Focus on the First Five —a tale of seduction

From 3-30 July 2017, I’ll be co-teaching this course with book editor extraordinaire, Robb Grindstaff through Romance Writers of Australia. Our Focus on the First Five pages course is useful for any genre, but do read on to find out more about our “seductive” writing course…

Book here: Focus on the First Five

Focus-on-the-First-Five-e1496971761155

If you’re like me, before committing to a book, you’ll open it and read the first page in a store, or download the free excerpt of an ebook, before buying it. That’s also what an agent or publisher does with your manuscript. There’s massive pressure on your first few pages because their job is to hook your readers (be that agents, publishers or eventual everyday readers) and convince them to commit to the rest of your story. A reader will not wait for it to get good. You must wow them now, immediately and right away.

In romance terms, those first five pages must seduce the reader into a relationship.

On that topic, I thought I’d ask Robb what usually captures his attention as a reader and makes him want to keep reading. Robb?

Every reader is different, every writer is different, and different genres have different expectations for an opening. But there are a few key points you want your opening to accomplish to grab attention from the first sentence.

For some readers, it’s the story hook that grabs their attention. Between the front cover, the blurb on the back, and the first sentence, first paragraph, opening pages, does the writer catch your attention with, “What is going to happen with this set of circumstances?” Does the writer know exactly where and how to start the story?

For others, it’s the character that grabs the attention right off the mark. Is this an interesting, compelling character? What’s going to happen to her?

Then there’s that almost indefinable, and perhaps unteachable, quality: voice. Does the voice of the opening pages pull the reader in? This may be the most difficult but most important aspect of the opening. This is what I need in a book before I buy. I can’t even say I look for it. It’s either there or it’s not.

Writers who can make all that happen right from the start show the reader they are in command of their art and craft, and have created something worth continuing the journey.

A brilliant first sentence will lead to the second sentence and the third, so a writer can craft an excellent first sentence and still lose the reader in the first few pages. But if you grab and hold their attention for the first five pages, and you’ve hooked them into the character and story question, you’re off to a great start.

Thanks, Robb. I agree with all of that. It’s prompted me to share a story of how the first page of a book once seduce me. I’m a busy woman (two kids, two jobs, one husband, writing, the occasional yoga class to mitigate all the writing-related sitting) and I have limited reading time. So when I invest my time in a book, I want to know I’m settling in for the kind of read I like—crime, chic-lit or romance (in that order!). I do not do genres like fantasy, horror or sci-fi. I just don’t like them and I’m not prepared to waste my precious reading time on them.

Or so I thought.

Several years ago, I was at a writing workshop where the presenter used the first page of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes as an example (of what I don’t recall). This book, as some of you may know, is a time-travelling, fantasy, and horror genre mash-up. Not my thing at all. Yet that first page grabbed me. The voice, the atmosphere, the character and the hook all seduced me in one tiny page and I had to go and buy the damned thing. It is now one of my all-time favourite novels and I’ve read everything that the brilliant, freaky Lauren Beukes has written. I also pester her regularly on Facebook for more. That’s the power of a fantastic first page, people!

So when Robb and I sat down to write this course, we asked ourselves what do our favourite books accomplish in those first few pages, and how can we teach other writers to replicate that? We think we’ve answered this question because it really all comes down to a few fundamental craft basics, followed up by —you guessed it— editing.

We can’t wait to share our lesson and critiquing with you so that one day, your manuscript may also seduce that elusive reader.

 

 

Advertisements

Five minutes with Sonia Stanizzo

soniastanizzo

I’ve been teaching writing for a while now, but 2016 was the first year I taught for Romance Writers of Australia (RWA) in their Online Workshop Learning (OWL) program. I was a bit nervous, but all went swimmingly with both my course on plotting, and how to write a synopsis and pitch to agents. Then, just as I was preparing to call 2016 a successful teaching year, I got an email that cinched the “successful year” deal.

Sonia Stanizzo was a student in both my courses and in December, she emailed to tell me she’d just been offered her first book deal. What amazing news to end the year on! I was so, so excited for her. So what does a proud mother hen do when presented with the success of a mentee? Blog about it, of course! Give her the opportunity to tell the world about her book. So here is five minutes with the fabulous, soon-to-be-published Romance author, Sonia Stanizzo.

Sonia, can you please tell us about your book. What’s it called, what’s it about, who will want to read it?

Why is it when someone asks me what my book is about I freeze? It’s like I’ve been keeping my writing a secret for so long that now it’s out and people are asking, I don’t know what to say?? LOL!

This is the blurb that you helped me with for The Trouble with Mr Pretty:

“Gift shop owner Lauren Moore’s motto is “never trust a pretty face.” Following a disastrous affair with a handsome celebrity, she’s vowed to never fall for anyone like him again.

But when Australia’s sexiest ex-football player, Jack Henderson, barges into her shop late one night displaying all the characteristics she wants to avoid, Lauren is unwillingly drawn to his seductive good looks and bad boy smile.

When Lauren is forced to accept a job offer from Jack to pay her blackmailing sister and has to spend more time with him than she’d like, Jack shows her that he is more than just a pretty face. Lauren must decide if she can let go of the past and trust in love again.”

This might sound a little weird but my inspiration came from a dream. I dreamt of my heroine sitting alone under New Year’s fireworks with gut-wrenching grief. The next morning I quickly wrote it down and that went on to become a prologue for my story but after feedback from RWA comps, I decided to cut the scene. Even though I loved it, I could see that it didn’t fit. I also love reading and watching romance with light, fun humour and so I’ve tried to incorporate that style into my stories. I’ve also had to sit and watch endless football games with my husband and that is how my hero was born.

Sounds like a great read! Perhaps you can tell us a bit about you as a writer and your writing journey thus far?

My writing journey has been a long one, even though I have only written two books, with my second finding a publisher, Beachwalk Press.  I would start to write, do some courses, join writers’ forums and freak out! It seemed like everyone knew what they were talking about and I had no clue. I would put away my manuscript for months because I didn’t think I could do it. Then it would always be bugging me that I didn’t finish it, so I’d pull it out and start again, freak out and put it away again. Last year I made a promise to myself to finish it, no matter how “freaked out” I got. I finished it and now it’s getting published. But to be honest, I still feel a little clueless.

I think many writers continue to feel “clueless”, despite evidence of their success. And on that note, you contacted me in December 2016 to let me know you’d been offered a book deal. Firstly, congratulations. Proud mother hen, here! I’d like to know if you thought that RWA and the OWLs helped you get the deal and what advice you’d give others about joining RWA and doing an OWL or two.

I absolutely believe that the OWL courses helped me to get a deal. Without the courses I had no clue about the craft of putting together a great manuscript. The feedback you get is fantastic. The OWL courses for 2017 look amazing and I can’t wait to do most of them. I would highly recommend writers join RWA and take some OWL classes because there is so much information and support.

So, as an avid reader, which writers do you admire and can you recommend any books to my readers?

I really love the humour of Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Rachel Gibson, Jill Shalvis and the suspense of Sandra Brown. Any of their books are a great read. I also LOVE the urban fantasy Fever series by Karen Marie Moning.

It’s been great chatting to you, Sonia. Before you go, please let us know when will your book be available and where we can get a copy.

I had to email my publisher because I wasn’t sure. She said March/April and said I could say “Spring 2017” but it’s Autumn here, so not sure if it has the same ring to it?? The Trouble with Mr Pretty will be available to purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. There are some other places too, but they are the most well-known.

(Sonia was also kind enough to provide the following quote about my OWL. I didn’t pay her to say this, seriously!)

“During the synopsis OWL course, Samantha helped me tighten up my synopsis and get it ready to send to publishers. I don’t think I would have gotten a contract without her guidance. I highly recommend doing any of Samantha’s courses. Hers were two of the best ones I enrolled in.”

You can contact Sonia on Facebook or Instagram:

https://www.facebook.com/soniastanizzowriter/

Instagram @soniastanizzowriter

 

 

Stars who died in 2016

If you Google “stars who died in 2016” you’ll find plenty of articles listing credentials and ages (some far, far too young) of those famous folk who left us in 2016. There’s also musings on why so many stars died in 2016 and attempted explanations. And then there’s the social media responses — people the world over devastated, and noting the fragility of life. Why is this? I wondered, when people die every day of the year.

To me, I think this strange phenomenon has been so hard to take because artists are like friends: they entertain us, they provide us a glimpse into their glamorous lives so different to our own and in return, it’s like we know them. Like they are indeed friends. To me, at least, I think the loss of so many “stars” has been emotional because on some level, it’s akin to losing many friends in short succession.

So what I want to do in this post is list those dearly departed stars whom I considered friends and allow myself a brief reminiscence about how our lives intersected.

Carrie FisherStar Wars was the first video my dad rented for us kids when VHS machines were the height of technology. I can still picture that video shop and the awesome 1970s jacket cover of that beloved movie. My younger brother and cousin would watch the Star Wars trilogy over and over in our lounge room, and what I remember most about those long ago days is the feeling of camaraderie, of all the family together watching Luke and Hans Solo and Princess Leia save the universe. And of course those buns and that gold bikini will forever be burnt onto the retinas of this 80s kid!

George MichaelWham! brought my mum and I together musically for the first time when I was eight and Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go hit number one. Mum loved Wham! probably even more than I did and for years, I bought her their albums (including the Christmas compilations!) cause it made me feel connected to her. Years later, his nineties hits were amongst my favourite songs and I spent many a morning dancing in front of Rage wishing I was one of his elite Supermodel pack. (Still hoping…) When his untimely death was announced a few days ago, I went through my CD collection and found a “best of” double album I’d purchased for $35 in 1998. That’s about a million bucks in today’s money, but gosh he was worth it.

David Bowie—Iconic super-weird, spooky-looking genius. My younger sister has a denim jacket with his face on the back that she’s owned for years and wears it everywhere. Any mention of Bowie makes me think of my sister who is also a super genius, but luckily for her, not in a spooky-weird way.

Alan Rickman—Boy did this guy play an amazing villain. I use Die Hard extracts in some of my writing courses and Hans Gruber was just the ultimate 80s action bad guy. I tear-up every time I hear him say “Ho, ho, ho,” during class now, almost like he were reaching out from the other side to cut my heart out with a spoon (Sherriff of Nottingham reference for those who don’t get it.)

Gene Wilder – Willie Wonka. Need I say more?

Prince — On New Year’s Eve 2000, did anyone not hear Party like it’s 1999? I recall that NYE party and his iconic hit being played all night. Years before, I danced to songs from his Diamonds and Pearls album underage in Bali nightclubs. Oh god, the fun! (I will be far stricter with my children than my parents ever were with me.) Prince was awesome. Absolutely awesome.

Leonard Cohen —Ah, Leonard, I’ve left you till last my friend. My husband introduced me to you. He’s been a fan forever and when I got him, I got you too. So much does Gavin love you, that I incorporated some of your lyrics into my wedding speech: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in.”

And perhaps that’s a fitting place to leave this post. There’s been plenty of cracks in 2016, but lots of light, too.

Vale my friends. You’ll be missed, but remembered often. Thanks for everything you did, you were amazing and I hope you know you were loved.

What does success mean as a writer?

High rec pic

Many writers have a clear idea of what “success” looks like to them. It’s a publishing deal, or selling millions of copies of their book, or the green-light for that movie script…it’s usually something BIG.

When I was a younger, child-free (and hence much more time-rich writer) I had these aspirations too. I still have some version of them, but expectations change the longer you’ve been at this writing thing. It’s hard, it’s ultra competitive and writing something good is no guarantee of commercial success. What it takes many writers quite a while to work out is that commerciality is concerned with how much money your writing product will make for the producer of said product and no matter how artistically wonderful it is, (and I’m thinking of friends who’ve won major awards, yet not been picked up commercially) it all comes back to money.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, it’s subjective. Years ago when working on my first novel manuscript, I applied for an both Arts grant and for a literary award to develop the book. In the same week, I had two very different responses to the same work — the grants board rejected my application with the off-handed remark that my work “lacked spark and artistic merit”, while the literary awards mob shortlisted my work at a national level. Had it not been for the short listing, those ill-thought out words from the arts board may have crushed me so badly that I’d have given up right then and never written another creative piece. But the important lesson I learned was that it’s SUBJECTIVE. What one person may love, another may hate. That’s true of even the most successful books and movies. I mean, I really didn’t like Mad Max (the new one with Charlize in it). Nope, was bored sh*tless. Many others disagree. It’s subjective.

Which brings me to my point. A few weeks ago, I entered a short story in a prestigious competition, then forgot about it. The announcement date for winners passed and I heard nothing, so assumed I’d won nothing. Then, a few days later, I received this in the mail. My story had been given a Highly Commended. My critical self reacted by first thinking that just wasn’t good enough. It was acknowledgement, but not a win. There were at least two other stories better than mine, which wasn’t good enough to win.

In a sense, that’s true. But again, I remind myself that it’s subjective. Different judges may have liked my story more, or others less. Receiving some acknowledgement of the quality of my work is still “success”. Affirmation is important as a writer, but what I’m learning more and more is that affirmation is empty if you don’t simply love writing. Sitting down, committing your story to the page, that is the real reward. Of course, the major, best-selling book deal is still a dream, but even if that never happens, to quote Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog):

“I write because it makes my life shine.”

Romance Writers of Australia online course – The Synopsis

You’ve written a stand-out story and now it’s time for (gasp) submission. Eek! You know if you don’t get this part right, the agent or publisher won’t even get to that manuscript you’ve just spent the last year (or ten) slaving over. Oh, the pressure!

Relax. Breathe. It’s OK.

Most writers know they need to provide a “book package” that varies slightly from publisher to publisher, but will inevitably contain a synopsis, cover letter, author bio and perhaps blurb. The good news is you can prepare a kick-arse package that’s ready to go, and tweak it to suit the individual specifications of your intended submittee.

When I was starting out some years ago, I thought whoever devised the concept of the synopsis must be a complete sadist. I mean, what kind of cruel and unusual torture involves reducing 400 pages of novel to two 1.5 spaced standard A4s?! This task necessarily means you have to leave stuff out. Lots of stuff. So what parts do you leave out, what bits do you leave in, and how should you write the darned thing? Just what makes a good synopsis that will hook your ideal agent or publisher and MAKE them pick up your amazing manuscript?

I asked all these questions and more of the many mentors I’ve had and I can thankfully report that, with some examples, an explanation of the theory behind the synopsis and other tools, it’s not the hand-wringing task it at first appears. Which brings me to the OWL I’m teaching in September called “Synopsis, blurb, cover letter, bio — your book selling tools”.

I work best when I understand the purpose of a thing, and have good examples to work from, so that’s the approach I’ve taken with this OWL. I’ve included lots of theory and I’ve called upon my network of writer pals to provide me with examples of their materials. You’ll get to see what different types of synopsises, cover letters, author bio’s and blurbs have worked for a variety of published authors. I’ve also strong-armed my longstanding mentor and editor, Robb Grindstaff (http://robbgrindstaff.com/writing/) into providing a bit of assistance, and he’s going to be available on our forum to answer your questions — many of Robb’s clients have landed agent and publishing deals, so make good use of him!

Also, because I teach in the Professional Writing stream at TAFE, I’ve seen first-hand that one-on-one feedback is often the most useful part of a course. So I’m also offering all participants the opportunity to submit their synopsis to me in week four (after we’ve covered the theory, done some exercises, and seen examples, of course) for individual feedback about your strengths and weaknesses. Feedback can pickpocket Dear Writer of their blind spots which is always helpful, not necessarily painless, but I do promise to be gentle! For this reason, I’ve capped the number of participants or I may drown under a sea of synopsises — yet another reason they are instruments of torture — so book in quick!

If you want to book, you can do so here: http://www.romanceaustralia.com/owl/24

Hope to see you in September!