Book Review and Analysis: "The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins

I know I’m late to the game on this one, but I decided to read it, and it warrants a review and analysis. This post is kind of long, but if you’re interested in learning something about writing from a famous book, hang in there. My main purpose is to critique the book from the standpoint of a writer.

As a reader, the book was moderately entertaining, fast-paced, and had everything a reader would want, particularly teenage girls, to whom the thing is geared. From that standpoint, it’s easy to see why it was popular. As a writer, however, it broke most of the rules of good writing somewhere along the line, and that is what’s so frustrating about it for someone like me.

This book represents all that is wrong with commercial fiction today, and some that is right. I’ll start with the right.

The writing, in general, is tight and precise. There is little slop, and she keeps description to a minimum. It is pure story. That is, there is nothing in it that does not advance the story. A little flashback here and there, and some description, but little enough that it doesn’t interfere or slow down the story. It’s fast-paced, and nearly every word moves things along.

I like nice, crisp writing. Cormac McCarthy, for example. Collins’ writing style reminded me of his writing, which certainly goes into the good category. What she lacks, however, is any subtlety or nuance, and the wonderful islands of description and finesse that McCarthy has.

Now the wrong. 

The Beginning. If you Google “how not to start your novel,” at or near the top of the list will be, “with the main character waking up.” Read any half-baked self-published book and there’s at least a 50% chance that it starts with the main character waking up. Now, to the author’s credit, she didn’t beat it to death with the character opening one eye, and then the other, and then burying her head in the pillow and then... you get the idea. Nevertheless, Collins starts her novel with Katniss waking up.

There were plenty of ways to avoid that. Have her already awake looking at Prim nestled against their mother. “I was up early on the day of the reaping.” Or something.

This sort of thing is maddening for authors. You take classes, you hire developmental editors, you submit your work to websites for critique, and they all say, “don’t start with the character waking up.” And then comes a wildly successful novel that, you know....

What probably saves it is the sentence about it being the day of the reaping. In spite of the horrible beginning, a few sentences in we are given a carrot. “Okay,” we say, “we’ll hang in there to see what this reaping thing is.”

Clearly, then, the readers of this novel didn’t care about the beginning, or marketing made it irrelevant. 

Its Structure. I am a nut about structure. I study movies and novels to see how it’s done. I read books on the subject. I obsess over it in my own work with, I admit, varying levels of success. In “The Hunger Games,” the structure is scrunched up, compared to the standard dogma.

The story has structure, and that is one of the positive things a new writer can take away. It follows the three-act structure and, largely, the Hero’s Journey.

We get a brief introduction to the characters, and see them in their ordinary world. Then something happens to upset everything (inciting incident), the main character begins her journey by crossing the first threshold, she prepares for battle (trains with the master), engages in the battle, there is a climax, and then the denouement, or end, where we see the character after the story. This is the first book of a series, so the denouement is more of a cliffhanger than one would find in a stand-alone novel, but it’s all there. It’s not the structure itself that bothers me, it’s the timing.

I try to follow a four-act structure found in “Story Engineering,” by Larry Brooks. I’ve blogged on it, and you should read the book. It’s important to understand structure so you know where I’m coming from.

“The Hunger Games” starts with us seeing (being told, largely) what things are like for Katniss and her family. We see them in their ordinary world. Eighteen pages in (about the 5% point), Prim is chosen to go to the games. This is the inciting incident, which upsets everything and causes Katniss to take action. 5% is too soon. It should happen at between 10 and 15%. I couldn’t find anything after that that could be the inciting incident.

What bothers me about the timing is that when the inciting incident occurs, we hardly know who these people are. We know they struggle every day to survive, that Katniss and Gale illegally hunt and gather food in the woods, and we know that Katniss’ father was killed. But at this early stage of the story I haven’t developed any real interest in what happens to them. Okay, it’s a drag that they don’t get enough food. Sounds like the vast majority of the world’s population today. It’s a drag they live in some totalitarian society. Same as above. They’re cold, and hungry, and have to fight to survive. Take number. I’m going to fall asleep over here.

Oh, their district has to send someone to fight to the death in dystopian “Survivor.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Oh no, Prim’s name comes out of the bowl against huge odds. That’s definitely a bummer, and I feel a twinge of sympathy, but it’s the same sympathy I feel for someone I read about in the news who is killed in some unfair or horrendous manner. It’s not the sympathy or grief I feel when it happens to a family member or close friend. That, in my opinion, is what the feeling should be like, and that can’t be done within the first 5% of the book. That’s why an author should spend at least 10% of the book letting us get to know the characters. That doesn’t mean it should be boring or slow. To the contrary. It needs to be just as compelling as the rest of it. But when the inciting incident rolls around, I should say “Oh no!” rather than “Oh, bummer for you.”

One of my biggest criticisms of new writers on Critique Circle is that they start right off with the main character in some grave danger (usually being chased through the woods, or dark alleys of some dystopian city). The assumption is that simply because a young woman, of whom I know nothing, is being chased by some deadly foe, I should care. I should be worried for her. But who is she? Maybe she deserves whatever she’s about to get. Maybe she killed a baby or tortured a puppy.

Next on the structure list is crossing the first threshold. Some pundits confuse this with the inciting incident, but it’s not. They are two separate things. Crossing the first threshold usually happens at about the 25% point. In “The Hunger Games,” it occurs when they take Katniss and Peeta (as in pita bread?) into the Justice building at about the 9% point. I suppose one could argue that it occurs when they arrive in the capitol at the 16% point, but I think it’s when they are first taken away after the reaping.

From this point until about the 40% point, they prepare for the games. Some backstory is filled in, and the relationship between Peeta and Katniss is developed.

The next plot point is crossing the second threshold, which normally takes place at about the 75% point, but which takes place in “The Hunger Games” at about 40%, when the Tributes enter the arena for the games. Again, much earlier than the standard rules of structure would dictate.

The next major plot point was the death of Rue at the 63% point, when Katniss decided that she would do whatever she had to to win. This is where the 50% point should be, so this one comes a bit late. Not important, really, that it comes at this point, although it would have been better if it came a bit closer to the halfway point.

The Gamemakers change the rules at the 65% point so that both people from the same district can win. I see this as a “pinch point.” That is, a point at which we see how evil the antagonistic force is, usually occurring at about the 67% point. The Gamemakers (i.e., the government) show that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, and the tributes (i.e., the people) are helpless.

When Peeta and Katniss are the only two survivors, given the rule change, the game should be over and they should be taken from the arena as victors. They are baffled when nothing happens. Then they get word at the 92% point that the change has been revoked. There can be only one winner, and Peeta and Katniss have to fight each other. All through the games they have been playing up the romantic angle between them, and now one has to kill the other. They decide that they won’t do that, and agree to take poison berries instead. Just as they put the berries in their mouths (95%), the Gamemakers change the rule back, declare them the winners, and take them from the arena.

This is the climax of the book. The protagonists have taken on the antagonist and won. Taking the poison berries was their way of fighting the government, and the government capitulated.

So, what does all this structure analysis mean? It shows that a book has to have some structure, but it doesn’t have to follow the screenplay structure exactly.

I’ve blogged on this relating to a few movies. If you watch a movie, the plot points I’ve mentioned here come at exactly the right moment down to the second. I haven’t seen the movie of this book, but I wager that the plot has been massaged to make it come out the way a screenplay should. A novel, however, has more flexibility.

I still don’t like that the inciting incident comes so early, but that might be a commentary on the intended audience, which I see has teenage/preteen, girls. They won’t sit still for forty pages before something major happens. The version I read was a paperback with 373 pages. The inciting incident comes on page 20 (18, really, as the story starts on page 3), when it should come no earlier than page 37. But will a twelve-year-old girl wait that long? Apparently not. Maybe the audience for this is not as jaded and battle-scarred as I am, so maybe by page 15 they care for the characters.

The writing.

I’ve compared Collins’ writing to Cormac McCarthy, but she’s no Cormac McCarthy. It’s as though someone has taken a Cormac McCarthy novel and stripped it of all that is fine, subtle, and nuanced about a novel. It’s bare bones story.

That’s not necessarily all bad, but I think the audience to which this book is directed should start to understand that there’s more to a story and more to a novel than plain entertainment. It’s a work of art, not a text message or a tweet.

I admit, though, that there are some lessons in the book. It is a reflection of the pathetic and frivolous society we have become. The novel is about a reality TV show. This is “Survivor” or “Big Brother” to the nth degree. It’s “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette” with a twist. (These programs would be improved if the contestants went around killing each other.)

My real beef with the book, however, is not in the story itself, or the fact that it’s stripped bare McCarthy. My problem has more to do with technical things, probably more related to editing than the original writing. It does about everything I tell new writers not to.

Consider the dialogue tags. That is, the “I say,” or “he says” bits that follow a quote. I spend a fair amount of time writing critiques of stories on Critique Circle. There I try to convince young and new authors that you only need a dialogue tag to the extent necessary for the reader to keep track of who’s talking. In this book, however, every single quote is followed by a dialogue tag, even when only two people are having a conversation.

“Blah, blah, blah,” I say.
He smiled. “Blah blah blah,” he says.
“...,” I say.
“...,” he says.

This is too much. Dialogue like this could go on for a few pages. Katniss and Peeta are the only people present. It’s not possible for anyone else to be involved in the conversation. I don’t need the author to tell me on every line who the speaker was. Once in a while, sure. I need to keep track, but not every one.

Also, if there is a gesture or an expression before the quote, I don’t need the tag. It’s a substitute for the tag. To say that he smiled, and follow it with “he says,” is redundant.

Another favorite of mine is the exclamation point. Collins threw them around like candy. I tell people to take it easy on them. The reader should be able to tell from the context whether the statement was an exclamation or not. Shoot for only about two in your novel.

More annoying than an exclamation point is an exclamation point followed by the dialogue tag, “I exclaimed.” Please, are the readers to which this is aimed that dull? If your writing is so poor that you need to inform the reader that what was said was an exclamation, then all you need is either the exclamation point, or the word “exclaimed.”

Also relating to dialogue tags, I encourage writers to stick with “said” or “asked,” or at worst, “whispered” or shouted.” I also discourage the use of adverbs to modify any dialogue tag. To her credit, Collins basically did that. But there are egregious violations of those rules. For example:

“Can you take your boots off?” I suggest.

No, it was not a suggestion, it was a question. It was either asked or said. Even if it were a suggestion, to tell the reader that it was a suggestion is an insult to the intelligence of the reader.

Consider: “But I—,” he insists.

He didn’t insist. He started to say something and she shut him up by giving him a kiss. That she interrupted him is indicated with the em dash. Same with “Yes. Look, if I don’t make it back—” he begins. There are others. These tags must arise from the insistence on using a tag for every line of dialogue. They are totally unnecessary.

It’s also unnecessary to tell us to whom the question or statement was directed if there are only two people in the conversation. “I asked him;” “I say to Peeta.” Who else would she be talking to? 

Another thing I harp on is adverbs. Adverbs should be avoided as much as possible in general, and although she also pretty much followed the rule, there are egregious violations. For example (God help us), “I drink thirstily.” This is a textbook example of where and how not to use an adverb. It’s so horrible of an example that I wonder whether it was put there as a joke, or as a classroom example of what not to do.

One could instead write: “I guzzled; chugged; swilled; pounded; gulped the water.”

Modifying a dialogue tag with an adverb is one of the things I dislike the most. Collins seems to like them:

I say generously
She said encouragingly
I say haltingly
I think grouchily

I could go on, but I’ll spare you. The worst part is that they are not necessary, given the context. Take the “I say haltingly.” The sentence is: “You have a ... remarkable memory,” I say haltingly. The author made the sentence halting by use of an ellipsis. There’s no need to tell the reader how it was said by tossing in an adverb.

Collins also likes cliché. “A beeline;” “ring a bell;” “screaming my head off.” And others.

As to the grammar, in general it’s not bad, even in the dialogue. One exception that struck me was, “...more occupied with the mutts than us.” It should be “...than with us.” I know, it’s dialogue and that might be how people talk, particularly from her level of society, but she has pretty much used proper grammar up to now.

Two more complaints, and then I’ll shut up. There are phrases I see on occasion in new authors’ writing that disturb me. “My head snaps from side to side...” and “A shriek escapes my lips.” Okay, not the most egregious examples of poor writing, but poor writing, nevertheless.
What’s my problem with them? As to the head snapping, her head did not, of its own volition, snap side to side. She looked in both directions. That’s all the author would have to say.

As to the shriek, there’s no need to tell the reader that the sound from the shriek passed her lips, any more than it’s necessary to tell the reader that the sound emanated from her vocal chords when her diaphragm contracted, sending air through her esophagus, resulting in a shriek that went into her mouth and past her lips, and set the surrounding air to vibrating so the sound reached her ears and the ears of others, causing the eardrum to vibrate, facilitating the sound to go to her brain as electrical impulses. What’s wrong with simply saying “I let out a shriek,” or better, “I shrieked”?

So, what are the lessons for the writer? I would say it’s to know the rules and know when you’re breaking them, but don’t let the rules get in the way of a good story. And although you read a lot about agents turning work down for things like I’ve discussed here, the real issue is whether there is a good, compelling story. Adverbs be damned.
 

Story Structure in a Movie: "Barfly"

I love to beat on story structure, partially because it fascinates me, and partially because I think it’s one of the most important things a writer must get right. Whether you plan your story in every detail or write by the seat of your pants, in the end, the story must have this structure. Movies are a great way to see it in action because they follow it religiously, and it’s quicker than a novel. It’s true that a novel does not have to follow the structure as precisely as a movie does, but the closer it is to it, the better.

The structure I follow is a combination of that of Larry Brooks in his book Story Engineering, and that of James Scott Bell in his book Write Your Novel from the Middle. The best part of these two books is that they explain the structure more clearly than others.

A story has the following plot points:

  1. We start with the protagonist in his ordinary world
  2. Inciting incident 10%
  3. First plot point (first threshold) at 25%
  4. First pinch point at about 37.5%
  5. Mid point (look in the mirror point) 50%
  6. Second pinch point at 67.5%
  7. Second plot point at 75%
  8. Climax at 90-99%
  9. Denouement

Barfly is a 1987 flick staring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, directed by Barbet Schroeder and written by Charles Bukowski. It’s based on Bukowski’s time in LA.

Mickey Rourke plays Henry Chinaski, a boozer who spends his days and nights drinking, and often fights with one of the bartenders at his local hangout. He befriends Wanda, another boozer/hooker played by Faye Dunaway. In the meantime, there are a couple of people looking for him. Turns out one is a private eye hired to find him, and the other is the editor of a magazine to which he has submitted numerous short stories. She has decided to accept one, and wants to find him to give him a check, and to save him from his wretched circumstances. Let’s leave the storyline there and get to the analysis.

Ordinary World
The movie starts with Henry and the bartender in a brutal brawl in the alley behind the bar. The bartender beats Henry unconscious. This fight seems to be a tradition between these two, but we are never told why.

Inciting Incident

There is a lot of confusion as to the difference between an inciting incident (10%) and the first plot point (25%). Some pundits seem to use them interchangeably. Larry Brooks says that the inciting indent is the first plot point. Others make a distinction between the two and preach that you have to have both. As to writing your novel, I believe there should be both. 
The inciting incident is the point when something disturbs the protagonist’s status quo. Everything before this point is backstory and setup. I don’t think this movie has an inciting incident, or it’s obscure.

As this movie is about 96 minutes long, the inciting incident should come at about ten minutes in (or before). At the ten minute point the PI and the publisher are sitting in a car outside Henry’s building. Henry is in his seedy room listening to classical music and writing with a pencil on small pieces of paper. The scene fades to black, and then comes back with Henry laying on his bed listening to the radio. When Henry goes down the hall to the bathroom, the PI goes into his room and takes pictures of the papers on which Henry has been writing. The PI leaves just before Henry gets back. Henry never knows that the PI was there. 

This part ends at the 13 minute point, or about 13.5% of the way into the story. As it ends, he walks out of his building and the landlady bitches at him for being a young man who is drunk every day by noon. She tells him to get a job.

It’s possible that the inciting incident is the fact that he has been found and the PI proves it with the writing. But can an inciting incident be something unknown to the protagonist? I don’t think so, because it’s supposed to be an event that disrupts the protagonist’s life. It’s not the first plot point or turning point, it’s just something that happens.

I’ve seen some sources who say that the inciting incident could have happened before the story starts. He is a good enough writer to get published at a literary magazine, which means he has some education. He likes classical music, which also is evidence of education. He has submitted stories, which means he at some point had a typewriter (this is 1987) or access to one. You can’t submit hand-written work to a publisher. We are never told what led him to live like he does. Maybe he’s insane. At one point Tully asks him if he’s crazy. He says yes.

On the other hand, whatever happened before the story starts may explain how or why he’s where he is, but when the story opens this is his normal, everyday life. Therefore, there has to be an inciting incident. But I don’t see one.

He fights, returns to the bar the next day, goes home, goes back to the bar, and fights again. This is his world. Not until around the 20 minute mark does anything out of the ordinary happen. But we are now in the territory of the first plot point. My verdict: there is no separate inciting incident.

First Plot Point

This is the point at which the story really gets going. In the Hero’s Journey, this is the crossing of the first threshold. In this movie, it’s the point at just past the 20 minute mark when, after the most recent fight, the bartender in his regular place refuses to serve him. He leaves and heads for the bar across the street. One of the bartenders, Jim, follows him and gives him a cut of the cash he won betting on Henry in the fight. Henry then enters the other bar, thereby crossing the first threshold at about the 22.4% point.

The new bar is much nicer than the one in which he usually hangs out. He’s in a different world. By the way, crossing the first threshold often involves a bar. For example, in the first “Star Wars,” it’s when Luke and Obi Wan walk into the bar full of strange characters.
In this scene, Henry meets Wanda and they strike off together.

First Pinch Point

“Pinch Point” is an unfortunate term because it doesn’t mean anything by itself. It’s meaningless without further explanation. The best explanation I’ve seen is by Larry Brooks, who defines it in “Story Engineering” as an example or reminder of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force.

That brings us to the question of who or what is the antagonistic force. There are a few candidates. Booze; his own personality; the bartender he fights; even Wanda. I firmly believe that the antagonist can’t just be society in general, or the government, or something like that. It may be the government, for example, but there has to be a person who embodies the antagonist. I suppose that a person can be their own antagonist, and there’s a good argument here that Henry is both the antagonist and the protagonist. In my opinion, it’s Wanda.

In the first instance, we meet her at the first turning point, which is when we should meet the antagonist, or at least when the protagonist should meet the antagonist. It’s possible we already have met the antagonist, as is the case in the first Star Wars, but it’s not the case here.

The first pinch point should come at about 37.5% of the way through the story. In Barfly, that point is the scene where Henry and Wanda wake up in the morning after going to bed for the first time. She gives him an extra set of keys to her apartment. He says he’s not too good at this sort of thing, and she tells him it’s easier for two to pay the rent. Ultimately, they head off to get his few belongings.

Midpoint/Look in the Mirror Point

One thing I like about Larry Brooks’ approach is that he divides the story into four parts, rather than three. Other people do this, such as by having Act IIA and IIB, but he explains it best. James Scott Bell calls it the “look in the mirror point.” Many times the protagonist at this point is looking in the mirror considering what to do. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief, who is the protagonist in the novel, is in the bathroom looking in the mirror. In Barfly, exactly at the 50% point, Henry has been hit in the head by Wanda and has bled all over the place. He’s in the bathroom staring into the mirror reciting poetry.

Second Pinch Point

Halfway through the third section comes another pinch point (about 67.5%). In Barfly, it comes at about 60 minutes, where Wanda is pretending to be sick and about to die. She tells Henry to call an ambulance. The EMTs show up and say that she’s just drunk. When they leave, she immediately snaps out of it and complains because one of the EMTs said she was fat. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her. It just highlights how manipulative she is.

Second Plot Point

The second plot point is the all is lost moment. All information has been provided and the final chase is on. This marks the point between Act III (or the second half of Act II) and Act IV (or Act III if you stick to pure three-act structure). That means it should come at about 75% of the way through.

In Barfly, it comes at about 70% when Tully shows up and reveals who she is and what she wants. We’ve seen her before, and we knew she was looking for Henry, but we didn’t know why. She has decided to publish one of his stories and needed to track him down to tell him that they had discovered him. She gives him a $500 check and we get into the final act.

Climax

Between 90 and 99% of the way through the story, the final battle between the antagonist and the protagonist takes place. Henry and Wanda are in the bar pissing away his new-found wealth by buying everyone round after round of drinks. Wanda does not know who Tully is. In a previous scene, Wanda smelled Tully’s perfume on Henry (he had spent the night with Tully). In the bar, leading up to the climax, Wanda says she’ll tear whoever he was he was with apart, if she finds her.

In walks Tully. Wanda smells her perfume and realizes who she is. At about the 95% point, the women fight over Henry. Wanda prevails and Tully leaves.

I find this very interesting because the protagonist is not involved directly in the final battle. The antagonist has it out with what I think is the temptress archetype. The antagonist wins.

Denouement

After the climax, we see the world of the hero as it is now. Normally, one would expect the hero to be in a state opposite that of the beginning. The movie ends, however, with Henry going off to fight the same bartender he fought at the beginning. He’s been offered a chance at a better life and turned it down. It’s one of the few stories you’ll see where the protagonist does not change.

What do you think? Agree or disagree with my thinking on this? Do you try to follow this structure?
 

My Experience with Amazon Giveaways

Amazon makes it very easy to setup a giveaway for any product (so far as I know). You go to that product’s page, scroll down, and you’ll see a link to “Setup a Giveaway.” Follow the simple instructions, pay for the item and, after a short time, your giveaway will be active. Amazon does not market it for you, but they provide a link that you can use to market it yourself. There are even social links whereby they automatically insert the link and the hashtag #AmazonGiveaway.

As an author, I’m always interested in finding new ways to market and this looked pretty good. They allow you to do a giveaway for your Kindle book, as well as your print book. I tried both.

The first giveaway I did for the Kindle version of “A Beast in Venice.” I had the price set at $3.99, and I wanted to give away five copies. I had to pay 5 x 3.99, or $19.95. On the upside, you still get your commission for the sale, so I only ended up paying 30% of that (net). The lesson there is to set your book to 99 cents before the giveaway. I set it for one in every 25 people to win. (In other words, I still didn’t what the hell I was doing), and required them to follow me on Amazon in order to enter.

As an aside, the real goal of marketing for an author, outside of selling books, is to get followers interested in your type of book, and preferably on a mailing list. You want to be able to contact these people at will.

Amazon allows you to require the entrants to follow you on Amazon (a list over which you have no control and don’t even know who’s on it), follow you on Twitter (which is better), watch videos, or do nothing else (more about this one later). I decided for my first one I would go with Amazon followers, as Amazon will email them when you make a new release. Not an ideal situation, but better than nothing.

I Tweeted the thing with their hashtag, and within a few hours all the books were gone, giveaway over. Ok, I thought, I got 111 new followers on Twitter who are interested in my book. Wrong.

Amazon gives a list of the winners. I checked them out. The only place I had done any marketing was on Twitter, so these people must have Twitter accounts. All five of them were either “goose eggs,” or had a picture with no profile. That is, they are spammy accounts that enter Amazon giveaways in order to get the thing and sell it, or return it for a credit. As to Kindle books, I understand they can trade it in for something else, or for credit.


So, for my $6.00, I figure I got nothing. Maybe some of the followers were good followers who will not unfollow me, and who may consider buying my new books. But I doubt it.

The next giveaway was the Kindle version of “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man.” On this one, I set the price at 99 cents before the giveaway, and I wanted to give away ten copies. I still had not figured out what was going on, and I thought I could get me a thousand followers. (Yes, I’m slow). 

I set the giveaway to 1 in 100 and required them to follow me on Twitter. At least I’d be able to see all entrants, whereas in the version where they follow you on Amazon, you only know who won. I Tweeted the link with #AmazonGiveaway (duh). Right off the bat I got about 300 followers and 3 winners. Guess what? They were all shit. No real people actually interested in my book.

At this point I finally realized what was happening. People (bots) automatically look for the hashtag and enter the giveaway. There are websites where they list the active giveaways, what it is, and what it’s worth.

I set up another giveaway of two copies of the print version of “A Beast in Venice.” This time I would require people to sign up for my mailing list before they could enter. That’s where the “do nothing else” comes in. One of the options when you set up a giveaway is not to require the entrants to do anything additional. That way you can set up whatever conditions you want, and then give them the link.

The form to sign up (through Mail Chimp) has reCaptcha. The entrant must click a box that they are human. Result: no takers.

The bottom line is that no one wants to be on a mailing list, even if they get a chance to win a bona fide print book. 

I tried something else with my giveaway for the Kindle version of “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man.” All they have to do is enter a password (which I give them) to click through to the link. No takers.

The bottom line is that Amazon giveaways are useless for authors.

There has sprung up an industry around these giveaways that make it impossible for an author to accomplish what they really need to accomplish, which is to build a mailing list of people interested in the kind of books you write.

What if you gave away a Kindle, instead? Even if you were able to keep the bots out of it, you have a list of people who want to have a free Kindle, not a list of potential readers.

What would be a good strategy to use this method to gain real, meaningful followers, or to build your mailing list? Give away copies of books by well-known authors in your genre?

What do you think?

I’m thinking I may try that, but I am of the mind that the best thing to do is to give books away on Goodreads. At least you know that the people there are interested in books, and they’re not likely to be scamming on a book in a genre they don’t read. If they are, and they are doing it to sell on ebay, they will find out what every author already knows: it’s easier to write a book than it is to sell one.

OpenOffice Text Selection Slow: Solved

OpenOffice Writer Text Selection Running Slow

 

I’d used OpenOffice Writer for years with no problem, then one day the text selection feature was so slow that it would take twenty minutes to select all the text in a novel (80,000 words). It hadn’t done that before, and I couldn’t figure it out. That made it useless.

I went online and read all sorts of complicated responses to people who had the same. Here’s the thing: solutions to this type of issue are rarely complicated. The more complex the solution suggested, the less likely it is to work, and the more likely you are to screw up your computer.

Here’s the solution: Mine was caused by an extension. Specifically, Word Count Status Bar.

To fix it, go to “Tools” on the menu bar, select “Extension Manager” from the drop down menu, and then disable the extensions. Ordinary ones, such as spelling and grammar are ok, but any others, disable.

Then close the program and restart it. Selecting text should work again. If you really want the extensions you disabled, enable them one at a time, close the program and restart, and test the selection feature. If it works, repeat the process for the rest, one at a time. That’s how you find the offending extension. When you find it, remove it.

That’s it. The simplest solution is always the best.

Good luck.

How Not to Start Your Novel, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts about how not to start your novel. One of the most common questions I see from new writers is how to start. I can't necessarily tell you how to start your novel, but I can tell you how not to, particularly if you want to find an agent or a publisher.

I follow a couple of thousand people on Twitter, largely other authors, many of whom are self-published. The self-published people love to hawk their books, and I like to go to Amazon to “Look Inside,” which I do mainly out of curiosity. It interests me how people start their books. 

There are two very popular ways of beginning a novel among the self-published crowd: by someone waking up, or by someone (usually a woman) being chased.

The main character waking up

If you Google “how not to start a novel,” you will find many articles on the subject. One thing all these articles have in common is that they tell you not to start with a character waking up (or any of its variants, such as coming to in a dark room).

Consider this, aspiring writer: I want you to tell me a story. I don’t want to spend five pages with the main character struggling to get out of bed because they’re tired and sleepy. 

It’s cliché. The character’s alarm goes off, they hit snooze, their mom calls up that they’ll be late for school, or for work, they groan and roll over, pulling the covers over their head. This exciting action repeats at least once, and then they finally get up, stretch, yawn, rub the sleep out of their eyes, blah, blah, fucking blah… Sound familiar?

By this point I’m three pages in (actually, I quit reading when the alarm went off) and all I want to do is kick the character’s ass. As an author, that is not what you want.

Of course, you can find plenty of traditionally published novels that start with people waking up, or getting out of a car, or with the weather, etc. But they are not you. Unless there is some mighty compelling artistic reason for needing to start your novel with a character waking up, don’t do it.

Someone being chased

“Start with action,” or “start in the middle of things.” Every book and every blog on the subject of writing gives you this advice. And it’s good advice. But what does it mean?

To me it means to start with the character doing something, rather than with pages and pages describing the world and its history.
In my novel, “A Beast in Venice,” I start with the main character walking in Venice at night looking for a martini. In “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man,” the main character, who is a lawyer, is in court.

In both cases there is no description of the place and time, other than what’s woven into the narrative, and then only to the extent necessary for the reader to understand what’s happening. We start to learn about the characters from what they say, do, and think. 

It gives the reader a chance to get to know the character, and hopefully begin to care what happens to them, before anything bad happens.

I have seen a number of self-published novels where the author has interpreted “start with action” to mean start with the character being chased by someone (or something) intent on causing them serious bodily harm. Often this chase is taking place in a dark forest, or in the alleys of a city at night.

What’s wrong with that? I don’t know the character, and I don’t care what happens to him or her. How do I know the person being chased is the good guy? Maybe they’re running from the father of a little boy they just raped. I don’t have anything invested in the character.

The other thing is that a novel has to have rising action. If you start your novel with a big, violent scene, you’d better ramp it up from there. The reader expects things to get much worse for your character before they get better.

You’re thinking, “But I just watched ‘Casino Royale,’ and it started with a big chase, and shooting, and things blowing up.” Yes. That’s because it’s James Bond. You already know everything there is about him (did you know he’s an orphan?). From the time he appears on screen you’re invested in his character.

Not so with yours, unless it’s part of a series, I suppose.

The Hero’s Journey, as described in “The Writer’s Journey,” by Christopher Vogler, starts with the character in her ordinary world. This is our chance to see who the character is, and what her problem is. We (hopefully) develop an interest in what happens to her. Then, when the monster is chasing her through the woods, we know who to root for.

There are few rules in writing. It is a rule that a proper name is capitalized, or that a sentence ends with a period. Not start with someone waking up is not a rule, and neither is not starting with someone being chased. They are guidelines, or suggestions, or maybe even best practices. You should, however, think long and hard before you ignore them.