The Four Firsts

tbrI’ve been on a reading binge, catching up on some of the books in my TBR (to be read) pile. AND I’ve been doing a bit of judging for various contests. Which has set me thinking about first impressions.

Once upon a time, I would finish everything I started reading. Then I realised I was spending valuable reading time on stuff I was not enjoying or learning from, so the stuff with the worst writing or the most unlikeable characters dropped off my list. But I’d still often struggle on with stuff that had some promise, in the hope it would get better.

But I’m 66. I may still have 30 years ahead of me, but beyond a doubt I’m closer to the end of my life than the beginning. I’ve become more demanding.

At this point in my life, I need to have some kind of guarantee of satisfaction. I don’t demand perfection. I can forgive a name that is historically unlikely, or the occasional cliche in a description. If the plot grabs me and I care about the characters, the rest just needs to be good, not flawless.

But I have little time and a TBR pile that keeps growing, which lesson I need to apply to my own writing. I want people to keep reading my books, so I need to pay attention to the four firsts: first sentence, first paragraph, first page, and first chapter. If the four first aren’t right, there’s a real risk my books will never make it onto people’s read list, whether or not they’d really enjoy the rest.

First sentence

The first sentence should hook you into the story, intrigue you, and impel you to keep reading.

“In the great sprawl of London, where would he find her?” (The Marquis and the Midwife, Alina K Fields)

“The man who’d murdered her stepfather was finally in her sights.” (My Fair Princess, Vanessa Kelly)

First paragraph

The first paragraph should reveal a hint of the plot, while keeping you in the moment.

“If women were as easily managed as the affairs of state—or the recalcitrant Ottoman Empire–Richard Hayden, Marquess of Glenaire, would be a happier man. As it was, the creatures made hash of his well-laid plans and bedeviled him on all sides.” (Dangerous Weakness, Caroline Warfield)

First page

The first page is often as far as you’ll read when you’re trying to decide whether to make the purchase. And certainly you will use it to judge whether a book in your TBR pile suits your mood of the moment. It needs good writing, more than a hint about at least one of the characters, something to intrigue you, maybe action.

First chapter

The first chapter might be as far as you get. I need to make it count. Check out my excerpts page to read the first chapters of my published books.


Kill those crutch words

crutch-wordsI’m on the home stretch with Revealed in Mist, and will be announcing the release date this coming week. I’ve finished the rewrite following the developmental edit (and the workshop that so inspired me at the RWNZ conference), and received feedback from two of the three people I sent it to for a final read. It still needs a proofread, but first, now that I’m comfortable with the story, I’m going on a crutch word hunt.

I use ‘so’ far too much. And ‘many’. And many of my characters start sentences with ‘Well’. And I have a habit of starting sentences with ‘And’ (or ‘But’). I’ll do a search for these and for ‘that’, asking myself a few useful questions. “Does it add to the meaning?” “Have I used this word five times on this page already?” “Can the word be removed? Or replaced with a better one?”

What are your crutch words?


How much should an ebook cost

In a recent post on a Facebook group, someone complained about paying 99c for a book that was advertised for sale, then finding it only had 185 pages. “I don’t think I should have to pay more than that for 185 pages,” she said.

I was a bit taken aback. 185 pages. That’s around 50,000 words, maybe more.

The discussion ranged widely and came to no conclusions, but it sent me back to the perennial question we self-published writers need to solve on their own. What price is a good price for an ebook?

(Note: all the prices below are in US dollars)

Average price for an indie published book

Author earnings says that indie books averaged $3.87 in May.


This is an increase of 5% in the past 15 months. By contrast, ebooks on Amazon from big-5 publishers have increased in price from $8.29 to $9.53.

Average price for a bestseller

According to Digital Book World, the average price for a bestseller in the first week of April was $6.14, and it’s been hovering around $6 for some time. Most of these are by big name authors, and traditionally published. When you buy a big name author, you know exactly what you’re going to get. When you buy a book from one of the big name publishers, you can assume a certain level of copy editing and professional publications values.

Indie books might be well written and professionally published, or they might not. It’s up to readers to decide whether they’re willing to pay 50% more for a ‘name’.

So what is a fair price for 50,000 words?

Third Scribe has written an interesting article on book pricing. They’ve based their assessment on 50,000 words (the same figure, I’ll remind you, as our Facebook friend’s 99c book). I’m not going to quote at length, but here’s the summary table – and it doesn’t include the cost of all the stuff that goes in behind, such as websites, newsletters, accountants, and so on.

Tallying these up…

Editing: $1,200
Cover Art: $400
Formatting: $100
Promotion: $400
Grand total: $2,100 ($12,100 if you count the author’s time).

That is a real, no bullshit, actual, honest to God cost of what it takes to produce a quality book in the digital age.

How many books does an author sell?

It’s hard to get the figures, but best estimates seem to be that 50 to 100 sales in the first year is average, and 250 sales in the lifetime of the book is pretty good.

And remember that, for books sold on Amazon, the author gets 35c of the list price of a book priced under $2.99.

To make back those basic costs – not your time, just your production expenses – at a cover price of 99c, you’d need to sell 6,000 books. That’s 24 times the average.

So people cut corners. They skip the editor and do their own cover art. Which impacts quality and disappoints readers. That’s not a path I’m prepared to go down.

How do readers feel about price?

Of course, the costs to the supplier are not the only factor. We’ve also got to consider demand.

Dear Author posted an interesting assessment of how readers feel about price. The quotes below summarise their views. Click on the link to see the whole thing.

1)  99c = I’ll buy you but I’m in no hurry to read you.  There’s no question that 99c will result in sales but how many people are reading it?

2) $1.99 is a dead zone.

3) $2.99 – $4.99 is the “I’ll try you even though I’m unsure whether I’ll love it.”  I think this is the discovery price range.

4) $5.00 to $7.99 is the “I’ve read you before and enjoyed what I’ve read.”  This price range is reserved for authors you’ve enjoyed in the past and figure you’ll be entertained for a few hours.

5) $8.99 and up is the “I’ve read you before and I love you.” At this price, you are foregoing purchasing at least one other book, if not more.

And Mark Coker of Smashwords has the figures to show that a 99c book may sell more copies, but a book priced between $3 and $3.99 will generate more income.

I have no conclusions

I don’t know the answer. I’m learning as I go, and trying new things. I’ve given away one book, a novella of 24,000 words, to show my writing style to prospective readers. I’ve priced a long novel at $3.49. And I’m thinking of putting A Baron for Becky – a long novella of nearly 50,000 words – on the market at $2.49. (It is currently for preorder at 99c.)

One lesson I did take from the discussion is to be very clear about labelling. So I’m going to change my book descriptions to say how long the books are. Beyond that, it’s all experimentation.



Journaling to become a better writer

JournalingCongratulations to Danielle Hanna, whose book ‘Journaling to become a better writer‘ has been released today. Here’s her bio, as published on her website:

Danielle Hanna has been penning fiction since she was only four and keeping a journal since age five. In “Journaling to Become a Better Writer,” she bares pages from her own journal to illustrate the emotional depth and storytelling skill that can be achieved simply by writing the events of your life.

Side-by-side with her examples, she delves deep into techniques to explore what makes a story worth telling, what goes into real-life story structure, how to get in touch with your emotions, how to observe the world around you with laser focus, and how to bring passion into every word you write.

Along the way, she shares the most traumatic plot twist of her own life: the stripping away of her family and her search for someone to finally call “Daddy”–a quest which almost claimed her life.

Part writing how-to book, part memoir, part self-discovery guide, this volume will go far beyond breathing inspiration into your journaling and your novel writing. Whether you’re a multi-published author, a life-long journal writer, or have only dreamed of putting pen to paper, discover the story you were born to tell.

Hanna has written a ‘how to’ book, and illustrated it with compelling excerpts from her own life. The book can be read on several levels: as her personal story, as a guide to writers on how to improve their craft through journalling, and as a guide to everyone on how to use writing skills in their journal to improve their self-awareness and get a better handle on their personal journey.

She is a highly skilled writer with an excellent grasp of structure and pace. I really liked the format – journal entry then lessons to draw. I loved her sense of humour. I loved her raw honesty. I wanted to cry in places, and I was so happy that Sam turned out to be the Daddy she needed.

Most of her how-tos I do, and her system is great. People will find it really helpful. I know this, because descriptions are my real raw spot. Definitely not my strength! I’ve been applying her step by step approach ever since I read this book in beta version, and it really helps.


Playing at story

6a00e5509ea6a18834017ee9cffee3970dWhen our kids were young, the PRH was in charge for training people in his profession for the whole of the lower South Island. Whenever we could, we’d all go along – so we had lots of long car trips, and I evolved a number of ways to keep the mob entertained on the way.

Several of these involved telling storytelling, and some I still play with the grandchildren today. They are great ways to develop the story telling muscles.


One of our favourites was the build-a-story. In build-a-story, someone starts telling a story, and stops after a paragraph or two. The next person carries on, often taking the story in a completely different direction. I found that when you’re building stories with children, it’s important not to let them name a character after themselves, since a sibling will ensure that character is eaten by a dragon or dissolved in acid at the first possible opportunity, and it all ends in tears.

On the other hand, they quickly learn that what goes round comes round. Any destruction will soon be paid in kind, with interest!

Fortunately, unfortunately

We loved this game. The first person ends their few paragraphs with something disastrous, and the words ‘but fortunately…’

The next person picks up the tale with whatever miraculous intervention saved the day, but ends their part with ‘but unfortunately…’

Or you can mix it up and let each storyteller decide whether they’re going to pass on a happy or an unhappy happenstance.

Made-to-order stories

When the children were tired and likely to fight over story directions, I would tell the stories. But each child could choose one, two, or three objects to have in the story (the more tired I was, the fewer objects). I still do this with the grandchildren. There are rules. I don’t tell stories about other people’s characters (from books, films, or tv). And they can choose nouns, not verbs. That is, they can tell me the objects or people, but I decide what happens to them.

It can be a challenge to weave a story that has a vase, a unicorn, an alien in a spacehelmet, a spiral-bound notebook, a poodle, and a hot-air balloon. But oh the fun!

The letter game

I’ve played the letter game (by email) with two of the older grandchildren. The person who starts invents two characters, a locality, and a reason why the two characters have to write to one another instead of meeting or phoning. This all goes into the first letter. It’s impossible to plan much further than that, since the second person will take the story wherever they want it to go.


Epiphany moments

epiphanyToday we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany (actually 6 January, but the New Zealand bishops have Sundayised most of the liturgical feasts). Just for fun, I went looking for articles about literary epiphanies. You know. Those moments when the character suddenly realises something that changes their whole life from that point forward; often something that has been obvious to the reader for some time. ‘I love her.’ ‘The man is a villain.’ ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ ‘I’m at the top of the ladder and it is against the wrong wall.’

In Author Magazine, I found a discussion of the difference between epiphanies and character arcs. Epiphanies, the writer says, are:

…moments when a character suddenly realizes something about herself. Those are moments of deep significance in your book because they foreshadow changes in how the character will think and act.

Contrast this to the writer’s definition of a character arc.

A character arc is the cumulative effect of a series of epiphanies.  It’s where the character ends up after multiple experiences of increased self-awareness and personal change.

So epiphanies are used to move a character to self-awareness, and therefore need to be built into the plot from the beginning.

An article in the Atlantic points out that self-awareness is hard to achieve, and the clarity of an epiphany moment is often followed by backsliding.

In other words, these conversion experiences don’t stick—or they don’t stick for very long. Human beings have to be re-educated over and over and over again as we swim upstream against our own irrationalities.

Fiction Notes talks about where to put the epiphany (near, but before, during, or after the climax), and six ways that writers get  the epiphany wrong. Number 4 particularly irritates me in a story.

“I Haven’t Mentioned This Before, But. . . .” An epiphany has to be a natural outgrowth of the story and not tacked on. Instead build in a cause-effect relationship; the stories events cause the epiphany.

And Just about Write explains the difference between epiphany and revelation. The article starts with the reason for having an epiphany.

Fiction yields a transformed character. Let’s face it. If the protagonist hasn’t changed by the end of the story, it will lack the excitement necessary to keep the reader interested. Without that interest, the reader may want to put the book down and walk away, never to take it up again.


Getting rid of filter words

Image is from:

Image is from:

‘Show. Don’t tell.’ Every writer has heard this mantra. I hadn’t, though, heard of filter words till recently. Filter words are verbs that take the reader one step away from experiencing life as your POV character. Leah Wohl-Pollack of Invisible Ink Editing gives this list:

  • to see
  • to hear
  • to think
  • to touch
  • to wonder
  • to realize
  • to watch
  • to look
  • to seem
  • to feel (or feel like)
  • can/could/couldn’t
  • to decide
  • to know
  • to sound like
  • to notice
  • to be able to
  • to note
  • to experience
  • to remember

I’ve been through my draft evaluating each filter word as I find it. Here’s one passage before the changes:

She felt torn between railing at him for his arrogance and blurting out how uncomfortable she was with the constant prickly awareness he induced in her. Silence seemed safe. She said nothing as he coaxed the horses onto the bridge, then turned to pass the mill.

This became:

Should she rail at him for his arrogance? Blurt out how uncomfortable he made her? She was constantly aware of him; every nerve ending on edge and a strange hollow warmth in the pit of her stomach. Silence seemed safer. She kept her eyes turned away from on his strong hands as he coaxed the horses onto the bridge, then turned to pass the mill.

It’s a great tip. For more, just google ‘filter words’.


Why do I need a beta reader?

betasThe third draft of Farewell to Kindness will be finished this weekend; probably later today. Some wonderful people have volunteered to read it for me, and I’ve been fishing around for clues on what I should say when I brief them. I found a fabulous resource by Belinda Polland at Small Blue Dog Publishing. It explains what a beta reader is, and why we need one. It then goes on to link to more articles about how to find beta readers and how to brief them. Great stuff. Here’s Belinda’s list of reasons:

The fact is, we spend so much time on our own manuscripts that we can’t see them objectively — no matter how diligently we self-edit. These can be some of the outcomes (there are plenty more):

  • We create anticipation or an expectation early in the book, but forget to deliver on it.
  • We describe events in a way that is clear to us but not clear to a reader who can’t see the pictures in our head. (At least, we hope they can’t see them. Are you looking inside my head??? Eek!)
  • We leave out vital steps in an explanation and don’t realise it, because we know what we mean.
  • The characters in our books (whether fictional, or real as in a memoir or non-fiction anecdote) are not convincing, because we know them so well we don’t realise we haven’t developed them thoroughly on paper.