We can blog, tweet, promo, purchase ads and wave pom poms over our book and that is all lovely. Attention is grand. An on-line platform is essential. But, if none of these efforts translate into an actual sale? A lot of time and money wasted. What is the best way to sell books?
We’ll get there in a sec… *suspenseful music cues*
In my latest book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World I actually spend a lot of time explaining why advertising and marketing doesn’t sell books in the new paradigm (or any other, for that matter) and what changes to make for any advertising or marketing to be more effective. Yet, ads, banners, book trailers aside, people want to read a great book.
This means our best way of selling books is…
You ready for this? *drum roll*
Writing great books.
Our sample pages, which are the beginning of the book, are our most priceless selling tool. This is why I’ve dedicated just as many (if not more) blog posts to teaching craft than I have teaching social media. Social media is not magic and it will work far better with a great product (book). Whouda thunk?
I know most of you’ve heard agents and editors usually give a book one to three pages, before continuing or chunking into the circular file. You might be thinking one to three pages? But, my story really gets going on page 21.
I’ve run the first-twenty-pages-contest on this blog for about four years. Most of the samples I get? I don’t need 20 pages. I need one. Maybe five. At the outset? TEN (but that’s rare). I already know all the writer’s good and bad habits as well as the writer’s level of education and skill (or lack thereof). It’s simply shocking how many of the same problems plague the beginning of most first-time novels.
And it’s easy to think this is all very unfair, but think of your own experiences browsing a bookstore. Aside from cover and interesting title and story description, what do we do? We open the book and scan the first couple of pages. If those first pages stink or are lackluster, we don’t give the writer twenty of fifty or a hundred pages to sell us.
Unless you wrote Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but he was dead.
So when you are dead, I suppose people give more gratis, because I cannot count the number of times people have said, “Well, yes GWTDT bored the paint off the walls, but after the first hundred pages, it’s awesome!”
I…am not that motivated. I gave the book more than it’s due (because the writer was dead) and gave it 20. Next! I’m aging here.
So if you are reading this blog and you’re dead? You get more leeway. Also, what’s it like on the Other Side? Feel free to leave a description in the comments :D.
For the rest of us who remain among the living? One to five pages.
I can tell 99% of what’s wrong in a book by page five, and so can agents and editors (and readers, though they might not know what is wrong, only they aren’t hooked).
It’s sort of like going to a doctor. He/She can tell from the sphygmomanometer (been DYING to use that word) which is a blood-pressure cuff, a look at skin pallor and basic symptoms to tell if a patient has a bum ticker. No need to crack open the patient’s chest and stare right at the sickly beating heart.
Most new writers (especially) have what Candy Haven’s calls a fish-head. What do we do with fish-heads? We cut them off and throw them away, unless you are my family, who are
scavengers Scandinavians and then they make soup *shivers*. This actually explains the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo mystery.
The writer was dead and Swedish. Apparently Swedish readers looove fish-head-story-soup and somehow convinced others to give it a try. Not saying these are bad books, btw. Clearly, they have a huge fan base and rave reviews. I’m just I am not patient enough to get to the good stuff (and neither are a lot of other people).
Most new novels need to lose the first hundred pages. But that’s just something I’ve gleaned from experience. Yet, who cares about the first hundred if we can’t care about the first five? Often, the problems in the next 95 pages can be fixed by knowing what went sideways with the first five. Seriously.
Sample pages are…samples. If we go to Sam’s or Costco, how many will stop for a sample of egg rolls, pizza, or Acai juice? If the sample Green Juice Gut-Blaster tastes like steel wool mixed with moldy spinach, will you BUY the mega-bottle of Green Juice Gut-Blaster hoping it tastes better by mid-bottle?
My point, exactly.
For a fantastic resource about this, I highly recommend (AGAIN) Les Edgerton’s Hooked. Also, tonight is my First Five Pages Class to help you out (deets down the page), because we all know that the TOUGHEST part of writing a book is the BEGINNING….then the middle and WHOA—crap—the end. But, this class is for the first FIVE because if we can’t nab a reader there? The rest is moot.
What makes you stop reading a book? How long do you give books? Are you patient enough to wait a hundred pages for it to get interesting? What do you find the hardest about writing the beginning of the book? Have you lopped off your own fish heads?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have TWO classes coming up to help you!
BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.
A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. TONIGHT!!! I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.
Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . This is a GREAT class for streamlining a story and making it pitch-ready.
Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.
Loved this. And it’s so true, the beginning kills me every time. I hate writing the beginning even when I know exactly what I want to say.
Oh yeah, I write terrible fish heads while I’m flailing around at the beginning, trying to figure out the story’s voice. Thank goodness for revisions! I’ve chopped so much drek.
I completely agree. Hype is good, but if you don’t have content that is quality, it’s all for nothing anyway. Thanks, Kristen 🙂
If I’ve already purchased a book for whatever reason I might give it a chapter or two, but I am shopping and looking at the first page it usually make my decision based on the first couple paragraphs. I have noticed in a physical book store I will give more of perusal of a book, but online I often don’t get past the first paragraph. In my first novel in the first draft I made one of the most novicey of blunders, I start it with the protagonist getting up in the morning for no other reason then I felt like I had to start at the beginning! Love Les Edgerton’s book, Hooked. It’s been on my shelf for many years now.
I apologize for the rotten fish head I sent on one of those 20 page reads. I certainly learned a lot and have made huge strides in fixing everything. I went back to the outline and started it all over. The rewrite looks amazing so far so I’m speaking from experience when I say, that 1st page just had to hook or I was going to scrap it, everyone who saw it before loved the new opening much better. So far, the feedback I’ve had with the rewrite has been absolutely 50 times better. After finally letting everything sink in on what you had been saying on your blog and what people like Larry Brooks had written in his books I realized then that I was just going through the motions and doing them all wrong. Some of us are slow to catch up. Thank you.
I think sometimes we just need a skilled set of objective eyes. Les Edgerton chopped off my fish head too (though it had gotten far smaller) three pages instead of 300, LOL. And SO THRILLED my feedback helped. I could see you had an excellent voice and story…you just needed to get to the story 😀 .
Since it’s tonight, I want to recommend Kristen’s first five pages class. Very helpful at pointing out what I foolishly thought would work… And what I knew better than to do and, forgot. Yeah, that’s it, forgot.
(((HUGS))) Thank you!
Reblogged this on Theo Fenraven and commented:
YES! And oh wow, this post even has a fish head. *starts singing the old song…*
One of the things you should have in your first 300 words is all five senses. Most writers generally leave all but one or two out — and yeah, it is hard to do. But it puts the focus on the setting and the character, which are usually the main pieces that sell a particular genre, and certainly will be doing something that most other writers aren’t even touching. If this is a skill you have trouble with, start a commonplace book and record bits you find that you like. Writing it down helps connect it to your brain so you might have an easier time getting it into the story. But if you’re pantser (meaning you don’t outline), you may generally have a hard time getting it into the story, so be aware of that.
However, the end is what sells your next book. I bought a book by a best selling author at a library sale. First time I;d read the author. It was a mystery set in Washington, DC, and in the U.S. Supreme Court to be more precise. She did a pretty poor job with the setting, but that was forgivable. What wasn’t was when I got to the end, it was “Oh, by the way, this was random killing.” Every time I see this author’s name now, I will not even look at her books. I paid 50 cents for the book, and I felt like she wasted my money and time.
Went to a book shop on Monday and scanned their best reads section. There were plenty of books by authors I liked, that I knew would keep me going until the end, but at that moment I just didn’t want to read them. Then I picked up Alan Bennett’s An Uncommon Reader and that was it. Hooked. Took it to a coffee shop and read nearly all of it while my latte went cold. Sometimes you just can’t explain what you want (even to yourself), until you see it. Frustrating for writers.
This is great advice. My editor always tells me this. I have a bad habit of starting off with a mini-prologue. Maybe a page, which sort of sets the stage for the story. It’s a tough pill to swallow (not sure why, but it is) to be told that readers want some action or reason to care before they give the more nuanced story a chance, but I think it’s true. You’ve got to present something tempting to encourage someone to keep reading.
I think this is more important than ever – because with kindle you can always request a sample. The reader has a lot of opportunities to browse through lots of books and it doesn’t cost a thing. Therefore she is less likely to buy something that doesn’t grab her, and instead will easily find another option. Without leaving home.
I usually give books a chapter (two if I already bought it) to get me interested. If at the end of that I’m still not invested in the character or the writing then I just stop. Overly descriptive and flowery words at the beginning usually is a deal breaker for me.
I’ve read Hooked… and re-read…and re-read… Excellent book that’s I’ve recommended to all the insane writers of my acquaintance. It’s made all the difference in my writing.
You make me laugh. And you know what? I am the only person in the Universe who DIDN’T LIKE THE DA VINCI CODE. Know why? Because Dan Brown can’t seem to stay away from detail. I threw the book across the room after the first three chapters. Zzzzzzzzzz…….. Sorry. But I tell the truth as I (read) it.
I absolutely agree that writing a great book is the best way to get people to buy your books, and the first chapter is essential. But if no one hears that you’ve written your book, how are they going to buy it? Even if they’re fans, and love your work, how will they know that you’ve got a new book out if you do scream it from social media?
I don’t advocate screaming too often, just loud enough so that those who are interested will find out.
Well, that is why I saw social media IS important. And people can know us as people…who happen to be writers and have a book out. Then the sample pages do the real selling.
I recently downloaded a book which had a really interesting storyline but I got about five pages in and gave up. The synopsis in the product description was better written than the book itself. I probably would have persevered a bit longer if I didn’t have so many other things in my ‘to read’ pile.
I’m trying to read The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson but my God it’s gruelling. I’d read a couple of his other books and despite the reviews on Amazon saying that The Night Land was hard to read, I downloaded it because those reviews also said that it was very good. Provided you could make it to the end. I keep abandoning it but then trying again a few months later. It’s been over a year since I first started it and I’m still only a third of the way through. If I hadn’t read his other books I would almost certainly have given this the elbow long ago but as it is I would like to get to the end. I suspect it’s going to take a while though.
I don’t agree that Stieg Larsson got a pass because he was dead. He got a pass because his book was about to get published AND then he died AND he didn’t just die but dropped dead AND it happened at the door to his office after climbing several flights of stairs. Do that and you can almost get away with anything. Problem is, however, you’re not around to enjoy the adulation. And plain old dying just isn’t enough these days–everyone wants more. So, yeah, five pages.
LOL *clutches sides laughing*
I want to “like” this comment. Is that wrong of me? 🙂
I did the same thing! WHERE IS THE LIKE BUTTON?????
It’s really true that we often scan the first few pages before we decide if a book is worth our time . I’m still struggling with the first three chapters of a children’s book I’ve been working on. Will definitely be checking out Hooked. Thanks Kristen for another great post!
Kristen, I’m so glad you wrote this. Even as a 10 year old girl, I wouldn’t give books a chance if they didn’t grab me by the end of Page 2. Nancy Drew’s author(s) knew what she was doing, I’d say! 🙂 Your timing on this article is wonderful — in a couple of weeks I am going to edit my cancer book after a month of not looking at it — and I’ll make sure that the first five pages are wonderful! Thanks again.
A poorly written beginning is like turning a key to start a car and just hearing the engine whine without turning over. It’s no good and won’t get you anywhere.
The other side is more boring than you think. No bacon here.
This is being ‘parked’ for reading when I write my next book. It is so, so valuable. Thank you.
Reblogged this on Edits by Jade and commented:
I took a creative writing course in college that ended up being mostly homework time. But the one thing that professor taught me was that a story must have a strong beginning to hook readers. So it ended up being a worthwhile class after all. Thanks for the reminder, Kristen!
agree, however, somewhat frustrating to see so many “best sellers” not adhere to this “rule.” and now, back to trying to re-attach the fish head to my thriller novel.
I write fantasy and I’ll be the first to admit that fantasy writers (often established fantasy writers) believe the genre comes with a free pass to start slow. Let’s make that S L O W. I’ve read two current fantasies (again, established authors) where I was still waiting for the first line of dialog on page ten. Was it because action hurled me into the grips of a novel teeming with adventure? Nope. Instead, I plowed through seemingly endless, lengthy paragraphs containing internal musings. No kidding. And these people are selling books to faithful readers. I’m not one of them.
This is one of my frustrations with reading a lot of Fantasy, especially older stuff. Yes, there’s the added challenge of building a world, but do we need ALL of the details in the first pages? I’d rather read a strong opening and pick up the details as we go on. Internal musings would be just as bad.
I guess the advantage of being an established writer with fans is that they’ll stick with you until you get to the good stuff. 🙂
You’re absolutely right and my dirty little secret is that I’m a fantasy writer who doesn’t read all that much fantasy for the reasons you mention. Let the information flow to the reader naturally. Give them just enough to move forward. Yes, the world building took me years and is an ongoing process, but readers purchase books for the story, not to support the author’s ego. I loved your comment and it makes me feel better knowing I’m not alone. 🙂
You always have such good advice. I’m curious about the books you’ve put in your recent blog posts. I’m hoping my library has them. I’d love to read them. You’ve made me realize that maybe what I thought was good isn’t and I need to rewrite it so it’s tighter.
As a new writer, this is fantastic information. I shall do my best to take it to heart. Now, where’s my manuscript… and my chainsaw?
I used to spend much longer with books before giving up on them. I even forced my way through all of James Joyce’s Ulysses one time. I kept telling myself that eventually I would catch on and understand what he was saying. It seems to be a sign of our internet generation, we scan multiple articles and rarely read them through unless it really grabs our attention. I understand the need for this in our writing because of the society we live in but also think we are loosing something in the process.
Hooked – great book!
Funny what you say about fish heads. I’ve just finished (at least I hope I have, I haven’t heard from my editor in 24 hours…) editing my next book. I had to lose the entire first chapter. This is in what I thought was the final version (I’d already shaved 10K off the start between drafts 2 and 3!).
I’m usually pretty impatient with books which take too long to get going. The only exceptions were Vernon God Little (I skimmed the first third because someone told me it got going after that), Anne MacCaffery’s Dragon’s Dawn (I had nothing else to read) and the later books of Harry Potter (because… it’s Harry Potter. Come on!).
I must say, your posts are fantastic to hear, but also make my heart go pitter-patter as I wonder at my own book’s beginning. 🙂 I’d love to win the April prize and get a chance to hear more of the unvarnished truth the way your trained eye sees it. Thanks for sharing your insights!
Hope you run the first five pages class again in May. I’m just buried this weekend and I still haven’t watched the recording of the last class I took and had a bum internet connection during (fault on my end).
I spent hours considering the first line of my WIP only to change it because it sounded like me and not the main character. I scrubbed as much extraneous detail from the first five pages to hook people (but it is a fantasy) and was still accused of info dumping.
If I don’t perfect these pages, I’m never going to land an agent or publisher. I don’t see the fish head…but what do I know?
Half way through your new book. Thanks so much for the lifeline – been stuck in twitter hell for the past three weeks. It’s like Vegas with no clocks or windows. As a new Indie published writer easy to get seduced by all the blinking lights and free drinks. Thanks for reminding me to work on my craft so signed up for your class tonight. See you on the web. Cheers!
Will be cool to meet you! THANKS 😀
Thank you for the info. I am excited to read more of your blog! Thanks again!
You always make me thing, bringing new perspective to where ever I am in the process. I had to learn and am still learning the difference between ‘information I the writer need to know about the characters and plot’ and ‘telling the story’.
Oops typos there. Didn’t edit before I posted
Normally I have your six if you goof :D. Heck, I had to correct four typos in Thursday’s post after publishing, so I can’t rightly be too hard on you, LOL.
In a well written piece a few errors might be forgiven. Even in genealogical research I was surprised at the number of up corrected errors that could be found.
Hit the nail on the Head, Kristen.
I noticed I put down so many books within the first five, I started a whole blog about beginnings!
I post a critique the first bit of the book, then if I manage to finish it, I’ll post a followup post critiquing the work as a whole.
Also, I want to take your class tonight, but I wish I had more notice! I’m in Texas, so NYC time is one hour… later later than me, right? If it’s earlier I won’t quite be able to make it.
One hour later than us. I am Texas too. And the class is recorded in case you miss anything.
Reblogged this on ARON JOICE.
First, as an erstwhile personal trainer, sphygmomanometer was one of my favorite words. Kudos for slipping it in there. 😉
Second, is THAT all we have to do to get people to give our books a chance? Die? Well, who knew?
I couldn’t stand GWTDT just for that looooooooooong 100 page introduction. I did read the rest because it actually got somewhat interesting later on, although the translation drove me to distraction and nearly suicidal because of how poorly written it was. I digress.
I usually give an unknown book (not recommended by a friend or being an international bestseller) about the same length of time, maybe even less, 1-3 pages. Frankly, if the first paragraph doesn’t make me go “hmmm” it’s kind of all downhill from there. We expect A LOT from our books these days.
Gone Girl – first line – awesome. I was hooked. The tone, the expert choice of words. All of it, pitch perfect. She had me up till that last quarter or so of the book. Then, to me, it just fell right the hell apart. Her writing is impeccable though and as a writer that’s important to me, because even if I’m not buying what she’s selling in the story, (which I just wasn’t at that point) I could still learn from her, so it wasn’t wasted time.
But, boy oh boy, do we expect a lot from those first pages. No pressure. 😉
I really wanted to join the First 5 page webinar, but felled trees, no water supply and a chainsaw are keeping me busy. Just want to ask will you be doing it again soon?.
Yes, probably end of May. No worries 😀 .
Oh, no. I missed the webinar. Can I buy a replay?
I will hold again at the end of May if you want to wait.
I loved your advice I am not a writer I do tons of reading and I completely agree w with you about everything you were saying about how you can just start reading a book and within the first 5 pages you know whether or not you are going to finish it or not. I think it also has to do with what type of person we are trying to reach. Are we trying to reach teens, New moms, techies, teachers, this list goes on forever as you as an author probably are aware of thanks for sharing
I was hooked on the first page of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo otherwise I might not have waded through the graphic violence later in the book but by then I had to find out what happened.
I’ve cut so many fish-heads off my WIP! Maybe it’s a Hydra in disguise…
Again, I appreciate all the insights that you deliver and I plan on getting your book!
Maybe it’s easier to wait a while for the fish to die before cutting the head off. I’m letting my WIP novel cure like lutefisk while I take care of a big non-fic project. I’ll have no reservation about lopping off its head when it’s not still flopping around.
Fish-head is a delightful and amusing thing to call such a thing!
I typically choose books by reading the first page. If that isn’t enough, sometimes reputation will carry it. If these two things aren’t enough, I put it down. As I draft and edit, I try to keep this in mind with my own books and stories. If I picked this up off a shelf, would I keep reading?
I feel that if Mr. Larsson had lived to see his books being published, there are a number of edits and changes which would have been made. I did enjoy the books, but kind of felt as though he’d picked the wrong character as his “main”.
Well, I went out to dinner at a seafood restaurant tonight and ordered, “Prologue Stew.” The waiter just looked at me, and said, “I know there’s a story in there, somewhere.”
Am I the only one who (in a physical bookstore) picks up a book and opens to the dead center to read a page? If I am piqued, it goes home with me. 9 times out of 10, the opening three pages are great too. But then again, I like my fiction intensely voice driven.
Great post! Even though something about it was very fishy.
Now why did I read all the comments whenI’d already agreed with what was in the post – classic displacement activity. Before I go off to do the writing which is what I SHOULD be doing right now, I’m going to share this. We all need the timely reminder re first pages.
Oh and bookmarked to read again later – when I’ve done my writing for the day…
Thank you , Kristen. Good advice, as always.
You are so right. One of the best starts to a novel I’ve ever read was The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold . She starts off “My name was Salmon, like the fish,” and you notice the word “was”. Then she goes on, “…first name Susie. I was murdered on .. (and she gives the date.) The she comments on what happened at her funeral. I was totally hooked because here we have a dead girl talking straight to us about the circumstances of her murder. I don’t think I’ve ever reader a better opening.
oh man, i’m so happy you said that about girl with the dragon tattoo. i totally didn’t understand why that book took off like that. it actually annoyed me that people liked it. i mean, yeah, there was a good 200 pages in the middle there but wow, did it need a serious editor.
I agree totally that the way to sell books is to write great ones. I also believe, in a crowded market, for most people, watching your sales grow can be like watching an Oak tree break through the ground, so slow is the initial progress. I have just published my first book, through PDMI, and have gained some sales through people familiar with my Blog, but I long for that day when my ;little novel can fly on its own and not have me flapping its wings for it all the time. May be, one day, that time will come.
May I offer an alternate view that may not be well accepted by writers, but their accountants will love it. I coach authors how to pitch the media in order to be interviewed and thereby get a plug for their book. After coaching over 1,000 authors, I can tell you there is very little correlation between book sales and the quality of the book. Of course what is “quality” is up for discussion. Look at the best seller’s list, honestly there is some real junk in there. And I am sure some of the best books you ever read had almost zero sales. No, the answer is to get some aspect of the book out in the public’s eye and get sales as a result of that. If you get on Good Morning America and talk about a subject you can tie your book into, Amazon will light up by Noon. Yes, this is hard if you don’t use the right system, but it can be done, People do it every day. Fiction writers have a very hard time with this as they tend to get hung up on reviews and awards. These mean almost nothing to the general public. But there is a simple way around this. Anyway, in my experience stop worrying about the quality of the book and start thinking of how you can relate it to the mass media. OK, thanks, Edward Smith.
Well, if a first-time self published author gets on Good Morning America before the book is a success I’d like to see that (and not being facetious). I know mass media is a way of getting attention, but even though I’ve had three best-selling books, two at #1, Associated Press won’t even review it….despite blurbs from many a NYTBSA.
Are you offering another Your First Five Pages Class anytime soon?
I would love to get more feedback on the beginning of my novel, from someone I don’t know. Plus, I have a prologue that I’m praying isn’t a fish head. I don’t think it’s a 7 deadly sinner, but do I have the objectivity to know? It certainly has caused quite a debate among my beta readers.
BTW – I’m ordering Rise of the Machines, can’t wait to start understanding this social media thing…
Yes, I am. End of May and thank you for the purchase! I look forward to hearing how you are doing with social media.
I saw that you posted already about offering another Your First 5 Pages Class at the end of May. Awesome! Can’t wait!
Hmm, very interesting. As a reader I completely agree about sample pages being the way to get someone to read/buy the book. Though, you do need to get a person to look at the sample page in the first place. What gets me there is usually some combination of title, cover & blurb, I guess. It doesn’t have to be all 3; it can be just one, if I have a strong enough reaction to it. And I have to hear about or somehow come across the book to get even that far. Sometimes it’s the recommended stuff that pops up on my Amazon page that get me to take a look. Sometimes it’s the ads that pop up on my Kindle. I’ve checked books out based on a random Twitter comment. Or real-life word-of-mouth. Once upon a time, when there were, like, actual bookstores around, I would just go in and browse the titles on display.
But re: Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I actually LOVED that book, which I read when it was hot a few years ago. I mean, I know it had its problems & doubtless had a lot of extraneous material that should have been edited out, but I was sufficiently engaged by the story & even more by the Lisbeth Salander character that it overrode all else. Besides which, I’m a very forgiving reader, in general. If I find a story &/or characters compelling, I will overlook all kinds of other issues. (Actually I’m usually pretty much like that with people too, come the think of it 🙂 Focus on what I like, ignore the rest, unless it’s so pervasively, hellaciously bad that I just can’t.)
After what you said about GWTDT I went on Amazon to look at the sample pages for it, as it’s been a while since I read & I’d forgotten. It was the Prologue scene about the mysterious flower the old man receives every year on his birthday. I gotta say, I do disagree with you there as that hooked me in about 2 sentences. The mystery genre was my First Love in books & this felt a bit Agatha Christie. Then he weeps at the end of the scene = instant empathy. Sympathy/empathy with a character will hook me every time. The next scene in the sample is the start of Chapter 1, which opens with Mikael Blomqvist just after losing at trial. Again, I empathized. After that is a bunch of drier stuff about how Blomqvist got himself into this situation. Less fun, but by then I’m already committed enough to finding out what’s going on to care.
Other factors that figured into my decision to read GWTDT included what I already knew about it from reviews, particularly that there was this mysterious tattooed, pierced Asperger’s-ish heroine, an idea I found irresistibly fascinating. My single biggest influence was a word-of-mouth rave review from my boss, a very smart, savvy lady & top VP at our firm. It was the only book I’ve ever heard her talk about as I recall, before or since, and that impressed me enough to check it out the first chance I got. So I picked up a physical copy of the book & flipped through. The instant I read the first scene with Lisbeth Salander in it, I was gone & bought the book on the spot. I wasn’t disappointed; I devoured that book. I read all 3 in the series & regretted there was no 4th. I did, however, feel that something, not sure if it was quality of writing or story, declined with each successive installment. Or maybe it was just the novelty wore off. But I still liked them all. And Lisbeth Salander remains one of my all-time favorite literary characters.
Again, looking back with comments that you & other writers/editors have made concerning problems with the writing & editing (or lack thereof) in mind, I can see those issues. I can see the books could have been better, but none of those issues put me off much when I was reading it.
Frankly, as far as not being hooked at the start, I’ve worse issues reading books that are unquestionably “great literature”, such as Joyce’s “Ulysses”. This probably outs me as an terrible excuse for a reader, but in the end it doesn’t matter to me if writing is difficult to get through because it’s poorly edited, or it it’s because, though the writing is masterly, it’s too dense to be easily penetrated & requires more thought & time than I am willing to invest. And I have to confess, I can’t always tell the difference. What matters to me, in the end, is if there will be a big enough payoff, in terms of enjoyment, to balance out any downside. So, sad to say, I am more willing to wade through (or skim) dry, boring, badly written or annoying scenes in an exciting thriller, mystery or romance, than I am willing take on the labor-intensive task of reading the something like Joyce’s Ulysses, poetic & symbolic & important though it may be. That’s not to say I never read/enjoy difficult books, I do, but I have to get something out of it. Probably means I am a lazy & shallow reader, but oh well . . .
BTW, love your appeal for comments from the dead, and the sphygmomanometer: LOL! My personal fav is “gas chromatograph mass spectrometer” ;-D
Very good advice. I’m by no means an expert writer and I’m constantly working on my craft. Building a platform is a very laborious enterprise. But, I keep at it. I do think Edward Smith’s suggestion has some merits. But, what good does publicity do, if the book sucks? Many movies have fantastic publicity, but die in the first week because it’s all hype and no substance. Would love to figure out how to meld the two methods, though.
Thank you for this article! It is really awesome!
I love your blog so much, I added a link yours on my favorite bloggers page http://lonestarinspirations.wordpress.com/my-favorite-bloggers/
Reading for Month9, I see a lot of what you’re talking about. It’s helping me to look at my own reading critically.
I loved your book Rise of the Machines. I like your writing style, so when I discovered your blog, I subscribed. I am not disappointed. You have a succinct way of getting to the point with a sense of humor. By the way, I loved Edgerton’s book Hooked. I don’t know if I’m still an amateur plugging away or a professional waiting for an agent or publisher to discover me. I have a children’s picture book at a publisher, but my monster in the closet is a middle grade novel in two parts with a third yet to be written. I keep going back to my opening lines in the first book, not quite satisfied. Anyway, my blog is http://authorcaldwell.blogspot.com.
I’m slowly (read reluctantly) coming to the conclusion that one of my WIPs has a fish head beginning. It’s interesting to me, but perhaps not a good place for the book to start. Now to find where it Should start.
I haven’t heard anyone, other than me, use the term “fish-head” in years. My writing teacher of long ago preached the “fish-head” to any and all who would listen.
I finished your book “Rise of the Machines” last night and really enjoyed it. You also opened my eyes to the idea of making a lot of changes. Thank you very much.
THANK YOU! Glad you enjoyed the book ((HUGS)).
On the subject of getting more sales, sometimes it helps to think outside the box in terms of where you sell your books. There are many places besides Amazon and traditional bookstores that sell books. I personally sold 5,000 books to Amway to be given to their sales people. I had a media pitching client that sold 2,000 coffee table books to a furniture chain to be used as a give away with purchase. OK, thanks for having a great blog. Edward Smith.
Well, fiction can be different. As a NF author, I speak a lot and sell a lot of books. Still, we need to produce a good product. Thanks for the comments 😀 .
A slow start isn’t a deal-breaker for me. I’m a stubborn reader. I just finished plodding through “The Hours,” which starts slow and stays there. Just kept reminding myself that it won the Pulitzer. In my own work I’m learning to chop off at least the fish lips if not the entire head. In my editorial-writing days at a daily newspaper I habitually hacked the first graph; it was as if I’d used it as a step-stool to fling me up onto a high platform from a running start.
Well, to be honest to read a complete book I give it about 20 pages… to buy it… I usually don’t read sample pages… if I like title, cover & blurb I buy the book… I was disapointed few times but not often…
otherwise yes, you’re right… first 5 pages usually do hook people…
I think I will struggle with hooking readers and keeping them hooked. I don’t really have a beginning yet, and not a whole lot of story yet either, but one of the critical problems with a space exploration story is this – space is frickin’ big.
If I have too much going on, space looks like it’s big and yet filled with encounters which slow things down. If I don’t have enough going on, the story is about as interesting as taking a one-year journey in a darkened train tunnel.
So what I’ve decided is this. The characters will drive the story forward. They’re not just exploring the unknown out there, they’re trying to lead meaningful lives while accomplishing their mission. They find ways to entertain themselves. They form new friendships and take comfort in the ones that they have.
I’ve got plenty of inspiration to draw on, but I don’t have a hook yet. It’ll come with time, I guess, and when I have more story to suggest one. Thanks for the insightful post, Kristen.
There has to be a problem. Novels aren’t journals, they are about a problem(s) to be solved. Find your problem and you have your story.
Okay then. I have an idea of what I need to do.
Like an episodic series, I need to keep throwing new problems at my intrepid band of explorers.
And they don’t have to be contrived problems – the ship they’re flying is old, alien, and has a mind of its own!
So I suppose a good hook is going to be one of those things which they have to respond to. A distress call, for instance.
Better are problems that relate to PEOPLE, otherwise you just have a bad situation. For instance, are they on that ship willingly? Or are some of them conscripted?
They had to compete with other crews to get the honour. It may be an old ship, but it’s one of a kind. I suppose it does create a pressure to live up to expectations, especially on the commander of the expedition.
At least two of the main cast had to leave family and loved ones behind, so one of the things they have to deal with is isolation, which only increases as they get further from home.
Another has difficulty forming friendships because she has a secret she doesn’t want to share, and is befriended by someone who is socially awkward for the usual reasons.
Morale suffers later on when the ship is cut off from the only known way home, and one of the main cast is incapacitated in a battle
I think I can keep coming up with situations which can’t just be fixed with technobabble and wee miracle workers.
Thanks for the advice, Kristen!
I represent my 13yo author in the making. The hook is so important to me as a reader, and it’s something I think she gets right most of the time in her stories, though I’m unsure yet whether she’s aware of the actual term. Her latest book hooks well (for me) though I guess that once it’s out we’ll know better whether it hooks for others her age.
Reading this post and some of the many comments, I can see that I’m reading a post and comments about stories for older people, but what about younger audiences (in this case 8-12)? What sort of hook works for them? Is it the same? Do the same rules apply? Where do you go to get people to beta-read kids books that can read with an eye for quality whilst keeping the target audience in mind?
My older daughter loves to read on Wattpad, which I’m not a fan of, but what entertains her isn’t necessarily well written, and to a large extent, she doesn’t care. She’s reading, enjoying what she reads, so can I really object?
If the books I help my youngest to publish meet the needs perceived by the target audience, then can an agent or a reviewer who looks at a book as an adult be getting in the way? We submitted it to a local publisher but I suspect it didn’t get past their automated system, or there’s a good chance that the handler only read a couple of pages as you suggest. I supposed there’s an art to choosing the right publisher as well.
@Edward Smith, I tend to agree with you. I work in the app world myself and I see this same thing there. It’s not always the best thing that gets the sales.
I am not an expert in this genre. Maybe join WANATribe (the social network I built for writers) and join a tribe for Children’s Writing. I believe it is quite large. They can offer better advice. And CreateSpace is wonderful. Just publish it yourself. If her work sells, NY will come calling.
Thanks for that feedback. We’ve gone the IngramSpark route for publishing (better reach); the cover was revealed today at http://www.booksarecool.com/2014/cover-reveal-lotus/. We’ll look into WANATribe as you suggest; thanks so much.
I had to let of a prologue for my novel, it was so hard to do it too! I was convinced it was needed but in the end the story is much better.
My rule is “Always shoot the sheriff on the first page.” I did this literally in one novel I’m still working on.
Reblogged this on Dara Rochlin Book Doctor.
Great article Kristen. I love your books.
“Kill Your Darlings”… that’s what we’re always saying in my writers group. Easier said than done, but I try to approach editing by finding a way to eliminate a third of my story. Sometimes it works. Although I have to say, some genre’s demand less drama and more “sitting on the porch eating muffins”. Like Christian cozy mystery… all the Guidepost published cozies I read start slow compared to something like M.J. Rose or James Patterson.
Since I flip back and forth between writing Christian cozies and science fiction, how to start is always a challenge for me.
Nice post! I’ve begun a series that puts my 30-year career in sales and marketing to use for indie authors and have the same sentiment as your line, “This means our best way of selling books is … Writing great books.” Amen.
The Chinese also love fish heads. Unfortunately for me, I’m the exception, being extremely allergic to most fish. As with your other posts, you bring us back to the essentials: write good books. The 5-page exercise is a good one which I need to work on more. Much appreciated and thanks.
New to the blog but cramming my eyes full of it. Fantastic and informative reading. Thank you for being.
What’s on the other side? – just about 1,3 million words of description so far because “They did not want me there!”
Thanks for sharing this. I got some valuable information from this post, Kristen. You’re such an excellent teacher!
Hooked really is an amazing resource. I’ve critique first five pages, and it really does say a lot about the writing and the story to come. I’ve learned a lot from those workshops!
I know this is an older post, but I had to leave a response…You have a gift for being informative and entertaining. 🙂 The samples I can download onto my Kindle from Amazon are usually sufficient in helping me decide if I want to really read a book. If I happen to be in a bookstore or browsing online, usually the first thing that catches my attention is the title, and then the blurb about the plot will tell me if it’s a book I would be interested in. A good example of an author who drives me crazy is George R.R. Martin. His plots, settings and characters are great, but he goes into SO much detail. Of course, he must be doing something right since his books sell so well and have been adapted for T.V., but I don’t think it’s necessary to describe every single thing. I think his books would still be good if they were a hundred pages or so shorter.