Sunday, January 24, 2010

Viral Excerpts Part II - How to make your excerpt sizzle

In my last post, I talked about making the first pages of your manuscript a free gift -- a valuable gift -- to your readers. That's a mindset you can use to improve the quality of your writing. Look at it from a reader's perspective and ask: Is this really valuable to me?

This post, part II, discusses technique. Don't forget, this can apply to:
  • Excerpts on your website
  • Contest entries
  • Submissions to editors and agents

When it comes to submissions, we all know how important your first sentence, first paragraph, first page is. If you haven't grabbed an editor or agent by the first page, that's when she (or he) reaches for the rejection form.

In his fabulous book, "Hooked: write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go," Les Edgerton contends that most writers don't get read by editors and agents because of bad beginnings. A sobering thought.

So HOW do you make your first words sizzle?

Here are some basic, MUST haves to get you started on creating that perfect opening to your terrific story.

1. Cut the Backstory

I am the self-proclaimed backstory Queen. Info-dump is my middle name. I love backstory. And backstory is important. It gives your characters depth and keeps them from being cardboard cutouts. Backstory, after all, is where your character's Internal Conflict came from, right?

Yes, but it still doesn't belong in the first chapter. At least, not more than just a hint of it.

One of the best articles I've read recently on how to cut backstory from your opening is on Romance University. In that post, Theresa Stevens, Managing Editor at Red Sage recommends using choice, action, and conflict instead of "explaining" (a.k.a info-dumping) to illustrate a backstory problem a character is wrestling with.

She says: "Your job at this point is not to “fill the reader in” on all the details of the landscape. Your job is to lure them in with conflict and dynamic change, and keep them guessing."

2. Cut the Internal Musings

Closely related to backstory is internal monologue. A critique partner I once had used to remind me my characters shouldn't be sitting around and thinking. That's good advice.

Your opening should be a scene. A scene, not a sequence. And any scene, especially the first one in your story, should be action-driven. Internal monologue happens when a character REACTS. A "scene" dominated by that type of reaction should only come after a scene WITH action.

Actions come from decisions a character makes, often under duress. If all this isn't happening RIGHT NOW for the character, then ... maybe you're not starting your story at the right place. Ouch.

3. There is nothing like a GOAL...

...nothing in the world (sung to the tune from South Pacific).

You can hardly overemphasize the importance of goals in fiction. All of your characters should have goals. Your protagonist, your co-protagonist, your antagonist, even your secondary characters should have goals. Lots of them. Story goals, Act goals, scene goals, Internal goals, External goals.

Without a goal your story has no point. It meanders around with less direction than a river (since a river will eventually get to the ocean).

I like to watch nature shows in the evening with my hubby because they're a relaxing escape from the stress of the day. As I observed one recently with hooded gaze, I thought. This would be an example of good entertainment that didn't have goals.


In a nature show, there's always some story about a nest of baby eagles who might not survive, or a wolf who gets separated from the pack and can't find a meal. The common goal? Survival. Nothing more basic than that. If those shows didn't have the narrator filling in the details of the threat to survival (the Conflict), nobody would watch them.

Anytime you have a scene that's falling flat, ask yourself: What is the POV (point-of-view) character's goal in this scene. I'll bet your answer will be something like, "Aaaah, I don't know!" There you go. The character doesn't have a goal.

Of course, there's usually more than one character in a scene, so the other character ALSO has to have a goal. And should they be the SAME goal? Altogether now. NO!!! The other character should have an OPPOSITE goal, to create... you guessed it...CONFLICT.

As you can see, we're getting back to the basics of GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict).

4. You don't have enough CONFLICT.

Yes, I do. No, you don't. But it's right there, see? No. It's just not enough....

Easy, isn't it? Except when you're writing the opening lines of your story. Why is that? That's a question for therapists to answer. Suffice it to say, you MUST have conflict in your opening pages.

That doesn't mean your characters are punching each other in the face (though that would make an attention-getting opening). It does mean that there's disagreement. Resistance. Friction.

Ever notice the word "agony" in "protagonist" and "antagonist"? The job of these characters is to give each other pain, to drive each other crazy! It can range from all-under-the-surface to a full-blown, heated argument (might be better to build up to that, but it depends on the story).

In a romance, the opening pages are often the "meet scene" between heroine and hero (also something that's hard to do). So there has to be some conflict between these two. But at the same time, there also has to be attraction, balanced with the conflict. In other words, your romance shouldn't start like this:

"Hi there," he said. "You're the best looking woman I've ever met."
"I was just thinking the same thing about you. I mean, as a man."
He grinned. "What to go find a closet and get it on?"

Theresa Stevens advises, "Conflict is the engine that drives every page of a well-told tale." This means we need conflict throughout the entire book. You've worked hard on your novel and you may have a lot of wonderful conflict in it. That's great. Just don't forget that if you leave conflict out of your first page, the rest of your book may not get read.

Now it's time to get busy and rework those openings. Before you do, can anyone turn that scene I started around and give it some conflict?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Viral Excerpts - Make your first words a free gift

In getting this blog up and running, I've been doing some research on viral marketing. It's an interesting topic.

Viral marketing is marketing that spreads like a virus (a good one) via social networks and blogs. As webopedia states it, viral marketing is "positive word-of-mouth brand awareness."

Sounds, well, infectious, doesn't it? Wouldn't we all love to have Facebook's 300 million users reading our books?

What does this mean for writers?

There are a lot of ways to apply viral marketing to a writing career. One of the strategies that caught my eye is a free giveaway of a product.

The trick is not to give away something equivalent to the clothes you toss out when cleaning your closet, but to give away something of value. In marketing this idea is called WIIFM. (What's in it for me?) In other words, don't just focus on what your website will do for you. Focus on what it will do for your readers.

For example, we see giveaways on published author sites, especially on blogs in exchange for comments:

  • Margie Lawson often gives away her coveted lecture packets when she guest blogs to the winning commenter.

There is also information that's just plain free:

  • Here on Linsey's Diary, I've created a list of Cool Links of important information for the writer who wants to become or to stay published. I hope to add to this list as time goes by. If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment.

But I'd like to apply the idea to something else

Someone mentioned to me recently that more and more, editors and agents are looking for online excerpts of your writing. For the not-yet-published, this usually means the first 500 to 1,000 words of a manuscript.

We all know how important the first chapter, the first paragraph, even the first line of your manuscript is. If you haven't grabbed most editors by the first page, many of them stop reading.

So how can you make your excerpts worthy of an editor's or agent's attention?

Think of them as a free giveaway.

And now for the hard questions to ask yourself:
  • Is my excerpt something a reader would think valuable? Or is it the equivalent of a cheap party favor?

  • Is my excerpt something that could start a viral wave of fury? Would people be blogging about it? Twittering their friends about it?

  • If my excerpt were the last thing I ever wrote, would I want to be remembered for it?

Tough, huh?

Yes, but no tougher than the demands of editors, agents, and your future readers.

How do you make your excerpt that good? Hmm. Sounds like a topic for another post. Stay tuned...

I'm really preaching to myself in this article. I intend to greatly increase my submission rate in 2010 and over the years I've learned beginnings are my biggest weakness. This year, I'm going to work on that and make my openings shine. How about you?