Tuesday, June 26, 2007


There’s a buzzword in the industry that makes almost any author sit up and take notice: branding. Everyone’s talking about it; everyone wants to be effective at it. But…what is it, exactly? And how important is it that we learn to market in this way?

An author brand is like any other kind of brand—Coke, Pepsi, Kellogg’s, Andersen Doors. The most familiar brands evoke immediate recognition and association with particular products or even a level of quality in a certain product. Basically, branding translates into a sort of shorthand. I see a Nora book, I automatically know what kind of experience I can expect by reading it, so I pick it up without having to think twice or do any research. Branding is having a reputation and a loyal following and helps with all those impulse buys that are so critical in the book business.

Branding is important because it enables the author’s name in and of itself to become a marketable commodity. James Patterson is now using his brand to sell stories co-authored by other people. He’s even expanding his brand to include many different types of stories. Now that he’s so strongly associated with a good story, he can do that.

How did he build such a strong brand? By writing consistently great stories. That always has to be first. But there’s more to it than that. Branding is an on-going process and doesn’t generally happen overnight. It’s most difficult in the start-up phase. As well known as they are, Coke and Pepsi are still out there, advertising and building name recognition. It’s like pushing a ball uphill. If you stop pushing, it rolls right back to the bottom—something else encroaches and takes the attention of those you’re hoping to reach.

Specifically, an author brands herself by developing something that is consistent and unique in her writing. I do that by making sure every book I create delivers a deeply emotional, evocative story. How is my brand different from other authors who write in the same genre? My books are known for their deep characterization in a genre that is often more plot-driven (as you drift toward the suspense side). Once you know what you want your brand to be, you establish it through your writing style and “voice,” as well as your promotional efforts, until it becomes recognizable to others.

Some tools an author can use to build her brand are:
Paid Advertising
An interesting and constantly updated Web site
Strategic Contests
Blogs and chats (See? I’m building my brand right here )
Charity/Volunteer work
Joint-promotion with other authors and businesses
Writing articles
Press releases/media attention
Author response to fan letters/e-mails
Mailers to booksellers/fans

Your brand is your promise to your readers. When my readers buy my books they want to be able to count on a certain type of read. Therefore, I make sure I deliver that kind of read. Everything I do professionally is geared around building my brand and my career, so my Web site reflects that brand, my promotional materials reflect it, my charity auction reflects it, and my workshops/blogs reflect it.

Think about how solicitors make you feel. Because we are approached by so many who are trying to sell us something, the melee is deafening. We learn to filter and filter quickly, which means, in order to be effective in today’s marketplace, we have to be creative and effective marketers. So my question to you is: How can you reach people who are already tired of the signals that are constantly bombarding them via the telephone, TV, computer, etc? How can you set yourself apart?
Throw out some ideas, and I’ll be happy to contribute. ☺

Be sure to post a question or comment to Brenda's blog post by Saturday night to be eligible to win a copy of her latest book, "Coulda Been a Cowboy."

Friday, June 22, 2007


There’s this sixteen-month-old baby, Ezra Brown (nickname Easy B), whose facial features are a wealth of expression. High, wide forehead, expressive eyes, mouth that becomes the Grand Canyon upon a smile, every muscle in his face and form are methods of communication. He speaks, well, actually he jabbers in some Klingon dialect no human can understand.
So what I thought was this: Why can’t we adult humans communicate so well? Easy B interacts with his mother through sign language -- “please,” the rounding circle on his tummy and “all done,” the waving of two tiny hands above his head. However, when he wants to nurse, his little face becomes very still; he uses one hand to simulate the milking of a cow (okay, DO NOT ask) and holds the posture until his mother acknowledges what he wants.
He's dead serious about this.
Then, when she bares her breast, he gives this little ah-ha of relief at being understood and given his most elemental need.
Communication. Men and women have been doing this awkward dance for centuries. And it’s darned strange that I can read every nuance of Ezra’s face and body as if his words were emblazoned on a marquee, but have difficulty conveying the same language among my characters.
When I want to cow a particularly unruly tenth-grader in my high school English class, a lifting of both brows and a stoic stare are sufficient to quell the ensuing rebellion. Why is it so much harder to use body and facial language for our characters without reverting to stereotype and caricature? I mean, come on, there are only so many brow lifts, steely stares, and mouth quirks the story can handle. And in real life, our handsome Alpha males express very little with their faces; more, perhaps with their bodies; and oh yeah, a whole lot with . . . well, ‘nuff said there.
So my question to both readers and writers is: what’s your favorite character’s (male or female) non-verbal expression or use of body communication? NON-VERBAL, ladies and gents, to eliminate the classic, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” followed by an equally classic thunderbolt from the gods.

Or what form of communication do you like to use as a writer?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


My grandchildren were playing in the pool the other day when three-year-old Jake pulled off his diaper and jumped in naked.

“Eww eeee, he’s nekkid,” one shouted. “Mom, he’s naked. He’ll pee in the pool.”

Nine-year-old Preston calmly proclaimed from the rocks. “He shouldn’t be nude in the pool.”

There you have it – diction or word choice: naked, nekkid, nude. All three words mean uncovered, unclothed, or undressed, but each is loaded with emotional subtleties that slant its meaning.

The writer’s deliberate choice from among these words controls the psychological impact of the phrase or sentence she writes.

First, let’s get a couple of definitions out of the way.

Diction means word choice.

Denotation refers to the dictionary definition of a word, the word’s literal meaning.

And most important, I think, connotation involves the shades and nuances a word carries, its emotional impact. A good writer must have control of connotation.

Think of a word for "overweight": plump, fat, obese, heavy. All mean overweight, but each has a different emotional shade to it. Obese is more clinical, a term a doctor would use, while plump is more pleasing, an affectionate description; heavy conveys heft, weight, and broadness in a more mannish way, while fat has a negative, off-putting connotation.

Now think of the word “bitch.” Denotatively, a “bitch” is a female dog. But also it is a pejorative for a mean-spirited, malicious, nasty woman, one without refinement or classiness. As a verb, it means to complain or gripe.

Referring to a woman as a bitch relegates her to a lower status, refers to her lewdness, and compares her not only to a dog (bitch), but conjures the phrase “bitch in heat,” a woman whose sexual emotions cannot be controlled. Further, if a bitch “bitches,” she’s a shrew, a nag, unworthy of consideration because she complains so frequently.

One of a writer’s most powerful tools is her use of appropriate diction or word choice. Many writers control diction by instinct without analyzing their reasons for choosing one particular word over another. However, some of us labor over diction for several reasons.

First, our own vocabularies may be limited. One year the father of a brilliant student attended my parent-teacher conference. The father spoke in broken English and asked me what he could do to improve his own English language skills. You already know the answer. Read! Read anything from the newspaper to Playboy magazine. And read some more. I’m convinced that good writers are made, not from college degrees, but from incessant reading. They’ve assimilated the rhythms and diction of good writing.

Second, we have so many words to choose from, but often can’t put our fingers on the precise word for the character and situation in hand. In these cases, the Thesaurus is NOT a girl’s best friend. Unless you have an amazingly wide vocabulary range, do not rely on Mr. T.

Rather than a thesaurus, I recommend a synonym dictionary. Of course, use only the words you have a working familiarity with; otherwise, you’ll end up with a sentence that clearly shows you do not know the various nuances of the word, and you'll embarrass yourself.

Diction and tone are inextricably connected. Before a writer can choose from among the array of words at her disposal, she must be clear what tone she wishes to convey. Tone is attitude, pure and simple, just like when your mother used to say, “Don’t use that tone with me, young lady!”

The tone we wish to convey in a piece of writing is often coupled with a contrasting tone. The male protagonist may be gallant, but arrogant; chiding, but teasing; proud, but tamable.

Take a look at Laura Kinsale’s excerpt from Flowers from the Storm. Jervaulx, a decided rake, describes the features of Quaker Maddy to her blind father. Notice how the diction in this passage serves several purposes: obviously, to characterize Maddy, but also to reveal Jervaulx’s character by the words he chooses to describe Maddy. I’ve underlined the words that convey strong emotion to me. Then I analyze why.

“Shall we proceed to her nose? That, we shall call a nose of – character. I don’t think we can call it perfect; it’s a little too aquiline for that. A decided nose. A maiden lady’s nose. It goes with the tilt of the chin. But her eyes . . . I’m afraid her eyes ruin the spinster effect again, most emphatically. And her mouth. She has a pensive, a very pretty mouth, that doesn’t smile overly often.” He took a sip of wine. “But then again – let’s be fair. I’ve definitely seen her smile at you, but she hasn’t favored me at all. This serious mouth might have been insipid, but instead it goes with the wonderful long lashes that haven’t got that silly debutante curl. They’re straight, but they’re so long and angled down that they shadow her eyes and turn the hazel to gold, and she seems as if she’s looking out through them at me. No . . .” He shook his head sadly. “Miss Timms, I regret to tell you that it isn’t a spinster effect at all. I’ve never had a spinster look out beneath her lashes at me the way you do.”

Think of another word the author could’ve chosen instead of “aquiline”: perhaps, "hooked," like an eagle’s beak, which is what the word’s denotation is. But connotatively, “aquiline” conjures images of nobility, grandeur, someone above the common fray, while "hooked," . . . well, you get the idea.

Notice that Kinsale gives the reader a clear picture of Maddy, physically and emotionally. But, just as important, look at how we learn who Jervaulx is, a man who notices details about a woman that others might not. He finds “debutantes” silly; he’s aware that Maddy disapproves of him, but he sees beneath her modest disguise. Even though he’s portrayed her as a contained woman who eschews vanity, she cannot hide her appeal to him. He's a clever, insightful man who sees her for what she is.

The term we use for the study of a word’s origins is etymology. As a writer, have some intellectual curiosity about where a word comes from, how its meaning has changed over the years, and the way its emotional impact can vary. Use those emotionally-charged words for the greatest effect.

Diction is power and, carefully crafted, can imbue the writing with onion-like layers that readers will enjoy unwrapping again and again.