Guest Blogger: Dakota Banks
Browsers in a bookstore scan the shelves, eyes moving rapidly from book to book. If your books are spine-out rather than face-out, you have only your title and your name to get the buyer to pick up your book. If your book is face-out, you have cover art and blurbs in your favor. Assuming you get past these hurdles, the browser then rapidly scans the jacket copy (if hardback) or the back cover (if paperback). Many factors here are out of your control. The editor may change the title you slaved over. You may have little or nothing to say about cover art and jacket copy. Blurbs may come from reviews (out of your control) or advance readers, whom you may have at least selected.
The online buying experience is much the same, except that you are spared the worry of being spine-out! Many times there is an opportunity to read the first few pages of the book, or you may have even posted the opening of the book yourself to get the reader’s attention.
If your book is still in the reader’s physical or virtual hands at this point (and sadly, many are not), the hook comes into play. That’s the main point-of-sale tool that you, the author, have under your control. It’s roughly the first couple of pages of a book, say 500 words. You don’t want your book to be easy to set aside before the reader has a chance to become involved with your wonderful characters and plot. If you can capture a reader’s interest right away, chances are they’ll still be with you at the next critical point, which is around fifty pages into the book. The “fifty-page fizzle” can prevent readers from finishing your book, and if that’s the case, it’s not very likely they’ll try your next.
You may have even less time to impress an editor or agent, since they are accustomed to rapid decisions. In some cases, only your first paragraph is read to determine whether to spend precious time on the rest. What can the agent possibly glean from so few words? Your professionalism (spelling, grammar, and punctuation), your presentation (font type and size, and manuscript formatting), and your prose (genre and your voice, which is a combination of your writing style and the characterization of the protagonist) are all on display to discerning eyes.
So how do you make those first pages bear up under all these important tasks? You can’t do it with a lengthy description of your protagonist’s bedroom when he/she wakes up (unless it’s a pitch-black, stinking dungeon cell and your protagonist, who has no idea how he got there, is awakened by rats nipping at his nose) or by describing the weather (unless your protagonist is being slammed around by a tornado or carried along in a flash flood, clinging to the remnants of her front door with bloody fingers). Finally, you don’t cheat the reader by having wild happenings occur and then having the protagonist wake up—it’s all been a dream. If you are going to use one of these three overused openings (morning surroundings/routine, weather, dream), then you’ve got to have a totally original, engaging slant to compensate.
A key concept in those “don’ts” above is description. Make your description minimal, which doesn’t mean it can’t be vivid. Focus on a few well-chosen, evocative details and let them stand in for heavy description. Be sure to draw the reader into your story with sensory description that appeals to more senses than just sight.
Try to make your description do double duty in building character as well. Make sure you are not in a headlong rush to explain everything in the first few pages. Prune back-story to an absolute minimum. Don’t fall into the trap of telling the reader everything they need to know about a character and/or situation in the first chapter. Hold out longer—use the “layers of an onion” approach.
Instead of getting bogged down in back story, toss the reader into an ongoing situation and leave the explanation for later. Make the reader wonder about what’s going to happen next by planting the seeds of intrigue right away. That’s the start of a page-turner! Intrigue can result from something as simple yet chilling as a threatening phone call late at night, so don’t reach into artificiality.
One thing your opening should convey is a strong sense of the tone of the book, so let your voice be heard. Introduce a main character (villain or protagonist) in an intriguing way, preferably in an action situation or a situation that hints strongly of action to come. Convey an immediate sense of place. Don’t have your exciting action taking place with the characters floating in a generic setting. Otherwise it’s easy to drift away, and if the TV remote is at hand, you may have lost your audience.
Cut to the chase. Sometimes you may write an entire first chapter and find your actual lead somewhere in the middle of chapter one—-or even in chapter two or three-—because you began with too much explanation. In that case, lop off the unnecessary part to pare down to the true opening. You can work in all that explanation later, if it was important.
Then polish, polish, polish. You’ll probably rewrite your lead twenty times or more. Read it aloud. If your voice is stumbling over awkward phrases or dragging, reflecting a glacial pace, you’re not done.
Look through the lead below with an eye to vivid, sensory detail; a sense of place; an ongoing situation with the strong hint of action to come; minimal backstory; and early contributions to characterization. Would you keep reading?
Opening Lead of DELIVERANCE: MORTAL PATH BOOK 3
Maliha Crayne placed her feet carefully on the old clay-tiled roof. Freezing rain made the passage treacherous. Xietai, the man she was chasing, seemed as sure-footed as a gazelle wearing no-slip boots. She had already sent a tile sliding to the street three stories below.
It was three in the morning, and although New York never sleeps, the residents of this neighborhood did. Most of them, anyway. As another tile clattered to the sidewalk, a window was flung open and a woman’s head appeared, her neck twisted to look up at the roof.
“What’s goin’ on up there? Think yer Santa Claus or somethin’? Get off my roof!”
With flat roofs all around, he has to choose one with tiles. Should have gone around and picked up his trail on the other side. Maliha 0, Xietai 1.
Xietai had been in her sights twice before, and he’d eluded her. He ran a human trafficking ring, bringing Asian girls to America, and then sending American girls to Asia. Round-trip profits. Complicating matters was that Xietai was the son of one of Maliha’s dearest friends, Xia Yanmeng. Maliha planned to bring Xietai to justice but with his record of confrontation, it was possible she’d have to kill him.
Kill Yanmeng’s son. Not sure how he’d feel about that, even though the two of them are estranged. If my daughter Constanta had survived her birth and grown up evil, would I be hunting her?
Maliha came to the end of the tiled roof and paused briefly. Xietai’s footprints led her on into the moonless night. Using her ability to view auras, she could see the outline of his footsteps and the tendrils of red and black twining together, rising from them. Normally she used her aura vision for a few seconds at a time, a quick check to see if someone was lying or to make sure she faced a truly evil person before plunging her sword into him. Constant viewing, as she was doing now to track Xietai, was draining. His aura footprints were clear, but her surroundings were a little out of focus. As long as Xietai kept out of her normal sight, he had an advantage.
Maliha felt a touch on her shoulder, as soft as if she’d been brushed by a bird’s wing. Yanmeng was a remote viewer, and he was signaling her that he was viewing her now. She could extend her arm and make an L-shape with her fingers, the sign they’d agreed upon for him to withdraw, and he would immediately stop remote viewing her. At least, she trusted that he would.
She didn’t make the withdrawal sign.
It’s his son. Yanmeng’s not going to like this, but it’s not right to hide it from him.
She swung over the edge of the roof, hung briefly by one hand, and dropped down to an adjacent flat roof. Landing with a forward roll to break the momentum of the fall, she put out a hand to avoid sliding on the patchy ice. She scraped the side of her hand raw on the rough roofing material. She wasn’t an accomplished traceuse—tracer—so her hands weren’t calloused. The man ahead of her was a highly skilled practitioner of parkour, a method of crossing obstacles in the most efficient way and the shortest time.
She ran barefoot, with loose black shorts, a black t-shirt, a belly bag with a few throwing stars secured inside so they couldn’t shift and hurt her, knives strapped to her thighs, with her thick black hair flowing behind her. It was late November, and an icy rain pelted her face and other exposed skin. Maliha wasn’t prepared for this pursuit, but when Xietai crossed her path, she had to try it.
About the Mortal Path Series
The Mortal Path is the story of a 300-year-old woman’s quest to overcome the evil that she perpetrated as an assassin for the ancient Sumerian demon who owns her soul. To redeem herself, she must save a life for every life she’s taken. The score is kept on a scale of justice carved into her torso by the demon’s claw; it activates to record progress and fallbacks. With her inner circle of friends, Maliha Crayne struggles to beat the clock—she ages a little with every life she saves. If she doesn’t, she’ll become the demon’s tortured plaything—forever.
DELIVERANCE is the third book in the series, after DARK TIME and SACRIFICE. In DELIVERANCE, Maliha’s closest friends are beginning to disappear. Amid her anger, suspicion, and sorrow, her life is spiraling out of control. Worse still, a beautiful Renaissance-era murderess is recruiting Maliha as her new assassin. Maliha is turning into a lethal puppet with an evil Immortal pulling the strings, forced to kill innocents or see her missing friends die horribly. Trapped in a moral no-man’s-land, Maliha is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t … and time is rapidly running out. The book’s on-sale date is today, March 27th.
Praise for DELIVERANCE
“DELIVERANCE by Dakota Banks delivers everything I love in suspense fiction: great characters who jump from the page; a smart, layered plot, and pacing that screams. This is the kind of book that makes you look forward to a rainy day.” —John Gilstrap, author of NATHAN’S RUN and DAMAGE CONTROL
“Readers who like their paranormal romantic suspense novels to feature nonstop action, twisting plots, and deadly heroines will devour Banks’ clever and compelling Mortal Path series.” – Lisa Gardner, #1 NYT Bestselling Author of CATCH ME
“A breakneck ride through worlds visible and invisible — who knew the ancient Sumerians were this thrilling?” – Joseph Finder, Top 10 NYT Bestselling Author of BURIED SECRETS
“DELIVERANCE is wonderfully unpredictable, full of breathlessly exciting action scenes. Readers will be hooked till the very last page, and then will rush to pick up the others in the Mortal Path series.” – RT Book Reviews
Get the latest news about the Mortal Path series and the international giveaways running now, which include a Kindle Fire and multiple opportunities to win a Mortal Path Swag Bag, containing a tote bag, all three signed books in the series, pens, bookmarks, magnets, and a calculator. Check Dakota’s blog for a current list. Visit Dakota on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and her website. See the DELIVERANCE trailer here!
Dakota Banks is a former independent computer consultant, now the author of the Mortal Path series of action-adventures with a supernatural twist and the PJ Gray series (as Shirley Kennett) of suspense novels using virtual reality to simulate crime scenes. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, and a former board member of International Thriller Writers. She lives near St. Louis with her husband Dennis, two sons adopted from Peru and Ethiopia, and two cats who keep her writing on track.
This is a great post (already tweeted). Love your use of the word “glacial,” Dakota. An early reader of my novel, although she loved it, used that same word! So I kept on working—for about four more years. It takes what it takes. Now, even though it’s upmarket women’s fiction, I was able to keep a published suspense author hooked all the way through—and I have an agent, and it’s going out on submission to publishers this week. Here’s hoping a publisher, and then readers, will be likewise hooked!
Congratulations, Kathryn, and best of luck to you.
Excellent post by Dakota! And great tip – we authors can lose control of much during the process of getting our books out there but ultimately its about the reader, and hooking them. That few moments someone browses in a bookstore and flips open your book or checks out Read Inside option on Amazon. Do they want more? Are you giving them what they need TO want more? I like thinking this is in our control and a sales tool to remember. Hook em’ in the first 500 words. And I can say, in the middle of reading Dark Time – you not only hooked me in the beginning but dragged me in – heart thumping and all.
Great post with useful info on hooking the reader. I will be keeping this one.
Great post, Dakota – a much-needed reminder of something it’s easy to overlook when it comes to our own work.
I agree, Sandy, that it’s easy to lose sight of things from the reader’s POV when your nose has been buried in the manuscript. Sometimes the more we read over our own work, the less capable we are of being objective about it.