Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 5 of 9)

(an encore post)

On our first page we make a contract with readers. We’re saying, "If you’ll invest your time in reading me, I’ll make it worth your while."

Whatever we promise in the beginning sentence we need to deliver. In my article on health that began with the question, "How long do you choose to live?" I offered 1,200 words on how to make better choices that affect our health and longevity.

The first sentence also shows the tone or style of the material—the voice we’ll use throughout the article or chapter. If it’s humor or a light touch, we need to make it obvious and stay with that tone. If we want to write with a more somber tenor, we need to start that way.

Here are four made-up beginnings that express different styles. Which voice is closest to yours?

• Eight years, 49 diets, and 900 pounds ago I decided to get serious about my weight.

• What should we, as Christians, know about the Bible? What information do we consider essential to make us well-read and informed believers?

• Prayer is either a problem or a source of power. We can view it with doubt or with quietness.

• Who is the addict? I observed behavior patterns of three individuals, all productive, who work in my office. I'll explain their behavior and you decide who is the addict.

I choose the tone I want;
I show the same voice throughout the writing.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 4 of 9)

(an encore post)

Instead of focusing exclusively on snagging attention, we need to incorporate all three ideas. Try to make it happen in the first sentence and certainly by the end of the second paragraph. If we don’t, we evoke yawns or rejection slips.

Here are two examples. This is the first sentence of a nonfiction article on health and nutrition I wrote several years ago: "How long do you choose to live?"

In those seven words, I incorporated all three purposes. First, the sentence grabs readers’ attention by causing them to think. Second, it implies a problem. That is, we have to make choices about the quality and length of our lives (and the next two paragraphs reinforce the idea). Third, we assume readers care about how long they live.

Those three principles may not be obvious to readers, but they need to be in the mind of the writer.

In my book When a Man You Love Was Abused, I open with these sentences:
He was molested—or at least you suspect he was. That means he was victimized by someone older and more powerful than he was. He is someone you care about deeply, and because he hurts, you hurt.
The beginning grabs attention and lays out the problem of male sexual abuse. The final sentence makes readers care about a man who hurts but it also enables readers to face their own pain.

Readers are more interested in themselves and their needs than they are in us and what we want to tell them. Thus, we write to answer questions or explain issues.

Good writers incorporate three principles 
each time they begin a writing project.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 3 of 9)

(an encore post)

How do I know where to begin a manuscript? No single answer works here. The best advice is to start at a point of tension. Throw me into a story or an article that pulls my emotions or my curiosity and makes me want to know more.

The best way to show this is to mention a book I wrote in the early 1980s called Woman on Death Row. Where should I start? I asked members at a conference and received many answers: At her conversion? At the moment she receives her lethal injection? When she poisons her first victim? When she hears the death sentence? Any of them might have worked.

I opened the book when the sheriff comes to arrest Velma Barfield. The book goes about 80 pages before readers realize she committed murder. I reasoned that if they thought she was innocent, they'd be more interested than if I started with her death or the pronouncement of a sentence.

First rule: Start at a high point of tension. Begin where you can pique readers' interest. You can always go backward or forward once you hook readers.

Second rule: Start with a sympathetic character so readers can identify. (I mentioned this in a previous blog.) We can identify with Velma because we care about her predicament. We like her. Haven't most of us been accused of things we didn't do? I expect many of us have fantasized how we'd respond if someone accused us of a major crime.

There is no one place to start, 
but choose to start with drama.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 2 of 9)

(an encore post)

What makes a good beginning? I started thinking about the question of beginnings at a writers conference in 2002. For seventy-five minutes I listened to the instructor teach on first paragraphs for a story or an article. I liked much of what he said; however, he didn’t say enough. He emphasized the need for what he called a hook—a grab-me beginning. At thirty minutes into his presentation, he said, "Now you’re going to write a first paragraph." He gave us an idea that worked for fiction or nonfiction. We had ten minutes to complete the assignment. When several read their pieces aloud, the instructor grinned often because they had grasped what he meant.

Most of them wrote provocative beginnings, but a few of them did more than grab readers’ attention.

My biggest objection to his lecture was not what he taught, but what he didn’t explain. He implied that if writers had a powerful hook, that gimmick was all it took to get an editor to buy. Even though the lecturer had published four books, he missed the purpose of good beginnings. They are more than just gimmicks to grab attention. I'll tell you more in my next blog.

Clever beginnings aren't enough to sustain an article/chapter.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 1 of 9)

(an encore post)

What’s so important about how we start an article or a book? I can give the answer in one sentence: We must earn the right to be read. It’s that simple; it’s also that difficult.

For me, the most difficult part of any piece is the first sentence. If readers don't like the invitation to read, they'll close the book or click on a different site.

All of us have different methods of writing, but here's my one immutable rule: I don't start writing a manuscript until I know the first sentence. I may edit those words and change the structure of the opening paragraph five times, but I know where I want to start.

If I know where to begin I can plan where I want to go and how I'll get there. I rewrite those first words more than anything else. For example, I’ve already rewritten the first sentence of this blog entry six times and I may revise it again before I finish.

Good writers earn the right to be read.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 13 of 13)

So what makes a best seller?

No one knows. If there were a secret formula, everyone would use it.

Some authors attempt to get a number of people to purchase their book online on the day of release. (They can order any time in advance, but the sales figures count only for the day of release.) That shoots the number of sales up.

Sometimes that strategy works; most times, it doesn't.

I've heard of business people who get their own company to buy 5,000 copies of book to artificially inflate sales. They give the books to employees or include them as part of a package when they do presentations.


So what do writers do to get their books on the best-seller charts?

My answer: Figure out what you can do and do well in promoting your book. Decide what you don't do well and have no passion for and don't do it.

After that, it's up to God (or if you prefer The Universe) or just luck.

No one knows.

But we do know some books hit big. Your next book may be one of them.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 12 of 13)

What about social media for making a best seller? This is becoming the focus of much self-promoting. Many writers think that if they can get 100,000 followers on Facebook or Twitter, they automatically have a best seller.

No one has proven that to be true. Most reports are what we call anecdotal: "Someone read my post," is a common defense, "and bought five copies." I wouldn't denigrate that statement, but it proves nothing in total sales.

Expert Jonah Berger asks, "What percent of word of mouth do you think happens online? In other words, what percent of chatter happens over social media, blogs, email, and chatrooms?"[1]

He says the number is 7 percent and cites research by the Keller Fay Group to substantiate the low figure. He points out that although people spend a large amount of time online, that doesn't translate into sales.

Among his college students, he found that fewer than 10 percent of their friends responded to messages they posted. He states, "Most Twitter posts reach even fewer."[2]


[1] Ibid., 10.
[2] Ibid., 12.

Friday, October 4, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 11 of 13)

So what about self-promotion? That's where most authors come into the action. They know that their publishers will do little to promote their books. They have the if-it's-going-to-be-then-it's-up-to-me attitude. That means they figure out what will work for them.

Most experienced authors eschew bookstore book signings unless (1) they're already a celebrity or (2) they offer something besides their books. For example, in early 2013, Twila Belk arranged for me to speak on writing for about 30 minutes in Davenport, Iowa—not a major book-buying city. She promoted it and we followed with a book signing. It was one of the better responses.

I've also had a few experiences where I've sold three books in two hours (and well-known authors have similar experiences).

I don't have a particular form of self-promotion; however, here's my advice: Find out what you do well—and enjoy doing—and make sure it's not what 6,000 other authors do.

Many authors are turning to social media—my next blog post.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 10 of 13)

Publishers spend big, big dollars on certain books—and they're careful about which ones. They often engage outside PR firms, place ads in magazines and occasionally on TV (which is far more expensive). They target the books they believe will sell. Their marketing people set up interviews on the big, prime-time shows.

Until she left her daytime show, almost every author promoted by Oprah hit the best-seller lists. Today, Good Morning America, and a few others still do well—but no one has yet become the doyenne of making best sellers.

Sometimes publishers also cross-promote. If they have a book with a similar theme or within a particular genre, they'll add a page, usually in the back of the book, that says or implies, "If you liked this book, you'll also like . . ."

If you're a newer author, forget about big-budget promotion—unless your publisher says, "This one stands out—way, way out."

Another factor about publisher promotion is that once a book begins to sell big, the publisher gets behind it. Baker Books spent a lot of money promoting 90 Minutes in Heaven—but only after Don Piper went out on the road and made the book into a big seller. That was wise of them. They saw the potential, so why wouldn't they put their money on 90 Minutes in Heaven instead of a book that might sell only 20,000 copies?