The holiday season is coming up meaning bookworms are having extra time to dive into a fantasy series that are longer than a trilogy. Below are my top three fantasy series picks.
Warning minor spoilers alerts for Throne of glass, Vampire Academy and Guild Hunter series below
Throne of glass series by Sarah J. Maas
When I picked up the first book (Throne of Glass) I had heard mixed reviews. The positive ones lauded Sarah J. Maas’s world building, while the negatives ones focused on the main character, Celaena Sardothien, as being unlikeable and unconvincing. Personally I fell in love with Celaena, but only after getting through two-thirds of the book.
In the beginning, Celaena is permitted to leave a slave camp and become the prince’s champion. Instead of being grateful she treats the prince, Dorian, in a rude and arrogant manner. She comes across as smug, childish, sulky and very self-involved. It is only when she is put into a fight where all odds are staked against her that my heart clenched for her as a reader. As I continued with the series I understood Celaena better and her behavior became justified.
While I did enjoy Throne of Glass, this is one of those series that gets better with each book. Crown of Midnight (book 2) has a lot of romance and character development, while Heir of Fire (book 3) provides a broader look at the overall story, the multiple dangers Celaena faces and the supernatural powers she possesses. In the fourth installment, Queen of Shadows, multiple plot lines are tied up and several evils are conquered. I am excited to read the 5th book Empire of storms and hope the trend continues!
For all those readers that love backstory the Throne of Glass series comes with a prequel—The Assassin’s Blade.
If you like kickass female characters, mystery & intrigue, magic, dragons and intense YA (the sex and violence scenes are more explicit compared to many other YA books) then I would definitely recommend that you check out this series.
It’s so tremendously popular that it is currently being made into a TV show.
Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead
You might have already reached your quota of vampires but if you want a fresh take on them I would recommend the Vampire Academy series. Why? First, because it avoids the dreaded powerful male, helpless female cliché. Vampire Academy does not center around a relationship between a vampire and a human. Instead the main plot is about good vampires, Moroi and their guardians dhampirs (half Moroi, half human) fighting soulless vampires, Strigoi.
Second, contrary to many YA books where love is pivotal to the story, such as the heroine giving everything up for her love, Vampire Academy is different. The protagonist, Rose, does have a love interest but she is also faithful to herself and her best friend Lissa, who Rose as a dhampir is supposed to guard after graduation.
It’s nice to see a YA protagonist, whose life goals are not overshadowed by hormones.
Furthermore, Vampire Academy gets more intense with each book. In book 3 Rose’s lover is turned Strigoi, which makes him lose his soul and become more powerful. Despite the unlikelihood of being able to defeat him Rose sets out in book 4 to hunt him down.
Guild Hunter series by Nalini Singh
This is a paranormal romance series. Thus, it features more explicit sex and violence scenes than the two YA series above.
What I love about the Guilt Hunter series the most is that we get to follow one couple over the course of many books and see their relationship grow. While traditional romance books give about 300 pages for the male and female to meet, have issues that keep them from being together, work those out and get married (or at least engaged in the prologue), Nalini is in no rush. The relationship between the protagonists – Rafael and Elena – never feels forced and issues are resolved in a slow and more realistic manner.
Since the readers get a dual POV he/she also gets to watch the two main characters grow and develop.
Finally, the tension keeps increasing with each book. As the series progresses we meet an array of Archangel villains. The first is a bloodthirsty Archangel, the second can raise the dead, and finally Raphael’s mother, an Archangel who has slept for centuries and does not approve of Elena (talk about some wife-mother in law tension).
In conclusion, the three series above are my top picks for fantasy series longer than a trilogy. All three have excellent world building, strong and interesting male and female characters and keep getting better with each book.
Happy holiday reading!
Last week I discussed the benefits and risks of joining a local in-person critique group. Today’s post will examine the advantages and disadvantage of online critique communities.
To illustrate how an online critique groups works, I will use Scribophile, one of the bigger online critiquing platforms. Many of Scribophile’s operating principles apply to other critique groups as well.
First of all, how does Scribophile work? It is point-based, where you earn ‘Karma’ points for your critique of other people’s work and you spend points to upload a piece of your own work to receive reviews.
On average a critique will earn you about 1.25 points and it takes 5 points to upload a piece of work. Meaning for each work you upload you’ll need to critique 3-4 writings, but you’ll also receive 3 critiques from different people in return.
A piece of work can be up to 3,000 words. It can be a short story, part of a novella or a chapter of a novel.
It takes on average about a week from uploading your work to three people critiquing it.
Now that we’ve examined the operating principles let’s have a look at the benefits and the drawbacks of an online critique system.
Speed. You can have a whole novel critiqued way faster in an online group than in a local group. There is no limit to how many chapters you upload as long as you have points. If you are willing to invest lots of time critiquing other people’s work, you’ll be able to quickly upload your writing.
Time commitment. The time commitment is minimal. You don’t have to drive anywhere. You can log onto your online community anytime or anywhere you want and critique as few or many pieces of work as fits your schedule. Platforms like Scribophile make it easy to critique other’s works providing inline critiques. You don’t even have to download anything.
Wide demographics. You might find that your local group only has members, who are 60+ or has no Thriller writers. Since communities like Scribophile have thousands of users, it will be easy for you to find writers in your genre and readers, who are your target audience.
Quality. You might find that the quality of the critiques you receive is lower. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, someone eager to upload their own work might try to critique as many works as possible in a short amount of time to earn the required points. Secondly, there is more accountability when you have to read your critique out loud to a person’s face than critique someone’s work online.
Consistency. Platforms like Scribophile invite all writers to join, from novices to almost pros. This means that while three experienced writers critique chapter 2, three novices might critique chapter 6. Seasoned writers will spot many more mistakes than novices and thus you might find that some of your chapters received better and more in-depth advice than others.
Lack of feedback regarding overall story development. Anyone who is part of the online platform can critique your work. The person that critiques chapter 4 is not required to read previous or next chapters. Thus, many of your readers will never see your whole story and will only be able to focus on the writing style and tension building in a particular chapter. They won’t be able to rate your overall pacing, character and story arc development. Furthermore, they might get confused and not understand certain aspects of your story.
To summarize there are many benefits to joining an online critique platform, including fast turn around speed, minimal time commitment and connecting with a wide demographic. The drawbacks include lack of quality control, inconsistent feedback and no feedback on overall book development.
Last week I discussed whether friends and family make good beta readers. Today’s post will cover the benefits and drawbacks of an in-person critique group.
First of all, what is an in-person critique group? An in-person critique group is a group of writers that meets regularly to discuss each other’s texts.
The size and demographics of such groups will largely depend on the area you live in (urban vs. suburban vs. rural). However on average you can expect a group to have up to 20 members with at least 6 members attending any given meeting.
Most groups meet twice a month for 2 hours and ask the participants to upload/email, at least 48 hours prior, their work to the whole group, so that everyone has sufficient time to critique.
The critiques are then printed and read out loud in the meeting, before being submitted to the writer.
In most groups you are allowed to submit up to a maximum of two chapters or ten pages (double-spaced).
Now that I’ve explained the guidelines of critique groups let’s have a look at the advantages and disadvantages.
Accountability. Most people feel more accountable when meeting other’s in person. Your fellow critique members will try harder to give you better comments since they have to read them aloud to you and other members.
Constancy. Even though not every member will show up to every meeting you can expect your work to be critiqued every two weeks. The probability of losing all of your critique partners at once is pretty low.
Quantity. In comparison to websites where your work leaves the queue after 3 critiques, you get between 6 to 20 opinions at once.
Social aspect. You might find meeting other writers in person to be great for networking, motivation and support.
Breadth of genres. In contrast to online groups or individual critique partners where you exchange novels/stories of the same genre, expect that your local writing group will have all kinds of genres presented. You might write romance but find that there is 1 person or no one at all in your group, who writes romance. This leads to the following two problems.
- Do people in your local group know the conventions of your genre? How helpful will their advice be?
- Are you willing to read other genres? If 10 people in your group write memoirs and you hate memoirs, it will make the whole experience less enjoyable.
Time investment. Yes, you are getting 6 to 20 different opinions, but that also means you have to read 6 to 20 different chapters in two weeks (half of which you might not find enjoyable). Most likely you will also have to drive to your local group.
Expect to invest one hour of commuting to and from the meeting. Finally, you might find it a waste of time writing out your comments and then reading them out loud (takes twice as long, versus just critiquing online).
Slowness of results. If you have written a whole novel and want it to be critiqued within a month a local group is not the best option. Most novels have anywhere between 25 to 40 chapters. If you can only submit one chapter every two weeks, it will take at least 12 (!) months for your novel to be critiqued. Ask yourself if you are really willing to wait that long.
To summarize in-person critique groups have the advantages of: accountability, constancy, quantity and sociability. The disadvantages are breadth of genre, time investment and slowness of results.
I hope after reading this post you feel better informed to make the decision whether a local critique group is the right choice for you. My next post will focus on online critique groups.
So you’ve written and edited your first draft. What next? Before you self-publish or start sending queries to literary agents, it’s crucial to get feedback from beta readers.
When you think about receiving feedback the first people that come to mind are probably friends and family. Common advice on this topic in books and blogs will discourage you from giving your work to relatives and friends, stating that they’ll just tell you how great of a job you did. Moreover, this advice believes that even if they are able to point out weaknesses, they won’t be able to articulate the issue.
But what if your friends and family have requested to see your work? Would it really hurt to ask them for their opinion? Could they be the exception?
My answer is yes, you can show them your work. The more feedback you get the better. However, there are a view points you need to take into account before handing over your masterpiece. Firstly, don’t rely just on family and friends. Have critique partners look at your work. Secondly, be aware that the advice received from non-writers will be more general, focusing on overall story and pacing and not on particular scenes or line-by-line. Therefore, treat non-writers beta readers, not critique partners. Finally, you need to screen your readers ahead of time. Take into account their ‘profile’ when assessing feedback. The remainder of this post focuses on this point.
The big plus to getting ‘regular’ people instead of writers to read your book is that they are closer to your target audience. In addition, they’ll finish the book quicker than most critique partners. Instead of focusing on line-by-line and losing track of the bigger picture, readers will be able to tell you if the story was enjoyable overall, and whether the character and plot development made sense.
To evaluate which of your friends and family might make good beta readers, ask yourself the following question:
Is this person good at expressing himself?
A person, who is not good at expressing himself, will have difficulty explaining why he liked one aspect but disliked another. The person will also have difficulty highlighting why a particular aspect needs elaboration, while another scene needs to be shortened.
Will this person give me their honest but constructive opinion?
Beware of the people pleaser. He is good for your ego but nothing else. How will you ever get better, when your grandmother tells you, you’re already perfect?
But do also beware of people, who will rip your work apart. If you feel that the person in question is hostile or resentful, hold off from showing your work. After all, no matter how professional you are, writing is personal. Too harsh a review might put you off for several days (or longer). Those are days that you could spend writing and editing.
Is this person my target audience?
It might be tempting to give your work to a passionate thriller and mystery reader, hoping he will solve pacing issues and spice up your plot. And he might. But he is just as likely to turn your fantasy novel into a detective novel.
If your story has lots of romance, don’t be surprised when someone used to literary books, calls it shallow, or a horror genre lover tells you he fell asleep.
While not all of your beta readers can be your target audience, do strive to find some that are. If you know your reader is not a fan of your genre, be critical when taking his opinion into account. Ask yourself whether his opinion is really based on your book or the genre you write in.
Does this person have time to read?
If he doesn’t, chances are he’ll never get past chapter 1 or 2, without it having anything to do with your novel. Or he might skim through your novel, missing important issues that a more dedicated beta reader could’ve uncovered.
Overall, family and friends can make great readers as long as they have time and are willing to give honest and constructive feedback. But they shouldn’t be the only source of feedback you rely upon.
My next post will cover the benefits and drawbacks of joining an in-person critique group.
In my last post I summarized the workshops I attended at the Florida Writers Conference to give you a glimpse at what was included at the event, to help you decide whether a writers conference is for you.
Today I’m going to present my 10 takeaways from the conference:
- Figure out what works best for you as a writer
- Determine your best time & environment for writing
- Pick a genre you love (& read a lot), instead of following a hot trend/fad
- Decide whether you are willing/able to do all the marketing for your book (indie might be the way to go) or if you need a team behind you (traditional publishing)
- Determine your audience
- Who are your readers? (age, gender, interests, hobbies…)
- What are problems/issues they are interested in?
- What do readers in your genre expect and what do they want to read right now?
- Where (physically and online) can you find and target your readers?
- Make your pitch/book blurb attention grabbing
- For a pitch state genre, word count and title of your novel first
- Keep it short
- Start with the hook
- End with a sentence that makes your audience wonder what happens next
- Writing and marketing are not actions but processes
- Always keep on writing: if you are stuck in a project, can’t find literary agents, or your book isn’t selling online – put it aside for a few months and begin a new project in the meantime
- Marketing happens before, during and after book launch (it should continue for as long as your book is on the market)
- Whether you are writing a fight scene or a dialogue between teenagers, make it realistic
- Whenever possible research through observation, either in real life or through video the people/actions you are writing about
- Read out loud
- The quickest way to check whether your dialogue is stilted, your descriptions too long or a scene confusing, is to read it out loud to yourself
- Villains do more than thwarting the hero
- Make your villain a 3D character
- Give your villain a backstory
- Ask how the villain contrasts and compliments the protagonist
- Backstory – know it all, don’t include all
- Know 100% of your character’s backstory, but reveal less than 40%
- Is it necessary to give reader this information?
- Is it necessary to give reader this information right now?
- Is your backstory slowing down your plot?
- Verbs, nouns and adjective
- Use strong and descriptive verbs and nouns
- Use adjectives sparingly
- Get feedback
- Before publishing get beta readers/critique partners (10-20 is a good range)
- Hire a freelance editor (content vs. grammar editor)
I hope these takeaways will help you in writing, editing and reaching your goal of successful publishing.
This past weekend (20th to 23rd of October) I was fortunate to attend the Florida Writers Conference from the Florida Writers Association. You can find more information about the organization here: https://floridawriters.net
The conference had a few evening workshops on Thursday and a few morning workshops on Sunday, with the main chunk of events taking place on Friday and Saturday.
I attended in total 16 lectures – one on Thursday, seven on Friday, six on Saturday and two on Sunday.
Overall, I believe that there were a nice variety of topics discussed. I would put the talks into three following categories:
1.The craft of writing
2.Getting published/self-publishing and marketing
Below are all of the workshops I have attended and a brief explanation of what the speaker discussed in the 60 minute session (The Ally Machate session on successful self-publishing was a 90 minute session).
1. The craft of writing
1.1. Acting out- how to write believable fight scenes
Ben Wolf is a stage combat instructor, whose workshop was of a practical nature. After Ben demonstrated the correct basic fighting stance, he then went on to show us the main punches and kicks, as well as how to block them. This workshop was helpful in improving one’s craft of fight scene writing and understanding how a smaller opponent can gain leverage over a heavier opponent.
1.2. Hiding in plain-sight: writing believable villains
Joanne Lewis walked the audience through a checklist of villain characteristics. She brought various examples to demonstrate how the villain contrasts and compliments the hero. Additionally, the talk focused on how important a properly developed backstory is for a villain to make him/her multi-dimensional, interesting and a worthy opponent. Finally, the different type of villains and their motives were explored.
1.3. How to write dialogue like a pro
Elizabeth Sims elaborated the aspects of dialogue, how to write natural dialogue, and basic punctuations rules. Since dialogue makes up at least 50% of present day novels this was a not to be missed lecture that reminded seasoned writers what to pay attention to as they create their first draft and polish their rewrites. It also informed novices on how to avoid stilted and meaningless dialogue.
1.4. More than just a love story: writing real life romance
Tawdra Kandle has written forty-five novels in the last five years (!). She watches the romance genre closely to stay on top of the trends. After explaining the main elements of a good romance novel, Tawdra shared her main marketing strategies as an indie author.
1.5. The Scoop on backstory
Nancy Quatrano discussed the various ways how to put the backstory into your novel. She also shared her 40/60 rule, which states that while the author should know 100% of a character’s backstory the reader gets to see less than 40%, just enough to understand the behavior of the character but not too much to drag the flow of the action down.
1.6. YA is more than just the huger games
Mimi Williams talked about trend cycles in the YA genre, how YA books differ from books written for adults and pitfalls to avoid. The talk had practical suggestions on how to make a YA book authentic, such as remembering how one felt as an adolescent, and going to high school to watch actual teens interact.
2. Getting published/self-publishing and marketing
2.1. 6 tips on how to reach your publishing goal
Keith Ogorek stressed how important it is for aspiring authors to set deadlines and create a timeline, to track ones progress step by step. He also talked about writers determining their best time to write and subsequently blocking this time slot out. Finally, he emphasized the importance of starting marketing efforts before the book comes out (e.g. defining a target audience and deciding how to reach them).
2.2. Polishing your work for publication
Ally Machate highlighted the key points to watch out for during rewrites. They included checking one’s dialogue for soundness and naturalness, ensuring most of your work is showing and not telling, using nouns and verbs effectively (always be specific and use the strongest noun/verb possible. E.g. she ran fast vs. she sprinted.) She also cautioned writers to watch out for repetitions and filler words, passive voice and the use of clichés.
2.3.Successful self-publishing: 5 steps to a plan that’s right for you and your book
In her 90 minute presentation Ally Machate discussed the importance of perfecting your product, creating a marketing plan before launching your book, building relationships with readers and writers, paying attention to your book layout and cover, as well as understanding that a writing career does not happen overnight. She suggested writers go through several rounds of extensive editing (with beta readers and professional editors) before publishing their work and that they try different marketing strategies to see what works best for their niche/genre.
2.4. The gong show pitchfest
All kinds of writers pitched their novel to a three-person panel, who then scored the work on a scale from 1 to 10. The key take-away from this session was (1) to always begin by introducing the title of your novel, its genre and word count, (2) to start with the hook (instead of back story or extensive description of the protagonist), (3) end the pitch at an exciting point to intrigue the listener.
2.5. The query letter: taking 360 pages and compressing them into one
Jose Iriarte elaborated what to put into one’s query letter and what to avoid. The session also focused on advice on how to avoid creating the perception that the writer is a novice/amateur (don’ts: listing your age, comparing your book to major block buster movies or calling/visiting the literary agent).
2.6. The Three Phases of an Effective Book Marketing Campaign
Keith Ogorek’s talk focused on what to do before you publish your book (design effective cover and build an author platform), when you publish it (organize online and offline celebratory events) and after you have published it (collaborate with bloggers and traditional media outlets, if applicable, to promote your novel).
3.1. Changes in latitude
Vic DiGenti illuminated various methods on how to stir creativity when a writer faces writer’s block (e.g. change where you write, do physical activity, write without any mental restrictions).
3.2. The Writer’s Personality
Linda Gilden broke down the writer’s personality into four categories: peaceful phlegmatic, purposeful melancholy, powerful choleric and playful sanguine. She described the strengths and weaknesses as well what motivates each writer type.
I hope this blog post gave you a better understanding of the workshops presented at the Florida Writers Conference and will make it easier for you as a writer to decide whether it would be helpful to attend a writing conference.
In my next post I will present my key take aways from the Florida Writers Conference.
Have you ever picked up a book and gotten excited after reading the first few chapters only to ultimately realize that the beginning of the book was the best part?
I have. In fact I have seen this across genres. From thrillers where the most menacing scene is in the first quarter of the book to fantasy novels which tease you with promising world building only to make you realize that by the end of the book you haven’t actually learned much about the universe. Finally, books that sizzle with passion on the first few pages, implying romance to be one of the main plots, yet don’t follow through.
As a reader it is very frustrating to be exited about a new book only to realize that the author didn’t live up to the expectations that he or she has set.
As an author it can be the end of one’s career to write a book that drags in the middle and has an unsatisfactory ending. Readers will give it bad reviews, won’t recommend it, and won’t pick up your next work.
So how can you avoid this type of reader disappointment?
Simple. Think of your book as any other good or service to be sold.
Never over promise!
Always over deliver!
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Love scenes:
Does your book feature a romantic scene or a sensual scene in the beginning that could mislead the reader to believe that your book is heavy on the sexual side, when in fact, it isn’t?
- Fight scenes:
Is your action packed hook the biggest excitement of your novel until you get to the final quarter of your book where the main fight takes part?
- World building:
Do you introduce many otherworldly characters (e.g. daemons, angels, vampires) in the first few chapters but do not flesh out/explain the world they live in (e.g. what rules they have to live by, how their morals differ from humans, etc.)?
If you answered yes to any of the above that does not mean that you have to cut your amazing romance or fight scene or reduce your super naturals to just one species. It’s quite the opposite. Romance always sells. Near-death situations keep your reader on the edge of his or her seat. And unique world building can be the beginning of a bestselling series.
However, it is important to keep in mind that as an author you can’t afford to give empty promises. Therefore, you have two options.
If you need to keep your sizzling romance scene, action packed chase scenes and/or introduction of multiple otherworldly species within the first few chapters, ensure that you continue building momentum throughout your book.
If your protagonist kisses a male character while being chased by gangsters in the bad part of town in chapter one, you need to ensure that the rest of the book provides more romance (make-out sessions, sex, etc.) and even more near death experiences (gangsters chase protagonist into a corner, put a gun to her head, etc.)
For various reasons you might find that your protagonist can’t be captured by the gangsters or can’t have sex/end up together with the main male squeeze.
In this case option A wouldn’t work for you and you would move on to option B, namely either decreasing the intensity of your hook by adjusting your already written scene, or creating an entirely different opening scene and putting the heart rate pumping scene closer towards the end.
If you write a YA crime novel you might decide that your protagonist isn’t ready to have sex (at least not in book 1). Instead of an intense kissing scene you could either alter the kissing scene to a flirting scene at the beginning of the book or create a complete different hook and move the kissing scene towards the end of the book.
Same with the chase scene. Instead of being chased by gangsters in the hook, the protagonist could have the suspicion that somebody is watching her or has gone through her stuff. Again the original scene could either be rewritten to fit the tension development in your book, or you could create a complete new opening scene and move your tension filled scene towards the end of the book.
To summarize it is important that as an author you deliver what you have promised your reader. The reader will expect tension to progress upward from your opening scene. If you find that this is not the case with your work, you have to either increase the stakes throughout your book or decrease the stakes in your opening scene, so that you have enough room to amp up the drama.
In last week’s post I examined the types of sentences that work at the start your novel. If you missed it you can view it here.
Today I’m going to talk about the best book beginning, or hooks, that I’ve read recently and explain what captivated my attention.
First up is ‘All fall down’ by Jennifer Weiner. In the opening scene the protagonist takes her daughter to a doctor’s office for a check up. While waiting for their turn the mother picks up a magazine where she spots an alcohol/drug addiction quiz. As she takes it, it becomes evident that she’s addicted to painkillers but is in denial and is currently in the stage where she is a ‘functioning’ addict.
From the summary of the book I already knew that the story would be about a mother in her thirties and her downfall into addiction. What I really liked about the opening scene is that we are plunged immediately into the story. At the same time the situation is relatively normal – our protagonist is not doing anything that is hard to relate to. After all many of us have taken a quiz before that made us feel uncomfortable, wondering whether our immune system, sugar proclivity or lack of exercise is out of control.
Next up is the beginning of ‘Gone girl’ by Gillian Flynn.
Warning spoiler alerts below
In the opening scene of ‘Gone girl’ one of our two protagonists, Nick describes the shape of his wife’s head and how he would like to open her skull and look at what is inside. The fact that he considers something like this and the way he says it is morbid.
This is a great start since Nick’s wife is missing for the first half of the book and he’s the prime suspect. Thus, this is the perfect scene setting him up and making the reader believe that Nick could’ve actually killed his wife.
In the novel ‘Weightless’ by Sarah Bannan the hook is a description of a pep rally taking place. It is told from a third point plural perspective of the normal high school kids watching the popular kids. The book’s plot and tragedy is centered around popularity, pettiness and high school gossip and thus this is a great scene to plunge into the novel.
‘The way I used to be’ by Amber Smith examines the aftermath of rape and how the protagonist deals with it over the course of the next four years. The opening scene is very powerful as the fourteen year old protagonist lays in bed wondering how it is possible that she was raped the previous night in her own bed by a friend of her older brother.
Finally, in ‘Throne of glass’ by Sarah J. Maas the protagonist Celaena is being schlepped from the salt mines, where she has just spend a year as a slave, in front of the crown prince. The prince asks her to become his champion at an upcoming game. From the way Celaena treats the prince it becomes apparent that even after torturous years her spirit is still intact and that she is a dangerous woman that will change the destiny of the whole empire.
So what do all of these hooks have in common?
1.They throw us directly into the story
They start at an interesting point. There is no long explanation, no long description of the surroundings, no boring mundane action. Instead the reader is directly thrown into the story.
2.They create empathy and/or admiration in the reader toward the protagonist
- Celaena still has her pride/defiance after spending one year as a slave
- The mother in ‘All fall down’ is juggling a career and a demanding, hypersensitive young child
- The protagonists of ‘Weightless’ are looking from the inside in. Most people have felt like the outsiders or the unimportant ones at one point or another in a social hierarchy
In summary, the best opening scenes or hooks throw the reader right into the midst of the story and also create positive feelings toward the protagonist.
After a potential reader has seen the marketing part of your book (the title, cover, blurb and synopsis), they tend to move to the first page to sample your writing, specifically your story telling style. That’s when they see the first sentence.
The first sentence of your novel can convey so much. Its structure and difficulty might not always be reflective of your whole novel, but the potential reader, will certainly assume that it is.
The first sentence also sets the tone of the whole book. Is it going be funny, heart wrenching, scary, confusing, etc? Is it going to be fast or slow paced?
Your first sentence does not need to be mind blowing. It does not need to be the best sentence of your books. It does not need to use the most complicated words in the English language. And no it does not need to create ten different emotions in the reader.
In fact the last two might scare off a potential reader. But a first sentence should grab the reader’s interest and it should evoke emotion.
Below I have picked a few great first sentences (some are technically more than one, but are so short that the eye would group them together).
- Sentences that hint at danger. Besides the mystery, thriller, and horror genre they are often used in fantasy and Sci-Fi, for both adults and YA.
‘Unholy ghosts’ by Stacia Kane
“Had the man in front of her not already been dead, Chess probably would have tried to kill him.”
Immediately we can infer that the main character Chess is a kick ass heroine and someone, who is fairly comfortable dealing with death. The sentence certainly captured my attention.
‘Shiver’ by Maggie Stiefvater
“I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.”
This also puts the heroine in danger and makes us wonder whether she will be alive and/or human (rather than a werewolf or ghost) by the end of the book.
- Sentences that convey something shocking about the main character without putting their life in immediate danger. This leads to several questions forming in the readers mind.
‘Shatter me’ by Tahereh Mafi
“I’ve been locked up for 264 days.”
When I read that sentence I immediately wanted to know the following:
- What crime, if any, has she been locked up for?
- Has she actually committed the crime or she innocent?
- Who is this girl?
- Is she crazy or sane?
‘Splintered’ by A.G. Howard
“I’ve been collecting bugs since I was ten; it’s the only way I can stop their whispers.”
Same as above, the sentence immediately triggered questions:
- Is the main character crazy or insane?
- Why can she hear the bug’s whispers?
- What does whispers mean? Strange sounds or actual words?
- Why does she have to collect them, rather than killing them or move to a big city/stay in bug free places?
- Sentences that make the reader smile.
‘Pride mates’ by Jennifer Ashley
“A girl walks into a bar…
No. A human girl walks into a Shifter bar…”
This was a very simple setup. Many paranormal books feature a couple where one individual is human, while the other one is super natural. I liked it that in two sentences the book cut straight to the chase. No 50 pages where the human character can’t decipher what the super natural character is, even though the hints are beyond obvious.
‘The darkest lie’ by Gena Showalter
“Gideon stared down at the woman sleeping atop the bed of cloud-soft cerulean cotton. His wife. Maybe.”
This was funny since normally one knows whether he is married or not. Since Gideon didn’t seem to know, I immediately wondered:
- Is Gideon a drug/alcohol abuser?
- Does Gideon suffer from amnesia?
- Has the woman given something to Gideon to confuse him?
I’ve noticed that a first good sentence spikes my excitement for the story. It makes me read faster through the first few pages and be more forgiving if nothing earth shattering happens on these first pages (e.g. when the hook has to be set up a bit later).
Below are a few types of sentences that can create interest:
- Sexual (sex sells)
- Life threatening (no, we don’t know the hero yet, but life threatening situations still kick our adrenaline into gear, especially if they are unique)
- Normal with an odd element
When writing a novel one of the first things we do as an author is think up a main character and imbue this character with certain traits. We can give our protagonist countless positive characteristics. But even if a character is fearless, honest, responsible and compassionate, your reader will have a hard time rooting for the protagonist if he or she is too foolish and/or gullible.
This isn’t to imply that a protagonist should be all knowing or never make mistakes. He or she can make mistakes and fall into a trap, but there should be some logic to your protagonists’ behavior. Just as you or I could take the safe route and get unlucky or take a big risks for a small chance or reward, character also need to make reasonable risk/reward decisions.
Warning: spoiler alerts for ‘Graceling’, ‘Red queen’ and ‘We were liars’ below.
For example, in ‘Graceling’ written by Kristin Cashore, the protagonist Katsa and Bitterblue flee from the evil king to a castle in another kingdom. They hope to find sanctuary in Bo’s castle, which is far away from the evil king’s territory. The journey is full of difficulties. When Katsa and Bitterblue finally make it to Bo’s castle, they discover that the king is already there and has mind manipulated everyone in the castle into submission.
As a reader I had a hunch that the king would be in the castle, since he was aware of the relationship between Katsa and Bo. It was easy for him to foresee where Katsa would flee. Yet it also made sense for Katsa to flee to the castle, since it was the only sanctuary she had. In addition to that, as a reader I didn’t simply want Katsa to escape the king but to also put an end to his reign of terror. In order to do so they had to have a confrontation eventually.
Therefore, Katsa’s behavior made sense to me as a reader and I was rooting for her.
‘Red queen’ on the other hand written by Victoria Aveyard has the main character Mare putting her trust not into Prince Cal, who has helped her throughout the book, but into his younger brother Prince Maven. When Maven decides to join a revolutionary group Mare is part off, she does not question why a prince would turn his back on his family and empire. Without any proof she simply believes that Maven would put the needs of others above his and betray his parents.
Moreover, Maven’s mother, Queen Elara, is a shrewd and manipulative woman with the ability to read minds. It is reasonable she would discover the plans of the rebellion from either Mare or Maven; however, Mare and Maven never receive any resistance and Mare never suspects that the queen might know anything. Not once does Mare question how she is able to get away with everything so easily.
Finally, Mare ignores the warning she receives from other characters, that Maven is his mother’s son.
In the end Maven betrays Mare and reveals that he and his mother Elara have been using Mare all along. As a reader it was hard to emphasize with Mare and feel bad for her situation, since she didn’t appear to use common sense and was a gullible character. It was frustrating to watch her go right into the trap.
The frustration was reinforced by Mare being smart in other aspects of her life and that her careless behavior couldn’t even be blamed on hormones, since she was attracted to Cal not Maven.
This does not mean that you can only write books with sensible protagonists. Lots of authors have successfully created books with narrators that are confused, unreasonable or unstable. But there needs to be a reason for this type of behavior.
For example in ‘We were liars’ by E. Lockhart’s main character is an unreliable narrator. This becomes evident early on in the manner Cadence tells her story, focusing on certain aspect, while not giving the reader the full picture and jumping from one event to the next.
In the beginning of the book Cadence is close to her two cousins and a male friend Gat, who come to the summerhouse. Soon problems arise with Cadence’s mother and aunts quarreling about money and her grandfather disapproving of her blossoming relationship with Gat, due to his Indian heritage.
The next summer Cadence has an accident that leads to a memory loss. She also suffers from migraines and has the desire to give away all of her belongings. Her mother does not allow Cadence to go back to the summerhouse the following year and none of her cousins or Gat write back to her emails or answer her calls.
When Cadence goes back one year later she has strange conversations with her cousins and Gat. We are also informed that her mother and aunt’s act as if they are mourning something.
At the end of the book it is revealed that two summers ago Cadence had set fire to the summerhouse with her cousins and Gat. They had planned it together, but while Cadence was able to escape, the other three adolescents died in the flames.
While Cadence behavior isn’t rational or logical throughout the book, it does make sense in the end when the reader figures out what had happened two summers ago. As she is suffering from tremendous guilt and posttraumatic stress disorder the protagonist, whose behavior was questionable at times, is in fact acting in a comprehensible manner, given her situation.