Getting Started: On E-reading and Beginnings
March 13, 2011 § 16 Comments
I was going to write a post about e-books and self-publishing, but the entire world is talking about this already. Quite justifiably, because it is possibly the most exciting thing happening in the connected worlds of writing, reading and publishing at present.
Instead of rambling about this in a generic way, however, I’m going to focus on one element of it that’s particularly striking me as important. Amazon offers free samples of its e-books for immediate download, prior to buying the book. I understand that samples are usually the first 10% of the book, so the precise number of pages it amounts to will vary from book to book. But let’s say 30-60 pages as a probable range.
For readers, this is so extremely useful and fantastic I hardly know how to express it. I am, of course, addicted to books, by which I mean that no matter how broke I am I will find a way to acquire new books. If it comes to making do with old clothes instead of buying new ones so I can have a new book or two… so be it. It is no contest. However, being someone who is usually quite broke (alas), I hate it when I hazard money on a book and I don’t enjoy it.
Offering free sample chapters changes all that. I can now make sure I am getting properly involved in the story before I spend any money on it. As a reader, this is terrific.
As a writer, it’s mildly terrifying.
When shopping in paperback, it’s the front cover and the synopsis that are very important, and possibly the first few pages of the book. Most people don’t have time, inclination or opportunity to sit in a bookshop and read more than that before they buy; and shopping online for printed books offers about the same amount of information. No doubt, then, a strong cover, synopsis and opening page have always been important.
If someone buys your book on the basis of this material and then finds it a bit slow to start, that’s a shame, but having already bought it many readers will press on. And they may be won over eventually. I say this because it’s happened to me a few times in my recent reading history.
If we’re dealing with online shoppers, however, there’s an extra hurdle to be got over before making that sale in the first place. A reader still has to be impressed with your front cover and synopsis and the first page. They also have to be impressed with the next 49 pages – before they think about actually buying the book. If the first 10% doesn’t pass muster, no sale. And in a crowded market that’s likely to grow even more crowded very, very quickly now, readers may not bother to download any samples of any more of your books.
Soooo. Having a really great beginning is more important than ever, and it has to be followed up by a few more really great chapters. This doesn’t seem like news: obviously the aim is to try to make sure the entire book is really great. But without hooking readers well and quickly, there’s possibly even less chance in the future that readers will make it past the beginning. How to achieve this?
I’ve been paying attention to a lot of experts (should I say ‘experts’ in some cases? Maybe) who give out a lot of advice about writing. Many of them sound like they do, indeed, know what they are talking about; the only problem is that they often contradict one another. On the topic of beginnings, some are staunchly in favour of dropping the reader straight into the middle of the action; no preamble of any kind. Others are firmly against that, and strongly recommend spending some time introducing your characters properly and setting up their ‘world’ before the real action begins. I can see the logic of both points of view.
Undoubtedly it’s imperative to avoid the sort of slow beginning that involves characters wandering in and out at a leisurely pace, having tea with each other and talking about the weather. Beyond that, well. There are, as usual, multiple schools of thought.
Given how important this is shaping up to be, it bears further scrutiny. What are the opinions of the Writerverse? As a reader, what do you prefer – to go haring straight into the action, or to learn a bit about the characters first? How do you approach it as a writer?
This week I have come across the website of historical fiction author K. M. Weiland. She is offering a free e-book on constructing characters, and the book includes some useful comments on crafting beginnings. Here is an excerpt:
“Beginnings must accomplish all of the following:
• Give the readers a reason to care about what happens to the characters.
• Plant an irresistible hook.
• Introduce overall tone (satiric, dramatic,etc.).
• Introduce setting (time and place), conflict, and possibly theme.”
And how do you write the perfect beginning?
“Well, you write and you rewrite. And then you repeat.”
The whole e-book is very useful for developing character, conflict and theme; I recommend it. Download your own copy here: http://kmweiland.com/free-ebook.php
In closing, because I skipped all the comments I was tempted to make about the astronomical rise of e-reading and self-publishing for e-reader, let me recommend someone who’s been discussing this far better than I could. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an incredibly prolific novelist who’s published about a million novels. She runs a very regularly updated blog on her website, including the ‘Business Rusch’ section which covers the recent changes in publishing. It’s the best read I’ve come across on this topic.