Tag Archive | publishing

How to Write Beginnings

The first few pages can make or break a book. They can mean the choice between a publishing contract or receiving a form rejection in the mail. After publication, they need to hook readers in just as they need to hook literary agents and editors beforehand. While there are many ways to successfully begin a book, they generally have a few things in common. Take note I’m writing this from a YA standpoint.

Introduce the main character

The main character is the person the reader is supposed to root for throughout the story. He needs to be put in a situation that gives the reader a glimpse into who he is and hopefully what he cares about. Sometimes, such as in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone, the main character is not introduced immediately, but someone important to the story is. Harry appears as a baby later in the chapter. However, we do learn that Harry has somehow survived an attack that will define who he is and how people see him for the rest of his life.

Despite this slight deviation, the main character is still introduced early in the story. We need to know who the main character is before the end of the first chapter, and if his introduction is delayed beyond the first few pages there must be a legitimate reason for it, not simply to be different or to attempt to create an air of mystery. Delaying the introduction of the main character simply because you want to make him mysterious will simply bore the reader.

Raise questions

The first scene needs to make the reader question what is happening and what is going to happen. While you don’t want to confuse the reader, some questions raised in the beginning of the novel should remain unresolved until the end. The attack on Harry Potter’s family in the first book raises the question of “Why did Voldemort kill the Potters?” and “Why couldn’t he kill Harry?” The first question isn’t resolved until the end of book five and the second is revealed in bits and pieces.

Stir conflict relevant to the story

Conflict drives all scenes, and your first scene is no exception. There must be some kind of conflict here, be it an actual argument or something more subtle such as a decision that must be made. Mundane events will not do here. The main character needs to be thrown a little off-balance so we can see how they react to the situation.

What will not do for conflict? Main characters getting up in the morning and going about their daily routine is an example of something that will bore the reader. However, something completely random cooked up for no purpose other than to make trouble is also a bad idea. The conflict should have something to do with the main plot.

In the first draft of Coldfire, I had the main character get into a fight right from the beginning. There was no grounding, no explanation of who was who and the fight was resolved in that one scene. This is an example of a poor beginning. In my most recent draft, the main character still gets into a fight in the first scene, but it doesn’t happen immediately and the attackers have something to do with the main character’s checkered past. While they don’t crop up again, they serve to demonstrate the main character’s motivation for leaving the city, which sparks the beginning of the whole plot. It still might not be an amazing beginning, but it is a serviceable one.

Avoid clichés

As writers we have centuries of writing to look back on. One disadvantage of having such a legacy to live up to is we sometimes borrow overdone techniques from other writers, such as having a narrator describe herself in a mirror. You’re better off coming up with something fresh than relying purely on what has already been done. Come up with new metaphors or similes if you wish to use them, think of a new way to distribute your characters’ physical attributes throughout the scene. While it’s impossible to entirely avoid other people’s influence on your writing, coming up with new techniques will ensure your work is not tired or lacking in originality.

Make it count

You only have one chance to get your beginning right in the eyes of the reader. Revise as much as you need to make your beginning sing. No two writers will write a beginning exactly the same. Also note it’s possible to create a gripping beginning while ignoring some of the suggestions above. If you can, do it. There are no writing police. Write the best book you can and don’t be afraid to break the rules you’ve heard if breaking them improves your story.

What do you think makes or breaks a story’s beginning?

Why I Didn’t Buy Your Book

The prevalence of social networking sites has made it easier than ever for writers to reach readers, regardless of whether they are traditionally published or self-published. However, it’s also extremely easy to go overboard with marketing or to just look like an idiot in front of people from all over the world.

While I’m not a published author, unless you count a couple of tiny anthologies published by a company that has since folded, I am a huge consumer of books. I have over a hundred books on my shelves at home and a never-ceasing “to be read” pile. I know what I like, and what I don’t. A lot of these following problems may only apply to self-published authors or only to those traditionally published, but it’s a good idea to keep all of them in mind. Some of these might not turn everyone off, but I can only speak from personal experience here.

Extreme Anti-Traditional Publishing Views

The majority of the books I read are traditionally published. That is, published by a publishing house. My favourite books are traditionally published and, while I’m not opposed to giving self-publishing books a chance, I will generally give preference to a traditionally published one because it has already gone through a vetting process of sorts.

If you are a self-published author and have an interesting novel concept I might read, the biggest turn-off for me is finding rant after rant against traditional publishing when I visit your blog. Seriously, if you’re trying to convince people who primarily read traditionally published books, rants about traditional publishing essentially insult the readers’ tastes, and, may I add, the decisions made by readers who are thinking of traditionally publishing their own works, like myself.

It’s okay to dislike traditional publishing, but ranting and raving about how they’re not in it for the authors, are liars, money-grubbers, etc. will only make you look like a conspiracy theorist. And very few readers take those kinds of people seriously. I certainly don’t. If the author is incapable of being reasonable and accepting there are both positive and negative sides to all publishing methods, I’m not going to think their work will be very good. While it might not be fair to judge someone’s fiction from their blog, if I see an extremely one-sided view of publishing, often descending into common insults flung at publishers that have ceased to have any real meaning, I’m going to assume your work is just as one-sided and lacking in complexity.

Poorly-formatted or poorly-spelled blog or website

I rant a lot about hating white text on black backgrounds, but that’s not the only thing that can go wrong with a blog or website. I often find potential authors following me on Twitter and the first thing I do while deciding whether or not to follow back is to look at their website. If it is messy, impossible to navigate or glaring spelling errors pop out at me, I am going to be much less inclined to read your book. If your website is this unprofessional, will your book be the same?

A clean format with easy to find links on the sidebar and across the top of the page beneath the heading are your best bet. Anything important should be listed there. I recently went on to an author’s website because the title of their book interested me, only to have a hell of a time finding a page about their books. I eventually found a picture of one of the books halfway down the page in the sidebar. It’s fine to do that, but maybe a little messy, as long as you also have an easy to find page where you have information about all your books. Readers don’t want to embark on a treasure hunt to find your books.

Also, proofread your damn blog posts and website content. If you aren’t a very good speller, get someone else to help you. PLEASE. And, while you’re at it, you better have found someone to proofread your book.

A Terrible Book Cover

Traditionally published authors often have no control over their covers, but self-published authors do. If you want your book to be bought, you had better shell out for a decent designer if you are not one yourself. The cover is your book’s clothing, if you will, and while some people wouldn’t be opposed to a cover equated to someone dressed in dirty rags, I assure you many people will. The old “never judge a book by its cover” adage may work with people, but the literal sense of book covers is incorrect. If your cover is absolutely hideous or boring, people will be turned off.

A Terrible Blurb

Oh, these exist. Sometimes it’s possible to get past clichéd descriptions of a plot if the plot itself actually sounds okay, but it’s not going to do you any favours. If you write something like Jane Doe was an ordinary girl living an ordinary life before the sexy John Smith arrived at her school, I will probably run away. The number of hackneyed plot elements described in that sentence has reached toxic levels. Yes, the plot elements can work in a novel if reworked well enough, but the “ordinary girl” cliché in particular is so overdone you will lose potential readers if you don’t put an interesting spin on it in your blurb. Some traditionally published authors, again, don’t have control over this, but some do and so do all self-published authors.

Sales Spam

The number of people on Twitter who do this is astounding. Let’s just say you follow someone because their blog looks interesting or they have a handful of interesting tweets. However, once you follow them you receive a direct message reading something along the lines of: “Hello, thanks for following. Here’s a link to my book.” Ugh. Maybe some people buy, but plenty don’t.

Repetitious tweets about your book are also a turn-off. It’s okay to link to, say, a review of your book every so often and make it clear in your profile description you do have a book out, but it’s not okay to beat your readers over the head with sales pitches. This sort of marketing is so intrusive and transparent that you will lose Twitter followers and possible sales.

You’re better off providing interesting tweets about things that may relate to your book. For example, if your book involves faeries, you might link to articles or other people’s books about faeries that you like. Most people on Twitter also share minor details about their lives on occasion and create content that will interest their followers. This is a much better alternative to over-marketing, and will make readers feel like they know you. If they like what they see, they might purchase your book.

More Information

Blog posts like this come around every so often, although generally from more experienced members of the writing community than me.

Rachelle Gardner recently posted What NOT to Blog About, which has a slightly broader focus than just turning off potential buyers.

A Writer On Writing posted last year Social networking (or what NOT to say to an editor), which is focused on networking in person and contains a real-world example of rude behaviour, which she experienced.

Nathan Bransford’s Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer is less about finding readers and more about not going insane from the publishing process, but some of the commandments are relevant to what’s been discussed in this post.

I hope I left you with something to think about. I also hope I haven’t offended anyone. I do try to temper my opinions on the internet so I don’t look like a raving lunatic. Here’s a smiley face to make things better :)

YA Paranormal Market Oversaturated?

I’ve been hearing whispers that editors are not buying up YA paranormal anymore. The market is saturated at the moment, certainly, but teens I know who actually read the stuff, myself included, have never complained of having too many options to read. It’s always the people who have a bone to pick with YA in general who say there’s too much. Naturally, I’m concerned about editors being tired of paranormal when the audience is not. I love YA paranormal and fantasy and paranormal romance. Well, the good stuff anyway.

I suppose there isn’t much writers can do about it. I’m going to keep writing my paranormal stuff because… screw the market. I write for myself first. Besides, my main project is a dystopian fantasy and dystopians are supposedly selling right now, so maybe that one has a chance. If my paranormal projects don’t, well, I’m going to write them anyway. Because I can.

It’s Not Ready Yet

I returned home from a three-day-long school “study” camp yesterday, my limbs aching from the hours of walking and the overpacked schedule. I have even less of an idea of where I want to go to university now, after all the tours and talks and blah blah blah.

Anyway, that’s not the point of this post, so onwards:

The publishing industry is a complicated, many-headed beast. As writers we first come in with bright eyes and grand expectations. Some of us remain that way while others learn as much as they can about publishing, be it self-publishing or “traditional” publishing, the first of which the author pays a company that is hopefully upfront about its purpose while in the second the author is paid and the publishing company handles printing, liaising with bookstores and whatnot.

There is a lot to learn, and it can be hard to explain these things to friends and even writers who have yet to get their feet wet. One thing I’ve found, especially with my non-writer friend who reads a lot, is the question of why my book isn’t finished and in stores. The answer: it’s not ready yet. I refuse to release my book into the wilderness before it is as strong as I can make it. I’m currently working on the fourth draft and already know there will be a fifth and possibly a sixth. I will stop when I am having immense trouble finding things to change.

As writers we need to be critical of our work as much as possible. If we can’t see our book critically, we may have to pay professional editors or get a critique partner to help. There are some writer’s forums, such as Absolute Write, that have critique areas for your use as well.

(Be careful with professional editors. Not all of them are any good. Take any comments from anyone with a grain of salt. Multiple opinions are often the way to go here, so if you get the same comment over and over again it may be worth looking over. Follow your gut with this.)

We also need to learn the craft and basic story structure. We need to learn what makes our characters tick, especially our protagonist and villain. Everything must make sense to the reader. It’s okay to have mystery, but there must be a logical plot and minimal stupidity on the characters’ part. I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

When will my story be finished? When it’s ready. No sooner.

Patience and NOW Moments

One thing that I’ve noticed lately is that writing has taught me how to be more patient. Like many younger writers aiming for publication, I have moments when I want to be published NOW, want to see my stuff in stores NOW, want the sweet sweet royalties EVEN EARLIER THAN NOW. However, barring self-publication, this isn’t exactly possible. So I’ve had to learn. Like my main character’s love interest in Coldfire, I’m not exactly known as being an inherently patient person.

So here’s how I keep my brain in good nick during these ‘NOW moments’ (I suppose that’s as good a name as any):

- Remember that in order to be published, I must have finished a book.

- Remember that in order to be published, I must have finished a very very very good book.

- And a very very very good query.

- It’s likely that I’ll have to wait for weeks for responses from agents, most of which are likely to be rejections.

- I’ll have to do my homework so I’m submitting to the right agents to increase my chances of a non-rejection.

- Have a hobby so I’m not focused on publishing twenty-four hours a day.

- Focus on making my work great so that even if I don’t get published, I’ll still have something I’m proud of.

- I’m young and have plenty of time to get published if I’m not ready now.

Okay, so that’s a pretty pathetic list. I just had a NOW moment and felt like reminding myself why I don’t have to be published RIGHT THIS SECOND. Because I’m odd like that. Hopefully this can help any of you guys having your own NOW moments.