Ask BHP: How do Authors Make Characters Unique?

This month’s question from our Ask BHP mailbag has to do with the process of writing a book. A reader asks, “When authors are planning characters, how do they make sure that their leads feel like individuals? Put another way, what methods do authors use to keep their protagonists distinct, especially if they’ve written lots of books?”

Clearly, this is not one that I’d be able to answer as a marketing employee, so I went to authors of our August releases. Combined, they have written over 90 novels and novellas, which means they have experience with a lot of characters. Here’s how each of them approaches the process of making their lead roles stand out.

Jen Turano: When I’m plotting out a series, I only have a smidgen of an idea who the characters truly want to be. It’s not until I start writing the story that their character traits really come out, and that happens when I settle on what their quirk might be. For example, Mr. Harrison Sinclair is colorblind. Well, that right there led to all sorts of amusing scenes because he’s just a hot mess when it comes to fashion. And then take Miss Temperance Flowerdew. When I started the Apart from the Crowd series, she was incredibly timid, so much so that she rarely spoke. However, but the time I got around to writing her story in Caught by Surprise, she’d changed into this outspoken, adventure-seeking heroine. I hadn’t planned on her turning into that, she simply wouldn’t cooperate as a timid sort, so, as I do with every book, I just let her have her way.

Ronie Kendig: Characterization is one of the most vital steps to drawing compelling, unique characters. When I go into a book or new series, I make sure I’ve spent dozens of hours exploring who that character is, what has formed them as an individual, and what they want out of life. Then I upend all that with the plot. Ultimately, the “skeleton” I use to flesh out a hero might be the same (they may all be a Messiah archetype for example), but his background, his heritage, his wounds and goals will be unique to him. I mean, after all, most of us out there can fit into one of a handful or two of basic personality types, but our experiences, our lives, make us unique. The same is true of characters in a book.

Leslie Gould: In my mind, my characters are as distinct as my family and friends, but I do put a lot of thought into their development so that they’ll feel like originals to my readers too. I do online personality tests for my characters, map out their major life experiences, and carefully choose physical appearances and mannerisms that don’t duplicate past characters I’ve created. Once I know their basic characteristics, I can figure out their wounds, goals, and motivations. By that point, they’ve come alive to me and are on their way to being characters my readers will love too!

Judith Miller: When I begin a new book, I “interview” my main characters, and as I come to know them and what has influenced them throughout their lives, I discover more of their personality and what makes them distinct. I think we must go beyond eye and hair color. For instance, I may have a female character who is very flamboyant, but as the reader gets to know her, they discover she’s using her flashy behavior to hide her insecurity or self-loathing. Of course, I do enjoy physical descriptions that are a little unique, as well. For instance, a male character who is thought to be good-looking except for his clumsy gait. I think the key is knowing your character and what makes him/her tick.

Great answers! Okay, readers, describe a quirk, habit, or hobby of someone you know that would be perfect for a fictional character.

Ask BHP: What Should New Writers Know Before Going to a Conference?

This month’s Ask BHP Question is from an aspiring writer: “I know one of the best ways to meet editors like the ones at Bethany House is attending conferences. I’m planning to go to my first one in the fall of this year. Anything I should know about appointments with editors?”

Here are some tips from one of those editors you might be meeting with. Raela Schoenherr is one of our acquisition editors and an all-around fabulous human being. Here’s how she answered this question:

  • Trust yourself. You know your story better than anyone, so don’t focus on whether you’re giving the “wrong” answer or pitch. If you’re confident in what you’ve written and your goals for it, that will be apparent to agents and editors.
  • Remember that agents and editors are regular people just like you, no matter how intimidating they may seem at first.
  • Stay positive. Agents and editors are taking pitches because they hope to find something that will be a fit for them. Remembering that they’re looking for opportunities to say “yes” rather than “no” will help you keep a positive perspective.
  • Listen to the advice of others and apply what makes the most sense for you. If you’re trying to do (or not do) everything anyone has ever told you, you may have a hard time staying focused on the main point. And you may end up feeling that your pitch wasn’t authentic to you.
  • An appointment is your time to speak with an industry professional, so take initiative to start the conversation and the pitch. Don’t make them drag details out of you.
  • Do your best to answer their questions as well as you can, but if a question surprises you and you don’t have an immediate answer, don’t worry. You don’t want the entire appointment derailed because you panicked over not having an answer to one question. You can gracefully ask for a few moments to think or acknowledge it’s a great question and say you’ll need to jot it down and spend some time thinking and researching when you return home.

Raela also made what I called a “red flag checklist.” It’s a quick, bullet-point list of some common mistakes that immediately brand a manuscript as not yet ready for publication or pitching at a conference. Here’s what she put on it:

  • Confusing point of view
  • Head-hopping (randomly changing point of view in the middle of the scene)
  • Uneven or slow pacing
  • Overly clichéd or predictable
  • Breaks genre or sub-genre standards
  • Word count too short or too long for publisher’s standards
  • Author doesn’t know or understand readership

Those are all great things to look at as you’re preparing a manuscript (or preparing yourself to pitch one).

I’m not an editor, but I am on the team that looks over proposals from new authors in our pub board, so here are a few tips on conferences and manuscript proposals from my perspective.

  • Research the basics. Good news! There are resources all over the Internet about how to put together a book proposal, one-sheet, or cover letter. The proposals we’ve gotten from new authors all have some things in common (like the word count of the completed manuscript and a synopsis), but they don’t ever look exactly the same. Different elements/sections are included in each. That means you can find out what your materials should look like, but you don’t need to stress over matching any template perfectly.
  • Think about what would make you or your book stand out to a marketing team and include that in the proposal. You may not be a megastar or have a huge platform, but if you have connections with author friends, a unique area of expertise, or some great ideas for promoting your book, be sure to mention that in your proposal.
  • Use the conference as a way to connect with other writers. Besides being enthusiastic fans who can spread the word when you do have a book out, talking with author friends and following them on social media will give you great marketing ideas and help you get a better sense of what your readership is interested in. This may end up being more valuable to you than the appointments.
  • If an agent or editor isn’t the right fit for your project, don’t despair! That was the main point of last month’s post of published authors talking about rejection. Be open to feedback, don’t take a “no” personally, and keep on writing!

Hope that’s helpful! If there are any seasoned writers out there who have gone to a few conferences, feel free to add your tips in the comments.

Ask BHP: How Often Were Published Authors Rejected?

Our question today is aimed especially at aspiring writers out there: “How many times does an author typically get their book turned down before getting it published for the first time?”

To get the answer to this question, I decided to poll a number of Bethany House authors and see if their stats matched. Here are some quick facts.

Clearly, everyone’s path to publication is different, but take note, aspiring writers: by this statistic, only about 25% of our authors published the first novel they ever wrote. That may seem discouraging at first, but it’s a great reason to keep writing and keep improving.

I tried to get a count on how many rejections from editors and agents these authors faced for their novel that eventually did get published, but so many of them said “countless” that it was hard to tally up.

Besides just those numbers, I wanted to pull out a few snippets that tell part of the publication story of these authors. Below are stories from authors of many different genres: fantasy, historical, romance, contemporary, and just about everything in between. Enjoy!

Patrick Carr, author of The Wounded Shadow: I wrote three full-length novels before A Cast of Stones was picked up by Bethany House. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Before those three novels there was a veritable parade of unfinished novels extending back in time.

Mary Connealy, author of The Accidental Guardian: I was rejected too many times to count by agents and editors. One year alone I counted 40 rejections.

Connilyn Cossette, author of A Light on the Hill: Counted with the Stars received a number of rejections by agents (one devastating response made me nearly give up permanently because I was told that it was absolutely unsellable) but there was mostly just a lot of silence and not much feedback other than judges in contests that either loved it or thought it was the worst clap-trap ever written.

Leslie Gould, author of A Plain Leaving: In my early years, I sent three novel proposals, one by one, to the same editor. The first two times, she responded with: We like your writing but don’t want this story. The third time, she offered me a contract. I learned so much between writing that first novel and writing the third one!

Beverly Lewis, author of The Road Home: Since I was writing magazine articles and stories for several years prior to ever writing a novel, there were no unpublished book manuscripts in my drawer. My first published novel was actually for pre-teen girls, which turned into a 14-book series (HOLLY’S HEART). My first book manuscript for adults, however, was rejected. So, I went back to the drawing board and wrote The Shunning, which launched my adult writing career.

Nancy Mehl, author of Blind Betrayal: The first novel I ever wrote was never sent to anyone. It’s my “novel still in the drawer.” Thanks to some great writers I encountered through various online groups, I discovered early on that I had no idea what I was doing.

Tracie Peterson, author of In Places Hidden: Before I was published, I also had a file drawer full of stories that I had sketched out – probably over fifty. I always encourage new authors to keep putting together story ideas even if they are published because this made it so easy for me when the contracts started coming in. I didn’t have to worry about coming up with story ideas, because I had files full of them.

Michael Phillips, author of The Legacy: My first series was rejected over 30 times over a five year period before I took it to Bethany after they started publishing fiction. After those thirty rejections, the letter from a Bethany House editor expressing “cautious” interest was the turning point in my writing career.

Debra White Smith, author of Reason and Romance: The company I published my first novel with decided to cancel their line of fiction not long after my book was released. Then, the struggle was on. I got many, many rejections for five more years. Then, finally, I started selling all books that I had written during the five year wait. When the door opened, it was a floodgate that also involved non-fiction titles and a speaking ministry.

Karen Witemeyer, author of More Than Meets the Eye: When my first completed novel was requested by an editor, I received a rejection letter. They liked the writing, but the storyline was too similar to something they had recently published. However, there was one element they really liked: the dress shop. Could I write a story about a dress shop? Umm . . . the dress shop burned to the ground on page four. Ouch. No tweaking could fix this. I’d have to start over from scratch. Should I just try to pitch the original story to someone else, or should I write a new book? I decided to keep my foot in the door that God had cracked open for me and wrote a new story that centered around a dress shop, A Tailor-Made Bride.

In addition to sharing their numbers of rejections, authors also flooded my inbox with encouragement and advice for writers out there who may have had a bad pitch session with an editor or received disappointing news after a conference. Here they are…bookmark this post and come back to it whenever you need a pick-me-up from authors who have been there. Continue reading

Ask Bethany House: Do You Hate One-Star Reviews?

This month’s Ask Bethany House question takes a look at a somewhat-controversial subject: “As a publicist who works with reviewers, do you ever get mad when you see one-star reviews of your authors’ books?”

So, let me first note that while I love my Bethany House authors, I have a good deal more objectivity when it comes to reading negative reviews than the authors themselves. After all, I didn’t spend months (or even years) of my life lovingly crafting a fictional world and putting imaginary people through trauma to get to a happy ending.

To give you a glimpse behind their side of the desk, I’ve heard of authors who…

  • Don’t ever read reviews to avoid obsessing over them.
  • Find one-star reviews normal and sometimes even hilarious.
  • Feel completely crushed and stressed out when they first read a scathing review.
  • Ask a friend to read bad reviews and pass on any reoccurring themes that might be helpful as they write the next book.
  • Love to read five-star and one-star reviews of their books and others’ because it gives the whole spectrum of who the book’s audience is (and isn’t).

Back to the actual question. I admit, I’ve gone through pretty much all of those stages when it comes to our authors’ books. Where I’ve landed is this: not every book is for every person. That’s just the way it’s going to be, and one-star reviews are evidence of that.

Sure, there are times when reviewers will make a completely unsubstantiated claim or reveal that they were biased against the book from the start…but clearly, they weren’t the intended audience for the book in the first place, and if they want to disclose that to the Internet as a whole, fine by me. It’s only in an environment where people feel able to say anything about a book that you can trust the praise of glowing, five-star reviews.

(Although one clarification: I always recommend that book reviewers keep it classy and refrain from making harsh generalizations or personal attacks on the author. There’s a difference between critical and mean.)

To prove my point—one-star reviews are necessary and even a little bit fun—below are excerpts from one-star Amazon reviews of award-winning Christian fiction…along with some commentary by me. (To be taken in good fun. Sometimes authors need to laugh at these so they don’t cry!) I’m leaving the titles off for all the authors out there who might still be a bit sensitive to these words. But trust me, these authors are all highly regarded and for each book included, there were hundreds of four- and five-star reviews.

“The chapters were a combination of jarring, illogical ‘bad’ events interrupting a dry litany of ‘Old West’ chores and Christian ‘values.’”
Hmm…how to respond? At least the “bad” events kept things interesting?

“Formulaic. Too easy to predict. Less of a historical piece and more of just a disguised romance novel.”
[Another one-star for the same book] “This was classified as a romance novel and it just doesn’t seem like one to me. Nice story, wrong genre.”
This just goes to show that it’s impossible to pick a genre categorization that everyone will find perfectly describes a book. Continue reading

Ask BHP: What Do You Look For in a Manuscript?

“What makes you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a manuscript from a new author?”

This question was submitted to our Ask BHP survey in various forms, so for all the aspiring authors and curious readers out there, I’m going to focus on one of the later steps in the process: publication board.

At Bethany House’s pub board, the acquiring editor for the project—the one who has interacted with the author or agent and is championing the manuscript—will present persuasive reasons why we should make an offer for a particular novel.

Present around the table are other editors as well as people from our marketing, sales, and rights departments. We’ll all have looked at the sample chapters and book proposal, which gives a summary of the plot, describes the potential audience, lists marketing ideas, and includes other helpful information. Sometimes we’ll even read (or at least skim) the whole manuscript when considering a new fiction author. Most of us come to the meeting with a list of questions, possible concerns, and sometimes strong opinions of whether we want the team to accept or reject a project up for consideration.

Here are a few questions we ask and answer in our pub board meetings to decide what new fiction projects are a good fit for Bethany House. (Remember, these have already gone through several steps before getting to pub board, so there’s nothing here about the basics like correct grammar, coherent plot, and general awareness of good practices in writing.)

Is this too similar to something we’re already publishing?

In a broad sense, there are only so many writers of a particular subgenre that we can publish well without feeling crowded. In a more particular sense, if we have a book coming out next season with a very similar plot or setting, we may need to pass on a manuscript.

 

Will the author make a good marketing partner?

Many industry blogs talk about the importance of a strong platform for new writers. This is absolutely critical for nonfiction authors, and while an impressive following isn’t as important in fiction, we do look to see if the author knows how to promote their books and has included ideas, statistics, and examples in the book proposal. That way, we know that the author will be joining us in getting the word out about the book, which can be helpful for sales.

Is the writing strong?

This is somewhat subjective, but then again, remember that we have read a lot of Christian fiction, even in genres that we don’t personally care for, so we notice when an author’s voice has a little extra sparkle…or when it doesn’t. When we talk about the writing, we explain what we do or don’t like, and often the editors will get other “first readers” from inside the company to weigh in on the writing to make sure we’re not biased by, say, a few people who just really don’t like first-person point-of-view.

At this point, no manuscript is badly written, and we’re all aware that the editors will be asking the author to make changes, but we usually talk about big-picture things that couldn’t be fixed without a total re-write. For example, we might argue that the premise isn’t very suspenseful, or the narrator’s voice is off-putting, or only one of the dual timelines actually interested us.

What are books similar to this one doing in the marketplace?

This one is a strict sales question where we look at the potential audience for the book—is the author inspired by any trends that give it a strong hook? Is this genre seeing a resurgence, or slowly tapering off? Are there a thousand other books just like this out there, or none at all? (Usually both of these extremes aren’t the best for convincing the sales team this can sell.) If the author has past sales, independent or with another publishing company, we’d consider those as well.

Are we excited about this project?

This is so subjective that I’m sure it can be frustrating to hear. But the fact is, if the marketing team in particular finds a new author’s manuscript just doesn’t work for them, then the author probably wouldn’t want us to publish it. We’re the ones explaining the book to the sales team and promoting it to readers, so it would be better for the project to find a home where everyone was 100% enthusiastic about it.

Are the strengths of the manuscript worth any potential drawbacks?

And by that, I don’t really mean strengths or weaknesses in the quality of the writing, which I mentioned earlier. Here are a few examples of possible pros and cons we might need to discuss.

  • Will readers be okay with an unusual setting/time period if the book has a strong cast of characters?
  • There are lower sales for [insert genre here], but this is amazing writing.
  • This plot feels overdone, but the setting is unique.
  • The author’s sense of humor might not catch on, but it has potential to stand out because of that.
  • This is a controversial subject, but handled with grace.
  • We have an unknown author with no platform but a compelling, fresh voice.
  • This is totally different than anything we’ve done before…but it’s totally different from anything we’ve done before.

Sometimes we choose to pass on a project after weighing these pros and cons, sometimes we move forward. The factor most likely to convince us to take a risk is when multiple people on the pub board truly love the author’s writing style and think they have a compelling story to go along with it.

When we think of “our” readers—people who read Bethany House books—is this story something they would be interested in?

Of course, we’re always looking to reach new readers, but the majority of a new author’s audience will likely be readers who enjoy other Christian fiction that we publish. Because of that, we want to make sure a book feels like it fits our audience. We’ve occasionally said no to a great story that had too many dark elements to it, or felt theologically off for our readers.

As you can see, most of these questions are not personal to the writer, or even to his or her manuscript (although I’m sure it can feel that way). When we don’t choose to offer a contract for a debut author’s novel, it’s not because we think it’s terrible trash unworthy of publication. Not at all. Most of the time, it’s for a combination of more subtle reasons, like the ones above.

Just know that we’d love to publish more books…but there are only so many slots in a year for a traditional publisher. Sometimes we see that a story we had to turn down for one of those reasons finds a home elsewhere—one that is probably a better fit for both the story and the author.

And for the new authors we do have, we’re always delighted to introduce their first novel to the world. (Some recent debut novels have been The House on Foster Hill by Jaime Jo Wright and Counted With the Stars by Connilyn Cossette. You should check them out…they’re amazing!)

Did any of these questions surprise you? Any other questions you have about the pub board process?

Ask BHP: How Do You Decide on Covers?

Questions about cover design are by far the most popular ones we received to our Ask Bethany House survey. And with good reason: art can sometimes seem a little bit like magic, and not many of us get a glimpse into the process of creating the lovely images that grace our favorite books.

Here’s the question I’ll be answering today: “What does the Bethany House team consider when deciding on a final cover?”

First of all, here’s a list of who’s on the team. The author starts the process by providing character and setting descriptions, covers with looks they love, and ideas for scenes to portray. Our art director and designers work with Bethany House editors and marketers to get the right look. And we always get feedback from the sales team as well, since they’re the ones who know the buyers who will be putting books in stores.

At the beginning stages, a designer will show the editors and marketers several sketches or rough stock photography mock-ups to give us an idea of what the scene on the cover might look like. Obviously, we’re not commenting on the details at that point, but we will indicate a direction by making bigger-picture design choices like whether a character should be pictured close up or as a small figure in the background, what sort of scene would be most interesting, or whether to include options that split the design in half with a title bar.

After the photoshoot (which I’ll cover in more detail in a future Ask BHP post), the designer will take different images and arrange them into designs like the ones the team agreed on, creating a draft version of several cover options. The examples below are alternate covers for A Light on the Hill. They haven’t been polished and tweaked, and occasionally the design team might ask for a major change like “move the model from 1 into the scene of 2,” but we’re starting to get to a clearer idea of the cover.

In this case, while all of these design concepts are striking, the team didn’t care for the harsh color scheme of the first. The third option was some people’s first choice and others’ second, but eventually the argument was made that it would be harder to continue that look for the whole series while still remaining distinct. (There was also one team member who pointed out that the sun being right there on the city made the title really literal.)

We all loved the striking image of the protagonist facing us, and the prominent title. Here is what the final cover looked like once the designer made some tweaks (including moving the series name and using a different image from the photoshoot):

Here are just a few of the things we consider when giving suggestions to the designer:

  • Do the colors of the cover match the tone of the story? (Is it too dark for a lighthearted story or too cheery for a suspense novel?)
  • How can we hint at the setting or historical time period in the background, clothing, or fonts? Is there anything about any of those elements that seems mismatched?
  • Is the background too distracting or cluttered?
  • What’s the balance between type that’s interesting but also legible? (This especially matters because the book will be showing up in a thumbnail online.)
  • What sort of reader will be attracted to this design?
  • If there’s a model, does he or she convey the essence of the character as described by the author?
  • Is this cover too similar to one on an already-published book that readers of the genre would be familiar with? Is it too drastically different from everything else like it?
  • Would you want to pick this book up just by looking at the cover?

There are individual questions for each cover too, of course. For A Light on the Hill in particular, we talked about the best way to show that the protagonist is ashamed of the brand on her face, and how we could establish that the novel was biblical since it doesn’t have the name of a key Old Testament figure in the title to give readers that cue.

So there’s a little glimpse into the process we use to determine what cover makes it on the final book. I love bragging about our designers…they do excellent work! If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more cover alternates, Jocelyn Green wrote about the making of her latest release, A Refuge Assured, on her blog. Be sure to check it out!

So, readers, what’s an element of book cover design that you love to see? Are you able to complete the phrase, “I’ll be drawn to a book almost instantly if its cover…”?

Ask Bethany House: How Do I Get Started in Publishing?

This month’s Ask BHP question was repeated in a few different ways in our survey, so I’ll try to combine and answer them all. Here’s the summary: “I’m interested in getting a job in publishing in the future (or someone I know is). What are some good steps to take to work toward that goal?”

First, I’ll start with education, because that was one angle that this question took in our survey. Many of our editors have degrees in fields such as English, Publishing, Communications, Writing, or Journalism, which prepared them with the skills they needed for their current position. Most also had previous editing experience even before their first job in publishing, such as freelance writing or editing, contributing to local or school newspapers, or grant writing, so that’s also a great way to make your resume stand out.

On the marketing side (where I work), most of us have four-year degrees in Marketing, Public Relations, or the majors listed above for editorial. Background and experience in publicity and related fields is helpful.

That especially applies to those who are students in college, and an added bonus is that most internships are open only to those enrolled full-time in classes. If you’re a student (or you know a student) who’s interested in Christian fiction in particular, let me take a moment to plug the Bethany House marketing-editorial internship open until March 15, 2018 for applications. Many publishers offer programs or positions like this. They’re very helpful for learning about publishing, getting excellent references, and gaining real-life experience with the kind of work you’d like to do. (Or, sometimes, determining what sort of work wouldn’t be a good fit.)

Also, if you apply for a job in publishing, proofread your application carefully.

When I think through the last several candidates we hired who didn’t have formal experience in publishing, many of them were still very familiar with our books. They’d been on author launch teams or had favorite Bethany House authors or could list experience with the programs or tasks or style guides that were part of their jobs. So, one easy thing to do while searching for open opportunities is to read and immerse yourself in the books, industry, and terms of publishing.

Because there are only so many publishing companies, particularly if you’re specifically interested in Christian publishing, I’d also suggest learning all you can about the publishing industry and other book-related careers. That might open up other doors you hadn’t considered before. My job as fiction publicist has a lot of overlapping interests and skills with a literary agent or the community relations manager of a bookstore, for example, though of course there are significant differences.

How do you do that? Follow authors, subscribe to agency blogs (and this one!), read articles in places like Publishers Weekly, and pay attention whenever careers are being discussed. If an author wrote a blog post about their virtual assistant, check it out! If you see a literary agent give a call-out  for questions to answer on Twitter, ask what qualities make a good agent. At a writing conference, meet and greet the folks at sponsor booths as a networking opportunity. Talk to those you know who are involved in any area of writing or editing to learn about what they do. You never know what you might find!

Finally, I often hear people asking if publishing jobs are starting to open up to work-from-home opportunities. The answer is: some of them, but not the majority. Freelance editors and proofreaders and designers, virtual assistants, outside publicity companies, and some other roles are benefiting from the shift to more remote work. That said, I can’t speak to all publishing companies, but Bethany House still hires people with the understanding that they’ll be working on-site, mostly because it’s important to have a team assembled that can attend meetings, confer on projects, and work together in person.

I hope this is a helpful glimpse into how to prepare to work in publishing. Be sure to pass it along to anyone, especially students, who are interested in learning more about what steps to take next.

Ask Bethany House: What Marks a Discerning Reader?

It’s a new year, and I’ve gotten some great questions for our Ask Bethany House series in 2018! (If you’d like to contribute a question, it’s not too late. Send it in to our survey.)

Here’s our first one for January: “How would you define a ‘discerning reader’? What kinds of things do they observe about a book, its quality, its depth, its characters that make authors and publishers know that the reader has really invested in the story?”

What a fun question! First, I’d like to start off by saying that authors and publishers love to hear that you enjoyed a story—that it entertained you or took your mind off your worries or made you want to take a trip to the setting or made you think or laugh or cry. All of that is great, and also relatively simple. No need to get fancy.

That said, if you’re looking for ways to read like a writer or editor—either to get better at noticing why you enjoy a book so you can leave more specific reviews on blogs or retail sites, or maybe even to learn how to write a novel yourself—here are my tips.

  • Savor descriptions. It’s gone out of vogue to put in long blocks of exquisite prose describing every blade of grass the hero can see, and that’s probably a good thing. But when you notice some excellently crafted details about the setting or the expression on someone’s face, appreciate them, and maybe jot them down to quote later. (Booklist’s starred review of A Refuge Assured called it “almost overwhelming in its sensory detail,” so that one would be a great place to start.)
  • Notice the symbolism. I remember telling Elizabeth Camden that I loved a moment where her heroine in With Every Breath examines a “paperweight with a daisy blossom that would remain forever frozen in silent perfection inside the glass” because it was a great symbol for the issue that character was struggling with. She was delighted that I’d noticed the little detail she’d slipped into the story. You can obviously go overboard with this to the point where everything is a symbol (when it really wasn’t meant to be), but it’s fun to be on the lookout.
  • Take a look at word choice. I believe it was Melissa Tagg who said at a writing seminar that there’s a big difference between a door “painted a bright cherry red” and one that’s “streaked with blood-red paint, curling off in disrepair.” In one, you’re in a happy scene, in the other…look behind you to make sure the murderer isn’t coming. Often, loaded adjectives and verbs give scenes a certain atmosphere. The author chose those words carefully. Enjoy them!
  • Watch those secondary characters. Most authors have strong, well-developed protagonists, but the novels I love the most spend time making you care about the minor characters too, even if they rarely show up. You get the sense that even they have quirks and histories and personalities. I noticed this in Becky Wade’s True to You in particular with the heroine’s co-workers.
  • Admire a good plot twist. Not every story needs one of these, of course, and they might actually feel jarring in some genres. On the small scale, though, it’s fun when a character says something unexpected but perfect, or a secret is revealed at the end (as in many Beverly Lewis books). For big-scale, jaw-dropping plot twists, I’ll always recommend Patrick Carr…The Wounded Shadow, the last novel in his Darkwater Saga, is coming out in April and I can’t wait!

I could go on and on with often-overlooked aspects of great writing and recommend dozens of books that demonstrate them, but I should probably keep this post to a reasonable length. Whether you are a detail-noticer or just a happy-ending lover, a discerning reader is one who knows just which books to put on the keeper shelf…and which to get out again for a re-read!

Now I’ll turn it over to you, oh readers. Is there an aspect of a story that makes it a standout to you? Anything in particular you love to see in the books you most enjoy?

We Need Your Questions!

Hello, readers!

As some of you regulars may know, we have an ongoing monthly series on the blog called “Ask Bethany House” where I take questions from readers about anything related to BHP, our authors, or book publishing in general.

So that I can plan ahead for 2018 posts, it’s time for me to request questions from you again! If you have a behind-the-scenes type of question, submit it here in our survey, and I’ll choose one per month to answer next year.

You can glance over past questions I’ve answered here, but I’m fine with a slightly different angle on an old question, or even a request for an updated answer to a question I already covered. (A lot can change in two years!)

And, to thank you for being such great question-asking fans, let’s have a giveaway! Next week, I’ll pick two random winners for an early copy of your choice of one our January 2018 books (Out of the Ashes by Tracie Peterson and Kimberly Woodhouse, A Song Unheard by Roseanna White, Judah’s Wife by Angela Hunt). Enter by commenting with an answer to this question: what is one book you read in 2017 that you really enjoyed?

Ask BHP: What Are Some Tips for New Writers?

From our Ask BHP Mailbag, here’s a great question that several people asked in various ways. “I’m an aspiring author and hear that it can be difficult to ‘break in’ to the world of Christian fiction. Any advice for a newbie?”

One of our acquisition editors, Raela Schoenherr, just answered this question from a different perspective, so take a look at that too. But I wanted to share the answers that Noelle, fiction marketing director, and I gave at the Bethany House Spotlight at ACFW. So you get three related questions and answers for the price of one! (Which, since the price was free, might not be that much of a deal.)

A recent picture from an author visit! Noelle is in the center wearing yellow, and Amy is next to her wearing pink.

Question 1: What would make a proposal from a new author stand out to someone in marketing?

Amy: The first thing I look at is always the writing quality. If the story isn’t compelling, even an interesting marketing angle isn’t going to be helpful. After that, though, I love to see that an author has an understanding of their audience. If a proposal tells me why this book will stand out to readers—whether that’s answering the question of what need it’s filling in a compelling way, showing other recent similar titles that sold well, or describing other ways Christian readers have demonstrated interest in this topic/era/theme—then I can picture how to position and market it.

Noelle: I agree. If reading the story makes me forget that I am “doing it for work,” it becomes natural to be an advocate for it. I’d say more but that gets me talking about our next FAQ.

Question 2: Is a large platform necessary for a first-time fiction author?

Amy: For me, what’s more important than the numbers is an author who shows that they understand and are willing to be a part of the marketing process. A list of potential marketing strategies can be helpful with this—it might include endorsements and author connections who would help in telling others about your book, knowledge of practices used by authors to connect with readers, and any ways the author is already connected to readers, especially if there’s a niche community related to the book or the author has made him/herself an expert in an area related to the book.

Noelle: A year or two ago, we would have said “for fiction, platform doesn’t matter. All your effort will maybe sell a few hundred copies. We work in a world that aims to moves thousands at a time.” But with the decline of retail space and the abyss of Amazon that makes discoverability increasingly hard, I would say it is beginning to matter. Still not to the extent of a non-fiction author, but you do need to be active in the book world. Not a marketing master, but at least engaged and aware.

Question 3: What’s the difference between “chasing a trend” and noticing that readers are drawn to a particular topic/era/genre and writing to meet that need?

Amy: The quality of the story plays into this a lot as well. It’s easy to tell if a writer dashed together a story to fit a trend—the research is often sloppy, the characters don’t feel real, and the story as a whole isn’t compelling. But if a particular genre or theme is popular and it seems to be a natural fit for your writing voice and what you’re passionate about, go for it. Just know that you might be building a career around that type of writing. (Some authors successfully jump around genres and styles, but often what you first write about becomes your brand. Readers want more of the kind of story they’ve come to love for you.)

Noelle: It’s probably also good to think about what trends have longevity. A ripped-from-the-headlines issue as the main focus of a book likely won’t be timely in a year or two when the book comes out (although some conflicts and issues, used as part of the plot and not the whole basis of the book, are perennial). Some genres and trends “cross-over” from the ABA into the CBA. Regency romance is an example. Others don’t, at least not with the same kind of widespread success, like young adult paranormal. It’s also interesting to note that a lot of the mega-bestseller trends of the CBA started in the CBA (from Beverly Lewis’s Amish to Frank Peretti’s supernatural to the Left Behind apocalyptic that lives on in Jonathan Cahn and others). All of those things should go into consideration when thinking about trends.