Monthly Archives: June 2017

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how to start a novel

How to Start a Novel: Literally

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When I discuss how to start a novel in this post, I’m not talking about serving up namby-pamby inspirational go-juice or a step-by-step tool-heavy walkthrough. I’m talking about a quite literal start: crafting your opening line.

The first sentence (or paragraph) is one of the most pivotal parts of your novel, the thing that begs the readers’ attention and draws them into your tapestry of words, binding them firmly to the rest of your story. With the average reading attention span coming in at a scanty 8 seconds, if your prose doesn’t give them cause for pause, they aren’t going to stick around to the end.

In playing around with the beginning of my next novel, a supernatural Viking saga, I did a bit of research on good openings. What I found was both illuminating and disappointing. Apparently, there’s quite a range of opinion on how to start a novel, and some of it doesn’t resonate with me. Let me start by using examples I found worthy:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”  —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

“They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“It was a pleasure to burn.”Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I could give you oodles more, but I won’t. Google them if you feel compelled. Instead, I’ll supply some touted as fantastic examples of how to start a novel, but which I find lacking. Here goes:

“This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.”My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

“The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking over the footlights of an empty auditorium.”Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. — Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Do you see the difference between the two sets of lines? In the first set, you have a question, a hunch, a “things that make you go hmmmm” moment. While plenty of writing coaches see setting context and introducing a narrator’s voice as strong openings, I think those literary tools aren’t as engaging.  They’re not stinkers for opening lines, but for me, at least, they don’t herald a foray further into the story.

Okay, so what? Where does a budding novelist go from here? I like to stick to the methods that take the reader by surprise or wallop them upside the head. You’ve only got 8 seconds–your story has to strike fast and sink its teeth into their gray matter before they can get away. Try these ideas:

How to Start A Novel

Make ‘Em Want More:  Tantalize with incomplete knowledge. The first line from Middlesex does this well. You read the passage and “What the . . .?” pops right into your head. You can’t figure out how it can be possible to be born twice, and as both a boy and a girl, but you sure need to find out. Only reading further will cure the insatiable itch to find out how it’s done.

Make A Bold Statement: Toni Morrison takes a bold bludgeon to your sensibilities with the opening line of Paradise: “They shoot the white girl first.” It’s a grand combination of incomplete information (who is shooting whom and why?) and a bold statement. A white girl: The addition of a racial element makes the statement even more impactful and in-your-face.

Use Juxtaposition for Effect: Ray Bradbury does this with his opening line from Fahrenheit 451. It’s not until you read further that you realize the narrator isn’t talking about feeling sexually frustrated (or fulfilled), but about the burning of banned books by a totalitarian state. It gives the reader a peek into the mind of evil by contrasting “pleasure” and “burn” for maximum effect.

And Greatest of All

All of the above contain an element of the first device: incomplete knowledge, which I consider the best tool for opening lines. If you need to start a novel with a bang, including this literary device in the opening line does the trick. You can use it along with context or narration emphasis if you wish, but even alone you’ll have a reader magnet that will short circuit that 8 second attention span and pull them in.

See you on the next page!




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under deadline

Under Deadline: An Author in 3 Months

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Most writers know the feeling of being under deadline. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King advises writers to set deadlines for themselves. And according to King, “the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

Three months.

How many of you have been languishing over your novels for 6 months, 12 months, even years? I’m guilty as charged. I have an epic fantasy novel that’s been around for almost 25 years — I challenge any of you to beat that record. Now if it sounds like I’m proud of that, I’m not. I’m embarrassed. It’s a decent novel and one that deserves finishing, to which end I’ve managed to retype the manuscript (so far, 60K words) into my Mac because the old story was on hard disk (remember those?) and a printed copy. Of course, it’s still in line behind Book Two of Salt in the Blood, a second collection of short horror, and a Viking vampire novel, but at least it’s on the computer now.

I don’t know Stephen King, but I suspect he works on one project at a time, fully immersed in that one work. As indies, our attention is pulled in many directions: we have to design and update websites, have a presence on social media, be involved in writer’s and reader’s groups, and let’s not forget marketing. Mr. King, I’m sure, has ‘people’ for most of these things, so he has the luxury of focus.

Be that as it may, I can still do a better job of honing in on my most important job—finishing a writing project—and you can, too. Because I have so many projects going on, the first step is prioritization. Here’s how I’d tackle this.

Prioritizing Your Novel Under Deadline

First, determine if there’s any reason to finish one project over another. For example, I have readers waiting on the second installment of the Blood of Ages Saga, so that needs to be my priority project even though my pen is yearning to spill a little vampire blood.

Make no mistake: Writing is about discipline.

You may have talent, but if you don’t have the discipline to go along with it your writing career will stagnate. Go through your list of projects and pick the one that has the most urgency associated with it. Is it a sequel? Are you writing for a contest with a deadline? Have you already announced your next idea and readers are waiting? These are all signs you need to stop procrastinating and get moving in one direction–completion of that first priority project.

Working Effectively Under Deadline

The next steps are easier if you remove all vestiges of your other projects from your workspace. Put away the graphic depictions of your characters for your other novels, move manuscripts out of your “to do” folders, and clear your computer and desk area for the project at hand.

Then set yourself a deadline. If Stephen King can do it, so can you. Sounds like an egotistical statement, right? After all, King has been the Master of Horror since 1973 — surely he has an advantage. Well, yes and no. As is the case for any professional, some things get easier the longer you do them. Writing is no different. King has a certain cadence to his verbiage; a voice that’s hard to miss. He’s perfected this through the years, so his writing typically has a certain, well, Stephen King kind of feel to it.

On the other hand, focus is available to anyone, trained or untrained. You just have to set your mind to it. And three months is a reasonable time. Let’s say you want to write a fairly good length novel of 80K words. If you’re hell-bent on finishing a rough draft  in three months (and you should be), you only need write around 800 words per day.

That’s just a few paragraphs. Seriously, people—who can’t write a few paragraphs a day? It’s easier if you consider yourself under deadline, even if that deadline is self-directed.

Also, remember this is a rough draft. That means it needn’t be perfection — it just needs to encompass your basic ideas and flow. Editing is another matter entirely.

So don’t waste any more time. Count three months from today and write it on your calendar. In case you’re wondering, three months is Tuesday, September 19, 2017. That’s your deadline. Now, get writing — your novel is within reach!

See you on the next page!

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Amazon's algorithm

Why Understanding Amazon’s Algorithm is Important for Your Book’s Rank

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Last week I talked about how a negative review on Amazon can actually help sell books. This week I’m going to go more in-depth on Amazon’s rating system as it applies to book reviews. Full disclosure: I have no secret knowledge of Amazon’s algorithm. Everything I’m about to tell you is experience-based only.

I first realized something was askew with the Amazon algorithm when I had 16 five-star reviews and only one 2-star review, yet the percentages in the handy-dandy review chart that comes up for every product showed 22% of people rating it as 2 stars and, of course, 78% giving it a five-star rating.

I’m by no means a math genius, but even I can tell that 1/16th is not the same as 22%. I wanted an explanation.

Like any self-respecting writer, I penned a letter to Amazon’s support staff, asking them to adjust the numbers for me. I got a swift reply. Here’s what they said:

The overall star rating for a product is determined by a machine-learned model that considers factors such as the age of the review, helpful votes by customers, and whether the reviews are from verified purchasers. Similar machine-learned factors help determine a review’s ranking in the list of reviews.

The system continues to learn which reviews are most helpful to customers and improves the experience over time.

Nice. But customers don’t know the intricacies of Amazon’s algorithm, so if they glance all they see is that nearly 25% of readers gave my book a lackluster review. In all fairness, the next time I viewed my page, the 2-star review percentage had been knocked back to 12%. I’m pretty sure Amazon’s machine didn’t suddenly learn a new trick. I suspect there was a glitch and Amazon wasn’t copping to it.

Back to the algorithm, which considers three things:

Amazon’s Algorithm: Age of Review

Newer reviews are weighted more heavily than older ones.

To make the most of this aspect, encourage readers to leave feedback even beyond the launch of your book.

Amazon’s Algorithm: Helpful Votes by Customers

There are little thumbs up/down buttons next to all the reviews that says “Was this review helpful to you?” The more thumbs-up presses the positive reviews get, the more they’re weighted. Same goes for the negative ones, so it helps if your positive reviewers do more than simply say “Great read!” The more insightful a review is, the more likely it is to gain a thumbs up. I’d like to go on record as disagreeing with this aspect of the algorithm. Someone may have written a review that helped sell the book, as my negative reviewer did, but that thumbs up will only make that review count as, well, more negative.

To finesse this section, encourage readers to thumbs-up positive reviews that have helped them.

Amazon’s Algorithm: Verified Purchases

This means those ARC copies you give out for reviews won’t be weighted very highly by Amazon’s software. That’s a shame, since in my mind, they’re totally valid. It also means when someone purchases your book in Australia and you’re in the US, the review does not receive a verified purchase label. I have no idea why this is — I’ve queried Amazon  and not heard back as of this writing. I don’t know if this happens between other countries but I know the Australia/US anomaly exists.

Verified purchases are the gold standard — encourage everyone to purchase your book, even if they’ve gotten a free advanced copy.

The Last Word

Besides being aware of the components of the algorithm to fine-tune your marketing, you also need to be on top of your book’s product page, managing it on at least a weekly basis. I’m fairly certain that 22% number was a simple error on Amazon’s part and not generated by their algorithm, otherwise there would have been no change in the percentage as a result of my letter. Let’s face it, Amazon’s a big company and lots of things can go wrong. It’s up to you as the product owner to take responsibility. So make regular visits to your book’s page and be involved. Amazon’s response to me was lightning-fast, and I don’t really care if they admit fault or not, I just want the percentage to be more reflective of reality.

And if you want to sell books, you will too.

See you on the next page!



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reviews help sell books

How Negative Reviews Can Help Sell Books

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Seems like a radical idea, but negative reviews can actually help sell books and I can prove it.  One reader gave me the best present ever when she contacted me through my website. She’d just bought my supernatural suspense novella, Salt in the Blood, based on a two-star review. Yes, you read that right — two stars. She told me it was the best two-star review she’d ever read. She also mentioned the commenter’s reasoning was exactly what made her push the buy button.

In my post, What Do You Do With A Bad Review, I pick apart the review and show you how to make lemonade out of those lemons, but I never imagined a review like this (see below) would help sell books, too.

bad review

Until now, I’ve shuddered every time I read it.

But the young lady who contacted me said the reviewer’s mention of the descriptive language of the novella caught her eye and she immediately wanted to read more. She felt like the main criticism was the short length and fast-paced story, which is covered in the book’s descriptive passage. But here’s the other thing: She said that she only looked at the book in the first place because it didn’t have a full five stars.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important.  She only looked at the book in the first place because it didn’t have a full five stars. 

negative reviews help sell books How a Negative Review Can Help Sell Books

It seems counterintuitive that consumers would bypass a five-star rated item, but research backs this trend up. The folks over at Techcrunch report that the sweet spot for generating purchases was an average star rating between 4.2 and 4.5. Why? Consumers are getting wise to the plethora of fake reviews on Amazon and other ratings sites. And many simply discount the five- and one-star reviews as not insightful enough. According to an analysis of Amazon reviews, more than half of people give five star reviews, and the next most common star rating after one star is four stars. Very few people give two star reviews.

Another way a negative review can help sell books is if it is specifically critical. The woman who reviewed my novella disliked it, among other reasons, for its short length and fast-paced story. Luckily, these two characteristics are appealing to some readers, so someone who’s looking for a short, energetic read might be further intrigued by Salt in the Blood based on her review.

Playing the Review Gamereviews help sell books

Writers live for good reviews. After pressing ‘publish’ we await the verdict of our reading public and pray they pronounce us fit to be read. If we get negative feedback, we question whether or not we should put pen to paper again. We sulk. We get angry. But instead perhaps we should drum up a bit of thanks. A little bit of criticism, besides being a good way to keep one’s ego and expectations in check, could be just the ticket to higher sales numbers and even more fans.

Of course, a review is not just a star rating, at least on publishing giant Amazon. In next week’s post I’ll take a closer look at the Amazon review system and give you a few tricks you can use to keep your books looking good the browsing reader, even if you score a few negative reviews.

See you on the next page!



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