Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lessons From the Pros ~ She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell

Today I'd like to talk about openings and how to make your reader keep reading.

Being a novelist who hopes to break into the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) marketplace, I try to read a wide variety of books in that field. So the other day when I was at the library and saw She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell on their new acquisitions shelf, I picked it up.

Here is the back cover copy: During New York City's Gilded Age... The game is played amid banquets and balls. The prize is a lifetime of wealth and privilege. The rules will test friendships and the desires of a young woman's heart. Clara Carter is the social season's brightest star... but at what cost?

I confess that based on the blurb, I probably never would have purchased this book had I been in a bookstore. (The blurb didn't really give me a "you HAVE to read this book" feeling.) But since it was at the library and was a CBA book, I picked it up thinking to thumb through it and see what it was about.

Right from the first paragraph this book had a strike against it, in my preconceived notion. It is written in the first person and I have always had trouble enjoying books written only from one POV. (Since, on a guest post I wrote for another blog not too long ago, someone thought a POV was some sort of SUV, I feel the need to clarify that POV means Point of View :)) There are so many characters with inner psyche's to delve into and I want to know them all intimately! So I've always had trouble enjoying 1st person narrative.

However, and here is Lesson from the Pros point #1, Ms. Mitchell makes her heroine, Clara, so sympathetic right from the first paragraph that I had to keep reading just to find out what happened to her. Her aunt who is stiff, abrupt, and "perpendicular in the extreme" has just moved in and we immediately feel empathy for Clara who is cowed by the woman addressing her.

Lesson #1: Your character doesn't have to illicit empathy, but they should evoke some sort of emotional response in your reader that will make them want to keep reading. Make your reader care what happens to this character whether they want them to succeed or to fail, doesn't matter. The key is to make them care.

But that is just the first barb on the hook.

We soon find out that Clara does not want to debut this season (or ever, for that matter) but is being forced to do so by her aunt. Not only that, she is expected to capture the heart of the very same man her best friend is supposed to catch. And that is the second barb on the hook, Lesson from the Pros point #2! Because we simply don't know which girl will win the guy, or if their friendship will survive the contest!

Lesson #2: Early on, give your readers a question, or series of questions, that they don't know the answer to. This will be the second barb on the hook that pulls them in and keeps them reading until they find out the answer.

In the end, even though several things about the book strayed from my normal choice in reading, I stuck with it to get my questions answered. (It is important to note the order of these two tools Ms. Mitchell used at the beginning of her story. First she made me care about the heroine, then she raised a few questions. If I hadn't cared, I probably wouldn't have been so invested in learning the answers.) And that is the sign of a good writer - someone who can make you keep reading even when all your biases tell you the book is not for you. So my admiration goes out to Ms. Mitchell for a hook well done!

How does the opening of your current WIP compare? Do you have a double-barbed hook?
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6 comments:

  1. Great post. Giving readers 1) a reason to be interested in the main character and 2) a burning question to be answered are *the* two most important missions in any first chapter.

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  2. Good points, good questions. Now I need to find the answers.

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  3. I agree, Katie. Without a main question, there can be no main problem... which is, after all, why we all read fiction - to watch/help others solve (or not) their problems! :D

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  4. These are great lessons, thanks for sharing.

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  5. I failed to gain reader sympathy/empathy in one of my WIPs (now a work-in-hiding), and heard about it big-time. Lesson #1 was learned the hard way!

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  6. Toyin, no problem.

    Linda, cringe. I hate learning a lesson the hard way. But! At least you are past that now! :D

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