May 29, 2020

by Sherry Ficklin

SWAG is one of those places where authors can go very right, or completely wrong and so, while I've talked about this before, it is worth repeating. As the industry evolves, so does the art of book SWAG. Plus, it's the first question I get from new authors about to dive into publishing.

What is SWAG, and why do you need it?

SWAG is the general term we use for promotional materials. There are two kinds I see at events: free swag and sale swag. Both have merits, but some work better at certain types of events than others.

The goal of SWAG is simple, you want to build brand awareness and recognition. While it is often collected by fans and readers, it's also vital to have at your event so that even if people do not purchase a book right then, they will remember you and your novel at a later date.

Paper SWAG

Paper swag comes in many forms:

  • Business cards
  • Book marks
  • Postcards
  • Flyers (if you have a large catalog of work)

It can also include more out-of-the-box things like door hangers, stickers, character trading cards, posters, and tattoos.

Paper SWAG is usually fairly inexpensive to produce and easy to brand with your vital information. Every piece of paper SWAG should have your name and website address but can also include your book cover(s), a brief blurb, a short review snippet, or the image of a character/scene from your story.

The reason this is the most necessary SWAG to have at every single event is: it's easy to hand out and doesn't cost you a fortune. Plus, it gives you the best kind of brand recognition, image recognition.

They say consumers have to see a product 3-5 times before they will decide whether or not to purchase it. So this kind of SWAG, combined with online images, bulk up those sightings.

Pro Tip: For an even better paper SWAG experience, consider placing a QR code or link on your promotional items that take the receiver to a free sample of your work. This can be a chapter or an entire free book. I have a 6 book series where I keep the first book free, so I use it as a loss leader to draw people into buying the other 5 novels. It not only adds value to the SWAG, but draws them into your sales funnel.

Every person who sees you at an event should leave your table with something.

As much as it pains some people, publishing has become a digitally driven industry. More and more, e-book sales are king, which means people often use store events as a sort of showroom where they check out new titles but then go home and order online.

If a browser leaves and five minutes later forgets the title or your name, you have just lost a sale.

Plus, while it may sound odd to us, people can be really intimidated by authors. It may be hard for some people to approach you cold, as they are either too nervous to talk or are afraid of being hit by what I call the 'tough sell' that some authors put out.

When you can smile and offer them a bookmark or other freebie, it is a great tension breaker and they will be more likely to approach and connect with you.

Non-Paper SWAG

There are as many kinds of SWAG as there are authors, and everyone has their favorite kinds. My only word of caution going in is this; be really aware of what you are spending and what kind of brand recognition you're hoping to see in return.

If you have a book that is digital only, bookmarks may not be the way to go, but large print cover postcards might be a great option. If you have a children's book, stickers might get you more attention than tattoos or door hangers.

Here are a few common types of non-paper SWAG:

  • Buttons*
  • Magnets*
  • Chapstick
  • Rubber Bracelets
  • Charm Cord Bookmarks
  • Matchbooks
  • Can Coozies
  • Keychains
  • Lotion/Sanitizer
  • Pens
  • Notepads
  • Tote Bags*
  • Condoms (yes, I've seen these at romance author events)
  • Mouse Pads

Any and all of these are moderately priced items and make for great SWAG, but be careful that you don't break the budget.

I highly suggest starting with one paper SWAG item and one more expensive item to give as a gift with purchase.

You may have noticed an * beside a few of those items. This is because not only are they very popular with readers, they tend to offer what I like to call passive visibility. This means, many other people besides the initial receiver see them so they offer much broader visibility. A tote bag used for several months during library trips, for example, may catch the attention of other readers who weren’t even at your event.

There are also much more expensive to produce items like:

  • T-shirts
  • Mugs
  • Hats
  • Flasks
  • Glasses

These items are excellent if you are doing a vendor fair type of event and you want to sell items in conjunction with your book, or if you want to use them as special promotional giveaways. However, if you give everyone who buys a book a free t-shirt, you're actively losing money. The items above get you some brand visibility (as they are worn and used), but often not enough to recoup costs.

It's also important to note that most bookstore events don't want you selling anything besides books, so you should definitely check with them first to get clarification. Also, for newer, lesser known authors without a long series, these items lose value. They are best employed for long series, or once you have a thriving base of readers.

Other Thoughts on SWAG

As with so many things in this industry, SWAG can help you or hurt you.

Low quality items can make you look unprofessional, but too many expensive items can turn people off as well (not to mention breaking the piggy bank). Your best bet is always to consider your brand, your audience, and your budget. Then decide what SWAG you want.

Example: If you’re handing out water bottles with your business card taped to the front, this devalues you as an author and people who receive it aren’t likely to trust that your books are high quality.

If you want to have SWAG, you should invest in it. The perception of quality is key to building trust with new readers.

I'd like to take a quick moment to talk about another important kind of SWAG that I've not mentioned before

Digital SWAG

I'm seeing more and more digital SWAG offerings and it's great for people who can't get to an event in real life. Digital SWAG is great for authors.

Authors are offering free downloadable SWAG via their websites. Everything from desktop and smartphone backgrounds, to Spotify playlists, to printable goodies like wall art and calendars. These are great offerings for online fans and great for drawing traffic to your website.

Pro Tip: As with any SWAG, be sure you have the rights to everything you use.)

For my recent release, The Canary Club (a prohibition era gangster romance), I used traditional paper SWAG with door hangers and mini posters. For my special events, I had matchbooks and drink coasters made with my website and tag line. They are easy to travel to events with, functional, unique, and perfectly on brand for this series. BUT in addition to that, I created a special area of my website that acted as a virtual speakeasy, which included period cocktail recipes, historical information, and other free downloadables.

The best part? To get the password, people had to pre-order the book.

Final Word

Don't be afraid to think outside the box of the items I've listed above, but remember, any SWAG you use should have at least one piece of your branding on it. For example, foam fingers are great for your sports romance, but if they don't also serve as a promotional billboard for your book or website, it's not doing you, or your brand, any good.

What sort of SWAG do you love getting from authors? Do you need good SWAG resources? Let me know in the comments below!

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About Sherry

Sherry is a full-time writer from Colorado and the author of over a dozen novels for teens and young adults including the best-selling Stolen Empire series. She can often be found browsing her local bookstore with a large white hot chocolate in one hand and a towering stack of books in the other. That is, unless she’s on deadline at which time she, like the Loch Ness monster, is only seen in blurry photographs.

Sherry also appears as a guest speaker at several conventions annually. You can find her at her official website,, or stalk her on her Facebook page

May 27, 2020

By Lisa Hall-Wilson

So, you’ve got a first (or second or third) draft, but you’re still trying to get at the heart of what motivates your character. You’re still trying to unearth the variety of emotions, the intensity, the complexities of the emotions your character experiences at different points in the story.

But you’re stuck.

Those generic characterization quizzes and questionnaires only seem to hit surface level stuff for me. It’s too easy to skim those answers just to get it done.

I have a character like that right now. I KNOW this character. I’ve been working on this story for far longer than I care to admit, but she’s a tough nut. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She clams up. It’s beyond frustrating!

Do you know what I’m talking about?

Whether you’re just getting to know this character, or it’s a character you’ve known for a while and need to make fresh again, this post offers some ideas to kickstart those creative juices.

The point of these exercises isn’t necessarily to use any of the writing (although, if you do that’s a happy side-benefit). The point is to open up your creativity and to let the character take you in a direction you hadn’t thought of, to point out a thread you hadn’t noticed, to surprise yourself with where this story and this character could go.

Swing For The Fences

I’ve watched and re-watched multiple times this interview Johnny Depp did with Graham Norton. Graham asks where do these giant characters (Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, Mad Hatter, etc) come from and Depp gives this vague they’re born out of ideas answer. He just shows up and starts swinging and hopes it’ll be alright.

Note: It's the first 60-90 seconds of the linked interview that I'm talking about.

Probably there’s more to Depp's process, but the idea of "no-holds-barred, nothing is too big or too weird or too fantastic" is one writers can use. Just see where this idea, this character, this problem, takes you. How would this character (not you) react?

I’ve seen so many writers hold back on the emotions in their fiction.

Can you overwrite and have your drama turn into melodrama? Of course. But, many writers – out of fear of that outcome – pull up far too short of where they need to be. Go big or go home, baby! 😀

Just the practice of really letting loose with the emotion frees up your creativeness in a way that has always surprised me. The first draft is for you, it’s not for anyone else. No one can read anything until you give it to them. Swing for the fences!

Get In Touch With Your Own Emotions

Those who are more analytical in their thinking, I’ve found, seem to struggle with capturing emotions in their fiction. The temptation to label emotions, to tell, to summarize is very strong because that’s their natural tendency in real life.

For those who use intellectualization of emotion as a coping mechanism (like me), there’s a long and dedicated practice of ignoring how emotions feel and analyzing why I should or shouldn’t feel something.

You need to put that aside when writing.

This is sometimes helpful in real life, and it’s fine if that’s how your character handles things too initially – but the reader still wants to know how it feels, they want to be in the scene with the character. You’ll need to do a lot of research into how different emotions feel, or become more self-aware of your own emotions.

Some exercises to dive deeper

Write A Letter To/From Your Character

I’ve not tried this, but many writers like to write a letter either to or from their character. It may take a bit of back and forth to delve deep enough into the emotions going on, it requires some honesty and a willingness to let the character surprise you. To share a secret that seems “out there” or unreasonable. Don’t settle for the first idea that comes to mind.

Write A Journal

I’m currently experimenting with writing a journal for one character whose thoughts and emotions continue to elude me. Maybe because this character’s emotions continue to elude her?

I’m writing a journal for her as she goes through the story. The behind-the-scenes stuff you don’t tell your siblings or mom and dad. It’s a very personal no-one-else-will-see-this journal.

It’s fun digging deeper into what she wants, what she thinks she wants, what she doesn’t want others to know. What is she afraid of – and why? What she should have done? What she wished someone had said to her? What she wishes for but doesn’t think she deserves. These are all good places to start.

Have Shocking Coffee With Your Main Character

James Scott Bell shared an exercise he uses where he has writers sit down to have a conversation over coffee with their main character. He writes on The Killzone Blog: “I do an exercise called ‘Shocking Coffee.’ You, the author, imagine you are seated with your main character over a cup of coffee. She tells you she doesn’t think you’ve quite captured her. That surprises you a bit. I mean, after all, you created her.

“So you ask, ‘In what way?’ And your character tells you something that shocks you.”

Manage Your Expectations

These exercises probably won’t be a one-and-done thing. This is a process. You have to keep digging to find the gold, it likely won’t be sitting there partly exposed to the sun.

Each journal entry, each sip of coffee – it’s the back and forth that gets the creative juices flowing. You’re looking for new connections, new directions, to see new threads or possibilities that you missed before.

What about you? What’s your process for getting unstuck, or for diving deeper into a character’s emotions?

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About Lisa

Lisa Hall-Wilson is a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels. Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers,  at

Top Image by DanaTentis from Pixabay / Other images purchased from DepositPhotos.

May 25, 2020

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

If you're committed to writing a series, congratulations. If you're committed to writing stand-alones, good for you. If you could see yourself doing either a series or a stand-alone, welcome to the club! There are so many advantages, and so many disadvantages, to writing a series that it can be hard to decide how you'd rather tell your stories.

Stand-Alone vs. Series

Let’s look at some of the up-sides and down-sides for each option:

Readers who enjoy one book in a series are likely to stay loyal and keep reading the rest as long as you keep writing ‘em. You’re pretty well guaranteed a Repeat Buyer (or at least a Repeat Reader) all the way through to the end of the series.

On the other hand, that can be confining. You might have a story idea you’re dying to write, but it doesn’t fit in with the characters or setting or genre of your series in progress. When will you ever find a break from your current project for creating the next?

Then again, it could be easier to write faster because you don’t need to come up with completely new people and places for each book in the series -- you already know how your main characters think and talk and feel; you already know where they live and work and play.

Although, that kind of knowledge might be considered boring. If you stay focused on the same leading character/s in the same setting, it means you’re missing out on the fun of creating new people, new situations, and new worlds for any stand-alone stories you might want to tell.

How Can You Decide?

One way to determine whether you’ll be more satisfied as a series writer or a stand-alone writer (although nothing says you can’t do some of each):

Think about the authors whose books you’ve enjoyed most. It’s a pretty safe bet that some of those books were single-titles, and others were part of a series. But when you think about your top five or ten favorite writers, which category do their books appear in more often?

Sure, some authors are wonderfully prolific in both areas. Nora Roberts’ romantic stand-alones and trilogies appear as often as her alter-ego J.D. Robb’s suspense titles in the Eve Dallas series.

Michael Connolly alternates between two criminal-justice series and books that stand on their own. But most of the world’s celebrated writers are known more for their work in one neighborhood or the other.

Mostly series:

  • J.K. Rowling
  • Robert Ludlum
  • Agatha Christie
  • George R.R. Martin
  • Debbie Macomber
  • Walter Mosely
  • Philippa Gregory
  • James Patterson

Mostly stand-alone:

  • Stephen King
  • Danielle Steel
  • John Grisham
  • Elizabeth Berg
  • Michael Crichton
  • Jane Austen
  • Ken Follett
  • Gillian Flynn
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald

Choosing Your Preference

If your taste in reading leans more heavily toward one side or the other, that may be a good clue to which storytelling style you find most appealing.

You can also look at other areas of your life for clues to that same question.

Would you rather stay at the same tried-and-true hotel when you visit a familiar city, or choose a new location each time?

Do you prefer binge-watching favorite shows straight through, or watching several different shows in the same week?

When you find the Best Shoes Ever, do you buy more pairs in different colors or treat them as a one-of-a-kind delight?

There’s no wrong answer to any of those questions, nor to the question of whether you’re better off writing stand-alone books or series.

Series Considerations

If you opt for a series, there are a few things to keep in mind about the biggest bugaboo:

The Story Arc

Of course, every story has its own arc. A single book has its arc. So does each book in your series. And so does the series as a whole.

You already know how to figure out the story arc in a single novel, right? (If you don’t, ask me about my class, Plotting via Motivation.) But as important as that individual arc is to every book in your series, you also need an arc that spans from Book One to the final novel.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

How do you know which book is the final novel?

If you’re happy to continue writing an open-ended series, like those featuring Nancy Drew or Sherlock Holmes or Stephanie Plum, that can be whenever you decide to call it quits.

If you’re planning a trilogy, or an opening-plus-sequel, or a five-book series about five siblings each finding their own success, it’s likely you know what the last one will contain. And you also know how important it is to wrap up with a satisfying arc that concludes not just that final book, but your series as a whole.

Wrapping It Up

How to "wrap things up" is one of the important topics covered in my “Writing A Series” workshop that starts next Monday. One lucky commenter will win a free registration to that two-week class!

Here is my question:

When you think about the author whose books have most consistently delighted you, at any time during your life as a reader, do you think of someone whose books are primarily grouped into a series or whose books primarily stand alone?

Is it someone you discovered as a child or as an adult?

And if you remember this compelling writer’s name (plus the name of their series if that’s applicable), please mention that as well!

Many thanks,

Note: We'll announce the free-class winner TONIGHT. (If it’s someone who’s already registered, your $40 will be refunded.)

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About Laurie

After winning Romantic Times' “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Since then she’s taught online and live workshops for writers from London and Los Angeles to New Zealand and New York, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. So far there are 48 titles -- will yours be next?

Top Image by PatternPictures from Pixabay

May 22, 2020

by Kris Maze

I don’t know about you, dear writer, but coming to terms with quarantine has been a challenge for me.  Yes, I had extra time at home for the crucible of creativity, but not without a steep learning curve. Writing inspiration has been hard to come by.

During quarantine, my family pushed pause on activities and the daily grind.  We found some comfort in the slower pace of life, dealing with the negative impact as best as we could. As many parts of the world begin reopening, let’s not forget the writing we have accomplished so far.

As always, I am inspired by history. There have been other pandemics, and great works have come from them.

Historical figures can inspire us with their great pandemic creations.

Sir Isaac Newton left Cambridge college when an outbreak of the Plague closed all schools.  His year of uninterrupted self-study and exploration led him to write his theories on early calculus, on optics as he played with prisms at home, and of course, on gravity.

William Shakespeare wrote some of his best poems and plays when the plague forced a closure of London’s theatres. According to Scientific American, "plague was a near-constant presence in the England of Elizabeth I and her successor, James I. When the death toll exceeded 30 per week, London’s theatres were ordered to close, forcing theatrical troupes to take a break or perform in the country. When a particularly nasty outbreak struck in 1606, Shakespeare used his time well, penning King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra."

Edvard Munch, famous expressionist painter of The Scream, painted during the time of the Spanish Flu. Having contracted the disease himself, he recovered to create many more works.

Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897, inspiring over a century of gothic writing. That same year, “The 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act” was put into place and Stoker’s native Ireland suffered high numbers of typhoid fever and the lingering Bubonic Plague.

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein during a failed vacation with writer friends. It was 1817, and a volcanic explosion of Mt. Tambora had caused an endless winter throughout the world.  The atmosphere was choked with ash and dust, keeping essential sunlight from crops and leading to famine, epidemics, and a cholera pandemic. Mary’s personal life suffered as well when her poet husband, Percy, drowned in an accident five years later. Her friend, Lord Byron, died of a fever two years after that.

The earth in 1817 was literally dark, cold and uninviting, but was fertile for writing the first science fiction novel.  One thing is for sure: centuries later, Frankenstein lives on, evoking philosophical debate.

Final Thoughts

The hurdles of 2020 are undeniable but perhaps framing your ideas in literature can provide solutions. As society adjusts to the coronavirus outbreak, our stories, our insights, our projects can help bring hope and healing. Even if it isn't Dracula or Frankenstein, every story matters. Yours might just be the one that helps a reader hang on while they wait for the world to right itself.

How has the pandemic of 2020 affected your writing so far? Do you know of other historical figures who took solace in creativity during a world emergency? Please share their story down in the comments!

About Kris

Kris Maze has worked in education for 25  years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and Writers in the Storm. Her first YA Science fiction book, IMPACT, arrives in June 2020 and is published through Aurelia Leo.

A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors with her family. She also ponders the wisdom of Bob Ross.  

Set in post-pandemic Wind City, a young journalist races time as an incoming asteroid with certain destruction. Nala Nightingale must decide between broadcasting the news of a lifetime or discovering keys to her orphaned past.

Trapped underground with a mysterious scientist named Edison and his chess master AI, can Nala Nightingale find the will to live and to love in a dystopian future?

To find out more about IMPACT, click here.

May 20, 2020

by Ellen Buikema

More than half of human communication consists of body language, which we use to communicate feelings, thought, and ideas without speech. Body language impacts other people’s perception and conveys our emotions far more than we think it does. Physical descriptions of what our characters are doing allows us to show-not-tell what is happening to them internally. It is one of the simplest ways to give the reader a feel for characters’ depth of mood and attitude.

Can you communicate well with others if you sit on your hands? I tried to and discovered that I don’t express myself as well.  I’m a hand-gesturer. Plus, with COVID-19 upon us, I’ve realized how often I touch my face!

I also move around a lot, especially if I’m nervous. The first time I taught a classroom full of adults, I paced the entire time. Thinking back, I wonder if I made anyone dizzy.

Simple tasks require a surprising amount of movement.

Here’s a quick exercise that will give you a feel for how many movements you actually make. It will help you determine the balance needed between dialogue and description in your writing.

Choose an activity you commonly do at home or at work. It can be as small a task as sitting in a chair, working on the laptop, or other computer keyboard. Here are a few possible questions to get you started.

  • Where are your hands when not on the keyboard?
  • Are you leaning in, or away?
  • Do you cross your legs?
  • Crane your neck?
  • Arch your back?
  • Tap your finger on the mouse?
  • Use the dog as a footrest?
  • Lift the cat off the keyboard?
  • Roll your eyes?

Write out what you are physically doing, making a conscious effort to write all the steps you take. The first time I tried this I was shocked at how many little steps are involved in doing even simple tasks. Weave these descriptions into your manuscripts to help your characters come alive.

Other Body Language Recommendations

Showing Emotion

Make a list of the emotions your main characters exhibit along with the accompanying body language. Think about how your main characters move and react. How does your antagonist look when she is amused? What body language does your protagonist use when angered?

Avoid repetitive gestures.

Repeating gestures can be annoying. Certainly, it feels forced. Not every character should clench their fists or waggle their eyebrows. One character can habitually use the same gesture now and then, but not everyone. (Although thinking about a town full of people waggling their eyebrows makes me chuckle.)

Use vivid action verbs.

Choosing the right verb helps express the emotion you want to convey. For example, there are many ways to walk and each alternative verb implies an emotion. We can:

  • stride into a room
  • sashay down the boardwalk
  • lumber across the floor.

Each of the three verbs is a form of walking, all with different nuances. Each paints a distinct picture.

For dialogue tags, said is never wrong. Unfortunately, I find myself using smile, laugh, and nod. My current Work In Progress had a whole lot of nodding going on. After someone brought this to my attention, I did a "nod search" on my Word document and was appalled by the many cheerful yellow highlights.

Wise words from my editor about empty words and gestures. (Those are pauses between lines of dialogue that don’t advance a scene or characterize.) She said, “If you point something out by putting it down on the page, it needs a reason to be there. Your job during your editing phase is to second guess every image you put down on the page and make sure it’s clearly what you mean.”

Don’t overdo.

Too many descriptors make readers focus on the details instead of the feelings you want them to experience. Or worse, it gives readers a chance to trip on the details and get pulled out of the story. Meaningless details interrupt the flow.

As with all else in writing, put just enough body language in your prose to get your point across.

Further reading:

Do you struggle with writing effective body language? Do you have a gesture like nodding that you overuse? Share your body language tips and questions with us down in the comments!

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About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.

Find her at or on Amazon.

Image by Ri Butov from Pixabay


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