Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Best Selling Combination

 When you get the opportunity to hear from the best, you should always try to do it, and that was so true last weekend when the Heart of Denver Romance Writers presented the great romance author, Joan Johnston. She has written 57 books and regularly appears on best selling lists. Whenever a new book comes out, fans are always eager to see what she has her characters doing this time.  Her family series go way back, all the way from the modern West to the Middle Ages.

As someone who has been making those bestselling lists for not just years but decades, she has the knowledge and the drive. When she speaks, you listen because she not only knows how to write a good book, she is a former attorney who is also very savvy about the business of novel writing.

Her best advice – keep writing, and writing and writing.  Get your books in front of the public and keep them there. That means constant work and it is obvious that is exactly what she has been doing for more than 30 years.  She aims for at least three books a year now, she says.

But there is more to writing than just getting the material out there. The author needs to pay attention to the basics – like good beginnings and endings.

First, the book should get off to a good, quick beginning.  That means starting the story very quickly, a lesson I have often taught my writing students in classes I’ve taught over the years.

The Inciting Incident sets the story in motion and no reader wants to wait around for it. In these days of quick action, the writer needs to make things happen very quickly or the reader will be moving on to some other interest.

But she goes beyond just the opening of the book. Joan Johnston made a suggestion that really got me to thinking. She says that each chapter should also begin with something to hook the reader. This was like a light bulb moment, because I suddenly realized exactly what she was saying because I’ve seen her do it over and over in her books. It is what makes them so difficult to put down.

She suggests keeping the reader hooked at the start of each chapter by asking a question that makes them want to go on. They need to know the answer so they will keep reading. She also suggests other ways to hook the reader at the beginning of the chapter. Try creating a crisis or threat or perhaps making the reader anticipate something big that may be happening in the next few pages.  No doubt about it – the reader wants to keep going.

These things should be close to the first paragraph of the chapter or in the first paragraph. Again, don’t make the reader wait. Promise them a good story ahead and they want to read on. She also mentions that we need to set the scene and then bring in all the senses to place the reader in the story.  

And she suggests doing all this in a simple, uncomplicated way that includes looking at word choices. Keep them simple and be careful of metaphors and similes. She also carries that writing instructor caution: SHOW DON’T TELL.

Another great way to keep the reader engaged is by also hooking them at the end of a chapter. Consider those same elements as a way to keep the reader going from one page to the next.

She provided us with examples from some of her work, and then gave us copies of her books and instructed us to find other examples. It didn’t take long. We were able to see exactly what she was talking about and how simple the art of hooking the reader could be in the hands of a master creator.

All it takes is reading one Joan Johnston novel to hook the reader on her style and her stories. Her next book, Sinful, another in the Bitter Creek series comes out next week.  I’ll be looking for it!

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