Hook them Up and Reel Them IN

Yep, Sarah has been reading from Kul again.

Unlike the crazy people demanding the return of gatekeepers (Return of the Gatekeepers, this time it’s Stultifying) I’m not going to claim KUL or even self published through Kindle is “a tsunami of crap.”

There are things that make me hit my head against the wall, but they were starting to creep into traditional publishing as well, perhaps for other reasons.

My biggest complaint right now is “This is not the genre it’s filed under” and honestly that was happening in traditional publishing as well.  I think, though I can’t promise, the reasons were different.  In traditional publishing it was “we’re going to port in “important literary work” under the label of mystery/fantasy and or science fiction, because we know the minute you read it you’ll like it much more than that bad genre stuff.”  In indie, at least when I talk to the author, it seems to be more of a naive sort of idea.  These are usually actual literary works, so perhaps the authors admired the previous literary works published under cover of genre and THOUGHT they were genre.  Or perhaps they simply wrote this thing (many of them are one-book people) and have no clue what it is and reason like this: there is a couple in the book who fall in love.  Ahah, Romance.  Or, someone is dead and they’re not sure how. Ahah, mystery.  Or, The protagonist has prophetic dreams.  I’m clearly dealing with fantasy.

This is very annoying, because I’ll be halfway through the book, wondering when the couple in love will become prominent, the crime will be investigated, and/or magic will come in.

Yeah, my fault for not reading the blurb carefully, but SERIOUSLY guys, don’t do that.  Genre is a very specific structure/beats/set of expectations (yeah, I can write about it, I think) and if  someone buys a book thus labelled, nine times out of ten they EXPECT those beats.  For some reason if the book is good enough to make me finish it, it makes me even angrier.  And those writers when they chance to write another book, are emphatically off my buy list.

Yes, this is all probably petty, but as a buyer I don’t HAVE to be nice.  There are a dozen other books waiting for me, and the growing irritation that you did NOT represent the book accurately and are robbing me of what I expected makes me annoyed with the book and you.

Which brings me to the other reason I reject indie books/get annoyed at the author: bad hooking.

No, I don’t mean you are walking the street in a defective manner, failing to attract customers.  Geesh.  Though in a way that is EXACTLY what you’re doing.

Yeah, the first level of that hooking is the clothes, and the presentation, or in other words, your cover and blurb.

The problem comes when you’ve dragged me in through your cover and blurb and I find you were not what I expected, or worse, you hold me at bay when I try to get close.

That last is worse because I often can’t even get a chapter in, which means if you’re KUL you will barely get paid.

What do I mean by not letting me in?  Imagine something like this (and it’s hard for me to write this, as I trained myself SO HARD not to do this stuff.)

Izvird was prone.  He slid off at a rustle, and shouted “hallo, in there.”  The slim, dark slave hurried, to find Mdervid standing in her court, glaring at Bridotin.  “Hallo,” he said.  “What goes on here.”  The beautiful queen of the Tiphonar glared.  “I can’t find my pritodin.”

If that sounds clear as mud, it is.  Now you see this a lot in fanfic, and people love some of this stuff (hey, I used to troll fanfics before indie, and sometimes fanfics for series I’d never watched, since I don’t like TV much) and I had to realize the only reason I didn’t get it was because I was not immersed in the series.  In the same way, you see a lot of this in later books in series, which is why so much of this went with force against all, including series by well known and beloved authors, whose early books were no longer in print.  I’d try and try to get into it, but by the end of the first chapter I was thoroughly confused and gave up.

It is very important, EVERYWHERE but particularly later in the series, for you to be ware you’re not writing JUST for yourself.  The point is NOT to put down the story in your head, so much as to communicate with the potential reader.  Writing that way becomes like playing chess against yourself, as you have to turn the board and read as if you didn’t know the story in your head.  It might therefore seem a little insane, but it’s essential.

And once you get used to doing this, it becomes second nature, and makes your writing way more accessible.  It is particularly important at the beginning to make sure the people know what they’re reading (genre cueing) and can visualize the scene clearly.  Later on you can get away with being a little muddled here and there (you shouldn’t be, but we’re all human) but in the beginning you have to firmly hook your reader and make where they are, in whose head they are, what the problem is, and the range of “possible” as clear as you can.

So let’s take that wretched piece of work above, and assume it is fantasy, okay?  Just because it’s easier.

The first thing you should do is not have “words without a referent.” All the names for instance, which are in a particular language without any description attached to them might be admirable, but they don’t give a modern reader any idea of whether the character is human, or three legged, or male or female, or…  Hell, even descriptions like “dark” or “blond” don’t tell you much if the name doesn’t give male or female indications.

So, first a line to indicate genre:

In the Magical city of Tiphon, in a terrace of the royal palace, Izvird, a boy-slave of the queen lies prone upon a broad marble wall, soaking the last rays of the setting sun, unnoticed by his betters.  An unaccustomed rustle of silk brings him fully awake.  He slides off the broad shelf, and stands blinking in the sun-daze.   Then he looks down over the wall in which he’d been laying, and beneath, and shouts “Hallo, in there?”  Since it seemed to him the noise had come from there, he ran down the short steps to the dark, cool space beneath, to find Mdevird, the queen, in her silks and jewels, glaring at the sacred fountain of Britodin.  “Hallo,” Izvird said, in an under tone, not daring to speak to the queen, but letting his wonder out in words.  “What goes on here?”

Mdevird turned anxiety-blind eyes to him and said, “My scrying bowl is gone.  I can’t find my pritodin.”

Not immortal prose, right, and honestly, I normally wouldn’t write anything like this.  (I’m not great on heroic fantasy, and my heart isn’t in it.)  But at least a reader would know what he/she was reading and be able to visualize it.

Yeah, I was once as guilty of this as anyone putting their stuff on KUL and riving me bonkers, but I’d weaned myself of it long before I sent a novel out.  Why?  Mostly because my husband would tell me “the story is mostly in your head hon.”

I’d learned the trick of playing chess on both sides by the time I put things up.

Do I always do it wonderfully?  Hell, no.  Particularly in later books in a series, it is sometimes almost impossible.  BUT I can TRY to do it.  And if I miss first time, I often catch on edits.

All we can ask is that each of us try.  But do try.  There is no point having an absolutely beautiful story and one I’d love to read and keeping it away from my mind, as much as possible.

To hook a reader, first you have to bait the hook, and that first morsel has to be tasty enough.

Now go and put on your literary fishnet stockings and high heels, and start hooking the best you can.



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71 responses to “Hook them Up and Reel Them IN

  1. From my current short story: “Andrew “Andy” McDavitt giggled as he studied the lines of code on the two screens. “This is too easy,” he whispered. No one left a dam’s spillway-gate controls just hanging out for every script-kiddie on the ‘Net to find. But there it was.”

    Genre: thriller/disaster

  2. For some reason, your metaphor reminds me of Sharyn McCrumb’s admonishment, through one of her characters in “Bimbos of the Death Sun”. Asked what it takes to be a professional writer, the character says something to the effect of; “Well, it’s a bit like hooking … before you start asking for money for it, you better be certain you’re really good.”

    • Said no actual prostitute ever.

      The other part of my bad mood is that I read the entire Stead series of true crime articles from Victorian times, The Maiden Sacrifice of Modern Babylon.

      Holy crud, the things those poor Victorian little kids suffered. I thought I knew the worst of it, and I’ve read a lot of Victorian true crime. But I didn’t know the half of it.

  3. paladin3001

    Now go and put on your literary fishnet stockings and high heels, and start hooking the best you can.

    I wasn’t expecting this turn of events… Still, if find it very appropriate and very true to life. 😀

  4. Of course, genres change. Or editors and publishers try to change them.

    I have the misfortune of occasionally writing short mysteries (just finished another one) even though there are ONLY two pro-paying markets, and together they take about two years to respond. (To reject, so far.) So I decided to do market research by reading the latest Best American Mystery anthology. This would tell me what markets those stories originally appeared in (only a couple were Queen and Hitchcock); and it would also tell me what those markets are buying.

    Well, I found new markets; but I also found that only one, maybe two were mysteries in any sense that I recognize. If this is mystery today, no wonder I’m having trouble selling!

    And I’m not saying they were BAD stories. I enjoyed almost all of them. But the idea of a mystery and clues and a detective and a criminal were almost entirely absent. Without going into specifics and spoilers… There was one multi-POV story in which each person thought there was a crime, though they didn’t agree on what the crime was; but the reader, privy to ALL POVs, saw in the end that there was no crime at all, just a tragedy from lack of information. It was clever. It was well-written. And ONE experimental mystery in the collection would’ve been good. But most of them were more about stretching the bounds than about crimes and clues.

    • This seems to be the Dark Side of having a fixed editorial presence for an anthology/magazine/imprint. The editor gets jaded by the very things the *readers* want, because the editors have to read EVERYTHING. So of course the experimental stuff is like a drink of water in the desert to them. I’ve this in action myself. “Oh, what a novel treatment! New concept pushing the envelope!” the gushing cries go out.

      Which is another advantage to indie. Nobody gets worn out reading piles of slush 😀

      • That’s a fair point; but I suspect the Best American series actually tries to mitigate it, now that you’ve pointed it out. From what I can tell, each one has a series editor who continues from year to year; but then each year has a different volume editor who does the actual selection, with suggestions from the series editor. In the case of Best American Science Fiction last year, the series editor (John Joseph Adams) sent me a consolation letter explaining that he had selected my story as one of the 80 he suggested to the volume editor (Karen Joy Fowler), but that it wasn’t on her final list of 40. Adams might qualify as a jaded editor. The man edits a lot of stuff. Fowler might be jaded, but she’s not usually an editor.

        So I think this might be a conscious choice to avoid the jaded editor effect as you described.

        • Or you could realize that the Best American series is all about reprinting literary stories, no matter what the genre may be.

          More professors per page than any other anthology series, ever.

    • Mystery short stories have long become “a crime happens.” It’s not that way with novels yet, and it annoys me when people try to sell it as if it were.

      • Fighting with one right now; it seems to want to be a police procedural instead of a mystery. But I am not able to write a police procedural (at least not without being beaten about the head and shoulders).

        • Technically, LawDog’s true crime stories are police procedurals. But they aren’t like most police procedurals. 🙂

          • So many things to put on the list for the fall.

            I figure it would take me at least six months of grabbing every “outreach” opportunity possible with the local PD to have even a start on a decent procedural. Not worth it (right now, that is). I have good stories from Border Patrol and CIA (after some serious work with the file on the serial numbers) – even some from the OSS days.

            Erm, not my stories, but close family friends that I definitely know were there and did that…

        • But a mystery can be a police procedural. See the Tony Hillerman novels.

  5. A few days ago I amputated a chapter. Had to, even though it set up some things for later. It was a first chapter and boring. Didn’t see anyone getting past that one. The second chapter is now the first in that one, and think it conveys, from the start, that this is an adventure yarn.

    My personal problems is that I’m not very good at hooks yet, and it was years before I realized this was an adventure. If I had published then, it would have been filed under fantasy with that boring first chapter. Yet there’s no magic, not the least bit. Fiction, yes; fantasy, no.

    For what it’s worth, I for one would like to see a run-down of what’s expected in a genre. That would greatly help all of us indie neophytes.

    • paladin3001

      Now this would be useful for some things.

    • the main thing I did between 1998 DST and 2010 delivered DST was cut four first chapters.

    • Laurie

      These days, I’ve found I do better, for the first draft, to just let myself blather and ramble at the beginning. Once I’ve found the meat of the story, I can go back and cut that opening down to what it needs to be, or even axe it altogether. For me, everything flows from that opening – to me it feels like throwing a clay pot on a wheel, you have to get the base right and build up everything from there.

      Other side of this – I only let myself re-write the beginning once, or maybe twice. After that, revision ideas go into the future revision notes (along with all other revisions that wait until draft 2). Otherwise, I can spend all my time re-writing the opening and never getting to the end.

      • Usually I have distinct openings and scenes in mind, and write those because I’m scatterbrained. Then comes trying to connect them. Sometimes the scenes are discarded because they just don’t fit. It’s probably not the best way to go about it.

        • Laurie

          I don’t know – what’s been working for me, as far as plotting, is a vague starting point at first, but a fairly good idea of the ending (that I know will expand as I go through the first draft and discover more subplots), and a series of tent poles in between to connect beginning and ending (and hopefully develop some plot), but I’m flexible about things. If it doesn’t work, it goes. I usually hit most of the tent poles, but I wind up doing a whole lot of noodling around on the journey between each one.

          This allows the characters to change things when they actually walk onto the stage. I had someone I created to be the villain, and another character who was an innocent victim, and darned if they didn’t completely switch places.

      • I suppose it might be (like) hacking – which is not a bad thing. It’s rather, first you build it, then you make it work, then you make it pretty. Starting with the final (add quote marks as needed) step doesn’t work very well, if at all.

        • Laurie

          I find it kinda like drawing a picture. If every line I put down is only the final line, the final piece’s composition will be stiff and out of proportion. If I loosely sketch in the big bits first and work those out, then refine down, I get something that works better, and it leaves me more room to make little later additions as I work down to the detail level.

          Of course, I’m one of those people who loves adding little bits, and I have to have the piece dragged out of my hands or I’ll work on it forever, which is a whole new problem. I’m trying sketching out sequels to get my head on to the next story, but so far, that’s meant more things I want to add to the first one. 😛

  6. Bob

    Something I recall from reading Brian Lumley’s Necroscope books was was how the first couple chapters of later books were clogged with recaps of what has go me before.

    Other authors just flat out print summaries of the prior books in the beginnings and have glossaries.

    • I try to weave it in, with more or less success, depending on how I’m feeling that day/about that book.
      In things like the funny mysteries, I just try to make the recap funny.

    • I look at that as back story. The kids’ books, which I’m working to go indie on, were each stand alone stories. There’s a huge arc with a distinct beginning and ending, but the idea is that a reader doesn’t have to read them all in order to enjoy them. Everything that happens before is just backstory, like a detailed history of the fictional country which the readers never see because it’s not needed.

  7. Jamie

    The lack of referent drives me crazy. I’m a beta reader for a guy who I’m trying to get to bloody stop writing stories where we never know the protagonist’s sex, age, or whether or not they’re human. He frequently makes up names that don’t reveal any of those clues at all — Izvird vs. Jeffrey, for example.

    At one point after yet another story where we didn’t know what the protagonist was, I asked if he had a phobia about revealing those details. I am starting to get a phobia about newbies who write in first person; that voice seems to magnify weaknesses such as the lack of referents.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      See also: John Scalzi’s current writing style. The only thing I can tell you about the characters in the preview chapters of his latest is that some are male, some are female and they all talk the same.

    • Meh, no trust me. Newbies can be as bad in third person.

    • Oh yes, I just got a professional opinion on a novella. Her only comment: “I got a jolt in the second chapter when I realized the POV character was male . . . ”

      Oops! Yeah, first person, so somehow “I” had no cause to think “I’m taller than most men, so it was easy to . . .” or “At least she didn’t call me Gus. Augustus is bad enough . . . ” Or some other way to slip in that basic information very close to the start.

      • Jamie

        I think the guy I’m reading for is going a step past this — that if “I” has no reason to think of his age/sex/species, then there’s no reason to mention it at all.

        At least you caught your mistake early 🙂 I’m guessing Scalzi is at the stage I’ve heard that big-name writers get into, where no one edits them anymore. That’s terrifying, and why I prefer indie — it’s in my power to not skimp on having a second pair of eyes on the story. Indies get to put readers first.

  8. What I don’t like about things under the wrong genre is when I go to amazon and search for a story about space exploration, that is not the kind of space I’m wanting to explore.

    ( I know, Technically maybe sorta space exploration but still)

    • Dang, That didn’t work.

    • PRECISELY. I read MANY things, so when I want a cozy mystery, I want a cozy mystery, not a fictionalized biography of Christopher Marlowe (to name the latest offender.)

      • I think there’s also an issue that people don’t know that there’s sub-genres, even if they’ve read books in those genres. A few months back I ran across someone who had no idea that there was such a thing as urban fantasy*—but she also hadn’t realized that there were names for other types of fantasy that she enjoyed, everything from epic fantasy to steampunk, and that by knowing the names she could search out other things to enjoy.

        *She was trying to describe a particular series to someone, and I recognized it as urban fantasy before she ever got to the title. But she didn’t have the language to explain what she meant.

        • Oh, yeah. I’m sick and tired of running into vampires in fricking science fiction. head>desk.

          • I generally agree, though I can think of a few exceptions where I thought they worked OK. Those exceptions can be counted on one hand, with fingers left over.

          • There was one that worked well. It was in a comic book in the 1970s. A vampire prepares for a long sleep as he witnesses total nuclear war. He intendeds to wait until there’s people around again.

            Eventually he awakes. He sees and enters a city, pleased that his source of substance is back. But when hiss first victim slams him against the wall, he makes a terrible discovery. During his sleep sentient life evolved from plants. And how can a vampire survive when there’s no blood to drink at all?

        • paladin3001

          Wait, Steampunk is listed as a subgenre of Fantasy? *head pops*

          • Interesting. If not considered its own subgenre, I can think of many a steampunk story that could best be classified as fantasy, science fiction, horror, or paranormal romance. Magic and mythical creatures are common features in many steampunk tales, whereas others hew to a more scientific bent.

          • TRX

            I’d always thought of it as fantasy. But I’m thoroughly familiar with steam technology, and what the authors generally use the word “steam” for, translates to “magic.”

            So, fantasy.

            • paladin3001

              *grumble mumble* So here I was writing what I thought was a steampunk story is better described as alt-history then since I am trying to be realistic in my portrayal of larger steam based environment. Good to know for when it gets done.

              • Eh. At that point, you’re looking at your likely audience according to tropes, not the actual content of the chapters. My book is a fantasy despite the absence of magic or magical creatures because in structure and story beats, it is a fantasy and doesn’t fit any other category. People expecting a fantasy are going to feel like they got one, and will only notice the absence of magic in retrospect. (Technically, my book is a sub-genre known as medieval romance, but that term is open to misinterpretation, so it ducks under the fantasy umbrella easily.)

                • paladin3001

                  In that case I will worry about genre when the story is done. Too much to worry about at this stage I think.

                • I’d advise alternate-history romance, or something. Fantasies without magic ALSO cause dents in my walls. I mean you can have the same “fantasy” we had in our middle ages. Curses and prophecies work, say. Otherwise you’re going to annoy people. And not just me. A LOT of people.

                  • One I’m going to have to finish is a spin-off of the kids’ books that focuses on a quasi-villain. He find himself in a very pagan society that pays more attention to omens and portents than the one he came from. He has dreams that a new associate thinks is prophetic, and a fortune teller sets events in motion with a reading. But it’s still an adventure. What little nod there is to fantasy is like lettuce on a hamburger. It’s still a hamburger, not a salad.

                  • It’s not romance at all. Seriously. “Medieval romance” is basically Robin Hood-type tales, which get shoved under the fantasy umbrella these days. (See Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood as a direct example.) It’s also definitely not alternate history, given that it’s a made-up world and cultures.

                • Note it’s possible to have one genre with another’s beats. If you analyze Darkship Thieves, it’s an Urban Fantasy. Only it’s not. Beats are not the main thing. Though they count. It’s the subject of the story, too.

              • The short story *glares at text, threatens it if it tries to get longer than a short-story* that is steam-punk is alt-history/fantasy (bionic implants with magic to force them into the human body). My rule would be: does it have magic? If so, fantasy. Is it all mechanical or biological (like that YA WWI series with the Darwinists vs. the Clankers) it is alt-history/sci-fi. But I’m not in charge of the genres.

                One guide I read said that Language of the Land was not steampunk because I don’t have any automatons. *eyeroll* https://www.amazon.com/Language-Land-Steampunk-Alma-Boykin-ebook/dp/B06XD97KM9/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1500502220&sr=1-1&keywords=Language+of+the+Land

          • Steampunk, like goth, is an aesthetic. Being an aesthetic first and a fiction genre second, anything that looks steampunk is steampunk (or can be retroactively claimed as such.)

            This means that steampunk eagerly claims 20,000 Leagues under the sea, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Agatha Christie and the Heterodyne Adventures, Weird West, Dave Freer’s Cuttlefish, and Jim Butcher’s Dirigibles on alien planets. Fantasy? Scifi? Horror? Mystery? Yes, because it’s got some gears on it.

            Instead of spreading it out over every possible genre, Most people decided “Most people writing this are doing it in a world where “aether” and “steam” substitute for technology and magic. So, fantasy.” And it stuck under fantasy, despite all the odd offshoots that really belong somewhere else. On the other hand, Amazon keyworded it under science fiction, so all of it’s under science fiction, even when it’s set in the 1800’s alternate history or some bizarre magic-works world.

            When someone complains that a book “isn’t properly steampunk”, what they mean is “this doesn’t conform to my idea of the aesthetic.” Doesn’t mean it’s not steampunk.

            (This has long been an aesthetic issue. The running battles over “that’s not goth” have existed as long as goth has. In fact, some staples of goth music insist they aren’t goth… but they’ve generally learned to just make the token protest, then shut up and take their fans’ money.)

            • See also: Abney Park.

            • How about hard steampunk? That would be the steampunk equivalent of hard SF. It would be machines that actually could have been built. My only poor attempt was based on the Hunley with 1870s tech.

              Something that almost happened was a story that tried to be CSI: 1870. Rudimentary forensics which would have been possible in 1870. It started with a town policeman’s visit to the hardware store where a robbery victim was being embalmed in the back. That one, incidentally, never worked until I changed POV and dropped the policeman. Gone was the forensic aspects, but the result was a much better short story.

            • Yes, you can just stick some gears on it and call it steampunk.

              • What do you add to make it dieselpunk? And I have heard/seen that term used – a bit past steam, I suppose, but also as someone I know “doesn’t do brown” and so the joke about steampunk being what happens when goths (yes, that person is… describes self as “Goth when goth was’ – aside from sacking Rome, etc.) discover brown means… steampunk styles don’t work.

                • Where steampunk loves the victorian aesthetic, dieselpunk loves the art deco style & its spawn, streamline moderne.

                  Deiselpunk also loves big machined engines, exposed crankshafts, cooling fins, all things jazz, big band, and swing… Roughly speaking, it covers WWI – 1950’s aesthetics and machinery.

                  It also loves grey, and anything film noir. *shrugs* Beyond that, it’s a subset of a subset of a small genre. So it’s either extremely niche or anything you want it to be, depending on how you take it.

            • Ostrogoth or Visigoth? *ducks*

  9. Christopher M. Chupik

    “Now go and put on your literary fishnet stockings and high heels, and start hooking the best you can.”

    I think I could get people to pay me *not* to dress like that.

  10. You’re talking to me… Sigh. I do think I am improving slightly, though.

    The stocky, heavily-built man shaded his eyes with a hand and peered down the road. Yes, those were soldiers, most certainly – he’d caught the glint from a helmet that one of them had actually kept polished even in these days of sloppy discipline. Four of them, he could see now that they had passed into a stretch of sunlight from the shadow of the patchy clouds.
    He grunted, and faded back into the woods from which he had emerged just a short time ago.

    Still some cleanup on that to do, but certainly (to my eyes) better than the first two.

  11. Wrong genre marking on Amazon is often a function of keywords in the blurb not being parsed correctly by their algorithms.

    My translation of a Revelation commentary has gotten marked as fantasy by Amazon before. I had to adjust what the blurb said about the Dragon and the monsters, so that it would stay in the appropriate nonfiction Bible commentary categories.

  12. TRX

    I was annoyed when I encountered Len Deighton’s SS/GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland. They were shelved in the mainstream fiction section, but they were alternate-history science fiction. I’m guessing their publishers either had no idea what the books were about, or marketed them as mainstream anyway since the SF market was comparatively tiny at the time.

    As a WWII buff I found both interesting and readable, but I’ve always wondered what the average schmuck felt like, thinking he had a historical novel, and finding the story set in the British Reich or 1960s Nazi Germany.

  13. Draven

    Just like music, in books some people working in it don’t even realize they are a sub-genre. Others do, and name it. see futurepop