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Get Them Hooked On Your Book

A hook is a one-line zinger that describes your book in a way that would let anyone’s grandmother in Topeka understand not just what the book is about but why she should buy it.

Without one, it’s very difficult to sell a book to a publisher. That’s because the editor your agent approaches at the publishing house has to sell the manuscript to her colleagues, and the publishing house has to sell it to the reader.

The author who has just cranked out a 75,000-word manuscript may have a hard time distilling the essence of that book into 25 words. (“Hard time” may be an understatement: if you could say it in 25 words, would you have written 75,000?) But without a hook, your book could languish unpublished on your hard drive.

So how do you create a hook? Enlist some help.

Method I

First, find five or six people who are familiar with the genre you’re writing in. Give them copies of your manuscript and ask them to complete the sentence “This book is in the tradition of…” with the names of the best-selling books or authors they think are most like yours.

You can also work on this exercise yourself. Is your book a cross between two bestsellers, or even two best-selling genres? Tee Morris describes his novel Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword as “The Lord of the Rings if Mickey Spillane had written it.”

Method II

Next, find some grandmothers in Topeka and ask them to read your manuscript. (Unless, of course, the grandmothers of Topeka are the experts in the area you’re writing in; the point is to find people who know next to nothing about your subject area.)

The feedback of the totally ignorant is helpful for many reasons. For one thing, if they don’t understand the book at all, it’s a sign that your book isn’t suited to a general audience. Some books (say an advanced physics text) aren’t aimed at the general public or meant for mass-market distribution—but those books don’t usually need a hook in the same way commercial books do. Unless you’re only selling to specialists, make your writing clear enough so anyone can understand it.

Don’t provide your test readers with any background about your book; the point is to get them to tell you what the book is about. Invite them to compare it with movies, TV shows, or other works of popular culture—the more popular, the better. Another good question to ask, particularly for nonfiction, is “What can people who read this book do that they couldn’t do before they read it?”

The Results

Your test readers may not describe your book in anything like the terms you would have used yourself. It’s also possible that no two of them will agree on which other books are most like yours.

If every single reader gets your book “wrong,” then you may want to take another look at the manuscript. (This is also true if every agent or editor who rejects it mentions the same problem.) If one or two people completely misunderstand what you meant but the rest seem to “get it,” don’t worry about the discrepancies.

Distilling

It’s possible that among your test readers you had a brilliant guinea pig who came up with an absolutely perfect hook. If so—congratulations: you’re ready to go. But even if you don’t think any of the descriptions or comparisons you got back is exactly right, you have something to work with. You can look at what you’ve gotten and say “No, it’s not like Lord of the Rings, it’s more like Narnia” (to extend Tee’s metaphor a bit further). Or even, “It’s not like Lord of the Rings; it’s like The Da Vinci Code.”

When you have a hook you think will work, try it out on a few people and see how they react. If the response isn’t “Wow, that’s interesting, tell me more!” (or better yet “I need that book!”), brainstorm about how you can refine it.

When you come up with a line with the impact of a left hook to the jaw and the effect of a grappling hook pulling potential readers in, you’re ready to go fishing for publishers.

Lessons from Novelists, Part I

In many respects, the worlds of fiction and nonfiction are very different. One of the most notable differences, from the author’s perspective, is that nonfiction books are usually sold on the basis of a proposal and written afterward, whereas a novelist needs a completed manuscript before approaching publishers. (This requirement may be waived for those who have published several successful novels.)

There are some other differences, as well, the biggest being that the quality of the writing, rather than the value of the content, determines a novelist’s success. Novelists don’t necessarily have to establish themselves as experts in a particular field, but they do have to be able to create believable characters, worlds, and dialogue.

But there are some very important things that aspiring—and even established—nonfiction authors can learn from an unexpected, even counter-intuitive source: the podcasts of two science fiction/fantasy authors.

In starting with Tee Morris’  “The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy,” I’m actually approaching these two podcasts in reverse order relative to when I started listening. Tee’s is the newer podcast, with only four episodes so far—which means it’s fresher in my mind and easier to sum up in a short article.

Put Your Book on Your Business Card
These days it’s easy to get double-sided business cards printed inexpensively, and for authors, it’s definitely worth doing, particularly when you’re talking to bookstore owners, librarians, and others who might order your book in bulk. Put your regular contact information on the front and the book’s cover, ISBN, and any other important information (like the URL, if the book has its own domain). If you have multiple books, you’ll need multiple sets of cards. It’s most often the newest book you’ll be promoting at any given time, so you may not want to order too many cards at once.

What to Expect at Conventions
In the world of sci-fi and fantasy, “Cons” are a big deal. Although I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy myself, I’ve never actually attended a Con. I did once found myself in a hotel bar with a bunch of Klingons—the hotel was hosting a Star Trek convention at the same time as the conference I was there for.

While Cons of this sort may be unique to genre fiction, every industry has its conferences and expos, and professional organizations of all descriptions have annual meetings. The 2005 Portable Media Expo and Podcasting Conference found itself side-by-side with a Port-a-Potty convention. Whatever you write, you have readers (or at least potential readers) at conferences and conventions. If you speak on a panel or lead a workshop at one of those conventions, you’ve got a great opportunity to market yourself and your book.

Some of Tee’s points about Cons:

  • Decide how far you’re willing to travel.
  • Follow up repeatedly on your original approach to the program organizers.
  • Don’t expect the show’s organizers to pay all your expenses unless you’re a Big Name.
  • Do expect to get your admission to the event covered.
  • Conference organizers talk to each other, and if you behave badly, your chances of getting invited to present at other events is very small.
  • Make arrangements for separate events with local bookstores ahead of time (and be sure they have your books in stock in case you haven’t brought enough yourself).

How to Arrange Bookstore Signings
First, a warning: if you’re self-published, the chances a large chain bookstore will be interested in stocking your books are very small. Therefore, the chances that Barnes and Noble and Borders will want you to come give a talk or do a signing are very small, and unless you already know the staff personally, don’t waste your time on them. Instead, find local independent bookstores and local public libraries.

Then call the bookstore and ask for the person who arranges events, then provide that person with the title and ISBN of your book and the name of your distributor. (Even for independent bookstores, you do need an ISBN and a distributor.) Offer to do a signing/reading/seminar. (For non-fiction, seminars and lectures are probably more effective than straight readings.)

How to Approach Reviewers
The fourth podcast in the series focuses on getting—and writing—book reviews, online and off, with the always-important reminder to check the submission guidelines before you send a book, and some tips on what to put in the cover letter and when and how to follow up.

Never Talk Back to Reviewers
Ever. Even if they get the facts wrong. If you get a bad review, live with it. This is not just because all publicity is good publicity, but because any response to the reviewer, public or private, is only going to make you look worse. On top of that, it could alienate the reviewer and the editor of the publication s/he writes for, making your chances of getting your other books reviewed there nil. (This is actually a recap of part of Episode I.)

How to Create a Good Podcast
Tee is actually one of the authors of Podcasting for Dummies, but I’m actually referring to the example he provides. “The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy” is a great promotional tool for Tee as well as a source of useful information for writers of all kinds. It helps, of course, that he’s a trained actor with a great voice for radio, but that wouldn’t matter much without the effective structure, valuable information, sense of humor, refusal to “dish”, and desire to hear more from his listeners. He’s even slipped a “commercial break” into the middle of the show in a non-disruptive way. The “commercials” are for other sci-fi podcasts, so they’re appropriate to the subject of the podcast and actually likely to be of some interest to listeners.

I’m not sure I’d recommend imitating the Marine Corps/Gomer Pyle intro, which sounds longer every time I hear it, even though it’s actually well under 30 seconds.

Where to Find “The Survival Guide
To read about “The Survival Guide,” visit http://www.teemorris.com/blog/. To subscribe, paste the following address in your podcatcher: http://feeds.feedburner.com/TheSurvivalGuideToWritingFantasy.

In Part II of this article, we’ll look at “The Secrets: The Podcast for Writers,” by Michael A. Stackpole.

© 2005 Sallie Goetsch