Monday, September 22, 2014

The one thing every author wants - word-of-mouth buzz

I think about it often. What makes a person tell a friend, "You HAVE to read this book."

We all know word-of-mouth is the best promotion there is. So what makes people talk about a book? I read many books - so what is it that makes ME talk about a book? I don't think it's necessarily one thing. I think it's a number of things mixed together with a little magic sprinkled on top that create a fantastic reading experience.  

Here's my list of story elements:

1) A gripping story. I think it's usually a story we haven't heard a hundred times before. A story that pulls us in, and it's hard to put the book down once you start reading. It is a unique reading experience, and the story is one you are excited to hear. Examples I can think of: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen, MATCHED by Ally Condie, and THE PROGRAM by Suzanne Young.

2) A character or characters we admire. Maybe they make us cheer. Maybe they make us laugh. Maybe they make us feel things we haven't felt in a long time, if ever. Maybe they open up a hidden space inside of us we didn't even know existed! Maybe their strength and determination or their steadfast love and devotion to someone makes us cry. Whatever it is, I think the character(s) have to think and/or act in a way that makes us go WOW. It's not enough to just like a character. To really make a reader grip the book at the end and scream to the world, I LOVE this book, the characters connect with us on a deep, personal level. Possible examples: THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett, THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green.

3) Good writing. Some will argue this is not necessary. Certainly there have been books that have been popular where the writing was less than stellar. But often, it IS a key ingredient in the books that become huge hits by word-of-mouth. THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson is one I'm thinking of as well as DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE (and the rest of the trilogy). Also, a recent middle-grade that comes to mind is A SNICKER OF MAGIC by Natalie Lloyd. I've read books where the premise was fabulous, but in the end, I was let down by the writing. Stilted dialogue or inconsistencies in how the characters talk or act will take a book down a few notches for me. And those kinds of things will often keep me from recommending a book.

4) We can see ourselves there. Some books do an incredible job at making us feel as if we are there. Maybe we want to be, maybe we don't, depending on the story, but regardless, it is easy to picture the setting, the characters, the world, and once we are immersed in it, it is hard to leave. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys was like this for me. It is a tragic story and yet, it was so REAL and I could not set that book down, as hard as it was at times to read. I also think Sarah Dessen is a master at this.

5) It elicits strong emotions. I often don't remember details in books, because I have a terrible memory, but I can tell you I DO remember how a book made me feel. Sometimes I feel like I'm leaving treasured friends behind as I turn the last page, as it was with ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins. Sometimes I feel changed in how I view life, as it was with THE BOOK THIEF by Marcus Zusack. Sometimes I feel I've read something so special, so perfect, I fear I won't ever read anything that good ever again, like A NORTHERN LIGHT by Jennifer Donnelly.

As I mentioned earlier, I do think there is a bit of magic that happens in a book where everything comes together and it becomes the book everyone talks about. It isn't a formula or an equation - a little of this plus a lot of that will get you word-of-mouth. If it was, someone would have developed it by now and we'd be able to buy it on every corner. 

To those of you who recommend my books to your students or friends or whomever, please know I really and truly appreciate it! I feel like two of my books, I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME and IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES, both sold much better than anyone expected specifically because of word-of-mouth. Both of those stories poured out of me as I was writing them, so it's interesting to me that those are the ones that have sold the best. I wasn't thinking consciously about any of above items, checking boxes off a checklist, so to speak. I simply wanted to tell a good story, and as I went to the computer every day, I was excited about the story and characters I had created. Something to remember, I suppose, as I look forward to getting back into a new story one of these days!! 

I'm curious, what book have you read lately that made you want to shout its gloriousness from the rooftops?

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