Thursday, January 24, 2013

How to Hook Your Reader on the First Page, Part I

If you follow literary agent Jennifer Udden on Twitter, you probably took notice of her little #millionqueries adventure the other day-- she live Tweeted her reactions and judgments on the queries she was receiving, including little tips on what was being done wrong or right (if you didn’t follow along, check out her blog about it here). The main thing I noticed about her reasons for rejecting projects was that she often said she wasn’t hooked by the first few pages. We all know how crucially important our first five or ten pages are when it comes time to find an agent; it’s often what they use to make a decision on whether or not they are interested in the work. If they’re not hooked, pulled in, grabbed, or otherwise arrested, you get a nice little form rejection and a blow to your self-esteem in your inbox.
I recently read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, which is jam-packed with fortune-cookie sized bits of advice for writers and other creators. In the first chapter, he recommends constructing a “genealogy of ideas,” i.e., decide whose work you admire, collect and study it, then find that person’s influences and collect and study them, and so on. Steal from your favorite authors, everyone. If you’re a fan of their work, not only are they doing something right, they’re probably doing something close to what you would like to do. With this in mind, I decided to examine the first page of a few of my favorite fantasy and sci-fi novels to see what I could learn about writing that killer hook. I found so many great things to talk about that I decided to make this a two-part blog post. So here’s the first round:

First line: “I hope you’re reading this, Mark.”
With the first six words, you know that this book is not addressed to you. It’s a journal addressed to Mark. It’s incredibly important to teach the audience how to read your book within the first paragraph or so, and this book pulls it off in the first line.
The rest of the first page juxtaposes the very normal teenager-y moment of the main character’s first kiss with the girl he’s been crushing on and the intense experience of getting “jacked across the universe” to a distant, unknown planet in the midst of war. Instantly, I have multiple things to pay attention to and an honest, interesting narrator. I’m sold. 

2. Sunshine by Robin McKinley
First line: “It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn’t that dumb.”
This is one of my favorite first lines of all time. It sounds a little silly out of context, but it quickly introduces you to the voice of Sunshine, the protagonist and first-person narrator. Of course, as soon as you read it, you’re wondering what the dumb thing was and why it wasn’t that dumb.
And here’s the kicker: you don’t find out on the first page. There’s a vague reference to a lake, and then Sunshine takes the tale back to the beginning, talking about the coffeehouse where she works and her family’s Monday night movie tradition. Ever hear about that technique where you snatch something from later in your novel and frontload it to build suspense? That’s what is going on here, on a much smaller scale.

First line: “Each year, at the end of March, a great fair was held in Cría, the capital of Galla.”
What's great about Tamora Pierce’s novels is that she sets them in very rich worlds, but doesn’t bore you with long descriptions of geography and customs and history. She lays down little hints along the way that gradually create a world that feels familiar and natural.
The weird thing about this first page is that, while the whole book is in third person, it starts in the point of view of Onua, who is meeting the actual main character, Daine, for the first time. This is an interesting choice because the first look we get at Daine is through Onua’s eyes. While risky, it’s an easy way to describe a 13-year-old, who is unlikely to have accurate, honest self-knowledge. I don’t know that I would try beginning in the POV of a secondary character-- I think that belongs more to the realm of the experienced writer.

First line: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
This is my absolute favorite first line, hands down, no contest. I get the shivers every time I hear it. It’s on the wall above my desk. In that short sentence, you know exactly what is happening, and yet you have a million questions. Who are the man in black and the gunslinger? Why is the man fleeing and the gunslinger following? What desert, and why? Introducing major dramatic questions in the first few pages is critical; introducing them in the first line is a major achievement.
The first page launches into a description of the desert and the gunslinger’s journey. A useful thing to note is the handful of made-up words-- devil-grass, bucka, khef, Manni-- that let us know instantly that we are not in our own world. This is another instance of teaching the reader how to approach the novel and what to expect from it: the meaning of unfamiliar words is not always spoon-fed in the Dark Tower series and must be deduced from context clues. 

First line: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
Brilliant, this. The Dursleys are pompous and absurd, and that snippy little “thank you very much” says it all.
This is another novel with a first page focusing on people other than the protagonist. Again, if you’re J. K. Rowling, you can pull off describing the most boring and annoying people on the planet in your first few paragraphs, because you end it with “...they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.” Suddenly, the Dursleys become fascinating, and we want very badly for their secret to ruin them because we know people just like them whom we would very much like to ruin.

First line: “The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective.”
Bam. That’s called beginning in media res: starting your book in the middle of the action instead of sitting everyone down for tea and exposition. There’s time for that later, through flashback and conversation. But for an action-packed novel like this one, in media res is often the way to go.
The rest of the page has Max describing her escape from “the School.” Max is a very conversational, first-person narrator; a badass who knows she’s badass and is not afraid to tell you about it. You get this from the very first page, where she’s running from evil mutants and ignoring the pain caused by rocks and briars in her path. Here, Patterson does a great job of jumping into the action and introducing his protagonist at the same time.

I hope this has been as helpful to you as it has been to me! Tune in next time for analyses of first pages from Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Richard Adams, Clive Barker, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Diana Wynne Jones!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dear Future Successful Me: Go the Extra Mile for Your Fans

On Sunday I went to a rock concert. Stick around, I swear this has something to do with writing. 

My favorite band, The Used, is headlining the Take Action Tour to benefit the It Gets Better Project (if it’s stopping in your area, go-- great bands for an AWESOME cause). Naturally, I bought tickets last year as soon as they went on sale. One of the lesser-known bands also playing the tour is Crown the Empire, and though I’d never heard of them before, I decided to give them a listen so I’d know what to expect at the show. Turns out they have a pretty great sound, and I quickly considered myself a fan-- so I followed them on Twitter.

What’s amazing about CtE is that they respond to pretty much every Tweet that fans send their way. Sure, they’re not hugely popular, but they’re far from unknown. They get a lot of Tweets, and each one receives a personal (not automated) reply or RT.

The show was one of the best experiences of my life, certainly my favorite concert so far. Then, afterwards, CtE was hanging out at their merch booth, greeting fans and posing for pictures. Here’s mine:

I look like such a geek. And holy cow, are those guys hot or what?

When I got home, I tweeted the picture, complimented the band on their performance, and thanked them for taking the time to pose with me. Brandon, one of the guitarists, replied to me that very night, thanking me for coming out to the show.

Like, whoa. These guys have a fan for life.

The willingness to get personal with fans, to answer their Tweets, Facebook posts, emails, letters, etc., makes an incredible difference. Forging that connection inspires loyalty and creates a real relationship with the people who love and respect your work. I recognize that someone like Stephen King or J. K. Rowling is not going to be able to respond to each and every fan letter. It’s physically impossible, and we want them to have time for writing their next great novel, right? But let’s face it, most of us aren’t at quite that level of superstardom. 

When I was a child (probably 11 or 12ish) I wrote an email to Tamora Pierce telling her, if I remember correctly, that her books were awesome and that I named all my cats after her characters. (I had a Daine, a Thayet, an Alanna...) Having read on her website that she was always looking for book recommendations, I told her to check out Robin McKinley (duh). It took a very long time for her to respond, but respond she did. The main thing I remember from that letter is her telling me that she had a cat who “shares the printer-attacking hobby with your Daine.” She also agreed with me that Robin McKinley rocks. It was a very nice letter, and she had clearly read mine and given a very unique, personal reply. This delighted me and cemented my devotion to her work.

All you need to do to get fans is write a good book. But going the extra mile and being open to communication with those people strengthens your bond with them, makes them remember you, and causes them to be more disposed toward reading your work in the future. Even if you’re not famous yet, start being a good literary citizen by being grateful and humble when someone praises you or gives you helpful feedback. Those habits will come in handy when you’re at the top of the bestseller list!

A final note: A few months ago I tweeted a pic of myself with my rat, Sylvi, who is named after a Robin McKinley character. McKinley retweeted my photo, so two of my greatest idols now officially believe me to be a crazy pet person. *shrug*

Chilling with my pal Sylvi. Seriously, go buy a rat, they're the best pets.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

8 Reasons to Be a Better Literary Citizen

If you follow me on Twitter, you may already be aware that this semester (my last!) I’m taking a class on Literary Citizenship. In short, being a literary citizen entails giving back to the writing and publishing world in whatever ways you can: buying books and reviewing them, interviewing authors, engaging in conversations with other writers and readers via social media, etc. A good quote:

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” --Dale Carnegie

Frankly, the best thing about taking this class is that it is forcing me into a lot of interactions that I am not comfortable with and would never seek out on my own. Reading the syllabus made my heart drop into the pit of my stomach. This is, in many ways, an excellent thing. It’s only by pushing our boundaries that we see how far we can really go.

Without further ado, here are eight reasons why I think that I (and all the rest of you writers!) should take a class like this, or at least make an effort towards becoming a better literary citizen:

1. Great Readings
There are seven books on the syllabus, authored by Chuck Sambuchino, Jennifer Egan, Carolyn See, Elena Passarello (who is coming to BSU!), Austin Kleon, Eugene Cross, and Marcus Wicker. I’ve read about half the Sambuchino book, Create Your Writer Platform: The Key to Building an Audience, Selling More Books, and Finding Success as an Author, and already I’m learning a lot. This will be the third time I’ve studied Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I am 100% okay with it. Read it and you’ll understand.

2. Geeking Out With Others > Geeking Out Alone
I am a nerd, and I know what it is like to interact with people who share my passions. Just like Harry Potter and Star Wars, there is a writing community out there that is more than happy to talk shop, recommend books/authors, offer feedback, and (on occasion) swap rejection stories over email so the other person can't see you sobbing into a glass of wine. It always feels good to be a part of something bigger.

3. Awesome Writerly People Everywhere
Not only will I be interacting with writers online, I get to spend three hours of every week in a room full of them, and all of them are going through the same chaotic trial-and-error transformation into social media butterflies that I am. It’s like group therapy. Even though I don’t know any of them very well, I’m hoping that will change as the semester progresses, and it would be nice to stay connected as we move forward with our professional lives.

4. Required Weekly Blogging
I suck at blogging regularly. I know it. You know it. Now my grade depends on it, and I’d really hate to fail a class after making it to my final semester with a 3.8. Again, I’m hoping this will become a good habit that lasts long after the class ends, because I know it's important beyond my academic career.

Ahaha, philosophy jokes are the funniest. I promise.

5. I Am Often Confused by the Interwebz
I just created a Twitter account and this blog at the beginning of last semester, because Cathy Day said it was a good idea back in my noveling class and she usually gives A+ advice. I’m still shaky at best with my Twitter etiquette (Twittiquette?) and don’t even get me started on Blogger; I’m lucky I’m even able to post. Now I have my own domain name and the implications terrify me. Any opportunity to learn more about navigating the vast and murky terrain of the internet is welcome.

6. Another Step Towards Conquering Social Ineptitude
If you know me, you know that my favorite adjective to describe the depth of my shyness is “paralyzing.” Since this class is forcing me to be a part of the literary community and actually-- oh God-- say things to people I don’t know, hopefully it will form good social media habits and help me be more open to communication.

This, like 95% of Socially Awkward Penguin memes, is totally me.

7. Writing and Reading Saved My Life
I’m going to get sappy for a moment here, so either skip to the next point or pull out your hanky. I firmly believe that I only survived middle school because of reading and writing. I escaped into books when life was too much, and I wrote when I felt like my notebook was the only one listening. I have always felt that I owe books my life, and though things are a million times better for me now, that dedication helps me to keep pushing when I just want to lay down my pen and give up. This class is all about giving back to writers and publishers. You can see why that would be important to me.

8. It’s the Final Countdown
I have one semester left in my college career. This blows my mind. Even though I’ve been writing novels, querying agents/publishers, submitting stories, reading voraciously, studying the craft, and thinking of myself as a writer for probably seven or eight years, I don’t feel ready to step into the world and hang out my shingle just yet. This class, and the connections/relationships forged through it, will help me form a network to fall back on when I get lost or find my courage flagging.

To follow us as we sally forth into the unknown (and to find the blogs of my comrades-in-arms), check out the class blog. You can also keep track of us on Twitter through our hashtag (#litcitizen), by following our fearless leader (@daycathy), or to a lesser degree by following me (@KJNealWriter). Any thoughts on what it means to be a good literary citizen? I’d love to hear them!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Edgy Writing for Good Girls (and Boys)

I'm one of those “good girls.” I don't party, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs, I rarely drink. I only swear in front of people if I know they won't be offended by it. In general, I'm quiet, polite, considerate, demure. I certainly never do things I think I might regret later.

I'd make one boring heroine, lemme tell ya.

I write heroines who are very different from me, or who start out like me but change dramatically by the end of the book or story. A meek little mouse living her nicey-nice life is all well and good in the real world, but in fiction, it's brain-drainingly dull. Fiction, especially genre fiction like fantasy and sci-fi, requires action, conflict, risks, mistakes, redemption. This is hard for people like me, whose conservative communities are generally not in favor of bad girls, or even good girls who occasionally stray from the beaten path.

It's a constant struggle for me to know when I should turn on, turn off, or adjust my “filter,” the gatekeeper between my mind and my keyboard that lets certain things out into the world and keeps others locked away. Every time I do something like drop a curse word, give a character a bloody death, allude to something sexual, address some social taboo, etc., I agonize over it: Is this gratuitous, written only for shock value? Is it necessary? Somewhere in between? Is it tasteful or disgusting? Is it appropriate for my target age group? What will Mom say?

I've come to the conclusion that the only important questions are those concerning craft and character. If in your gut you know that this character curses like a sailor, then censoring her would be unfair to the work and to yourself. If two characters want to have sex, let them have at it, and describe it as little or as much as you see fit. If you're writing frank, adult material, let it be frank and adult-- let it reflect what real life is like. If you're writing for middle grade, you'll want to be more cautious. It sounds like common sense, yet it can be an extremely difficult thing to judge, especially for less-experienced writers like myself.

And here's a tip from me to you: If you absolutely need to write that slow, torturous death or f-bomb-laden tirade or graphic sex scene even though you're pretty sure it doesn't belong in the piece, pull out a notebook or open up a new document and write the damn thing. Get it out of your system so you can move on. Even if it never sees the light of day, it might open up unexplored avenues in your plot or reveal a hidden facet of some character's psyche. I think I have as many of these documents as I have actual projects.

Finally, if your friends and family are offended by your material, they don't have to read it. And if they think that you do questionable things just because your character does, then they're grossly mistaken about how fiction works. Explain to them the necessity of how you've chosen to tell your story, and if they don't get it, they don't get it. What matters is that you've put the best and truest writing out into the world that you can.