My friend Karyn and I used to play a game. We were mall-walkers in those days. Half-a mile up, half a mile back. We did the first circuit fast, scouting out the stores, and then, if we needed to, we’d stop on the way back and make our purchases. We were deadly Christmas shoppers.
The stores we never missed, though, were the book stores. Barely breaking stride, we’d swing into the store and head over to the new book section, where we’d troll the shelves like vampires running through a blood bank. We scanned the covers of every new book we saw, no matter the genre, to see what struck us. What was current, what colors were hot (hot as in, much in use, not….well, you get it). And the covers that struck us would get picked up.
We didn’t choose by authors. This wasn’t personal preference. This was a test. If somebody came across a book written by an author he or she didn’t know, what would attract them enough to pick the book up. If we were that author, what did we think would work for us?
Yes, I know. Publishers had entire departments who do that for them. Art departments, marketing departments, sales departments. But ya know? The sales force’s name is not on that cover. Mine is. So I have always felt the need to at least be educated. And I’ve found that the only education better than that run down the bookstore shelf is a regular stop at a local used book store. If you want the latest gossip on what’s hot, what people are looking for, what they respond to, forget focus groups. Sit thee in a used book store. I knew Christine Feehan was going to be a hit before her own publisher did. I knew that romantic suspense was about to make a big surge when the editors at conferences were still shaking their heads and asking for westerns.
But the next best thing is to test yourself. Pretending you don’t recognize any author, what else makes you pick up the book? Cover art? Do you want a man or a woman, or both? Bright colors? Traditional poses? Full moons for paranormals or horses for historicals? Quotes by other authors? New York Times Bestselling author?
Okay, so you’ve reached for one. Next, read the back. Is the cover copy hopelessly generic or well-enough written that you’re intrigued? Does it leave you wanting to know more? Yes, the editorial staff writes cover copy, but more often than not, I’ve been asked for input. So I have to pay attention.
Intrigued, you open the book. And here is where the rubber meets the road. You get exactly two paragraphs. Not even the whole page. Because nobody has time anymore to wade through pages of text before deciding to buy a book. I’m a huge proponent of the first line. As somebody said, “The first line sells this book, and the last line sells the next.” But really, it’s the first paragraph.
Does it drop you right into the author’s world? Does it answer an unanswerable question? Does it tease or excite or soothe, depending on what has been promised on the cover? I work an inordinate amount of time on my openings. Because after trolling all those bookstores, I know that all I’m going to get is that first page. That first paragraph. Maybe no more than that first line.
I spend an inordinate amount of time on my openings. I never cement them in until the entire book is finished, since by then the opening has changed at least a dozen times. I change where I open the book, I might change whose point of view the book opens in. I might just change the lines. For my new historical romance, BARELY A LADY, I didn’t make a final decision on my opening until the manuscript had been through my editor. Not fast enough, she said. Not immediate enough. True, my heroine is in a pickle of a situation, but I had to set up her normal world before showing how it’s about to change drastically. All good, but I really needed a more compelling opening.
So I fretted. I fought. I paced my house like an expectant husband. And finally, it came to me. The book doesn’t open with my heroine. It opens with my hero. And he’s standing at the edge of the battlefield at Quatre-Bras, the day before Waterloo. The opening goes like this. “It would take a miracle to get him out of this alive. And he had the feeling he’d used up his share of miracles.”
Because I’m a new name in historical romance, I have to rely on my cover, on the cover copy and on those two opening lines to lure in new readers. Grand Central gave me a luscious cover. We got a great quote from Eloisa James, and the ever-important New York Times bestselling author on the front. I even love the back cover copy. I can only hope the opening lives up to them all. I guess we’ll find out.
I have many favorite openings, from “I dreamed I was at Manderly again” to “I found myself in a empty house with a dead body, a bare-breasted woman and a lawyer. The rattlesnake in the paperbag only complicated matters.” (Earl Emerson, Fat Tuesday). How bout you? Are there any openings that made you buy a book? Any you remember fondly or not so fondly?