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


Gina Conroy said...

Brandilyn, I love how you discovered your brand/tag. I've been trying to force it but now I'll leave it alone and let it find me!

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-fiancé 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 and then show the kidnapping, then in chapter two have his world rocked by his ex, is that enough of an inciting incident? Sorry to be a blog hog! But inquiring minds want to know! :)

Val said...

Happy belated birthday, Brandilyn! Sorry the well-wishes are a couple of days late.

I had a question for you about focusing on one genre and its affect on sales. I've heard this mentioned several times and I know 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?

Unknown said...

Thanks Brandilyn, I know you gave sage advice. I think I'll stick with the supernatural suspense for now and if I need to do something literary, I can write a short story. I learn something new each day from you. I did not know The Romantic Times reviewed all Christian fiction. Very useful. Thanks!

Karen Eve said...

Thank you for the insight on branding and tag lines. I always want to jump ahead, however for now I've just got to get all these words out of my head on onto paper. I do always get the advanced tracks from conferences and enjoy them (and I can apply much of the information to other business areas), however it is a little premature to worry about the rest. 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 know that we have to be ready to help market our books, and I will be, but part of partnering with the publisher can be waiting for some of those royalties and helping put the focus on marketing. Thanks.

Jason said...

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?

Grady Houger said...

Starting off a story with action or a main event IS completly 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. If everyone writes stories where the action starts right away readers will be ready to accept a story that's 'different' where you get to know the characters first.

Stuart said...

I think what it comes down to is not necessarily having "action" but the attention grabber.

For sci-fi or Fantasy often it is the world that snags the attention, followed quickly by how the character's "mundane" existance maybe anything but "mundane" for the reader. ;) Which is one reason why world is so important in that Genre. Still, the foreshadowing of the big event should at least be there in some way I think.

For instance in the story where that opens with the protag's brother getting killed. You could end that scene with a reference to the sister (even if it isn't clear). Then when you start the next bit in the sister's PoV you have the reader instantly wondering if this woman is the sister of the person who died, which can hook them into reading more. That could give you the time you need to back up and show more of her world before she discovers his death.

But, no matter what direction you go in, you have to start off with an opening that really catches the reader's attention. Think of it as the opening teasers that you see for TV shows these days before the credits roll. They know they have to pull you in long enough to last through the credits and first comercial break.

Your first scene & chapter needs to be the same way, it needs to hook them in and carry them on into the rest of the story.

Pammer said...

Wow, glad that I wasn't alone in my thoughts. 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 existance 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. :0)

Any advice for romantic suspense writers?

Thanks in advance.

Anonymous said...

My story starts at the Theater with the heroine finding the body that launches the plot during intermission. So I start with the incident. I've also found that I've chopped probably the first four pages of teh book, because they were too much introduction and not enough action. We'll see if I chop another page off the beginning before it's officially done. :-)