20 Nov Grab readers in the first two paragraphs
Crime novelist Emma Flint was the keynote speaker at ‘How to get Published’, a one-day conference held in London on 16 November 2018. Emma talked about the essential skills required to get a reader’s attention. You have to hook a reader with the first chapter of a book or they’ll put it down. Obvious but not easy to achieve. If you’re writing an article the first paragraph has to work the same magic. Although Emma didn’t cover blogs it’s certainly worth giving extra attention to a blogpost’s title because it’s your one chance to grab a reader who may only have a few minutes spare. From the start a writer has to work really hard to tempt, entertain, entice and seduce the reader.
Here are some notes from Emma’s talk on how to make the first chapter count:
- Introduce the setting, the where and when. Provide enough information to orient the reader but keep further details for later.
- If you’re going to provide different points of view in the book, or play with time by varying the tense, do that later as well.
- The aim is not to make the reader work too hard in the first chapter, keep it simple.
- Engage the reader with dialogue that highlights the main character’s personality, make the reader care about him/her.
- Then drop clues about the plot to place a question in the reader’s mind, and only by reading on will the question (or questions) be answered.
Emma gave the following advice about prologues: ‘Treat your prologues like you would a chainsaw; with extreme care, with delicate handling, and have someone standing by ready to pull the plug.’
You might guess from this that Emma isn’t a fan of prologues but she said it’s a personal thing. For me, I think they can be very useful, especially in non fiction. Emma reiterated that the first chapter of a book ought to be sufficiently well crafted that it could stand alone as a short story and to me that sounds like a good test.
Writers and Artists’ James Rennoldson introduced the speakers and in a break he told me the sixty tickets for this event sold out quickly. The atmosphere was buzzing with writerly talk about fiction, non-fiction, poetry and screen-writing.
Mary Lynn Bracht was the next speaker, her debut novel White Chrysanthemum was published in January 2018 and I remember hearing James Naughtie interview her on Radio 4’s ‘Meet the Author’.
Novels that rely on fact require deep research and Mary gave an overview of the book’s progress from genesis to publication. It was in the making for several years the last two of which sounded like hard work, they were editing years. In answer to a question about whether she found editing tiresome she took a pragmatic approach. Having been given an advance she knew she had to deliver and just got on with it and made the changes her publisher wanted. Once the book was in the wide world (it was published in the UK and USA) a long round of publicity events was organised which she said had been hectic but enjoyable. Mary was thoroughly pleased with the final product and one piece of advice has stayed with me: ‘Do your research then stop, take a month off, dream. Let the information percolate before you start writing.’
The third and final writer to speak was Mark Illis, a published author. He spent ten years writing for TV soaps such as Emmerdale and Eastenders and has now gone back to books and concentrates his time on fiction for young adults. He said TV is where the money is, TV had bought him a house and had been great fun. For the budding screen writers in the audience this must have been reassuring news.
Writing for TV is a collaborative effort whereas writing books is a private activity.
Using his soap experience he talked about how to tell a good story and then asked the audience to think carefully about endings. When you write a book you may already have an end in mind but more often than not you won’t. But let the end come and then say to yourself, ‘what if I carry on with this a bit more?’ Another end will form. And then another. He said to play with this for a while and then, only after exploring all possible endings, decide which one you like best. I found this a rather interesting way to approach things. I can see how easy it would be to apply Mark’s advice when writing fiction but I am not quite sure how to adapt it for non fiction.
It was interesting to hear Mary Lynn Bracht’s experience of working with agents. Her very first book, a memoir, was taken up by an agent and nothing much happened. The agent, who was not named, hardly communicated with her and in the end Mary felt let down and ignored. It is such a shame and it shouldn’t happen. The memoir is still in a drawer. Her second experience of working with an agent was utterly successful as we have seen; there are agents out there who really do care.
Two agents took the late afternoon slot: Jo Unwin made a career change later in life and has now been running her own literary agency for ten years, Cynthia Okoye works with the multi-channel agency Curtis Brown. The energy these two ladies put in the room was amazing. Here are the best bits from their talk:
- Think about the writer-agent relationship as a journey you make together. Neither will know what’s ahead and you each have a part to play in the future of your book.
- If you have worked really hard with your book there will be an agent interested in it. Research and find the best match, this could be a long term relationship, then make contact.
- Your agent will represent you and seek ways for you to earn more from all the hard work, including selling the publishing rights abroad. They will, if appropriate, also seek opportunities to turn the book into a film or TV series.
- Send an email with your draft attached. In the email tell the agent why you would like him/her to represent you. Tell them a bit about the book, just a sentence or two. If someone important in your career has said something nice about your manuscript mention it, third party endorsement counts. Show that you’re serious about your career as a writer, explain what brought you in to writing and what you have done to improve your skills. By taking responsibility for your career you demonstrate confidence and you will stand out from the crowd. This email, like the first chapter, has to grab the agent’s attention. They won’t even open the attachment if your email indicates a passive attitude.
- It’s OK to contact several agents at the same time. Just mention in your email that you’ve done this. It could speed up a response if your draft manuscript shows promise.
- You won’t be penalised if you have previously self-published. As long as what you’re sending an agent is fresh and new, and has not been published anywhere before, there is every chance they will be interested.
In response to a question about anthologies the agents said it is difficult to find a buyer for these and yet they’re proving popular with today’s book buyers so that might change, it’s an evolving market.
As an emerging author in my sixties I have to think carefully about the route my books will take to market because I’m not prepared to wait six years like Mary Lynn Bracht before publication, unless there is a really good reason to. On the other hand I am beginning to learn that you cannot rush into publication. Books can be written and self-published in a matter of months but the type of books I’m writing require considerable research and I think I need to give myself that time. Time to enjoy the process and then, hopefully, I’ll have a product I can be proud of.
The event was organised by James Rennoldson and Clare Povey from Writers & Artists, the company that produces the ever popular Writers & Artists Yearbook from Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. The Open University hosted the event at Hawley Crescent, Camden Town, London. Thanks to all for a very good day.
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