Thursday, April 28, 2011

Keeping Romance Contemporary

Nancy Naigle is a romance writer who spent most of her life on the Virginia coast, but has moved to greener pastures a little further inland in Southampton County. She and her husband now live on a 76 acre goat farm where Nancy spends every spare moment working on her next book.  We met at the Maryland Writers Association conference in 2010 where her manuscript, OUT OF FOCUS, won the mainstream/literary category. That book will come out this November.  A few weeks back I asked her to write a guest blog on how she keeps her romances contemporary in our every-changing society.  She didn’t let me down.

With you busy on the Hannibal Jones play, I thought it might be good timing for me to pay a visit.

I write love stories from the crossroad of small town and suspense. Small towns don’t quite change at the pace of our big city counterparts so I’ll admit it’s not as big a problem for me. However, for me, fresh viewpoints and attitudes is what keeps stories current.

As I read one of your posts earlier this week, the point became very clear to me. It’s just a matter of perspective. The same time, same place, same people—can see things so differently.

Here’s the case in point:

You wrote,
It was hot, sticky, muggy country even at night. Bugs and birds competed to see which could create the most irritating sounds. The river they sloshed through carried the stink of sewage. Mud sucked at their boots. Leeches clung to anything that moved. A field of brilliant stars and a sliver of a moon did little to illuminate the potential animal and reptile dangers lurking in the darkness.

Here’s what I’d see, Jill and Garrett caught the occasional glimpse of the stars through the thick summer foliage of the trees. The humidity was so high that it was like walking into a wet sweater, but the heavy air didn’t quiet the bugs and birds any. They sang out in an unplanned tune that no orchestra could match. The mud sucked at Jill’s boots as they got closer to the river. Just over the last incline, they could hear the river sloshing below. The tiny sliver of a moon cast silver swords of light across the moving water. It was worth every mosquito bite to see the show that nature put on. At least they’d thought so until a noise in the darkness made them aware they weren’t alone.

Like that old Sears tag line, I’m on the softer side. But that’s what makes our voice such an important factor in what we write. It’s our perspective, and how we tell our stories. It’s what the readers come to expect from us.

So, how do I keep things fresh? I guess my natural curiosity about what’s in the news and technology keeps me current. That translates into my stories without me even me making a conscious effort.

I hope your friends will check out my debut novel, SWEET TEA AND SECRETS. It’ll be available in e-formats and print in May. (Yes! It’s getting close, but I have a copy of your SUCCESSFULLY MARKETING YOUR NOVEL IN THE 21st CENTURY handy so I’m ready!) 

you can learn more about Nancy  Naigle's work at

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Can I Write a Bestseller? (Part 2)

Last time I started talking about what it takes to write a guaranteed blockbuster.  Today I continue to explore what I think a publisher’s editor might think is the formula for a bestseller. 

Beyond writing a book that there’s already a big market for, I think the title might be an important factor.  A book’s title, and its cover, might be its most significant elements.  Let’s face it, people really DO judge a book by its cover, and its title.  Readers want to know what the book is about before they even pick it up.  If the title is confusing, or just not appealing, it could cost you sales.  Would you buy “The Catholic Conspiracy” or “The DaVinci Code”?

I also think that if you want to write a bestseller you can’t be too in love with your own ideas.  I guess it’s okay to be passionate about your work, but you have to be open to feedback. Outside input from your publisher, agent and publicist is necessary for a successful book launch.  If you’re not open to it, you could miss valuable advice.  Or, maybe you need to know if anyone else thinks people will pay to read your memoir before you invest thousands promoting it.

If you’re self published or even with a small press, you need to know how to compete with the big boys.  Maybe those big New York publishers ARE ruining the industry and doing everything wrong, but they still drive the business.  So if you know when they put out their new releases, their promotional efforts, their weaknesses and their strengths, you can understand what you’re competing with.  If your work is similar you can ride their coattails.  If not, you can hit the niche they’re ignoring.

A bestseller needs the right branding.  The look of your work or your series is vital.  That’s why book covers need to be designed by professionals.  So do the research – go to a major bookstore and look closely at the covers where your book would be shelved.  Right now, thrillers and mysteries (my genre) get covers that are both powerful in design and relatively simple, and showing people on the cover seems to be out of fashion.  However, romances ALWAYS have people on the cover, and the humorous ones have a totally different art style from the racy ones, and that style is different from the historical ones.  If you already have a brand – your name, your company, a logo – make sure it’s unavoidable by anyone who sees the book, and that it fits well with the cover.  The look of your book should get people interest but not confuse them.  If you have to explain the title, or the cover, no one will pick it up.

The more I think about this, the more stuff I think of, so I’ll continue this in a few days.  Meanwhile, maybe you’ll think of some things you need to do to produce a best seller that I didn’t think of.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Can I Write a Bestseller? (Part 1)

Recently I was looking through the stacks in Borders and found myself both admiring and criticizing some of the most popular books.  The thought process went something like this: “Wow, this thing is really selling!  I could never write a piece of crap like that.  It’s like it was done to a formula.  Probably some editor called his friend and said “The marketplace needs a book about [fill in the blank] and if you write it like this, I know we can sell it.” 

In some cases it seemed obvious that a book written on that concept at that time would sell big.  That got me wondering if I could think like a publisher’s editor and figure out the formula for a bestseller.  So, with tongue firmly in cheek, here’s what I think you’ve got to do to write a book that will end up on the bestseller lists.

First, you need to write a book that there’s a big market for.  I tend to write what will make ME happy, but that’s not a commercial approach.  If you write a book and boast proudly that “there was no other book like it on the market” you’re in trouble already.  If no one has a similar book out, there’s probably a good reason… like, no one wants to read that.  Or, say you write a great self-help book for men.  Cool, except that almost all self help books are bought by women. 

In fact, most books of any kind are bought by women.  Best selling thriller writer Jon Land launched his Caitlin Strong series based on a perceived hole in the marketplace.  Thrillers are the best selling genre.  Women buy most books.  There were few female protagonists in thrillers.  He’s on the NY Times list because he’s not only a great writer, but also a smart writer.

But how can we know what the market wants?  We can go to bookstores and talk to booksellers.  Ask if they have books on your topic or in your sub-genre.  Check out the competition.  If there isn't a book on your topic, try to find out why.  Chat with that bookseller, other authors, or a friend who works in marketing. 

Writing the right book may be the first step to the bestseller list.  I’ve got lots more ideas, so this could be a long series.  I’d be happy to hear your ideas too.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Play's The Thing

I know it's been too long since my last blog, but that's partly because I've been wrestling with a new challenge - writing a play.
The director at a local theater thought it would be a great idea to have a Hannibal Jones mystery on her stage.  I had to agree.  So I went online to find a few examples of how a play is formatted, found out the preferred length, and set about writing a nice 90 minute live action mystery.

I didn't want to start from scratch of course.  Creating a new story would only add to the difficulty level.  But knowing that a novel would be way too much story to tell in the time allowed, I decided to adapt one of my short stories.  That way the characters, the action, and more importantly the clues and resolution were already in place.  This would be a snap, right?

Well, not exactly.  I didn’t realize until I was in the middle of it just how limiting writing for the stage can be.  For one thing, I’m accustomed to using the setting, the action and my protagonist’s internal monologue to tell a story.  But with a play, all you have is the dialog.  I can’t use a fight scene, driving sequence or even moving from room to room to help carry the plot.  Scenes are pretty static.  My characters are stuck in that room or on that street for a while.

And that’s another thing.  In a short story a scene can be one page or the site of the entire story.  I can have one scene or a dozen.  I can move back and forth between two scenes in whatever helps the pace of the story.  But live audiences don’t want to spend half the night in intermissions because the scenes keep changing.  So I settled on three acts with three scenes in each, and each scene had to be about the same length.  That simple decision totally restructured my story. 

Dialog also takes a shift.  EVERYTHING the audience knows about these characters has to be said out loud or demonstrated by their actions.  So the characters have to express their emotions more blatantly, and in interaction with each other.  That turns out to be a bit harder than I imagined.  

All in all, this is a very different kind of storytelling I’ve jumped into.  Exciting, and challenging, but it is stretching me as a writer and I can’t wait to work my way into a full size play that I’ll be proud of.