Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Problem With Catch Phrases

My homework for my publicity class is this: “Seriously evaluate your work and look for the threads or core story that pull at your readers’ emotions on a subliminal level. Once you find it, you may have to simmer and boil your message down to get it short, snappy, and concise.”

I have a small problem.

The theme of Tall, Dark & Dead is actually one that a number of readers are reacting to negatively on A couple of reviewers have written in to say that they find the main characters somewhat (or entirely) morally reprehensible. I didn’t intend for readers to find my heroine and hero unlikable (and, it should be noted, *most* readers aren’t finding them unsympathetic), but I did want my protagonists to wrestle with a fairly hefty moral issue honestly. That is to say the theme is a prickly one: “When is killing acceptable?” I think that this bigger issue, especially when diffused by a chick-litty chatty, romance heroine, is perfectly acceptable, even laudable in a vampire novel. Vampires, after all, by their very nature, are killers. Who better to have this kind of thematic conversation with, right?


Well, it worked enough to sell the book to my editor. I mean, I feel that this kind of moral question is very effective as a theme for a novel and as a conflict for a character, but I don’t know how well it’s going to boil down into a happy, snappy catchphrase with which to brand myself. “Tate Hallaway, the funny violence philosopher!”

Somehow I’m not hearing the cha-ching of bestsellerdom with that one.

The other approach, I suppose, is to try to position myself as the vampire chick-lit lady, except that brand already belongs to a number of authors. Probably the best well known being: Charaline Harris, Kim Harrison, MaryJanice Davidson, et al. So, how do I stand out, especially when my core story is so prickly?

Even my locale has even been taken. Whereas Harris is the Southern Vampire writer, Davidson has claimed the Midwest (being from and placing her novels in Minneapolis/St. Paul). My novel takes place in the Midwest also, but in the quirky capitol city of Wisconsin -- Madison. My main character is a Witch, but then so is Kim Harrison’s. My novels have an astrological element, but it’s not terribly strong in the second book. It’s probably not enough to "brand" myself with at any rate.

You begin to see my problem?

I suspect this tendency of mine to want to write about things that… well, matter (at least to me)… continues to get me into trouble (I believe this may have been part of my downfall in my other persona). I’m difficult to “brand” because, while my themes might be universal, my answers are personal. And, not, as the reviews are showing, always entirely things people who pick up a cartoonish covered romance really want to think about.

A better person would know how to spin this. I don’t.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Astro Alert! (And a Review)

First, the important stuff:

Lunar Eclipse in Pisces
Do you have an urge to howl at the Moon? With the September 7 full Moon lunar eclipse in sensitive Pisces you may feel a bit thin-skinned. Yet, there isn’t a better time to tune into yourself and take stock of where you are and what you want. See if you can take some time away from your busy schedule. Turn off your cell phone, hire a babysitter or take a personal day from work.

Because full Moons, even lunar eclipses, represent a culmination of what you set in motion during the last new Moon, you should review what you've started since the new Moon on August 23. Between now and the next new Moon later this month, on September 22 (also the date of the autumn solar eclipse) -- get a plan together to make changes that will make you feel more comfortable.

But for now, do yourself a favor. Watch a beautiful sunset, listen to a serene piece of music or sit quietly someplace where you can hear yourself think. You’ll be glad you did!

So says

Also, Michele Hauf returned the favor and wrote a very nice review of Tall, Dark & Dead here: Have You Read This Yet?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Branding or Bondage? (Yes, This is About Writing, Not Sex)

I’m taking an online class on self-promotion from the women who run Blue Moon Communications, and the first set of lectures are all about how an author “brands” (as in builds a brand name for) themselves. If you haven’t heard of this concept, consider yourself lucky. The idea is that any product (even things like authors or museums) can benefit from the kind of advertising that works for say, Coca-Cola. A consumer is supposed to form an association with you and your work, which solidifies a particular image in their head, like when I say “McDonald’s” you think: fast, ubiquitous, cheap, and utterly evil food. Okay, you’re not supposed to think that last one, but you get the idea, right?

Lot of people buy into this idea as a good thing. When I was still working at the Minnesota Historical Society, I sat through an entire meeting devoted to getting to the core ideas MHS wanted to express as they began the process of branding themselves. My local chapter of RWA has had special lecturers come in and teach authors how to do this also.

Here’s my problem: I’m not convinced this is a good idea for authors.

However, I can see this sort of advertising working well for places like Minnesota Historical Society. Even though it might be a nebulous idea like ‘fun learning,’ what MHS produces can be distilled into sell-able concepts or information bytes.

One of our first assignments for my promotion class was to think of three well-known authors and to consider what their brand might be. All the people I could think of – Stephen King, Anne McCaffery, and J.K. Rowling – might have been “branded,” but they were also pigeonholed. Stephen King is the horror guy, Anne McCaffery is the dragon lady, and J.K. Rowling is the kid wizard woman, even though they might want to be someone else. They’re stuck delivering stories in that same niche. Not “branded,” so much as in “bondage.”

Yeah, you’re saying, but branding clearly works. Those guys are famous! I’m sure they’re crying all the way to the bank. I mean, once you’re THAT famous, presumably you are writing fulltime and may have the time to write what you want on the side under a pseudonym… or maybe you finally have enough money that you simply fall into some kind of intense bliss of uncaring joy.

I still don’t buy it.

Part of the problem is that I don’t believe this works from the ground up, only in reverse. Let me explain. Stephen King, Anne McCaffery, and J. K. Rowling didn’t set out with a brand in mind (especially King and McCaffery, they both started writing in the 1970s). They wrote what they wanted to. It just so happened that what they wrote struck a cord in the (inter)national market. They wrote what people wanted, WHEN they wanted it. By accident. Not by design. My point is, they were already bestsellers. To my knowledge, none of them set out to be the dragon lady or horror guy or the whatever babe du jour.

I’ll grant that perhaps one of the salient features of being a bestseller is writing something that’s easy branded. A simple message is a broad one. That makes sense to me.

But I’m not entirely convinced that distilling one’s own work into a sellable catch phrase is really going to suddenly translate into a broader appeal, especially when the book is already out there. The assumption is that an author continues to build their brand-name recognition with each book. This is great a great idea… if you can last that long. One of the reasons authors are so desperate to try ideas like branding, is because the reality of the book buying world is that books don’t have a very long shelf life. That, my mentors at Blue Moon would tell me, is why you brand the AUTHOR, not the book.

Again, great in theory. Let’s say an author brands herself the telepathic dolphin chick, and no one wants stories about mind-reading sea mammals? Well, then, my instructors very bluntly explain that if the books the author writes bomb, s/he needs to take on a penname and try again. You’ve effectively killed the author by branding them to the type of books that died (of course, this happens anyway, because of the way books are bought by chain bookstores.)

Whereas I can see that authors who already have established reputations can be said to have a brand, no one that I can think of has risen out of the unwashed masses by branding themselves as, say, the tarantula chick-lit writer. And I don’t know what branding yourself the sassy arachnid author gets you, other than the potential to have to be that for as long as people want stories like that and you’re forced to change your name and do it all over again.

That’s not to say that I don’t think some of the advice given as part of this whole branding idea isn’t sound. It’s perfectly reasonable to consider what your theme is and to try to have it reflected in your web presence, in print, in your professional demeanor. In a lot of ways, because the publishing industry is set up in such a way that branding is its own self-fulfilling prophesy (which is to say, you get sort of branded by the marketing department anyway, and, as I said, big chains attach your name to your sales figures so you sink or swim with your series no matter what), you might as well try to paddle the boat rather than just going along for the ride. But, I don’t think an author should fool themselves into thinking that if they can crack this mythical branding nut, they will suddenly find themselves on the New York Times bestseller list.

I really think that the only way you get to be a bestseller is by luck.

Or by magic.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Speedy, Fun Read

Michele Hauf
Silhouette Bombshell (September 2006)

In this fast-paced romantic adventure novel, it’s all about speed for Jamie McAlister, a former criminal getaway driver, who is attempting to go straight in Michele Hauf’s GETAWAY GIRL. Of course, her first pick-up for the “good guys” goes horribly wrong, and Jamie ends up entangled with sexy bad guy Sacha Vital, an expatriated American living in Paris who is trying to escape the shadow of his criminal father.

I had a great time reading this novel, even though I usually prefer romantic stories with a bit more speculative twist. This is a straight-forward action-adventure novel, but Hauf handles the plot twists and turns with the same skill as her fictional Jamie steers her “bimmer.”

Jamie is a fun heroine, very chick-litty-chatty, who creates a theme song for everyone she meets. Granted, being the old fuddy-duddy that I am, I don’t know every song she refers to, but I can usually get the gist of them from the titles. The secondary characters are likewise intriguing. I was particularly drawn to Dove, the omni-sexual information broker, and Fitch, the Southern woman-of-a-certain age hacker and Jamie’s main contact for her various driving jobs.

Additionally, I enjoyed “revisiting” Paris throughout the pages of this novel. I’ve always been a bit of a Francophile, and getting to wander the arrondissements with Jamie was a treat.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a fun, fast read.

If I may go on a small riff, however, without detracting from Hauf’s read?

[RANT] There’s a small reference when the two lovers are reminiscing about their first anonymous encounter, when Jamie says in the moment after sex, “I’d thought it was the first time in a while that I truly felt happiness, as well.” What’s up with this? It reminded me of my biggest disappointment in “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” which is that when Angel is cursed to lose his soul after experiencing one moment of pure happiness -- that one moment is after sex. It’s not that I’m a prude, or that I think that after-glow isn’t wonderful. But wouldn’t it have been nice if one rainy afternoon, while sitting on opposite ends of the duvet reading, Angel just burst into evil-Angelus?

Most of my moments of pure happiness have happened in intensely mundane moments like the one above. But, then maybe my recognition of these kinds of moments is why I’ve been in a relationship with the same person for the last twenty-one years. Of course, most romances are about first blush, not the maintenance of a two-decade (and still going!) long love. Joss Whedon, with his quirky outlook, could have pulled off an Angel-turns-bad-while-quilting moment, but I didn’t really expect one from Hauf. GETAWAY GIRL isn’t that type of book, nor should it have tried to be, but it just sparked this thought.[/RANT]