Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Catch them with a Hook

Some would argue that the only line in a book more important than the first is the very last line. I'm not sure I would go that far, but as a reader, I know I've been sold by an opening line in the past. I discussed hooklines about two years ago, but it is a fun subject I'd like to expand upon.

When I'm in a bookstore, browsing, the very first thing that draws me to a book is the cover. They always say not to judge a book by its cover, but marketers aren't stupid so different genres tend to have their own 'look'. By designing covers which look 'the same but different' within a genre, the marketing people have conditioned readers to gravitate to books that display certain visual elements. Once the cover has done its job and urged me to pick up the book, I flip it over and scan the back blurb. Now, you must understand I don't actually read the blurb. I just scan the first couple lines of the blurb. As a whole, I've grown to dislike blurbs because they seem to come in a only a couple flavors: revealing too much about the story, or telling the potential reader absolutely nothing about the story. So, a quick cursory scan of the back--which won't sell me unless it is extremely attention grabbing--then I flip the book open to the first chapter.

Now this, the first line, first paragraph, first page, is where I'm looking for magic to happen. I don't think I've ever read a first line and immediately closed the book and put it back on the shelf, but I have decided to buy a book after reading the first line. While a stunning first line isn't necessary and I've read many a fantastic book which had a rather blah first line, if all other considerations are equal and I can only afford to buy one book, I'm going to buy the one with a good first line. So, with that in mind, let me share some first lines that enticed me recently:

"The fact I had killed a man was really putting a crimp in my love life." --Doppelganster by Laura Resnick

"Two rules I live by: Never admit to being a shapeshifter on a first, second, or third date with a human. And never, ever bring along a zombie apprentice wannabe on a demon kill." --Deadtown by Nancy Holzner

"All I can see through to night-vison goggles are the eyes of the vampire I'm pressed against; the rest of his face is kind of obscured by the large-caliber handgun I have jammed up his nose." -- Death Blows by D D Barant

What do all of these examples have in common? Voice. And a lot of it. Now, it might not be a voice that appeals to everyone, but for me, each of these opening lines were deal-sealers. I needed to read more after those lines.

The first example, the line by Laura Resnick, is actually a book near the top of my TBR, so I have not yet read it. But when I found it in the store, the title and that first line sold me. Beside establishing voice, what is accomplished in this first line? Well, we know the view point character killed someone, and we know they don't sound all that remorseful about it as they are worried about their love life. A deceptively simple line, it is comical and establishes character. I can't wait to read this book.

The second example, which is actually the first two lines from Nancy Holzner's debut novel (but I couldn't resit including both) are much more complicated than the first example, but they immediately establish so much. If I hadn't seen the cover for this book, and I hadn't read the back, I would automatically know from these lines that I was reading fantasy, and most likely urban fantasy from the modern tones (and I would be completely correct). We also learn a lot about the character, and glean a hint of an idea of what kind of trouble is in store for her. That's a lot to do with two lines, and it is well done and comical.

The final example is actually a sequel, and as I enjoyed the first book, I was pretty much guaranteed to read the second, but how can you not love that line? There is a hint of coming action, dark humor, and an extremely interesting situation. There is also a stunning reversal, as I started the sentence expecting a situation totally different from what the end of the sentence revealed.

So why am I talking about first lines today? Well, for starters, it's on my mind. Writers tend to spend a lot of time fretting about their opening lines (sometimes to no success, as those witty first lines are occasionally cut by editors, such as in Twice Dead). I often find that I have to completely finish a book, and then rework the opening after I've written the end. In fact, that is what I'm doing right now. I just tossed out the entire first chapter of my work in progress because it just didn't open the book in and interesting enough way. I don't worry about the opening too much when write my first drafts because the important thing is to get the story on the page, but when I'm polishing, a lot of agony goes into that first chapter. Once a story gets going, I find that like a snowball, it layers and picks up speed, but that bit of kinetic energy to get it going? A lot harder than just pushing a clump of snow.

What opening lines have wowed you recently? What elements do you find really work for you as a reader? Is it the voice? The immediate sense of character? Setting? Action? Any all time favorite openings that have stuck with you?

Have a great Tuesday everyone!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Let's talk eReader Applications.

Yesterday I blogged about my growing tolerance for reading electronically. I've only read a handful of eBooks, and all of those on my iPad. I'd like to play with one of the readers with eInk, just to see the difference, but I'm not sure I could justify a dedicated reading device at this point. After all, my iPad also plays movies, games, and can use a number of somewhat productive apps. Also, as I'm not ready to give up my dead tree books yet, a dedicated device might be wasted on me. Currently, at least.

That said, I have been fiddling around with the four main reading apps (iBooks, Kindle, Stanza, and B&N reader) on the iPad. Most of the eBooks I've downloaded have been free or 'specially priced' but they've given me a chance to become accustomed to eBooks and the apps which the iPad uses to display them. I have come to the following conclusions

Aesthetics of ebook: 5/5
Ease of use: 4.5/5
Shopping/browsing: 2/5

When you first open iBooks, the first thing you notice is that the program interface is gorgeous. Covers are displayed on a digital 'shelf' (complete with wood grain and shadows) that boasts the most customization of title order of any of the applications I've encountered. Holding your finger over the cover image allows you to drag your 'books' around the screen and rearrange them to whatever order you like. You also have the ability view the books in lists, which will auto organize them by bookshelf order, Title, Author, or category (genre). The 'interior' of the books are also the most cosmetically pleasing, in my opinion. The edges have 'pages and book binding' type graphics, and with the flick of a finger the page turns. The text can be adjusted by both size and font. The brightness can be adjusted and pages can be viewed in white or sepia. Tapping on a word gives you the option to look it up in the dictionary or search for all occurrences of the word. You can also highlight passages and add notes to the text. These notes show up as tiny yellow stickies in the margin. They display only the date made unless you click on them. These notes and highlights can also be viewed in a convenient list by clicking a button on the top of the screen in the book. While reading, ibooks tells you what page you are on, and how many pages remain in the chapter. All and all, reading books in ibooks is enjoyable and very aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, the ibooks store is the least friendly I've encountered. If you don't know what you want to buy when you open the store, you are unlikely to find a book you are interested in. The 'browsing' capabilities here are slim to none.

Kindle App
Aesthetics of ebook: 3.5/5
Ease of use: 4/5
Shopping/browsing: 5/5

(Note, I am referring to the ipad app and not the kindle eReader as I have not used the eReader.) When you open the app, all your downloaded books are displayed, floating in space on the screen. They can be sorted by Recent purchases, Title, and Author, which for me, is irritatingly limited as I like to sort by genre and then by author and I prefer to keep my TBR separate from books I've already read. I currently keep my kindle books sorted by author, but they always look like a chaotic mess whenever I open the app. Moving on. The interior of the ebook is simple and elegant. No fancy page graphics here, but if you want page flipping animations, these can be turned on in the options. The text can be resized (but there are no font options), the brightness can be changed, and the page can be displayed in white, sepia, or black (with white text). There is the option to jump to certain preselected locations in the text and to bookmarks or text the reader marks. The default setting lets you see all the passages other people who have read the book have highlighted (which I find obnoxious, but might be useful in textbooks), this option can be turned off in preferences. Notes and highlights are both possible (but not dictionary look ups or word searches). The notes are very unobtrusive, which could be good or bad. They won't distract you while your reading, but you might also over look them. That said, there is the option to jump directly to notes from a self populating list. The page numbering in kindle is slightly confusing and I find the fact it tells me what percent of the book I've read more telling than the 'location' marks. The kindle apps biggest draw is the store. Most people have shopped amazon before and are familiar with its layout. You might not be able to browse exactly the same way you could in a brick and mortar bookstore, but there are browsing opportunities, logical groupings, and of course, the feature 'recommended for you' (which I adore). The kindle app might not be my favorite app, but it is definitely the easiest to buy books with.

B&N eReader
Aesthetics of ebook: 3/5
Ease of use: 4.5/5
Shopping/browsing: 4/5

The B&N eReader just recently came out for the iPad so I have less experience with it than the others. That said, I did grab it immediately and have been playing with it because, well as a brick and mortar store in which I often write, I have a fondness for Barnes and Noble, so I want to give their program a shot. Aesthetically, it is a very 'crisp' and elegant looking app, but like the kindle app, the book covers just sort of float out there in space. Also like the kindle app, the sorting capabilities are limited to author, title, and recent. Again no manual organization option, but to add an annoyance factor, the app includes 'sample chapters' of new release best sellers which I didn't ask to download. So, these books I have no interest in further clog up what I already perceive as a chaotic jumble of titles. The interior of the book is simple but efficient, no graphics or page animations, but it displays the text nicely. As well as giving you the option to change text size and font, this app also allows the reader to adjust the margins and the line spacing. Unlike the other apps, a full customization of colors is available. You can pick from a color wheel to adjust the color of the text, page, highlights, and links. Highlights and notes are both available (and the highlighting in this reader is actually the very easiest to do as it takes only one drag of the finger instead of selecting a word and then dragging a box around the rest of the highlighted section.) Notes are indistinguishable from highlighting when reading the text and cannot be read on the page. To read a note the user must go to the information box and view the drop down list of notes and highlights. Speaking of information, this is the only app that includes a drop down that displays info about the books and gives you the option of auto searching 'more by this author'. Speaking of shopping, buying books on B&N.com is fairly easy. While the browsing can't match the capabilities on Amazon's site, it is far more user friendly than the iBooks.

Aesthetics of ebook: 2.5/5
Ease of use: 4/5
Shopping/browsing: 5/5

Presentation-wise, Stanza is the least visually interesting ereader app. No bells or whistles here. Books are displayed in a list with extremely limited (and not exactly clear) sorting options. The book interior is pretty standard, with the ability change font and text size and color. Interestingly enough, in this app you can add an image behind the text as you're reading (I'm not exactly sure why you would do this, but you can.) While it isn't much to look at, what really makes Stanza stand out is the fact it can read just about anything. If you head to it's 'catalogue' it automatically connects to several of the independent eBook sites as well as sites like Project Gutenberg. If you have ebooks you've downloaded to your computer, these can easily be added to Stanza by importing them into the app in iTunes and then syncing the ipad. This is the 'if nothing else reads it, this app probably will' reader.

Okay, so there it is, my break down of eReader apps for the iPad. Keep in mind this breakdown is simply my own opinion and derived from my own personal use of the applications. I heard from a lot of people yesterday who said they read eBooks and enjoy them. Which devices/programs do you use? Have you tried multiple eReaders? How would you rate your reading experiences?

Have a great day everyone!

(**Note: Images are from the web and do not reflect my actual libraries) 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On eBooks and iPads

Recently there has been a ton of chatter about eBooks. With Amazon going to war with publishers over pricing, the release of the Nook--the first major competitor of the Kindle (not that there haven't been other eReaders, but just like Harry becoming the chosen one because Voldemort decided the prophecy referred to him, Amazon singled the Nook out as THE competitor) and then, of course, there was the stir over the introduction of iBooks. My observation has been that over the last year or two eBooks have gone from primarily a distribution tool used by small specialty markets (like small press erotica publishers) to a mainstream alternative to paper.

A few years ago, eBook sales were not significant enough to track. While I can't put my hands on the report right this moment, if I remember correctly, last year eBooks made up a little less than 4% of all book sales. While 4% of the market is not much, if you look at the trend, it's obvious eBook popularity is growing, and fast. Most books are releasing eBook and print simultaneously, and while some big NY houses have tested a policy model that delays the release of eBooks for hardbacks, the reader backlash to the policy has been heavy. The message is clear: eBooks are taking hold and readers expect to be able to download highly anticipated titles on the same day the physical copies hit stores.

I have watched all of these events unfold with a mix of disinterest and horror. The disinterest stems from the fact that reading on my screen annoys me--I spent years editing every draft of my manuscripts on paper, and only a sense of guilt over the waste finally forced me to learn to edit on the screen--so, if it's a chore for me to read on my computer, I'm obviously not going to choose to mix said chore with my pleasure reading. The horror is firmly rooted in the fear eBooks could one day become the industry norm and physical books over priced collector items. (Not that I think this will happen in my lifetime, but the fear is there.) As someone in my twenties, I'm apparently supposed to be a prime audience for eBooks, but I'm more of the opinion one would have to pry my paper copies out of my cold dead hands.

I like books. I like holding my books while I read them. I like seeing the spines on my bookshelves. I like judging how much story is left by the remaining thickness. I like being able to pull a well loved book off my shelf and open it to a random page. When I was little, I dreamed of one day seeing my name on the spine of a book. Before I was published I would walk in bookstores and scout out where my books would some day be located. A physical book is something special to me. Not that I have anything against eBooks (except that little bit of fear). I'm happy my books are released in various eformats as it gives readers who prefer such formats an opportunity to read my work. No, I've never had against them, they just weren't for me.

Until recently.

A couple months ago I splurged on an iPad. Mind you, I did not buy it as an eReader--there are much cheaper eReader's out there. I bought it knowing it would be primarily a toy, and justified the purchase by convincing myself it would be a nice alternative to my laptop for reading my critique partners' pages. Unfortunately, that plan has yet to pan out because none of the apps for the iPad have the ability to track changes or add comments to text. (Very frustrating! If anyone out there knows how to program in Cocoa and would be so kind as to write a document editing App with track changes and comments, I will love you forever. And of course, buy a copy of the program. ^_^) Since my productivity plans fell through, I have used my iPad primarily for games and movie.

Prior to my iPad, I had read exactly one ebook. It was a short prequel to a new series by an author I like, it was only available in ebook format, and it was free. Why not, right? So I downloaded the kindle app for my phone and snagged the book from amazon. While the story was good, I must say I was frustrated while reading it and the experience didn't encourage me to look into any other ebooks. Then, a couple weeks after getting my ipad, a similar situation occurred. An author I adore released a free short tie in novella to her NYT bestselling series, but it was only available in ebook format. I sighed, poured myself a cup of tea, curled up on the couch, downloaded the app for my ipad, and then resigned myself to reading on the thing. But the experience wasn't bad. Oh, I wouldn't say I enjoyed reading on the ipad more than enjoy reading a physical book, it was more like I simply stopped noticing that what I was reading was on a screen and not on a page. So I downloaded another book. Then I tested out some of the other ebook apps. This whole reading ebook thing? Not so intolerable after all.

So am I sold now? Am I going to stop killing trees and read only eBooks? Not hardly. Or, at least, not yet.

The switch from CDs to buying almost all my music electronically was fairly easy for me, probably because storing all my playlists on one device which worked with my headphones, my various sound systems through out my house, and even my car, made sense. When I'd buy a physical cd, I'd import it into my computer and then have to find somewhere to stash the physical CD which I really didn't need anymore. These days, the only time I buy a CD is if I'm at a concert and want something for the band to sign. Will I eventually feel the same way about books? Buy physical copies only when I want an author to sign them? I can tell you that when I recently moved and had over fifty large boxes of books, not having them sounded good, but I love having my own library. I don't collect much, but I do collect books. Things are changing fast, and this is probably a topic I'll have to revist in coming years.

So what are your feelings on eBooks? Love them? Hate them? Afraid of the possible future they represent? Has your opinion changed recently due to the events of the last six or so months? I'd love to know your opinions and your experiences!

Happy hump day everyone, and check back tomorrow when I continue the eBook discussion with my rating of the top three iPad ereader apps. (I originally intended to include it in today's discussion, but then I realized this post was already obnoxiously long.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

On dreams and writing

As the TriMu blog is currently on hiatus, I'm going to steal some of the questions which were asked for our "Mailbag Monday" posts and answer them here. You guys won't object to that, right?

Back in February Heather Y asked: Do you ever dream about your characters after you've written their story?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: (come on, you knew that one was coming.) Not that I remember once I wake up in the morning. Once I start writing a character they seem pretty content to live on the page and in my conscious mind. Characters typically have well defined personalities in my head by the time I start actively writing them, which doesn't tend to meld well with the more random nature of dreams. That said, often when I'm blocked and thinking about the story before I go to bed, I wake up with the answer of how to fix whatever issue I was banging my head against the night before, so something must happen while I'm asleep. But I never remember specifically dreaming about the characters.

That is addressing dreams and characters specifically after I've written their stories. Some characters (or whole plots) first appear to me in my dreams. I wake up with amazing stories or people suddenly behind my eyes and if I dismiss them, the dreams occasionally reoccur. It's like I'm not paying attention to them in my conscious mind, so they are going to come play while I'm asleep. That, or they are saying "hey dummy, you missed us the first time we showed up, so here we are again." But once I start writing these characters down, start fleshing them out, they stop visiting my dreams. (I think there might be a story in that somewhere . . . ) Dreams don't always make the most sense and pieces of dreams slip away very quickly so the characters I find in dreams tend to change drastically by the time they reach the page, but I have at least one short story in particular (and if anyone knows of a publisher looking for a 10k word light-hearted urban fantasy about angels, let me know because this story needs a home) that I woke up with the whole story right there, just waiting to be written down.

I chose this question for today because last night I had one of those story dreams. A very epic dream which left me waking with a whole cluster of people in my head and even a plot to go with them. And when I say epic, I mean epic high fantasy, which, unfortunately, I don't currently write. I've jotted down the most pertinent details of the dream down and I hope to one day (when my writing dance card isn't quite so full) come back to the idea, but for now, I must be content to simply dream about these characters.

So what about you? If you write, do you dream about your characters? Do you dream about other writer's characters? (I do this. No visits from mine, but many many visits from characters I meet in other writer's works.) Do you remember your dreams when you wake?

Happy Thursday everyone! Oh yeah, and before I forget, don't miss checking out my latest post over at the Magic District on Writing the easy part.

Sweet dreams. ^_~

Monday, June 07, 2010

Back from ConCarolinas 2010

I spent this past weekend in Charlotte, NC at the wonderful little Sci fi/Fantasy convention, ConCarolinas. Unlike Steampunk World's Fair which was more of a vacation trip with light networking, ConCarolinas was a working convention for me.  I spoke on eight or so panels over the course of the weekend and typically sat at my book table when I wasn't at a panel. I reconnected with a couple writers and readers I'd met at previous events, met a good dozen writers for the first time, and I had the opportunity to chat with a ton of amazing readers both during panels and in the halls. This was my first year attending ConCarolinas as a guest, but I've attended the con and sat on the audience side of the table for several years now and I have to say, this is my favorite small (but growing quickly) regional con. I feel very fortunate that I was able to be a guest this year, and I hope they invite me back again next year.

This Con marked a first for me in that I had my own (half of a) table for the course of the con. What was this table for? Well, the first thing I did was drop freebies (bookmarks and magnets) on the table as I headed to my first panel, but once the panel was over, the responsible thing to do was sit in the provided chair behind my table, put my books up for display, and uh, wait.

Wait and hope someone would talk to me. Seriously. I never realized how awkward it could be to sit behind a table displaying books. Oh, I participated in the signing at Moonlight and Magnolias last year, and I sat behind a table at Raven*Con during my signing hour, but both of those instances lasted a short amount of time, and at both events I was fortunate enough to be sitting beside big name authors, so I chatted with the people in their lines. This con I was at my table for several hours at a time. This offered plenty of time for people watching (and costume watching--there were some great ones!) but the longer amount of time passed, the more awkward I felt sitting behind my table.

Now, you have to understand an important fact when I say I felt awkward: I'm painfully shy--very painfully shy. So, as I sat behind my table, I was simultaneously afraid no one would talk to me and that people would talk to me. Yeah, I'm that kind of crazy. I'm working on it. Practice makes improvement, right? And I most definitely got practice this weekend.

Thank you everyone who stopped by my table at the con. I had the opportunity to talk to so many amazing people, I lost count of how many books I signed, and I went through a couple hundred bookmarks. Several people stopped by the table to follow up on comments from panels, others just to chat, but everyone (well, almost everyone, but that is another post) was absolutely awesome and nice. You guys really made my convention experience, and though I returned from the con exhausted from a long weekend, I also returned with the extra encouragement to write knowing that you are waiting for more books.

I'll post more about who I saw and maybe a bit of a wrap up on some of the panels later in the week. In the meantime, I hope everyone is having a happy Monday!

(P.S. In the photo at the top of the post, I'm standing with the amazing authors who blog over at www.magicalwords.net, the photo in the middle of the post features Sabrina Luna holding the first two Haven Novels, and the bottom picture is with Marcia Colette. Did I mention I got to hang out with incredible authors? LOL)