Grab Your Reader Fast

No advice for any writer is more important than crafting an opening chapter that will keep his or her readers interested in continuing. Today, most published books have a presence on Amazon. Type an author’s name into a Google search and all of that author’s published books will appear.

Every day Google adds hundreds, if not thousands of new books to its roster. The vast majority of those new additions are self-published. Self-publishing does not automatically mean ‘bad’, but good or bad, you will have fierce competition for your readers’ attention.

Google, like many other search engines for books, allow the reader (potential buyer) to “look inside”. In short, they are giving potential buyers the chance to see what you are made of.

In today’s blog post, I have provided the first 5 opening paragraphs of my novel The Sinai Artifact, Copyright 2017 to examine what the author (me) was looking for in the book’s opening.

“Gretchen Bell sat on a metal stool in front of a microscope and nervously turned her head toward a glass-faced cabinet, one of several mounted to the walls lining the laboratory’s perimeter. Petite at five-foot-one, with short blonde hair, the Harvard graduate student wore a short miniskirt that fell to mid-thigh. Shoulder length blonde hair framed a pretty face much younger than her actual age. She paid little attention to what was under the lens, her mind instead focused on one thing, the priceless artifact she’d been trying to steal since she first arrived at the Smithsonian in late May.
For Bell, time was running out. She’d taken risks all summer long trying to secure the stone, an innocuous-looking piece of granite the Smithsonian was not even aware it possessed. On one occasion, she sneaked back into the building late at night using a master key lifted from her boss’s key ring.
Her boss, curator Dimitri Kastianich had a penchant for downing large amounts of Russian vodka, then, passing out on the couch of his suburban Virginia apartment.
Bell spent hours in the Smithsonian’s storage areas, poking through boxes and crates, until finally, she found it, mislabeled in a crate of pottery shards. Six inches wide, and heart-shaped, its curved top tapered to a point at the lower edge with small inward and outward projecting notches. Lettering in an alphabet Bell did not recognize covered one side.
Bell’s Russian handler, Hans Richter, a German national working for the FSB, Russia’s secret service, had been correct about the artifact being lost somewhere in Smithsonian’s bowels. How Richter knew, and where she needed to look, Bell never asked. Questioning Hans Richter was not a wise career move, or so she’d been warned.”

In the book’s opening scene, the reader is first introduced to an important character in the plot, (by the nature of her early reference). She is a graduate student named Gretchen Bell. The name Bell, was a purposeful choice of the author to use an American name for this character. The choice is meant to make the reader wonder. Why is this young woman surrounded thus far by non-Americans, questionable characters, who are definitely not Americans and who may be bad guys?

So, who is she, and why are they involved with an ordinary graduate student of archeology? What do they want from her? The reader is given a short preview of what Bell looks like along with a foreshadowing that her appearance (young grad student) may not be as advertised. She looks younger than her actual age. How old is she?

Bell works in a Smithsonian Institution archeology lab and is attempting to steal a strange rock that the Smithsonian may even not know they possess. Is this rock the Sinai artifact? She’s been taking risks all summer to secure it. What is it? The title word Sinai is meant to take the readers mind to Mt. Sinai and ask if this has anything to do with Mt Sinai’s historical significance.

The reader is told about but does not actually meet a second important character yet, her boss, a Russian curator, Dimitri Kastianich, who is a sloppy drunk. Is his drinking important to the plot? The reader will have read on to know.

Gretchen Bell we are told has a Russian handler, curiously, with a German surname. What is that all about? Not only is the reader informed that Richter is dangerous, but that he is dangerous even to those who work for him and implies that Gretchen Bell dare not even ask questions about him. Use of the word ‘handler’ brings up the thought of spies and espionage.

If written correctly the goal of your opening paragraphs is to ask more questions than provide answers. Hint at the plot line but do not give anything away too early. Keep in mind that you are writing a novel and will have up to 100,000 words to further develop your characters and your plot.

It is my experience in reading books by new, (first time authors); that they are so full of energy and eager to get their story onto the printed page that they rush the plot.

The Plot: Linear or Branched

The Value of Foreshadowing

We have all read novels that were very well written and well crafted (plot line). Is there something, a characteristic they have in common that we can use in crafting our own stories?

The linear plot is like a ladder. As the story climbs, events happen in a straight timeline sequence. Something happens then events move forward. Another thing happens and again the plot moves ahead. In the linear plot, there are no flashbacks or distracting side plots. Characters do not have to be one-dimensional, but due to the simplicity of the linear plotline, they often are. All character development in the linear plot occurs in the present. To put it more succinctly, there are no surprises here, folks. It is the easiest plot to write and the easiest for a reader to follow if he or she does not die of boredom and toss your novel after 20 pages. Too many new writers who are anxious to get it done and over with, take this easy route only to find that agents and/or publishers pass on their project.

The branching plot line takes the reader up, down, sideways and twists his or her mind into a quandary. It will move into the past (flashbacks) and then bring the reader back to the present. Characters who dot appear to important come back later and force the reader to think about where you were and how did we get here. It is tricky writing, fraught with anxiety (the author’s) and takes some practice and a whole lot of rewriting and revising to get it right. The tricky part is recognizing where you left those “plot holes” that make you journey preposterous and how to fix them on rewrite.

Avid mystery book aficionados in particular are always trying to “figure it out” long before the writer (you) is ready to reveal. How many times have you recommended a great mystery to a friend only to have them tell you they figured out “who done it” by page 25? That is rarely true if the branched plot is well scripted with plot hints (foreshadowing) done well.

Do not be afraid to take your reader down paths with seemingly dead ends, think of those maze games you played when you were a kid. However, always leave them a good foreshadow to think about.

A foreshadowing on page 10 cannot be too meaningless or too esoteric and cryptic that on page 100 the reader does not remember it. The reader needs to at least guess that you just dropped a hint, but can’t be too obvious or the reader will know where you were going with it. It should have that “AHA” quality. The reader is able to say, for example, “So that’s what the woman with the red hair was all about in chapter 5!”

One method I found that works for me is to add my foreshadowing after the novel is completed not during the first draft. Usually by rewrite #2, I am getting a handle on it. It is easier then to identify where I am confusing my readers. I then go back into the manuscript and add my foreshadowing. My character development is completed by then and I am secure in where and how I need to proceed.

It is also important to have a regular (weekly) critiquing group to run your twists and turns past. A weekly group that has an intimate knowledge of your manuscript will find those flaws in what seemed logical to you when you first wrote it. A multi-branching story line that moves from one place to another is difficult to write. It’s like juggling 10 balls at one time and keeping them all in the air, but worth it in the end. Outlining sometimes help keep things in perspective but be prepared to have at least 4 or 5 rewrites before you get it to where you want it and it is ready to submit.

I can remember reading books by Irving Wallace, The Man, The Prize, The Pigeon Project and such. I was in awe of his descriptions of places far flung. I learned that Mr. Wallace actually travelled to those exotic places and waked the streets taking notes and snapping photos. The reality of his locations gave his writing an authenticity adding to his amazing prose. I, and most writers do not have the luxury or the wherewithal to do that type of travel, but there is a way to come close.

A free download to your computer called Google Earth can take you to a million exotic locations, and down onto a street view that puts you anyplace on earth. It needn’t be a famous location that tourists travel to, but a simple Paris street where you have set a scene.

As an example, I wanted to set scene at a popular Paris bistro. Too bad I do not know any. I typed into Google “popular Paris neighborhood bistros”. I selected one called Le Baritan. The address was given as 3 Rue Jouye-Rouve.

I then opened my Google Earth App. A world globe appears with a place at the top of the page enter the address. A click, and the globe starts to spin, stopping at a satellite view looking down at 3 Rue Jouye-Rouve. A side control allows me to zoom in close.

On the side control panel is a moveable icon (a little person) that can dragged to 3 Rue Jouye-Rouve. Wait for the blue lines to appear on the street. When you release you mouse the overhead satellite view changes to a street level view and, Voila! You are there.

Le Baritan has green façade with wooden, windowed doors. The street appears to be One-Way with cars parked on either side. There are apartments above the bistro with flowerpots in the window. Le Baritan’s street ends in a T with a four-story apartment house at the other end of the street. The bistro is in a residential neighborhood.

You can now go back to Google and learn anything you wish about the restaurant and even see some of the dishes as well as customer revues plus information on music the place may offer and on which nights. Now, with all that information you can insert you characters and have them do whatever your story dictates.

I believe that this level of authenticity can give your writing that spark you may have missed with generic descriptions of Paris bistros, or what you think Paris neighborhood bistros look like. Of course, you could always book a flight to Paris, take a cab to Le Baritan, and snap a few shots.

When I first began to write seriously I had no idea how to get my first “masterpiece” published. I had not heard about critiquing groups, or literary agents or query letters. I just wrote and wrote and wrote until my very first novel (75,000 words) was complete. It was just I, and my computer back in 2003.

A quick search of the Internet with the question, how do I get published, got a fast reply from an outfit looking for new undiscovered, talented authors. I needed an agent. Hey, that’s me, I thought. They were called STL and had a slick website that said all the right things. I filled in the info they wanted, added a sample chapter (their request) and hit send.

Two days later came a reply from a “senior” editor. He loved it! Wow, my very first submission and I was on my way to fame and fortune with a best seller on my horizon. STL Literary Agents wanted three more chapters, then two more and finally a full manuscript. At each stop along the way, STL’s praises grew stronger.

Then came the hook. They wanted $60.00 to do an email blast to a dozen publishers. Okay, I thought, $60 is a modest sum for fame and fortune in the writing business. A month later interspersed with one or two rah-rah attaboy emails came hook number two. A publisher had bitten, spoke to STL and almost made a deal to publish I was told. So close yet so far. The second hook required another up front payment. This time it they wanted another $60. I asked who had bitten but never received the name of a single publisher. That’s when I became suspicious.

Back to the Internet I went with a more serious search asking for any information on my erstwhile, would-be agent at STL. One of the websites that came up was, Predators and Editors, There for the first time was STL and similar scams with all their naked glory exposed. Had I sent the second payment there would have surely been another “almost” and another request for another $60 until even the densest newbie writer caught on.

Newbie writers are especially vulnerable. They put their hearts and souls into every word and hope for a fair look and a sound critique of their work by an honest industry professional when they submit work. Now, sixteen years later and a lot wiser I have three published novels and a fourth nearing completion, and nobody asked me for $60.