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:

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.


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§ 16 Responses to Getting Started: On E-reading and Beginnings

  • If Fitzgerald had to deal with this kind of thing, he might have never sold a book; particularly in the case of the wonderful, “Tender is the Night”. Could you imagine if Faulkner’s career hinged on, “As I Lay Dying” being Kindle-friendly?

    • Charlotte says:

      True, and rather a sad reflection. I wonder what future generations will make of the way we write now? So many rules, regulations and expectations that we now follow as absolutely necessary are, of course, very different from the standards that were expected and enjoyed a hundred or two hundred years ago. People speak of the more leisurely, expansive, even ‘chatty’ nature of many nineteenth and twentieth century novels as a completely inappropriate way to write now; and yet millions of people still love and passionately re-read those stories. I suppose it’s the dizzying pace of life in the twenty-first that’s wrought the change – we expect to pick up a book and be hooked immediately, and then to speed on to the next book as quickly as possible because there are so few hours to read. I’d love to be able to glance ahead and see what my great-great-grand-children are making of the books being published now.

      Then again, if the move to digital reading continues apace, many books we’re now reading may well be lost because of a lack of physical record.

  • Kathleen Lourde says:

    Hi, Charlote–always great to read your blogs.

    I have to say I’m a “jump right into the action” proponent, although I love books that are more leisurely. Maybe I just don’t have enough confidence in the quality of my writing to bet that its sheer eloquence will be enough of a draw to keep readers turning the pages, especially if they’ll be turning 40 or 50 of them with little action taking place.

    Those that are that eloquent–please do not deprive us by leaping immediately into the thick of things. Books written in simply beautiful language are the mainstay of literature, of course, and we cannot allow real literature to die just because our (as in the public in general) attention spans seem to be shrinking at a frightening rate.


    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Kathleen, welcome back! Thanks for the kind comment, I’m really glad you enjoy the blog.

      I’m completely intrigued with the idea that different approaches to the beginning work better or less well depending on the style of writing. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. It makes perfect sense, though – there are certainly authors who could write five thousand words about the weather and I’d probably be avid to the end, because the writing itself is so beautiful.

      It’s arguable also that the approach of ‘jump into the action’ works really well in some genres – thrillers, maybe crime fiction – where a more leisured introduction would not fit. What do you usually write?

  • Kathleen Lourde says:

    Well, the main novel I’m working on is a psychological suspense sort of novel. I’m not sure how to categorize it. It has demons, so it ought to be horror, but it’s not, quite. The demons are all in one (non-violent) person’s head, so I’m calling it psychological suspense. So there.

    I can imagine you writing a la Jane Austen, actually. What are you working on?

    It’s 6:30 in the morning here and I’m late getting ready for work, where I write about aviation all day (not exactly as exciting as working on a novel). I imagine you sitting out in your garden with your cuppa and your laptop and pens and notepads writing the great British novel, which is most certainly character driven and intricate. Have you published any yet? Did you find a traditional publisher, if so, or did you self-publish? Nosy, aren’t I? It’s my quest for stories, I always say. If I weren’t nosy, I’d miss some of the best ones.


    • Charlotte says:

      Psychological suspense sounds a perfectly reasonable title. Or psychological thriller, that’s a term I hear people use quite often. An intriguing premise. The weird workings of the mind are endlessly fascinating.

      The magnificent Miss Austen is one of my heroes, so thank you for that observation! I set out to just write what I wanted to write, without worrying about genre or where it would fit. I’m about 50k words in and so far I have a fantasy setting which is getting steadily crazier and more whimsical. I have a mystery to be resolved, a socially-challenged and appallingly tender-hearted heroine, a host of completely made up creatures and a mess of tangled characters. It certainly isn’t going to be any kind of great British novel, but I’m having a blast with it. It’s true that I seem to be focusing a great deal on the character relationships and the plot is becoming complex. Possibly I spend too much time on the character element – I think one of my big flaws as a writer is to get too involved in people’s heads and not spend enough time on the ACTION.

      Or maybe it’s a strength. I’m not sure yet.

      This is the first full novel that I’ve written. Or that I am writing, I can’t say I’ve written it for a few more months yet. It is my determined purpose to publish novels someday, one way or another. I haven’t made a decision yet whether I will look for a traditional publisher or self-publish, but I am watching the changing marketplace with interest.

      Nosy or not, I don’t mind the questions at all – it’s nice of you to express interest. I’ll ask you some of the same questions back – have you published or finished any/many novels before the current demonic suspense piece? Traditional publishing or self publishing?

  • saradeurell says:

    I hate feeling “dumped” into the world and the action without enough grounding in either the character or the setting (or both) to anchor me in the story world. Action beginnings are definitely possible to do well, but it’s tricky – at least, for readers like me, who want more than just a story hook…I want character hooks, setting hooks, a good sense of style, not too much jargon…I’m kind of a picky reader, despite the wide variety of fiction (and nonfiction) I enjoy. And even though I say action beginnings are tricky, “slow” beginnings are equally so.

    One thing I try to do with my own writing is to always be aware, as a writer, of the “jobs” a scene is doing. Does it move the main plot along? Does it raise questions that will pull the reader on? Does it answer any questions from earlier chapters? Does it give further depth to a character? Does it define or change a relationship between two characters? And any scene that does only one such “job”, I try to figure out how to either (a) make it do more work by doing more “jobs” or (b) cut it and use a different scene that will do that same job and more. I think, going by that standard, you can get the very most out of an opening scene, in particular – even if you just drop hints around the action to make the reader curious about the character or give a sense of the world or the tone, it broadens the appeal and gives the reader more to latch onto about your book.

    As always, an interesting, thought-provoking post!

    • Charlotte says:

      That’s very good advice. One of my major faults as a writer was forgetting that each scene has to have a clear purpose, not just events. I think I’m getting better at that now. I’m taking note of your method to try to combine multiple ‘jobs’ in the same scene: that seems like efficient writing to me, especially for the all-important first couple of chapters. There’s so much to try to include in those opening sequences that it has to be very well worth practicing the technique of finding subtle ways to plant hooks and move the plot forward.

      Thanks for sharing those ideas, very useful comments!

  • Sonia M. says:

    As a reader, I’m not fond of being dumped into action without any grounding either but I don’t much like a slow start either. I’ve been reading Don Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and have been thinking more about my own WIP’s beginning. I think there’s probably a good balance that draws a reader in but doesn’t leave him/her floundering.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Sonia,

      How true. There is the crux of the problem, I think. Some novels work well with explosive, action-packed beginnings; some work well with a distinctly leisurely pace. For many (most?) novels, though, a balance has got to be the way to go. The tricky part is trying to strike it dead-on!

      Thanks for the book tip, I hadn’t heard of that one before. I’d like to improve my collection of writing manuals over the next few months.

      What’s the WIP about, and how is it going?

    • saradeurell says:

      I LOVE Donald Maass’ books on writing. Have you read his book The Fire in Fiction? Wonderful stuff.

  • Kathleen Lourde says:

    Hi, Charlotte,

    I haven’t published any novels yet, though I’ve published some short stories and reams of journalistic articles. I’m convinced that I’m able to do this, but a novel is FAR more complicated than anything I’ve ever attempted before. I’d prefer to cut the heck out of my novel and find a traditional publisher for it, but I may opt for e-publishing in the end. The sheer length of time required for getting a book accepted by an agent, then a publisher, then bookstores, then the public is almost mind boggling. I’m still debating this issue.

    Your fantasy novel sounds like a lot of fun. I wish I had that kind of imagination. I wonder how many works you have in progress? I have something like five unfinished novels on my computer that I intend to finish (in a certain order) as soon as I finish this novel.

    I would think though that, although character development is of course critical, action would be pretty important in a fantasy novel. But then I haven’t read fantasy since I was in my 20s. I imagine you as being in your 20s, as a matter of fact. It’s funny how we develop life stories for people we barely know. At least, I do. My apologies if my assumptions are annoying or totally off base.


    • Charlotte says:

      There’s no doubt writing a novel tends to knock a person over when you first attempt it. I concur, it’s tremendously complicated; and really one knows that it must be complex in the extreme to write a story of considerably more than 100k words, but the reality of it is still staggering. I think in order to do it one has to be a person who relishes a challenge like that – or who is at least blessed with enough dogged perseverance to get through it.

      The length of time involved with traditional publishing is a very good point. I’ve heard it can take a whole year from acceptance of the book to its appearing in bookshops. Since it probably takes at least a year to write and edit the book in the first place, that’s a staggering time frame.

      I have one other novel in progress at present, my first ever project. I killed it through excessive anxiety. I was terrifically afraid that I couldn’t do it, and that I’d make an impossible mess of it, and the result was that I just couldn’t write. I’ll take it up again someday, because I still like the plot and the characters. Meanwhile I have two other ideas in mind that I’m really tempted to start on, but I’m doing better at being disciplined and sticking to the one in hand until I’ve finished it. As for having five, that has to be a good thing – better to have way more ideas than you can handle than to be stuck without inspiration.

      Action is quite important in fantasy, true, but I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the genre. I love the freedom of it – there’s room for some wildly imaginative stories. However I’m really tired of the usual tropes. I’m especially tired of the ‘end of the world, can the hero save it in time’ stuff, full of wars and perils and misery. So, in my current novel, I’m trying to strike away from a lot of that and do something else. I just have to be careful not to excise almost all of it.

      I am in my 20s, well guessed. But I suppose the front page photo helps. I’ll be turning 27 soon, and I wish I’d got to writing my first novel a bit sooner (given that I have been meaning to/trying for a few years). If I have two or three finished and edited by the time I’m 30 I’ll be happy. I take it you’re a little older – did you always want to write a novel, or is it something that struck you more recently?

  • aarongraham says:

    Ohhhh, my dear you just KNEW I’d love this post, didn’t you! Since you follow my, it goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of e-books and I believe it will set the trend for publishing in the future. How the traditional publishers respond will be up to them. I’m sure they are bright people and will muddle through somehow.

    As to my opening, I’m fascinated that so many of your readers do not like a powerful opening early in the story. I heard a writer’s Maxim once for Western’s but it applies to a lot of fiction in general: “Shoot the Sheriff On The First Page.” You know, the classic setting in a Western: Bandits ride into town, shoot the sheriff and our lonesome hero must come in and clean up the town. When I write I do try to come up with something, anything, that will hook my reader with a powerful scene within the first 20 pages or so that sets up a larger crisis and then, as if blissfully unaware of what is going on around them, my protagonist is introduced.

    But really it comes down to style and genre. I know that as a reader if an author has not hooked me in 100 pages, I will probably not finish the book.

    • Charlotte says:

      I think you put your finger on the point there in naming Westerns. They’re meant to be fast-paced and action-packed so it makes sense to ‘Shoot the sheriff on the first page’. Likewise thrillers, crime novels & others wouldn’t work at all without a powerful opening. With some other genres or styles of writing it can feel too abrupt to start that way.

      Maybe that’s why different experts make completely different recommendations about it. Thriller writers swear by a snappy opening, but, say, historical fiction authors need to spend the time setting the scene first.

      One just has to learn what’s best for one’s own preferred genre. Easy, right? Suuure it is.

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