by Ruth Harris
Your title is just right for your genre.
Your cover is on-target, too. Perfect image, just-so font, come-hither colors. This is a cover that will end up in the book cover wing of the Louvre. You know, that premium spot right next to the Mona Lisa.
Your blurb is totally irresistible. I mean, even Very Big Deal Book Reviewer for the NYT who gets every book published for free couldn’t resist that blurb.
You’ve worked hard, and done everything right.
The reader clicks, lands on your book page.
S/he just needs that one, teeny, tiny little last push before s/he hits the buy button.
Caveat emptor and all that jazz.
S/he wants to know what s/he is getting into before spending 99c. 2.99. 4.99.
So s/he checks out the Look Inside option.
You’ve made your sale.
Or have you?
Or does your reader change his/her mind?
Does the sale you almost made go bye-bye?
That’s how important your Look Inside is.
You only have one chance to make a first impression.
Does your Look Inside show you all primped and polished, on your best behavior, with manners even Anne’s oh-so-polite Camilla will find impeccable?
Is your grammar flawless? Your punctuation ditto? And have all the typos been cleaned up? Because if they’re not, you will lose the sale just at the crucial moment when you were about to close the deal.
You didn’t go to the prom in the mangy sweats you wear to wash the dog or the car, did you?
You didn’t go to that Very Big Deal job interview with spinach caught in your teeth and scuffed shoes. Did you?
You didn’t show up for that first date with Mr. or Ms. Perfecto with a can of beer in one hand and a newspaper clipping of your recent run-in with the law in the other, did you?
Of course not. (I hope.)
Over the years, Anne and I have addressed the specific details crucial to presenting your reader with a compelling, irresistible Look Inside. Let’s take this opportunity to review and reconsider, and take a look at ways your Look Inside can fail to seal the deal—and suggest some fixes.
How to write a great first sentence.
Your chance to swing for the fences and grab your reader starts with the first sentence. A great first sentence—the one that launches your Look Inside—is equivalent to the bottom of the ninth, two out homer that wins the game/series/championship for the home team. Depending on your genre, you want to intrigue, entrance, delight, seduce, or freak out your reader.
In how to write a great first sentence, I’ve collected memorable first sentences from Daphne duMaurier to Leo Tolstoy, from James Ellroy to Sylvia Plath to inspire you. I’ve also included a guide to a variety of approaches to the first sentence ranging from the first person introduction to the third person introduction, from the shock-and-jolt to the rule breakers.
Your first sentence matters. A lot.
Write it. Polish it. Rewrite it. Edit it. And then do it all over again.
Just do whatever you have to do to make sure every word in that ultra-important first sentence counts.
A cheat? A cliché? Or just a yawn?
How—and where—to start?
There are three basic no-nos—all classic beginner’s mistakes—that flunk the test.
You should also forget:
The weather report beginning — “It was a dark and stormy night.” Really?
Starting with a funeral. Especially the funeral starring your main character. Aaaargh. You really think your reader will identify with a corpse? Let the poor creature RIP.
The exception might be a story set in the supernatural whereupon the dearly deceased immediately joins a league of zombies, ghosts, or vampires. Other than that, avoid grave-robber territory.
Instead, heed Anne’s solid advice about how to write a first chapter.
Here are some of my thoughts about banishing the first chapter blues.
And remember to write/rewrite/revise that crucial first chapter last because by now you have finished your book and actually know what it’s about.
Yes, you want to introduce your MC—the character you want your reader to root for—in the first chapter. If your MC has an important partner, sidekick, human or animal or robot (remember C3PO?), you also want to introduce him/her/it. And, you certainly want to introduce or at least indicate the main conflict, whether in the form of the antagonist or the Impossible Quest.
Resist the temptation to introduce too many characters and especially resist the temptation to introduce each new character with by a by-the-numbers, police blotter description—you know, height, weight, hair color, last-seen-wearing—that stops forward motion dead.
You want just enough to intrigue the reader, engage his/her imagination and keep him/her turning the pages until they hit the Buy Button.
You do not want to introduce too many characters in the first pages of the Look Inside and you especially want to make sure they don’t all have the same initial.
John, Jack, Jane = confused reader = lost sale
John, Percival, Charlotte = happy reader = cash register rings up another sale.
Heed Anne’s tips about how to reduce character clutter and de-confuse your poor, innocent victims, um, readers.
Anne’s thoughts about how to create believable, troubled characters using personality disorders backed up by solid research will point you in the right direction.
Protagonist or antagonist, hero or anti-hero, the rogue character is the engine that provides forward momentum, the jolt of energy that revs up a plot. I suggest ways and offer tips about who they are and how to create them.
There will be dialogue.
It will occur in your Look Inside. And it had better show that you know what you’re doing.
Too much yadda-yadda is the mark of the beginner. Especially go-nowhere exchanges about the weather/Sunday’s barbecue/or the cat’s last visit to the vet. (Unless the cat is your main character or sidekick and even then the cat-focused dialogue needs to have a relevant point.)
Dialogue can do a lot of heavy lifting: characterize, move the plot along, slow things down, speed them up. It will also solve many show-don’t-tell quandaries.
Dialogue will bring your characters—and your book—to life. Don’t tell your reader that Thomas is paranoid, crazy, and dangerous. Use dialogue to show them.
“I have to take this loaded, big-ass howitzer everywhere I go.”
“They’re out to get me.”
“People with backpacks. Also the ones carrying totes, purses, books, or babies. The ones with shopping bags, too.”
Do you know how to punctuate dialogue? Really? You’re sure?
Ruth wrote all about dialogue—including the sounds of strategic silence—right here.
Anne opined about characters who blab on—and on—and how to get them to STFU.
Beware the dreaded info dump.
Yes, you’ve done a ton of research.
Yes, you know a lot about your character, setting, plot, but, no, you do not want to Tell Everything and certainly not in your Look Inside. Because if the reader knows Everything at the first peek, why on earth would s/he bother to read the book?
Allow the reader the pleasure of filling in the blanks you have skillfully inserted as you drop in essential backstory in bits and pieces where appropriate.
Here’s how to spot the dreaded info dump: This happened and after a while that happened and that’s because blah, blah, blah.
Or: They went from here to there but it was raining and the train was late, and that’s why blah blah blah.
Definition of an info dump: all those words pile up, go nowhere, and stop the plot in its tracks. They are boring to read and, in fact, boring to write. Readers hate them and writers should, too.
You should be on info dump alert as you review your manuscript and see long, dense grey blocks of text or lengthy paragraphs of narrative.
You should also pay attention whenever you bore yourself writing. What! You don’t believe me? Trust me, it happens. Ask me or any other writer how we know.
Instead: Serve in bite-size pieces. Instead of one long, boring info dump, convey the needed information sprinkled throughout the book in interesting, provocative, dramatic, suspenseful ways.
From how to modernize your prose to adverbosity and false starts, Anne delves into nuts and bolts of a powerful Look Inside.
How long is too long?
Your Look Inside should not consist of one, long chapter. If it does, break that chapter into smaller, more digestible pieces to vary the rhythm and pace of your story. Make sure that every little chunk ends with a cliffhanger that poses a question, adds a conflict, or causes your MC to confront a new, unanticipated problem.
Although non-writers will probably not be able to explain why your book — or your Look Inside — is irresistible, cliffhangers are among a writer’s most potent tools. Cliffhangers compel readers to turn the page, and write the kind of review that tells other readers, “I couldn’t put it down.”
The skillful use of cliffhangers will mark you as a pro. They assure the reader that, if s/he decides to invest time and money into your book, s/he can be confident they will be in good hands and can look forward to a great reading experience.
Cliffhangers come in (at least) a thousand different versions. Learn to use them.
The one and only function of Look Inside:
Leave em wanting MORE.
Because the only way they can get MORE, is to buy the book.
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) March 28, 2021
What about you, scriveners? Does the “Look Inside” feature make or break a sale for you as a reader? Have you read your own “Look Inside” previews on Amazon or other retailers?
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Will Trailer is baseball’s MVP, but around the house? Not so much, according to JessieLynn Wessell, his gorgeous movie star wife.
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