Writer’s Wednesday: New York Times Bestselling Author Brenda Novak on Branding Yourself As a Writer

Today I’d like to welcome New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak to The Editing Essentials! Because marketing is one of those “Must-Do” items on every author’s list, I asked Brenda, who does marketing so well, to give some tips on it. Please welcome her!

New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author Brenda Novak is in the middle of writing a brand new small-town contemporary series. Come meet the long-time friends who have made Whiskey Creek the “Heart of Gold Country,” with WHEN LIGHTNING STRIKES, WHEN SNOW FALLS and WHEN SUMMER COMES. Brenda also runs an annual on-line auction for diabetes research every May at www.brendanovak.com (her youngest son has this disease). To date, she’s raised over $1.6 million. 

Branding

There’s a buzzword in the industry that makes almost any author sit up and take notice: branding. Everyone’s talking about it; everyone wants to be effective at it. But…what is it, exactly? And how important is it that we learn to market in this way?

An author brand is like any other kind of brand—Coke, Pepsi, Kellogg’s, Andersen Doors. The most familiar brands evoke immediate recognition and association with particular products or even a level of quality in a certain product. Basically, branding translates into a sort of shorthand. I see a Nora book, I automatically know what kind of experience I can expect by reading it, so I pick it up without having to think twice or do any research. Having a reputation and a loyal following helps with all those impulse buys that are so critical in the book business.

Branding is also important because it enables the author’s name in and of itself to become a marketable commodity. James Patterson is now using his brand to sell stories co-authored by other people. He’s even expanding his brand to include many different types of stories. Now that he’s so strongly associated with a good story, he can do that.

How did he build such a strong brand? By writing consistently great stories. That always has to be first. But there’s more to it than that. Branding is an on-going process and doesn’t generally happen overnight. It’s most difficult in the start-up phase. As well known as they are, Coke and Pepsi are still out there, advertising and building name recognition. It’s like pushing a ball uphill. If you stop pushing, it rolls right back to the bottom—something else encroaches and takes the attention of those you’re hoping to reach.

Specifically, an author brands herself by developing something that is consistent and unique in her writing. I do that by making sure every book I create delivers a deeply emotional, evocative story. How is my brand different from other authors who write in the same genre? My books are known for their deep characterization in a genre that is often more plot-driven (as you drift toward the suspense side). Once you know what you want your brand to be, you establish it through your writing style and “voice,” as well as your promotional efforts, until it becomes recognizable to others.

Some tools an author can use to build her brand are:

 

  1. Paid Advertising
  2. An interesting and constantly updated Web site
  3. Strategic Contests
  4. Blogs and chats (See? I’m building my brand right here <G>)
  5. Newsletters
  6. Charity/Volunteer work
  7. Networking
  8. Joint-promotion with other authors and businesses
  9. Speaking
  10. Writing articles
  11. Press releases/media attention
  12. Author response to fan letters/e-mails
  13. Mailers to booksellers/fans
  14. Samplers

Your brand is your promise to your readers. When my readers buy my books they want to be able to count on a certain type of read. Therefore, I make sure I deliver that kind of read. Everything I do professionally is geared around building my brand and my career, so my website reflects that brand, my promotional materials reflect it, my charity auction reflects it, and my workshops/blogs reflect it.

Think about how solicitors make you feel. Because we are approached by so many who are trying to sell us something, the melee is deafening. We learn to filter and filter quickly, which means, in order to be effective in today’s marketplace, we have to be creative marketers. So my question to you is: How can you reach people who are already tired of the signals that are constantly bombarding them via the telephone, TV, computer, etc? How can you set yourself apart?

Throw out some ideas, and I’ll be happy to contribute. 🙂

Thank you so much for being here today, Brenda! Feel free to post questions or comments for Brenda, she’ll be with us all day. Thank you!

E. Tip of the Week: Endings

There’s a lot of advice on how to write great beginnings and getting through writing the middle of stories, but what about that ending?

An ending should be everything the story has been building up towards. Powerful. Intriguing. Satisfying. To have a great ending means it needs to be satisfying to the reader. So many times when I’m editing a novel, the emotion of the story will build and build. Then, in that last page it’s like there’s a cliff there and the story just drops off the face of the earth. I’m not talking about a cliff hanger. I’m talking about an ending that builds towards the end but doesn’t have a satisfying end for the reader. An ending when the reader walks away and says “That’s it? That wasn’t worth it.”

Those are words no writer wants to hear, yet so many times in editing novels I see a writer spending so much time on crafting their beginnings –it’s imperative to have a great hook, after all–and middles, the writer will just leave their ending to just “come together.”

Don’t do that.

When you’ve finished writing the first draft, second draft, third draft, go back and read just the last five pages of your story. What is the emotion you feel after you’ve read the ending? Did you feel the tension, the sadness, happiness, or shock you as the writer were going for? Or, did you feel empty or confused?

Make sure to spend the same amount of time on your ending, as you do the beginning and middle. After all, if it’s a satisfying read, your readers will be more apt to tell others about your characters and the journey they just experienced. And isn’t that what you really want? 🙂

E. Tip of the Week: Take Advantage

Take advantage of another writer’s experience to help you grow as the writer you want to be.

One of my favorite books to read for writers is Spider, Spin Me A Web by Lawrence Block. Books like this are great tools for writers to use when they’re looking for inspiration, or how to use a new tool from their writing toolbox.

Early in the book Block talks about reading, and how important it is to read a lot when you’re a writer. You learn by reading other writer’s works. And you learn when you sit down at your desk and write every day.

To see a full list of our suggested reading materials for writers, visit our page here: https://writtendreams.com/Coaching.html

Actions Speaks Louder Than Words…Especially in Fiction

E.Tip of the Day: Everyone’s heard the expression, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Actions do speak louder, especially in fiction. Which scenes do you remember better from books you’ve read? Where characters are showing how they live their lives. Exploring, building, cleaning, fighting, saving someone’s life, or protecting their own, etc.

Scenes with action should draw the reader in, put them on the edge of their seat (if written correctly) and engage the reader with the story. Although inner thoughts and exposition is needed to show some details of the story, the actions of the characters will be –in most cases– more memorable in the reader’s mind. So, as you’re writing this week, think about what you’ve done in your life, and which actions you’ve taken to show what type of person you are personally. Then, take it those memories a step further with your writing. Show what your characters are doing, and what makes them stand out. Use the five senses to explore, and describe their actions.  And most of all, have fun with it! 🙂

Writer’s Wednesday with Tim Waggoner: Avoiding What’s Been Done To Death

Having a horror writer as today’s guest–it being Halloween– seemed to be fitting. I was first introduced to Tim’s writing over ten years ago by a mutual friend. I was looking for a few writers to invite to write stories for an anthology I was putting together, and it was suggested I contact Tim. After reading Tim’s short stories, I was hooked. He’s a talented writer, and a wonderful person.  I’m thrilled to have Tim as our guest today!

Tim Waggoner wrote his first story at the age of five, when he created a comic book version of King Kong vs. Godzilla on a stenographer’s pad. It took him a few more years until he began selling professionally, though. He has published more than twenty novels and two short story collections. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program. He hopes to continue writing and teaching until he keels over dead, after which he wants to be stuffed and mounted, and then placed in front of his computer terminal. Visit Tim’s website at: http://timwaggoner.com/

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” –H.P. Lovecraft

Writers often refer to the above quote when discussing what makes great horror fiction, but when they do so, they’re usually referring to the fear part. But I want to highlight the word unknown, specifically referring to the elements writers build their stories from. Genre fiction is marked by certain shared elements called tropes, but when a trope becomes too familiar and overused, it loses it power and descends into cliché. The princess that needs rescuing by a handsome prince, apocalypse survivors named Adam and Eve, a character doesn’t realize until the end of the story that he or she has been dead all along . . . Each of these ideas may have been fresh once, but now they’re stale to the point of fossilization.

Clichés like this are especially deadly in horror fiction. Once something is known, it can’t be unknown. Vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, knife-wielding serial killers, abduction-obsessed aliens, haunted houses . . . An audience raised on a steady diet of horror – especially horror movies – has encountered each of those tropes and more dozens of times, and if you use them in your horror fiction, you’re more likely to elicit yawns of boredom then you are shivers of delight.

But there are ways to take dull, flat tropes and, like Dr. Frankenstein cobbling together a new creation from bits and pieces of the dead, make them live again. Let me tell you how.

Deconstruct Tropes:

Tropes exist because they embody a primal idea. The trick is understanding what that idea is. Take Jason from the Friday the 13th movies. What does he look like? He’s a silent figure who wears a white mask and featureless dark clothing, carries a bladed weapon and relentlessly hunts down his victims. Remind you of any well-known myth image? If any of you said the Grim Reaper, go the front of the class. White hockey mask = skull face. Dark clothes = black robe. Machete = scythe. Jason worked so well for audiences because they instinctively recognized the trope he was built on. He’s the embodiment of Death.

In my story “Anubis Has Left the Building,” I wrote about the ancient view of death versus a modern view. Anubis embodies the old gods of death: mysterious, powerful, terrifying, and majestic. For the modern god of death, I used a disaffected youth to whom the end of life is nothing more than a simple biological process. As he says, “Sometimes meat moves, sometimes it doesn’t.” Anubis represents an old trope, and the youth represents that trope deconstructed and reworked for the modern age.

In my novel Darkness Wakes, there’s a creature called the Overshadow. If you feed it the life force of another, it will directly stimulate the pleasure center of your brain, giving you ecstasy unlike anything you’ve ever known. At no place in the novel do I use the word vampire, but that’s the trope I built my monster from. By reworking tropes, I’m able to avoid reader’s preconceptions, and I can focus on the concepts underlying those tropes. In the case of Darkness Wakes, I wanted to focus on the ideas of symbiosis and addiction, and the Overshadow allowed me to do this without centuries’ worth of vampire baggage getting in the way. You can do the same with your stories. Pick a trope, strip it down to its essential core, and then rebuild it. Or to put it more simply, take your trope shopping and buy it some new clothes.

Use Tropes From Other Cultures:

Remember when Japanese-inspired horror was all the rage in America? Movies like The Ring and The Grudge were big box office, and the reason was simple. They presented tropes that were fresh to American audiences. Of course, those tropes have become clichés of their own now, but there’s still a world’s worth of legend and myth for you to draw on to help you write your own stories.

For example, I recently heard that according to an Hawaiian creation myth, our universe was born from the death of a previous universe, and the only creature to survive this process of destruction and rebirth is the octopus. Now, you don’t have to use this myth in its entirety. You can take the basic concept of an endless process of universes dying and being reborn, with one creature from the previous universe always surviving. Maybe this survivor hates the new universe and is determined to bring about its death. Maybe this is how the cycle is supposed to work. That would mean the “monster” is actually a vital part of the cosmic scheme of things, and in that sense, not a villain at all.

And there you have a brand-new trope, born out of another culture’s myth. All it takes is a little research and a little imagination.

Find Analogues of Tropes:

Let’s say you want to write a zombie apocalypse story, but – ever mindful of to avoid clichés in your horror – you want to create something fresh. Pick one aspect of the trope and take a step sideways with it. In this case, let’s choose the contagion aspect of the zombie apocalypse, along with the loss of identity. Maybe some force – the government, an evil corporation, a foreign power, extraterrestrials – have created a virus that destroys a human’s psyche, overwriting it with a single personality and set of memories, effectively creating a race of mental clones who are really many expressions of one individual. No flesh-eating, reanimated dead here, but that’s the point. You’ve grabbed hold of an old idea, taken a “step to the left,” as they say in Rocky Horror, and by doing so made it seem new again.

Combine Tropes Or Elements of Tropes:

Take a werewolf, an evil spirit inhabiting a mortal body, and a serial killer, throw them into your mental Mixmaster, and viola! You have a character who, when the sun goes down, becomes possessed by the spirit of a killer. Take a mad scientist, the concept of eternal punishment in Hell, and witchcraft. Mix well, and you get a scientist who’s created a virtual reality program that simulates Hell, perhaps as some kind of extreme psychological therapy. But one of the subjects in his experiment is taught dark magic within the simulation – magic that somehow actually operates in the real world, much to the scientist’s dismay.

Learn to mix and match tropes like this, and you’ll have an endless supply of story ideas.

Create Your Own Tropes:

Aristotle said the only way to get to the universal is through the particular. Want to find new tropes to create your horror from, tropes that will strike a universal chord in your readers? Then start by taking a good look inside yourself.

What are you (and no one else) afraid of?:

      Death, torture, mutilation, the loss of a loved one – especially a child . . . Humans share so many fears. But if you want to create a new trope, you need to find out what you as an individual are afraid of that’s unique to you.

When I was a child, my sister and I were afraid of feathers and band-aids. I can’t remember which of us was scared by which item, nor do I remember why we found them so frightening. But those innocuous objects don’t, in and of themselves, conjure up feelings of fear for most people. That makes them ripe ideas to base new tropes on.

When I was in fifth grade, my dad took me to see Jaws in the theater. Not long afterward, I was taking a shower, and it occurred to me that I was surrounded by water, like in the movie, and I imagined a shark emerging from the shower head, expanding to full size as it came, like some kind of bizarre cartoon character. It’s a strange imagine, one I could easily base a new trope on.

Look To Your Dreams:

I have to admit to not having a lot of experience in this area. My dreams are usually quite dull, consisting of me talking to people I don’t know (and no, I don’t remember what we talk about). But sometimes I have nightmares of all the lights going off and someone pounding violently at the front door. And sometimes I dream of wandering through an endless series of rooms with no way out. Neither of these scenarios seems all that interesting to me, but I know people who have wild, incredibly vivid dreams. And if you’re lucky enough to have an interesting dream life, make it a habit to record your dreams in a notebook every morning upon awakening. I bet you’ll come up with numerous original ideas for your horror fiction, thanks to your own subconscious (which is no doubt far more inventive than mine!).

Pay Attention to the Wonderfully Weird World Around You:

      I do this a lot. I make it a point to be, as Henry James said, one of those people “on whom nothing is lost.” I’m constantly looking around, checking out my environment in search of anything that strikes me as a strange. As soon as I see something cool, I open the note app on my phone and write it down before I forget it. I figure that if I’m the only person in the world who notices something, then it’s bound to be a new trope when I eventually incorporate it in a story.

For example, I often write in Starbucks, and one time in the very store where I’m now at (sitting, as a matter of fact, at the same table where I’m writing this), I saw a man staring at his laptop, muttering over and over, “What are you doing here? What are you doing here?” I also once saw a woman breathe on her hand and then wipe it across the seat of a chair before sitting. Also at this store I once saw a girl child wearing what looked like a wedding ring. I’ve already used the muttering man in a story. The hand-breather and child bride are still on my list, waiting to be used.

While driving around town, I once saw a vehicle that had the word Soulless on it and a personalized plate that read SKINNER. Intrigued, I followed it to a restaurant called the Chop House. And people wonder why I write the kind of stories I write.

All of these images/events are things that I noticed. Who knows what kind of things you’ll notice if you start paying more attention to your surroundings? And that’s the point – we don’t know. We can’t. And that’s why what strikes you as strange and interesting can make for the most original horror tropes of all – because they’re your observations and no one else’s.

So go forth and venture into the unknown – and make sure to take the rest of us with you. To paraphrase Clive Barker’s Hellraiser: you have such sights to show us.

For Further Reference:

Not sure what ideas are clichéd in horror? Then check out these sites:

“Horror Cliches” http://horror.about.com/od/horrorthemelists/ig/Horror-Movie-Cliches/Dollheads2.htm

“10 Cliches Horror Writers Should Try to Avoid” http://writinghood.com/writing/10-cliches-horror-writers-should-try-to-avoid/

“Horror Fiction: Ten Cliches to Avoid” http://horror.fictionfactor.com/articles/cliches.html

“Horror Stories We’ve Seen Too Often” http://www.strangehorizons.com/guidelines/fiction-common-horror.shtml

“51 Worst Horror Movie Cliches” http://www.dreadcentral.com/story/51-worst-horror-movie-cliches

Thank you, Tim, for being our guest today, and for the great tips! In case you’re wondering, yes, Tim did write a story for me. Two, in fact. 🙂  “Fixer-Upper” appeared in Single White Vampire Seeks Same, and “All In the Execution” for Places To Be, People To Kill. If you have questions or comments for Tim, he’ll be with us all day. Thank you!