Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Book Hook Hall of Fame (Part 1 of 2)

As I finished creating my 10-part series on writing aphorisms, I read marketing consultant Rob Eagar’s blog, “Wildfire Marketing.” The next two posts are reprinted with his permission. (Cec)

* * * * *

What if you could convince people to buy your book with just one sentence?

Would you want to learn how? Of course, every author would be curious to know the answer.

That's the power of a hook. And it just worked on you. (Ha!)

A book hook is a statement or question designed to generate immediate curiosity and make the reader desire to know more.

Why are hooks so important? Language is the power of the book sale. You're not selling books to machines. You're selling books to human beings. A book hook is powerful language that naturally makes people notice and want more.

How do you create a great book hook? Use this simple technique to get started. Imagine that your book is about to become a movie. Think like a screenwriter instead of an author.

For example, if you write fiction, picture your novel as an upcoming major motion picture, such as a thriller, a romantic comedy, or a horror film. How would you grab the reader's attention in one sentence?

If you've written a memoir, imagine your book as a dramatic tale on the silver screen. How would you make people curious about your story using one question or statement? If your genre is non-fiction history, education, religion, or self-help, imagine your book as a feature documentary.

Another effective technique for a great book hook is related to the way ESPN promotes their popular sports documentaries on TV called "30 for 30." They market every film using a narrator who asks the question, "What if I told you ____?" For each documentary, they fill in the blank to that question with a provocative statement.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 10 of 10)

When we sell manuscripts to publishers, they retain the right for the title. In my early days, I had no choice when editors insisted on changing mine. For example, one of my early books carried the title Put on a Happy Faith, and sold 40,000 the first year. My follow-up book I titled Have a Faith Lift. An editor said, “You’ve made an inroad with the cutesy title, and now we want to reach out of the more sedate readers.”

I had no voice in the matter and it came out as How to Live a Christian Life. It sold a total of 6,000 copies.

These days, however, publishing houses usually confer with their authors. Most of my books have kept the original title with sometimes a minor tweaking. My title was 90 Minutes in Heaven: A Story of Life and Death. Revell editors reversed the subtitle to A Story of Death and Life. I think they were correct.

On the other hand, another book I wrote for Don Piper carried the title of Departing Instructions for the Life Ahead: A Study of John 13 to 17.

Sad to say, the New York house didn’t seem to understand our audience, and they called it Getting to Heaven, with the subtitle Departing Instructors for Your Life Now. I still think it was a dreadful mistake on their part. (That publisher has since closed its Christian book division.)

Think about your title. Play with it in such a way that attracts readers. The use of aphorisms can work there. One of my titles was Making Sense When Life Doesn’t. The book didn’t have outstanding sales, but I still believe it was a good title. It also was a terse summary of my book.

The more faithfully I write aphorisms, 
the more I see many practical uses for them. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 9 of 10)

Once we get used to writing aphorisms, we discover they do more than make clever statements. They’re also useful in writing articles and books.

The concept of several of my books began with a single thought. My personal favorite, Knowing God, Knowing Myself, found its genesis in a comment by St. Teresa of Avila: “We shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God.” That stayed with me for weeks while ideas tumbled through my mind. Then I wrote the book.

My awareness that learning to write aphorisms could lead to creative articles happened in the mid-1990s when Lin Johnson, editor of The Christian Communicator, asked me to write an article on how to get a literary agent. (Christian agents first came on the scene around 1990, and I was one of those early ones to sign with one.)

In writers magazines, I’d read articles on how to get an agent and had fairly well digested the material. As I pondered the piece Lin wanted, out of seemingly nowhere I thought, Why would an agent want me for a client?

I used that as my starting place and kept the focus on the literary agent instead of myself. The material was the same, but I used a different approach. (And, as I recall, I had five requests for reprinting the article.)

I realized that once I distilled the dozens of ideas and concepts, I was ready to write. And the major factor in the distillation process was one simple maxim.

We can learn brevity that leads to creative ways to express ourselves.

Once we learn to write maxims,
they become guides in creatively writing for publication.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 8 of 10)

Think of the times you’ve read an article or a book and afterward thought, Yes, it was all right. Nothing special. Or you might think, It reinforced what I believed, but didn’t shed light or give me a deeper understanding.

Or I can look at this from the position of a public speaker. At a writers conference years ago, each speaker was told to introduce their classes in one minute. Three of them gave almost their entire message—in at least five minutes. As I listened to the third one drone on, here’s an aphorism that popped into my head:
Those who have the least to say
take the longest to say it.
In another conference, as a joke as much as anything else, I defined two types of bad writers:
Fat writers like and enjoy writing lengthy sentences, with parenthetical phrases, set off by commas, (or sometimes in parenthesis), and occasionally inserting the em dash—an attention getter—and always writing many words that go on endlessly and redundantly.

Skinny: Writes nouns, verbs, one adjective.

I decided to write about aphorisms on this blog because they do one special thing for me: they force me to think clearly and to make sentences meaningful. They remind me of a dictum from a long-time pastor who offered me advice on how to be effective: “Stand up, speak up, shut up.”

I grapple with words, constantly trying to say them better. I’ve sometimes said to beginning writers, “I enjoy rewriting more than I do the writing.”

My first draft flows out of passion, believing I have something to justify killing another tree. I toil over the second draft to refine my thinking. If I expend high-level energy in my writing, readers will find it easy to stay with me.

I labor with my prose 
so readers won’t have to.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 7 of 10)

Memorable sayings need to have a twist—a surprise. Knowing or informing doesn’t grab us because we read nothing unexpected—that is, it holds no surprise. A good aphorism moves in one direction and abruptly challenges the first statement.

These sayings often contain a smidgen of humor.

Here’s an example I wrote recently:
I refuse to judge other Christians—
even when I see them doing something wrong.
How does this one by Ashleigh Brilliant grab you? “I wish somebody would expose me for what I really am, so that I would know.”

One of my all-time favorites comes from the witty Oscar Wilde, who said, “I can resist anything, except temptation.”

Here’s another of mine, borne out of my own experience:
God, today help me to be kind and compassionate to everyone—
especially to myself.
Maxims charm us;
they also surprise us.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 6 of 10)

I once read that the adages we quote lead us one of two ways. The first is directive. That is, they subtly nudge us to change our behavior by pointing out a better way to live.

Those dictums come as reflections on our own issues and struggles—as they did with me. I wrote this one after being ashamed and immobilized by something I had done long ago. Here’s the result:
Nothing I can do alters the past;
everything I do reshapes the future.
The second way aphorisms lead is by challenging our thinking. Aphorisms are outlaws—they don’t tell us what to do, but by focusing on life as it is, they take us to a deeper level.

Here are two of mine:
God heals the sins of our past, but the scars remain.
If I say, "You made me angry,"
I'm holding onto my expectations of your behavior.
These are the kind that, once we read them, we say, “Yes, I hadn’t thought of that way.”

Why not write your own?

I share my experiences in pithy statements
to nudge and encourage others.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 5 of 10)

Insight is a major quality of good maxims. They’re not phrased in a conventional way and don’t try to say, “Do this.” Instead the purpose is to penetrate our thinking and make us say, “Yes! That’s how I want to live.”

“A lifetime is one long now.” Olivia Dresher wrote that and when I read it, it took me a few seconds before I could grasp her meaning. Then I smiled and nodded.

Thomas Farber penned this one: “Not comfortable sharing, low need for affiliation. An only child, he became an only adult.”

Here’s one I wrote after spending an afternoon with a group with whom I realized I had little in common:
Standing by myself,
if I’m contented, I call that solitude;
if I’m uncomfortable, I call it loneliness.
Try your hand at writing one. If you’d like, you may send it to me personally at cec.murp@comcast.net.

In this series, I’ll give you axioms that seem original to me. On a few occasions, I’ve written one, only later to learn that it’s remarkably similar to what someone else said 500 years ago.

Aphorisms make me smile before I say,
“I never thought of it that way.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 4 of 10)

Succinct statements flow from those who have experienced life and pass on their wisdom. The best examples are simple, practical, and often playful. They preserve traditional values and offer glimpses about often ignored behavior or as a guide to change.

These dictums have a way of expressing my feelings in such a way that I can learn to think differently. I enjoy reading pithy statements and saying, “I wish I’d written that.”

If we write aphorisms, we not only write short, crisp sentences, we also make those statements meaningful to readers. I’m frequently asked (and delighted to comply) when people ask to copy one of my maxims.

Another form is the epigram, which is usually a short poem, often with a witty ending.
Fleas: Adam had ‘em.
Here’s one I call a poem that I worked on and refined over a period of four weeks. Although it doesn’t rhyme, it’s among my favorites because of the rhythm—the poetic flow. Each word in the second maintains the cadence of those in the first.
I am passionately involved in the process;
I am emotionally detached from the result.

The best maxims flow from life experiences, 
and are stated in such a way that they connect with others.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 3 of 10)

Aphorisms flow from ancient writings. For example, we read them in the book of Proverbs and hear them quoted by public speakers. The ancients focused on graffiti-length tidbits. Their readers were poorly educated, so to help them remember, they wrote succinctly.

Thus, they tried to pack wisdom into terse statements and make a sharp point—something we need to keep in mind for contemporary readers.

Brevity also works today but for different reasons. We’re better educated, and somewhere I read that we have an 85 percent world literary rate. Despite that, our need for insights is as urgent as ever. We’re too busy, too pre-occupied, and too tired to read five paragraphs to extract a single sentence.

More than 100 years ago, T.S. Eliot said that we’re “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

We have so much information available that the meaning seems flattened into mere information. Internet experts have shrunken cultural achievement as deep thought, original insight, or facility with language into the single word: content.

Consequently, we skim rather than absorb. Pushed for time, we settle for shallow. Or as the high school kids say, “Read the CliffsNotes.”

As difficult as it seems, we can learn to write with flair, rhythm, and create simple, memorable sentences. The one factor to remember is that aphorisms must have a twist—an element of surprise. Strong aphorisms seduce and surprise us.

Whether we’re aware, we quote aphorisms regularly and (sadly) many become cliched, tired sentences: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Boring today, but in the beginning, those few words held significant meaning.

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Work as if you were to live 100 years, pray as if you were to die tomorrow.”

Write your own, and cut extra words. Keep your sentences simple.

We remember short sentences;
we skim long ones.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 2 of 10)

I heard a man say, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.” That now-overworked dictum fits my definition of the term. It’s simple and obvious in meaning—his statement of truth (even if not original) spoken in a witty way. To qualify as an aphorism, a statement contains a truth in a terse manner.

Aphoristic statements are quoted in writings as well as in daily speech. The fact that they contain truth gives them universal acceptance. Scores of philosophers, politicians, writers, artists, athletes, and other individuals are remembered for their famous aphoristic words.

You can teach yourself to write philosophical or moral truths. You focus on human experiences and help readers relate your brief words to their own lives.

Just recently someone said this in a political speech—and I don’t know if it was original, but it grabbed me: “Not strong morals, but weak stomachs, keep us from being vultures.”

I Peter 3:15 exhorts us to always give a reason for our hope. How about writing a simple statement that’s memorable, brief, and states your theological position? “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19) is a memorable biblical example.

Just as I finished writing the above paragraph, I thought of my own answer.

What I couldn’t do for myself
Jesus’ love accomplished for me.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 1 of 10)

These days with Twitter and texting, we’re learning to write shorter sentences and paragraphs. In pre-computer days we urged shorter sentences and referred to it as the “economy of words.” That meant we tried to eliminate words that carried little weight.

Here are a few examples:
  • He drank some coffee. We can nearly always cut some and make a good clear statement.
  • She managed to leave the house: She left the house.
  • Jess wasn’t hungry at all. Jeff wasn’t hungry.
In learning to write tight (or tightly for the purists), I stumbled on aphorisms. Most of these blog entries end with them. My prodigious use of them began years ago when a publisher pulled statements out of various chapters and boxed them—we call them call outs (or callouts)— short texts that illustrate or make a strong point.

I enjoy writing aphorisms. If that’s not a common word for you, think of adage, proverb, moral, or principle. They’re brief observations that contain a general truth. Their pithiness makes the text easily remembered and quotable.

Try these:
  • Youth is a blunder; Manhood a struggle; Old age regret.—Benjamin Disraeli 
  • Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.—Benjamin Franklin 
  • Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream.—Khalil Gibran
This series is to encourage you to sum up your understandings in brief statements. It’s like the elevator pitch, which refers to the possibility of your getting on the elevator with an agent or editor and you say, “May I tell you about my book?”

“Sure,” the person says. “I’m getting off at the third floor.”

That means you must sum up everything in a few sentences.

Although no publisher has ever asked, when I write a book proposal I insert my elevator pitch immediately following the title page. It’s my summary of the book—usually one brief paragraph. That brief statement saves editors time by helping them see whether it’s something they want to pursue or to delete it from their hard drive.

Try doing this with your articles, stories—anything you write. It also helps you focus on what’s important.

I’ve been doing them so long, most of the time they flow out of my writing.

Here’s an aphorism for what I’ve written above:

I write summary statements to clarify 
and to keep my thoughts focused.