Archive for September, 2007

Sep 25 2007

Novel Writing Strategies: Keeping Readers Interested

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Outline

  • Summary of past novel-writing problems
  • Solutions to improve reader longevity
  • Improving chapter length
  • Marketing!  Marketing!  Marketing!

This is mostly aimed at anyone trying to write a novel, particularly an online novel, but Superhero Nation fans might be interested to see what my writing process is like.

Problems

  • My first chapter attracted readers but didn’t keep them. 
  • Of the first 100 readers that started reading, 30 lasted over half a minute and 15 spent enough time that I could reasonably assume they finished the chapter. 
  • None started reading the second chapter. 

Diagnoses

  • My short-term retention was a problem.  70% of the readers decided right off the bat that the novel didn’t work for them.
    • The novel’s opening was not working
  • Medium-term retention was pleasantly high.  Half of the readers that read past the first few paragraphs made it through 9000 words.
    • The middle was considerably better-written than the beginning
  • Long-term retention was zero.  15 readers read 9000 words, but none started the second chapter.
    • The first chapter was incredibly long, 30 double-spaced pages.  Readers that finished that lacked the time/energy to proceed.     

Fixing the Introduction

It’s hard to describe how bad my first five pages were.  But I’ll give you the first 75 words, along with parenthetical comments from a dangerously perceptive reviewer. 

Courtney had problems. 

One.  His name was Courtney.   He hated it but knowing  that he vastly outsmarted the gigglers comforted him.  (This opening does not grab me. Who are these gigglers?)

Two.  He was an ex-superhero, the once and present Lash, the best nonpowered hero New York had never heard of.   He had showed Gigas, the head of the Social Justice League, up when a supervillain struck.  Gigas had him fired and, more humiliatingly, violated the first rule of superheroics by x-raying Lash’s face. (Very un-superhero like) But they couldn’t take his name.  (do you even need this?)

It would take me hours to fully explain why the first 5 pages were so bad, but let me summarize. 

  • Melodramatic
  • Anticipation problems.  A good opening makes readers think “Sweet Jesus, I want to see where this is going.”  This opening probably makes people wonder whether the story would interest them.  (Who’s Courtney?  Why should we care about people laughing at his name?)
  • Passive narration (‘telling’ a story rather than ‘showing’ it).  High on backstory, short on action.
  • There’s no scene.  
  • Hard to understand (maybe not these first few paragraphs, but certainly the rest of the five pages). 

It took me three months to turn my deservedly savage reviews into a rewrite.  You can see the rewritten chapter here, but I’ll analyze the first two paragraphs. 

[start] The tree was critical.  The blueprints for the Governor’s mansion clearly showed that the tree’s branches came intriguingly close to a second-floor window.  It was less obvious that the window led to the room of a servant scheduled to work during tonight’s fundraiser.  Most importantly, the Governor’s security detail only sent a guard past the tree every forty-five seconds, plus or minus fifteen.  The superhero had spent an hour counting.  Lash had estimated that the leap through the open window would be four feet.  He could do that.  Maybe.  Being an unpowered hero was always interesting. 

Lash lay behind the courtyard fountain as the hapless guard wandered past the tree again, his heels clicking against the cobble-stone path.  The beam of the guard’s flashlight soon faded around the near corner.  Forty-five seconds. [end]

The most obvious change is that this is a scene: a character attempts to break into the Governor’s mansion.  After the first three sentences, he seems like he’s a criminal, probably an assassin.  Then I off-handedly refer to him as “the superhero,” even before we know his name or what he looks like.  A traditional individual-focused story would probably start with the character and then describe the mission, but I start with the mission and hardly describe the character at all, besides how physically inept and meticulous he is. 

Up to the word “superhero,” this could very well be a police procedural or a Mission Impossible-style spyfest.  Then the story gets ridiculous, particularly in “…four feet.  He could do that.  Maybe.”  My first opening was melodramatic, but I think this comes off as comically melodramatic and patently ridiculous.  (Four feet?  The ‘superhero’ can’t jump four feet?) 

I think that my readers have been cued to expect a somewhat strange story about superheroes.  (In case that weren’t obvious enough, Lash’s main weapon in the first chapter is a fire extinguisher).  I think that reader anticipation has shifted much more to “I’d like to see where this is going” from “this sounds boring.”

Is my new opening effective?
I’m inclined to say yes.  Remember, before I had…

  • 100 readers started chapter 1
  • 30 made it past thirty seconds
  • 15 made it to the end of chapter 1
  • 0 started chapter 2

I rewrote my opening two weeks ago.  Since then, I’ve had…

  • 37 readers started chapter 1
  • ?? readers finished chapter 1
  • 10 readers started chapter 2 (so I’d assume that at least 10 readers survived to the end of chapter 1).
  • 9 readers started chapter 3
  • 64 readers started chapter 4 (I bet you’re asking what the hell!?! I’ll explain this in just a second). 

These numbers are drastically better.  My first-to-second chapter conversion rate is more than 25% and the people that start the second chapter appear to be dedicated readers.  My survey sample is pretty small (only over the last two weeks), but it seems that the first three chapters are generally successful enough that this story might be publishable.  But publishing is a distant concern and right now I’d like to worry about 1) posting the best chapters I can write to the website and 2) getting as many readers as possible to those chapters.

Advertising

Remember that 64 readers started chapter 4?  That probably seemed pretty weird, given that only 9 readers started chapter 3.  My brother linked to my site in a discussion on sympathetic villains at The Volokh Conspiracy.  Since then, ~55 Volokh Conspirators have started chapter 4.  So even a comment can generate a significant amount of traffic.  I suspect that a link from, say, one of the writers at Volokh would generate enough traffic to be commercially significant.  But TVC is mainly a legal blog; I can’t imagine why it would be disproportionately loaded with comic book fans. 

I suspect that my demographics will be better represented at Daily Kos or Little Green Footballs link.  Speaking of LGF, it actually inspired the conservative-lizard and liberal-frog demographics of Superhero Nation. 

Chapter-Length

The original version of my first chapter—the terrible version—was 9000 words long (30 pages).  9000 words is a hell of a commitment, probably several hours.  Who wants to spend several hours at a single site? 

I’ve since split up the first 9000 words into 3 chapters, but chapter 3 is still ridiculously long.  I have to cut it down more.  (Everybody Dies is also too long).

One thing I’ve learned is that chapter length really matters. Shorter chapters—no more than 2000 words—work much better. Each chapter’s end is an opportunity to leave your reader on a cliffhanger and make him feel that he’s accomplished something.  Each chapter’s start is a chance to rehook your reader or at least give him a chance to recuperate and return. Additionally, each chapter allows you to subtly shift the focus of the reader’s attention and focus by using a new chapter title.

I’ve mentioned before that chapter titles are really important to selling a novel. They’re also important for the reading experience. You can use the title to create a sense of anticipation, foreboding or establish the mood. Right now, the chapter titles I’m going with are:

  1. Life, Death and the Manhattan Mangler [~1000 words]
  2. The Empire State Strikes Back [~1500]
  3. The Best Investigator in the World [~7000 words]
  4. Everybody Dies [~8000 words]
    • Unless I also want my readers to die, I should probably break this up into many chapters.  Possible chapter titles include “The Human Condition,” “Only Human,” “Grim Prognosis,” “Reach for the Skyline,” and “Two Girls for Every Guy.”
  5. The Human Resources Promise [~1500 words]
  6. Stockbroker to the Slaughter [~2000 words]


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Sep 13 2007

How to Write Concisely

This article addresses how to write concisely by revising or eliminating individual sentences.

Revising Individual Sentences

Let’s examine the needlessly long sentence “Writing concisely matters not only because it shortens the work but because it makes the work more readable.” This sentence has many problems.

“…it makes the work more readable.” This phrase is too wordy. Consider the alternative “it improves readability.” Tweaking word forms can often make a sentence more efficient.

“Writing concisely matters not only because it shortens the work…” Generally, explicitly saying that something matters is an unnecessary waste of space.  If you lay out the reasons it matters, readers will reach their own conclusion.

The original sentence was 15 words long. Consider this revision: “conciseness improves readability.” That distills what matters into an 80% cheaper product.

How to Eliminate Sentences Well

Question: I’ve looked at my sentences and can’t tighten any further. What now?

Let’s pretend that your individual sentences are perfectly concise. You need to find sentences that can be removed entirely or merged into other sentences.

But all my sentences are doing something important.

They’re probably not. However, when you look at individual sentences, it usually seems like each is productive. Consider the sentence “it’s raining.” It’s a short sentence and could be useful. But consider the sentence’s context. What if the paragraph were:

“Thunder crashed. John drew his umbrella. It’s raining.”

“It’s raining” is obviously unnecessary here, but that might not have been clear just looking at the sentence itself. To identify which sentences should be removed, we usually have to look at longer passages.

As a rule of thumb, I recommend examining sequences of ten sentences—that’s usually two or three paragraphs. Of the ten sentences, generally at least one can be eliminated.

Let me demonstrate this theory with the work of an authorial friend. This passage is an interesting description of a cop that’s investigating rumors of corporate shenanigans, but it isn’t as concise as it could be.

Harland ordered dinner, and settled into reading through the information gathered by the avatar. He called up Epp’s skills profile first, looking for justification for TeleComm’s offer of a senior contract. Epp had an outstanding background in both biomedical and software fields, a profile that Harland usually associated with companies and feeder universities in the instant transport field, rather than TeleComm’s data and communications segment. He remembered the scheduled takeover battle at Distance Instant Transport. Was TeleComm planning to take advantage of DIT’s management being distracted to make a push into instant transport? That would start a significantly wider corporate battle and active monitoring by WorldPol. He made a note to notify the Economic Management Group if things started looking more serious, and went down to the canteen to eat.

This is my rewrite.

Harland started sifting through the information his avatar had gathered on TeleComm’s new hire. Epp had outstanding biomedical and software skills, a profile more typical for the instant transport sector than TeleComm’s data and communications work. Epp’s hiring and the contested takeover at DIT suggested that TeleComm might be planning to push into instant transport when its competitor was in turmoil. He notified the Economic Management Council that a significantly broader corporate battle might be brewing.

The word count has dropped about about 150 to 100, but I don’t feel that the substance has changed considerably.

Avoiding Mistakes When Tightening

Although conciseness helps, it is possible to improperly tighten. Cutting out information may make it hard to follow the story or may make the plotline a lot more jagged. Cutting may also remove flavor. Compare “she unloaded a clip into his face” to “she shot him repeatedly.”

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