13 March 2014

Book Blurbs and First Chapters

The first quarter of this year has been packed with a significant number of stressful life events. These are rather like public transport; they leave you alone for some time and then all come along together, as if you’ve been having things too easy and it’s time to see if you crack under the strain.

Selling our home and moving was planned, but the other events obviously decided this was waaaay too easy and they’d come along for the ride - big sigh! However, back to the moving. One of the things I decided to do before the move was to significantly cull my books and get rid of some of the bookshelves.

When choosing a print book to read, I tend to look at the cover and then reread the back page blurb to remind myself of the story and why it interested me. After doing this a few times I settle on one to read.

When I first starting using my Kindle I had a relatively small number of books on the device, and most were books by favourite authors or classics I hadn’t yet read. In all cases I was aware of the book premise simply by looking at the title. Since then I’ve purchased many more books, and often they’re on my Kindle for some time before I read them.

An eReader is a little like Mary Poppins' carpetbag. You can fit in a large number of books without it looking any different, whereas when I tried to find room on the bookshelves for new purchases I was always aware of the number of books I hadn’t yet read, and I felt guilty for buying more.

When I’m selecting a book to read from the electronic list on my Kindle, I tend to be too lazy to look at the book blurb on Amazon, so all I have to go on is the book cover and title, and a tagline if there is one. This means I often have very little to go on as to the storyline or setting.

From a writer’s perspective this means we’ve really got to make that first chapter work hard, (not forgetting that all important first paragraph). Is there enough to draw the reader in and keep them reading and wanting to know more, without confusing them totally?

The opening chapter needs to introduce the protagonist, give the reader a feel for the genre or type of book (you should also get an idea of this from the title and cover), give a feel of the narrative voice (is it a warm confiding tone, ironic, amusing, frightening), and introduce the setting and time period. By the end of the chapter there should also be an indication this is going somewhere, that there is conflict, problems to be solved and stakes high enough to ensure action is taken. As readers we don’t want endless ramblings of the protagonist's everyday life or lots of backstory.

Opening chapters have always had to do that, but now they need to work even harder if the reader doesn’t have an indication of the storyline from the back cover blurb.

Some time ago I released a romantic suspense novella (Driftwood). In the reviews I’ve noticed a couple of comments along the lines of ‘it’s a quick read’. That’s true, it’s a novella, and comes in at around 46,000 words. The blurb on Amazon states it’s a novella, but of course, when you open it on your eReader you don’t have any idea whether it’s a doorstop of a book or a quick read. For these reasons I’ve decided that in future I’m going to add the short blurb to the front of my electronic books, so the reader is oriented as to the main outline or premise of the book before they begin. It doesn’t mean I can relax on that first paragraph and chapter, it still has to pull its weight, but at least the reader has the same information they would if they were reading a print version.

As readers or writers, what do you think?

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