Monthly Archives: October 2011

Hooked a Reader…Now What?

Recently, I wrote about the importance of hooking a reader with a great first line or paragraph in your story.  The goal is to entice the reader to keep reading.

So after you’ve written a killer first sentence or paragraph, what comes next?  How do you keep the reader engaged where they feel compelled to keep turning pages?

Fantasy author Michael Sullivan posted on this topic recently and rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll point you to his post, “Writing Advice 17 – A Reason to Read.”

Sullivan focuses on several key areas to improve the quality of the storytelling that keeps a reader on the proverbial hook.

  • Add layers of mystery to your story.  Parallel or overlapping story questions keep the readers intrigued.
  • Add or increase conflict, a key requirement.  Stories are really about characters in conflict.
  • Add or increase tension and suspense.  Tension creates the emotion of anticipation where the reader expects something important to happen.

I highly recommend this quick refresher on the elements of story that will keep your readers engaged in your stories and eager for the next ones.

Has anyone discovered or used any other techniques to keep readers turning pages?

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A Major New Fantasy Market Opens

Amazon just announced the launch of another publishing imprint, 47 North.  This new imprint focuses on speculative fiction genres, namely science-fiction, fantasy, and horror.

See the link below for commentary from both The Passive Voice blog and author Michael Stackpole.

Link to article on The Passive Voice.

As for me, I find it interesting that the kings of digital self-publishing distribution, Amazon, have now become actual publishers and are releasing both new and backlisted novels.

What does this mean for digital self-publishing pursuits?

As with any publisher, I suspect they’ll solicit deals with those indie/traditional published writers who are making a splash in the market with consistently high sales.

I’m not sure if 47 North will be open to direct query or agent contact.  That remains to be seen.

This announcement, while intriguing, doesn’t change my publishing plans at this moment.

What do you think about this new development?  Does it change anything for your writing/publishing plans?

 


Famous First Lines

Image from Wikipedia

In the competitive marketplace of books, how does a writer hook a browsing reader deeply enough to entice him into the story world? How do you make a browser into a purchaser and ultimately a reader?

There are some basic features of a book that I’ll be covering over the next several posts to draw potential readers far enough into the story for them to decide if they like it enough to buy.

In the order that a browser discovers a new book, the tools I’m going to focus on over the next few posts are:

  1. Cover
  2. Title/Author’s Name
  3. Back of book blurb/positive review blurbs
  4. First Line

For some reason, I have decided to start with the last first.

First Lines.

What is so important about the first line? If the browser already likes the title, cover art, and story summary on the back, why then is the first sentence/paragraph of the story equally important?

It’s simple. The cover, title, and blurbs are not the story. They are the packaging, the wrapping, the dressing, or the window display. Those elements found outside the book, on the front and back covers, are marketing elements meant to attract the reader to the book from among all the other books for sale nearby, whether on a book shelf in a store, or in a list of thumbnails on a virtual shelf at an online retailer.

Consider the packaging elements your bait and the first line your hook.

The first line, however, is the absolute beginning of the story and the first written words by you–the author–that will plant the story question in the browser’s mind. A poor or forgettable first line may not allow the hook to set. The browser may simply move on to another book, the way a nibbling trout may decide the bait isn’t enticing enough to swallow.

A solid or even great first line, though, can set the hook deeply and instantly raise a compelling question in the browser’s mind that allows him to be reeled in. The browser become a reader and wants to find out what happens next.

That first line will be provocative, unique, and appropriate for the story theme and genre. For some examples from famous and/or classic novels, The American Book Review posted their list of top 100 first lines. You can read the list here.

Many of those story openings are still excellent, even by today’s popular reading tastes and standards.

So, how does a writer create that great first line that completes the four elements needed to hook a browser and turn them into a purchasing reader?

Let’s analyze my published story, “Time Soldier”, and see if I succeeded in opening with a compelling story question that entices a reader to continue. If you want to read this story, I’ve posted it here in an earlier blog. I must warn you, I wrote this a long time ago, so I’m hoping I’ve progressed a bit since then.

Here’s the opening sentence:

The man in the olive drab army jacket awoke in a daze.

If a browser saw this one single sentence, what story question is raised?

The first character introduced is usually an important one, often the protagonist. So the browser could assume they’ve now met a key character. What else is known? The man’s attire. An army jacket has a certain connotation that means either a current or former soldier, or someone who shops at an army surplus store. Since the title of this story is “Time Soldier”, the browser can safely assume they’ve now met the time soldier.

awoke in a daze.

This is where the first line gets a little more interesting. Why is the man dazed and where did he awake? What happened to him? Is he in the middle of a battle? Is it after a battle? Is he waking from a nightmare years after a war?

If the reader was already interested enough based on the title to begin reading the story, then this opening line may compound that interest so the browser will want to know what is happening to this man in the army jacket who just awoke in a daze.

Will the browser read on?

Here are the next two sentences:

He sat up and looked around suspiciously. He was in a small park near a line of rusted railroad tracks.

Okay, now we have the setting introduced to help orient the reader. If the reader was wondering where the man awakened, that question is quickly answered. But a new question is raised by the man’s reaction to the setting. He is “suspicious”. So, he either doesn’t know where he is or expected to be somewhere else. Being in a park isn’t unusual, but waking up in a park seems unusual for this man.

So why is he in the park? How did he get there? Why is he dazed? What has happened to him? Drugs? Hangover? Wound? A simple nap?

Again, the reader is already aware that the title character is a time soldier, so perhaps the man just traveled through time and that is why he’s dazed. That is possible, but the answer isn’t yet apparent. The browser will need to read on.

Here’s the rest of the opening paragraph:

A slight breeze barely moved his dusty, unkempt hair. He looked down at this chest and thoughtfully watched the flow of blood slow to a trickle. In an instant, his life’s liquid dried and the hole in his chest sealed itself up like punctured bread dough. What was left was an odd numb sensation.

Okay, pardon the clumsy descriptions, but the rest of this opening paragraph answers a couple of the initial questions, but then raises more.

He’s dusty and dirty. Perhaps he came from a battle, or has traveled a great distance. Perhaps he’s homeless. We don’t yet know.

He’s bleeding, but the bleeding is stopping and he watches this happen “thoughtfully” as if it is either not a surprise or is a common occurrence. This is provocative. Why is he bleeding? How severe is the wound?

The bleeding stops, dries up and then the hole in his chest seals up? Whoa! What is this? He was apparently shot in the chest and was bleeding, but he is suffering no effects AND the wound closes itself! What is going on? This is a bigger story question.

Okay, so we now know that this time soldier was shot and woke in an unfamiliar place. He probably traveled through time from the place where he was shot. Somehow, though, his body can heal itself. If he can’t be hurt, then maybe he can’t die. What does this mean? Why can’t he be hurt? Is this a curse, a blessing, magic, advanced science, or a function of time travel?

All these questions would occur to me and I know the rest of the story.

If the story questions are intriguing enough to propel the browser forward, the hook sets, and you’ve just landed a reader.

Now that the reader is hooked, the rest of your story needs to deliver on the opening story promise and answer all the initial story questions in a believable and satisfying manner. How the writer accomplishes that is a huge topic worthy of many future posts. For now, I refer you to your favorite writing book or web site on how to finish the story you started.

So, let’s recap the importance of first lines.

First, you capture the browser’s attention with an attractive cover, unique or intriguing title, polished story summary blurb, and reviewer blurbs from reviewers the reader may know (a best-selling writer would be good).

Then you quickly hook the browser with a first line that immediately raises a story question that the browser wants answered and is willing to keep reading to discover.

Write a great first line and you have one more effective way to turn a browser into a reader.

And that is exactly what a writer wants, to have readers.

In my next post, I’ll talk about one of the other elements of turning browsers into readers.

Until then, what are some of your favorite first lines from novels you’ve read? Why do you like them?

If you’re a writer, how do you approach first lines?


Digital Publishing?

Or what are you waiting for?

Consider this:

What are the odds of the average aspiring writer to first land an agent, then have that agent land a publishing deal, and then have that publisher produce a hardback copy of the new author’s book?  That is the dream that originally drove most of us still unpublished novelists.  How much time does this take once your manuscript is finished?  Up to a year to find an agent, another possible year to find a publisher, and at least another year to get an accepted manuscript printed and in stores.

Where will these books be sold besides in online mega-stores like Amazon or B&N?  Borders is gone.  Barnes and Noble brick and mortar stores are struggling.  Are there any independents going to be around?  Increasingly bestsellers are being sold at big box stores like WalMart and Costco.  New authors, mid-listers and genre writers need not apply.  I’ve read enough about diminishing advances, publishers’ insistence on owning and controlling all rights, including e-rights, forever, and other practices to worry me.

I originally had the dream of seeing my books in bookstores.  Some part of me aspires to that still.  But, what that dream really means is that I want readers for my stories.  If I can put my stories into the hands of the readers via a convenient and timely mechanism, whatever you want to call it, then why wouldn’t I take the opportunity while the barriers to entry are still low?  What is that old adage, “Fortune favors the bold?”

Yes, the whole industry is in flux and questions remain, but such transitions also create opportunities for those willing to take advantage.  If we wait too long until things “settle” then many windows may close, some permanently.

I can’t predict the future, but I can predict that I’d rather start selling my novel the day it’s finished and develop a readership than finish my novel and wait up to three years for publication IF my book is deemed worthy of print by the gatekeepers at the big publishing houses.

What of the risk?  Won’t self-publishing taint my reputation and cause traditional publishers to avoid me like a pariah?

What is the real risk for aspiring/unknown/unpublished authors?

We don’t have contracts that a slighted publisher can cancel.  We don’t have agents who try to keep us traditional so they can get their 15% commission.  We don’t have a reputation to harm by writing and publishing an unsuccessful book.  If it doesn’t sell, is our career doomed?

Really?

Of course not.

A book that doesn’t sell is just a book that doesn’t sell.  Write a better next book and sell more.  Write an even better third book and sell even more.  Sell enough and more opportunities present.  If that concern is too high, use a pen name.  Many famous and successful authors have used pseudonyms.

I don’t presume to advise anyone on the correct path.  I haven’t gone far down either path to have much experience to share.  But, I like the options, I like the potential, and I’ve waited too long in my own burgeoning career to keep waiting for either the industry to shake out or for the snail’s pace of the traditional process.

Who cares the most about my future writing career?  An agent?  An editor?  The board of directors at a big publishing house?  Or me?

Easy answer.

What about Amazon?  Aren’t they the big bad wolf?

I don’t care about Amazon.  I’m not pro-Amazon or anti-publishers.  Amazon digital publishing does currently offer the widest possible customer/potential reader base and that potential is tough to ignore.  And ultimately, any successful business needs customers.  Whether we like it or not, a writer is a business owner and the products are the written word.

I’ve had some recent conversations with those who have concerns about digital publishing and in many ways those comment threads felt like a few writers sitting in a coffee shop trying to convince each other of the best path to publication.  There are many valid points on both sides, some more emotional and less founded in evidence or fact than others.  I think we actually agree on more points than we disagree.  That is the beauty of such conversations.  All points can be explored and considered and every side of a topic can be covered.

Ultimately, the paths are many and each writer’s journey will be story until itself.  We must each decide our course based on the winds, weather, seaworthiness of our vessel and the capabilities of our captain and crew.  We must navigate towards the goal we have in mind.

Remember, though, when comparing traditional publishing to self/indie publishing,  we can’t really compared traditional publishers directly to Amazon digital publishing because Amazon isn’t really a publisher for digital indie published works, they are a distributor.

The author is actually the publisher and that is a different business model.  Author as publisher requires new and different skills and demands on the author’s time and that path is not for everyone.  Although many famous and historical authors self-published (as was not uncommon in the 19th and early 20th century), the latter 20th century publishing culture turned self-publishing into a negative connotation dubbing the process “vanity” publishing.  That culture has changed and the technology is now available for an author to write and publish an eBook for literally no cash investment, if he/she can do all the publishing tasks themselves.  This again a valid and increasingly respected path for writers.  Not a better path, another path.

What about the quality of work?  Don’t writer’s need an editor to maximize their stories?

The quality of work published varies with both traditional publishing and indie publishing.  The overall level of quality is arguably better with traditional publishing due to over a century of professionals investing their careers into the industry.  But even that doesn’t guarantee quality.

How would you as author feel if your big break into traditional publishing came with assignment of either a neophyte editor or musical chairs of editors, each less invested in your story than the previous?  I don’t have data to support, just enough anecdotal evidence to validate that it does happen.  This partially invested editor navigates the publishing process poorly and your book gets a rushed copy edit, a cover you hate, a title change you don’t agree with and publication with little or now marketing push.  Your book is published, it’s on a few bookshelves?  But now what?  How do you sell enough to earn out your tiny advance?  Especially in genre fiction?  This isn’t the only possibility, many authors have great experiences, but getting through the gatekeepers as new/unknown author doesn’t get you the attention of the publisher’s A team, either.

But aren’t self-published eBooks mostly garbage?

With the low barriers to entry with digital publishing, dreck will be published by authors who are not ready and haven’t honed their craft enough.  To me, poor sales and poor reviews are in some ways more timely and more useful feedback for a prematurely published author than several months worth of form rejection letters from agents or editors.  With digital, you can take the book down, rewrite it, re-title it, recover it and repost it.  With little or no cost.  If you hate the title or cover of your traditionally published book, good luck getting it changed.

As David Gaughran espouses in his “Let’s Get Digital” eBook, even self-published authors should hire a professional editor to raise the story quality publishable levels.

In fact, anyone even remotely considering self-publishing eBooks via Amazon or other outlets would be wise to read Gaughran’s entire book on the subject.  I’ve read it twice and it paints a crystal clear picture of both why and how to publish digitally.

My goal is not to debate with those who really want to follow the traditional publishing route, but to counter what I perceive as a wariness and caution by many writers and bloggers of the digital publication process and the current players.  I went through that cycle of doubt awhile back and can no longer remember the exact moment I decided to go digital.

Actually I do.

Almost a year ago, a member of my writer’s group came back from a conference and reported to us that editors and agents were communicating to new authors that fantasy manuscripts over 125K words were no longer being considered.  I confirmed this with an email to the editor of Pyr books.  I was at 90K words and only halfway through an epic fantasy novel meant for a trilogy.  The estimated total would be 180K plus.  I spent ten months on this manuscript and was now being told the market wouldn’t accept it, regardless of the quality.  (For a great analysis of word count for epic fantasy, see this post on The Undiscovered Author.)

So, I put my novel on hold and went back to the drawing board, drafted a prequel that would be a shorter, more compact introduction to the trilogy (in the same way The Hobbit is a shorter, more linear, simpler story that introduces Middle Earth and key players).

To my shock and surprise, after using the Snowflake Method as advised by Randy Ingermanson, my scene list and outline estimated my supposedly shorter prequel to be 175K words to tell the story right.

It was then back in February of this year, I think , that I decided the books could be as long as I wanted if I published digitally.  So, having made the decision, I started researching how to do that successfully.

What does that all mean?

Consider my thoughts a presentation of the concerns and fears some aspiring writers have about the current traditional publishing model and the great opportunity I see for creating, as an author, my own a publishing company and distributing my works via available channels, Amazon, B&N PubIt, Smashwords, Overdrive, and possibly LightningSource for printed copies of my books.

I like the future, as uncertain as it may be.  I will have more wisdom and insight once I’ve actually gone through the process, but for now, I’m willing to try.  I feel the risk is worth the attempt right now.  That may change if the whole thing shakes up again, but for now, this new model seems to be an open window.

A window I’m willing to not only look through, but climb through.

Are you?


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.