My New Adult series The New Pioneers has a huge cast of characters. Each of the four full-length books is at its heart a romance with a different hero and heroine. That’s eight right there, and just about every character has a parent who plays a big role in their story, even if they’re deceased (two such parents are the subjects of my short story). Because no romance is much fun without a spoiler, that’s at least four more. And while not every character is going to carry a story on his or her own, it’s important to have friends who fill out the major characters’ lives.
In other words, I have close to thirty characters I manage in my series—and that’s just in the books I’ve published so far. Books five and six are going to open up into an entirely different area of the New Pioneers’ universe. The challenge there is to respect the history and important of the people who introduce them while making the new characters as compelling as our old favorites. (Then again, the last half is always part of our job.)
So how does a writer manage such a large cast over multiple books and with that many more storylines? In two ways: first, knowing the characters — second, always keeping sight of what the series is about.
Knowing our characters is our number one requirement when we are creating a story around them, whether we’re writing a standalone or a series. The story is not the plot; the plot is just the vehicle that we use to help our characters on their journeys. The better we get to know them, the easier it will be to understand the plot they need. As far as I’m concerned, all of the discussion we have about whether we’re going to plan our stories ahead of time or whether we’re going to write by the seat of our pants is missing the point. The majority of whatever time we’re going to dedicate to planning has to be spent on figuring out what makes our character unique and what went into making him or her that way. Just as in real life, that’s nature and nurture: figure out that character’s origin story and then figure out what pivotal events, however small, went into shaping him or her into the final form.
But this is also a series, and just as a book isn’t its plot, a series isn’t just a collection of books with the same characters in related settings. It’s has to tell a larger story. In my case, that story (as cliché as it may sound) is about the American Dream. Every character is after it, in their own way, and they bring their own talents and limitations. Jessie, Richard and Michael may be from old-monied families, but in some ways that means they understand better than anyone what it means to lose everything. Emily may hate Alex more than anyone else in the series, but maybe that’s because they both know what it is to be an outsider looking in. Mitch and Emily may butt heads as they play Will They Or Won’t They, but part of what draws them to each other is their shared understanding of what it is to be a second- or third-generation immigrant. Zainab may not have been born in the US, but she’s the breath of fresh air and energy that motivates everyone to stay positive and keep pursuing their dreams. And finally, there’s Miranda, an orphan in America who keeps her sanity by making an effort to connect with her father’s family in Israel (and that connection will come in handy for everyone later).
How is everyone going to realize his or her dream? By working together. That is the series, but for each character it means different things (some people have to accept help, and some people have to learn to get out of their own way). My challenge, then, is not only understanding each character, but understanding how they help—or hinder—everyone else.
I use the word “challenge” facetiously. The truth is that it’s exciting to figure out how my characters are going to walk in and out of each other’s lives and what roles they’re going to play. And if I’m completely honest, at this point I know these folks so well that I’m not making decisions as much as I am watching them play it out. My real work then? Getting to know the new characters my old ones demand to meet.
As writers our primary job is to write, and every credible marketing expert I have spoken to says that content is much more important than any Search Engine Optimization tweaking we can do. But self-publishing is just like any other new job or new business—networking is important if we want to find new opportunities.
There are three places we all must be, and surprisingly those have been constant for about three years (an eternity in web-years): a Twitter account, a Facebook page and a blog. As far as I’m concerned, all other platforms are gravy. But simply setting up those accounts isn’t enough. You have to tweet on Twitter, update your status on Facebook and write posts on your blog.
And then you’re done?
No. Because you can write the most brilliant content the internet has ever seen, but if you’re not interacting with anyone else, the chances are small that anyone is going to find it.
If you’ve been on Twitter for any amount of time, you’ve run into at least one person who tweets several times per hour about how great his or her product or book is. “My book is so awesome!” “Check out my five-star review!” “Look at how great I am!” I always cringe when I see this, because it’s exactly the wrong approach and doesn’t convince anyone of anything except that you really want to sell something—and that can just come off as desperate if you and I don’t already have a relationship.
A better approach on Twitter? Find people with similar interests and start reading what they have to say. Don’t jump in with a reply or to start a conversation until you can say something relevant to something they’ve put out there. I guarantee, that person will be much more receptive to your thoughtful, personalized approach than they would to your advertising blast.
Facebook has been compared to the mall on more than one occasion, and not in a flattering way. It’s bad enough that they sting us with advertisements and selectively decide what we can see; don’t make it worse by trying to turn your page into a billboard. Don’t just post links to your book or blog; talk about what you’ve been doing that day (as it relates to your writing); share news and information that might be relevant to your fans; and finally, share information for other people. Even better? Comment on other people’s pages and have a genuine conversation.
Finally, your blog. This is where the c-word (that would be content, in case you’re wondering) is most important, if only because it’s easier for people to skate through your blog archives than it is your Twitter and Facebook accounts. But even on blogs, it’s not enough to write great content: you need to interact. Want people to comment on your blog? Then start commenting on theirs, and not simply, “wow, great post!” but something that shows you read and were paying attention. But please, I beg you, don’t comment with something along the lines of “How are you doing?” I talked about exactly this on my blog, “http://myblogisbetterthanyours.com/ImTheMostImportantThingOnTheInternet.” Because in addition to irritating everyone else who reads the comments, you’re also not going to convince anyone that you are all that and a slice of toast.
Want to take it to the next level? Then start thinking like a small business person again and figure out what your value proposition is. In other words, what do you have that most other people on the internet don’t, and why should anyone care about your opinion? How can you be useful to the people you’re trying to talk to? Do you have a collection of helpful writing prompts? Have you been following a certain aspect of publishing? Do you have a collection of articles on editing or formatting? Tips on how to break through writer’s block? Then share them—and your thoughts on them. Do it consistently and people will start to think of you as a trusted resource that they’ll be on the lookout for—and eventually may seek out.
In some ways, social media is a lot like real networking: be polite, pleasant and useful, and people will want to be around you. And the more people are around you, the more likely they are to offer you help, whether it’s being hosted on their blogs, sharing information about your work (the best advertising is still word of mouth) or letting you know about opportunities to publish. And if you should happen to make some genuine friends? The possibilities are endless.
Nineteen-year-old Emily wants her college diploma fast, and she’s going to get it. But when the perfect night with perfect Mitch leads her to a broken heart, Emily is blind to her vulnerability. When the person she cares about the most is hurt as a result, Emily’s ambition gives way to more than a little ruthlessness. She’s going to use her smarts to take care of herself and protect the people she loves, and everyone else had better stay out of her way. But shouldn’t the smartest girl everyone knows realize that the ones she’d cross the line for would do the same for her?
Miranda Harel has been in love with her guardian, Alex Sheldon, since she was five years old, and Michael Abbot has despised them both for just as long. When Miranda finds out why she wants both men out of her life for good and questions everything she believed about where and who she came from. Finding out the truth will break her heart. Without family or true love, will her friends be enough?
CONNECT WITH DEBORAH
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Deborah Nam-Krane was born in New York, raised in Cambridge and educated in Boston. You’re forgiven for assuming she’s prejudiced toward anything city or urban. She’s been writing in one way or another since she was eight years old (and telling stories well before that).
She first met some of the characters in The New Pioneers series when she was thirteen years old, but it took two decades—and a couple of other characters—to get the story just right.
Time to chat with Deb!
What is your latest book?
My latest and first book is The Smartest Girl in the Room. It’s about Emily: nineteen, very driven and trying to graduate from college immediately. As crazy as that looks, she actually has a very good reason for what she’s doing. Emily doesn’t have time for romance, but it falls into her lap with Mitch and they end up on the perfect all-night date in Boston. Unfortunately, after that Mitch makes a really stupid decision that breaks her heart.
Emily’s still reeling from that when her mother kicks her out, and she ends up with someone who seems safe—but appearances are not what they seem, especially when you’re vulnerable. When she realizes just how off her judgment was she becomes very protective and very controlling. That’s certainly going to be a complication when Mitch comes back for a second chance with her, but she’s also going to find that not everyone is going to thank her for taking charge.
I’m calling this both Romance and Chick-Lit. As much as the story is about Emily and Mitch getting together, it’s also about Emily’s relationships with her friends Zainab, Jessie and Miranda. I’m also calling it New Adult because the characters are nineteen to twenty-six. Hopefully everyone else will just call it a good story!
Is your recent book part of a series?
Yes, it’s the kick off book for The New Pioneers series. All of the characters, in their own way, are driven by episodes from their past and we spend some time looking back, but it’s also about dreaming of a better future and moving forward.
Above all, this is an American story— newer and older Americans. I’m the daughter and great-granddaughter of immigrants, so that’s definitely a perspective I’m bringing to the table, but my other ancestors were here for hundreds of years before, and some thousands of years before that. America absolutely benefits from the constant infusion of new people, ambitions and ideas. But new ideas can also come from the people already here, and in my opinion it’s the interaction of old and new that creates something really interesting. That’s America, and that’s part of what I tried to imbue into these stories.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
I write out the entire first draft before I go in and make any major edits. I need to power through when I write so I can make sure I get it all out the way I want it. Once I’ve hit everything I go back and make my changes. It’s usually adding in a bunch of things, walking away for a little bit, then taking out even more. (Isn’t that the way everybody edits?)
Please, tell us about your experiences with social media. What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of it?
I was skeptical about social media a couple of years ago and didn’t understand why all of the adults were rushing to use something my young teenager was using. But when I joined and started reconnecting with people I hadn’t seen in decades I immediately understood the attraction. It’s also been a great way to meet people with similar interests, and I don’t just mean writers. On top of that, I’ve been able to connect with journalists and media outlets I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Considering how much of my story has been inspired by news stories, that’s a big deal.
Social media and social networks are great marketing tools if we’re trying to sell something, but we have to use them for public relations, not advertising. PR is the long game, but it’s fun! It’s your opportunity to craft the public image you want, as opposed to having something foisted on you. And it’s free (basically).
What I have tried to do through the various networks I’m on is share items that highlight my interests in education, history, politics, art, publishing, technology and social justice (among other things). What I’m hoping I’ve done is convince people that I’m someone who thinks before she speaks. Does that mean that everyone would or should rush to buy something from me? Of course not, but hopefully it makes people interested in what I have to say.
I’ve found a great group of people to follow and share with (although I’m always looking for more) but what worries me is all of the filtering these sites use. It’s worst on Facebook; I’m guessing I see about a third of my feed on a regular basis, and not because of any changes I’ve made. But Twitter is also offering the ability to “tailor” what you see. I don’t like that at all. It’s really easy to get caught up in your own narcissistic bubble, and that’s exactly the opposite of what we want as writers— or people.
We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?
A lot. Most of us aren’t selling our book at a high price point (anywhere from free to $4.99) so in a way these are like the impulse buys people make at the bookstore register. Hopefully the final decision is being made because of the excerpt, but I think the cover is the first thing people use to decide whether to read the excerpt. Get the best cover you can afford, and you might be surprised at what you can get even if you think you can’t afford anything.
Every day brings forth new changes and shifts in the world of publishing. Any predictions about the future?
I think the analysts and bloggers are right: Barnes and Noble as we know it won’t be around in another three years. And in a way that’s crazy, because the ones near me are always busy. (So were the Borders stores.) But the superstores haven’t figured out a way to keep up with the changing marketplace. And Barnes and Noble is shooting itself in the foot by making things so inexpensive online but so much more expensive in the stores.
Having said that, people clearly have a desire to go into a bookstore and browse. I think we’re going to see a return to smaller bookstores, and they’re probably going to be attached to something else. But it’s going to be a while before they come back to the level that we had them a decade ago.
In the meantime (and this is admittedly more of a wish than a prediction) I think more people are going to come to libraries to get their browsing “fill”, and I think libraries are going to start offering more services for the reader who wants more of an electronic experience. We’re already seeing that. But everyone would do well to remember that many if not most people still want the tactile, skin-on-page experience and shouldn’t plan on converting everything over to e-readers.
Do you miss spending time with your characters when you finish writing them?
Absolutely! These characters lived in my head so long that I really didn’t want to stop writing them, and that was after going through four books with them. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. I’ve written a couple of short stories about them, some of which will help my readers bridge the gaps between the novels, and some of which were just ways for me to keep “talking” to them.
A lot of authors are frustrated by readers who don’t understand how important reviews are? What would you say to a reader who doesn’t think his or her review matters?
I reviewed on Amazon for over ten years and I review quite a bit on my writer’s blog, so I might be the wrong person to answer this question, but here I go: yes, reviews are very important, especially if you’re primarily selling on Amazon. Reviews and sales numbers are used to rank you, but they’re also used to make your work more visible. Sales matter more—as another writer put it, the more you sell, the more you sell—but reviews matter a lot. Please don’t ask me to explain the mysterious algorithm Amazon uses, because no one has figured that out.
A few more things: first, as a reviewer, I always tried to be as detailed as possible when I was reviewing. I wouldn’t expect that from any reader reviewing my work, but I would hope that especially a negative review (one or two stars) would get more of an explanation than a positive review (four or five). If you didn’t like it or thought it failed, please explain why. Believe it or not, many writers will appreciate that. I once took a point off of a review because of a historical inaccuracy. The author wrote to me that night to thank me for pointing it out; now she could make the correction before it got sent off for the Kindle version. You’re not obligated to do anything when you write a review except give your opinion, but it helps make the whole process better.
The second thing would be to write a genuine review giving your honest opinion. By “genuine” I mean you have actually read the entire book. I have cringed looking through my social media feeds and see authors brag about good reviews they have obviously traded for by writing reviews for other authors. Just…don’t. It makes us all look bad, and Amazon has started cracking down on writers reviewing other writers (and they’ve gone too far in my opinion).
There’s a lot we can do to market ourselves, and some of that is worth spending money on (blog tours, newsletter advertising, even social media ads). But reviews are something we shouldn’t pay for. Ultimately we have to let our writing speak for itself. The only surefire way to get good reviews is to write something good. Have people read your work before you release it to get their feedback and PLEASE make sure you get an editor: if you’re going to spend nothing else, spend some money on that. It’s one thing to get a bad review because someone doesn’t like a plot point or character; it’s another thing to get a bad review for something completely avoidable, like typos or grammar.
Have you ever started out to write one book and ended up with something completely different?
My second book was a story that lived with me for a long time. I finished my first book knowing exactly how I was going to write it and then did a 180. I didn’t change any of the action, but the emotional perspective of the characters shifted completely. And then the story became charged in a way I’m still trying to recover from. I always knew it would reverberate through the next two books, but it ended up doing so in a much different way.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
How doable indie publishing was going to be. My big concerns were editorial services and marketing. It wasn’t until the last year or so that I understood how little you could expect from a traditional house as far as marketing, and that’s for everyone except the biggest names. And I had no idea that I’d be able to find editors and designers who could do good work that I could afford.
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
I’ve been in Cambridge and Boston since I was two, so I (finally) consider myself a Bostonian. Boston is also a huge part of my story, and sometimes I think of it as another character. However, I was born in New York City and I still have family and friends there, so part of me feels at home there. If I were to move anywhere, it would be there. Not Manhattan though—definitely Queens.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
Um, other than the fact that I write romance? I guess the fact that I’m a lifelong Trekkie. If you name the Original Series episode, I can tell you the plot and season. I take my Trek pretty seriously and I’m willing to discuss it for hours at a time. Oh yeah: hands off Mister Spock, he’s mine.
What’s your favorite film of all times? Favorite book?
How do you choose just one?
The first film that comes to mind is Casablanca because Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are in the dictionary next to the word “chemistry,” but Citizen Kane is also one of the best films I have ever seen. And I love James Bond like a drug. More modern films? I love light comedies: The Man Who Knew Too Little has made me cry from laughing so hard, and I am not proud that I paid money to see Malibu’s Most Wanted and have sought it out again on television.
I am even more all over the place when it comes to books. I loved The Scarlet Letter, A Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Washington Square, Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov. Anything that makes me feel connected to something, whether it’s because it explains a historical event or phenomenon really well or it draws me into the story. The People of the Book was amazing, as was Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. But I’m a sucker for good non-fiction too. Galileo’s Muse and World 3.0 are some of my most recent favorites.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Daytime television aka Soap Operas. I loved those when I was a kid because they spent a lot of time drawing out the story and the characters, and the payoff could be huge. That industry has gone through a lot of changes, and not all of them for the better. A lot of the writers have forgotten that the best stories are character driven. You also have to find that just-right balance between too many new characters and not enough. I’d say out of all of the ones still on the air Days Of Our Lives is the one getting it most consistently right.
What are three things you think we can all do to make the world a better place?
+Start small: make the Internet a better place. I have a feeling the original concept the good people at the Department of Defense had for this thing wasn’t so we could use it as a shopping mall or to pass pictures of naked celebrities around. Let’s connect to people in different parts of the world. Let’s use this amazing tool to break barriers, not enforce them. And let’s tap into all of the information out there about science and technology that doesn’t usually get reported.
+Take a deep breath and think before we speak, write or act, and let’s not try to overreact in general. (And then once we’ve mastered that we can pass on the message to the mainstream media…)
+Read more fiction because it can help you be kind and empathetic. Honestly, that’s one of the most awe-inspiring things about a good piece of writing— it helps you understand someone who isn’t like you. Human beings are endowed with an amazing capacity for imagination; it really isn’t that hard to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes before we judge them.
Care to brag about your family?
Doesn’t every proud mom? 😉 I have been married for 20 years this month. I met my husband in college/law school and we have four children together: a nineteen-year-old daughter, a thirteen-year-old daughter and two-eight year-old sons (yep, twins!). They’re all kind of brilliant on their own and I’ve been homeschooling them for about three years. I’m pretty tickled by all of their diverse interests: a lot of science, inventing, comic books, writing, math, languages and politics. It’s not something I can take credit for, but I do a lot of bragging anyway 🙂