Tragic Queen, Best History Lesson Ever

Désirée Clary by François Gérard (1810)

Désirée Clary by François Gérard (1810)

I grew up in Sweden and like many writers, I have always been a voracious reader. Luckily, my mom is also a book addict and happily enabled her daughters addiction.

My favorite stories were about human connection. Relationships between siblings, strangers, and soul mates fascinated me equally. I don’t remember the first romance novel I read, but I do remember shocking my seventh-grade history teacher by my extensive historical knowledge of how the current ruling family of Sweden was founded. All the kids in my class knew the event took place in 1818 by a French general named Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte.  And that he changed his name to Charles XIV John when he was elected heir presumptive to the Swedish throne. (The royal family was dying out.) We learned those details from our textbook.

But I was the only student who rambled on about his queen, Desideria, and the challenges she faced when she first arrived at the Swedish court. I knew she’d once been the fiancée of Napoleon Bonaparte and that her real name was Bernadine Eugénie  Désirée Clary. I knew she was heartbroken when she had to leave Paris and go live in the cold north. I knew she found her new country chilly both in terms of the climate and the court’s opinion of her.

My extensive historical research came from only one book. In my mom’s library, I’d discovered Désirée by Anne Selinko. This 1952 melodramatic historical romance chronicles Désirée’s many tragic love affairs and unjust treatment by her indifferent husband and the snobbishness of the Swedish court. Although very one-sided, completely from the perspective of the queen, I ate it up. I didn’t even mind that the book was published twenty years before I was born.

If the melodramatic early teen-aged version of myself hadn’t sympathized with the Désirée character in Anne Selinko’s book, I’d remember as much about Charles XIV John’s reign as I do the other kings’ history that we covered in class that year—nothing. Not because I don’t like history—I do—and not because I had a bad teacher—my history instructor was my favorite and very good at his job. I just didn’t connect with the dull rendition of biographical details of the characters in my history book.

That’s why I read and write romance. I love the human struggle of the characters on the page and how readers connect and relate to the people in a novel. Without that connection, there is no story for me and the book won’t hold my interest. On the flip side, when I fall in love with a character and a plot, I’m likely to ramble on about it in to my teacher in history class, to strangers in the grocery store check-out line, and apparently—decades later—to distinguished readers of a blog dedicated to writing and publishing romance.

I leave you with Kid Snippets “Wedding Jitters.” It’s happily ever after imagined by two young girls and acted out by grownups, using the kids’ voice overs.

In each little girl there lurks a storyteller…

For this girl, it started with a love of reading from an early age.  I didn’t learn to read easily.  My mother had been a first and second grade teacher for nine years before I was born.  She often quipped that I was the only child she couldn’t teach to read.  Between second and third grade, I spent one summer going weekly to visit a very nice reading teacher, Mrs. Hayes.  One of the drills I remember the most was speed reading.  At such an early age, it was a skill that paved the way for a love of reading into adulthood.

That same year, my mother gave me Little House on the Prairie to read on an airplane ride to Hawaii.  I devoured the book and my mother ended up buying me the entire series, which then had to be divided up among the family luggage to get back home.

My family had a love of fishing, hunting, camping and skiing.  There was always a lot of down time and before one of these “puppies in the whelping pen” camper and later motor home claustrophobic experiences, we’d go to the bookstore where each of us could get four or five books for the trip.  The memories are still so vivid, I can tell you which books I read for certain trips.

Fishing at Paulina Lake equaled three Choose Your Own Adventure books by RA Montgomery.

Fishing at The Chewaucan River equaled Anne of Green Gables.

And most impressive of all, while my family was duck hunting at Summer Lake outside of Paisley, Oregon, I got a good look at a romance novel for the very first time.  It was my mom’s copy of Vows by LaVyrle Spencer.  I was thirteen, but Mom told me I probably wouldn’t like it.

 Au contraire mon cheri!!!  I read it, I loved it!

The next time we went to a bookstore, I bought Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

At the ripe age of fourteen, I tried to write a manuscript, a young adult mystery about a brother and sister, named Sam and Laura Carson.  I wrote it long hand and finished it on a pheasant hunting trip to a place called Cow’s Hollow near the Idaho border.

I sometimes think books were the drug I used to deal with all the fishing and hunting around me as the only thing I can really stomach killing is my competition and fictional antagonists.  I remain, aside from my beloved sister-in-law, the only member of my family not to hunt.

It wasn’t until two years after my divorce that I accidentally got reacquainted with my old friend, writing.  A friend suggested that I journal my feelings about my divorce from the abusive alcoholic ex-husband.  My mind was having a hard time dealing with the fact that no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors in anyone’s marriage.  In this case, my ex enjoyed telling me that no one would believe me and that he was the voice of reason.  If only I would listen to him, we could be happy…

The journaling experiment lasted about a page.  I started referring to the journal as ‘the book of hate’.  A year later, I had a draft for The Voice of Reason, the story of a woman who murders her famous, marriage counselor ex-husband and gets away with it.

Scenes from that manuscript have finaled in five contests, including two 1st Places.

And when I read my ex-husband’s obit a few years ago, I called the medical examiner to make sure he died of natural causes.   (Rest assured:  He did.)

The bottom line is this:  Writing is always there to help me through good times and bad.  I am beyond lucky to have found such a wonderful passion.  And the best part, other writers not only understand that passion, they have a form of it themselves.

The Curvy Road from Romance Resistance to Minion Membership

I am the last person I thought would have bookcases full of romance novels.

The first romance novel I ever read was AWFUL. That is worth repeating, AWFUL. My naive self got my hands on what I now know is a traditional bodice ripper. But to a tween, it had pirates on the cover and even though I didn’t understand why they were hugging, I thought the book would be a great adventure. Wrong. This is the story in a nutshell: A young woman is kidnapped, along with her maid, by an evil pirate, who takes them back to his island and holds them captive for years. Her only comforts are the love of her child and the thought that her dashing young husband would come and rescue her one day. Then, 250 pages later, that day finally arrives. The husband finds the island, defeats the evil pirate and at long last sails off into the sunset… with the freaking maid. The book’s hero actually leaves his wife on the island with the child she bore to the pirate. Her final thoughts were that at least she had the love of her child. The day I read that book’s final page I could have been a major league baseball pitcher with the speed and accuracy in which I hurled that book against the wall.

But with my natural disposition towards Happily-Ever-Afters, my friends tried to get me to read another romance novel and my responses were always visceral, hands up in protest, head shaking repeatedly, eyes piercing with deadly intent and sometimes even walking away from the scene. I was sticking to novels with cute puppy dog covers.

 Sherrilyn  Kenyon and me at the San Diego Comic ConventionSherrilyn Kenyon and me at the San Diego Comic Convention

Let’s call it divine intervention but years later, somehow a romance slipped into my hands, Night Play by Sherrilyn Kenyon and my beliefs about the romance genre changed overnight. I had never read anything like it. Her Dark Hunter series has Greek Gods, sexy heroes, sassy heroines, humor mixed in with action and the message that true love conquers all. She is so popular that her fans don’t consider themselves part of a club; they consider themselves her “minions” and show up to her events in supportive attire. It’s a fabulous spectacle.

I fell in love with her books. I suspect it’s the same feeling that everyone gets once they connect with a book that means more to them than the mere words on the pages. It’s the reason why readers sacrifice sleep at night just to read one more chapter. It’s the reason why authors speak of their characters as if they are real people. And in my case, it’s the reason why everyone on my 2005 Christmas list got a copy of one of her books because I wanted everyone to have those warm fuzzy feelings.

In the end, everyone’s path to this genre is different and my destination included a long layover in a buzzkill terminal. I sincerely hope you were able to arrive to the romance community much sooner than me.

From Frank to Nora & Charlaine

Frank_Nora_Charlaine

Like most of my writing peers, my mother would disappear into her favorite reading spot and chew through Harlequin Presents books like Dove chocolate bonbons. To this day I don’t know where she hides them all and to be honest, I never looked.

I was a Sci-Fi girl.

It was Star Wars that brought me to sci-fi. My uncle, another avid reader in my family, took all us kids to see Star Wars at the local cinema. The theatre was packed and we ended up having to sit in the front row. I still remember that opening scene where the star destroyer cut like a knife through the inky black of outer space. I was completely awe struck and HOOKED!

David Lynch’s Dune movie, starring Kyle MacLachlan and STING, led me to Frank Herbert’s books and I pretty much stayed stuck there until after college.

Flash forward to post college and my first corporate job. (For some reason, my day jobs have always required loads of travel. I guess that’s what happens when your main prayer from childhood through college was to see the world on someone else’s dime…) A thriller and mystery loving coworker, Tara, and I snuck away from a conference we were coordinating in Phoenix, AZ. We snagged one of the rental cars and drove straight to The Poisoned Pen Bookstore. I was still exclusively a Sci-Fi girl. I had no clue about mysteries beyond Murder She Wrote. Tara and The Poisoned Pen staffer recommended a new series by J.D. Robb and I picked up the first book: Naked in Death. The series’ world reminded me of Blade Runner and I read the first six or seven books before starting my first manuscript.

I had no clue that I was writing a futuristic romance. Plus, I was Sci-Fi girl, so I didn’t bat an eye when that first draft blew past a 120k word count and I was only three quarters the way done. Hell, I still had a birth scene and four buildings to explode. I was on a freaking roll! <Oh the joy and folly of that first opus! LOL!>

It was on another business trip, this time to Columbia, SC <remember, I wanted to see the world on someone else’s dime> that I picked up an odd book in the airport bookstore. The cover was blue and featured a folk art styled drawing of a cute blonde chick riding a tiger, while being chased by a vampire. The book was Charlaine Harris’ Definitely Dead. I LOVE the The Sookie Stackhouse Series and it was on Charlaine’s website, on the Frequently Asked Questions page, that I learned about Romance Writer’s of America. She highly recommended RWA for new writers, so I joined.

My local RWA chapter, Rose City Romance Writers, held my hand and taught me all about writing romance stories. And may God bless Sarah Raplee’s precious little heart for cold reading my awful 120k words!

I must admit, I took a rather circuitous route to writing novels with strong romantic elements. But I’m here to stay and I’m excited to see where this journey takes me.

The Path to Romance by Gina Fluharty

This month the Jane’s are talking about romance and our journey to it. We’ll be answering some key questions: How did we find romance? What’s the first romance we read? Why do we want to write in this genre?

My mom had a shelf of books I was not allowed to touch. I guess she didn’t realize she was raising a somewhat oppositional/defiant child at the time. “No” is our motivation. “Don’t” will pretty much guarantee misbehavior. The book I wanted to get my hands on was “Mandingo” by Kyle Onstott. I’d pull it out, look at the cover, rapidly thumb through the pages and shove it back into place before she caught me. I’d figured out what it was about and since I couldn’t read that book, I grabbed my library card and headed into town. I was twelve. When I asked the librarian where to find “Mandingo” the whites of her eyes fairly blinded me. But she was a lovely and diplomatic soul. Instead of shaming me or leading me to pre-mature ruin, she led me to the back room where they kept all of the Harlequin paperbacks. Nirvana. Absolute Heaven. I didn’t know where to start first. Did I want the sleek and sexy Presents or the meatier American Romance? Was I even going to like romance? (DUH!) I couldn’t decide. She let me check out four so I picked out two of each. I devoured them. Read them so fast I think I got a blister on my index finger from turning the pages so fast. The story that stuck with me—and I bought my own copy that I still have—was Twice in a Lifetime by Rebecca Flanders. I love this story. And then I went back for more. That summer I checked out six books every three days. I was a tried and true romance junkie that no rehab could cure.

It’s a pretty short hop to see why I want to write in this genre. You write what you want to read, after all.

So that’s my tiny tawdry past. What’s yours?

The only marketing constant: Write a damn good book

When I look back over my posts here at SJP, I notice a constant refrain in my theme: Write the damn book. Well, I’m going to keep being constant and apply that to marketing and promotion as well.

And I’m not doing that merely because I’m lazy (although I am) but because it’s the only constant I’ve found so far.  For every author who has told me something has/has not worked (Facebook ads, blog tours, NetGalley postings, etc.) some other author has said the exact same thing didn’t/did work for her. At a recent indie publishing conference I attended, the dichotomy of worked/didn’t work got to be almost comical at times. More than once, an author would be singing the praises of a particular promotional strategy while right behind her another author shook her head is disagreement. Once it stopped being funny, it was a little depressing, because how do you market and promote when other authors have such vastly diverging opinions about what works?

My best practices — as much as I can pin them down — are as follows (in numbered steps, because I find most of my SJP posts features steps!):

1. Define your persona and/or book marketing goals

If you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish, you haven’t a prayer of knowing if you got there. Be specific. Some specific book marketing goals might be: plan a new pricing strategy at Amazon for a month, expand my Goodreads lists, make a list of book bloggers to review my book. Specific persona marketing goals* might be: friend or follow book-related folk on Facebook and Twitter, add like-minded reader friends on Goodreads, comment book- and/or story subject-related blogs for a month.

* Some people might argue there’s no sense if marketing your persona if you don’t have a book to sell already. That’s a different blog post, but I think establishing a certain level of awareness of your author persona guarantees a certain number of pity buys, at least, for your book, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as it never, ever conflicts with the one constant: Write the damn book.

2. Study what other authors in your genre are doing successfully

The shotgun scatter approach can be fun and satisfying because it FEELS effective. But with marketing and promotion (especially with a typically limited author budget) a well-sighted rifle round is probably the better choice. And figuring out what might be right for your persona or your book is more likely accomplished by narrowing your focus. For example, many authors say Facebook is where they find their readers and potential readers, but a YA author might find more readers for her work on Wattpad or Instagram.

3. Write the damn book — and while you’re at it, make sure it’s a damn good book

What? You didn’t think I’d get to the magic number 3 without saying it again, did you? Without the book (and really, without a book after that) marketing and promotion is sorta irrelevant. And the book oughta be good. Good, of course, doesn’t mean good, it means compelling. (How to write a compelling book is another post.) Without the good i.e. compelling book, all the work done in steps 1 & 2 will likely come to naught.

I actually find step 3 the most uplifting. It is the one part of the marketing and promotion process I KNOW I control, from start to finish.

Plus, it’s the most fun :)

How much time do you spend marketing and promoting vs. writing? Are you satisfied with the balance? If you have a way to add hours to the day, please share in comments!

Free: Not Necessarily a Good Price

As a dyed-in-the-CPU geek, I’ve attended beaucoup technical conferences and I can tell you nothing fires up your average nerdy type like free stuff. We stampede the vendor hall to scavenge the giveaways. T-shirts. Water bottles. Tote bags. Orange rubber duckies.

I’ll always grab a XXL t-shirt for Curmudgeonly Husband. I’ll score a water bottle for Lovely Daughter to cart to her daily gym sessions (she just joined a Muay Thai gym…be afraid).

But the problem with most of that stuff? It’s not technical. The most successful swag, in my opinion, is something a tech person would actually use. A USB flash drive (even a piddly 1GB model…pish) beats out a water bottle by a mile. Free software body-slams the Tyvek tote bag every day and twice on Sunday. And as for the t-shirts…well, never mind. No self-respecting geek would ever turn down a free t-shirt.

The point is that swag runs the very real risk of heading directly to landfill if it isn’t a value-add, and it won’t serve its promotional purpose unless the voracious swag consumer actually holds onto the freebie and – dare I suggest it – uses the dang thing.

That’s the problem I have trying to come up with reasonable author swag. My books (current and forthcoming) are e-books. What the hell use is a bookmark when you read on a Kindle or Nook or iPad? It serves no purpose. It adds no value. Unless you are far more organized than I and keep a scrapbook filled with bookmarks and postcards and book cover facsimiles, that stuff goes straight into recycling. Why bother?

But when I attended the Portland Gay Romance Northwest meet-up in January and had the opportunity to chat with the awesome Devon Rhodes, a prolific author of gay romance, she showed me a piece of multi-author swag that actually has a life-after-conference.

GRL_BraceletDevon attended the first GRL (Gay Rom Lit Retreat) in 2011. At the author signing event there, authors who wished to participate brought along a bead that they’d selected to represent themselves. Conference attendees could chat with their favorite authors and receive a bead to string onto a leather cord. After the conference, Devon prettied hers up with a higher-end cord, added a clasp, and made herself a terrific charm bracelet, something she wears frequently. And every time she does? She remembers those other authors and the good time they had at GRL.

Now that’s a value-add. Damn. Wish I’d thought of it.

Marketing, Schmarketing…A One Reader (Me) Case Study

marketingWhenever I try to promote myself or anything I’ve written, I feel like the guy with the bullhorn in the image to the left. I obviously don’t have a clue how to do this correctly. Considering how much more expertise the other Janes have on this topic, I’m totally passing the buck.

I mean, come on. C. Morgan Kennedy, the woman who literally wrote the book on author marketing, started us off on the topic this month. And Mary Oldham works at a marketing conglomerate, her post included a detailed budget and market research. So, all I can do is give you one person’s opinion on what works when writers market their work to me.

There are several authors whom I follow on Facebook and Twitter and quite a few to whose newsletter I subscribe. There’s no logic behind why I start following a certain writer. Maybe I took one of their freebies at a book signing and felt like I should put my name on their mailing list as a payment. Maybe I know them personally. Maybe I’m a huge fan of their books. Maybe they once tweeted something interesting that was retweeted by someone I already follow. Maybe they started following me.

However, I am very aware of why I stop paying attention to an author. And there are quite a few reasons for why I always check in with certain authors on social media and/or from whom I eagerly anticipate newsletters.

The number one reason for why I hide a writer’s feed on my Facebook wall or unfollow them on Twitter is because I feel like the guy who’s not holding the horn in the picture above. The only time I hear from the writer is when he/she has a new book out. And when they do, I hear from them several times per day, many days in a row.

The writers who are successful when marketing to me are the ones who don’t always promote themselves in every post. They talk about other writers, about their families, about their interests, and share tips and tricks of the book reading and writing business.

Here are some authors who do this well, and the medium through which I most interact with them:

Blogs: I read Jill Shalvis’ posts because they are funny, clever, and she often has pictures of hot guys. (Also true for her Facebook page.) I love Anne R. Allen’s blog (Ruth Harris also posts) for amazing writing tips and encouragement. I’ve followed Jane Porter’s blog for a long time and admire how often she promotes other writers she thinks her readers may like. She also has the best goodies and giveaways, and they happen often.

Twitter:  I follow a lot of people on Twitter and love the tool, but don’t check my feed every day. Partly because there is no way to keep up, so I like the idea of the universe determining whether I will stumble on a gem or not. That said, I love how writers Seanan McGuire (@SeananMcGuire), Jim C. Hines (@JimCHines), and Neil Gaiman (@NeilHimself) use the twittersphere to carry on conversations with their readers, promote upcoming writers, make jokes about themselves and the publishing world, and  speak out against things like misogyny in the Sci-Fi publishing world.

Facebook: A couple of writers I love to read stand out on my Facebook wall for posting about things other than writing. Catherine Mann often posts about dog rescues and shows adorable pictures whatever puppies she’s currently fostering. Mary Buckham relates fun conversations she has with her husband and ponders everything from historical figures to how to get unlost at IKEA. Cherry Adair has me laughing out loud to her Snapple cap reports and pithy one-liners. She also runs a great Facebook group for her street team.

Newsletters: The number one reason for why I subscribe to author newsletters/alerts is because I get freebies and pre-reads before any of the “regular” readers do. Writers who do this well include: Shelli Stevens, Virna DePaul, Crista McHugh, and Delilah Marvelle.

There are many other writers whom I follow (the other Janes for example) who are marketing savvy and funny in their social media updates. But I think I’ll stop here, or you’ll realize that I spend way too much time on the internet when I really should be writing. ;-)

I didn’t realize I was a walking advertisement until it was Too Late

The San Diego Comic Con is the holy land for creative geeks. Nearly 130,000 people descend upon the San Diego Convention Center for 4 days in late July. With so many people, of a specific demographic, confined to a limited space, it’s a marketing breeding ground for the movie and television industries to make big gestures. You can’t avoid it. Movie poster images cover entire sides of hotels, hotel keys have pictures of the latest superheroes, hotel elevator walls are plastered with celebrity images and even hotel rooms aren’t safe as housekeeping will slap on mirror decals to promote some zombie video game. It’s hard for the book industry to make a dent to the over-saturated & over-stimulated attendees.

comic swag

Swag from the 2012 San Diego Comic Con

Publishers and authors have to do something special to get noticed or they risk finding their marketing dollars in the trash can as attendees only have so much room in their luggage to take home swag.

In 2011, GR Codes were the latest marketing rage. All the major booths asked attendees to scan codes with smart phones to enter their contests (and collected our contact information in the process). Publishers went one step further and offered codes to be taken to websites with exclusive book content like chapter samplers. By the time I approached the Randon House Audio booth, I was a GR Code junkie. I finally got the app to work on my phone and I had to scan everything. Most of the codes were on business cards or flyers but Random House Audio went a step further. They had fake tattoos. I grabbed one that looked cool, a yellow dragon, went to the ladies room and slapped the image on my left forearm.

The yellow dragon fake tattoo with a QR Code

The yellow dragon fake tattoo with a QR Code

Weird stuff started happening. I found myself being stared at a lot. This *never* happens to me. I was in a room with people wearing complex costumes and people with multi-colored hair so there was nothing about me that said it was okay to stare. After making sure my clothes weren’t inside out or that I hadn’t sat on someone’s lunch, I made the connection that people were looking at my tattoo. Looking isn’t the right word. I got a lot of approving head nods, thumbs up and eyebrow lifts. At one point, I had one woman point to my arm with her right hand and place her left hand over her heart. Somehow I had faked my way into the cool crowd and I had to keep up the façade the entire day. I plotted about who I could discreetly ask what the title of the book was called without being kicked out of the club. In the meantime, I thought about the novel. My only clue was a yellow dragon so I imagined it was a paranormal novel with epic dragon battles, knights in shining armor and damsels in distress.  Not even close.

I should have paid better attention to the book covers...

I should have paid better attention to the book covers…

So why did I select this marketing effort as one of my all-time favorites? When I got home from the Comic Con, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book moved to the #1 slot on my must-read book list. This happened, despite the fact that once you put a QR Code on a non-flat surface, like the curve of an arm, the code doesn’t work. What did work? The love of the story, expressed from the readers, who spotted my fake tattoo. The moral of my story… surrounded by hundreds of thousands and thousands of dollars worth of marketing strategies, word-of-mouth proved to be the most successful.

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