I’m thrilled to welcome THE WATERSHED YEAR author, Susan Schoenberger, to Women’s Fiction Writers. I first met Susan on Backspace, but really became acquainted with her when she wrote How a Christian Publisher Found My Mainstream Novel for STET: The Backspace Blog. We’re all so concerned with finding the right niche for our books — and you know what? Sometimes the niche just finds us!
All aspiring women’s fiction authors I know struggle with titles and visions for their novel(s). Susan shares insights on how her second-choice (maybe third-choice?) title is the one that garnered the attention of editors; and how the a book cover she never imagined is the one that sends the perfect message.
Many thanks to Susan for sharing her story with us!
How The Right Book Cover and Title Can Help Women’s Fiction Cast A Wider Net
by Susan Schoenberger
In the years I spent writing my recently released debut novel A WATERSHED YEAR, I never thought about how it would be labeled and packaged as a commercial product. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think categories, labels or commercial prospects figure much into the effort to create a compelling narrative. When you’re in the thick of it, you just want to write the best book you can.
But if you’re lucky enough to find a publisher, you get a crash course in how a manuscript gets turned into something that can be marketed and sold, and it’s both difficult and transformative. Here’s my story:
The original title of my book was “Intercession,” which referred to the main character’s interest in saints as well as to the many situations in which the characters intercede in each other’s lives — bidden or unbidden. I frankly thought it was the perfect title, but when people asked me what my novel was called, they sometimes frowned or nodded with a polite smile, and eventually, one highly educated lawyer I knew said, “I have no idea what that word means.” Even then, I wanted to stick with it until my agent suggested we try changing it.
So using my background as a copy editor and headline writer, I immediately whipped off ten titles including A WATERSHED YEAR, which my agent picked over the others. Suddenly, we had more interest from editors simply because a more accessible title casts a wider net.
On to the book cover. When I allowed myself to fantasize that I would ever have a professionally designed cover around my manuscript, it was black with the stark word “Intercession,” and the image of a plaster saint that looked chipped or worn around the edges. Looking back, it’s almost like I didn’t want people to pick up the book, or if they did, only after they had been warned that it tackled serious subject like faith, death and unrequited love.
In reality, though, my book isn’t all that weighty and serious. It’s about faith, death and unrequited love, yes, but it also features a slightly demented great-grandmother, a not-to-be-trusted adoption agent with an office adorned with Beanie Babies, and a self-centered sister-in-law with a penchant for Prada. It’s women’s fiction, and even if it won a literary prize, it needed to have a cover that appealed to women of all ages.
I wasn’t crazy about the cover at first. The photographic image of a woman walking away from the camera and holding the hand of a young boy didn’t match the characters as I had described them in the book. The bright orange accents didn’t appeal to me either, but I can’t tell you how many readers have told me how much they love it. It’s clearly a woman’s book that deals with motherhood, but it’s also inviting in a way that I didn’t initially understand.
Let’s face it, you want people to pick up your book and buy it. If you’re fortunate enough to have a publisher and that publisher has a track record of designing appealing packaging, you pretty much have to go with it. In the end, it’s really what’s inside the cover that counts, but readers won’t find that out if they don’t pick it up in the first place.
Susan Schoenberger, a native of Newburgh, N.Y., graduated with honors from Dartmouth College in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Since college, Susan has been a writer, editor and copy editor at various newspapers, including The News and Observer, The Baltimore Sun and The Hartford Courant, and she now works as an editor for Patch.com.
Susan began writing fiction seriously after attending the Wesleyan Writers Conference in 2001. Her short stories have appeared in Inkwell and the Village Rambler and one was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings contest. Her most recent publication, the story Crossroads, can be found on the website www.bartlebysnopes.com.
Intercession, her first novel, received the gold medal in the 2006 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing competition, and Susan received an Artist Fellowship Grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism in 2007. Intercession, now called A Watershed Year, was published by Guideposts Books in 2011.
Susan lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. She is working on a second novel.