Thursday, December 13, 2018

Are you a HOOKER?

Chris StevensonHave you Hooked or are you Bait-less?
(I just hooked your ass in here, didn't I?)

        I've accumulated thousands of rejection slips, both email and hard mail, dating back at least 28 years. We writers agonize over just about every word in these little snippets of rejection death, attempting to decipher some type of meaningful logic out of these one or two-line zingers.
Scenario: So the editor has read about three or four pages and stopped. She is in problem territory already. She sees snags and there are a few that stand out over the rest which indicate specific problems, and the rejection usually begins with, "I'm afraid I wasn't pulled into the story," or “I couldn’t identify with the protagonist,” "the front bogged down," or "after a few pages, I wasn't compelled to read any further." “too dialogue heavy,” “static opener,” “excessive sentence fragments,” Something to that tone, anyway. What we have here is a failure to communicate up front with that all important "hook." A hook doesn’t have to make logical sense. It’s better left less obvious.  

        The hook is that mystical teaser, that pulls the reader into the story, and it usually begins on page one, and really never lets up unless it finally reveals but leads into another. You can craft a hook by using dialogue, action, narrative or even description, but the one thing it does is present a unique problem that is not answered immediately, or is a set of circumstances that confounds the reader, asking more questions that it's answering. I think a really great hook uses deceit or misdirection. It presents a "What the hell's going on here" in the reader's mind, or a "why or how could this be happening?" ````
        Setting a good hook, I later learned, is a crafting trick--a tactic. There's nothing artistic about it. Just like a magician uses sleight of hand, so too does the writer create an unfathomable scenario that begs explanation and further reading. Of course, it's wise to take the reader up to the confusion threshold but not beyond it, where incidents and plot seem even more disjointed. There must be a method to your madness, allowing the reader to glimpse that sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. Which means, little answer and a bit more tease.  

        I can pontificate all day long about how stunning and fast-paced my second and third acts are, but when I read and interpret those pesky rejection slips, the ones that hint at boring, tepid, stilted, stuffy first-page or fist-chapter passages, I know then that I've failed in capturing my reader's attention--he/she will be reluctant to invest further reading time if I cannot make the mystery worth his/her time to solve. I've opened the story door and invited the reader to ride along, but they are inclined to pass and let me drive off without them if I haven’t grabbed their curiosity.
         Thick back-story is a killer, as is puffed up prologues, heavy, multiple character descriptions (laundry listing), too many characters, uninspired dialogue, weather reports and heavy handed scenery that tries too hard to be literary or cinematic.

         I can have a dynamite query letter, but the editor or agent won't get past page five if I haven't pulled them into the story and forced them to wonder or agonize about something.
        The hook scene doesn't have to be complicated. (First Page--First Paragraph)--Imagine average Joe Blow pulls over in a picturesque grove of trees, gets out of his car and lights up a cigarette. He's on his way home but has a few minutes to kill. He happens to notice a church a few hundred yards away and the church parking lot is filled to capacity. The back of the church looks to be occupied with a reception area, filled with chairs, tables, colorful streamers and a small stage. But no one is out there celebrating, meaning that the festivities must still be under way inside. He crushes out his cig butt and happens to look up, being prompted by the sound of a twig snapping in the boughs of a large tree.

         He sees a woman in a full sequined wedding dress, balanced precariously on a limb high up in the tree. The woman has a terrified look on her face; she is breathing hard and sweating profusely.

        You've just set the hook. You don't have to have this guy figure out exactly what she's doing up there, but we have a pretty good idea. Or do we? We won't really know until the writer let's these two exchange dialogue. But we're not going to do that either. Joe Blow has decided, against his better judgment, to help this woman out. Just by her demeanor, he knows something is way off the normalcy scale. She’s a runaway. He can sort it out later once he gets her in his car and down the road away from the church.
         He drives off and they’re safe for now. When it comes time for her to confess her problem, she's evasive and remains quiet.  He slows the car down and then gets a phone call from his wife, wondering if they're still on for their marriage counseling session that night. He can’t talk right now and hangs up. He slows down, looking for his pack of cigarettes that he’s lost, and he can’t get his seatbelt up because it’s wedged in the closed door. She whines from the back seat and slips into a barrage of hacking sneezes, spraying phlegm all over his new upholstery. He also can’t see out of the rear view mirror because she’s got her head buried in the carpet and her pleated wedding dress has sprang up and blocked his view.
         Now we have conflict, while still nothing has been resolved. And that's what you're doing--leading the reader along, who thinks he/she is on the main storyline highway, but are actually ending up hitting potholes and speed bumps. I think you get what I'm trying to say. Don't be predictable. Don't underestimate your reader. Shock and surprise. Don’t explain the reason for this scene.

        How important is the hook? It is the most important page or pages of your entire manuscript, and that includes the query and/or synopsis. You've got one chance, one pair of editor/agent eyes to entice, to compel, to convince the reader to keep turning pages. Any lull or stoppage in the text is the mark of death, and it means your bait is inadequate, it stinks of age or it's missing entirely.
         Does your book really start on chapter 2? Then dump chapter 1. Is Chapter 1 a slough? Then cut and burn out everything that isn't thrusting the plot forward or arousing conflict and asking new questions. Yeah, but Chris, you should read some of these dud first pages in these bestsellers; hardly grabbers. Let those brand name authors craft their books the way they see fit; they're not hurting for readership and the fans know their style pretty well. Study some of the debut author's works from some new books and see if you can't find those subtle hooks, little red herrings--those attention grabbers that are starting to unravel things.
      Another mile down the road, our driver’s phone rings again—it’s his counselor confirming their appointment for that evening. He can’t answer because the girl in the back has rolled down the window and pitched out her bridal train and veil onto the street. He cusses her for that action and tells her to get down. She get’s fresh and starts insulting him. He steps on the gas and comes to a screeching halt in front of the police station, where he forces her door open and yanks on her legs, only to tear her nylons off.
“Halp! He’s trying to rape me!”
“You get out of this car right now.”
“I won’t let you kill me, you masher!” she wails for all the city to hear.
You get the idea. This can go on and on and escalate into a full scale donnybrook--clothes being torn, saps and batons flying until our two are handcuffed and shackled and led through the entrance door to precinct 11. His new car starts to burn from a lighted cigarette which fell between the seats. He tries to get away but assaults the arresting officer. Just make sure if you lock him up make sure that his prison stay has SOMETHING to do with the plot.
Now, if you can’t stand the notion of pulling your first chapter because it’s a slug, do a flashback scene. Exchange a really interesting future chapter with chapter 1, and then sew up the transition between that pulled chapter and the next one. If you move your slug chapter to the chapter 2 position, cut it down and make it move faster. How do you write a flashback scene? Google it. It’s not that difficult.
Red-shifting otta here…

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Debut Authors Lost and Brutal Rejection

Here's a question I ran across in my writing forum that I thought I could answer. It seemed relevant. There was also a mention about rejection comments from agents and publishers being all over the place and contradictory. So I guess this might be a double-barreled answer of sorts.

I wonder if the closing of YA to debut (somewhat) is part of the diversity problems people were discussing on Twitter. Eg the publishers hiring sensitivity writings on staff to fix the books by their established authors, rather that buying new/debut and actually diverse authors.

This could very well be since a brand name is a pretty difficult position to establish for a new writer. There is an extended time factor too, in getting a new author shiny enough to be seen in the crowded marketplace. You know, it's like keeping the status quo and going with the established author rather than taking a risk on an outsider. Publishers will test the financial math between the two--in addition to comparing their work ethics and the speed by which they can act on revisions and editing. A 'one in the hand is better than two in the bush' theory. An old stable mate would be less risky than an agent to introduce a talented newbie. 

I'm sure we all know how it goes...the editors are very polite and attentive to agents above other submissions. By default, I'm sure that 95% of editors okay the full sub. I can't remember ever having my agent tell me that she sent a partial out to any of the big houses, unless it was very specific--but that would be a terrible time killer. Now, the short query and synopsis also goes, whether your agent is using yours or they have touched them up, cut them down and made improvements, what have you. 

Here's the clincher, the editor or agent can cut the book off at the knees by reading the opening query and full synopses. It's true they asked for the full--that is DEFAULT. It's really none of your or your agent's business how a publishing house processes their material. The misunderstanding here is that nearly everyone might believe that they have had their full rejected. Hmmm...?

When you get your rejection comments back from your agent (and you should always ask for them), look for phrases like "I don't think this will sell at this time." "It's too long." It's too short. "The plot seems weak." "I couldn't get a clear picture of the MC." "I don't think this is commercial enough." "We have something similar." "Sorry, but this is not a good fit." "I wouldn't know how to sell this." And myriads of other general/stock phrases. We all know we've been read (at least partially) when the comments come in about characters, motivation, POV shifts, plot analysis, style and other such specifics. So NEVER blame you or your story because you have stacked up lots of rejections. It's very likely that under half of your submission fulls have not been read through from page one to the end. In fact, it's damn near a certainty. 

The deluge of manuscripts that a publisher has to weed through is astronomical. I've been in several large publishing houses and witnessed the operations dozens of times. If you've worked for a publisher as an editor, intern or first reader, you know what kind of pressure you were under to "clean house" because you've gotten loaded up. "Reject faster!" cries the publisher. They don't look for what's right. They are on the lookout for what's wrong.

There is another kind of rejection, but it's kind of rare. It's a skip-through, where the editor flips into three or four different parts of the book and reads a page or two from each section. (matter of fact, they start off this way). They're generally looking for flat material--nothing is happening--it's all casual dialogue, etc. Once in a very blue moon it will be because of bad writing (your agent would have caught this). They'll stop right there--whamo--they won't break open the first chapter.

So take heart. We've all had rejections because of economizing. It's the business. It's not you. The right editor and the timing is crucial--more important than you think. Of course, you'll have to have that knockout book! 

Red-shifting outta here,


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Double Back-Scratch-Marketing Boost (Short Message)

 I'm going to get right to it:

I’m willing to swap e-book purchases to improve sluggish ranks (never done it before). I have a new erotic romance/thriller that just hit and it’s lagging a bit—enormous genre size. I also missed my pre-order. I know that most of you are writers and might be going through the same trepidation I am. It is a little more brutal out there than I've ever seen it. If you've gone from feeling like you were a guppy in a lake, you just might be a smelt in the ocean now, that's if you've noticed something amiss like lack of sales and reviews.

I like science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers, young adult, paranormal and romance. If you’re interested, see below. I have to warn you, my book is kind of flaming hot in places. A pixel princess double-dog-dared me to write a contemporary romance. She said every book I wrote was gooshy sweet. I guffawed and agreed. Then she said, "I triple-dog-dare-ya to write an erotic one." I had to hit the books for that. My agent took hold of it when it was finished and told me what I had here was good, even great, but it was a romantic comedy. I thought I'd screwed the sex scenes up and embarrassed myself--I believed it was an erotic romance. My publisher said it was a romantic thriller--cut, edit print and fade to black. Yeah, we bashed heads. It got done, though. 

Before I had any notion about swapping buys with electronic author buds, I invested in ads for the first time in 28 years. Several FB boosts, the monthly Twitter run and the Smart Bitches--Trashy books monthly package. 

This is Guerrilla Warfare for Writers. You would think the Warrior on point would know the right direction and what the hell he was doing. Major fail. Nothing worked. That's the writing life.

Comment to me on here or take the discrete route and email me at:

Red-shifting outta here... 


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Self-Publishing Apocalypse

No. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing. It’s not in the dumps. As a matter of fact, it has all the hallmarks of Wal-Mart status, in that it has gained tremendous ground and influence, and could really end up in a major takeover. Sadly, to the detriment of the Big 5, small press, paperback book distributors/sellers, agents, market share has ballooned for the self-published author. They certainly seem to be out-selling small trade published authors like me, hands down. I can randomly click on the Amazon Kindle book page and check out any self-published author—Chances are they’ve slaughtered my sales. And you know what? I’m a hybrid author, too. Good for them. Why has this happened, baring special circumstances via the elite scribblers?

Indie authors can call the shots on any price change, free giveaway events or contests. Trade publishers are in control of that function, limiting themselves to such functions and their wares are typically priced a little higher  than the SPers. Adaptability is the key word here.

The SP authors can change their bios, synopsis and book cover art at will. They are the publisher—they call all the shots. They can adjust to changes instantly, to swing with any present or upcoming trend.  

Their crowd is dynamically huge—the Kindle Boards is just one example of their stunning population growth. These people support each other, buying each other’s works, whether they are collections, novels, novellas or shorts. The market share has made a dramatic shift in their favor. Once having bought trade books in the past, the SPers have opted for their own like. They are as loyal to each other as a tornado is to a trailer park. You can’t blame them. This stems from, I’m certain of, righteous indignation—they are pissed off at the publishing and agent contingent who repeatedly slammed the door in their faces. Not all of them mind you—we have best-selling and celebrity authors who jumped ship completely, and those other writers who dove into self-publishing from the get go.  

The incredible speed by which self-publishing makes it possible to churn out massive content, i.e, lots of books and stories, also keeps their name brand flagged and up front in the literary world.

They show no difference in their book info and stats on Amazon pages. They are not distinguishable from trade publishing pages, except for the publisher identity. But in many cases, they have their own publishing company logos. I know I do!

They are not subject to time constraints with editing. They can edit at will or hire out for services. They can swap editing with their fellows. Three or four of these swaps can clean a book up rather nicely.

They have their own Indie awards. They get news media hits and lots of attention. That means NYT and USA Today ink. Playing field—leveled. 

They hit best seller status on all and any retail outlets just like the big boys.

Man, I could go on and on…but we haven’t enough eye time for that. Am I jealous? You damn betcha. I paid my dues; I got vetted, laughed at, ignored, rejected and trodden upon, for what I thought was the initiation into the big trade world. Funny, after 27 years it’s still happening to me. So maybe the indie people knew something all along.

I just have a few problems with giving self-publishing an A+. Borders took a dive, as did many small independent book stores upon the e-book revolution. Indies who frequented book stores, quit and bought online, added to the number of readers who also discovered reading from the screen. To be honest, and I don’t know how long it will take, I think agents and publishers of the old school will vanish to browner pastures. Who will need ‘em? Hey, you don’t have to edit that well or follow paperback format. Clipart takes the place of painted book covers and photo conversion. You can write a novel in two weeks and post it on Amazon.

Who are you blaming, Chris? Sounds like you want somebody on the chopping block. I BLAME YOU, AMAZON, YOU GREEDY SONS-O-BITCHES. Hey, let’s publish the world and dilute the market stream so nobody can be discovered and make any money. All we’ll have left is printers. Today a parent can print up a book that their dog has left his painted paw prints in. Ad some clipart pictures and, damn! We have a children’s book! 

But underneath it all, I wish that I had got on board with the O-Niners. They hitched a ride on a star. That star didn’t burn out.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

New Release--Genre Buster

 Blackmailed Bride
 It's kind of funny when my agent called this book a romantic comedy. My publisher insisted it was a romantic thriller. I was convinced it was an erotic romance. I don't think any of us saw eye-to-eye on it; I just think we loved and believed in it from our own perspectives. I don't know what to call it---it has all of those elements. You can find it on B&N, Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, and many more retailers to come. If you read this book, please comment or email me and tell me what you think this is. Note: the humor element has to do with my style, I'm certain of that.

Book cover artist Ryan Barlow of Martha’s Vineyard is having a cigarette break in a church parking lot when a bride falls out of a tree and lands in his arms. Candace Sabella, a 27 year-old drop dead gorgeous pole dancer has just runaway from her marriage to her finance Antonio Madera, a porn king and ruthless killer. She begs Ryan to take her into his home and hide her. He relents, with dangerous misgivings. He discovers that this little gal is full of piss and vinegar and carries more baggage than a Carnival Cruise.

     Ryan can’t wait to get rid of Candace fast enough because he’s currently separated from his wife, Gloria, and attending marriage counseling. Gloria left Ryan to move in with her parents after suspecting that he committed adultery. She also believes he enjoyed a tawdry sex act with a floozy at his high school reunion. Besides that, she can’t stand the smell of his oil paints, alcohol and linseed oil. Yet Ryan and Gloria are a hair’s breath away from reconciliation.

     Candace, rightfully fearing for her life, will do anything to draw Ryan’s favor to her; including stripping for a portrait, spiking his food with aphrodisiacs, performing risqué dance routines, openly flashing him and trying to sleep in his bed. Ryan, with his Christian upbringing, is forced to use desperate measures to fight off her provocative advances. His arsenal includes a savage masturbation episode, shows of temper tantrums and even prayers. Strippers and pole dancers are worthless trash, he keeps telling himself. His mother had taught him that even though he’d visited some clubs in his younger days. Yet this petite little gal begins to soften his heart and show him another side of life that he never knew existed.

Gloria discovers Candace in her home with Ryan and storms off, threatening to sue him for everything he has. 


Antonio has put his entire Mob Squad on the hunt for his runaway bride because she saw him commit a murder and he needs to silence her. Antonio closes in on her location, forcing Ryan and Candace to pack their survival bags and run to a hideout in the bluffs for six days. During this time Ryan finds out that he is smitten and hopelessly in love with Candace and vows to protect her at all costs. Bouts of intense passionate lovemaking seals their pact and they fall more deeply in love with each other.

     With the help of friends, Ryan and Candace escape on a shrimp trawler and are accosted by Antonio Madera on the high seas. A donnybrook fight ensues. Ryan and his friends are victorious, but the love of his life is shot through the chest during the end moments of the fight. He has no idea whether she will live or die, and he’ll do anything to be with her until the critical outcome.