book sales, reading, writing technique

’Tis the Season!

(For the big annual library book sales.) Treasures, absolute treasures, for cheap.


My house looks like this, only not so neat.

Here in Connecticut we have huge discard sales, town by town, over the course of the summer. I look forward to them all year. The biggies near me are Newtown over the Fourth of July, and Redding, over Labor Day weekend, with smaller ones scattered in between.

First day, you pay double the marked price (usually one-two-three dollars.) Second day, you pay full price. Third day, half price. Fourth day, all you can pack into a carton for five dollars.

You walk into (generally) a school gymnasium and find tables set up by category. General fiction, biography, history, science, mystery, cooking. Fiction is broken up: current (the last decade or two) vintage (popular titles from farther back) and Literature, work that has been deemed for the ages. That’s where I head first.

In literature you’ll find the odd stuff, things you may never see again. In the past I’ve snagged lectures by a president of Harvard on ethics and philosophy, full of ideas for Sly to obsess over. And, a marvelous series, chatty passing-scene, part story/part social commentary, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (Not the judge.) That’s where I glommed onto Charles Reade, he of the mush plots and to-die-for description. The tattered volumes are a treasure trove of beautifully put comments on the human condition, such as used to be considered a worthy side-line to the plot, learned, often comically high-minded treatments that stuff perfectly into a mouth that I am always looking to furnish with know-it-all material. My guy is a scholarly sort, curious about every corner of life, beguiled, and infuriated, by the strange ways of the humankind.

I find goodies on many a table, but my heart belongs to classics. That’s where the sale organizers put anything of a certain age that they don’t know what else to do with. The sad thing is, over the four decades that I’ve been hitting these events, the selection of classics has shrunk and shrunk. The donated old-holdings have diminished in depth and variety. As the old-time book lovers decease and their musty shelves are donated by unappreciative heirs, the percentage of treacle best-sellers has grown and grown. Get the oddments now, before the glorious caches of vetted greats and screwball-sublime are no more. That tap won’t gush forever, a shame and a pity. I rummage through the oldie-moldies salivating, I swear to God. Any book with an unreadable spine, the odds are good it’s something tremendous.

Forget the writing manuals, those dreadful how-to’s, how to construct a story that will meet the expectations of the popular-fiction readers of today, demanding, according to those write-like-a-pro quick-tips, action-reaction. My library finds are the only school of writing I’ve ever had, and I am confident that the myriad and idiosyncratic voices from years untold have taught me well. I swear by characterization, and description, much despised these days, if you go by the on-line advice.

All this, of course, is not marketing. But a superb product (ideally) precedes a sales pitch. A dose of what has been done a century back opens your eyes to non-current approaches. You could do worse than to shoehorn some of that reflective-style into your thriller, or sci-fi, or whatever. No one of us on here needs to hear this, but to the less sophisticated, I say, take your blinders off. Read widely, outside your genre/comfort zone. The rich pickings at the library sales are the best (and least) money you’ll ever spend, and as fine an education than that from the esteemed Iowa Workshop. Get beyond another (usually tiresome) iteration of the sword-in-the-stone theme. How many civilizations needing to be saved from dark-lord baddies can we take, honestly, before we puke? No, the addition of a third-gender elf does not make it a must-read.

Vampires? I wear a necklace of garlic to the sales to protect me from vampire fiction. On Book Country a few years ago, the vampire-aficionados were wetting their pants over a new twist: a vampire enjoying the immoveable feast of a nursing home. More than a few thought this a stunningly new idea in a genre that’s been pretty well explored. I don’t have a high opinion of the quality of thought on many of the writer sites. That’s why I love this one.

writing technique

Cold Open

It is, with the possible exception of “show, don’t tell” the most commonly heard piece of advice for writers: You need a strong opening. Your first sentence is your first chance to grab your reader. If they open that door, they will enter your story and start looking around. The first paragraph is your foyer, the first page the front room.

Close that door behind them. They’re inside now.

Usually, this advice is followed up with a laundry list of “red flag” things you should never do:

• Don’t begin with waking up.
• Don’t begin with a weather report.
• Don’t begin with a character description.
• Don’t open with a character talking.
• Don’t open with a character thinking.
• You shouldn’t start with dialogue (looks old fashioned) but you should make sure there is dialogue on the very first page because otherwise your book looks boring.
• You shouldn’t start with any kind of description because readers need human emotion to connect with, not just a bunch of pretty pictures.

Googling “bad ways to start a story” brings up countless pages, and if you try to follow all of them it can be baffling. Everyone agrees it’s good to start with action, but why should anyone care what happens if they don’t know who anyone is yet? Everyone agrees, you SHOULDN’T start with backstory, but how can readers get involved with people and a situation they know nothing about? You shouldn’t begin with anything anyone has ever seen before because that’s boring and cliched, but you shouldn’t begin with anything too strange or readers will just get confused, and above all: NO PROLOGUES!

Because agents hate prologues.

I’m sure you will have noticed by now that many fine books have been written that utterly ignore these rules. Let’s skip the obvious classics (“Call Me Ishmael.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams etc…”)  and focus on more contemporary examples. Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) begins with the protagonist telling us his name. Underworld (Don Delillo) doesn’t have any dialogue until page four, and even then it’s only the random chatter of non-characters. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) begins with a prologue (did I mention how agents feel about prologues?) made up mostly of incomplete sentences and cryptic observations by a narrator we know nothing about. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) begins with pages of description as dense and as thick as the jungles of the Belgian Congo. Lovely? Intriguing? Sure. But who are these people we’re supposed to connect to? Where is the story we’re supposed to get involved with?

If these books hadn’t been written by well-known, prize-winning authors, would they have even gotten published? Or would the literary agents and editors of the world have tossed them aside mid-sentence, overwhelmed by all the red flags waving at them from page one?

Dunno. I’ll tell you, though, it would be a tough go. Literary agents tend to read with one finger on the eject button, looking for a reason to stop. One complicated sentence, one ambiguous moment, and they could very well decide your precious novel just isn’t worth the effort.

What they want, what you need, is a cold open. Anyone who watches television knows what this is. It’s that part of a show before the opening credits, before the theme music, where they jump directly into the story, give us a teaser of what is to come. (With comedies, the cold open often has nothing to do with the story of the week, but with dramas it usually does.) The cold open hasn’t always been around. Back in the olden days, shows just started with the theme music, exactly the same every time, but somewhere around 1965, television producers started getting innovative— Star Trek, The Man From Uncle, Mission Impossible—these were all early examples of television dramas that made use of the dramatic cold open. The idea, of course, was to rope the audience in before the show had even started—get the viewer involved so they wouldn’t switch away to see what else was on.

In all fairness, in the early days of television, shows didn’t really need a cold open. There just weren’t that many channels, not that many shows to choose from. If someone tuned in I Love Lucy or Gunsmoke, they probably did so as a matter of choice. They didn’t need to be roped in. Not that there wasn’t always competition between shows and networks, but the stakes were certainly lower. You had three, maybe four, options for any given time-slot. There weren’t 300 choices to scroll through at the press of a thumb.

And that, dear readers, is a pretty good analog to the situation we writers find ourselves in today. There are thousands of choices facing the book buyer these days. And unless we are a Barbara Kingsolver or a Markus Zusak with a ready and waiting audience, we are all competing to catch the attention of a dwindling audience who have been largely conditioned to abandon any source of entertainment that isn’t constantly jangling their excitation circuits. So do we start every book with a cold open, in res media, bullets flying, pedal to the metal?

I don’t know. I really don’t. It’s too easy, perhaps, to say: write what you believe in, audience be damned. Be true to your vision of what you want your work to be.

Of course. Absolutely. But—at what price? Just how user friendly do we want to be?