Keeping Readers Engaged

© Can Stock Photo/ sjenner13

We’ve all experienced it. We start reading a novel that got off to a great start. Then we lost interest. My mother was one of those readers who would plow through to end, no matter what. Even if the book was genuinely awful. Me, not so much. Life is too short to waste on a poorly written story.

Keeping readers engaged can be a challenge. Even the best conceived story ideas are useless if your novel becomes slow and boring.

Pacing is an important part of good storytelling. However, excessive back stories, boring or redundant dialog, and trivial details can slow your pace to a crawl. Once the reader loses interest, you’re done. A bored reader will toss your book aside and never come back. So, how do you keep the middle of your story interesting? Here are a few suggestions.

Backstories should only be revealed on a need to know basis

I only include those backstories which are relevant and move the story forward. Then I typically reveal them through dialog. The rest of my backstory remains in my notes.

If it’s been said once it may not need to be repeated

Your character has told another character that his mother died in a car crash. He doesn’t need to repeat himself. If it comes up again, consider using it in the narrative. For example, “as she hit the accelerator, he reminded her about his mother.” Inserting redundant dialog would have ruined a fast-paced narrative. But what if he needs to tell his story to a different character? Consider adding a spin. His mother was driving drunk.

Fine details aren’t always useful information

Readers don’t care if your character is wearing a blue dress or a green dress, or if it has buttons or pockets. Detailed descriptions are only necessary when they enhance the story. For example, “Her royal blue dress with the lace trim would show off the diamond pendant perfectly. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends Jake had given it to her.” Boom. That’s all the reader needs to know. Leave the rest of the details to their imagination, and move on.

I think of each chapter as an episode to move the plot forward. It should reveal a character’s motives, or emotions, or something we didn’t know before. If a scene, or even an entire chapter, doesn’t enhance the overall story I’ll delete it. Each chapter, and scene, needs a purpose. If it doesn’t, then it’s nothing more than filler material which will bore the reader, and the last thing you want is for the reader to toss your book aside and leave a bad review.

Gayle Martin

The Trouble with Twitter

© Can Stock Photo/
ShutterM

I wrote my first book when social media was still in its infancy. MySpace was the big kid on the block, and all the book marketing experts were telling authors to embrace social media to promote their books. Among the recommended social media networks was one called Twitter.

Twitter Then

Twitter was a very difference place back then. It was for posting, “mini blogs.” It’s purpose was, “to let your friends know what you’re doing.” A typical tweet was something like, “Taking the kids to the park. TTYL.” Back then tweets were limited to 140 characters, so to me, Twitter was more of a bulletin board. Let’s face it. It’s kind of hard to engage with people with only 140 characters.

One of my author friends showed me how to use Twitter to drive traffic to my blogs. She introduced me to Hootsuite. Hootsuite could shorten my blog link, making it easier to to stay within the 140 character limit. I could also schedule my tweets to post on a day and time of my choosing. It worked. In less than 30 minutes, I could set up tweets to post throughout the day, and it really increased my blog traffic.

Twitter Now

Things change over time, and Twitter was no exception. I write contemporary romance novels, (under the pen name Marina Martindale.) I keep politics out of my books and out of my blogs. In fact, I write my books for people who want to take a break from politics. Twitter, however, was becoming more political and increasingly hostile. I still used it to drive traffic to my blogs, and while my number of Twitter followers increased, my blog stats showed significantly less traffic coming from Twitter. So as Twitter becomes more controversial, I keep wondering how much longer will it be of benefit to me?

For now I’m staying with it. However, the jury is still out. Most of my blog traffic now comes from Facebook, but about the time I’m ready to give up on Twitter someone retweets one of my tweets, so who knows? I suppose time will tell.

Gayle Martin

 

Consistent Book Cover Design

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, building your own unique brand as an author is essential. For those of us who’ve written more than one book, this includes having consistent covers. After all, what’s the first thing a potential reader sees? Your book cover.

Five Star Publications, Inc., published Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Luke and Jenny Visit Tombstone, the first title of my Luke and Jenny series of historical novels for young readers, back in 2006. As publisher, Five Star took care of the cover design. The illustrator and cover designer created a beautiful book cover, and I was quite pleased with it.

Unfortunately, when the time came to publish my second book, Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War: a Luke and Jenny Adventure I found out that the person who designed and illustrated the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral cover was no longer available. Thankfully, we were able to find another illustrator with a similar drawing style. However, no two artists are exactly the same. I loved the Billy the Kid cover illustration, but it didn’t match the O.K. Corral illustration closely enough to make the two books look related. I now had to make a decision. I could either have a book series with one cover which looked like it didn’t belong, or I could have the original Luke and Jenny book cover redone with a new artwork from the new illustrator. I opted for the latter. It really was my only option.

My covers were now consistent, which, in turn, made it that much easier to build my brand.

A few years later I published updated editions of the Luke and Jenny series, this time with my own publishing company, Good Oak Press, LLC. I could have redesigned the covers with new illustrations, but opted not to. My brand had been well established by then, and other than new ISBN numbers, and some minor copy editing, the books were essentially the same as the Five Star editions. The only change I made was to add the brown borders to distinguish them from the earlier Five Star series.

After completing my Luke and Jenny series I changed genres and started writing fiction for adult readers. This meant starting all over from scratch and building an entirely new brand, including creating a pen name, Marina Martindale, but the same rules for my covers applied. While I now write stand alone novels, I still work with Wes Lowe, who did the Luke and Jenny cover illustrations, and I still have consistency in the cover designs. It’s all about building your brand.

Gayle Martin

 

 

Stock Photos and Book Cover Design

Cover photo by Rob Resetar

I often see discussions from first timer authors in online forums or Facebook groups talking about book cover design. Some post about how easy and convenient it was to use stock photos for their book covers. Others think royalty free means copyright free. Some even think they can just Google the type of photo they’re looking for and download it for free.

The problem with royalty free stock photos

Stock photos are easy to find and relatively cheap. I frequently use them on my blogs because I don’t always have the time to go out and shoot my own photos. However, royalty free doesn’t mean the photo is free. You pay a one time licencing fee, and the fee may vary, depending on how the photo will be used.

The problem with stock photos is that you don’t buy exclusive rights. Other people can and do use the same photo you’re using, and this could include other authors using the same photo for their book covers. Imagine going to a book festival and seeing another author signing a book with the same cover photo you’re using. Yikes!

If it’s on the Internet it doesn’t mean it’s public domain.

There are people out there who honestly believe that publishing a photo online automatically makes it public domain. Therefore, they can download it for free and use it as they wish. WRONG! While I’m not an attorney, nor am I giving legal advice, it’s common knowledge that the rights to the photo belong to the person who took the photo. Therefore, if you use someone else’s photo without their permission, you could, potentially, find yourself in serious trouble. And who needs that kind of the grief? So, when in doubt, find out who the photographer is, and get their permission to use the photo.

My best advice would be to take the photo yourself if you possibly can. However, if you don’t have the skills to do so, or if the photo needs to be taken at a distant location, consider hiring a photographer to shoot the photo for you. If budget is an issue then ask around. Many of us have friends or family members who are into photography and who would be honored if you were use one of their photos for your book cover. Most colleges and universities offer photography classes, and students will oftentimes jump at the chance to do a paying assignment. Use a stock photo only as a last resort.

And one final note. Whether you are using a friend’s photo, or hire a professional photographer, be sure to have the photographer sign a release form granting you permission to use their photo, even if they’re letting you use their photo for free. Stuff happens, and you can find release form templates online.

The book cover I’ve included is one I designed for another author. I’m a photographer as well as an author, but none of the photos in my library were what I was looking for, so I asked a photographer friend. He had the perfect photo in his library.

Gayle Martin

 

Are You Posting Your Politics?

© Can Stock Photo/
ShutterM

Nowadays many people express their political views all over social media, regardless of whether or not an election is coming up. I understand freedom of speech, and you certainly have the right to express yourself. However, there may be unintended consequences.

Why political posts on social media is a bad idea for novel writers

Social media is an invaluable marketing tool for authors. It’s the best platform we have for driving traffic to our websites and blogs and building our brands. It takes a lot of time and effort to build a following, as in months, or even years. So why, after doing all this hard work, would you want to risk alienating your fans and followers?

If you’re a political writer then you’re the exception. Political topics are  what your readers expect. However, many of us are not political writers. If you write novels, short stories or other creative fiction, and your sole purpose is to entertain you reader, then you may want to think twice about posting your politics on social media.

The risk you take

I make no claims of being mathematician or a statistician. However, I think it’s a safe bet to say that roughly half of your fans and followers don’t share your political views. It doesn’t matter if you’re conservative, liberal or libertarian. They don’t share your views. Nor will you get them to change their minds.

If you’re all over social media bashing conservatives, or liberals, or their candidate, then you risk alienating roughly half your fan base. No doubt these fans will unfriend or unfollow you on social media. They may also unsubscribe to your blogs and newsletters. Most importantly, they may stop buying your books. If you made them angry enough they may even leave scathing reviews. So, before writing that political post, ask yourself this question. “Do I really want to lose half my fans?”

I’m sure some of you are so passionate about your beliefs that you don’t want people who disagree with you buying your book in the first place. If so, it’s certainly your prerogative. However, I think most of us don’t want to lose any of our fan base. I know I don’t.

Yes, they will unfriend you

I’ve unfriended many people on Facebook because of their political posts. This includes unfriending fellow authors. Some of their posts were so hateful it was shocking. Others were people I’ve known for years. Unfriending them made me feel truly sad. However, I’m tired of all the hate. I’m tired of all the negativity, Most of all, I’m tired of all the mean spiritedness and the divisiveness. It’s put me in a place where I’m seriously reevaluating some of my friendships.

I guess I must be old school. I’ve always subscribed to the notion that who I vote for is for me to know, and the rest of you to wonder about. 

Gayle Martin

Lessons Learned from Self-Publishing

I’ve recently moved to a new state, and while I was unpacking, I found a copy of my very first book. It was a historic cookbook titled Anna’s Kitchen. I’ve learned a lot writing and publishing since then, and I’ve done my best to share what I’ve learned with the rest of you.

I published Anna’s Kitchen in 2005. I was such a smart-alec at the time that I thought I knew everything. I did have one advantage though. I’d been freelance graphic designer for years. Therefore, I already knew how to typeset and how to design an interesting book cover. Unfortunately,  I didn’t know squat about editing, distribution, or marketing. So, here are the lessons I learned from self-publishing.

  1. A spell checker is not a substitute for an editor, or a proofreader.
  2.  You need to work with Ingram if you want your books distributed properly.
  3. Five-hundred books takes up a lot of space.
The Luke and Jenny Series

The following year I met Linda Radke, owner of Five Star Publications, Inc. Linda published my second book, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Luke and Jenny. Visit Tombstone. It would be the first in my Luke and Jenny series of historical novels for young readers. Linda was more than my publisher. She was also a mentor. The final book of the series, Riding with the James Gang: a Luke and Jenny Adventure, was published in 2010. I was now ready to change genres and start writing novels for adult audiences. At the same time, however, Linda was changing her business model to specialize in publishing children’s books. (Her company is now called Story Monsters, Inc.) We talked it over, and she honestly thought I was ready to start up my own publishing company, which I did. My publishing company is called, Good Oak Press, LLC.

Looking back, I have no regrets. With Anna’s Kitchen I learned, firsthand, how much work goes into publishing a book. Good Oak Press later published a new edition of Anna’s Kitchen titled Rosie’s Riveting Recipes, along with new, updated editions of the Luke and Jenny series. I’m also writing, and publishing, contemporary romance novels as Marina Martindale. 

Gayle Martin 

Rejection Letters Are No Badge of Honor

© Can Stock Photo / stuartmiles

I enjoy talking with prospective authors. However, when a first-time author brags about all the rejection letters they’ve received, it gives me pause for thought. While they’re busy collecting rejection letters, their manuscripts sit around collecting dust. Months, even years may go by without them ever being read.

Don’t be a naive newbie

As stated in my article, The Author Myth, six-figure advances, and becoming famous, is more myth than fact. The is especially true for first time authors. About the only exception is if you already happen to be a famous a celebrity. Then the publisher will not only publish you, they’ll hire a ghostwriter to write your book for you. However, if you’re an unknown, you’re out of luck. The odds of a major publishing house buying your manuscript, and you becoming rich and famous, are about as good as going to Hollywood with no prior acting experience, walking into a motion picture studio, and landing a starring role in a feature film.

This is why I never bothered playing the rejection letter game. Life is simply too short for this kind of nonsense. I’ve also heard similar stories about trying to find an agent. While I’m sure there are plenty of good literary agents out there, far too many are full of more you-know-what than the Thanksgiving turkey. I hear the same story, over and over again. “I emailed a query to an agent. They got back with me right away and wanted to see my manuscript, but it’s been ages, and I haven’t heard from them since. So when will they get back with me?”

Um…they’re not.

As I mentioned before, I have better things to do than waste my time playing games because I want to get my books in reader’s hands. So, when I first started out in the writing business, I began with partnership publishing.

What is partnership publishing?

Partnership publishing is when you take control and pay someone to publish your book. You may think it’s vanity publishing, but it’s actually not. It’s a business decision. It means you believe in your work enough that you’re willing to invest your own money into it. Most importantly, you retain the rights to your work instead of selling them to a publisher. With partnership publishing, the publisher does the formatting, cover design, printing and distribution, much like a traditional publisher. However, your book is usually published in weeks instead of years, and a publishing partner won’t drop you if your book fails to meet their expectations.

Please be aware that there are good and bad partnership publishing companies out there, so it’s best to do your homework first. Writer Beware is an excellent resource for finding out whose business practices are questionable. You’ll also want shop around for the best price and be sure to ask about distribution. If they’re not distributing through Ingram or Baker & Taylor, or both, you may have trouble getting your book into bookstores or libraries.

What about self publishing?

Self publishing is certainly a viable option. However, there is a lot of work involved. You, the author are responsible everything. Writing, editing, proofreading, cover design, the ISBN number, publishing, ebook formatting, distribution and marketing. If you know someone who knows the business and is willing to mentor you, great. Otherwise you really need to do your homework. I self published my very first book. I’d never done anything like it before, so let’s just say it was a very humbling experience. I used a partnership partner for my next book, and it was money well spent. Working with her taught me the business. Later on, when I was ready, I created my own publishing company.

 

And finally

A reputable partnership publisher probably won’t accept a poorly written book, so make sure you’re using proper grammar and punctuation, and that your story is well told. You’ll also need to have your book professionally edited.

So, it’s up to you. Do you spend the next few years collecting rejection letters? Or do you want to take control of your destiny and get your book into the hands of readers? The choice is yours.

Gayle Martin

Creating the Perfect Storm

© Can Stock Photo/ rozum

An essential element of writing fiction is to create an intense climax. It’s the “OMG!” moment readers expect, and like any other part of fiction writing, creating a page turning, believable climax takes some skill.

Set the stage properly

Introduce the conflict early in your story, and start out small. I write contemporary romance, ( as Marina Martindale), so my conflicts begin as seemingly everyday occurrences. Someone meets a stranger who seems familiar, but they can’t place them. Someone has fallen on hard times and has to do a job they don’t want to do. Someone stumbles across something which looks incriminating about someone they know. From there you add more tension and conflict and build your story.

How to Create the Perfect Storm

As you build up the tension there will come a point when it needs to be released. This is where the real fun begins. The following is my formula, and I find it works well.

  • I begin by putting my protagonist(s) in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I don’t make it obvious. My locations have included a courthouse in the middle of a busy workday. A resort hotel on a busy night. A character’s backyard on a beautiful fall day. Wherever it is, I make it the last place where the characters would expect something to go wrong.
  • I try to involve as many cast members as I can. The more people on the scene when it all hits the fan, the more potential for things to happen. Most importantly, I make sure everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong.
  • Miscommunication adds to the drama. Phone batteries go dead, urgent messages aren’t delivered, rumors get started and misunderstandings abound. Someone will inevitably get the wrong information and draw the wrong conclusion.
  • I break up the action as much as I can. If more than one character is involved, I’ll end one scene with a cliffhanger, such as a character waiting for help to arrive, and jump over to another character and draw them in. Or I may go to a character who doesn’t know anything is wrong, and they’re not knowing adds to the overall tension. Breaking up the action while everything falls to pieces creates more suspense and keeps the reader engaged.
  • Timing is everything. I don’t want my climax to end too quickly, nor do I want it to drag on too long. Each story I write is different, so I rely on my own intuition. Typically, my big climax scenes go for two to three chapters. It all depends on how complex the scene is, and how many characters are involved.

So there you have it. The more things go wrong, the more suspenseful, and dramatic, your climax will be, and the more it will engage your reader.

Gayle Martin

 

You Only Have Ten Seconds

So you’d better make them count
© Can Stock Photo/ stillfx

You have about ten seconds to capture a reader’s interest. Ten seconds. So my advice is to make them count. People have short attention spans, and social media is making them even shorter. This means you, the novel writer, had better grab their attention fast. If you don’t hook them within those first few seconds, they are far more likely to toss your book aside.

I think of my opening sentences as, “Lights, camera, action!” I always start with an action narrative. Nothing overly dramatic, such as explosions going off, but with something interesting enough to intrigue the reader so he or she will want to learn more. So, how do I do this? I write an opening sentence that creates tension, and I’ll use the first sentences from some of my Marina Martindale novels as examples.

Strong opening sentences

Rosemary McGee had the next traffic light perfectly timed until a car from the other lane suddenly cut in front of her minivan.

Well, I’m sure that got your attention. What happened next? Did she have a accident? You’ll have to read more to find out.

My openings aren’t always this dramatic, but even if the opening subject matter is more mundane, I can still create tension in my first line.

Emily St. Claire reached for another tissue to dab the sweat off her forehead and grab her water bottle, but the once-cold liquid had turned lukewarm.

Well, that certainly feels uncomfortable. So where is Emily? And why is it so hot? Again, you have to keep reading to find out more.

Opening lines and your characters

No doubt you’ve noticed I’ve included a character’s name in these opening lines, and you certainly want to start introducing your characters as soon as possible. However, you don’t necessarily have to include them in the opening sentences, nor does the opening line have to be about a lead character. Rosemary was actually a supporting character. My lead character is introduced a few sentences later when Rosemary asks her if she’s okay. Emily, on the other hand, is the lead character. My stories are all different, so my openings are different as well.

A descriptive opening line

Some authors like to begin their stories with a descriptive narrative of where the story takes place. However, you still need to create some tension. An opening paragraph that’s nothing more than a flowery, detailed description of the scenery without any action or tension is less likely to capture the reader’s attention. So unless something really interesting happens within the next paragraph or two there’s a good chance the reader will set the book aside. My advice is to end that fluffy narrative with something to suggest things aren’t quite as peachy as they appear. Here is a descriptive opening from another Marina Martindale novel.

The moonlight reflected off the snow-covered mountains, creating a dreamy, picturesque landscape, which could easily hide a deadly hazard.

Yikes! So what kind of hazard could be hiding there? Again, you have to read more.

Remember, when writing fiction, the conflict drives the plot, so you want to create as much tension as you can. The sooner you start creating the tension, the quicker you’ll draw your reader in.

Gayle Martin, aka Marina Martindale

Author Business Cards

an overlooked book marketing tool

© Can Stock Photo / iqoncept

The lowly business card. One of the most overlooked, and underused, tools in an author’s promotional arsenal.

I studied graphic design in college, and one of my instructors taught us to think of a business card as a billboard in miniature. It’s an advertisement for the product or service you represent. Sadly, too many people don’t see it that way. Many of the business cards people hand me are so poorly done I want to dump them in the recycling bin. Honestly, it’s not hard to design a professional looking business card that helps promote your book. (Or your product or service.) 

Use easy to to read serif fonts

You want your message to be understood. Therefore, it needs to be easily read. As a graphic designer, I suggest using serif fonts. Serif fonts are easier to read than sans serif fonts. Common serif fonts include Times New Roman, Baskerville, Century Schoolbook and Garamond. All are attractive and easy to read. I highly recommend using them for your most important information, such as your name, phone number and email address. If a fancy, decorative font makes this information too hard to read, your card may end up in the trash.

Use a light colored text on dark backgrounds

Someone once handed me a business card with tiny red text on a dark brown background. Both colors had the same value, meaning there was no contrast between them. This made her phone number and email address unreadable, so her card went into the trash.

If you must use a dark background, use a light color for your text, such as white or yellow. Ideally, you should use a light background with black or navy blue text. Light texts on dark backgrounds are hard on the eyes.

Keep the font size to a 9 point minimum

I’ve been frustrated to no end trying to decipher phone numbers and email addresses printed with a 6 point, or smaller, font. Even with my strongest prescription glasses, the type is too small for me to see clearly. My graphic design instructors taught me that any font size smaller than 9 points is very difficult for people to read. If I can’t read it, the card goes into the  wastebasket. No exceptions.

Don’t be cheap

I get it. Money is an issue for many of us. However, you want to avoid cutting costs on your business card. A cheap looking card makes you look, well, cheap, and no one wants to do business with someone who looks like they don’t have any money.

One of the biggest no-nos is printing out your business cards at home. I recall a business association meeting where someone asked the woman sitting next to me for her card. She smiled and proudly handed that person a home printed printed card. The person she gave it to responded with, “Oh, I see you’re using Papers Direct.” That was it. She was done. What could have been a good business lead instantly went sour. Don’t be that woman. A homemade business card makes you look like a rank amatuer.

Be careful with online templates

Online business card templates have become popular with those on a budget. However, other people are using the same template too. I have, on occasion, ended up with identical business cards from different people in different occupations who used the same background template. This made it all too easy for me to pull up the wrong card. If using an online template keep it simple, and stay away from the artsy fartsy Vista Print background templates with all the flowery swirls. 

The best design for author business cards 

For you authors out there, I recommend a designing simple card, with your book cover or logo, along with your name, website and contact info. A plain white, ivory, or pastel background should work just fine. If your budget is small there are plenty of online printing companies, such as PrintingForLess.com, who can print 500 4-color cards for around $50, including shipping. If needed, they can also help you design your cards.

Remember, your business card represents you. Oftentimes it’s the first thing people will see about you, and you want to give them the best impression you possibly can.

Gayle Martin