One of the pieces of advice that every writer hears until it makes us sick is “you need to read.” And that’s true and valid advice. (And if you don’t love to read, why are you writing?)
Here’s the piece that most people miss though. It’s not enough to just read, as if the knowledge we need will be magically absorbed into us. The truly great books make us forget we’re reading, which also means…you guessed it, we’re not paying attention to how they made that book awesome.
We need to read mindfully.
So I decided to create a mini-series to take the “writers need to read” advice deeper and show you ways you can dig into published books to learn and grow as a writer. Dissecting a book to understand how and why it works is a skill in itself. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
This week, we’re going to do it for free using Amazon’s preview feature to explore the opening hooks of books in our genre.
Head over to Amazon. (I’m using Amazon because it’s the easiest tool for this exercise.) And my apologies to my international readers, but it’s also best to use Amazon.com for this one.
Select BOOKS, then KINDLE BOOKS, and then the category that you’re writing in. Each genre category has slightly different conventions, and it’s important that you study what you’ll be writing. I’ll use Mystery, Thriller & Suspense as our example for today.
Now pick Best Sellers. For this particular exercise, we want to learn from the books that are grabbing enough readers to hit the lists.
Now we’ll need to dig a little more into the sub-category we’re writing in. Let’s go to Suspense > Psychological. (You don’t want to go any deeper into the categories than that, even if given the choice. We want books that are moving a lot of copies every day.)
Here’s what I found for Psychological Suspense.
We want to collect a sample of at least five books out of the top 10.
Out of the top 10, cross off all books that aren’t a standalone or the first in a series. Mid-series books sometimes start differently because, ostensibly, readers are coming in already familiar with the characters and what’s happened before.
Now cross off any duplicate authors. You want a diverse sample, so if an author has more than one book in the top 10, pick just one of theirs.
Eliminate any obviously cross-genre books. For example, #6 in my screenshot failed the test because it’s more horror.
Also, eliminate books that seem to be at a promotional price compared to the others on the list. We can’t be sure whether they ranked because they’re great or because of the price. For example, the #1 book in my screenshot is priced at 99 cents compared to a $2.99-$5.99 average price.
Here’s the list I came up with:
- The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft
- The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen
- The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
- Orchids and Stone by Lisa Preston
- Kill Me Again by Rachel Abbot
Once you have your list, it’s time to read the samples.
When you finish each one, ask yourself these questions.
(1) Did the first line hook me? Why or why not? How did they hook me?
The why is important. I’m going to be writing a whole series of posts on openings later this year, but for now, let’s look at the opening lines of the five books above.
On the night I asked my father the question, my family had been five years in the basement – The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen
Daphne didn’t quit college to become a roofer – Orchids and Stone by Lisa Preston
It had been easy to get him alone – The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft
It was raining when they came for me – Kill Me Again by Rachel Abbot
I’m sitting at the breakfast nook sipping from a mug of cocoa when the phone rings – The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
The first four opening lines all hook the reader by making them ask a question. What question did he ask his father and why had their family been in the basement that long? Why did Daphne quit college? Why did she want to get him alone? Why did they come for her and who are they?
The final three opening lines hook by creating fear and suspense as well.
The Good Girl does it in a subtle way. We’re primed to expect that phone call will bring bad news. (She also builds on this in the rest of the paragraph with images of dead leaves, clinging lifelessly and an overcast sky.)
(2) Did I want to keep reading? If I did, what made me want to keep going? If not, why not?
Again, the why is important. Why did we want to keep reading? Was it an interesting premise? A setting you wanted to explore more? A quirky character whose voice you wanted to keep listening to?
Don’t just stop there. Think about the specifics. If it was an interesting setting, how did they bring it to life? What types of details did they use? What made it interesting to you?
If you didn’t want to keep reading, what made you want to stop? Sometimes this can be personal preference—for example, we don’t like that particular writer’s voice. I’ll personally stop if a book contains too much profanity.
Sometimes it can be something specific that they did—for example, did you lose interest because nothing seemed to be happening (i.e., the story was taking too long to get rolling)? Were you turned away because the viewpoint character was too unsympathetic?
(3) What was the viewpoint character doing? How did you feel about them? Why?
You’ve probably noticed the why again there. In that sense, writers need to be like children. Asking why is how we learn.
Openings are tricky because we need our characters to be doing something interesting, while also making the reader care enough about them to read on. (Don’t confuse that with being likeable. Readers will stick with an unlikeable character pursuing an intriguing goal that matters to the character.)
What’s important here is to see what works and what doesn’t and then figure out how the writer made it so.
Now apply all of this to your opening.
If you have a finished book or even a work-in-progress, read approximately the same amount as you saw in the samples.
Does your book do any of the things that made you stop reading? Can you incorporate some of the elements that made you want to keep reading those other books?
What other things would you suggest fellow writers analyze in those samples? Anyone brave enough to share how their book’s opening compared to the bestsellers in their category?
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Image Credit: Lynn Lopez/freeimages.com