Put a dog on it: How to craft a bestseller

Every writer wants to believe that he or she can write a bestselling book.

I’m here to tell you there’s nothing wrong with believing that. I have no doubt that many times, my belief in that idea is the only thing that keeps me pounding out words on my laptop. To be completely transparent, I’ve never had a book reach the NYT bestseller list; the closest I came was learning that my memoir of dog adoption, Saved by Gracie: How a Rough-and-Tumble Rescue Dog Dragged Me Back to Health, Happiness and God, was a bestseller – at one point in time – for my publisher. Whether that one point in time was a week or a month, or even three hours, I honestly don’t know. And actually, it doesn’t matter, because the terrible truth of best-selling-ness is that it’s truly a transitory thing, as well as completely unpredictable.

As a reader, I also find that “bestseller” doesn’t necessarily predict my own evaluation or enjoyment of a book. I read plenty of books on the bestseller lists that leave me cold, to say the least. Other books I stumble across are amazing, but languish forever in No One’s Heard of It Land.

As a result, I’ve decided that I probably know as much as anyone about writing a bestseller, which is to say, no one really does know why some books win the lottery and others don’t. So the next time you’re struggling with your belief in your ability to write a bestseller, here are my tips(laughs?) to keep you moving forward:

  1. Sit down and write. Or you can stand up and write (I’ve been reading a lot lately about the health benefits of sit/stand desks). Either way, actually writing seems to be an uncontested avenue to producing a bestselling book. (Caveat: unless you’re famous, in which case you can pay someone else to do the writing and still put your name on it and get even more famous, although I think that’s kind of cheating, don’t you?)
  2. Write short sentences. Really. Bestsellers have short sentences. Like this one. If you want to write a literary novel, though, you can make the sentences as long as you like because the people who read literary novels generally read at a higher reading level and more assuredly appreciate the sheer beauty of the written language, even if they don’t have the market clout to send your book’s rating skyhigh.
  3. Use active verbs. (They even tell you this in graduate writing programs. I just saved you a ton of money and two years of your life. You’re welcome.)
  4. Put a dog on the cover of your book. Even if it’s not about a dog. Books with a dog on the cover sell better. Even the latest statistics show that dogs get more internet time than any other animal. Want attention? I’m telling you, put a dog on it.

In closing, I want to share with you the writing advice of a bestselling author named W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Happy writing!

Advertisements

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.

New Year’s resolutions…or not

Well, this is embarrassing. I thought I’d write a post about writing resolutions for a new year by reviewing my resolutions for 2017 and noting how I did.

But I can’t find my list of resolutions.

Anywhere.

So I either 1) put it somewhere I wouldn’t forget, and I’ll find it in another six months or so, or 2) the dog ate it, along with several grocery lists and the instructions for assembling my husband’s new bike, or 3) I never made a list in the first place.

I have a suspicion it’s door #3: I never made resolutions for 2017.

And here’s why:

  1. Years ago, I realized I didn’t have to wait for a new year to begin new habits or improve on old ones. Making resolutions is really procrastination, waiting for the right moment to begin a new project or make a change. Every writer I know has learned the truth – there is no ‘right’ moment to start writing. A new year is not going to magically make it happen. You just have to sit down and write. Now.
  2. Resolutions sugarcoat tough realities. Of course, a writer resolves to write a book every year. Some years, that actually happens. Yippee! Other years, that ambitious resolution gets buried by the nuts-and-bolts of marketing the last book you wrote, preventing you from even picking a topic or plot for the new book you wanted to write this year. Or you have a family crisis that demands all your attention and energy. Experienced writers know that life happens…and when it does, writing resolutions go out the window…until those same writers are ready to process what they’ve experienced and incorporate it into their next book, which may not be the next book they thought they’d be writing.
  3. Resolutions are limiting. Again, life is full of surprises, and when a writer feels tugged in a new direction, an old resolution can be inhibiting. Why keep hammering away on that novel you’ve worked over for years, when an unexpected opportunity to write (or co-write) a self-improvement book presents itself and you find yourself drawn to it? Good writers know they need to welcome growth opportunities, sometimes even before they finish old projects.

So you won’t find me writing resolutions for 2018 in the next week. Instead, I’m going to rejoice in all the satisfying things my writing life brought me in 2017: learning how to build my own website, hearing from a growing number of readers how much they enjoy my books, an unexpected nomination for a Christy Award from my publisher, invitations to speak to groups, returning to writing a blog, sharing my faith with published devotionals, and mentoring new writers.

Wait a minute. I am going to write one resolution after all. And here it is: Thank God every day for the gift of writing.

I know I can remember that. And I’ll never have to worry about the dog eating it, either…

Happy New Year, writers!

How about you? Do you make resolutions?

How to make what’s old NEW again

Memo to every writer: even if your book is years old to you, it’s new to every reader who just now picked it up.

This is why your marketing role as an author is never over: as long as your book is available somewhere, it’s going to be new to someone, somewhere. In fact, as I take a break from writing new books, I’m finding more than enough marketing to do for my old books as I reach out to new audiences. Here are three of my favorite strategies for making those old books new again:

  1. Mine the treasure trove of content that exists in others’ reviews of your books. I make it a habit now to check every few months on each of my books’ reviews page on Amazon.com, because there are still new reviews popping up on even my oldest books. A new review means I have new content to share on my social networks about the book, and since my networks continue to grow, there are always some folks who’ve missed out on posts from earlier years/reviews. It’s a simple way to give my audience another nudge towards a specific book, and it just might be the nudge that leads a reader into new genres, as well. I know my reading tastes change with time; remembering that reminds me to continue to promote my books to both old and potential new readers, and it also leads to my second strategy…
  2. Find current events or posts or trends that you can link to the topics of your books. My Birder Murder Mystery series, for example, also deals with conservation issues, so whenever something such as wind farms or habitat destruction is in the news, I can develop and share content on the topic that points readers to my books. Likewise, when neuroscience is a trending topic, I try to post a few comments about the research that went into my science-and-faith thriller Heart and Soul and then include a link to the book page. By paying close attention to what other people are talking about, I can always find something to contribute to the conversation; if it catches the interest of someone, I’ve reached another reader.
  3. Review your reviews for new keywords. As you wrote your book, you probably had certain themes or angles that you emphasized. When you read what others thought of your book, however, you might find that they zeroed in on other facets of your work. As I wrote Saved by Gracie, my memoir of adopting our dog, I was intent on telling the story of how the dog helped me overcome my anxiety issues, but after a few book reviews came in, I realized that women were responding even more to the sense of shame we carry for being depressed. That discovery three years ago redirected my marketing efforts and continues to produce new readers today.

How do you make your old books NEW?

Behind every writer…

I used to think that successful novelists and writers did all their own work; from conception to final manuscript, the individual author did it all, including research, editing, writing coach, spiritual director, personal trainer (writing a book is like a marathon in many ways!) and project manager. Then I started reading author acknowledgments at the ends of books and realized that it took almost a whole village of assistants for an author to be successful!

And so, since I am committed to transparency in my career, I confess that I, too, rely on a staff to help me produce books. Let me introduce you to Team Jan:

Eddy is my editor. His sharp eyes don’t miss much. In fact, he may be the most demanding editor I’ve ever had. After I’ve slogged and wrestled with a heartfelt devotional or a chapter of plot twists, he often wipes out what I have done with one (paw)stroke on the keyboard, requiring me to attack the material again. And without fail, I have to admit, the second version is always better. He teaches me that patience, diligence, and revision make a better writer out of a good one. I just wish he’d stop shedding so much on the keyboard.

Michael is my personal trainer. He knows that too much sitting stagnates the body and mind, so he insists on frequent breaks from writing to both tone my muscles and clear my thoughts. There’s nothing like a competitive game of tug-of-war with a 75-pound dog to take your mind off character development, and Michael makes sure I sweat through several rounds every day. Afterwards, I’m more than ready to bring a focused mind to my writing project. Or else I take a nap.

Gracie is my spiritual director. We start every day with a walking meditation and prayer that helps set my priorities for the day. Many of my best pieces of writing result from the inspiration I find while in her company; her ability to live intensely in the moment motivates me to pay attention to details in the world around me. Sometimes, she points me to hidden pathways, inviting me to stretch my horizons of experience, which then influence my writing. I try to be open to those new directions, although the one that unexpectedly dumped me into a muddy gully was not one of her better ideas.

And finally, there’s Otis, the perfect project manager. When I’m stressing about a deadline, he calms me down by modeling relaxed behavior, reminding me that too often, I’m the one putting pressure on myself to perform. His easy-going nature encourages me to take my career with a proverbial grain of salt – or in his case, with a couple of Purina Kitty Treats – because in the big scheme of things, writing is just one facet of my life. Like every good project manager, Otis knows the value of balance…and the value of a good belly rub every now and then.

Who’s on your team?