Perfecting Prose – What I learned from being a RITA finalist

Earlier this year, I received a thrilling phone call notifying me that my debut book, A Tailor-Made Bride, had finaled in the RITA®  category for Best First Book. Was I ever excited! Then people started asking me about why I thought my book made it to the finals. My first reaction was – How can I possibly know? Contest judging is so subjective. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that even though I didn’t have direct feedback from the RITA judges, I had feedback from other judges—readers. So the tips you’ll find here today, are based on what I have gleaned from the comments of readers and reviewers.

Characters impact readers more than plot.

“What amazing characters… I loved Jericho and Hannah. It was as if they were real people.”

“Her characters live and breathe, not only within the pages but long after the cover is closed.”

“Her characters were flawed in ways that made them endearing and gave you a vested interest in their individual quests for happiness and fulfillment.”

My goal in designing main characters is twofold: have every woman who reads my story fall in love with the hero, and have every female reader wish to be the heroine. In order for me to accomplish this, as an author, I need to do exactly the same—fall in love with my hero and live vicariously through my heroine. If the characters aren’t real to me, they won’t be real to the reader either. So what makes them real?

  • Use Deep POV  Spend time in the character’s head. Express his thoughts directly using language that matches his personality. Show his reactions and emotions instead of explaining them to the reader. Give him a distinct narrative voice.
  • Use Contrast – My hero is a grouchy, set-in-his-ways livery owner, but that crusty exterior hides a soft heart that leads him to perform acts of kindness when no one is looking. His words might sound arrogant, but his actions show his inner goodness.
  • Give them flaws to make them real. Give them quirks to make them unique. Give them noble motivations to make them likeable – Hannah was living her dream of opening her own dress shop, but she struggled with her lack of business savvy when customers were scarce. Her quirk – she’s a 19th century fitness maven with a daily exercise regimen that most folks scoffed at. As for motivation, she wanted to have a successful shop, but not at the cost of being a stumbling block to others. Her ultimate aim was to use the gifts God had given her to serve her community, not simply to support herself by making a good living. Giving her a more noble motivation increased her likeability even when her stubbornness and pride led her into trouble.
  • Have well-developed secondary characters – Many readers have asked me about turning A Tailor-Made Bride into a series because they found themselves so attached to the town and its characters that they wanted more. What a fabulous compliment! Even though secondary characters don’t have their own POVs, make them memorable and real to the reader. Make them quirky and fun, or have them tug on the reader’s heartstrings. Use them to open the eyes of your main character when he/she is struggling to come to grips with a specific truth. But remember, their purpose is to enhance the story of the hero and heroine, not to steal the show.
  • Use dialog as a romance tool – Witty dialog is something I greatly admire in novels and strive to incorporate in my own. My favorite way to use it is between the hero and heroine as they fight against their attraction. Let them tease, flirt, and spar with each other as a way to build romantic tension. Sometimes having a character be audaciously honest can be a delightful surprise. One of my favorite scenes from A Tailor-Made Bride uses this technique. Hannah has learned Jericho’s true name and is teasing him about it.

He prowled forward, jaw clenched so hard, his facial muscles ticked. “The name’s J.T.”

“No,” she said, tapping her chin as if pondering some great mystery. “Those are initials. Your name is Jericho.”

Wiggling his fingers to keep them from curling into fists, J.T. reminded himself that she was a woman.

“Are you purposely trying to rile me?” His voice rumbled with menace, warning her against such a dangerous path.

An all-too-innocent smile stretched across her face. “Why, yes. Yes, I am. Is it working?”

Deepen Your Spiritual Theme with Layers

“Besides a beautiful romance, this story has take-home value in it that made me stop and reflect…The characters grew not only as individual people, and as a couple, but as children of God as well.”

“…you will also find the Lord’s “thumbprint” on every page. Her words ministered to my spirit in such a deep, penetrating way.”

“…while the book is highly readable and enjoyable, it is also thought-provoking. I found myself pausing time and again to reflect on my own life, particularly as it relates to God’s purpose for me.”

  • More than skin deep – On the surface, the key spiritual message of A Tailor-Made Bride seems to entail the issue of beauty vs. vanity. However, if you look deeper, you’ll see that the true message is about balance, unity, and opening yourself to God’s truth even when it goes against long-held beliefs based on personal experience.
  • Complicate things – Another aspect that I believe made my theme unique was that I allowed both characters to be right. Both had a biblical foundation to back up their position, and as I wrote their story, I found myself agreeing with both sides. The true issue is not who is right and who is wrong. The true issue is how can we treat each other with love, even when we disagree? And can we set our dogmatism aside long enough to see if there is any truth to be gained by pondering the opposite perspective?
  • Sprinkle other spiritual truths throughout the story in addition to the main theme – In real life, we rarely deal with one issue at a time. So in addition to the beauty-vanity theme, I also sprinkled in thoughts about running a business as a person of faith, using gifts to serve others even when the service goes unnoticed, and reaching out to the outcasts among us. Remember, however, that story rules. Never incorporate a spiritual thread simply to teach your readers a truth. Everything has to spring naturally from the characters and the plot, otherwise it will come across as preachy.

Question for you: So when you think about your favorite books, the ones that linger in your mind long after the last page is turned, what is it about them that impacted you most? If you were a contest judge, what would you be looking for?

Creative Marketing – Try Something New

Marketing. The dreaded M word that makes introverted authors like me shudder. It’s a good thing I am contracted with a major publisher. They’ll take care of all that marketing stuff, right?

Pop! Say goodbye to that delusional bubble.

Even though I’ve been blessed with a fabulous marketing and sales team, I’m not immune to the pressure of marketing my books. Publishing is a partnership, and I’m expected to market as much or more than my publisher. After all, they have an entire catalog of new releases to sell. I have only my own.

So when I first waded into the marketing waters, I looked around to see what other authors were doing and followed their example. I had my website professionally designed, I got involved in Facebook and Goodreads, I set up guest blog appearances and interviews to correlate with my release dates, I had a launch party, I offered giveaways and hosted contests, I handed out bookmarks, did book signings, and spoke to groups any time I was asked.

Did any of it make a difference? I think so. It’s nearly impossible to measure the impact of marketing, but occasionally I’ll get reader feedback from someone who mentions that they found my books because of an interview I did on a particular blog, or that they bought my previous books after winning my latest one in a drawing and enjoyed it so much they wanted to read more from me. These little glimmers give me hope.

But now that I’ve gained a year of experience, it’s time to branch out from the crowd. It’s time to aim my creativity brain cells not just at my WIP but at my marketing as well. So when it came time to launch my third novel this spring, I decided to try something new. Something that would engage readers on a more personal level and hopefully entice new ones to give my book a try. I sponsored a fan fiction contest.

I write historical romance, and knowing that romance readers live for happy endings, I thought to give them a chance to create their own. I can’t tell you how many times as a reader or movie watcher I have mentally re-written an ending or continued the story in my mind, imagining how the characters’ lives would play out. I thought it would be fun to give my readers the same opportunity.

Now in To Win Her Heart, my main characters had a very satisfying happy ending, but the secondary love story was left with a little more ambiguity. Therefore, the fan fiction contest challenged readers to create an epilogue specifically for secondary characters Chloe and Duncan. I enticed readers with generous prizes like a $40 gift card from Amazon, an autographed book of their choice from my list, and the privilege of having their winning entry displayed on my website for all to see and enjoy.

I advertised in my newsletter, on Facebook, and in blog posts on sites that catered to writers. I was hoping to snag some readers from the writing crowd who might not usually read historical romance or who hadn’t tried my books before, but who were interested in competing for my prizes.

To Win Her Heart released May 1st so I ran the contest through the end of June. I didn’t have a flood of entries, but I ended up with a wonderful collection of about a dozen epilogues to choose from. More valuable than the number of entries, though, was the amount of personal interaction with readers this contest produced. I even had one lady say that she didn’t realize how powerful a marketing tool the contest was for her until she found herself in a bookstore buying my book just because she wanted to enter my contest. I’m hoping others experienced the same sensation even if they ended up not entering.

In the end, there’s no telling how many actual sales this contest generated, but I’m hoping the effects will continue to ripple. The lady who won has her epilogue on my site, and she’s no doubt sharing that story with all her friends. The quality of her writing was wonderful, and she captured my characters so well, that I was proud to display her work and to point other readers to it as bonus material.

Whether or not this attempt at marketing generated many sales, I’m glad I did it. It was fun to try something different and to interact with readers in a new way. It gave my stale marketing practices a much needed shot in the arm, and I would gladly do it again.

Question for You: What is the most inventive marketing strategy you’ve ever employed or seen employed? What marketing ideas have you toyed with that you’d like to try? What have you seen other authors do that caused you to find yourself in the bookstore buying their book?

To see the winning entry, visit the fan fiction page of my website at:

Surviving My First Year As A Published Author

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been a published author for over a year now. My first book (A Tailor-Made Bride) debuted in June 2010, and last May my third book with Bethany House, To Win Her Heart, hit the shelves. What an exciting whirlwind adventure this has been!

For those of you who are not yet published, I thought I’d share a few of the myriad lessons I’ve learned during the transition from hopeful writer to published author. Believe it or not, signing a publishing contract is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is just the beginning of another journey, one that will take you through unfamiliar territory with a whole new set of obstacles and pitfalls to navigate.

Learning to work with an editor

Most of you have probably worked with a critique group or received feedback from contest judges on your manuscript. Some of you may have even invested in hiring a freelance editor to go over your book. All of this is wonderful for helping you perfect your craft, and I highly recommend it. I still work with my critique group on every book I write. However, making the switch from critique group to publishing house editor is like switching from working with a high school baseball coach to a major league manager. The expectations placed upon you increase and the time to make improvements decreases. Thankfully, the editor wants you to succeed just as much as you want to succeed, so it can be a marvelously rewarding partnership.

In learning to work with an editor, attitude makes all the difference. Here are some tips for making this process a blessing instead of a trial:

  • Trust your baby to the care of another. You are no longer simply a passionate writer, creating the story that best pleases you. You are now a professional writer who must please a publisher and readers. Don’t forfeit the passion, but temper it with professionalism. I often hear unpublished writers say things like, “If an editor ever suggested I change X about my manuscript, I’d find a different publisher.” I strongly caution against this attitude. Publishing is a team effort. Be a team player and remember that the publishing world is a small one. Don’t make things harder on yourself by gaining a reputation as a diva.
  • Editors are allies, not enemies. It might not feel true when you get that 12 page, single-spaced substantive edit letter, but keep your defenses in check. Remember that your editor is there to help you create the best manuscript possible.
  • Approach conversations with humility. Editors know the market better than you do. They know what their readers like. Submit to their mentoring and heed their advice, but don’t be afraid to respectfully speak your mind if you have a strong aversion to one of their suggestions.

Dealing with deadlines.

Everyone writes differently. Some pour out their stories unchecked then go back and add layers, weaving in editing as they work through multiple drafts. Some outline extensively before ever writing a word. Some spend weeks delving into research. I’m one of those odd ducks who uses both sides of my brain at the same time, editing as I go. This makes my pace slow as I constantly edit as I create, but I essentially write only one draft.

The key to dealing with deadlines is to know your writing pace and plan accordingly. Set realistic intermediary goals. (For example, instead of a daily word count, I choose to set weekly goals. I try to write one polished chapter a week.) Then be sure to budget a cushion into your schedule to allow for unforeseen circumstances. Illness, family vacations, work duties—many things can pull you away from your writing. Don’t add to your deadline stress by cutting things too close. I try to pad my deadline by 2-4 weeks to give myself some flexibility. Plus it’s cool to get brownie points by turning in a manuscript early.

Handling Reviews

Good reviews can send your spirit soaring, and bad reviews can send you plummeting into a pool of doubt and insecurity. You must learn to find balance. Some wise authors I know choose not to read reviews at all. I have to admit that I can’t seem to resist the lure. I check my reviews on Amazon every day and eagerly await news from my publisher about trade reviews. Publisher’s Weekly tends to give me great write-ups, yet the ones from Romantic Times are usually a bit lackluster. The inconsistency can be frustrating, but I constantly remind myself that reviews are subjective. That fact became very evident when my publisher decided to offer my debut novel as a free e-book download in May. I was pleasantly surprised by all the new 4 and 5 star reviews, but then there were the 1 star reviews that came with them. Ick.

  • Not everyone will love your book, so gird your loins in advance.
  • Enjoy the pleasure of positive reviews, but don’t let them puff you up with pride. When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. ~Proverbs 11:2
  • Learn what you can from a harsh review. Look for ways to improve your craft for future projects. However, don’t dwell on the sour words. They will destroy your confidence and steal your passion. Glean what you can, then walk away.

This publishing journey can be a long and arduous one, but it is rich with rewards as well.

For those of you who are still seeking publication—what makes you the most nervous about making the transition to published author?

And for you published authors—what other advice would you share with upcoming writers regarding what to expect after the contract is signed?

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