Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Capturing Lightning, by Natalie Charles

I read this on the Internet, so it must be true: when readers select a book, they first look at the cover, then the back copy, then the first chapter. That seems reasonable to me because that's how I buy my books. I'm a Kindle sample queen, and if a writer doesn't hook me with that sample, I'll probably keep looking. If a writer manages to get my heart racing in the first paragraph, I'm happier than a kid with an ice cream sundae, and I'll buy that book in no seconds flat. I confess to buying a selective few books on concept alone, most recently Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer. A lawyer who operates his law firm from the back of his Lincoln Town Car? Sold.

As a writer, I wouldn't say that I analyze market trends when plotting my next book, but recently I've been thinking about what readers look for when they select their reading material. I'd imagine genre plays an important initial role. Sometimes you're just in the mood for a contemporary romance or a thriller. Then, of course, there's name recognition. Certain authors consistently deliver excellent books. But aside from that, how can an author stand out from the rest of the crowd?

I have some thoughts.

Incorporate a high concept premise - I've seen "high concept" (not to be confused with high brow) described in terms of how easily a book concept may be summarized. But high concept is more than a hook, and it's more than being able to create a quick, down and dirty summary of your book. High concept plots appeal to something in our collective consciousness. A high concept premise delivers a promise to a reader, and the reader understands that promise almost immediately, and without a great deal of additional explanation.

For example, "A boy attends wizard school" is a high concept premise, while "A young girl comes of age and falls in love" is not. See the difference? Both can be easily summarized, but with nothing more, we have an idea of what the first book is about. It promises magic and incorporates something with which we all have experience: school. Except that wizard school promises to be awesome. The second premise is too vague -- "coming of age" and "falling in love" could describe a thousand different books in lots of different genres.

Basically, a high concept premise appeals to a pre-existing interest in the reader. It's that book that makes you not only think, "I've been wanting to read something like this for a while but didn't realize it until this moment," but, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Have a killer opening - If books sell based on samples and first chapters, then this is no place to slouch. You've got a few paragraphs -- pages at the most -- to draw your reader into your world. This is valuable real estate, and I like to avoid backstory and setting descriptions and cut right to the action. The first sentence should make someone want to read the second, and the second should make them want to read the third. If you're looking for some opening line inspiration, you could start here. My best advice? Make your opening the last part of the book you write.

Really, all of this boils down to concept and writing style, which sounds beautifully simple, doesn't it? "Hey, just find a great concept and make sure your writing is superb, and you'll have a bestseller! You're welcome." In truth, it's a bit like capturing lightning in a bottle.

So what is my list missing? What was the last amazing book you read, and what made it so amazing?


  1. I also look at the cover, back copy, and first chapter. I agree that if the opening few pages don't hook me, chance are I am not going to buy or read the book, particularly if it is from an author I have not read. With authors I am familiar with, and like, I often don't bother with the opening pages. I know they can deliver, and then it really does come down to the summary of the book and deciding whether or not the story is something that would interest me.

  2. High concept ... that one thing we all want, but it is so, so hard to find. Like a lightning streak indeed!

  3. I picked up Girl with Guitar by Caisey Quinn- after several of my blogger friends were raving about it, I thought for .99 it couldn't be much- the storyline hooked me, I loved the characters, all of them, even the one's I wanted to hate- It is the best book I have read in ages in this genre and for 99 pennies I felt like I needed to send the author more money!

  4. Loved what you said about the killer opening, Natalie. That's always the clincher for me. Thanks for the link to that site too - so many fabulous openings from the masters of the trade.