Saturday, April 28, 2012

PR Basics for the Debut Novelist

The completion of your first novel is reason for celebration. Many people talk of writing a novel but few possess the drive to spend day after day—and perhaps year after year—perfecting hundreds of pages of prose.

Now arm yourself for the long road ahead.

Professional Photo  Ignore the loopy photos and caricatures some writers use on social media and have a sober, serious photo taken that reproduces well in JPG thumbnail. Yes, Stephen King writes horror but he doesn’t appear in public in a Halloween mask. Nora Roberts writes romance but you’ll never glimpse a picture of her with shoddy pink hearts floating around her head. Do not include your children, dog or great-grandmother in the photo. Editors, agents, book reviewers, readers and other authors will only take you as seriously as you take yourself.

Author Bio Many debut authors struggle with what to include in a bio. Find a balance between professional achievements and information about your private life. You’re now a member of the entertainment industry and future fans will savor the private tidbits. Equally important are writing awards and your career prior to becoming a novelist. If you’re young and don’t have many professional accomplishments to tout, mention your education if it seems appropriate.

Your completed bio must appear in several versions. You’ll need a two- or three-sentence clip for use by book review sites and the media. A longer, three to five paragraph version can be used on your Amazon and GoodReads author page. The longest version—if you have ample material to interest the reader—should appear on your author website.

Author Q & A Why did you write this particular novel? Have you been writing since childhood, or did the bug strike later? Do you have any writing rituals? What is your favorite book? Your favorite food? What advice can you lend an aspiring novelist?

For sheer economy, many book reviewers use a standard Q & A when featuring authors. Save yourself time later, when you’re busy writing your next novel while still promoting your debut, and create a Word doc of replies. No, you can’t use this boilerplate everywhere—some review sites will insist on receiving original material—but many others will happily reprint.

Jacket Copy / Synopsis Like your author bio, the description of your novel must appear in many formats and must hook the reader in the first sentence. Remember everything you’ve learned about Goal-Motivation-Conflict when writing the longer book description for your Amazon, B&N or GoodReads page, as well as the shorter, two- or three-sentence version that will appear on Smashwords and other sites. As you work to perfect the copy, notice the jacket copy used on traditionally published novels. Many include a story question to pique the reader’s interest. Others highlight the author’s rich prose style or use short, staccato sentences. Ensure that your copy reflects the type of book you’ve written.

Consistency No doubt you’ve created a social media presence everywhere from FaceBook to Google+. Now you must create a balance between promoting your book and providing valuable content for the writing community at large. What expertise can you offer? You’ll notice that my blog features material in three areas: publicity; (drawn from my background in PR) writing tips; (I’ve been writing professionally for thirty years) and family (readers enjoy reading about the adoption of a large sibling group).

Your material can be just as unique. Did you write a novel on superheroes because you’ve been hooked on Marvel Comics since age two? Perhaps you have something to say about modern culture and the heroic archetypes we all adore. Did you write a contemporary romance in between shifts at Dairy Queen and raising three children? Women struggle every day to achieve work-family balance, and surely want to hear from you. Did you leave a career in medicine or law or industry to finally achieve a lifelong dream? You can offer other writers tips on how to ensure accuracy during research, or share character sketches from an interesting career.

Whatever you decide—remain consistent and professional at all times. Don’t tweet about your political preferences. Don’t fill the Facebook feed with unrelenting plugs for your book or complaints about your Significant Other. Display Good Author Karma by helping the authors who help you, and provide the public at large with blog posts and tweets worth reading.

The Indie Movement is now entering its maturity. Gone are the days when amateurs could get away with spouting public rants or publishing subpar fiction. You’ll succeed—and flourish—by publishing your best work and following up with PR Good Sense.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Creating Characters that Startle and Surprise

In the early 1980s, I attended a benefit at the Palm Springs Art museum alongside a host of movie stars and business tycoons. The goody bags handed out at the door to the women swishing their way inside the marble palace brimmed with expensive perfumes and silk scarves from Saks; the sculpture gardens glittered with diamonds and rubies strung around regal throats as couples took their places at linen-draped tables scattered with orchids. This was heady stuff for a girl from Cleveland, Ohio who’d stumbled into marriage to a millionaire.

In between the sorbet and the main course, I gathered the taffeta folds of my gown and tiptoed to the ladies room. Women pressed against the walls in crinoline and velvet like fluttering tulips. I squeezed in beside a matron dressed in magenta satin.

Then I looked at her.

What I saw wasn’t the woman pressed beside me, shoulder to shoulder. My mind reeled back to the glory of her youth as she’d glided across Hollywood celluloid with Fred Astaire. I saw the Ginger Rogers my parent’s generation had adored and I with them; an American icon who’d captivated the world with her beauty and her poise.

When my jaw hit the floor, Ginger’s mouth twitched. Then she said, “It’s hard to take a piss in here.”

Her ability to startle and surprise proved an enduring lesson for a budding novelist. Ginger Rogers was Hollywood royalty. Yet she talked like a sailor.

Do the characters of your current WIP startle and surprise? Is their interior monologue a shocking contrast to the dialogue spoken? Do they spout comments you’d never dare utter in public?

As a novelist, you must rebel against the Hobbesian notion that life is nasty, brutish and short. This line of thinking carries the subtle message of the sameness of all human lives, the dreary realties we all must face. Yes, we all will die and the man down the street strikes me as a brute but he’s also a unique individual. I want to know why he has a Confederate flag stuck in the back window of his truck yet drives by my house every Friday with a fistful of daisies for his wife.

The astute writer knows how to reveal distinctive qualities. Consider the co-worker, the one that picks his nose while playing Angry Birds as you deal with the flotsam from his workload. Why does he only wear green socks? There’s a Mickey Mouse bobble-head doll buried beneath the crap on his desk. Is it a memento from an idyllic childhood? A trophy from high school when he took Bobbie Sue to the carnival and finally got laid?

Collecting the unique details of an outwardly common life arms the novelist with ammo to create compelling characters. Life is in the details. As readers, we long to know why a girl with a dragon tattoo is a genius on a computer and why an orphaned boy lives in a closet beneath the stairs. Forget broomsticks and Hogwarts: J. K. Rowling had you in the opening paragraphs of the Potter series—you, and millions of other readers.

Organizing these traits takes skill. The first characterizations depicted should raise more questions in the reader’s mind than they answer. The protagonist’s choice of attire should deliver subtle clues, as should his manner of speaking and thinking and stalking across the room. Humans are built to conceal: we succeed quite artfully through speech and orthodontics and the square feet of our homes. And we’re vicious: we step out of the elevator if the black man inside is six feet tall and wearing a hoody; we duck past the old woman with the missing teeth then risk a sly glance. As humans, we’re flawed and abhorrent and greedy. We’re also noble and foolish and decent.

Mostly we’re curious about other people’s lives. I suspect this is why so many librarians tend toward a kindness and purity the rest of us will never achieve. They’ve honed their human curiosity through the reading of countless novels and come out the other end of an exploration through literature with a true understanding of the human heart.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fox in the Henhouse

I’m here to tell you: I don’t own those hens.

Nor does Nicholas Sparks or Kathryn Stockett or any other bestselling author you may feel compelled to chase.

Here’s the thing: avid readers suffer a delightful addiction. They can’t get enough. They’re continually on the lookout for the next breakout author, the next Great Read.

Top-selling authors understand this. Stephen King doesn’t own a voodoo doll of Suzanne Collins. Nicholas doesn’t don boxing gloves when meeting with Kathryn or Nora or J.K.

A successful writer concentrates on making the next release better than the last. We’re all foxes in the henhouse doing our best to capture that next reader, but this isn’t your average-sized chicken coop. Some nights I ponder the vast number of eReaders flooding the world marketplace and the sheer reach of literature in the Digital Age. Millions of readers—no, billions—and eLit is still in its infancy. By 2014 the surge in demand for quality content will outpace our ability to supply it. Yes, some of the Big Names will capture a massive audience but you might too, with creativity and perseverance, because your singular voice appears right when a worldwide audience is ready to hear it.

Which brings me to the real point of this essay. I want you to rid yourself of jealousy over the sales numbers your pal posted on FaceBook. I urge you to step back, take a deep breath, and fully grasp the connectivity at your fingertips, the limitless resources at your disposal to build visibility and a readership fast.

Be the fox.

Do you dream of becoming the next Harlan Coben? Head over to his Twitter feed and check out his followers. His avid readers may follow if you follow first. GoodReads? Pick an author in your genre and poach her fans a few at a time. Salivating over the comments for The Help from fans on Facebook? Follow one reader and she may follow back. Then she may tell her friends about you.

It happens to me.

The same women who read Sue Monk Kidd or Anne Patchett's books will put The Tree of Everlasting Knowledge  on their GoodReads TBR list. My debut, Treasure Me has pulled readers who enjoy comedy, romance and mystery—a blend that allows me to poach from a whole host of established authors.

No, this isn’t a suggestion to waste your working hours building a following of potential readers. Simply keep it in mind as you log on social media sites to chat with reviewers and your established readers. A few clicks, a few times a week, and you’re done. And you’ll enjoy the sudden mail by a reader you made your friend, who then downloads and loves your book.