Fantastic stories and how to ensure they are found

Be honest, the title was at least a bit enticing and intriguing, wasn’t it? I also thought about going with “Oh, what’s in a name?” as the title, but quoting Shakespeare always feels a bit pompous. Both of these titles serve a single purpose, of course: catching the eye.

So to answer Juliet’s question, there is a lot to a name, or title. A title is the first piece of writing with which an author (and editor) make contact with the reader. And as we all want to sell a few books to make those coveted 10%, it needs to arrest the reader’s attention and spark some curiosity. Of course a nice cover helps a lot, but that is often out of the author’s sphere of influence, so I’m going to stick to what I know, and those are words.

My examples use known quotations, or references to known cultural phenomena. Other books, especially those that serve up a nice piece of sassy satire, may go for an entertaining pun; books that are intended to a more adult audience might go some for innuendo, and others might just choose something mysterious or, quite contrary, descriptive, but just as cryptic. A different example from a completely different field, look at so-called “click bait”; these short tag lines are constructed for the sole purpose of having people click on a link, they are usually joined by some kind of statement about how “you wouldn’t believe #3 is true!” in their list of the 6 most amazing things you can make pancakes with. A book title, along with sub titles, serve the very same purpose.

Now, even assuming that you found the perfect book title, we all know that people today want the best possible bang for their buck, so just a short glimpse at the half-naked man with the chiseled abs on the cover and that catchy, bawdy title you came up with might not be enough; there’s a reason that “don’t judge a book by its cover” became a saying.

To truly engross someone, you need to take into account that a lot of people read the first page or so in the bookstore, or online thanks to the preview option online retailers offer. That is why the first paragraph is a vital thing to get right, the first sentence even. It needs to set the tone, be interested, introduce some part of the underlying conflict, or the idea that something sinister will be coming, introduce at least one likable character, and still be flowing, witty, engrossing, and easy to read. In other words, it needs to sell your book.

Allow me the vanity of using the first sentence from my novel as an example: “I can’t see through the smoke, but that’s okay, there’s nothing to see.” The first reaction I got in a creative writing workshop where I presented the draft for the novel was that the later events seemed rather divorced from this beginning. The participant said that this made him think of a bomb that exploded and a desolate ruin somewhere, possibly in a not-too-friendly-to-Americans part of the Middle East, which later turns out to be someone’s basement in a small town in Ohio. This, however, is the point of this sentence. The character is a former soldier, he is a drug addict, he is confused and disoriented, and the next sentence (“Besides, even if I could see, I’d probably see wrong, or fuzzy,or blurry, and freak out.”) makes it clear that he is afraid of any kind of sobriety or clarity. This, then, sets the tone for the whole book, and is intriguing enough for the reader to want to find out what is happening, since they are given so little by the narrator, which means that they are required to puzzle the various components themselves and not rely on the narrator to explain a lot, or to explain it in a coherent manner.

And that is the crux of it. You need to inspire your readers to want to find out more, give them a bit, but hold so much back that they feel a hunger to keep reading. An interesting title, a powerful first sentence, and a first paragraph that basically does everything but wash your car, those are your weapons, now go conquer the world!

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