3 Questions to find your “value added”

Value-added describes the enhancement a company gives its product or service before offering the product to customers. Value-added applies to instances where a firm takes a product that may be considered a homogeneous product, with few differences (if any) from that of a competitor, and provides potential customers with a feature or add-on that gives it a greater sense of value….Investopedia.com

There you have it, folks – a clear definition of “value added,” a key concept in today’s marketing strategies. If you’re a hotel, your “value added” may be a free breakfast, or bonus loyalty points. If you’re a tire dealership, your “value added” may be a discounted  fourth tire after the purchase of three. If you’re a writer…..ah….if you’re a writer….what if you’re a writer?

I’ve been grappling for years with the idea of my “added value,” and I’ve finally come up with a few guidelines that might help you work on your own. As the definition above points out, we writers offer a fairly homogeneous product – writing – so our challenge is to distinguish ourselves from other writers by offering readers something in our work that makes it stand out as having more ‘value’ than other similar products of writing. To identify your “added value”, consider these questions:

  1. What do my readers want from me that they won’t get from someone else? In the case of my murder mysteries, I relied on detailed accurate information about birds to appeal to my readers, so that reading my novels was like a virtual birding trip. Readers often told me they knew the restaurants where my characters ate, or that they had actually visited the real locations named in my books. That familiarity made the books personal for readers, and even inspired a few vacations for readers who wanted to add bird sightings to their life lists. That’s added value.
  2. Do I provide unique extras along with my book? A common extra is a Reader’s Guide at the end of your book for book club discussion. If you are tech-savvy, you can even offer to “attend” book clubs via Skype or other online meeting platforms. That’s a valuable benefit for many readers! Other extras include links to online journaling or videos that supplement your text. Even questions for personal reflection (and the space to answer them) is a nice extra used by many nonfiction writers in their books.
  3. What does my reader need? Ultimately, “value added” is about giving your readers more of what they value. To do that, you have to know your audience and consider what they would regard as additional benefit from reading your work. When I wrote my memoir about overcoming anxiety thanks to our adopted rescue dog, I included endnotes to refer readers to research into depression and anxiety; I’d found those resources helpful in my own recovery and wanted to share that with readers. I also invited readers to email me about their own healing experiences with adopted pets to broaden the conversation about the therapeutic effects of animals (and three years after the book’s publication, I still get wonderful emails from readers about it).

Have you identified your “value added” yet?



How to kill off your characters without even trying

One of the things I enjoyed most about writing my cozy Birder Murder mysteries was coming up with inventive scenarios in which my protagonist found dead bodies. Since this happened in the first chapter, the rest of the novel was a twisting path to solve the ‘why?’ and the ‘who done it?’ behind the dead body. I found that rather than making a book easy to write, starting with a victim really puts a writer under the gun…so to speak.

When it comes to developing your non-dead characters, however, there are plenty of easy ways to kill them off, even if you don’t mean to. Let’s take a look at the quickest ways to inadvertently make your characters lifeless, dull, unrealistic, and totally unengaging:

  1. Don’t let them speak. Dialogue is one of the best ways to develop your character’s character. Without dialogue, your reader gets descriptions upon descriptions of what a character thinks and does, but never an insight into actual verbal interaction with another character. Spoken language reveals nuances that make a character come alive. Does a character speak a regional dialect, peppering the conversation with unique turns of speech, or does he stutter in frustration? If your reader doesn’t ‘hear’ your character, you’re not making use of one of the five senses. Shortchange your reader of ‘listening’ and that character loses a dimension of personality, along with sympathy.
  2. Let them talk too much. We all know people who don’t let you get a word into the conversation; those are the people we try to avoid! A fictional character who does this is beyond insufferable, becoming a ‘talking head’ who drives the pace of the story to a dead stop. It’s also a classic case of telling, instead of showing. Balance action with dialogue to create a rounded character.
  3. Make them perfect! This may be the fastest route to killing a character before the story even gets started. Who cares about someone who has no faults, no misgivings, no dark sides, no shortcomings? Readers aren’t reading to learn about someone’s perfect life. Readers want to see their own failings, confusions, regrets, and wounds in a character, so they can relate and find the possibility of healing and hope in their own lives. A perfect character is flat. No one needs them…especially an author.
  4. Make them predictable. If your heroine always falls for the wrong guy, your reader will give up on her. If your hero always wins, how boring is that? If your reader knows how the book will end after reading Chapter One, why bother reading the rest? The best characters make mistakes, eventually learn from them, and become better people. (Not perfect people, per #3 above.) Great characters are works in progress, even after the last page. If your reader doesn’t imagine what happens to a character after the end of the story, that’s a sure sign the character never really ‘lived’ for the reader.

Are you creating characters that live? What are your best tips?

How to write a GREAT book

What makes a book a great read?

If someone asked me to name the best books I read in 2017, four immediately come to mind: Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, Be Strong in the Lord: Praying for the Armor of God for Your Children by Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers, and Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult.

But if you asked me why they were the best books of the year for me, I would have specific reasons for each. I choose Walker’s book because it literally changed my behavior in two ways: I now try to get more sleep to improve my health, and I refuse to drive a car if I’m in the least bit tired (yes, he scared the heck out of me with statistics!). Moore’s book impressed me deeply with its story of women who suffered terribly, yet fought industry to make it responsible for employees’ health on the job. Be Strong in the Lord deepened my faith for both my children and myself, and Picoult’s novel gave me new eyes and a new heart to confront racism in America.

These books changed my behavior and attitudes in specific, concrete ways. I am a different person because I read them.

And that is ultimately what makes a book a great read: it meets the reader where she lives, and changes her.

Book design, reviews, buzz, brilliant writing, thorough research, perfect plotting – authors dream that all those things will come together in their books to make it a bestseller, but the key to every book’s success, I believe, is in how the author connects to the reader about something important to that same reader. This means, naturally, that there exists a myriad of topics a writer can address (and they do!), which also means many – actually, probably MOST – books will never appeal to every reader, and because of that, every author needs to be mindful of the particular audience for whom they write. To best serve that audience, however, the successful author has to dig deep into his own wants and desires, unearth the most compelling, most universal, needs he can share with his readers, and then translate that into the written word.

The words “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone” are attributed to Ronald Reagan. Likewise, every book can’t be a great read for every reader, but for some reader, some book can be a great read. As you set forth on your writing journey in 2018, I hope you write that great book for some reader.

Who knows? You might even change my life.

Is it time for a marketing tune-up?

Remember all those things you were going to do this year to update and enhance your online presence, like upload recent photos, add new publication credits, revise your bio? With 2017 approaching the half-way point, here’s a checklist to remind you to take the time now to tackle that list and mark off the tasks. Not only will it make you look active and engaged, but many social media platforms automatically post to your networks the changes you make to your profile, which means you get a boost in exposure. And that’s always a score for a writer…as long as it’s good exposure, that is!

Do the following for every site you use. And if you don’t already use a particular platform, maybe it’s time to try it: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Goodreads Author (https://www.goodreads.com/author/program), amazon author (https://authorcentral.amazon.com/), various genre sites (I’m listed on mystery sites like http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/ and https://www.cozy-mystery.com/ ). As the graphic above demonstrates, there are lots more than my short list, but I’m only human, so I’ve tried to focus on just a few. All I can say is “choose wisely.” And don’t forget your own website…but you already routinely update that, right? (If you haven’t, I bet you will now…)

  • Upload new profile picture. If you don’t have a professional head shot, you need to get one. Nothing builds credibility like a polished photo on your profiles. (And yes, you need something more current than your high school graduation photo.)
  • Update bio. Have you changed your state of residence? Become a grandparent? Won awards for your work? All of these items are important, as they can attract new readers who now feel you have more in common with them, or are geographically closer (which means they could reach out to you for an event!)
  • Add publication credits (books, articles, online blogs).
  • Upload the covers of new books.
  • Update events schedule: add new, delete old. If your last event was a year ago, don’t keep it there as a placeholder. If you have to have some copy, say ‘New events coming soon!’ and then get to work planning those new activities!
  • Switch out banner backgrounds for a fresh and/or seasonal look.
  • Upload new videos.
  • Make a video to say hi to your fans. It can be super simple. Make it fun and your fans will love it.
  • Make a series of photo posts using quotes from your books for fresh content you can use and re-use. (My go-to site for this is https://www.picmonkey.com/.)
  • Enter your name in the search engine of your choice and see where it pops up. You may be listed on sites you don’t know about; until I did this search, I didn’t know my books had been entered on several mystery listing sites, which prompted me to be sure to contact those site administrators to keep my publications current. Do you write romance? Self-help? Enter your name with those keywords and see what results. You might discover a whole new audience for your work, and with a timely tune-up, you’ll be ready to roll!

Seven Essential Tips Every Successful Writer Must Apply

Fresh StartsI think every published author wishes they could go back in time to whisper in their younger self’s ear. Doing so would certainly save volumes of time and energy. I’m sure five years from now, I’d wish for the opportunity to tell today’s me something I need to know right now.

These are the thoughts rolling through my mind this new year, clean with the possibility of fresh starts. I think it’s important to slow down sometimes.

We need to reflect on the past in order to improve on the future. So I’m reminding myself of the tips I’d give my younger self, knowing I’ve let some slack, and resolving to begin again. I believe the seven following tips are essential, things every writer must know.

  1. Ray BradburyRead as much as you can. Phrases such as, “Great writers are great readers,” hold a wealth of truth. The more we study, the more prepared we are to succeed. Reading teaches us the subliminal art of sentence flow, heart tugs, and scene staging. It also shows us what to avoid, as we learn from the mistakes of others. It’s the best motivator I know.
  2. Eavesdrop. Most of my best dialogue came from listening in on someone else’s conversation in restaurants, conferences, stores, airplanes, etc. I write non-fiction, and I tell true stories or compilations based on real people, but even if I wrote fiction, I would use this technique for writing believable and fascinating statements.
  3. Listen to outsiders. The more detached someone is from you, the more objective their writing feedback is going to be. Family and friends tend to fall into two camps: they either gush over everything you write, even your sloppy first drafts, or they nitpick, make digs, or outright blast anything you pen. Make it your mission to interact with people on social media, critique groups, or professional advance readers who are willing to respond honestly.
  4. Pull on your thick skin. You might want to consider whale shark skin for this one, (estimated at 6″ thick). Just like “there’s no crying in baseball,” professional writers soon learn, no one’s handing out Kleenex around here either. When rejection stings, stiffen your spine, and pitch again.
  5. Douse distractions. It’s going to happen. Ten people want five different things from you at once. You’re working on one project, when the siren call of another beckons. But professionals know the power of tenacity — grinding your behind into the seat, tuning out the voices trying to break your focus, and writing through to the finish line.
  6. motivational quotesSet time-stamped writing goals. I’ve really let this one slip lately, and my work is showing it. But my One Word is Reset, so I am resetting my goals. The difference between a dream and a goal is a measurement. So my refreshed writing goals include a minimum of 5,000 words per week. This reasonable number allows for flexibility, while pushing me beyond a normal comfort zone. It’s doable.
  7. Touch your own heart. If I’m not passionate about what I’m writing on, why would anyone else be interested? If I’m bored, my readers will feel boredom. If I’m thrilled, my readers will feel a flutter of excitement driving them to turn the page.

The more I write, the more I question myself at times, and yet, when I go back to the basics, I find the truth, the way, and a successful writer’s life. Which brings me to a bonus secret.

Pages in a Thousand BooksI can write until my fingers are numb. I can start writing at dawn’s break, pushing until the wee hours of the next morn, but if I am not inspired, it’s all for nothing. My personal inspiration come from prayer, provision, and praise for my Maker. He’s the one who gifted and called me. This is my most powerful secret.

What inspires you to write? Do you have any tips you would whisper to your younger self?

Why you should write backstory you won’t use

cross-out-wordsA few years ago, I got the oddest suggestion I’d ever heard from an editor: write a few scenes between my novel’s characters that I wasn’t going to include in my final manuscript.

Say what?

I should deliberately spend time crafting scenes I was NOT going to use? How was that going to improve my book, writing scenes I wasn’t going to include in the final version?

Being the people-pleaser/non-confrontational  soul that I am, I didn’t question the editor’s wisdom, even though I thought it was nuts and a clear waste of time.  She was the editor, after all. She had to know what she was doing. So I sighed a great sigh of resignation and set to work writing scenes I wasn’t going to use in my book.

And lo! Before I even finished writing the first ‘unnecessary’ scene, I understood the point of the exercise: by creating more interactions between my characters, I was getting deeper into their heads and personalities. I was basically giving them a more complete personal history and backstory that would more accurately inform and motivate their actions on the pages of my novel. In other words, I was giving them life beyond the book, which would, in turn, make them very real within the book.

Crazy, huh?

Let me give you an example.

“This late-night conversation between Rafe and his mother doesn’t sound natural,” the editor said about a scene in my book. “Try writing another conversation between them that focuses on a different aspect of their relationship. Something from their past.”

So I did. I wrote a scene from Rafe’s high school football years, some 20 years prior to my book’s time frame. As I wrote, I imagined what this man might have been like before he matured, and how his relationship with his mother evolved. He was a headstrong teen then, and while he dutifully respected his mother, he couldn’t appreciate her wisdom at the time; that insight alone helped me revise the dialogue my editor had questioned in my book. It also changed the way I described the interaction between those two characters, and it influenced how I then changed Rafe’s interactions with his female colleague to better reflect his attitude towards women as learned from his mother.

Writing that little piece of personal history for Rafe was like shading in another part of a portrait or adding important information to a personality profile; because I knew his backstory better, I was then able to strengthen another scene in which he confronts a female assassin with conflicted respect, rather than brute force. My ‘unnecessary’ scene that I knew I wasn’t going to use actually helped me produce a more realistic hero.

What can I say? If ‘crazy’ works, I’ll take it. Especially when it improves my writing.

How about you? Have you found some crazy ways to improve what you write?

How to survive the book review blues

roses I have a love-hate relationship with book reviews.

Every time I get a good review, I’m happy. When I get a stellar review, I’m ecstatic. I feel like I’ve done what I hoped to do: I’ve connected with a reader and given them a journey they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. When dog-lovers tell me they laughed, cried, and were inspired by my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God, I feel blessed that my story reached and touched them. When reviewers rave that my supernatural thriller Heaven’s Gate: Archangels Book I made them want to stand up and cheer, I get goosebumps of joy.

All those multi-starred reviews on my books’ pages at amazon.com, Goodreads, or barnesandnoble.com reassure me that the hours I pour into my writing are worth it: my books entertain, educate, and illuminate, and, gosh darn, people like them.

wilted-roseAnd then there is the flip side of my love-hate relationship with book reviews.

When I get a review that says “this book wasn’t what I thought it would be about, so I stopped reading it after the first two chapters,” and therefore receives the lowest rating possible, I want to bang my head against a wall. “Then why did you bother to post a review?” I want to ask the disappointed reader, and then explain that because she mistook the book for something it wasn’t, my overall rating has plummeted, which will dissuade some readers from even reading the synopsis, let alone buying and reading the whole book.

I’ve also seen reviews that rate books poorly because the author’s basic premise contradicts what a particular reader-reviewer believes. Again, those low ratings may prevent the book from reaching the hands of readers who would appreciate and greatly benefit from it; because many people (and I’m one of them!) choose books based on others’ reviews, authors are at the mercy of those published reviews, even when they make no sense at all, or are based on the personal bias of the reviewer.

So what’s an author to do about that oh-so-necessary-but-can-be-disastrous need for reviews?

My answer can be summed up in one word: relax.

Then remind yourself of these three things:

  1. You wrote a book! So many people say they want to write a book, but you actually did it! AND it got published. Congratulations! Celebrate your accomplishment!
  2. You can’t please all the people all the time, and that’s especially true of readers. Some people just won’t ‘get’ it; others won’t like your writing style or your treatment of plot or subject. Some readers might be experiencing difficult life situations while they were reading your book and some of that negativity gets transferred to their reviewing. Bottom line: reviews are subjective, even when they intend to be objective.
  3. Your words will reach at least some of the people who need to read them, and they will bless you for it, whether or not you ever know it.

What do you do when you get the review blues?