So, clearly my recommendations for top books is faltering. I have ideas. It's not that I don't have favorites, I do. I was thinking about how I should do another blog, the one about my top YA books I promised you all a zillion years ago, and I realized something. OK, realize isn't exactly the word because I've always known it, I just never wanted to admit it. I need to read a lot more books. Especially YA. OK, that isn't exactly accurate either. I need to FINISH all the YA books I start before I can honestly give my reasons for loving my top ten. And if that doesn't make sense, let me explain this way. I don't feel I am quite qualified to say which YA books are better than others because I only FINISH the ones I love. Which gave me an idea for this blog post.
And now we have come full circle.
I have long thought I was mildly ADD, I am not even kidding. My lack of ability to multitask. My constant fidgeting. The fact that I start so many things, and finish few. Hallmark ADD, right?
And it made me finally realize, I am the best and worst reader you will ever know. Because I am what every agent, editor, submission reader is, I am the PERFECT reader. Because trying to get a book lover to read and finish a book, piece of cake. Trying to get ME to read and finish a book, you better be a damn good writer, have a damn good opener, and you better not let me down.
And so I was thinking about as a writer, this has helped me, though I never really knew it. Here is a look at me, as a reader.
1 Cover is EVERYTHING. That dumb cliche about it not being important is a load of crap. It needs to be pretty. And I don't want half naked people on it. As in I will not even pick UP a book with two people in a heated embrace, almost kissing and half naked. Same if they have teeth with blood dripping or a half naked woman clutching some object. No.
I like clean covers, with graphic detail, I pretty much try to stay away from anything with people, really. There are always exceptions, but mostly, NO.
2. From the first page, first paragraph, I need to be hooked. I am not the kind of reader who will give it a while until it gets interesting. No. I have a lot of things to do, I have a lot of books I would LOVE to fall in LOVE with, I do not have time to see if it gets better. Hook me now. While you have me. Because if I get past page one and it doesn't seem interesting, you've lost me. Lucky for all the YA writers out there I'm a teacher, so I buy books for them even if they don't seem appealing. But really, when I'm in a bookstore, I read a page or two and put it down if it doesn't grab me. Sorry, but that is the truth.
And that's why books like Fault in Our Stars, Eleanor and Park, or Hunger Games appeal to the masses. Because from page 1, they have you hooked. (and no photos of people on the cover...SEE?) I don't want back story, or set up or to read about how normal someone's life is. I need a reason to read. And even if I have read the back copy and know the reason is in there somewhere, I don't want to have to wait until page 20 or 50 to get to it. It bores me and I don't have the time.
This is why that first line is so damn important. And the first page. My advice, start with a line that is so absurd or strange or weird or funny, you can't not read on. For example, I happen to think I'm pretty damn good at first lines. And I've always been told as much. Here are some of mine that I think illustrate my point.
From the soon to be published Princess Paradox:
I wish I had the guts to tell my best friend I'd rather gouge out my eyes with a cocktail weenie than attend her wedding.
I think it works because it's funny and it makes you question things. A) Why wouldn't she want to go to her bestie's wedding? B) Of all the things you could gouge your eyes out with, why a cocktail weenie? (this tells the reader there will be sarcasm and humor, this is not literary prose)
Or there is this from a work in progress Becoming Shane Kelly:
Shakespeare was an idiot.
Ok this one works because of the obvious question. WHUUU??? I mean people who don't even like Shakespeare still give him props as a storyteller. So then it makes you consider why this narrator dislikes Shakespeare. By making a strong statement about something that is widely known or accepted, it creates questions in the reader's mind. This is a good thing for ADD readers like me. Because questions make me turn the page. It is when I don't have questions or when I have forgotten to care about the answers to questions I once had, that you've lost me as a reader.
And EVERY TIME YOU ANSWER A QUESTION, YOU NEED TO GET YOUR READER TO ASK ANOTHER ONE!
And if your first line doesn't have one, your first paragraph better.
Here is another paragraph I LOVE and have gotten really great response on. It's another WIP titled The Thief.
Nervous energy is pervasive. Some people get nervous about first dates. Some are put off by having to present a simple science project in front of their class. Some people just get nervous about being nervous. Not me. As a matter of fact, it excites me. There's nothing quite like the feeling you get just before you’re doing something dangerous. The feeling bubbles inside you like a tide churning, palms sweaty and cold, heart racing a million miles a minute, and the overwhelming sensation that whatever it is you're doing…there's a great chance you'll get caught; the feeling of committing a crime, because that is precisely what I'm doing.
This works because as a whole, the reader gets a lot of info about our narrator. We know they are probably a teen, given the examples they give of nerves. We also know this is contemporary because of the language and reference again to the science class. We also know they are doing something illegal. So then, as a reader, the question is what kind of crime? Are we talking serious criminal activity or a petty crime?
I read somewhere that these following questions should be answered for the reader in the first 5 pages, and it was spot on.
1. Who is narrating? (age, name, background)
2. Where are they? (place, time of year, day, era)
3. What is the problem? (can be a minor one that will relate to the main conflict later)
4. What is happening?
And these all need to be done with zero back story or info-dump. It may not seem like much, but it is necessary.
Here is an example from a pro: Sophie Kinsella's first pages of I've Got Your Number.
How many of the above questions can be answered? IN TWO PAGES. WITH NO INFO DUMP, and HELL YA I WANT TO READ THE REST! (I did, actually, it was fantastic)
3. As a reader, I need to either laugh, cry, be shocked, or surprised in the first page or pages. What can I say? I need to care enough about something before I can become invested. So when I read for the umpteenth time about your "normal teen" who is "average", "shy", or "a misfit" in school, I glaze over and decide plucking each hair out of my eyebrow is more enjoyable than reading about them.
I need original characters with original things happening to them or I am not going to keep reading. Instead I am like this:
4. OK. You've successfully hooked me. I love the narrator, I love the action, I love the tension and I have a billion questions. BRAVO. Chapter 1 was a complete and utter success. WOOOOO!
This is important. You have established you can write. NOW DON'T DISAPPOINT ME! I have read a lot of great first chapters. All those pretty books I told you I have? Read all the first chapters. Then I started reading CH 2 and you know what. FLATLINE.
You built up this amazing hook, then comes the boring back story. Or the "now we are at school and things are normal" or "here is where you learn about my friends or family or my dog Joe." I DONT CARE ANYMORE. You have lost me.Which is a damn shame because I may never pick up your book again. No matter what. Even if you do this:
Remember, I have other things to do. If you can't MAKE me continue asking questions or keep me laughing, surprised, shocked or reacting, I will not continue. And if by chance, I give you the benefit of the doubt, hey, maybe it's just a transition chapter, you better AMAZE me in CH 3. Because I won't keep turning those chapters if they continue to not live up to CH 1.
As a writer, I find myself at every chapter thinking...ok...if my reader thought "how could it get worse?" I need to answer that and give them even more than they thought it could be. Each chapter should increase the tension, propel the characters into reacting, deciding, then choosing a course of action. And when they decide their recourse...it should inevitably be THE WRONG CHOICE. Somehow. That's what makes me keep going. I want to be yelling at your character, asking them "WHAT ARE YOU THINKING YOU IDIOT!!!" Because that's when I'm invested.
Think of it this way, no one wants to spend good money, wait in line for hours for the front seat of a roller coaster, just to be taken up that big hill, race down and then the track is flat for the next three minutes. You want twists and turns and more up and down and loopty loops. You PAID for those DAMN LOOPS AND HILLS! If you AREN'T MAKING ME SICK AND CRAZY EXCITED AT THE SAME TIME YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG!
OK. Sorry. I got a little carried away. But basically it's this. When agents, agent assistants, editors, publishers are reading your words, they want that roller coaster. They are expecting Space Mountain or the Matterhorn. Don't give them Dumbo. Because they're trying to get readers like ME to read those books. They want readers like ME to finish those books, then pay more money to see the movie and even more money for the next book by said author because I've liked what they've created thus far. This is how you establish a readership. There is no Emily Giffen, Sophie Kinsella, Becca Fitzpatrick, John Green, or Rainbow Rowell book that I won't buy. Because as a reader, I LOVE to finish those books. I laugh, I cry, I think WAIT THAT IS ME!
5. Happy Endings are boring. I like books with real endings, tragic endings, heart breaking endings. Hell, I WRITE books with those. Thing is, life doesn't wrap up in a tidy little bow. And everything that ends, does so with sorrow. Otherwise it wouldn't be an end.
Anyway, this was my rant. I realize I write as the reader I am. I write the books I want to read. I think that is the key. But at the same time, I've learned that I'm fickle and picky and I'm not going to FORCE myself to read a book I don't care much about. There's too much else in life to do. So, as you write, keep in mind, you want your reader to NEVER want to put down the book. EVER. You want your reader to constantly feel like this:
When I was at BEA, I listened to a panel about writing YA, and I think Kresley Cole had the best advice:
When you write, write to make your reader HAVE to turn the page.
And that my fellow writers is sage advice.
What makes YOU turn the page?