Before I launch into my first foray into writing tips, let me start with a simple set of statistics, one personal, mostly professional. Unless you’re an established author, and sometimes even if you are, sixty percent of readership engagement begins with the cover. That is to say, the majority of readers go into a book if they like the cover. Other factors include the storyline, articulated by the ‘blurb,’ the title, the genre, the title of the book and the author. In other words, there’s a certain expectation with which most readers will go into a book, willing to abandon it should they be faced with disappointment.
The second statistic is personal. It’s not really a stat. I have read thousands of books, most of them romance novels – of the contemporary kind. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of books that I started but didn’t finish. Having the reader’s attention as they’ve downloaded the book, let’s come to the crux of this blog. Within the first few pages of the book, you’ll either have the reader in the palm of your hand or lose them because, in simple words, you failed to deliver.
Notwithstanding the title of this blog, I am going to tell you, from my personal experience as a reader as well as a writer, not only what doesn’t work, i.e. answering the question above, but also what does.
Show And Tell…Or Not
Not that you want to lose a reader in five pages. It’s just a fancy-shamsy way of saying ‘Don’ts.’ I’ll start with a copyeditor’s favourite criticism, a fault that is the bane of most first-time authors – SHOW, DON’T TELL. If you launch into your narrative painstakingly explaining to your readers what the story is about, then you’ll lose them for sure. It sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it. Readers like to get to the grips of the story, yes, but what they don’t like is being told about an emotion, a feeling, a look, et cetera. The simplest example is describing someone as intelligent, handsome, stunning, gorgeous, etc.
That’s telling. Showing is actually describing their supposedly pleasing features, physical or mental. Likewise, how their feeling. Irritation can be shown through a myriad number of ways – tightening of lips, furrowing of brows, gritting of teeth, but don’t ever say someone is irritated. It will irritate the reader.
Keep It Simple Stupid
The second don’t that I have is one of my favourites. Keep it simple, but not stupid. Let me explain. The writing has to be straightforward with simple words. This is not an essay by a literature major aiming to score high marks for spectacular vocabulary. I once read a character joking when asked about how good a book was. Her response? I spent so much time with a dictionary, I ended up reading it instead. It proved more interesting.
If you have the reader scrambling to look up words to figure out the meaning, you’ll lose them for sure. However, simple writing is not just about simple vocabulary. It’s also about avoiding long, complex, compound sentences where the reader has to go back and start at the start of the sentence to understand its meaning. By the way, one review comment that I never tire of hearing is – I like Kyra’s books because they’re easy to read, the writing is simple.
Having said that, and to move to the second part of my second tip, don’t assume readers are stupid either. By that I mean, keep it interesting. Don’t let the reader know everything. Allow some mystery to develop. Keep facts to yourself to be revealed later. The readers have imagination for a reason. Don’t starve it.
Mystery – The Special Ingredient
The third and last Don’t that I have is don’t be so mysterious that the reader doesn’t understand where the story is heading. Alright. This will require an explanation, perhaps an example or two. Before I launch into that, I would like to quote one of my favourite authors. She said that while suspense is all fine and dandy, I like to let the reader know what the story is about in the first few pages of the book. They must get a general idea of where the story is heading, consistent with the blurb, allowing them to relax and NOT be disappointed that the first five pages of the book bears no resemblance to a reader’s expectations, dooming them to disappointment. Thereby, losing the reader.
Now, let me tell you what works. Once again, I’ll start with a copyeditor’s favourite. Make your characters likeable. Alright. I know what you’re going to say. You’ll say: But, Kyra, your MC was an MCP. It is true that one of the characters, usually the male displays some annoying characteristics, but never too early on. At the very start, even if he does tear his hair out, it’s usually for a very empathetic reason, and then, always redeems himself through the story.
You see, my lovelies, more than the MC, it’s the LL that needs to be likeable. If you start off with her behaving like a … I dare not use the word, but you get my meaning, then you will lose the reader, their lips curling in disgust. The characters must be likeable, relatable with the reader saying, ‘ah,’ I know how she feels, I feel the same way. Or, I know what she’s going through. The exact same thing happened to me!
I like action. I like dialog. I like ambience. My last and final tip, for this blog anyway, is mix those three delicious ingredients with likeable descriptions of your main characters in the first few pages and hey presto, you’ve got the reader in the palm of your hand.
I’d like to leave you with a personal habit. My partner and I sit down together on movie nights and spend several minutes scouring the streaming service for a suitable film to watch. We have, by huge coincidence, what we like to call the five-minute-rule. That is to say, if we don’t like the first five minutes of the movie, then either of us are allowed to suggest, let’s change and switch to the first alternative. See? The tips work for movies and books. Happy writing!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my musings. Please let me know what you think.