’t know, but it sounds about right to me.

And so we finally return to ending our discussion of description. Here’s the question left by Gina after I hurriedly edited her scene while traveling last week.

In this scene my intention was to linger just a bit to emphasize the internal struggle Michael has with his addictions, one of them being his physical attraction to Leila. Since this is their first meeting after a tragedy two years prior, I wanted it to stick in the readers mind that their relationship, past and possibly future, is obsessive. So my question is, was the angst strong enough in the edit? I know I'm too close to the story, but I didn't feel his internal struggle as much. It doesn’t move me in the same way. I'd like to know what you and others think about this. Also, I have a question about voice. Since I’m still trying to figure out what my voice is, it’s not clear yet if mine is missing from the edit. Could you comment on the difference between tight writing and voice?

As a reminder, you’ll need to go back a few posts to see Gina’s original scene and my quick edit.

First question—is the “angst” as strong in the edit? Well, I think so, but the final call’s up to you. Sometimes we authors get so used to seeing a scene written with the original amount of words that when it’s cut, we can feel like some things have been left out. The new scene takes some getting used to. So that could be the case. On the other hand, I did that edit really fast, and I could have taken out too much. Again, in the end, it’s the author’s call. It can help to have other people read the scene in its original form and its edit and give you feedback as to what you might want to put back in, if anything.

Second question—my voice vs. Gina’s. Yup, this is the problem with actually rewriting someone—something a good editor won’t do. I did it for example’s sake, but invariably, if I rewrite a scene, that scene’s going to lose some original voice and take on mine. That’s why my edit is merely a suggestion. The best thing for you to do, Gina, is to pay attention to what I cut and see what you can learn from that. After that, change the edit as you will to put your own voice back in.

Here’s a question from Camy from a few days ago: In my scoresheets [in a contest], one judge complained she didn't know what my character looked like until page 7. Since I opened the story in the middle of a kickboxing match, I didn't think the heroine pulling out a mirror to describe herself would be appropriate. :) Any thoughts?

Yeah, I have to agree with you, Camy. We don’t need to know what a character looks like immediately. Part of this depends upon genre. In general (there are always exceptions), explaining the character in romance is usually done pretty quickly. This is probably because so much of the conflict deals with physical/romantic attraction, so we gotta know what these characters look like. In suspense, especially if you’re starting off with a real bang, physical attributes aren’t immediately important. It has to arise naturally from the scene. A character in the middle of a kickboxing match really isn’t going to thinking of her color of hair. I think sticking that in just for the reader’s sake would seem out of place.

Finally, here are some tips regarding description at the beginning of your novel:

1. Use all five senses if possible. We tend to ignore smell, but that can be an important sense. Smell can trigger memory—and the attached emotions—more than any other sense. So use it in your scenes to help place the reader in the action.

2. Tighten, tighten, tighten. Remember our Action Scene edits that dealt with compression and using just the right word to convey lots of meaning? (Go back to Day 6 of the edit, on June 21, and the following days for review.) Example from this current scene: “Leila came closer, moving back and forth with seductive grace.” Edited to, “Leila came closer, swaying with seductive grace.” This might even be edited down to, “Leila swayed closer with seductive grace.” I don’t particularly like the verb “came” because it’s a weak verb that doesn’t convey much. On the other hand, I like the “swaying” versus “swayed” because the “ing” verb connotes movement over a period of time. So I’d suggest that the author look for a way to both use the “ing” verb but get rid of “came,” writing the sentence as tightly as possible.

3. Don’t stop the story to describe. Use the description as part of the current happenings, and as a means to motivate the character’s next choice of action.

4. As the author of a story, we have to remember that we know more than the reader. We may have the vision of the character’s surroundings clearly in our head. You might try closing your eyes and envisioning the scene. What do you see? What do you hear, feel, smell, taste? What’s important to evoke the emotion of the scene? Jot everything that’s important down in a list, then see how the various points can be worked into the scene.

Anything else on description? Various people have asked about marketing, so when we finish with this topic, we’ll move on to that one.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

So What Was the Point?

Well, BGs, I’m once again punting the description topic to tomorrow. For today, I’m responding to comments/thoughts left yesterday about my post on the Charis Connection. First, by the way, Grady—you’re right about blogging. I do write my blogs in a Word document, then copy and past into the blog. Except for yesterday, when I figured I’d just write something straight onto the blog because I was so tired. Of course, I went and lost it into cyberspace. Sigh. Live and learn.

So back to the Charis Connection post. Guess what. All y’all wonderful people who responded to yesterday’s question about it—missed the point! Down to the last one of ya. Oh, you all had great ideas, and I could agree with any one of them. Just goes to show how different people get different things out of a story. But none of the ideas was what drove me to write the two-part post in the first place.

To make my point, I purposely had to keep that point beneath the surface. Apparently, it worked. The theme of the posts was found in the second paragraph in Part I: "They [other authors on the blog] hold discourse on how faith finds its way into their stories." I wanted to show how, when I write Christian suspense, the faith element flows naturally from the suspenseful events. How the story starts with action and plot, then through the characters’ personalities, the Christian element arises. In our Christian suspense, this faith element should be so flawless, so interwoven with events, that it doesn’t stick out in any way. So that’s the way I wanted it to be in my post. A natural progression of the story. In Part II, the questions arise about God—where is He during these nightmarish events? They don’t seem out of place because the character, in the very beginning, already showed tendencies of having a Christian conscience. They’re natural questions this character would ask at such a time.

I wrote this post because I find myself up against this question fairly often: “How do you write Christian suspense?” My answer always is, I really don’t set out to write Christian suspense. I set out to write a suspense, and somewhere along the way, the faith element falls into place based on the characters. In my Hidden Faces series, the faith element turned out to be quite strong and grew as the main character grew in her faith. In my first Kanner Lake book, the Christian element is less, because that’s what naturally comes from the characters in the story.

There’s a secondary lesson I’d like to mention, especially since we’ve recently talked about backstory, and foreshadow, and the beginning of our novels. No one questioned me as to why I started Part I of the Charis Connection post with all the stuff about being on that blog. Why not start with the story, as I always tell others to do?

Those paragraphs were there very purposefully. Because within that second paragraph was the theme, the foreshadow, to the story. I encased the sentence with enough stuff around it so it would sound natural, not shout, “Here’s what I’m really writing about!” I tried to accomplish this by making that part entertaining enough that readers would fall for the entertainment value itself and not see the foreshadow line as glaring. Still, after the foreshadow line is pointed out—the reader should be able to say, “Well, doggone, there it was, right in front of me. And I missed it.”

This isn’t something I want to bring up on the Charis Connection blog. That’s not the place for it. Over there, if they don’t get my point, they’ll just think I’m a crazy suspense writer. (Which is true.) But here, where we talk about writing techniques, I wanted to show y’all how foreshadow can work. And also show by example that whatever’s in the beginning of any of my novels is there for a specific reason. Every line. Nothing is superfluous. And so it should be with yours.

Okay, go ahead and throw your tomatoes.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Description--Day 3

Happy Monday.

BGs, as you know, I post this blog the previous night. As I'm writing this I've just gotten home from traveling, again had a very elongated trip. Again got caught in Chicago--this time sitting on the tarmac in the plane for over two hours before we took off. Now I'm finally back in California, with my internal clock three hours ahead of the round clock on my wall. I sat down to write what blog I could with my tired brain, got it all done, went to post it, and it got lost in cyberspace. I ain't got the energy to do it all again. So I'm punting until tomorrow.

I was responding to Gina's questions about the edit I did on her scene. Her questions are good and need to be responded to.

Meet y'all back here tomorrow.

In the meantime--those of you who read my two-part post on the Charis Connection last week? So what was the point of that story anyway?

Read Part 4