Branding Through Cover Art

Nancy J. Cohen

Series branding can be just as important as author branding. What’s the difference? Author branding tells who you are and what kind of stories you write. For example, my works blend elements of murder, mystery, romance, and humor. Readers know they’re in for an entertaining yet suspenseful ride with a satisfying ending. I also write stories set in Florida, and this tropical flavor adds a layer of depth to my work.

Currently, I’m working to revise and reissue my earlier mystery titles. I hired a new cover designer and liked her idea of putting a collage together of photographic images. Similar to an art sheet from a publisher, I filled her in on what might make an appropriate scene and what elements it might include. I looked at the images she subsequently sent me and picked ones that seemed perfect.
All went well until she put them together in a cover mockup. My stomach sank. It didn’t work for me. The images were fine. So were the colors and title placement. But the whole didn’t speak to me as a cozy reader. Where was the humor element? The fun factor that would make me smile and want to buy this book, like these covers below?

ManicureMM    Shear Murder

And so I did a search on Amazon for “cozy mysteries.” The overwhelming majority of them were illustrations, not photographs. I’d given this designer a list of covers that appealed to me, but she didn’t seem to “get” the genre. My original cover artist, who’d had to bow out for personal reasons, had sent me a mockup of a cover that I’d really liked. Looking at them side-by-side, I had a bad feeling about the photo-based imagery. It wasn’t right for the genre.

Even if I rebranded myself by having all my reissued titles have similar designs, would these more realistic covers attract cozy readers? I didn’t think so. It certainly wouldn’t appeal to me. As a cozy reader, I look for a certain style. Normally, you can identify a cozy just by looking at the cover. And so I regretfully parted ways with designer number two. I approached my original artist to see if she was available again, and to my joy she said yes. We’re back to fixing the details on the original cover, and I feel much happier about the process.

What is the lesson learned? It’s not only about your author brand. It’s also about reader expectations. Readers can tell from the cover what type of story to expect. Go for a change if you want to broaden your readership. But if you want genre appeal, stick to the tried and true. Flowers never did it for me as a romance reader. I still like the old-fashioned clinch covers. Remember the old gothics, with a woman in a gown running away from a spooky mansion? You could tell at a glimpse what genre it represented. So yes, your cozy or thriller cover at a glance might resemble others in the genre, but that’s what readers want and expect.

Whichever route you go, plan for series continuity via the same font, author name and title location, series logo, design style and color statement (i.e. pastels or bold and bright).

Does reader expectation figure into your cover art or does this aspect not concern you?

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The First Conundrum

Nancy J. Cohen

Often people will start reading a series with book number one. “You can begin with any story,” I’ll tell folks interested in reading my Bad Hair Day series. But they insist on starting at the beginning. “That’s fine,” I’ll say, but is it really?

coverPTD

I am thinking how that first book is not the best example of my writing skills today. How long ago was it published? In 1999. And the book had probably been in production for a year before. So that means I wrote it sixteen or more years ago. Don’t you think my writing has improved since then? Yet here is this potential fan evaluating my entire series based on that one book. You’d hope she would cut me some slack.

At least I got the rights back to my early futuristics. I revised those stories before making them available in ebook formats. No problems there.

I do not have the same opportunity with my mysteries. But even if I did, would it be a good use of my time to revise all of my earlier stories? Or is it best to leave them in their pristine state, an example of my earlier writing style? If so, let’s hope that the readers out there coming to my series for the first time will approve and understand.

Sometimes the opposite is true. A writer’s early works are his best efforts, before he gets rushed to meet deadlines or to quicken production. In such cases, the later writing might suffer. I’ve seen this happen with some favorite authors.

So what do you think? If you want to read a new series, do you begin with book one or with the latest title?
 
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Now for some BSP. My new book, Warrior Lord (Drift Lords Series #3) is being released on Friday, August 1.
http://www.wildrosepublishing.com/maincatalog_v151/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=831
August 1, Friday, Book Launch Party for Warrior Lord, 10 am – 4 pm EDT. Join the fun. Giveaways all day! https://www.facebook.com/NewReleaseParty
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Sowing Seeds for a Sequel

Nancy J. Cohen

How do you drop hints for a sequel into your current story, not only to let readers know more books are coming but also to whet their appetite for the next installment?
 
You can (1) title your book as part of a series, (2) include an excerpt for the next book after the last chapter, (3) plant clues foreshadowing another problem to come, or (4) drop an overt hint toward the end of your story.

Number four is what I did in Hanging By A Hair, book #11 in my Bad Hair Day mysteries due out on April 18th. At the end of this story, I drop a hint that leads directly to the sequel, Peril by Ponytail. The mystery in Hanging By A Hair is solved, so readers go away satisfied, and the main character learns a lesson. But anticipation is half the fun, and I’m hoping fans will be eager for the next installment. I did the same thing in Killer Knots when Marla announces she and Dalton have set a date for their wedding. That leads into Shear Murder, the wedding story and #10 in my series.

ShearMurder

But what if you haven’t plotted the sequel, written the first chapter for it, or even planned on one? And then suddenly readers are demanding the next book. What do you do?

Hopefully, you can still make additions in your current WIP. So here are some tips on how to drop in some subtle hints of what’s to come:

  • First plot your overall series story arc for the next few books.
  • Identify the main characters. Is this a series with a single protagonist in each volume, or are the stories spin-offs, wherein secondary characters in one story become the heroes in another? Either way, try to determine what personal issues will be driving these people in the next book.
  • Write the opening scene to get a feel for the story.

Now go back to the WIP and look for places where you can drop in hints of what’s to come.

In the Drift Lords series, a sweeping battle between good and evil is heralded. What happens after this battle when my heroes triumph? Is the series over? Not necessarily, because you all know that after one bad guy goes down, a worse one pops up to threaten humanity.

Spoiler Alert! I created an unusual situation by writing my first three books in chronological order because the story comes to its rightful conclusion in this trilogy. The next three books, as I’ve planned it, will take place in the same time period as books 2 and 3. I know it’s confusing, but bear with me. What will make this next set of books special, if fans know our main villains get vanquished in book 3? It appears our Drift Lords are not finished just because they’ve prevented disaster. A worse villain awaits them around the corner.

WarriorRogue750

I created a new story arc for books 4 through 6. Look at Star Wars. George Lucas made a wildly popular trilogy. Then he did another 3 movies, calling them prequels. Now the series will continue with a new story line into the future.

I drop hints in Warrior Lord (Drift Lords book #3) for the next trilogy in my series. I see them as sets of three with the potential for a total of seven or more. And like Terry Goodkind’s excellent Sword of Truth series, just because one nasty bad guy is defeated doesn’t mean there aren’t more waiting in the wings. Is evil ever truly vanquished?

Sword Truth

Do you like hints of what’s to come in stories subsequent to what you are currently reading? I’m not talking cliffhanger endings here. I hate it when the main story isn’t finished, and you have to wait for the sequel. But personal issues can continue in the next installment, or new problems might arise that cause trouble. One has to be careful not to frustrate the reader by leaving too many threads loose, but it’s good storytelling to offer a teaser about what may be in store. Just make sure you bring the current story to a satisfying conclusion.

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my personal blog at http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com

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The Trilogy Trick – Guest Spot with Michelle Gagnon

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I am very excited to have Michelle Gagnon as my guest, but she is definitely no stranger to TKZ. Many of you know Michelle was a former contributor extraordinaire to our blog and I’m excited to hear her thoughts on trilogies and her latest release. Welcome, Michelle!

Don't Look Now HC C

Hi folks, I’ve missed you! So good to be back on TKZ.

With the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games, trilogies are all the rage these days. In fact, when I first pitched an idea for a young adult novel to my publisher, they specifically requested a trilogy. I agreed, because hey, what author wouldn’t want to guarantee the publication of three more books? Besides, I’d written a series before. How much harder could a trilogy be?

The first one, DON’T TURN AROUND, turned out to be the easiest book I’ve ever written. The rough draft flowed out of me in eight weeks; it was one of those magical manuscripts that seemed to write itself.

I sat back down at the computer, confident that the second and third would proceed just as smoothly; even (foolishly) harboring hopes that I’d knock the whole thing out in under six months.

Boy, was I wrong.

Here’s the thing: in a regular series, even though the characters carry through multiple books (and occasionally, plotlines do as well), they’re relatively self-contained. In the end, the villain is (usually) captured or killed; at the very least, his evil plan has been stymied.

Not so in a trilogy. For this series, I needed the bad guy—and the evil plot—to traverse all three books. Yet each installment had to be self-contained enough to satisfy readers. 

Suffice it to say that books 2 and 3 were a grueling enterprise. But along the way, I learned some important lessons on how to structure a satisfying trilogy:

  1. Each book has its own arc. Well, that’s obvious, right? But what this really means is that book 3 can’t feel like a mere continuation of book 2. Even if your villain/evil plot spans all three books, you need to provide resolution at the end of each installment. This is a good place to employ what I’ve dubbed, “The Henchman Rule.” At the end of each book, someone needs to be held accountable; otherwise your hero/heroine won’t seem to be making any headway. And the best solution for this? Get rid of the main baddie’s number 2, his right hand man. My favorite example is the stripping of Saruman’s powers at the end of The Two Towers. Sauron must wait to be dealt with in The Return of the King, but his main wizard is handily dispatched by Gandalf (suffice it to say, I didn’t have much of a social life in junior high school). 
  2. Avoid “Middle Book Syndrome.” What I discussed above is particularly challenging in the second book of any trilogy. This is the bridge book, the one where the characters need to move forward in their quest, but not too far forward. Traditionally, this is also the book that concludes with your main character (or characters) beaten down, exhausted, and uncertain of the possibility of success. Which can be a pretty depressing note to end on, unless you also provide them with a key: something that will help them surmount obstacles in book 3. That key can be any number of things: more information about the evil plan, the villain’s only vulnerability, etc. But the main goal is to set the stage for book 3, while still wrapping up enough threads to keep your readers happy.
  3. Character arcs need to span all three books. In a standalone, the main character faces some sort of incident that jettisons her into extreme circumstances (ie: Katniss’s sister losing the lottery). An escalation of events follows: the character is forced to confront her own weaknesses, and to discover her hidden strengths. At the end of Act 2, the character is usually at a low point, facing potential failure. Then, in the final act, the character rises to the occasion and ends up saving the day. In a trilogy, these same rules apply: but the conclusion of each book corresponds with the act breaks. Example: at the end of The Girl who Played with Fire (#2 in the trilogy), Lisbeth is horribly injured; she needs to overcome that incapacitation in order to finally vanquish her father in book 3.
  4. Avoid information dumps. Always a good rule, but trickier with trilogies. While working on the final installment, I kept butting up against this issue: when characters referred back to earlier events, how much background information was necessary to keep readers from becoming irrevocably lost? In the end, I provided very little. The truth is, it’s rare for people to start with the third book in a trilogy; I’m sure it happens, but it’s the exception, not the rule. So what you’re really doing is giving gentle reminders to people who might have read the last book months earlier. Provide enough information to jog their memory, without inundating them. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but I’d recommend erring on the side of giving less, not more.

So those are my tips, earned the hard way. Today’s question: what trilogies (aside from those I mentioned) did you love, and what about them kept you reading?


Michelle_Gagnon_color_09_optMichelle Gagnon is the international bestselling author of thrillers for teens and adults. Described as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets the Bourne Identity,” her YA technothriller DON’T TURN AROUND was nominated for a Thriller Award, and was selected as one of the best teen books of the year by Entertainment Weekly Magazine, Kirkus, Voya, and the Young Adult Library Services Association. The second installment, DON’T LOOK NOW, is on sale now (and hopefully doesn’t suffer from “middle book syndrome.”) She splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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Going Deeper With a Series Character


Today’s post is brought to you by my new boxing story, “King Crush,” now available for 99¢ exclusively for Kindle. And, as a special inducement, for a limited time the first story, “Iron Hands,” is available FREE. 
Today I have a question: What do you like to see in a series character? The same “feel” over and over, or deepening and changing?
There are two schools of thought on this.
Lee Child once remarked that he loves Dom Perignon champagne and wants each bottle to be the same. He’s not looking for a different taste each time out. So it is with his Jack Reacher novels. And millions of fans are tracking right along with him.
There are other enduring series where the character remains roughly static. Phillip Marlowe didn’t change all that much until The Long Goodbye. James Bond? Not a whole lot of change going on inside 007.
At the other end of the spectrum are those characters who undergo significant transformation as the series moves along. The best contemporary example of this is, IMO, the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly. What he’s done with Bosch from book to book is nothing short of astonishing.
Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder was traipsing along as a pretty standard PI until Block made a conscious decision to kick it up a notch. He did that with Eight Million Ways to Die, a book that knocked me out. Here we have Scudder not just on a new case, but also battling his alcoholism and the existential angst of life in New York City in the early 1980s. By going deeper Block created one of the classics of the genre.
In my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series (written as K. Bennett) I have a lead character who is a zombie hungering (you’ll pardon the phrase) for change. She doesn’t want to be what she is. The just released Book 2,The Year of Eating Dangerously, begins with Mallory in the hills looking down at a motorcycle gang and thinking, Lunch.And then reflecting on her damaged soul.
Book 3, due out later this year, begins with Mallory at a ZA meeting—Zombies Anonymous. She is trying to stay off human flesh (substituting calves’ brains) but it’s not easy. And I say without hesitation that I was inspired by the above mentioned Eight Million Ways to Die.
So here’s my series about boxer Irish Jimmy Gallagher. These are short stories, and I’m going for “revealing” more of Jimmy in each one. “Iron Hands” was the intro, giving us Jimmy’s world and basic personality. Now comes “King Crush.”
The new story takes place in 1955 and revolves around an old carnival attraction they used to have in America, the carny fighter who would take on locals. If the locals stayed with him long enough, they might earn back their five bucks and some more besides. But these carny pugs knew all the dirty tricks, and it was usually the hayseeds who ended up on the canvas.
Jimmy just wants to have a good time at the carnival with his girl, Ruby, and his bulldog, Steve. He’s not looking for trouble. But sometimes trouble finds Jimmy Gallagher.
I started writing these stories because there’s something in me that wants to know Jimmy Gallagher, what makes him tick. And that’s my preference as a writer and a reader of series. I want to go a little deeper each time.
So who is your favorite series character? Is this character basically the same from book to book? Or is there significant change going on?

If you’re writing a series, do you have a plan for the development of your character over time? Or is it more a book-to-book thing?
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Going Deeper With a Series Character


Today’s post is brought to you by my new boxing story, “King Crush,” now available for 99¢ exclusively for Kindle. And, as a special inducement, for a limited time the first story, “Iron Hands,” is available FREE. 
Today I have a question: What do you like to see in a series character? The same “feel” over and over, or deepening and changing?
There are two schools of thought on this.
Lee Child once remarked that he loves Dom Perignon champagne and wants each bottle to be the same. He’s not looking for a different taste each time out. So it is with his Jack Reacher novels. And millions of fans are tracking right along with him.
There are other enduring series where the character remains roughly static. Phillip Marlowe didn’t change all that much until The Long Goodbye. James Bond? Not a whole lot of change going on inside 007.
At the other end of the spectrum are those characters who undergo significant transformation as the series moves along. The best contemporary example of this is, IMO, the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly. What he’s done with Bosch from book to book is nothing short of astonishing.
Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder was traipsing along as a pretty standard PI until Block made a conscious decision to kick it up a notch. He did that with Eight Million Ways to Die, a book that knocked me out. Here we have Scudder not just on a new case, but also battling his alcoholism and the existential angst of life in New York City in the early 1980s. By going deeper Block created one of the classics of the genre.
In my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series (written as K. Bennett) I have a lead character who is a zombie hungering (you’ll pardon the phrase) for change. She doesn’t want to be what she is. The just released Book 2,The Year of Eating Dangerously, begins with Mallory in the hills looking down at a motorcycle gang and thinking, Lunch.And then reflecting on her damaged soul.
Book 3, due out later this year, begins with Mallory at a ZA meeting—Zombies Anonymous. She is trying to stay off human flesh (substituting calves’ brains) but it’s not easy. And I say without hesitation that I was inspired by the above mentioned Eight Million Ways to Die.
So here’s my series about boxer Irish Jimmy Gallagher. These are short stories, and I’m going for “revealing” more of Jimmy in each one. “Iron Hands” was the intro, giving us Jimmy’s world and basic personality. Now comes “King Crush.”
The new story takes place in 1955 and revolves around an old carnival attraction they used to have in America, the carny fighter who would take on locals. If the locals stayed with him long enough, they might earn back their five bucks and some more besides. But these carny pugs knew all the dirty tricks, and it was usually the hayseeds who ended up on the canvas.
Jimmy just wants to have a good time at the carnival with his girl, Ruby, and his bulldog, Steve. He’s not looking for trouble. But sometimes trouble finds Jimmy Gallagher.
I started writing these stories because there’s something in me that wants to know Jimmy Gallagher, what makes him tick. And that’s my preference as a writer and a reader of series. I want to go a little deeper each time.
So who is your favorite series character? Is this character basically the same from book to book? Or is there significant change going on?

If you’re writing a series, do you have a plan for the development of your character over time? Or is it more a book-to-book thing?
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