Friday, February 27, 2009

First Page Character Empathy

Lately I've read quite a few novels whose opening chapters I did not find compelling. A month ago we discussed "Novel Openings" for two days--Part I and Part II. These novels whose openings disappointed me lacked some of the elements we discussed. But for some reason lately, I've been seeing a lot of the same problem--failure to create immediate empathy with the main character. I've noted three typical reasons for this failure.

1. Spending too much time on the antagonist(s).

As I noted in the "Novel Openings" posts, sometimes in suspense it's effective to start with the "bad guy." I've done that a number of times. It's a way to showcase the level of evil the protagonist will have to fight against, and allows the protagonist to then make an entrance. However I advocate that such openings be short--typically no more than a few pages. Readers hold back their empathy from the antagonist, waiting for the protagonist to appear and claim it. You don't want to make them wait too long.

By the same token you don't want to pull away from your protagonist too soon and return to the antagonist. In some of these books I've read you've got the bad guy(s) in chapter one, protagonist in chapter two, then back to the bad guy in chapter three, etc. The reader isn't allowed to stay with the main character long enough to get to know him. This kind of pace in a suspense may be fast and seem exciting, but bottom line, character rules. If the reader doesn't care about the character caught in the conflict, he's not going to care so much how that conflict is resolved.

2. Introduction of too many characters in the beginning.

This is a variation of problem one, except that it involves numerous supporting characters rather than the antagonist. (Or maybe it involves both if it's a suspense.) Again, we need some time with the main character. This is the person we're supposed to root for through the entire book. If protagonist A is introduced in chapter one, then supporting character B is introduced in chapter 2, and supporting character C is introduced in chapter three, etc., it's hard for a reader's loyalty/empathy to land somewhere.

3. The protagonist isn't doing enough to interest me.

In the 12 steps of the mythic hero's journey, the first is "Normal World." Here we find the main character in his usual life, dealing with whatever issues he usually deals with. In step 2, The Call, the first major conflict comes along and spins the protagonist out of his normal world. The rest of the book is a series of conflicts against which the protagonist fights, all set in motion from The Call.

The Call--which also can be termed the inciting incident--should come quickly in the novel. Readers expect it when they first meet the protagonist. They know the Normal World is about to be upset, and they're turning pages to get to that point in the story. So let's say The Call comes on page 10, at the end of chapter one. What's the character doing for the first nine pages? I advocate giving the character a strong problem/Desire from the opening page--something that's over and above what that character usually deals with. Give her a Desire that must be solved in her Normal World. A Desire that will carry over after The Call, exacerbating all the problems brought about by The Call.

For example, if the protagonist runs a shelter for homeless families, you might think just showing her in her everyday world, dealing with all the issues of housing said families, would be enough. Her Desire would simply be to house these families. I say give us more. How about if her Desire is to raise $50K in four weeks, or the homeless shelter will close and all those families will be out on the street. Now, from the opening line, you see this character struggling, straining toward fulfilling her Desire. She's strong, she's moving toward something. She's not just reacting to being buffeted by life's everyday problems. Then when The Call comes--say, a dead body in the kitchen (heh-heh), that first Desire is made even more difficult to achieve. Kinda hard to raise $50K for an organization in which someone has just been murdered.

Think about this. How can you up the ante in your character's Normal World--before The Call occurs?

And then there are the novels in which The Call doesn't come until page 50 or so. I read one recently in which The Call came around page 85. By then I was totally bored and skimming.

Thoughts, anyone?

BTW, nearly three years ago I ran an 11-part series on immediately Creating Character Empathy. If you missed that, you might refer back to it. We talked about 10 different ways to pull the reader into your character's life from her opening scene.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mel Gibson Chickens Out

We've talked about the efficacy of book trailers here. Today for your viewing pleasure I present a ... different sort of movie trailer. One that just might ruffle a few feathers. View Mel Gibson as you've never seen him before.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Animoto, Take Two

It's been quite awhile since we checked out Animoto. In under ten minutes I created a short video with the covers of my books releasing this year--Exposure, Always Watching, and Last Breath, plus the Dark Pursuit cover. View the video here.

Animoto's added a number of things since we last looked at it. Three new kinds of music are now in the repertoir: children's, country and gospel/Christian. The Animoto folks run a blog that keeps you up on its latest news. And you can follow them on Twitter. The company is now in partnership with istockphoto for loading pictures into your videos. The short videos are still free. You can create a "short" video longer than mine. Just upload more photos. Or you can create full-length videos for a fee. For personal use the cost is just $3 for a 30-minute video. A year's worth of business use goes for $249. Full price list is here.

They've got apps for imbedding videos into lots of places online. But I couldn't use the imbed for blogger. They wanted a gmail account and password. This blog doesn't use a gmail address. That rather stumped me. Animoto folks--can you fix this, please?

Overall, very cool technology. Kudos, Animoto.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Retailers Choice Award Nominations Open

Two points of industry news today:

1. A press release from Christian Retailing:

Several new categories have been announced for the ninth annual Retailers Choice Awards, which lets Christian retailers give their seal of approval to the best new Christian products of the year. Product nominations are being accepted from suppliers around the country. The deadline for nominations is Friday, March 6.

Products can be entered in 35 categories this year with new prizes to be awarded for the Best Church Supply and Christian Education products. In addition, there will be new awards for the Best Backlist Product, the Best Marketing/Promotion Campaign and the Top New Supplier.

The 2009 entry fee for publishers, music labels, gift companies and other suppliers remains just $50 per item plus a sample of the nominated product.

Since it was introduced in 2001, the Retailers Choice Awards program has been increasingly acknowledged in the industry as an important way of recognizing some of the most significant new life-changing materials. Last year, suppliers submitted 245 entries in 31 categories.

The winners of the 2009 Retailers Choice Awards will be announced at the International Christian Retail Show in Denver in July.

For full details, including a downloadable nomination form and a complete list of last year’s winners, visit

Founded in 1955 as Christian Bookseller by the now late Robert Walker, Christian Retailing gained its new name in 1986 when Strang Communications took over publication. Christian Retailing also produces The Church Bookstore and Inspirational Gift Trends magazines as well as the twice-weekly newsletter Christian Etailing. For more information, visit

Brandilyn here: Last year's Retailers Choice winners are on this page. Rules are here. Nomination categories for fiction are: children's fiction, general, mystery/suspense and women's fiction.

2. The new issue of Publisher's Weekly includes an article about the state of Christian fiction. It contains some good news amidst all the current economic negativity. Abingdon Press is particularly featured because of the new fiction line it's opening. (But of course, if you've been a reader of F&F for some time, you've been reading about that for months now.) I saw Abingdon fiction editor and pal Barbara Scott at the CWG conference. She says the acquisitions are going great, and she's excited about the first releases this year. I'm sure we'll have some of the first looks at those novels here. At any rate, the PW article includes news from most of the CBA houses regarding their fiction, so do give it a read.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Internet Freebie Woes

A few weeks ago my Assistant #2, who handles all requests for "Free Stuff" and mails out books, etc., started going crazy with dozens of requests a day. She receives requests on a regular basis, but nothing like what started happening. She wrote me, "What on earth have you been doing? I'm going nuts here."

Me? Hadn't done anything. Yet Sandy was receiving requests from all over the world. Portugal, Russia, Germany, France, and on and on. The English-as-a-second-language emails were quite entertaining at times. But they also were annoying. These people weren't my readers. They couldn't care less what I've written. They just wanted free stuff. One woman requested 200 each of my various bookmarks.

Day after day these requests came. We try to be responsive and patient, but really, this was getting ridiculous. I twittered about my frustration. One fast-thinking follower of mine googled key words like "Brandilyn Collins" and "free" and came up with the errant sites. Yes, plural. Some "free stuff" site had picked up the info off my Web site and run it. Then other sites picked it up. At least then I knew why this was happening. After a week or so it all died down.

Fast forward two weeks. I, not my assistant, started receiving dozens of requests for a signed photo--from people all over the world. Nowhere on my Web site do I offer a signed photo. And on my Free Stuff page, the email link is to my assistant. So somebody had to work particularly hard to "err" on this one. I've googled twice and can't find the culprit. I was hoping, if I found the listing, there would be a place to leave a comment to correct the error. Maybe I just haven't explored long enough or put in the precisely correct key words. At any rate, I'd like to strangle somebody at this point. At the very least, kill 'em off in my next book.

If anybody out there wants to do some private detective work on the 'Net, be my guest. First one to find the offending site(s) will receive a book of his/her choice from me. Not to mention my unending gratitude.

For future record--I do not give away signed T-shirts, hats, sunglasses, shoes, posters, videos, cats, dogs, elephants, lamps, keyboards, telephones, rocks, menus, magazines, candy bars, make-up kits, knives, houses, estates, or planets. Got it?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

CWG Conference Pics

Okay, so these pics are stolen. Well, more like borrowed. You can thank Diane Viere, a Facebook friend, for them. She remembered her camera.

By the way, when I posted yesterday I wasn't sure if C.J.'s winning novel was the same novel we edited here in
"Action Scene Edit" a few years ago. It is. Isn't that cool?

Broadmoor building where I'm staying

Karen Kingsbury at podium

Jerry Jenkins at podium

Yours Truly at podium

Beautiful Tyndale cover for C.J.'s book, Thicker Than Blood

C.J. receiving her $20K check

Friday, February 20, 2009

Long-time BG Wins First Novel Contest

I'm thrilled to report that a long-time member of the Forensics and Faith community, C.J. Darlington, has taken first place in the Christian Writers' Guild First Novel Contest. C.J.'s prize: $20,000 and a publishing contract with Tyndale. At the conference meeting this evening, C.J.'s prize was announced. Two Tyndale editors, Karen Watson and Jan Stob, were on hand to present her the $20K check.

Some years ago here on F&F I asked for a volunteer to submit a scene for public editing. C.J. was the brave soul who sent in a scene. For days we discussed various aspects of editing that action scene. I've always admired C.J. since then for being willing to submit herself to that public scrutiny in order to learn more about the craft of fiction writing. (You can read the "Action Scene Edit" posts by following the link in the archives.

C.J. runs the wonderful Web site TitleTrakk, where Christian fiction is reviewed. She has done a lot for the industry through this Web site. Her manuscript was judged without a name attached, so her Web site did nothing to help her win. But now that C.J. has won, it's great to see the prize go to someone who's done so much to support Christian fiction.

Our speaker tonight at the conference's opening was Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages. If you have not read this book, and also his co-written book, The Five Languages of Apology, you owe it to yourself to do so. The applications is these books have changed thousands of lives. Chapman's Languages books have sold into the four millions.

Tomorrow our day starts early: 6:45. And it goes all day until about 8:30 p.m. I will be teaching fiction classes in the morning and a fiction clinic focusing on the first pages of novels (submitted by students for editing in class) in the afternoon.

Check my Twitter/Facebook accounts for updates through the day as I can make them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

No Camera, Will Travel

So here I am at the conference, at the beautiful Broadmoor Hotel. And what did I forget? My camera. I wanted pictures of the resort and people at the conference so I could post them here. Drat. So ticked at myself.

Tonight I spoke at the small group of people going through the Craftsman level of writing training through CWG. Tomorrow this part ends, and then the main conference with lots more people starts on Thursday.

I found a card from my wonderful hubby, Mark, in my suitcase when I got here--with a loving message from him. The card's a Snoopy card--my favorite kind. And it's a writer's card, even better. Snoopy's sitting on top of his doghouse. Outside of card:

"Once upon a time..."

Inside of card:

"...happily ever after.
To make a long story short."

Well, yeah. One of the many things I'm teaching at this conference is how to cut out unnecessary words:

Forgot camera. Kick self.

Mark should find his own card today as he gets dressed. His is a Happy Birthday card. Yup, today is his birthday. Give a shout out to Mark, would ya? (Remember the great guy who blogged here for me when I broke my ankle?) Behind every successful suspense author is a loving, supportive husband.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

News Bits

Got up early this morning to travel to Colorado Springs. I'll be staying at the Broadmoor, where I'm teaching fiction at the Christian Writers Guild conference. I'm looking forward to being at the Broadmoor for the first time. The last time I taught at the CWG conference it was held at the Billy Graham retreat back east. That is also a beautiful place.

I will be speaking at the end of the Craftsman conference, then moving on to the main conference to teach a morning track on "DECKed Out Fiction." (That's Desire--as in character Desire, Emotion, Conflict and extra Kick.) I'll also be leading the first pages clinics in the afternoons, in which 12 participants have sent in the first pages of their manuscripts to be evaluated. We'll talk about what a first page should include to hook the reader.

I'll be very busy at the conference, so please bear with me if blogging is sporadic this week. I am taking a camera and will try to post pictures.

Another piece of news: info on my next adult release, Exposure, is just up on my web site, under the Coming Next link. The first chapter of the novel is included.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Something You Didn't Know

Nora St. Laurent has just posted an interview with me over on her Finding Hope blog. I invite you to click over to it and read it as the F&F post for today. Nora asked some interesting questions and added a lot of photos. (My goodness the things she found floating around on the 'Net.) I imagine even you long-time BGs will learn something about me you didn't know.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Pic of the Litter

A Because-It's-Friday post.

Yesterday my daughter, Amberly, sent me these photos of "Bear," her new Yorkshire terrier puppy. Bear is now almost up to a whopping three pounds. He is a good little puppy in the apartment and the absolute heart-throb of Amberly's entire sorority.

Presenting ... Bear.

Ridin' in a friend's pocket

Beddy-bye with favorite toy

All right, since I've opened the proverbial door--if you have a pic of a pet, kid or iguana to share, feel free to post the link in the comments.

Happy weekend, BGs.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What's in a Name?

(A shout out to Marcell Bridges, who suggested this topic.)

Novelists--how do you choose the names of your characters? Readers--do you notice names much?

My admission--I don't spend much time on character names. I've heard many authors say they spend a lot of time on names, that each one has to be "just right." My name choosing tends to come fairly quickly. Here are some guidelines I follow:

1. Of course I want to be sure the name is appropriate with the character's age. I wouldn't name a 50-year-old man Brandon. My own son, Brandon, just turned twenty-six. We named him as a derivative of my name. I really hadn't heard the name Brandon before that. Today it's a popular name for boys. I've only met a few Brandons older than my son, and not by too many years. Here's a site from the Social Security Administration that can help you find popular names by state and by year/decade.

There are exceptions to this guideline. You may have good reason to use an old-fashioned name for a younger character. However, you may want to mention the unusual nature of the name in your book. A quick bit of dialogue or narrative worked into the story will signal to the reader that, yes, this name is atypical for the character's age, but that's just the way it is. Or perhaps a certain setting or the personality of the family will make it obvious why the name was chosen.

2. After I select a name I google it. It's hard to find a name that turns up no hits at all. But I often try to find something fairly unusual. The protagonist in my next adult suspense, Exposure, (May release) is named Kaycee Raye. Google that name and you'll turn up a gal with Kaycee Raye as first and middle name, but with a different last name. Mostly what you'll turn up is my own Kaycee Raye in Exposure. The protagonist in Always Watching, book #1 of The Rayne Tour series (young adult suspense, releasing in April) is named Shaley O'Connor. Google that and you'll turn up ... hits on Always Watching.

3. To me, female names ending with an ee or ey or something similar sound friendly. Kaycee, Shaley, Annie, Chelsea--these are all names of protagonists I've used. Harder-sounding consonants put a bit of an edge on the character. The name Carla fit the protagonist in Crimson Eve well, because she had an edge to her--for good reason, as you learn in the book.

4. Bad guy names--you can have fun with them. In naming antagonists I work harder to "pass the Google search." Won't give you any examples from my books here, for those of you who haven't yet read every suspense I've written. (I believe there may be one or two such people on each continent.) But you've got to believe Thomas Harris had a few laughs over naming his bad guy Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal the Cannibal is a bit over the top, wouldn't you say? But what a great character. And what a memorable name for him.

5. Sometimes I'll run across the names of real people and think, "Oh, wow, what a great character name!" They just hit me right. Unusual. Have a sense of rhythm to the syllables. No, I'm not giving any of these away, because someday I might ask the person if I can use his/her name in a book. Authors, if you run across one of these, jot it down, along with the link to where you can find the real person.

Any other insightful name-finding techniques out there? What are some of the best names you've seen for characters? (And--did the name really make the character, or did the wonderful character make the name?)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Omniscient Voice -- Part II

Yesterday we talked about the difference between the close third person point of view, used most often in today's novels, and the omniscient point of view. As noted, most of the confusion in the terms seems to involve erroneously labeling close multiple third person POV as omniscient. And frankly, some authors make this mislabeling all the easier by writing in close multiple third person and moving from one character's head to another within a scene. This still does not make the POV omniscient. It is simply close multiple third person with "head-hopping." Which in my book is a no-no. Although, yes I know, some authors, even bestselling ones, head-hop.

In telling the difference between third person and omniscient, the main thing you want to look for is voice. The omniscient voice is a narrator's voice, removed from the scene yet reporting everything about it. It often sounds more telling than showing. In contrast, close third person puts the reader inside the character's head, thinking in the very way that character would think. It's a very intimate POV, with only first person being closer.

You may also hear the term "limited omniscient." This term still hangs around although it's not often used in today's novels. It still has the same removed narrative voice as omniscient. But instead of seeing everything within a scene, the narrator limits himself to only seeing what one character sees. The narrator may switch to another character in a subsequent scene. In this way it's similar to multiple third person, but again, it's the voice that makes the difference. Are you hearing a narrator's voice telling the story, or are you intimately inside the head of one character at a time?

As examples, first I'll run the opening to Dark Pursuit as it appears in the book. Then I'll rewrite some paragraphs for omniscient and limited omniscient.

From Dark Pursuit, written in close third person. Reader is in the head of Leland Hugh:

“Ever hear the dead knocking?”

Leland Hugh watches the psychiatrist peruse his question, no reaction on the man’s lined, learned face. The doctor lists to one side in his chair, a fist under his sagging jowl. The picture of unshakable confidence.

“No, can’t say I have.”

Hugh nods and gazes at the floor. “I do. At night, always at night.”

“Why do they knock?”

His eyes raise to look straight into the doctor’s. “They want my soul.”

No response but for a mere inclining of the head. The intentional silence pulses, waiting for an explanation. Psychiatrists are good at that.

“I took theirs, you see. Put them in their graves early.” Deep inside Hugh, the anger and fear begin to swirl. He swallows, voice tightening. “They’re supposed to stay in the grave. Who’d ever think the dead would demand their revenge?”

Omniscient (removed narrator seeing all)

"Ever hear the dead knocking?"

Leland Hugh blurts the question and instantly regrets it. He watches the lined, learned face of his forensic psychiatrist for a reaction but sees none. The doctor keeps his casual, confident pose, a fist under his sagging jowl. He thinks of all the serial killers he's interviewed. Nothing Hugh could say would ever surprise him.

The psychiatrist answers that he has not.

Hugh nods at the expected answer. His gaze falls to his feet. Behind him a cockroach skitters unseen across the dirty floor. "I do. At night, always at night."

"Why do they knock?"

Hugh's eyes raise to look straight into the doctor's. "They want my soul."

The doctor inclines his head, thinking that perhaps, after all their hours of talking, they are finally getting somewhere. Hoping for more, he remains silent. Hugh knows exactly what the doctor is doing yet cannot keep from saying more as the old anger and fear swirl inside him. "I took theirs, you see. Put them in their graves early." Hugh adds with a tighter voice than desired that the dead should stay in their graves. "Who'd ever think they would demand their revenge?"

Limited Omniscient (removed narrator, seeing/thinking only what Hugh see/thinks)

"Ever hear the dead knocking?"

Leland Hugh blurts the question and instantly regrets it. He watches the lined, learned face of his forensic psychiatrist for a reaction but sees none. The doctor keeps his casual, confident pose, a fist under his sagging jowl, as if nothing Hugh could say would ever surprise him.

The psychiatrist answers that he has not.

Hugh nods at the expected answer. His gaze falls to the floor. "I do. At night, always at night."

"Why do they knock?"

Hugh's eyes raise to look straight into the doctor's. "They want my soul."

The doctor inclines his head but says nothing. Intentional silence pulses as he clearly waits for an explanation. Hugh feels smug as he recognizes the old tactic. Even so he cannot keep quiet.

"I took theirs, you see. Put them in their graves early." Hugh feels the old anger and fear swirl inside him. He declares with a tighter voice than desired that the dead should stay in their graves. "Who'd ever think they would demand their revenge?"

Hear the difference? See how omniscient tends to tell more, while third person shows?

By the way, please forgive the poorly written omniscient and limited omniscient--they're clearly not my voice.

You can read the rest of the first chapter of Dark Pursuit here. For a writing exercise, you might take a few more of its paragraphs (in third person) and rewrite them in omniscient and limited omniscient.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Omniscient Voice

For some reason in the past few weeks I've run across quite a few references to "omniscient voice" that are incorrect. A couple of these were even in book reviews. The correct term to use would have been multiple third person.

The terms can be confusing because omniscient is a form of third-person--in that it obviously isn't first person. But true omniscient voice sounds very different than the oft-used "close" third person of today. The omniscient voice has a removed quality. It sounds like a god-like narrator sitting above the action, looking down at all the characters. This narrator can see into all characters' minds, but it can also see things a character is unaware of. In a novel written in omniscient voice, this narrator's voice is the most prominent. All scenes are described in this narrator's unique way of talking. It's his word choice, his level of vocabulary, etc. These stories are often more "told" than "shown" since the narrator is telling you, the reader, what is happening in all aspects of the scene.

Omniscient voice was used much more frequently in the classics. Today's more intimate culture (formed by TV and movies and so much more) has led to a more intimate voice form in novels--what is often called "close third person." This is the type of third person in which I write.

In close third person, the reader is fully in the head of one point-of-view character at a time. (Preferably one per scene!) The only more intimate voice is first person. Since the P.O.V. character is "living" the scene, all thoughts, description, and narrative are told in a way that this character would speak and think. You can have a single third POV throughout the book. Most novels have more than one third person POV character. This voice is called "multiple third person."

There is a kind of third person in between close and omniscient. It's a little more removed and formal in tone than close third. Has a little more of a narrative feel. Yet it's not the completely removed tone of omniscient. Omniscient does have a very different tone to it.

If you read a recently written novel with multiple viewpoints, that doesn't mean the book is necessarily written in omniscient voice. Most likely it's not. It's probably multiple third person. We need to be careful of our terminology. Those who understand POV terminology correctly will really be mislead if you erroneously say a book is written in omniscient voice.

If all this isn't quite making sense, come back tomorrow. I'll run a section from one of my books (written in close third), then rewrite it in omniscient voice to show you the difference in tone.

Monday, February 09, 2009

@Brandilyn: Ten-Point Twittequette

I've been on Twitter for three months now--certainly not long enough to call myself an expert, but long enough to get a feel for the community. And it is a community. Do not think of Twitter as a place in which to practice interruption marketing. Think of it as a huge party, a social gathering. And behave accordingly. This doesn't mean you can never talk about your business. In social situations, people often talk about what they do for a living; a career is a big part of a person's life. But the conversation is done in context.

@Brandilyn: My Ten-Point Twittequette:

1. If you must use a Twitter ID other than your name (and I really prefer you wouldn't), at least include your name on your profile page. (By the way, I'd use my full name as my ID, but it's more letters than Twitter allows.) When someone introduces himself at a party, what's the first thing he tells you? His business? His hobbies? Don't think so. A name is the immediate and best connection. I follow plenty of people with IDs other than their names, but often in replying to them, I'll check their profile first because I want to use their name in the tweet. I find it disconcerting to be in conversations with people over many weeks' time and not even know their name.

2. Use your own photo--not an avatar, or a picture of your children, or you at age five, or your cat or whatever. I'll likely receive a lot of flak on this one, given all the varying ID pics out there on Twitter. But again--you're in a social gathering. Would you wear a mask while trying to talk to someone at a party? If a masked person walked up to you and wanted to talk, how willing would you be? Just like a name, a face is a connection. If you don't want your name and face out there publicly, then opt for a private account. But if you want to connect to the public, you should be willing to put yourself out there. At the very least, if you want to use a company logo for your ID, put your photo on your profile page.

3. Do not send automated "thanks for the follow" direct messages. There are numerous Twitter apps. that allow you to do so. But as I quickly learned, automated messages go against the grain. People flat out don't like them. Twitter is all about connecting. A canned message is not a connection. Even worse are the canned messages that add a link to the person's Web site or try to sell you something. Tweeple really don't like those. Such tweets are interruption marketing in a permission environment, and they stand out like a sore thumb.

Nobody's going to notice if you don't send a message when a person follows you. They will notice a canned statement. If you want to respond to a follow with a message, make it personal.

4. No, you don't have to follow everyone who follows you. I don't auto follow back. I do check each person who follows me to see if I want to follow back. If Twitter is about relationships, then each person has a right to decide if he/she wants to be in that relationship. I won't choose to follow someone back if:

-- her tweets are purely marketing, or purely self-started statements (that is, she rarely if ever replies to others--which is a sign of a two-way conversation).

-- he's following hundreds more people than are following him. In this case either his tweets are merely self-serving, or, if he has few updates, it's clearly a new account, and he's following anyone and everyone merely to get his numbers up in a hurry. Either scenario does not bode well for future valuable communication.

-- something in her profile turns me off. Maybe it's a sarcastic tone. Or an off-color photo (yes, I've seen them). Maybe the account is for a business that doesn't interest me in the least. Whatever the reason, if I choose not to follow back, that's my prerogative. By the same token ...

5. Cut the same slack to folks who don't choose to follow you back. For whatever reason, they don't want to hear what you have to say. In my case, they may think suspense novelists are weird. (They'd be right.) They might not like the fact that I include "Christian" in my profile. They may not like my looks. Whatever. It's their prerogative.

6. You have the right to unfollow those who don't follow you back. (And they've got a right to stop following you if you don't recriprocate.) I'll give someone at least a month to follow in return. If she doesn't, I'll take the hint and unfollow. I see no point in continuing to listen to what that person has to say if we're not in a two-way conversation. There's also a practical matter in this. That infamous 2000 mark will come all too soon. When I hit following that many, I'll be forced to weed out until my followers also reach 2000. In preparation for that, I prefer to keep my following/followers ratio fairly balanced along the way.

7. Don't get all bent out of shape when someone in a two-way relationship unfollows you. I see too many people worry about this. They feel rejected. Listen up here--to a novelist who's used to being reviewed. Put your name on a book and stick it in the public domain--and watch the variety of responses. You'll never please everyone. Get over it. If someone unfollows you--fine. You may choose to unfollow in turn, since the communication has been broken. Just keep it practical. Don't mourn or rant or be vindictive.

8. Don't obsess over your follower numbers. Did you hear that, or must I repeat it? Don't obsess over your follower numbers! I see so many tweets about people wanting to reach a certain number by day's end, etc. Quantity isn't important if the quality of communication isn't there. If you want to get your numbers up in a hurry, there are certainly ways to do it. Just spend a few hours following everyone with high numbers of both followers and followees. These people tend to auto-follow back. Doesn't mean you'll forge a relationship with them, because you and they may have very little in common. And you obviously haven't reached out to them because you care what they have to say. But hey, if you want numbers, you'll get 'em.

I carefully choose whom I try to forge a relationship with. My numbers are growing steadily, but not at hundreds a day. I don't worry about that. I focus on being who I am and connecting.

9. Tweet as often as you like--but understand some may unfollow you if you tweet too much for their taste. On the flip side--understand that those following thousands of people are likely to be chattier than those only following 200. Herein lies the inherent imbalance of Twitter. When your followers/followees are over 1000 and up, you're in touch with a lot of people. It's natural that you may be in conversation with numerous of them at once. I bounce on and off Twitter throughout the day. I'm likely to put out a bunch of tweets in a short period of time, then get back to writing. My tweeple who are following thousands won't mind my plethora of tweets in a short period--because their inbox is flooded every five to ten seconds from dozens of people. But to my tweeple who are only following 150, my mug alone may practically fill their inbox for that time. I'm going to look like a downright conversation grabber.

Point here: give each other some slack regarding preference in number of tweets. Your follower numbers may be far different from someone else's.

10. Be helpful by sharing (a) your expertise and (b) your humanity. Of course I answer everyone's questions about my books. And I receive those daily. But I also can be helpful regarding the book publishing industry and reading, and simply give people a look into the life of a full-time novelist. I can pass on links about book marketing, publishing statistics, etc. Over the weekend I chatted with a reviewer who couldn't think up fresh questions to ask a much-interviewed novelist. I suggested numerous questions that I knew a novelist would find insightful. I can point readers to other authors I think they might like. On the humanity side--hey, I'm a person, not just an author. I highly empathize with people. I have a rather wacky sense of humor. I enjoy discussing certain topics and hearing others' opinions.

Bottom line, be a good conversationalist, which includes everything from business to personal. (This doesn't mean you have to get too personal. Please.)

Finally, because I don't have to answer to an editor here, I'll add another point.

11. Please, please check your profile page. Have you made a typo/spelling error? Is your profile typed black on black, or red on black, or black on maroon, so that it's barely readable? (I can't tell you how many of those I see every day.) A typo in your profile is akin to barbeque sauce on your shirt. Unreadable copy is akin to talking so quietly people can't hear you. Would you want to present yourself in either of those two ways at a social gathering?

See ya on Twitter. Bring along your Twittequette.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Can you Judge a Blog by its Comments?

Yes and no.

Yes: If a blog consistently shows a high number of comments, you can make a pretty good guess that the site has a lot of readers. Every statistic I've seen supports the fact that only a small percentage of readers comment.

No: The number of commenters for a particular post depends much more on the type of post than its number of readers.

No: Overall, the number of commenters on a blog depends on the personality of that blog and its target audience.

Typically, posts that garner the most comments are the ones that lend themselves to interaction. The subject is controversial, or funny, or poignant--anything that makes a person want to put in his two cents. Or perhaps by commenting a person enters her name "in the hat" for a possible prize.

Here are Forensics and Faith posts in the past few months that garnered the most comments:

Novel Openings (writing craft post--effective ways to structure the first scene): 22

Weird Photo Friday (supply the best caption to photo and win a free book): 38

Hope Over Fear (my thoughts on Obama's inaguration): 17

Happy 92nd Birthday, Mama Ruth! (my mom's birthday): 29

How NOT to Compete in the Marketplace (Shell gasoline's odd pricing): 17

Unpretty: the Truth of Evil (about the novel Unpretty): 18

Egad, A Pecking Tom at My Window! (wild turkeys on my Idaho home lawn): 12

On January 20, I posted about the current bestseller lists. Comments: 1. What's to comment on? Yet readership for that day was only 3% less than readership for Weird Photo Friday. Novel Openings Part II on a Monday had over 40% higher readership than Part I on the previous Friday, yet received only about a third of the comments. (This one, I think, is due to the Friday Phenomenon. Since I don't post on the weekend, my readership is always down on Friday. The remaining readers stop by on the weekend to catch up.)

On December 31, when the first ABC news show about Liz and Katy hit the air, readership of my blog skyrocketed over 600%. (And this was night time on New Years Eve.) Little wonder--the blog was shown on the news show, and is linked to in Katy's blog (which got an amazing 25,000 hits almost overnight). Yet comments on each of my two Dec. 31 posts about Liz and Katy were only at 12 each.

Also to consider: sometimes it's not higher hits that leads to more comments. It's higher number of comments that leads to more hits. People may tend to return to a post to see what others have commented after them. (Higher hits therefore don't always equal higher readership.)

Since the ratio of comments to readers is unreliable, here's another question: Should you care about the number of comments on your blog? Yes and no. Depends upon your blogging goals. Overall, I agree with Chris Brogan--it's good to have an active community in which your blog readers participate with comments. (By the way, his post about blogging to be interactive received 59 comments, quite a bit more than some of his surrounding posts.) On the other hand, if you have a solid blogging history, and your posts vary wildly in number of comments, but your readership does not--so what?

It's not always easy to predict what posts will garner comments. Yesterday's post here on the economy has so far received only five responses, yet I know everyone has opinions on the matter. Is it simply because readers don't expect to talk of such issues here? Perhaps. Yet the third most commented post on Forensics and Faith in November '08 was on nothing more than the wild turkeys in my yard. People loved the pictures of those crazy birds. Who'd have guessed?

So is high interactivity the ultimate goal in blogging? I say not always. Sometimes the most informative posts are just that--informative. While the blog readers are happy to gain the information, they won't necessarily have anything to add through a comment.

(While we're on the subject, if you'd like to comment about what kinds of posts you like best here, and what you like least--have at it. And the posts you like best--do you comment on them?)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Economy Jeremiah?

We don't typically talk about the economy on this blog, but let's face it, just about everybody's hurting. I'd bet every one of you reading this post knows at least one person who's lost his/her job. The book business is certainly suffering as a result, from bookstores to publishers to authors.

Yesterday I saw this link go by in Twitter and took the time to watch the full nine-minute video. The video shows Peter Schiff, CEO of Euro Pacific Capital, on news shows in '06 and '07, predicting our current economic crisis in detail--and literally getting laughed at. Watching this video today is downright chilling.

The guy reminds me of Jeremiah. Nobody listened to him either.

We don't like naysayers. When times get tough we cling to hope. Fortunately I have a God to cling to, with whom I ultimately trust my and my family's life. But sheesh. Maybe we oughtta be listening to what this guy's saying today. (Which isn't good, by the way. See current videos here.)

Have you been effected by the economy? ("Effected" could mean anything from losing a job to housing problems to simply spending less.) Do you think all this stimulus package stuff is going to work? I'm thinking we may better buckle down for a long ride.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Letters From Readers

It's been awhile since I've posted reader letters. Here are a few that I've printed out recently and are waiting to be filed. These letters are touching because people just say what's on their hearts, and through their few words, I get a glimpse into their lives.

I have been a Christian all my life, and I love to read. I have been very conflicted in the past several months, however, because I love to read suspense novels, but the authors I had been reading had content that I should not have been putting into my mind.

I started a job a little over a year ago working for a nonprofit ministry. We are in the initial stages of a campaign now, trying to raise funds to build a children's home community for suffering children, who will be raised on campus by missionary houseparents until they transition into college or trade school. Working in this environment, my faith has grown and God has been working on my heart to start reading better material.

I ran across your Hidden Faces series in a store, and purchased three books. I have read Brink of Death and have started Stain of Guilt. I love your stories!!!!! It is so refreshing to read a suspense novel that is so good and so clean. I will be reading every one of your books.

Subject: New Reader

Don't let that new reader thing fool you. We are only new to your books but have been in this world over 70 years.

Anyway, we ,my wife and I just finished "The Bradleyville" series and enjoyed them very much. (She read, I listened.) I like to read but it is getting difficult for me as macular degeneration is starting to take over. But even before that we "read together" to enjoy books together.

Again, thank you for you fine stories and also for your testimony on God's healing touch in your life.

The interesting thing about your books is that they scare me and make me think. I find myself turning pages fast as I can, racing to get to the end so I can know how it all turns out. But once the book is done, I'm kind of sad I rushed so much. That's when some of the things that happened start to sink in on the spiritual level. I remember something a character said or did, or the way you phrased a sentence, and I think yeah, that's worth thinking about. There's always something to take away from your books.

If you're a published writer, leave us an excerpt from one of your reader letters in the comments. Go ahead and include a link to that book's page on your Web site. If you're not yet published, what kind of reader letter do you dream of receiving?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

S-Man's Contest and More

1. Stuart Stockton's (S-Man's) contest about his science fiction novel, Starfire, is now live on his site. I gave you a heads-up about this contest a few days ago. Check out the prizes/details here.

2. Christian Bookworm Podcasting did an interview with me yesterday. The discussion ranged from symbolism in Dark Pursuit to what 2009 holds for me to reading/jogging, to who knows what else. You can hear it here. (About 25 minutes.)

3. The February issue of Christian Fiction Online Magazine is now out. As always it contains many helpful/interesting articles. My own column is "Making A Scene." Special note: David Meigs' regular column, "Life Transforming Fiction," is guest-written this month due to his house burning down in December. David and his family lost everything. On his column page you'll find info about how to give to David and his family, plus a link to his blog that tells the details of that tragedy, and how God is providing.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Novel Openings -- Part II

I'm back in California. I managed to make it back from icy Kentucky on Thursday night, only fifty-one hours late.

Taking up from Thursday's post, here are my thoughts on the points about novel openings from Angela Hunt:

1. Indicating the genre (if you start with an action sequence, you're promising a book full of action. Ditto for gore, romance, suspense, etc. The reader will naturally expect more of whatever you're doling out.)

Agree. This is why slow starts in some genres, such as action/adventure or suspense, can really hurt you. Readers of these genres expect action, and you don't want to make them wait long. If you don't start with an action scene, you may be able to make it work by setting up the proper suspenseful tone, which conveys the action is coming. Tone can go a long way toward creating tension. But this takes considerable skill.

2. Revealing your voice and skill level.

Oh, yeah. Have you ever read the first page of a novel while browsing in the bookstore? What are you looking for? The main thing I'm looking for is high skill level. No matter how the novel starts (which, again, will depend upon genre), I want to see if I can trust this author's voice through immediately seeing his/her mastery of characterization, language, dialogue, description--whatever's happening in that first scene.

3. Introducing the protagonist (I know a lot of people break this rule, but people naturally expect the first character they meet to be the main character.)

I agree, but in suspense this "rule" can be broken effectively. I wouldn't introduce a supporting "good" character instead of the protagonist in the first scene, because as Angie says, readers will assume this is the protagonist. However I have started numerous times with the "bad guy." Suspense readers know there's going to be a bad guy. Seeing this character at the very beginning can establish his level of evil and create tension for the protagonist before she ever comes on the scene. When she does make her entrance, she's typically unaware of the evil about to befall her. This creates the second type of tension in suspense. The first type is when readers don't know what will happen to the main character. This second type is when readers do know, but the main character doesn't. (This type of tension is akin to scenes in the old horror movies in which the main character is walking down a dark hall, unaware of the axe-wielding maniac hiding behind the door.)

In Dark Pursuit there are two protagonists--Darell Brooke, the washed-up suspense writer, and his granddaughter, Kaitlan. Kaitlan is the one who falls onto the path of the "bad guy." So you might think she's the main main character. Yet the book opens with Darell. Not until chapter two do we meet Kaitlan and see her immediate plight and the murder plot. By the end of the book, once the reader sees the entire arc and how the story has played out, you can see that in truth, the predominant character is Darell. This is why I start with him, delaying the "murder" action until chapter two.

4. Indicating the tense, POV, and setting.

Yes. And by the way, whether you're a writer or reviewer, do study the various POVs until you really understand the terminology. I've seen a couple reviews of Dark Pursuit in which the reviewer said the story was written in the omniscient point of view. Not correct. That gives a very wrong picture of the voice for those who understand POV terms.

5. Establishing the tone (somber, comedic, suspenseful, intellectual, etc.) If you give the reader something different in chapter two, you run the risk of alienating your reader. That's another reason why first chapters are all-important.

Agree. Tone is particularly important in suspense. Even in a non-action scene, you can create tension by darkening the tone.

6. My pet peeve (and boy, does it make me peevish): when people take an exciting scene from the back of the book and stick it up front to hook us. Makes me think the writer couldn't come up with anything better.

Totally agree. The thinking in using this approach is to draw the reader in quickly by starting with a high-action or eventful scene that will occur somewhere further in the story because the actual beginning of the book is too slow. This doesn't work. The problem is two-fold. First, it doesn't fix the slow start of the book. Immediately after this eventful scene, slowness of the real beginning of the story sets in. Better to remedy the slow start itself. Second, once you've run this exciting scene, you've telegraphed what will happen to the reader. When you leave that scene with a chapter hook, you leave the reader wanting to know what happens next. Then when you back up and start the book where it really begins, everything leading up to that first scene has now been rendered as backstory. The reader won't care what happens before that--he just wants to get back to that point and go on with the story.

Thoughts, comments, disagreements, anyone?