I’m back again to celebrate the release of my new book, The Discovery (Revell). I was thrilled to learn it received a 4.5 Stars/Top Pick rating in RT Book Reviews magazine (April issue). Next week, the book will be on a Blog Tour, with about 70 bloggers reviewing it in the US and Canada (hope they’re as kind as RT).
I thought since you’ve all been so busy working on your Speedbo projects, you might appreciate a discussion about Self-Editing. I’m sure you’re hoping these books you’ve worked so hard to write will make it to the bookshelves (or become Ebook downloads). There are so many things we could address on the topic of self-editing. Let’s talk about the “Importance of a Great Beginning.” Or…another way to say it:
Will They Take Your Book Back to the Coffee Shop?
The Discovery is my 6th published novel, but every time I write a book I keep this question in mind. Not only do I want all my return readers to anxiously anticipate my next release. I want to keep building my readership with every book. So I never take the importance of a great beginning for granted.
As I write, I picture someone who’s never heard of me picking up my book, then see them going through the same routine I always do in bookstores. That is, make a decision whether this book is gripping enough to earn that coveted place at my table back at the café (of course, with so many people shifting to Kindles, Nooks and other Ereaders, the idea of taking a book back to the café has really become something of a metaphor now).
So, let’s look at this in our time together today. Even if you’re not published yet, stay tuned in. Everything we’re talking about is just as relevant for you. Why? Because agents and editors are fanatical book readers. In fact, they may just care more how your book begins than anyone else (more on why later).
A Quick Update
Since my last visit in September, I’ve been writing my first novel in a four-book fiction series with Dr. Gary Smalley. We just finished it at the end of March and sent it in to our editor at Revell. It’s called, The Dance. Gary co-authored the Redemption Series with bestselling author Karen Kingsbury several years ago. It was a huge success (over 1.5 million books sold). Our books should resonate well with fans of that series; although Gary made it clear he wants me to write these stories the way I write, not try to imitate Karen. He said he picked me for this project because my writing impacted him emotionally, the same way Karen’s did (that blew me away). Gary’s been wonderful to work with, and I can’t wait for The Dance to come out next year.
I plan to start writing Book 2 in a week or so.
Back to Our Speedbo Topic – Great Beginnings
I’ll use my latest book as a guinea pig. Here’s the cover. That’s usually where the reader starts. Imagine you’re seeing this on the bookshelf (hopefully, face out).
Would you pick it up, turn it over, read the back cover? If so, we’re making progress.
Now obviously, authors don’t have a lot of control over the quality of our covers. But most publishers know readers really do judge books by their covers (at least in those first few seconds). Hopefully, you’ll get one that will help the cause.
On the back cover you see some endorsements by Gary Smalley and award-winning author Sarah Sundin. Then you read this:
When aspiring writer Michael Warner inherits his grandfather’s venerable Charleston estate, he settles in to write his first novel. But within the confines of the stately home, he discovers an unpublished manuscript that his grandfather, a literary giant whose novels sold in the millions, had kept hidden from everyone—but clearly intended Michael to find. As he delves deeper into the exciting tale about spies and sabotage, Michael discovers something that has the power to change not only his future but his past as well.
Laced with suspense and intrigue, The Discovery is a richly woven novel that explores the incredible sacrifices that must be made to forge the love of a lifetime. Author Dan Walsh delivers yet another unique and heartfelt story that will stick with readers long after they turn the last page.
Hmmm, you think. Am I intrigued? Is there enough here to get me to open the book to chapter one?
Again, like the cover, authors don’t have a whole lot of say in the content for these back covers. But I do work hard to come up with something to send in to my marketing folks. They do a great job making my long-winded summaries into something much more concise and effective.
Hopefully, at this point you are intrigued enough to open the first few pages and take a look. THIS is where our contribution as writers is CRITICAL. Of course, the book has to work as a whole. It has to tell a great story in a way that draws the reader in, causes them to care deeply about the characters, keeps their interest running high for 300 pages or more and then ends in a deeply satisfying way.
But the fact is, no one will ever see all that hard work if we don’t come up with a GREAT BEGINNING. If those first few sentences and first few paragraphs, followed by those first few pages don’t WOW the reader, guess what happens? The book doesn’t get invited back to the coffee shop; it goes back on the shelf. In the case of a proposal sent to an agent or editor, the situation is a little different. It gets worse. They set it aside in the rejection pile.
We only have, as the saying goes, one chance to make a great first impression.
The Ones That Got Away
Some years ago, my family went camping in the Florida Keys with some friends. The water is crystal clear and calm, like a huge swimming pool. My friend didn’t have a big boat, but we figured the water was calm enough to head out to the reef. Supposed to be great fishing out there. It took us over an hour to reach it, chugging along in his little motor. The reef was easy to find. Several other boats were hovering right on top of it.
We looked down and could actually see schools of fish swimming in an around the reef thirty feet below. Hundreds of them. We got out our gear and bait and began casting away. Instantly, we got strikes. But the fish we pulled in were these little pan fish called croakers. We tossed them back. We wanted those big guys swimming around down there, not these little croakers.
So we cast again. Wham! Instant strikes. Two more croakers, no bigger than 10 inches each. We through them back. Same thing happened, again and again, for several hours. Croakers. Nothing but croakers.
About 25 yards away on a bigger boat, guys were hauling in big beautiful pompano. That’s what we wanted. Sporting fish, each one a meal by itself. We could see the pompano swimming right below us, but they ignored our bait completely.
What were they…fish snobs?
We asked the guys on the happier boat what kind of bait they were using. “Live shrimp,” the guys yelled back. Rats. All we brought was frozen squid. Not calamari, just frozen squid.
Guess what kind of fish will eat even smelly frozen squid? That’s right, croakers. And that’s all we caught the whole time we were out there. Back on the beach, as we worked for hours cleaning up our bucket of croakers, all we talked about were those big, plump pompano that swam all around our boat that day.
The ones that got away.
Mixing My Metaphors
I do have a point here. To hook the big fish, you’ve got to have the right bait. The kind of bait big fish like to see on the end of that hook.
For fiction readers (including agents and editors), that bait is a great beginning for your book. And you need to set the hook with your very first line. I spend lots of time writing my first line. I go back and rewrite it at least a dozen times. I spend almost as much time writing those first few paragraphs.
And I rewrite my first chapter over and over, really till I’m almost sick of it.Trying to get it just right. Trying to set the hook.
The whole book does matter, very much. But these first words are the words that matter most, IF I hope to get the reader to take my book back to the coffee shop and give it a better look. Okay, I know, I’m mixing my metaphors now, coffee shops and fishing stories. But you get the idea.
Here are my first lines for The Discovery (it’s not in italics in the book):
I remember…I was supposed to be sad that day.Everyone was sad. It is always sad when a legend dies. Our family gathered in Charleston to read his will.
Gerard Warner’s novels sold in the millions. He’d won the Pulitzer Prize. Past presidents quoted his words in speeches. Several of his books had become blockbuster movies. I remember reading interviews with some of the celebrities who’d starred in those movies. Talked as if they were friends with my grandfather.
I knew instantly they were lying.
They didn’t know him. None of them did. He wouldn’t have let them.
To his adoring fans, Gerard Warner remained an enigmatic, elusive figure his entire career. He wouldn’t even allow his picture on his own book covers. Every time a new novel came out, TV producers and talk show hosts made their appeals―again―wanting to be the first to interview him. He only said yes to print interviews. Even then, no pictures. And absolutely no questions about his personal life allowed.
Still, Gerard Warner’s books flew off the shelves. They were that good.
I called him Gramps.
“You’re smiling, Michael.”
I looked over at my beautiful wife, holding tightly to my hand, her blonde hair lit up by the sun. “Can’t help it, Jenn. I love this place.” It’s hard not to love a slow walk down Broad Street in Charleston, especially in October. Pick any street in the old downtown area. I loved them all. The cobblestones of Chalmers, the courtyards along Queens. The iron gates and grand staircases on Church Street, the tilting townhomes on Tradd.
Would you read on from here? Or perhaps, grant my even greater wish…and take this book back to the coffee shop with you?
Maybe, maybe not. But that’s my goal as I write the opening lines for every book.
Let’s talk about this today. Great beginnings. How much time do you put into your opening lines and opening paragraphs? How have you “set the hook” in your Speedbo project or any other WIP? Take a moment and share it with us, or share some of the best opening lines you’ve ever read.
I’d love to see what you come up with. I’ll be checking in all day.
Dan Walsh is the award-winning and bestselling author of 7 novels, published by Revell and Guideposts, including The Unfinished Gift, Remembering Christmas and The Discovery. For those who haven't read Dan's books, reviewers often compare them to Nicholas Sparks and Richard Paul Evans. A member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and CWG's Word Weavers, Dan served as a pastor for 25 years and now writes fulltime. He and his wife Cindi have been married 35 years and have 2 grown children and 2 grandchildren. They live in Port Orange, FL where Dan is busy researching and writing his next novel. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter, or read his blog. You can connect to these on his website at www.danwalshbooks.com.
Revell has kindly sent Seekerville a copy of The Discovery, hot off the presses for one Seekerville commenter. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.