Hook The Reader From The First Line… and Keep Them!

People don’t have to read your novel. There are plenty of other things they could be doing, such as watching television, walking the dog, mending the shelf in the bathroom and even (believe it or not) reading someone else’s book. It’s therefore imperative that you grab them with your first line and make sure you keep them until the very last.

Put everything you’ve got into the first line, the first paragraph and the first chapter. (That’s not to say you can take it easy with the rest of the book, just make sure the first is the creme de la creme.) Make that initial chapter as exciting an introduction to your fictional world as you possibly can. Don’t worry too much about explanations, about who’s who… all that can come later. Just give them 100% action.

If your book is a romance, start with a steamy sex scene; if it’s a murder mystery, start with a killing; if it’s a western, start with a stampede or a shoot-out… you get the idea. You’ve got to hook your reader from the start. If you don’t, you might never see them again.

Modern action films start with a chase or a heist, sometimes even before the credits have rolled. Learn from the movie makers. They’re spending hundreds of million dollars to produce movie, a fortune marketing them, and they need it to succeed. The last thing they want is a mass walkout from the cinema.

Occasionally, the opening ten minutes are the best thing in the movie, and that’s something you’ve got to guard against as a writer of commercial fiction. Having started with a bang, you’ve got to make sure the rest of the novel lives up to it.

Don’t try and keep up the same pace throughout the novel, that would only serve to exhaust your reader. Regulate the speed and pace of the book to build up to a climax. Maybe several climaxes before the big bang at the end.

Once you’ve established who your characters are and the situation they’ve found themselves in, you’ve got to get the reader on your side and keep them there.

One essential is that the reader enjoys your protagonist as a character and must care what happens to him or her. That doesn’t mean to say that they have to approve of the lead character or even like them, as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and others ably demonstrate.

The reader also has to approve of the mission the hero embarks on, whether it be to win the girl (or boy) or save the world from nuclear annihilation. If the reader doesn’t give two hoots about the character or what he does, then they’re not going to read any further.

Make It Easy To Read

One of the best ways to please your readers is to make your writing easy to read. The kind of Amazon review you should be aiming for is: “What a great novel!“ I finished in a single sitting!

What you don’t want is this (taken almost at random from the Amazon site):

I had to read the ending three times and I still cannot work out what actually happened. Parts of the rest of the story were almost as incomprehensible. Characters appeared and disappeared without any explanation and there’d be conversations you’d have to keep re-reading in order to work out who was saying what. A total disaster. Don’t waste your time like I did.

Ouch!

Aside from the obvious precaution of making sure that your plot is easy to follow, there are several ways to make reading your novel more of a pleasure. When naming characters, avoid two people having names that start with the same letter. Janet and Jemma, Pat and Pete, Eric and Ernst may be totally different in your mind, but to a reader they could easily be confused.

Write as if you were talking to a friend. Avoid long words and putting in two when one will do just as well. You might want to go easy on the adverbs too. I know that Dan Brown is one of the worst culprits of this and his books sells in their zillions, but think how many more he’d sell!

Cut out long descriptions that do nothing to advance the story. Do we need to know the kitchen is painted in three shades of green, “including the shade of lime you find in airport lounges? It may add atmosphere, but if there’s too much atmosphere, you’ll bore the reader.

Although it’s nice to know what kind of music the protagonist likes, we don’t need long lists of what he’s listening to. Aside from the fact that most people will not have heard of Jaco Pastorius, not everybody has the same musical taste and it will not advance the story one iota. The same goes for lists of cooking ingredients, travel directions, and so on.

elmore_leonard_04Don’t think you have to burden the reader with your characters on a 24 hour basis. Only tell us about the interesting things that happen. Let the reader fill in the blanks. We all eat breakfast, we all go to the toilet, and we don’t necessarily need to know about it when our hero does.

Elmore Leonard sums all this stuff up in a single line: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.
There’s another expression much used by authors: “Murder your darlings”. It was coined by British critic and writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who, in his “On The Art Of Writing”(1916) said

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it whole-heartedly and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

This simply means that if you look at your writing and a passage stands out as a piece of particularly fine literature, then it must go. Unless you are writing high literary fiction or poetry (and I take it you are not), then writing should not look like writing.

Elmore Leonard again: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it”.

One good tip to see if your writing flows and is easily understandable, is to read it out loud to yourself. You’ll soon spot any parts that grate or are unclear.

For more help writing a novel click here | Here’s a funny video about Amazon reviews I think you’ll enjoy:

Write What You Like To Read

Writers have always been told “write what you know”, but I’d change that to “write what you like to read”. If you like reading Suspense novels, then write Suspense novels. The same goes for Mysteries, Romances, Science Fiction… the lot. Never ever contemplate writing a novel you wouldn’t want to read yourself.

Enthusiasm is something you’re going to need pots of in order to get through the hard slog of writing a book. And you’re not writing just any old book, you are writing a bestseller, a blockbuster. And for that, you’re going to need all the enthusiasm you can muster — maybe more.

Do not disturb sign

The best research an author can undertake is to read fiction, preferably the type of fiction you want to write. It’s important that you read only good fiction. I say this because whenever you read a book, a little bit of it enters your consciousness and transfers itself into the part of your brain that does the writing. The process is totally unconscious, but it happens. Better to absorb the good than the bad, I say.

As well as enjoying you’re writing, by writing what you like to read, you are also likely to know what will work and what won’t. These are called the “conventions of the genre”. For example, in a Mystery whodunnit, the murderer has to be someone who has already been mentioned in the novel. It can’t be a random vagrant. Well, it can, but your readers will not like it one little bit.

Avoid comparing your work to anything that you read. One of two things will happen: either you will despair and wonder why you can’t write anything nearly as good, or else you’ll be amazed at how much better you are than the author in question. Both extremes are dangerous and probably wrong.

The only person not qualified to judge your writing is you: you’re far too close. And anyway, who’s to say what is good or bad? I keep going on about Dan Brown’s loose writing style (and it is pretty loose), but the guy has sold millions more books than me. So, who’s the schmuck?

It’s good to feel confident, but don’t let it run away with you.

The negative comparisons are the worst. Around half the would-be novelists I meet don’t actually finish their novel because of feelings of inadequacy. Does a bricklayer stop showing up for work because a guy who works on the next site is so much better at laying bricks than he is? No, he does not and neither should you.

If you are struck by feelings of inadequacy go and grab a Dan Brown novel. It’ll make you feel better in seconds.

For more help on writing a novel click here

Can You Believe It?

To succeed and hold the reader, all fiction must be believable. No matter how bizarre the storyline, we have to believe in the characters and in the message the author is sending.

Although we know that there is no such place as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, we’ll gladly suspend our disbelief sufficiently to let J.K. Rowling tell us stories set there. Similarly, in Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton manages to convince us that an island exists on which dinosaurs roam; and Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, although set in a spy fantasy world that has never existed, continue to sell in their millions, fifty or more years after they were written.

Do you believe in Jurassic Park?On the other hand, we’ll reject a contemporary novel set in a city very much like our own for being totally unrealistic. So what’s the difference?

The difference comes down to three things:

Research

For Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton undertook a mountain of research and came up with a plausible way of cloning dinosaurs from the blood of mosquitoes trapped in amber. It doesn’t matter that it’s impossible to do, the reader is prepared to suspend disbelief because the science of the book is so credible. The author took the trouble to research his subject, and so we trust him.

Make sure your facts are correct. Build up your reader’s trust by researching your subject thoroughly. There is an old adage, “write about what you know”, but rather than don’t write about anything, research it until you do know.

Believable Characters

When characters are three-dimensional and rounded, we believe in them. And if the people are real, then the world they inhabit appears all the more genuine.

One writer I know always gives each of his central characters an interesting or quirky habit. It might be a penchant for a certain food, such as monkey or pistachio nuts that leaves a trail of empty shells behind. Or it could be a coffee, tea or chocolate addiction. Maybe something more physical, such as constantly humming an unknown tune, or tapping their toes in time to non-existent music. The list of possibilities is almost endless.

Suspension of Disbelief

The reader starts out wanting to believe. Belief is the default setting and for that to change something has to go badly wrong. Whenever a reader opens a new book he is in effect saying to the author: “Entertain me”. It’s up to you to ensure that you keep the faith with your reader.

One thing guaranteed to lose your reader’s trust is “genre flipping”. People like what they like and they like to know what they’re reading. On the whole, people who read mysteries like to read mysteries and not vampire stories. People who read Westerns might not be too keen on Romance or Science Fiction.

In case you need telling: don’t write a Western in which vampires appear half way through. Similarly, don’t pepper your whodunnit with aliens from the Planet Zog. At least not until you’ve made your second million from writing. After that, they’ll let you do pretty much what you want.

For more help on story and plotting, check out my eBook at Amazon.com:

how to write a novel the easy way

Pick The Right Title

The Da Vinci Code is a great title. Why? Because it couples “code” with the name of a famous Renaissance artist everyone will have heard of. It gives a clue what the book is about and hints at mystery. What more could you ask?

Having a descriptive title is obviously an asset and wherever possible, that’s what you should aim for. If someone is searching the shelves for a romance and they come across Erich Segal’s Love Story, then that would work for them. Similarly, The Perfect Murder for the mystery fan; and The Terror to seekers of macabre fiction.

But beware. As a new author, you should avoid picking a title that has already been used. Jim Kelly recently wrote a novel called Death Watch, joining books of the same title by Sally Spencer, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, John Dickson Carr, Elizabeth Forrest, Jerry Ahern and others. Great title, but does that cancel out the downside of its multiple use?

Imagine the scenario: you hear somewhere that a book called Death Watch is worth checking out. You didn’t catch the author’s name but you search for it by title on the internet. You find 14 different books called Death Watch. Which one do you go for? The chances of you buying Mr Kelly’s are less than 14-1. No sale.

Here’s a video showing a really bad attempt at giving a book a title:

You should also consider the length of your title. The usual advice given by publishers and writing “gurus” is to keep it short. Let’s examine the number one titles in the New York Times Bestseller fiction list for 2009:

Black Ops, Plum Spooky, The Associate, Promises In Death, Handle With Care, True Detectives, Long Lost, Turn Coat, Just Take My Heart, First Family, The 8th Confession, Dead and Gone, Wicked Prey, Gone Tomorrow, The Scarecrow, Skin Trade, Relentless, Knockout, Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, Swimsuit, Black Hills, Best Friends Forever, The Defector, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Bad Moon Rising, South of Broad, Alex Cross’s Trial, Dark Slayer, The Last Song, The Lost Symbol, The Gathering Storm, Ford County, Under the Dome, I, Alex Cross, “U” Is For Undertow.

You will notice that the list contains just one six-word title and that the vast majority are between one and three words. From that you might deduce that a short title will sell better than a long title –  just don’t tell J.K. Rowling!

Think too about internet searches. If you Google”Wicked Prey”, the first result up is the novel by John Sandford. In fact, all the results pretty much refer to that novel. But if you Google Bad Moon Rising, you’re swamped by Creedence Clearwater sites. Remember Google and the other search engines when picking a title.

One last word about titles: don’t get too attached to the one you finally decide on. Publishers and their editors have a nasty habit of renaming books. Just remember, they’re the ones in charge. Of course you could publish yourself, but that’s a whole different ballgame!

For more help writing a novel that will sell, check out www.amazon.com