Beginnings: to make them be continued

Doing this right, in real life and in books, is something most of are not much good at. Real life: you see this cute/attractive/handsome individual and you’d rather fancy meeting them.

Most of us are really expert at making that a very short meeting. Okay, so maybe I speak merely for myself: but the more interested I was, the less well I did. When I didn’t give a damn I got on just fine.  The more I wanted to make a good impression… the more likely the encounter was to be one of the other person retreating rapidly. Not always screaming in horror, no.

Look, I really thought she’d be impressed at being given a live octopus.

Even if you manage not to send them into screaming retreat… that first impression very often determines whether they’ll cross the road just as you approach, to the squealing of brakes and honking of horns, or actually meet you and talk to you. You can still decide they’re boring or weird, or smell of elderberries, and vice versa, but without that first impression you don’t even get that chance, let alone the possibility of the relationship flourishing.

Books suffer from a similar problem… well, authors do, as books themselves are apparently care-for-nobodies, and don’t mind if no one ever looks at the cover, picks them up, reads the blurb, and then looks at the first page.  Authors really get upset if their books don’t even get a second glance, let alone the opportunity for the reader to get into them.  Now of course if you’re trad published there’s not a lot you can do about that cover, or probably the blurb. If you’re going indy, you can remember a few things that new authors still get wrong (hell, long established authors get wrong).

Firstly: Your cover is not there to represent what happens in your book except possibly as an ancillary.  It’s to get the reader to pick the book up from the others on display. That’s why if the author is a known and popular author… his NAME is emphasized. Sometimes supersized.

Secondly: there is a lot more messaging in the cover, and the text on it that ‘it’s a pretty picture’. It helps to identify the genre and type of book in that genre.  And, trust me on this, readers don’t like shock value any more than little girls like suddenly having a live octopus dropped into their hands.  There ARE exceptions, but unless you want to only sell to exceptions… give the right signals.  You want your book to stand out… but not to be the kid in a ‘Frozen’ costume, at a Harry Potter party.

Blurbs: It’s not a summary. Once again, you’re telling the reader what kind of book it is. Because, really, the last thing you need is to send the wrong signals. People get ANGRY and nasty especially if they have spent money buying what they though was what they wanted to read and find it really, really isn’t. Kind of like the reaction of the girl taking the robust macho lumberjack home… to find out that actually he’s the Monty Python Lumberjack, complete with suspenders… What you’re also doing is teasing a bit. Giving them a reason to open that book. The right reason. Not the nasty surprise.

Now… they open the book at page one : Here is where it gets hard. If you can hold them to the end of page one… you’ve probably got a sale. And seriously, once people are invested in a book, they are usually more forgiving. Now: if this is your twentieth book and you have a towering reputation for providing a good read of the kind the reader likes… that first page is something the reader takes on trust, even if they’re not hooked in. They’ll give that known quantity several pages at least.  The downside is we – less well-known authors – tend to take these guys and their books as our role models.  Repeat after me: they are not. You – and me – have to catch the reader’s interest and engage their curiosity and if possible get them to care about our character and what happens to them… on the first page. And to get that far we have to get them to read the first paragraph, and be curious or interested enough to read the second. The further down that page you get them to go, the longer they’ll grant you to give them what they want. You want them to read your book: you give them what they want – or a promise of the probability thereof, not what YOU want. There might be a little chance for that later. It’s not all that different to Jane meets Joe illustration I started this piece with. After all human relationships have been with us since not long after we figured out banging the rocks together. It shapes a lot of things…

But not quite the same as real life and meeting a person… because a book has that safe distance. It’s not going to grab you with that suckered tentacle, or even squirt ink at you.  So: in real life if someone’s opening phrase was “I have a forty-four gallon drum of scented lubricant,” in most cases the person being addressed would sensibly discover an immediate need to be in the next county or maybe the next one from that, if not further away.

If that was the first paragraph in the book… You might decide ‘this is not for me…’ but nine people out of ten will read the next line just to see what hell the author thought a character would do with THAT. At this point the feisty heroine gets to make a snippy smart remark, of the kind we always wish we thought of at the time (but never do).  Repartee, and possibly getting the reader to realize that the book that advertised (by the cover and blurb) that it was derring-do science fiction, is just that – and not, as the lead sentence suggests, wildly optimistic porn, follow.  The reader gets introduced to the world of live-capture of Arcturan tiger-slugs for the pharmaceutical trade in the interplanetary empire. A few readers may be upset at missing the porn, but hopefully you have enough of them hooked.

The key being some element that makes the book stand out. A shock perhaps – but the purpose is to introduce the characters, and if possible, get them to care.  And then it fills in some details about the setting – but by showing the reader through the eyes of our characters and their conversation… not by telling the reader. Stephen King can tell the reader. You and I cannot. We have to feed that setting and background in, and keep the titillation up.  I know: as an author it makes the story so much easier to tell if you can explain the background for the first thirty pages.

Get over it. Unless you want people to put that book down, those first pages are going to have to work really hard.

Yes. I am writing that story. You want to read it, don’t you?

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42 comments

  1. Scented lubricant is interesting, if you have machinery you need to keep from grinding, and a bunch of leaks to find over a wide area. On the other hand, a stock that just happens to be available probably doesn’t have the right viscosity, density, thermal properties, etc.

      1. Of course, imagine getting stuck with trying to resell such equipment to another industry. 🙂

  2. When I worked at the airport, one of the Air Marshalls had as his cover “Sexual Lubricant Salesman”. “Bulk Sales available” was on his fake business card.

    1. Oooh.

      Wouldn’t it suck to be the guy in charge of coming up with ones that were plausibly not an obvious cover, yet not something where you would run into someone who knew the business, or wanted to do business with you.

      Transpose that to an interstellar where one species’ disgusting fish glue is another’s critical industrial lubricant and a third’s controlled substance.

      The muse that comes from insomnia and euphoria insists that there are several guys under such covers, who wind up, in the course of their ordinary business travels to other locations, entangled in the disaster’s of a certain place.

      Of course, it isn’t so helpful as to provide plot and character. It is arguing that I can totally fit the concept into a portal fantasy thing I have on the back burner, where air defense artillery and punt guns are ordinary hunting tools, and the only plot I have in mind is Romance, vague, and complicated.

  3. Several years ago, I saw this book with a cover that looked like a bad movie poster, a similar reading blurb, and a bad movie title.

    However, the cover also said it was by Barbara Hambly so I purchased it and completely enjoyed it.

    Oh, the title was “Bride Of The Rat-God”. 😀

      1. After reading it, I laughed at that blurb.

        Unlike how the blurb read, the “Bride” wasn’t “fighting alone”.

        Her sister-in-law was the main POV character and in many ways the sister-in-law & the camera-man were doing much of the “fighting” (along with the Chinese Wizard). 😀

  4. John Varley’s “Steel Beach” definitely had an attention-getting opening sentence:

    “In five years, the penis will be obsolete,” said the salesman.

  5. I object.
    Most of the first lines that memorably caught me were passive voice “tellings”.
    .
    In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.
    .
    The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
    .
    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
    .
    There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

    1. A fair point. Now tell us why do these hooks work and how long does that remain passive telling (a line is one thing, twenty pages another)

      1. Point.
        Most, only a short paragraph or so. (PTerry went farther, but he also made footnotes interesting )
        .
        Heh. I’ll not challenge someone who does this for a living on anything but the finest of points. My arrogance has limits!

    2. “lived” — active voice.

      “was” — linking verb

      “was”/”were striking” — linking verb, progressive voice (and active)

      “was”/”deserved” — linking verb, active voice.

      Passive telling, perhaps, but not passive voice

      (Now how did this soapbox get under my feet?)

      1. I’m going to push back on that, so don’t fall off your soapbox.
        .
        The construction I was taught, was that “to be”, followed by a past participle, is passive voice.
        The first example I gave might be sketchy, depending on whether or not you recognize that use of “there” as a form of “to be”.
        But the others were textbook.
        .
        Looking into it a bit further, the definition seems to be that the object of the action becomes the subject of the sentence.
        By that metric, the 1st, 3rd, and 4th examples I provided remain solid usages of the passive voice.
        The Hobbit lived in a hole.
        The clocks were striking thirteen.
        Eustance Clarence Scrubb almost deserved his name.
        (In the Gibson example, the sky is the subject, and the part flagging it was just mucking about with modifiers.)

        1. Only “to be” is a form of “to be.” “There” isn’t even a verb.

          And in none of your cases was the object of the action the subject of the sentence. The hobbit lived; the clocks struck, Eustace deserved..

    3. Well, all of those examples have a barb, something off-kilter and puzzling. What’s a hobbit? Clocks striking thirteen? Ye gads, how bad was the kid to get stuck with that sort of name?

      1. …I just realized that Lewis was totally hanging a lampshade on some of the insanely terrible names in those kind of kid books. You know, like the pronouns song from Schoolhouse Rock.

        In my defense, Narnia was the first series I read to pieces, so I don’t see it very well. It’s like air, or water.

        It’s kind of NEAT to realize that Lewis did two things at once– he did a hook that stands on its own, when you are not familiar with early 20th century/late 19th century children’s literature (I had no idea the Princess and the Goblin was anything BUT a lowish-budget cartoon movie) but also is enhanced by knowing what the readers were expecting, and having fun with them.

        Not sure why I’m surprised a teacher who loved the language would have fun with it.

        1. My theory is that Clive Staples Lewis, who insisted on being called Jack from an early age, was portraying himself as an obnoxious schoolboy.

          1. Well, the thing was that his family called him Baby until he was old enough to revolt and rename himself.

  6. But what about the girls? you know the ones with strategic clothing or six foot long red hair who usually have arms open and welcoming (beckoning?) expressions on their faces. Oh, and also the spaceships, rat-kings slimy other-things or space peanuts.

  7. At this point the feisty heroine gets to make a snippy smart remark, of the kind we always wish we thought of at the time (but never do).

    There’s a word for that! “Treppenwitz,” the wisdom of the back stairs.

    (Literally just stair wit, but for some reason I adore the other phrasing; the namesake blog I learned it at used that at some point, I think, and it feels poetic. Went to check and got derailed because he’s gone and donated a kidney and nearly collapsed under the moral strain of “who do you want to give it to?”)

      1. I have a big, though sadly far from full, mental folder for “there IS a word for it!”/”You know that thing where.”

        That is a prized possession.

        1. One of my favorite Rare Words is drasty, a derisive adjective comparing the object to wheat-chaff, or drast, in value. It appears in the complete works of Chaucer in Middle English, exactly twice, including in the declaration by one character to another that “Thy drasty riming is nat worth a tord.”

          I slipped it into my last submitted story at least three times in less than 20k words… 😉

  8. — So: in real life if someone’s opening phrase was “I have a forty-four gallon drum of scented lubricant,” in most cases the person being addressed would sensibly discover an immediate need to be in the next county or maybe the next one from that, if not further away. —

    Hm! Damned right. Scented lubricant comes in 42-gallon barrels. Just like crude oil. Which is something to think about, isn’t it? (:-)

      1. “50 gallon drum” is a link. I can see no formatting change, but it is there and works.

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