Born in Long Island, New York, have lived in New Jersey, Connecticut, Arizona, California, and Oklahoma. Lived three years in Italy and Germany while in USAF.(Air Police: K-9 section). Now live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Married after whirlwind romance to same wife for over 30 years. Currently run my own real estate school in Oklahoma. Like to study foreign languages for a few months just to see how they work. Also like Latin and giving speeches. I’ve taught Philosophy, Advertising, Property Management, and many real estate subjects at the University, Community College, and Technical School level. Now writing non-fiction book on the Romance genre. I was trained to be a philosopher and history teacher but have worked mostly in advertising, marketing, and real estate.
This conversation covers:
* Literary style *Over Written Copy
* Rewards-per-page *Reader Friendly
* Reader Unfriendly *Marketing
* Dedications, Acknowledgements, Epilogues
* Back story, Character names
* Stepping on HEA
VM: Well, we’re back at it.
JMS: I’m glad you could come out to the ranch.
VM: I wanted to see where you lived and your work area. Six hundred and forty acres gives you some breathing room.
JMS: That’s Jack. He doesn’t like neighbors to be too close. He likes them at least a mile away.
VM: I could land a plane in your back yard.
JMS: Don’t try it. There are enough gopher holes to tear your wheels off.
VM: OK, down to work. Did you read the workbook?
JMS: Yes, and I have a bone to pick with you.
JMS: I’ve been to many seminars and workshops and there is no way you could give that seminar in just six hours. There’s at least twelve hours of work there. And a lot more if people ask a lot of questions.
VM: Hold on a minute. Do you realize that I’ve written over 115 different three-hour seminars that have been approved by the state and that I’ve given over 3,000 seminars?
JMS: Does that mean you don’t like criticism? Because I am going to be frank with you.
VM: No, it’s just means that you’re right. I could only do that workshop in six hours if I didn’t cover everything and if I didn’t get too many questions. It really needs to be a two day seminar but that’s asking too much of the students. Six hours is even a hard sell unless you’re well known.
JMS: Let’s talk about my book then. Did you finish “When God Answers”?
VM: Yes, I did.
JMS: And what is your verdict?
VM: I can see why it was published. You are very literary and you have an interesting way of saying things.
JMS: What do you mean by literary?
VM: Your sentence structure is more varied than is found in the typical romance writing. You are more poetic in that you use word combinations that I have never read before, or at least, never read before being used to describe the things that you describe. Your writing is fresh, creative, and interesting.
JMS: But, there must be a ‘but’ in there somewhere. You don’t sound as enthusiastic as you do when you give a positive review of a book.
VM: I’ve got a lot of ‘buts’ but first what do you think I am going to point out? Do you feel that the book has a weakness that you could fix next time?
JMS: My 'rewards-per-page' score was only between 2 and 3. The authors you gave me to score were all between 8 and 10.
VM: Your score was between 2 and 3 but when you take into account your lost points for being ‘reader unfriendly’, your score was really down to 1 and 2.
JMS: I just don’t understand the ‘reader unfriendly’ thing. You need to cover that better in the workshop.
VM: The ‘reader unfriendly’ lost point system is a very late addition to the course. I might have to take it out but let me give you some examples.
VM: Please understand that my comments have to do with making your book more marketable. You write far better than I can. I’m sure I don’t know as much as you do about writing a romance. Probably a lot less. I’m just going to go over some things that impact on the reader’s ‘reading experience’.
JMS: Don’t worry about me. I can take criticism. I mean, I better be able to, right? Because if you never criticize me, that would mean I’m perfect and I wouldn't need your help in the first place.
VM: That’s a good attitude. Let’s see how it works. My first problem is the dedication: “For Jack”. That’s all you wrote.
JMS: That’s all Jack wanted me to write. He’s not a mushy man.
VM: What’s marketing? The definition?
JMS: Marketing is everything you do in providing your product.
VM: The dedication is part of marketing. As a reader, when I read “To Jack”, I think the author is uninspired, unromantic, has little good to say about her husband and is perhaps even a little cold. Is that how you want to start the reader’s ‘reading experience’? Is that the first impression you want the reader to have of you? Remember the old saying: You only get one chance to make a first impression?
JMS: But you don’t understand Jack.
VM: I may not understand Jack but I do understand marketing. I am sure Jack would allow you to write whatever you needed to -- as long as he understood it was part of the marketing plan.
JMS: What should I have written?
VM: Let’s use a real example. Read the dedication in this book by Missy Tippens, “Her Unlikely Family”.
JMS: OK, give me the book.
“To my husband, Terry, who has read every word I’ve ever written.
To my children, Nick, Tyler, and Michelle, who have cheered me along on this journey.
To my parents, Frank and Cellia Conley: my sister Mindy Winningham; and all my extended family who love me no matter what.
And for God for giving me the stories.”
VM: Well? What do you think?
JMS: It’s a nice dedication.
VM: If you didn’t know anything about either author, Janette Marie Sherrill or Missy Tippens, who would you think is the more romantic and in touch with her feelings? Who would you think would make the better friend? And who would you think would be writing with the most authentic voice?
JMS: If the dedication was all I had to go by, then I’d pick Missy Tippens. But no one judges an author by her dedications and, besides, the dedication is very personal. I should be able to write anything I want to.
VM: I agree one hundred percent! You should be able to write any dedication you want to and you can. I will also agree that it is a very small thing and in itself is not very important. However, when you do all the little things I am going to mention, then the ‘cumulative effect’ can be very big.
Also, doing everything right has a multiplier effect in that the fans you win early in a career help develop more fans down the road. It’s a little like compound interest. Don’t do anything I suggest that you don’t want to do but try to do as much as you can.
JMS: What’s next?
VM: You sound jaded already. Next are your acknowledgements.
JMS: I don’t have any acknowledgements in “When God Answers”.
VM: That’s the problem. No acknowledgements. This is even more important than the dedication. You should always have a lot of acknowledgements for two very good marketing reasons.
JMS: I suppose Missy Tippens has a full page of acknowledgements.
VM: Let me look. I count seventeen people and organizations which take up sixteen lines of copy. Look for yourself.
JMS: OK, OK, so why are acknowledgements so important?
VM: The most important thing about acknowledgements is that they show that you did your research. This enhances the ‘perceived value’ of your work in the reader’s mind. It goes to credibility. It means the reader can relax when you speak on a technical topic and take it in as being authentic. This is especially true when you are writing a medical romance. I feel very good when I read a medical romance author acknowledging specialists in the medical field that is a subject of the novel. It just shouts to the reader that this author cares about her craft.
JMS: I’ll buy that. I won’t fight you on having acknowledgements. What’s the other reason that acknowledgements are so important?
VM: The other reason is networking. Every person you name is likely to buy your book. Even some of their family and friends will buy the book or more likely be given a copy of the book by the person you acknowledged. People you acknowledge are also more likely to remember your name and talk you up as a writer.
They are proud of being acknowledged in your book and they are likely to let others know about it. As a marketing person, I just want to scream when I see a romance without any acknowledgements. Has no one really helped the author? Does she really have no one to acknowledge?
JMS: What if the book is simple and does not need any technical information?
VM: Then make the book a little more interesting. You can even ask someone for advice even when you are an expert in the area yourself. But let’s say there really is nothing in your book that deserves acknowledging someone. You could have the heroine decide to make a garden. So she goes to the garden center and asks about what kind of seeds she needs to use for the part of the country the story takes place. If you did this you could then acknowledge the guy at the garden center. Wouldn’t he be pleased or, better yet, make sure the garden expert is a woman. Women read romances.
JMS: I see places now in "When God Answers" where I could have done this.
VM: One other thing: try to pick COIs to acknowledge.
JMS: COIs? That would be what? Conflict…Obstacles…Inspiration?
VM: Not this time. COI is a marketing term meaning: ‘Center of Influence’. These are people who know a lot of other people who tend to trust them -- COIs are often asked for advice. COIs could be ministers, teachers, librarians, and the like. If you acknowledge a COI or two, this would enhance the marketing value of the book's acknowledgements.
JMS: You’ve sold me on having acknowledgements. What’s next?
VM: Next I’m going to be talking about being ‘reader unfriendly’. Just as rewarding the reader improves the reading experience, being ‘reader unfriendly’ reduces the reading enjoyment. So we need to consider both here.
JMS: You’re saying that I’ve been ‘reader unfriendly’?
VM: Very much so.
JMS: I certainly didn’t mean to be unfriendly.
VM: "Reader unfriendly" is just a term. You can fix things in your next book.
JMS: Tell me the worst first.
VM: OK, the first fifty pages were very rough and read like you had rewritten them dozens of times. Did you rewritten them thirty to forty times?
JMS: More like fifty times. I’ve been working on those first chapters for ten years. But they read fine to me and my editor.
VM: Not to me. They read just like copy I’ve rewritten dozens of times.
JMS: What do you mean by rough? Can you really tell if copy has been rewritten many times or were you guessing?
VM: There is a lot to knowing copy has been vastly overwritten. The flow is rough and choppy. It reads like more than one person has written it. It also reads like the author forgot what was written on the pages the come just before the page you are reading. This phenomenon comes about when you have rewritten something so many times you no longer remember what is behind you or what is in front of you. There are so many versions in you head that you can’t be sure what’s in the current version you are working on.
You also tend to make mistakes that a one or two draft manuscript would not have.
JMS: Like what?
VM: Think of your novel. You start the story with too many characters. You name eight different characters that are also immediately in danger. As a reader, I don’t know one character from the other at this point. I don’t know who is good or bad or who the hero is or who the heroine is. I’m just lost in the action. Then after a few pages you drop two long paragraphs of back story in an effort to let the reader know something about all these characters that have names but no identity. These back story paragraphs are like stop signs to the reader. The action staggers and this slow down blunts the opening ‘hook’ you tried so hard to create.
JMS: Those back story paragraphs were the editor’s revisions.
VM: I know why your editor did it. You started the action with too many named characters. And doing that is reader unfriendly. It’s like asking the reader to juggle eight balls in the air. Start with a few named characters and add the others slowly.
JMS: I needed all those characters. The wagon train was under attack and they were circling the wagons. There was a lot of action.
VM: Fine. But why do I need to know the first and last names of so many people within three pages? As a reader, I have to make a mental image of each name when it first appears. The next time the name appears, I have to call up a mental image of the character in order to make sense of the story. There is an analog to this on TV shows when all three main characters all look alike in size, facial features, and hair color. I hate this because it is hard to figure out which character did what in the story.
JMS: Look, I revised that first chapter so many times I just couldn’t do it any more. At some point you have to stop and say, it’s finished.
VM: It gets worse. Your two main male characters are named ‘Richard” and “Robert”! Your three main female characters all have first names that begin with ‘C’.
JMS: Yes, Carla, Caren, and Carrie. Those are the names these characters wanted to have. I tried to change the names but it just wouldn’t work. The characters put up such a stink, I had to give in.
VM: Couldn’t you have at least spelled ‘Caren’ with a ‘K’?
JMS: No I couldn’t. She had a habit of introducing herself by saying “That’s Caren with a C”. It made her feel special. I used this often in the book. In fact, it was a kind of leitmotif. That’s something I thought you would appreciate.
VM: I liked it in Wagner. I’m not sure it worked in “When God Answers”. Anyway, did all these woman have to have the same second and third letters in their names?
JMS: I never thought of that and I don’t see what difference it makes.
VM: I am a ‘sight’ reader. I don’t read the names of the characters when I read. I just see the R in Richard and think ‘that’s the R character’. When you have Richard and Robert I can’t do that. I have to pronounce the name in my mind and then I have to try to remember what has Robert done in the story and what has Richard done. Frankly, your naming of characters drove me nuts.
JMS: What would be reader friendly?
VM: Plan the names very carefully. In “Characters in a Romance” no major character has the same first letter in their first name. There’s Tina, Victor, Missy, Plato, Lenny, Herb, the Wicket Witch of the Eastern Establishment, and so on.”
JMS: There was also me: ‘Janette Marie Sherrill’.
VM: I said major character. Sorry.
JMS: I’ll agree with you there. I could do a better job naming characters next time but what do I do with unruly characters who just demand a given name?
VM: Fool them. Give them the names they want. No problem. But just before you send the manuscript to your publisher, do a ‘search and replace’ on the names. The characters will never know you did it.
JMS: My characters are too smart for that. They work their initials into the story line to where I would have to make a lot more changes than a ‘search and replace’ would not take care of.
VM: OK then. But I think you need to work on getting better control over your characters.
JMS: What else was wrong?
VM: This is a part of the rewriting problem but go to page sixteen.
JMS: I’m on page sixteen what’s wrong?
VM: Half way down the page there is a scene change. It’s hard to tell it’s a scene change because the publisher only put one extra line between paragraphs. Do you see it?
JMS: Yes, I see it now but what’s wrong with it?
VM: I'm sure you didn’t realize this but you ended one scene with quotes where two characters were talking to each other.
JMS: Characters do talk to each other you know? It’s called dialogue.
VM: Yes, but then you also started the next scene with quotes – dialogue -- between two different characters who had not even been introduced to the reader yet. The reader thinks it's still the first conversation going on between the same two people.
I had to read those passages over several times because it just so happens that either interpretation makes sense. That is, it makes sense as a carry-over conversation between the same two people in the last scene but it also makes sense as a different conversation between two different people in the new scene.
JMS: I wouldn’t do something like that. Let me read it.
JMS: You’re right. That’s terrible. Why didn’t I see that?
VM: The problem probably wasn’t there in the first forty-five of your fifty rewrites. This is what I mean by it reads like it has been rewritten dozens of times. I doubt you would ever make that mistake on a first or second draft.
JMS: How do I fix something like that?
VM: It’s very hard. When it happened to me in writing long advertising copy sometimes I would just give up and let someone else in the department write the ad for me.
JMS: I can’t do that. I’m not writing advertising. I don’t have someone else in the ‘department’ to write my novel.
VM: In that case, I would suggest that you write a brand new opening -- from scratch -- without even looking at what you’ve written before.
JMS: Is there any more wrong with my book?
VM: Your chapters are too long. They average thirty pages each. I’d like to see them no more than ten pages long.
JMS: Ten pages! “When God Answers” is a long book. I’m entitled to long chapters. Besides every chapter has to end with a cliffhanger to keep the reader reading into the next chapter. I’d have to come up with three times as many cliffhangers if I had three times as many chapters.
VM: Look at this book, “Land of Milkweed Manor” by Julie Klassen. It’s a long book and she has nice ten to twelve page chapters. Long chapters are reader unfriendly. Readers like short chapters and lots of white space. They get a feeling that the book is moving faster with short chapters. Look at Mary Higgins Clark's books for very short chapters.
JMS: “Land of Milkweed Manor” is just one book.
VM: Here’s another thing. Take this copy of ““Land of Milkweed Manor”. Good, now look at the top of each chapter heading. There’s a famous quote. Having famous quotes is another way to reward the reader. Also notice that Julie Klassen’s quotes fit into the time period of the book and add to the flavor of the book. Quotes like these make the reader feel like she is learning something.
M. C. Beaton does this too with her Hamish Macbeth mystery series. I love that series and I always look forward to the start of a new chapter. I even make a game of it. I read the quote and then try to guess who said it.
JMS: Would you actually want me to place quotes at the head of each chapter?
VM: Your book is ideally suited for such quotes. And there are a lot of good quotes from the 1800’s you could have used. Always be thinking of ways to enrich the reader’s reading experience. That’s all.
JMS: I don’t like that idea. I think quotes are pretentious. They just slow down the story line.
VM: What you say could very well be the case. It all depends on the skill of the writer and the nature of the story.
JMS: I’m almost afraid to ask but what else did I do that was reader unfriendly?
VM: This is a biggie. Right after the ‘black moment’ when the HEA is soon to begin, and the reader is vicariously about to feel wonderful, you have the hero ride off into the mountains where he has a mystical experience! It read like Saint Teresa’s ecstasy poetry.
JMS: It was like Saint Teresa’s poetry. The editor loved it. It’s my most poetic writing. It’s beautiful. It’s what I think you would call ‘literary’.
VM: Was your editor once a Carmelite nun?
JMS: She was a nun but I don’t know what kind she was. The convet was in New Jersey.
VM: She was actually a nun, are you kidding?
JMS: No. There's nothing wrong with having been a nun. She also has a BA from Smith. Besides, I'm with a Christian publisher.
VM: There’s nothing wrong with nuns. They taught me for eleven years. It’s also fine writing. But it stepped all over your HEA. It ruined it. You had half an HEA, then you ran off for forty-eight hours, and then you come back for the other half of the HEA. From a reader’s point of view -- it's pure frustration.
JMS: But my editor was OK with it.
VM: Rule number one: Don’t step on your HEA. The HEA is the reader’s emotional payoff for reading the book. A reader wants the HEA feeling to last as long as possible.
JMS: I don’t know if I can take any more of this. I’d say you hated my book!
VM: I love your book. It’s not that I love your book less, it’s that I love the book it could have been more.
JMS: Brutus said that didn’t he? You'd make a fine Brutus.
VM: Brutus never read your book, Janette.
JMS: You know what I mean.
VM: Just one more thing and we’ll be done for today. OK?
JMS: What is it?
VM: The epilogue.
JMS: “When God Answers” does not have an epilogue. The story didn’t need one. After God speaks, what else could there be to say?
VM: Every story needs an epilogue. The epilogue is a second helping of the HEA. It’s like having two HEAs for the price of one. And it comes at the very end of the book when you want to make the reader like your book so much she will go right out and buy another one. Not having an epilogue is a major marketing mistake.
Ideally the epilogue should give the reader a second ‘surprise of happiness’ they did not expect. Put a happy twist in the epilogue. And I don’t mean the heroine has twins instead of a single birth. . Be creative. Delight the reader.
JMS: I suppose, “Her Unlikely Family” has an epilogue.
VM: Let me look. Yep, it does.
JMS: So what is my homework for the next session?
VM: I want you to read my post on the series romance. Be thinking about a six-book series. Think multi-theme. Next time we are going to talk about themes, series, and locations.