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?

 

Writing roadblocks: Fear & Funk

StockSnap_EFNUBBALXU

In my experience, there are two roadblocks that cause a stall out when one is writing a memoir: fear and feeling stuck (or both!).

Fear:

What if I can’t do this? 

You know what? Nobody can actually write memoirs worthy of publishing right away. It takes time, work, passion, and the desire to grow in the craft. But the only way you truly can’t do it is if you don’t do it.

I don’t have a clue where to start. 

Again, few of us do. But the point is to get words down on paper (or laptop). Start at the beginning of your story. The starting place will probably change, but write something. Write a scene. An essay. Some musing. Summary. Thoughts, even if the thoughts are I don’t have a clue where to start. Once you write, you’ve started.

I’m too busy to add this to my life​. 

This is 100% true for some. It’s OK. Life will change at some point and you may be able to weave writing into your life. But a lot of times, this comment has to do with fear. If you really want to write, find time. Fifteen minutes in the morning. A half hour at night in exchange for a reality TV show (I’m obsessed with them!). Jotting down thoughts and ideas on a note pad as you wait for your kid’s soccer practice to let out. You don’t have to set aside chunks of time, but write. Find a little time. Write!

Funk:

Some authors think that writer’s block is a myth. I disagree. I think it is a real thing, but I also think that we can do a few things to attempt to loosen up our tangled creativity.

Put in the time anyway.

Set aside time for your writing. Remember Anne Lamott’s ‘butt in the chair’ admonishment from Bird by Bird? You may not actually write. You may stare off into space without one thought about your project. Just don’t give up. In order to build your writing muscles, you have to write.

Don’t let discouragement stop you cold.

​Or it will. You’re going to think your work is terrible. You’ll decide that your four-year-old can write better than you. You’ll want to give up. You might fear that someone will hear about you writing and think you are a fraud. Don’t let these things stop you. One writer said that as soon as you write, even if it is a grocery list (for the purpose of writing, not strictly to shop), you are a writer. Use your discouragement as a challenge to get better. 

Look for inspiration. 

​Read a memoir or a novel. Pick up a book on craft and read a chapter before you sit down to work. Purchase a writing course. Listen to podcasts about writing (my favorite is Between the Covers. Catchy title, right?). Look for a writing group in your town or online. Read blogs (ahem). Talk to others who write or love all things literary. ​ 

These ideas usually help me get out of my fear and funk. See what they do for you. You might just pick up your pen. 

 

Using Family Photos to Write Your Family Stories

Photo/KarenJordan

Whenever we put together our own stories and either tell them or write them for posterity, we are preserving the most central element of our own identity and value system. Who are we, apart from the people and the events about which we tell our own stories? (Donald Davis, Telling Your Arkansas Stories)

Have you ever discovered an old family picture and wished that you knew the story behind it?

The following questions might help you discover an important family story that you can share with the next generation!

People. Can you identify the people within the shot? If not, do you know anyone who can? Can you write a description of that person? Who else might have been around when the shot was taken?

Places. Do you know where the picture as taken? Can you describe the place or the area at that time? Do you know anything about the history of the area? What do you know about that area now?

Photo/Karen JordanTime. When was the shot taken? What time period? What was going on in the world at that time? What changes have taken place since that time?

Events. Do you know what event was taking place when the photo was taken? Can you tell what season of the year it was taken? What events might have been happening around that time?

Story. Does the picture remind you of a story? What came to mind as you thought about the people, places, or event that might have been taking place when the photo was taken?

Questions. You might think of even more questions that you need to ask yourself about the photo that would help you capture an important family story.

Brainstorm. Take a moment and write down your thoughts about your picture. You could even include the picture when you preserve your story—in a scrapbook, on your computer, on a blog, in a notebook … the possibilities are endless!

Legacy Stories. Don’t miss your opportunity to preserve your family history by composing a written legacy of your family stories, as you identify the details and stories represented by your family photos.

Did either of these photos remind you of a person, place, or event from your own family history?

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!

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?

Another Sacred Moment: Launching My First Book

Photo/KarenJordanIn my first post on the WordServe Water Cooler blog few years ago, I wrote about “Embracing Sacred Moments” in our lives. In that short piece, I mentioned a couple of writing firsts for me—my first contract to write an article for a well-respected publication and my first call from a WordServe agent, signing me as a client.

This month, I’m experiencing another first—the launch of my first book.

But as I prepared to write this book, a sudden and disturbing vivid memory emerged from a time when I stepped out of my comfort zone to serve. I still feel the embarrassment of that day when I helped prepare the noon meal after a revival service in my hometown church.

A million doubts and fears raced through my mind that morning. Was my skirt too short? Were my heels too high? Were my clothes too tight? Would someone ask me too much about my personal life? Why did I even come here in the first place?

Since I was the youngest and newest member of the ladies’ group helping that day, someone nominated me to pass out rolls to everyone.

I stacked the rolls high on a large platter, hoping to avoid a second trip to the kitchen. But as I pushed the swinging door open with my back, I tripped and fell to the floor, propelling everything across the room.

I can still recall everyone in the room gasping at the spectacle I had made of myself.

BookCover/WordsThatChangeEverythingAs I wrote my first book, Words That Change Everything, my old fears and worries resurfaced, reminding me of that humiliating experience. Do I dare expose more of my failures, worries, and vulnerabilities with an even larger audience? What if I make a total fool of myself again in front of my friends, family, and total strangers as they read some of my life stories?

Then, I remembered what I learned from my earlier failed attempt in serving others. Forty years after I humiliated myself in my home church, the pastor’s wife invited me to speak in that same fellowship hall at a women’s ministry event. And I shared my humiliating “tossed roll” story, revealing some of my own worries and vulnerability.

God gave me an opportunity to revisit and overcome a moment of failure in the same context and venue, four decades later, as I stood on this promise from God’s Word: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9 NLT).

So, even though I’m a little apprehensive about revealing some of my most intimate stories in my first book, I’m excited to share my story with the world—Words That Change Everything: Speaking Truth to Your Soul.

Why? Because I also believe in the power of story—as we share the stories that matter most, lives change and hearts heal.

Did my story remind you of a story in your own life?