Monday, March 26, 2012

Michele Stegman Guest Post: "What makes a book compelling?"

Fellow romance author Michele Stegman graciously agreed to come by this week with the following guest post on a topic we all need, "What Makes a Book Compelling." Here's a bit about Michele: 
"Michele Stegman has loved history all her life.  When she was studying history in graduate school, one of her professors quipped that she put too much romance in her research papers.  She decided to put in more romance and write historical romances.

Her Fortune series is following the adventures of the Fortune family through piracy and war in the 1700’s.
Michele was never interested in writing contemporary novels.  But one day she was driving along, thinking of nothing in particular, when the entire plot for MR. RIGHT'S BABY popped into her head.  She couldn’t stop thinking about it and finally decided it was a book that had to be written."    

When Janet asked me to write about what makes a compelling book for her blog, I had to do some thinking about it! 

The answer to this question is long and complex and certainly can’t be covered in one brief blog!  But here are a few quick observations.

1.  It contains some universal truth.
No matter what that truth is, it must be something we can relate to.  And the more universal the truth, the more people it will appeal to. “Even selfish people can sometimes make great sacrifices for someone else,” or “Wealth does not equal happiness,” or “Mothers will do anything to protect their children,” will appeal to more people than, “It’s nice to have a good car,” or “Being pretty helps make you popular.”

2.  It appeals to something deep within your personal psyche. 
Most of us have a favorite fairy tale.  For many of us, it is Cinderella.  We love stories where the heroine is rescued by a rich, handsome hero.  For me, however, Cinderella was not my favorite.  Mine was Beauty and the Beast.  Even as a very young child, first and second grade, I made friends with the kids no one else liked.  It was as if I could feel their pain.  So when I find a story where the hero is dark and wounded, maybe even a little scary, and the heroine brings him out of himself and heals him, I put it on my “keeper shelf.”    

Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale, and A Rose in Winter by Kathleen Woodiwiss, are my favorites. 

A book with a theme that speaks deeply to you will appeal to you.  Which explains why some people like a particular book and others don’t.   

And books can appeal to you at one time, and not later.  I have read books that I thought were wonderful.  Years later, when I tried to reread them, there was just no appeal there for me.  “Been there, done that.”  I think at the time, that book was just what I needed.  It spoke to some current need that has now been healed or changed.  But there are also books I have loved all my life, like the Beauty and the Beast story.

3.  We can relate to the characters.
The long running cartoon series, The Simpsons, has been so popular because we can all relate so well to the characters.  Even Homer.  We are all selfish and like to “pig out” sometimes.  We have those qualities in us so we can relate.  In Homer, they are exaggerated, but they are in us all.  Many of us, as readers, of course, relate most closely to Lisa.  She has few friends and she is always searching for a place where she can belong.  We relate to these characters because of their faults and weaknesses, not because of their strengths.

It’s hard to relate to heroes and heroines who have no faults.  Their faults don’t have to be awful.  They shouldn’t be criminals or cheats or kick puppies.  But a heroine who has self-doubts or is too over-confident is more appealing than a perfect woman.   Again, we relate to the faults in characters, and not as much to their strengths.

4.  Strong GMC.
If you haven’t read Debra Dixon’s GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict) read it NOW. 

I hate conflict and confrontation.  I don’t like it when people fight.  So I like things to run smoothly for my characters, as well.  WRONG.  Also BORING.  The first couple of books I wrote got letters back from editors saying, “Not enough conflict.”  I thought they meant the hero and heroine had to fight, argue, yell.  Well, no.  I didn’t understand conflict at all. 

Jennifer Crusie said your characters can fight over a teacup, but it really isn’t about the teacup.  What do they really want?  What are they willing to do to get it?  What stands in their way?  That’s conflict!  That’s GMC.

5.  Good writing.
Good writing begins with the very first sentence of the book.  I remember reading the first sentence of Outlander and a shiver went down my spine.  I knew this was going to be a great book.  That first sentence set the tone for the whole book.

When I first started seriously submitting to editors, I hated that they wanted the first three chapters.  I wanted to submit chapters 7, 9, and 12 because they were my best.  That’s where the “good stuff” happened.   Well, duh, I soon realized that the “good stuff” better start with the first sentence because most readers are not going to slog through six chapters of drek to get to the good part.

For the first book I wrote that sold I had a really good scene in mind.  It was going to be the last scene in the book.  But I kept tossing out stuff that came before that scene because I thought, “Well, I don’t want to write this stuff, why would anyone want to read it?”  Finally, that good scene became the very first scene in the book.  I wanted to jump right into the action so the first sentence of that book was, “One loop of the coarse rope that bound Raven Winthrop to the mast of the pirate ship was about her neck chafing cruelly.”

Of course there’s a lot more to good writing than hooking the reader with the first sentence, but this blog is long enough!

Thank you, Janet for hosting me today!

My pleasure! Information about Michele and her books can be found on her website where you can read excerpts from each of her books:

Here is a little blurb about Mr. Right's Baby and links to buy the book:

"He wanted to marry her.  If she knew why, she just might walk away forever."    

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Judith Graves Guest Post: "My Worst Fear as an Author"

Today I’m delighted to host my fellow 2k10 author Judith Graves, whose second novel, SECOND SKIN, is just out! Judith and I are swapping guest posts this week, and I love her take on fear. Being out there as an author is a brave move in an often hostile world...and Judith puts the perfect words to that edgy feeling.

Being an artist, in any form, is a tricky thing. You work relentlessly to hone your craft, dodge out of social events due to deadlines or a work-in-progress that refuses to cut you some slack, wake up in the middle of the night to jot down ideas/sketches/tunes, and then your work is unleashed on the world.

A sometimes harsh, cruel world.

Suddenly what existed only in the safety of your imagination is being interpreted by others, talked up or torn down, celebrated or mocked. You are no longer in control. For a creator, that’s one hell of a scary concept.

You may be tempted to clarify misconceptions, or engage critics – to defend your baby…but that way leads madness. From an author’s perspective, we don’t know the personal biases, agendas, or histories that our readers will bring to the table when they begin at chapter one. Reading is a give and take – the author gives, and the reader takes out of the work what they are willing to see at that point in their lives.

Which may be far from the author’s original intent.

Art is subjective. Sometimes I enjoy listening to grunge tunes from the 90s and other days I skip over those songs in favour of something completely different. My likes and dislikes vary with my mood, what’s happening that day, how I’m feeling physically.

I’ll say it again. Art. Is. Subjective.

A negative review shouldn’t prevent an author from continuing to write. I personally can’t stand slasher flicks like Saw or Hostel, but there are tons of fans of the genre out there. They’re not wrong. I’m not right.

We just have different preferences.

Artists put themselves in the line of fire, invest themselves in their work and then share it with whoever may take the time to stop and ponder the implications. Fear of rejection goes with the territory. So does a thick, leathery hide.

But sometimes, the feedback is good – great – beyond our dreams. Our voices are heard, joined by a chorus, and resound. Those moments keep us plugging away. They push back the fear and feed our souls.

The only thing to fear is…ourselves. We alone can continue our quest to create, to share, and express ourselves in whatever medium we gravitate toward. And so we might miss out on the occasional movie night, or lose an entire weekend writing about other worlds, because it’s what we do. It’s who we are.

Because being an artist is a scary, tricky, wonderful, magical thing.

The collection SPIRITED is just out as well....proceeds from the purchase of SPIRITED go to 826 National (a literacy charity) and it features the intro story to Judith’s new steampunk series (can’t wait!), STRANGEWAYS:

And you can find out more about Judith at her website,

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Marketing & Publicity for Authors: Part 5

In this last (for now) post in my marketing and publicity series I’d like to address the little things that your “street team” can do to help you.

First, what is a street team?

Your street team members are your dedicated readers: family, close friends, fellow authors, bloggers who have supported your work, readers who can’t wait to get their hands on your next book.

A couple of recent articles (here’s one) have pointed to research that suggests that “word of mouth” (aka, personal recommendations, whether from friends, librarians, or booksellers) is the number one way that popularity of a book spreads. Publishers can enhance a book’s profile through advertising and promotion; but midlist, debut, or little-known authors can use positive street cred to help with promotion. This is where your street team comes in.

What can your team do to help you? Here are ways – and all but one take only minutes and cost nothing. And none of these are dishonorable (as in, falsifying reviews. Don’t do that. Ever.)

1.     If they sincerely want to purchase a copy of your book, point them towards pre-ordering as soon as your book is posted for pre-order. Publishers base first print run numbers on pre-orders. You want as many books pre-sold as possible to increase your chances of publisher support and word-of-mouth. (This is the only task that costs your street team members money!)
2.     Ask your street team if they would be willing to visit their local indie and talk with the owner about your book. Outfit them with bookmarks and/or postcards to leave with the bookseller.
3.     Ask them to add your book to their Goodreads “want to read” list. Many bloggers/readers begin dedicated Goodreads’ lists every year: i.e., “favorite YA reads;” “historical fiction for 2012.” Your team members can like your book on those lists, too.
4.     Ask them to go to the Amazon page for your book and “like” the book.
5.     Ask them to add tags to your book on its Amazon page. Tagging a book helps it to appear on appropriate suggested lists, so that when readers search for a new book, yours might appear on the suggested list.

None of these suggestions will help a poorly written book – so your first job is to write as brilliantly as possible. Write from your heart; polish and revise. There’s a lot of competition in the marketplace and only when you craft a book readers can’t put down and can’t wait to recommend, only then will you break out. But a little honest support from your street team doesn’t hurt. 

Best of luck - and please share any and all ideas that have worked for you!