Friday, April 27, 2012

A Strong Start

Writers spend a lot of time worrying about their first page. You want to draw the reader in immediately, but unless the book is a sequel, the reader is starting with nothing. An opening has to introduce the main character, establish the setting, and capture the author’s/ character’s voice. Ideally, it will clarify the genre and give the reader an idea of what to expect from the rest of the book. That’s a lot to get into a page or two.

In an unpublished fantasy novel, I realized during revisions that I didn’t have any fantasy elements in the first 20 pages, which would mislead the reader into thinking this was straight historical fiction. I changed to this opening:

Anise knew the candy must be enchanted. The genie cook always put some kind of protection on the food, so no one could eat it until he said so. Would it stick her jaws together so she couldn’t speak? Turn her lips and tongue blue? Taste like camel dung?

It’s definitely fantasy now, and it also hints at the Middle Eastern setting. 

In The Well of Sacrifice, I think I started too slow, with too many details of setting and culture before we got to a problem happening now. You want to start in a moment of action, where something is changing, and cut the background. The book is still in print after 12 years, so I guess the start didn’t bother people too much, but if I revised it now I’d try for more early action.

On the other hand, don’t rush things—take a little time to set up the situation, so it makes sense and we care about the characters, and what’s happening to them. Sometimes writers worry too much about flashy writing, and they come up with openings that are confusing or misleading. The first chapter tells you what to expect from the rest of the book, whether it’s humor, action, tragedy or whatever. You don’t just need a good hook—you need the best hook for this novel, a hook that will attract those readers who will most enjoy the book. A clever, funny hook is great—but only if the rest of the book is also clever and funny.

Don’t worry about the beginning during the first draft. Chances are it will change completely anyway. Wait until you have a solid plot before you start fine-tuning your opening and ending. Many authors write a novel, then throw away the first chapter and write a new first chapter—the one that belongs there. It seems like it’s almost impossible to write a strong opening until you’ve finished the rest of the book.

You can test both your opening and your ending by seeing how much you can cut. What if you delete the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page? Does the story still make sense? Does it get off to a faster start? What if you cut the whole first chapter, or several chapters? If you can’t cut, can you condense?

On the other hand, if your beginning feels confusing or rushed, you might want to try starting earlier in the story. Try setting up a small problem that grabs the reader’s attention, luring them in until you can get to the main problem. In The Well of Sacrifice, the Maya are dealing with famine, disease and marauders in the early chapters, even before the king dies and an evil high priest tries to take over. That gives readers time to understand these characters and their world.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sourcebooks Online Reading Club: Keeping Readers Involved?

I’ve talked a little on my Wednesday posts about how publishers can stay relevant when many of their services (such as printing and distribution) are no longer necessary. I’m glad to report at least some interesting experimentation going on. Sourcebooks has announced an online reading club, "Discover a New Love," for romance fans. For $9.99 per month, members get one free e-book each month, which they choose from among four featured titles.

$10 for a book isn’t that great, but members also get exclusive discounts off other e-books (as low as $1.67 per title according to the site). Plus, members become part of an online book club with “online parties and live events” and the option to join “focus groups, panels, and surveys,” so this may especially appeal to people who like social networking through books. That’s probably a small segment of readers overall, but sites like Goodreads and the Amazon Kindle Boards show that some readers enjoy online book discussions, and romance readers may be more social than most.

It seems to me that this kind of club will work best for publishers or imprints with a narrower focus (as Sourcebooks is focusing on romance), although through-the-mail-book clubs sometimes offer a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. As I mentioned in my post about publisher relevancy, publishers may benefit from deciding what they want their name to mean (beyond “quality” which they all claim) and promoting a clear brand.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Plotting: Fast Starts

Last week I talked about the elements you want to work into your first chapter. The trick is, you can’t take too much time with setup. To start your plot off right, start when the action starts—don’t warm up on the reader’s time.

You probably won’t be able to do this in the first draft. Most of us need to ramble a bit before we get focused. But during revisions, cut anything unnecessary from the first chapter.

Ask whether it should even be the first chapter. Can you start later, when the story is already in progress? If not, are your opening pages dramatic? Should you start earlier, with a dramatic episode that leads to the main plot?

Be careful that you don’t start too fast. The inciting incident – the problem that gets the story going – should happen as soon as possible, but not until the reader is prepared. If it happens too late, the reader gets bored first. But too soon, and the reader is confused. The reader must have enough understanding of the character and situation to make the incident meaningful. For example, opening in the middle of a gunfight doesn’t have much impact, if you don’t know who’s fighting or why.

Beginnings are tricky, but see if one of the following works:

•    Start with two people on the page.
•    Start in the middle of a fight or other conflict.
•    Start in the action, at a moment of change. Then work in the back story.
•    Start with a cliffhanger – something powerful about to happen.

Exercise: Pick five of your favorite books. (I recommend using books published fairly recently, as styles change.) Study how they open.
•    What characters are on the first page? What are they doing, or what is happening to them?
•    Is the background explained, or do you have to wait to understand what’s going on, or can you figure out the situation from what’s happening now?
•    Did this opening grab you? Why or why not?

Skim the rest of the first chapter.
•    Has the author set up the main problem already? Or is there a small problem which relates to, or hints at, the main problem? If there is no problem at all, is the opening still interesting? Why or why not?
•    Is background information worked into the first chapter? How is it done?

I’ll have even more next week on getting off to a strong start. Find more advice on strong beginningsand all aspects of a strong plotin Advanced Plotting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Blog Tours: What’s the Point?

Besides writing this blog, I enjoy doing occasional guest blog posts for other authors. In the last couple of weeks, I talked about critique groups versus professional editors in an “Editor Spotlight” on Karen Elliott’s blog The Word Shark. I also talked about proper pacing in a guest post for Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing.

But I’ve never done a “blog tour.” This is becoming increasingly popular for authors who have a new book out. They set up a month of guest posts on other blogs, trying to do at least one guest spot every day. Each post should be different and entertaining. Doesn’t that sound exhausting?

It may be a good way to spread the word about your new book. It no doubt makes authors feel like they are doing something definite to launch the title. But does it increase sales?

That’s hard to say. Apparently, it takes about seven times seeing something before someone is likely to take action on it, so blasting your name across multiple blogs in a month may help reach that critical mass. Plus, you hopefully extend your reach to a wider audience, since the blogs don’t all have the same followers.

These are good things, but I’m not sure it’s necessary to do all the posts close together. If people don’t hear your name for a year, they may forget it, so you want to stay active in the blogosphere. But if they hear it every day for a week, they may get tired of it. If they hear your name every few weeks, that’s a good reminder, and the passage of time may mean that potential buyer will find it easier to take action. You’re more likely to hit them at a moment when they have money, are planning a shopping trip, feel like reading your type of book, etc.

Besides, by spreading out your publicity, you won’t exhaust yourself as much. At least that’s my plan. I post here once or twice a week; I guest on other blogs at random intervals, when the opportunity arises. I also invite authors to do guest posts here, so long as they talk about the craft of writing or their publishing journey, to keep things in line with my blog topic. (Click on the link to “Guest Posts” for examples.)

What do you think? Do you get more excited if you see an author as a guest on several of your favorite blogs? Or is it tiresome? Have you tried a blog tour, and if so, was it worthwhile?

Please note, blogger hasn’t been letting me comment on my own posts lately, so forgive me if I don’t respond to comments directly in the thread, but I will be reading.

* [I'm adding this note here because I can't comment.] Thanks for your comments. I listened in on a webinar yesterday by Danny Iny of Firepole Marketing about driving traffic to your blog, and he reinforced the idea that regular – but not daily – guest posts are valuable. (Though he was looking at traffic coming back to your own blog, not at book sales.) He showed a graph of visitors to his blog after he did a guest post elsewhere. A single post creates an upswing in visitors, but that peak then rapidly declines. But if you have other guest posts (or other online mentions in the news, etc.) you keep bumping the number of visitors back up. I don’t think the graph showed how often you have to post to have the best effect, but my impression was every week or few weeks works at least as well as every day.

He also mentioned three reasons for guest blogging – driving traffic to your own blog, building credibility (e.g. presenting yourself as an expert by posting on large, respected blogs), or building relationships. Figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish can help you decide if it’s worth doing a guest post and what kind of sites to target. For example, if your goal is to drive traffic to your own blog, you wouldn’t  waste time doing a post for someone who only has 50 followers – but you might if, for some reason, you want to build a relationship with that blogger.

As I said, he was focused simply on blog traffic – he makes money training other bloggers – so it may be different if your goal is to sell books, to recruit editorial clients, or whatever. But it’s still worth figuring out your goal and the best way to achieve it. (And as a side note, I picked up one editorial client from my guest post on Karen Elliot’s editing/proofreading blog.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

First Chapter Challenges

I’m going to spend the next few weeks reviewing tips for opening your novel strong.

People often struggle to find an opening scene that is dramatic, powerful, eye-catching! Something that will make the reader want to keep reading! We may see our opening pages as something almost separate from the full manuscript—something we can submit to a first pages critique, or send to an editor or agent who only wants to see a few pages as a sample. But treating the first chapter as an ad may not be best for the chapter, or the rest of the manuscript.

Suzanne Morgan Williams, author of Bull Rider, gave a talk at our New Mexico fall retreat on first chapters. Suzanne noted that the first chapter makes a promise about the rest of the book.

Many readers will browse a book’s opening pages in a library or bookstore, to decide if they want to take the book home. If you offer the reader a fast-paced, action-packed opening, when your book is really a subtle emotional drama with lyrical descriptive writing, you’re going to disappoint the readers who enjoyed the opening. Even worse, readers who would have enjoyed the whole book might never get past the opening page.

What You Promise

The first chapter should identify your book’s genre. This can be trickier than it sounds. Say it’s a romance, but the main character doesn’t meet the love interest until later in the book. Can you at least suggest her loneliness, or desire for romance? (And get that love interest in there as soon as possible!) Or perhaps you’re writing a story involving magic, or time travel, or a step into another dimension. Even if you start in a realistic contemporary setting, try to hint at what’s to come. Maybe the main character is wishing that magic existed—that’s enough to prepare the reader.

In The Ghost on the Stairs, we don’t find out that the narrator’s sister has seen a ghost until the end of chapter 2. But on the opening page, she comments that the hotel “looks haunted” and is “spooky.” Those words suggest that a ghost story may be coming.

The first chapters should also identify the setting. This includes when and where we are, if it’s historical or set in another country or world. In a contemporary novel, you may not identify a specific city, but the reader should have a feel for whether this is inner-city, small-town or whatever.

Be careful if you have a major change in location coming. You may want to set the main character in their ordinary world, before you take them on your journey, but that can mislead the reader into thinking that it’s a story about the ordinary world. Consider including some kind of early hints that change is to come.

Your opening pages should focus on your main character. You may find exceptions to this rule, but your readers will assume that whoever is prominent in the opening pages is the main character. Switching can cause confusion. You should also establish your point of view early. If you’ll be switching points of view, don’t wait too long to make the first switch.

And of course, you want some kind of challenge or conflict in your opening chapter. This doesn’t have to be the main plot problem—you may need additional set up before your main character takes on that challenge, or even knows about it. But try to make sure that your opening problem relates to the main problem. It may even lead to it.

In The Ghost on the Stairs, Tania faints at the end of chapter 1. Jon does not yet know why, but this opening problem leads to the main problem—she’d seen a ghost. If I’d used an entirely different opening problem, say stress with their new stepfather, that would have suggested a family drama, not a paranormal adventure.

So try to get these elements in there quickly—genre, setting, main character, and challenge.

First chapters are a struggle for many of us. Few authors wind up using their original opening. We may throw it out, and just start with chapter 2, or we may write something entirely different. The final version of the first chapter may actually be the last thing we write! Knowing the rest of your story is important for figuring out what your first chapters should be. Don’t stress about the first chapter during your first draft, but make sure you fix it later. Keep in mind that fixing it may involve throwing it out altogether!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sandra Stiles: Self-Publishing Worked For Me

Today Sandra Stiles, author of Steps To Courage, talks about her decision to self-publish.

I am a teacher by trade. When 9/11 happened I was sitting in a classroom with sixth graders watching the events unfold on the television. My students wondered if there were kids in the Towers. I had no clue since I’d never been to New York. It made me wonder how teens would handle such a catastrophe.

I let that brew for a few more years. I was sitting in a reading class. I had just assigned another writing assignment when one of my students said I needed to write books for my shelves. They liked what I wrote, they liked what I suggested to them to read. I went home and once again told my husband about my plans for a 9/11 book. He handed me a notepad and told me to stop talking about it and to start writing it.

In the meantime, I was signed up for a 2-year novel writing class and had collected books on writing. I had started a book review blog where I received a lot of encouragement from authors in my pursuit of writing. Since I am one of a handful of authors who enjoy reviewing self-published books, I received tips and hints from them. The class I was taking discouraged self-publication. I persevered in my pursuit of traditional publication.

Through an author friend, Marlayne Giron, whose books I had reviewed on my blog, I met my agent. She read my manuscript and started telling me what I needed to do. She said she would be glad to represent me. She shopped the book around for about six months. She and I discussed self-publishing and she actually encouraged me. I still had the voices in my head telling me if I self-published then I wasn’t a real author because “real” authors are traditionally published.

I talked with and prayed with some real close friends at school. They asked why I wanted it published at the time I did. I told them that I had been trying for three years to publish it traditionally and we were approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It was important that I get it published before that. They looked at me and said; “I think you have your answer then.”

My agent recommended one of her clients, Karen Arnpriester, graphic artist by profession. She created my book cover, business cards and bookmarks. My friend Marlayne, worked with me and created my book trailer. I self-published through CreateSpace. I’ll never forget when I got the proof copy back. I held the physical book in my hands and bawled. It is not a feeling you can describe. Any author would understand that feeling. I don’t care how many books I write, I believe holding the proof of each one will feel similar. It is a sense of accomplishment.

My agent started hooking me up with other authors she represented. They promoted my book and ran my book trailer on Facebook. Several authors I had reviewed did the same. I was so pleased. My school ran my book trailer for a week. I took pre-orders and within my first week through school alone, this included parents ordering from Amazon, I had sold over 160 copies. My school library currently has six copies. My public library has a copy.

I’ve been comparing traditional with self-publishing. Unless you are a big celebrity or you are a J.K. Rowling, a traditionally published author has to work just as hard promoting their book as a self-published author. I have found that word of mouth whether it has been through Facebook, friends or whatever avenue has been the best thing for me, as it is for most authors.

As of this writing I have sold over 360 books in the ten months since it was published. I believe that is good for a self-published author. I live in an Amish area in Florida. One of our local Amish restaurants has a book section. I took a copy of my book in. A week later, I received a call from the manager. He ordered 50 books. They also asked me to do a two-day book signing, once each morning and evening so I would hit their biggest crowds. They scheduled it for the ninth and tenth of September. Every employee purchased a copy of my book.

Our school is an International Baccalaureate school. Student must choose to come to our school. When parents and schools are given tours, they bring them to my classroom and they mention I am a published author. I’ve made several sales this way. Since I am writing books for young adults that also appeal to adults, this helps.

There has been a little more expense involved than I was prepared for. When I talk to people now who would like to self publish I tell them they need to do all of their research about what is out there. I point them to several writing sites that have helped me. It is amazing how helpful well-known authors are to those who are starting out. Writers are one of the most helpful groups of people I have ever known.

Would I recommend self-publication? Yes. Does this mean I will never try traditional publication? Not at all. I think it is something we all strive for. However, if we have clearly defined goals, know what we need to do, self-publication can be the way to go. After all, well know authors like Roland Smith have self-published books. He has been a very successful author yet he self-published “Legwork” as an e-book. Why? He thought it was a wonderful book but his publisher didn’t.

I myself am looking forward to more self-publication. I am in control of things, not a publisher.

Steps To Courage
Trina Lacy is passionate about Angel Hope, a service that she once relied on to get her through one of the toughest times in her life. Required to complete community service hours for graduation she proposes a charity fundraiser held at Windows on the World, in New York City’s Twin Towers.

She is joined in this venture by her ex-boyfriend Lucas James. He is hoping to use this not only for his required hours, but to mend the broken relationship with Trina. Mark Jacobs volunteers for the project out of guilt. He has been carrying around the guilt of playing a major role in his parent’s death. He hopes to find a way to forgive himself.

They meet at the Twin Towers on 9-11 to divide and conquer. None of them expected terrorists to fly planes into the Towers. Each of them is a survivor of a horrific tragedy from their past and, now they must face escaping the burning towers with all the odds stacked against them. How will they survive this ordeal when each of them feels guilty at having survived in the first place?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Paths to Publication: Connie Ripley Lujan on Living the Good Life

I’m sure I don’t have anything new to say about writing that Chris hasn’t already told you. Chris was my first teacher in my beginners’ class with the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL) correspondence course out of Connecticut. I was newly retired and looking forward to my dream of writing children’s stories when Chris got me started.

Stowaway to Antarctica, a story about a homeschooler, twelve-year-old boy, new to New Zealand schools, who is disappointed he can’t join his father on an expedition to Antarctica to search for meteorites, was exciting to write because of the research involved. I love to do research and learn new facts and understandings about nature. Figuring out the mechanics of how to stow away a twelve-year-old took many revisions to make it all believable. Creating the conflicts of being lost and suffering the consequences of his misbehavior was exciting. Being a teacher is my specialty.

Chris edited it for me and said it was a go. I was so excited. I had drawn maps of locations in Antarctica and had details and pages and references about meteorites found in Antarctica. I knew it would sell. It didn’t. I had some nice rejection letters, many with suggestions which encouraged me to revise and resubmit--which I did, for several years. I’m still looking for an agent/editor; but I did what Chris and all the good teachers tell you to do—I kept writing.

I enrolled in the advance class with the ICL and worked with Kristen Wolden Niltz, another excellent teacher. Her advice from the beginning was to write a non-fiction if I wanted something that would sell easily. She knew I was disappointed in my rejections for Stowaway. But no—I wanted to write a young adult story about young girls I had listened to with my work at STARS, (standing together against rape). And so, Evie’s Secret was born. Three, four years have passed with many dollars spent on mailings and conferences and more workshops. No one wanted it. Chris edited it and recommended revision which I worked on for three months. More time, more money, more rejections, more bad feelings.

Then I read an article in Writers Digest that, this time, hit home. Chris and Kristen had both given me the same message—write about what you know—write about what you have a passion for.  I knew, as a mother, having raised five sons, and as an educator most of my life, that children were the love of my life. I’ve always loved children. I’d die for them any day. I had found my passion.

Whom could I champion as a spirit of my devotion? I immediately thought of Marie Montessori, my mentor in child-rearing. As a Montessori teacher and follower of the Montessori Method for fifty years, I knew I could express my feelings and concern for the children through her love of the child. My soul felt akin to hers. And so I began to write—about Maria at first—then about me. I discovered I was writing a creative non-fiction which was part memoir. Three or four years later, after many edits and revisions and changes of title, Montessori—Living the Good Life was ready to be submitted. My critique group and others said it was good. 

It was ready . . . but was I? My heart and soul was in this writing. I’m seventy-six. Did I have enough years and spirit to survive the process of attempting to sell my book to someone else? How many rejections could my soul take, I asked myself? I decided the answer was none. I knew this book, Montessori-Living the Good Life, had an important message that I wanted to share with the whole world, now!

So I began to research ideas and suggestions for self-publishing. There are many choices. I found one with a discount for their top package. Then I went to my sons for help with a website: In time I will be revising my novels and writing more about Maria, but for the next year, I plan to be busy marketing—the other half of writing. I’m looking forward to conferences this year and to the 27th International Montessori Congress in July next year.

Montessori—Living the Good Life was just released in January. My publisher set-up eight social media accounts with access to author learning webinars and book consultants to advise me how to market. Along with my own website, I am keeping very busy getting my title, Montessori—Living the Good Life, and name as author, Connie Ripley Lujan, and my website address,, out to the public. I appreciate this opportunity to blog on Chris’s site. You can learn more about Montessori—Living the Good Life on my website, where there is a BUY page. You can also purchase my book online at Amazon and all the bookstores, national and international.

(A tip for you for when you start marketing your book: My sons tell me to repeat the title Montessori—Living the Good Life, and my author name, Connie Ripley Lujan, and website address,, as often as reasonably possible so that the SEO, the search engine optimizer, will trigger Google to your site more often.) J

Chris says: I love hearing about former students or critique clients who have found success. These days, success comes in many forms. Connie has found a path that makes her happy! Sadly, too many good books don’t sell traditionally. (See my guest post on Alternate Publishing: Historical Fiction, on Darcy Pattison’s blog.) This is another example of a book that might not be “big” enough to interest a large publisher, but Connie has connections with the Montessori community, so she can target her marketing. Plus, without a lot of similar books out there, anyone looking for information can find her book quickly.

Connie chose to publish her book through a packager, WestBow Press. While this typically costs more than publishing on your own (directly through Amazon’s CreateSpace, for example), Connie has been happy with their service, and this can be an option for people willing to spend a little more money in exchange for guidance and simplicity. There’s an enormous amount to learn when it comes to self-publishing and marketing!

Best of luck to you, Connie.