Write an Opening Chapter that Hooks Readers

CaptureThis year, I have left behind the characters who populated the series that I’ve been writing for several years. I’m embarking on a voyage to a new world, with a crew who is brand new to me. It’s fun and thrilling to be writing something completely new, but starting from scratch is also much harder than continuing a series.

The first chapter of any book, but especially the first book in a series, has to be gripping. Win a reader and they could go on to follow your characters for a long time. I’m now on the fifth major rewrite of my first chapter, and in honor of that I thought I’d share some DOs and DON’Ts that I’ve learned the hard way, with examples of excellent series openings from successful YA authors.

DO get to the story quickly rather than delving into too much description.
When your readers know nothing, it’s tempting to want to share everything you can about their backstory and the world they inhabit. But readers want to be immersed in a world, unaware that they are learning a character’s quirks and how their world functions because they’re more involved in the drama unfolding. I love Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, the first book of The Lunar Chronicles, because she doesn’t waste time introducing Cinder and Prince Charming and throwing them together right away. She hooked me by the end of the first chapter, and I kept reading until I finished the series.

DON’T jump into the middle of an action sequence from the first page. (Most of the time.)
Some authors take the advice of getting to the story quickly to mean that they throw their main character into the middle of a battle, or struggling to survive, from the first sentence. Remember, before your protagonist faces big danger, the reader has to care if they live or die. There are examples of stories that start “In Medias Res” (in the middle of things) but those done well are rare. If you’re a new author, stick to a simpler scene that lets us get to know the character.

DO give readers a picture of what the main characters look like.
While no reader wants to read pages about the protagonist’s long, flowing locks of golden hair, they do want to have a sketch of the characters in their minds. This is a tidbit that I’ve ignored in the past, and readers and agents have called me on it time and again. For an example of an author who puts a riveting picture in your mind from page one, check out We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. When the main character says of her family, “The Sinclairs are athletic, tall and handsome…Our smiles are wide, our chins are square, and our tennis serves aggressive” we can picture the protagonist and her family’s appearance and personality in one swoop.

DON’T start your story with your character waking up.
I saw this tidbit in several reputed literary agents’ pet peeves. Starting your story at the start of your main character’s day makes logical sense – to everyone. Readers, editors, and agents alike have read this kind of opening so many times that it has become cliche.

DO end your first chapter with a teaser that invites the reader to turn the page, NOW.
No matter how brilliant of a writer you are, it takes time to get a reader to invest emotionally in your character’s life. The first chapter is about piquing the reader’s interest, but it will take longer than that to earn their sympathy and empathy. With that in mind, a little mystery or promise of something fascinating to come goes a long way toward keeping readers moving forward with your story. Maggie Stiefvater does an excellent job of this in The Raven Boys. She introduces the protagonist, Blue, as a girl from a family with supernatural gifts. They’ve always predicted that she will kill her true love. The chapter ends with a promise from one of the characters that this is the year that she’ll fall in love. Will I continue reading? Hell, yes!

DON’T be afraid to change your first chapter, even if it impacts the rest of your story.
I know from experience that there is nothing more daunting for a writer than making a change to the first chapter that ripples through the rest of the book you’ve written (or in some cases, the series). But taking the time to make the opening perfect is an investment that will pay you back in spades. If readers aren’t hooked, they’ll never have the opportunity to see how great your writing gets by chapter 6. So grit your teeth and make it perfect, consequences be damned.

There are few things more difficult to do, or more critical to your success as an author, than writing an outstanding first chapter. But when you get it exactly right, the momentum can carry you through the rest of the book, and even the rest of the series. Readers will forgive a crappy chapter 32, but they will never read past a weak chapter 1.

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How to Weave Believable Technology into Your YA Dystopian Novel (Part 2)

file000898499863As I mentioned in my last post, Part 1 on this topic, it is with glee that I leave behind the world I’ve been writing about for years to enter a new one. It’s radically different than the one I left behind, not even set in the same time. I’m visiting the future, and am learning about the technology I’ll find there. For the first time, my day job is kinda helpful, as I work in Silicon Valley at a high tech company, where we geek out about what the future will look like all the time.

I’m a believer that the best place to generate ideas for plausible ideas of future technology is to check out cutting-edge technology from today and extrapolate. Below are some resources that might trigger ideas for you.

Technology Websites
No surprise, there are a lot of online resources to sift through if you’re interested in technology. They range from those too mundane to yield exciting inspiration to those so futuristic that they don’t feel plausible. The sites I regularly check out are TechCrunch, which covers the latest technology news, and Fast Company, which doesn’t exclusively focus on technology, but rather innovation. If you’re interested in learning about how electronics function in a little more depth, check out the text and videos on SemisMatter to become more knowledgeable.

Technology-Focused TED Talks
If you haven’t heard of TED talks, they are awesome. Some of the most brilliant people alive share their expertise on everything from writing to technology to business. These brilliant people deliver short (18 minutes or less) talks on all kinds of topics, like robotics, biotechnology and space travel. And you can watch the videos of these talks for free on their website. They have a great search feature, including a way to filter by topic. Check out their most viewed talks and their technology topic talks. You’ll be educated without realizing it, and I defy you not to be inspired by some of the technology that you’re introduced to.

Consumer Electronics Show (CES)
CES is perhaps the most famous technology trade show, where the coolest up-and-coming technology is on display. Unfortunately, this is an industry event that isn’t open to the public, but there is a lot of media coverage of the event. If you do a search for the 2015 show, you’ll hear about the hottest technology that was present. I got distracted by a 3D printer that prints dessert, but that’s another story. Search for new coverage of CES for the past three years or so and you’ll start to notice trends that you can weave into your story.

Reference for the truly geeky.
For those interested in a dense but thought-provoking read about the extremes of what our future might look like, my favorite book, which I encountered in my day job, is The Singularity Is Near, by Ray Kurzweil. It blew my mind and made me grateful to be living in an age of exponential growth of technology. Maybe I’ll have a chip in my brain before I die (by choice!) or tiny robots will be released inside me to cure me of diseases. I sure hope so.

If you’re interested in how some famous ya dystopian authors have handled technology in their novels, check out my last post on the subject.

How to Weave Believable Technology into Your YA Dystopian Novel (Part 1)

CityI’m in the process of closing my current series and beginning a new one, and I’m thrilled at the chance to create a new world from scratch. My next series will be dystopian YA, and in preparation I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the kinds of technology that I want to incorporate into the world. When I’m engrossed in a well-written YA dystopian novel, the technology never feels foreign. I think that’s because it’s a natural extension of technology that exists today, and therefore feels so plausible that it doesn’t give me pause. On the other hand, when technology is not done well, it often feels superfluous, like a special effect that isn’t really essential to the plot.

Below are some of the ways that successful YA dystopian authors seamlessly integrated technology into the worlds they created.

Have relevant technology interact with the setting of your novel in a way that shapes your protagonist’s mental landscape.
Under the Never Sky, Veronica Rossi
In Under the Never Sky, the heroine, Aria, lives in an enclosed city because the outside world is considered toxic. As a result, space is at a premium. So that people don’t go crazy by being trapped in tight quarters, the Internet and virtual reality mingle to create a world of infinite space. As a result, in reality people may be weak or even malnourished. So when Aria is cast out of the city into the toxic outdoor world, she is more vulnerable than the “savages” who have spent their lives fighting for survival, and are therefore in prime physical condition. This unique use of technology and setting feels like a natural extension of how the Internet works today, and it isn’t superfluous. It’s essential that it exists in order to drive the plot forward.

Modify an existing technology by taking it to the extreme.
Unwind Dystology, Neal Shusterman
Today, kidneys, hearts, lungs and other organs can be transplanted, but imagine a world where that technology is taken to the extreme, and eyes, arms, even brains can be transplanted. One of the creepiest YA books I’ve encountered was Unwind. The premise is that parents can choose to have their kids “unwound” when they’re teenagers – have every single body part donated to science, so their troublesome teen is effectively gone, without officially having been murdered. Most of the technology in this series isn’t creative, but this one strong premise makes it feel wildly futuristic and spookily familiar at the same time.

Have your young protagonist interact with technology of the future in a way that adults wouldn’t.
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game is a classic, and a longtime favorite of mine. The setting, though it is in a very futuristic world complete with space ships and flashy weapons, is also not particularly unique. It’s technology we’ve seen in Star Trek and a number of popular sci-fi books. What makes it unique, however, is that the protagonist is a kid, and he reacts to it differently than any of the adult protagonists of other books and shows do. He finds creative ways to manipulate this technology, and ultimately is himself a victim of his own innocence when it comes to the power of the technology he wields. As a YA author, considering how your young protagonist will inhabit the world you’ve created is crucial. Remember that they are learning about it alongside you and your reader, rather than guiding you through it.

MedicalInvent a medical technology that solves a current problem in a way that creates a new one.
Uglies, Scott Westerfeld
There are a number of effective uses of futuristic technology in the Uglies series, but the most dramatic is the extreme plastic surgery that everyone undergoes to be made beautiful as they enter adulthood. Aside from looks, this also includes messing with the brain so that people are placid drones who don’t question the status quo. What worked well with the way the technology was handled was that the author didn’t over-explain it. The mechanics were hinted at, but specifics were left to the reader’s imagination.

Incorporate technology that affects the social structure of your world.
Matched, Ally Condie
In Matched, it is less the physical technology that takes center stage, but rather software that matches soul mates to each other that forms the premise of the series. It’s easy to think of futuristic technology in terms of things, like hovercrafts, but this more subtle use of technology can be even more believable and compelling. Matched, like Uglies, seamlessly wove in technology without over-explaining specifics of how it works. In hardcore sci-fi and fantasy, this would never fly. But with YA readers, it works well. Imagination supplies answers where needed, and readers are more interested in the character development than geeky details.

For those interested in learning more info on how to create believable technology for your dystopian YA novel, my next blog post shares resources that can inspire you if you’re having trouble envisioning what the technology of the future will look like.

Best Places to Advertise Your $0.99 Ebook Promotion

As my adventures in advertising and marketing my self-published books continue, I thought I’d share some lessons from my latest $0.99 promotion of the first book in The Conjurors Series. For this attempt, I clustered five different advertisements within one week in an attempt to push up my ranking and visibility on Amazon, particularly for certain subgenre lists.

I was reasonably successful (by my modest standards), and for the week that I ran the promo, I had 87 people purchase my book. My highest ranking was around 6,000 for paid books on Amazon, but I was in the top 20 of three key subcategories that my book fell into.

A good percentage of the people who downloaded my book have now purchased the second (and even third) book in the series. Overall, I have recovered the money I spent on advertising with sales, but not with much left over profit-wise. But I consider the promo a success, because I now have a better idea where to focus my limited budget for future ads.

Below are the sites I used to advertise, and the success I had with each one.

The Fussy Librarian, $14
I’ve used this site for various free promotions, and it usually gives me a noticeable bump in downloads. For the day I advertised on Fussy, I had 7 downloads of my book at $0.99, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it did help push me up in the rankings. Overall, I would use this site again, especially in conjunction with other advertising as a way to increase my visibility on the Amazon lists.

Free Kindle Books and Tips, $25
This was my first experience with this site, but it came recommended from a fellow author so I decided to check it out. On the day I advertised, I had 15 downloads of my book, a decent percentage of which I assume are from this listing. For my meager budget, I found this a little pricey, but ultimately worth it, as it helped push my ranking in Amazon’s paid lists up to about 17,000 (from 100,000).

Ereader News Today, $15
Without question, this was the most valuable advertisement I’ve paid for. It’s hard to say exactly how many people came from this source, but I estimate around 30 downloads, which brought my rank up to around 6,000. It was in the top 20 of three subgenre lists, which may have also increased downloads.

Bookgoodies, $35; Bookgoodies Kids, $35 (home page feature for one week)
Bookgoodies was my biggest investment, and also my biggest disappointment. I estimate that it drove a couple of sales of my book a day, which isn’t nothing, but didn’t have the same impact as any of my other advertisements, in spite of being more expensive. This surprised me, because I’ve found Bookgoodies to be very helpful in driving traffic for the free promos of my books.

Are there any places where you’ve had great success with ads? I know Bookbub is awesome, but I haven’t managed to get them to agree to list my book yet.

What’s Your Story’s Logline?

shutterstock_208876747In the writing world, there is a lot of talk about creating stories that are high concept, especially if you’re writing YA fantasy, like I am. Basically, if your story is high concept it has a compelling idea that can be summed up succinctly. (The Writer’s Store does a great job of explaining the concept here.) If you hear a high-concept idea, you know it because it stays with you. You find yourself already picturing the movie in your head.

The idea of creating a high concept novel reminded me of a term I learned about in my days writing screenplays. Every script had a logline, in which the author summed up the protagonist, conflict, and what made the story unique in one or two crisp sentences. Though novel-writing is a completely different medium, I think creating a logline for your story is the perfect place to start before you pen your first chapter. If you can’t identify what makes your story different and the emotional impact it will have on the reader at the highest level, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Once you’re deep into your book (or series), it’s tough to make big changes. It’s impossible to change the fundamental concept – you might as well start over. Writing a logline forces you to make sure that this is a path that you want to spend months or years of your life exploring. All the editing in the world can’t make a story more high concept, so it’s the one thing you have to get right from the start. You probably have many ideas in your head, and most of them are okay, or just good enough. It’s worth taking the time to write a logline to see if your idea pops, if it is THE ONE.

I wanted to see if my theory applied to some of the most successful young adult fantasy novels over the past few years. I went to IMDB to read the loglines for these books, which are all now turned into movies, to see if their core premise could be summed up in one or two compelling sentences, or if the plots were too nuanced to draw readers in without a little explanation.

Here are 10 examples of the loglines from YA fantasy movies that instantly convey a high concept.

Divergent
In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.

Beautiful Creatures
Ethan longs to escape his small Southern town. He meets a mysterious new girl, Lena. Together, they uncover dark secrets about their respective families, their history and their town.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
When her mother disappears, Clary Fray learns that she descends from a line of warriors who protect our world from demons. She joins forces with others like her and heads into a dangerous alternate New York called Downworld.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
A teenager discovers he’s the descendant of a Greek god and sets out on an adventure to settle an on-going battle between the gods.

The Giver
In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world.

Warm Bodies
After a highly unusual zombie saves a still-living girl from an attack, the two form a relationship that sets in motion events that might transform the entire lifeless world.

The Hunger Games
Katniss Everdeen voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death in which two teenagers from each of the twelve Districts of Panem are chosen at random to compete.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Rescued from the outrageous neglect of his aunt and uncle, a young boy with a great destiny proves his worth while attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Twilight
A teenage girl risks everything when she falls in love with a vampire.

Eragon
In his homeland of Alagaesia, a farm boy happens upon a dragon’s egg — a discovery that leads him on a predestined journey where he realized he’s the one person who can defend his home against an evil king.

And though it wouldn’t make the top 10, below is the logline for the first book in my own series, The Conjurors.

The Society of Imaginary Friends
Valerie Diaz has magic that she can’t contain, and it’s killing her. In order to survive, she must embrace her power and travel many light years away to fight an enemy who has been trying to kill her since she was a child.

What’s your story’s logline?

Sweating Your Way to Writerly Greatness

shutterstock_123855541When an athletes are wildly successful, no one questions that in addition to talent, they have put in countless hours practicing, relentlessly drilling themselves on specific maneuvers and training their bodies to be in prime condition. When a writer is wildly successful, the reverse is true. Most people assume that great writers achieve success because of their talent, and of course, they probably honed their craft a bit too.

It isn’t only readers who have this assumption. Authors themselves (myself included) often underestimate the amount of time, effort and practice needed to make their writing good. I am a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, and I loved the part of Outliers where he discusses the 10,000 hour rule. Basically, Gladwell studied extremely successful people and proposed that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master in a field. This is both incredibly encouraging and incredibly daunting. The encouraging part is that almost anyone can become good at something if they put in their 10,000 hours. The daunting part is that it takes that much time to get good. But throw in some talent as well, and you can really make a mark.

Even though studies have argued that Gladwell’s theory is only partly true, and practice can only take you so far, as authors I think we all to often undervalue putting the time in to hone our craft. It isn’t 10,000 hours including writing grocery lists, or even sporadically writing stories since you were a kid. I think putting in the time means concentrated effort over a continuous period of time. Like any muscle, your writing can weaken when you neglect it, and it will take additional time to strengthen it after a period away.

If you look at famous authors, the truth of the 10,000 hour rule often plays out. It took J.K. Rowling six years to write the first book in the Harry Potter series. Suzanne Collins of Hunger Games fame has been doing scriptwriting for almost three decades and book writing for over a decade. The Hunger Games isn’t even her first series – she wrote The Underland Chronicles first. The list goes on.

I’m finishing up my fourth full-length novel, and I’ve also written three screenplays. I don’t know if I’ve logged 10,000 hours writing, or if that matters. But I do know that my writing is better now than it’s ever been. I think about my craft more now than before, and my approach has evolved. So even if The Conjurors Series never makes me money, I could never consider it time wasted. I loved the writing of it, and it has fundamentally changed me as a writer. Looking at it this way, I could give the series away and consider it a success.

Soon I’ll be on to the next challenge, but I’ll take all that I’ve learned with me.

 

When the First Book in Your Self-Published Series Is the Weakest

shutterstock_186735257Once upon a time I decided to write a young adult fantasy novel. I spent hours plotting, writing, editing, rewriting. There were dozens of beta readers, five major rewrites of the entire story (and countless minor rewrites), and the help of a professional editor. The result was a decent book that I’m proud of, the first book in The Conjurors Series.

I’m now writing the fourth (and last) book in the series, and to say that my writing has evolved would be an understatement. Reading the first book makes me shake my head and sigh at how naïve I was. I’m not claiming to be Shakespeare now, but the act of spending hundreds of hours writing thousands of words has made me a better writer.

The only problem is that readers’ introduction to my writing is the first book of the series – which is the weakest. Below are some of the ways I’ve seen this problem tackled.

Give your first book away for free.
I’m a follower of Lindsay Buroker’s blog, and she was one of the early self-publishers to make the first book in her series, permanently free. She feels that it was a great way to build her fan base and gain the significant following that her writing now has. In my opinion, though, the first book in her series is actually pretty great – her writing just gets that much better. So this option works if your first book is at least good enough to hook readers and get them to continue to read an become more invested in your writing. Also, with so many freebies out there now, having a free book doesn’t have the same impact that it did in the past.

Give your series away for free.
This may sound crazy, but it’s a bolder move. Lots of people give away a book, but an entire series? If you already have your next set of books in the works, it can be an aggressive way to build a fan base. If you’re in the self-publishing route for the long haul and are a fairly prolific writer, consider giving a huge incentive to readers for trying your writing.

Rewrite your first book.
Rewriting (yet again) your first book will be acute torture, take it from someone who has been there, done that. I had limited success with rewriting the book to bring it up to par with the rest of the series, because too many plot points were already embedded through the series. Any changes I made had to be threaded through the rest of the books, and it was exhausting. The end result was a story that was marginally better, but still not as good as the rest of the series. However, if your first book is freestanding, bite the bullet and rewrite it. If there are scenes you can rewrite, go for it. I also recommend cutting as much as you can to make the story short and sweet.

Cut your losses and start a new series.
I considered pulling my books off Amazon, abandoning my heroine and starting a new series, but something is compelling me to finish telling the story that I started. Even if this series never amounts to anything more than a lot of my time and sweat, and a few readers who enjoyed it (thanks, Mom!) Valerie’s journey must be completed. I’ve learned a lot, and as excited as I am to start the next series, it feels right to close this chapter first. But if you are less attached to your story, keep in mind the idea of sunk costs – sometimes it’s better to look forward at what you could be accomplishing instead of investing more time in a series that isn’t going to benefit your writing or your career.

Is anyone else in the same boat, with a series that has gotten progressively better, but is held back by a weak first book?