A Comparison that Worked

I’m not a big fan of pitching a story by saying, “It’s like The Lord of the Rings.” Even if the comparison is less ambitious (and more realistic), it still doesn’t sit well with me when an author compares his or her work to a more successful, more established work. I just don’t think a writer can claim someone else’s glory for themselves with any credibility. It comes across as vain and absurd.

There are (sort of) exceptions to this. When you use references to another work as a thematic element within your own, that’s builds credibility while paying homage to the work you include as a thematic element. In which case, acknowledging the thematic relationship in your marketing boosts your credibility instead of detracting from it. It’s like making a comparison, but without the vanity.

Now here’s another exception: Other people can compare your work to a previous work, saying, “If you liked X, then you’ll love Y!” without losing credibility for themselves or for your work—unless, of course, they’re just plain wrong.

I’ve never been satisfied with a book that I’ve tried because it claimed to be like something else. I have, however, been satisfied with books that claim to be “in the tradition of…” and then use the original work thematically. More recently, I was reading an article about Star-Crossed, which compared CW’s Star-Crossed to the WB’s Roswell.

I’d never seen Roswell, but I did enjoy quite a few of the other WB shows mentioned in this extended comparison. I also have Netflix, which has the entirety of Roswell available through their streaming option. I decided to give it a try and I got sucked right in. I watched three seasons of Roswell in less than a month, though that’s partially because I’ve been experiencing far too much insomnia lately.

The point is this:

  • DON’T compare your work to the famous works of others or even the less famous work of famous others.
  • DO reference other works as thematic elements embedded within your own (when appropriate) and, if you do so, do acknowledge the thematic connection in your marketing materials.
  • DO encourage others to make appropriate comparisons when they like your work, just so long as they’re not writing marketing copy that will be presented as your own words.

Some things work, others don’t. Vanity doesn’t work. But honest enthusiasm does.

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What is Your Story Really About?

So, you have this story: Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl loves boy, boy and girl are separated by circumstances, boy and girl try to be together anyway, all hell breaks loose, boy and girl overcome their challenges and end up together. This is the plot for a great many stories.

This plot does not tell you the genre of the story.

This plot does not tell you the characters of the story.

This plot does not tell you the milieu of the story.

This plot is NOT what the story is really about.

So, what would tell you what this story is really about?

Here are a few places to start:

  • Who are your characters are and why are they who they are?
  • What circumstances keep them apart and how are those circumstances shaped by the milieu of the story?
  • What is the focus of the story? (This determines the genre.)
  • What’s the theme of the story? What message do you use this story to convey?

Ideally, all these elements—plot, character, milieu, genre, and theme—will work together to convey a cohesive meaning that goes beyond what happens to whom and where. If you accomplish that, then you’ll have a story that’s really about something and your readers will love you for it!

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Trailer Time: Trailer Fail?

I found what may be a book trailer, but it’s hard to know for sure:

If you look at the handle of the video poster, you’ll see that this trailer was posted by “FailVideos17.” The text sounds like something that would go with a book trailer, but the video itself…

Is this really a trailer or is a “fail” spoof?

If it’s supposed to be a trailer, it’s definitely a fail, because:

  • I have no idea what’s going on.
  • The book title, author, and other pertinent information aren’t available in the trailer itself.
  • I’m more concerned about finding out whether this is really a book trailer or some weird kind of spoof than I am about figuring out what this trailer is supposed to communicate about the book.

Intrigue is important to capture interest. Creative use of a low-budget is a fine strategy. But…a book trailer is supposed to be intriguing and informative. If you don’t provide viewers with information—like who the story is about, why they should care, or, at the very least, what the book is—then a successful intrigue will still result in a failed sale.

This definitely goes on the “don’t do this at home” list.

And, if it’s a spoof, what’s the point?

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Creating Expectations

Understanding genre and subgenre is important, because it gives you the knowledge you need to craft and defy readers’ expectations in ways that work.  You need to use this same understanding when you craft your marketing messages.

In the trailers I analyzed earlier this week Star-Crossed created the expectation of a science fiction television show with romance as the sub-genre.  The episodes aired thus far deliver a romantic television show with science fiction as the sub-genre.  Some of the viewers will be disappointed enough by this defiance of their expectations to stop watching the show, because their expectations were not properly shaped and fulfilled.

The point isn’t that it’s terrible to have a show that puts romance over science fiction.  That’s a genre/sub-genre combination that does sell.  Just like Twilight sold, even though it put romance over fantasy.

The point is that when you promise one thing and deliver something else, you risk missing the target audience you want (the one that likes what you’re going to deliver) AND alienating the target audience you attract (the one that prefers what you actually promised).  You’re only hope is that enough people will be satisfied with the “substitute” and will recruit more of the target audience you really wanted.

That tactic is a bit too risky for my blood.  I’d rather create the expectations I’m going to fulfill by promising what I’ll deliver and getting the right audience the first time around.

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Thematic Score

You know how movies can have a great musical score playing in the background (or not so much in the background) that expresses the theme of the movie perfectly.  You can do the same thing in your books.

No, no, I’m not talking about using musical scores in audio or digital books, though that could be cool.  I’m talking about using a cultural device (like music) to capture your theme for your readers.  For example, while Star-Crossed does use music, they also use a thematic nod to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Personally, I hope they come up with a better ending.  But, the point is that the nod to Shakespeare draws attention to the fact that the story taking place before your eyes is a love story that is about prejudice.

Think about Romeo and Juliet.  People like to talk about how it’s this great love story, and it is, sort of.  But that’s NOT what Romeo and Juliet is about.  Put it in context and you’ll see what I mean.  Remember, William Shakespeare was a playwright.  His work was performed live in his own time.  Now, from what I know, the place where his work was performed wasn’t the kind of place most teenagers would be allowed to go.  It wasn’t like opera or elite theater, and they certainly didn’t have movie theaters with matinees.  It was on the seedier side of life, at night, and historians like to report that the area was full of a great deal of debauchery.  So, teenagers we NOT Shakespeare’s audience, which isn’t to suggest adults can’t enjoy the love story—of course they can!  The point, however, is that the adults of his time were more likely to identify with the parents—whose perspective starts and ends the play—who created the tragic situation that got their kids killed.  It was the prejudice of the parents that made the story tragic.  Romeo and Juliet is about prejudice; and so is Star-Crossed.

By using a familiar (if sometimes poorly understood) culture reference, you can subtly express your theme without beating readers over the head with it.  In fact, Shakespeare was something of a master at this, though it’s harder for us to appreciate it without studying literary history and learning more about his time period.  Take a lesson from a master and use the cultural references of your readers to help make your point.

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Trailer Time: A Professional Peek

So, this week’s Trailer Time is going to be a bit different.  First, I’m going to show you two trailers.  Then, I’m going to tell you what’s right, what’s expected, and what’s wrong.

The long version:

The short version:

Now, the first thing you should notice is that these trailers are not for books.  They’re for a television show called Star-Crossed that debuted on the CW network this year.  The second thing you should have noticed is that, according to the trailers, this show is a sci-fi/love-story.

Before we get too deeply into my analysis, there’s something I should address.  The CW is a fairly low-budget cable television network in the style of the former WB that seeks out shows that go against the hyper-popular grain to feed the cravings of niche markets.  As you should know, these niche markets tend to make for especially passionate fan bases.  This means that their off-beat shows have popular appeal, but they also tend to have lower budgets, because the market for each show is smaller.  They also tend to play up the hot-and-steamy end of things, as in The Vampire Diaries, Nikita, and the new hit Reign.

Keeping that in mind, each of these trailers offer enough interest-generating content (i.e. character and plot building) to tempt viewers into giving the show a try.  It worked on me!  You get sufficient backstory to understand that the main hero (a.k.a. Roman) is an alien boy and that the main love interest is a human girl (a.k.a. Emery).  You also know that the entire situation is filled with tension.  (Though, the situation of the show is a good indication that no intelligent life is stupid enough to come to earth—we’re just not worth it.)

I like the show.  I look forward to the episodes.  I enjoy watching it.  But it’s not what I expected.  Based on the trailer, I expected a show that emphasized the science fiction elements.  This show most definitely does not.  It’s more like a space fantasy set on earth, without any additional space travel, because the “science” is not explored or explained and seems more like convenient magic than actual scientific progress.

Furthermore, the basic psychological/scientific question has yet to be addressed in any way:  Why would a race of people scientifically advanced enough to be capable of timely (within a single year?) interstellar travel end up crash-landing on earth without 1) arranging via communication for their arrival and, I don’t know, maybe even getting permission before they try to come and 2) understanding that just showing up would incite a rather unfavorable and suspicious response to their presence?  They’re presumably smarter than us, because they have space travel far more advanced than even our best (real) theories can touch on, and yet they expected to be welcomed as refugees without having made previous contact and without understanding that a species which is almost constantly at war with each other is not socially advanced enough to cope with an alien race on their home planet.  (As you can tell, I’ve thought way too much about this!)  So, this isn’t predominantly a science fiction show; it’s more of a love story with a science fiction/fantasy veneer.

Aside from the passing nod to the sci-fi element, the big thing these trailers miss is the overwhelming Shakespearean theme of the actual show.  And by Shakespeare, I mean, of course, Romeo and Juliet.  Not only is the situation (alien boy and human girl fall in love amidst intolerance, hatred, and conflict between their peoples) a direct nod to Shakespeare, but the episode titles reflect that connection, as does the show title.  So, why is that not mentioned and why does the trailer not reflect the love-over-science emphasis of the show?  In short, the trailers promise something that it doesn’t really deliver and delivers on a powerful promise that isn’t even made.

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The Garbage Can Model

The garbage can model is an organizational theory which states, roughly, that decision making occurs when problems, solutions, and participants come together in alignment to form opportunities, but that problems, solutions, and participants exist independent of one another in a jumble or stream of activity.  This theory, in case it isn’t obvious, describes what observers see, not what they think should be.  For example, just as people have “pet projects,” i.e. problems they want to solve, they also have “pet theories,” i.e. solutions they want to try but can’t until they find a problem to go with it.

As I read about this theory in my Public Organization course, I couldn’t help but think about the ways many writers market their work.  They struggle with problems.  They dabble with solution.  They reach out to people.  They look for opportunities that will allow them to put these pieces together in a way that enhances their marketability.  It’s all jumbled up together as if the entirety of their marketing plan is thrown into a food processor and the writer is just hoping something “edible” comes out of it.

Now, going back to organizational theory, in the realm of what should be, organizational theorists propose a variety of strategic management systems.  These decision making systems do not deny the reality observed in the form of the garbage can model.  They recognize that reality and attempt to exert a greater level of control over the decision making process by deciding what the organization wants to accomplish and using the opportunities that arise to move the organization closer to achieving these predetermined goals.  By overlaying a layer of strategy over what is otherwise, essentially, chaos, managers exert their control—however much or however little that control may be—over the outcome.  This way the organization doesn’t get side-tracked by an opportunity that has no strategic value.

This fits very nicely in how I see the effective marketing of a writer’s work.  Frankly, most writers lack the resources to exert system-changing control in the marketplace.  Most of us, sadly, are rummaging through the garbage can, trying to turn the scraps we find into a meal.  By overlaying a layer of strategy over the chaos through marketing planning—choosing dumpsters over garbage cans, picking prime spots for what we like best, etc.—we can adjust things in order for them to work in our favor.  But we still cannot actually control the results.

This is why marketing plans should include ready-to-implement contingencies.  This is also why marketing plans need to be flexible and changeable, so you can take advantage of unexpected opportunities as they arise, but only as long as they move you in the right direction and have strategic value.  This is why it’s essential to take the time to understand your work and your market and yourself, so you know what does and what does not have strategic value.  With enough strategy, planning, and time, you won’t have to live out of the garbage can at all, let alone settle for whatever can happens to be at hand.

(Sorry for the late post!)

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