Those first 500 words

book cover for Hannah's Island

The first 500 words of a novel are the most important – maybe as few as the first 300 according to some people.

I have read through the profiles of over 150 agents, watched their video blogs where available (this is an excellent one from an agent I immediately warmed to because of his honesty) and read their twitter feeds (that took a while and wasn’t very productive). But one frequently mentioned desire is to be immersed in a place, a culture, a character – almost immediately. They want to know how it feels to be there. They want to be captivated.

My own writing has been strong on plot and characters, but I may have found a possible weakness in my previous novels in terms of this immediate immersive feeling. I am now trying to correct that with my fourth novel and am sharing my work in progress here. This opening may have to change a little as the story develops because plots evolve and characters develop.

ps The title of the novel is going to change, Hannah’s Island is just a ‘working title’. The cover image is apt and will probably remain if I end up self-publishing. This opening has not been edited yet – warning, there may be literals.

Hannah’s Island – Chapter 1

Hannah dived, leaving only a ring of ripples on the mirrored surface of the sea as it closed behind her. A trail of bubbles marked her progress as she knifed deeper, hands pulling confidently against the cool water. She eased herself between the roof timbers and into a space lit only by flashes of shattered sunlight on the swaying weedcovered walls. Swimming down the line of the stairs she searched for the kitchen, where any valuable items would most likely be found.

That day a soft mist had stretched along the horizon, obscuring the mainland, so that the island appeared to be afloat in an endless ocean. Even though it was not yet noon the sun-scorched rocks had burned against the soles of her bare feet. The sea shimmered with the ice-cold clarity of a reservoir and looked no more than a few feet deep, but the rafters of a roof were clearly defined, stark beneath the surface, a skeleton picked clean like carrion on a field. A shoal of small silver fish flashed against the bare ribs of the abandoned house.

Most buildings covered by the rising seas were stripped in the decades before she was born, but Hannah enjoyed the silence of exploring old submerged houses. She imagined a family there once, clustered around a television, each with their own personal phone, chatting to friends and to each other – technology that was no longer viable. Her occasional discoveries of aluminium pots and pans, copper items, even iron tools could all be weighed and exchanged for small luxuries when the packet steamer called on the second Tuesday of the month. Most of what she earned was saved towards a gift for Ethan.

After drifting out through the open back door, still empty handed, she glanced to one side and saw two large coalbunkers. They must have been overlooked when the house was abandoned to the waves. The timber covers had rotted and between missing planks they looked to be still full of coal – worth investigating with fresh air in her lungs. Hannah pushed off from what had once been the doorstep, a slab of dressed slate that might also be worth salvaging. She let her natural buoyancy pull her upwards. In no hurry, Hannah watched the ever-changing patterns of sunlight and blue sky flash and dance on the surface above her. With only a few feet to go a shadow cut across the water. The hull of a small boat sliced through the sea, the daggerboard missing her shoulder by inches.

Hannah broke the surface and gasped for air as her eyes followed the line of white water left by the dinghy. She heard wood grind against shingle as the boat rode onto the beach. The sudden contact unbalanced the woman at the tiller. The sail slapped like sheets drying in a fresh breeze. The boom swung, it struckthe woman on the side of her head and pitched her into the water. Hannah took a deep breath. Her hands dug hard as she swam towards the beach and the body, which lay face down in the shallows.

Night Games

night games book cover with hand against misted glass
original image used for this book cover

What a designer should do when they take a brief for a book cover?

First they listen. Then they come at the problem from two directions. First will be researching what visually represents your brief. Second is how to communicate that to a potential reader whose first knowledge of your novel might be the cover image.

This ‘imagined’ cover is a reasonable example. An image that might not have been suitable has been cropped so much that its visual message has changed from threatening ethereal.

This is a royalty free image and the main typeface is Alien League. The original photo file came from pexels.com.

Book cover design costs vary depending on whether it’s an ebook or paperback but around £80 ($100) is a good guide.

If you need a cover for your new novel or if you’re short of an idea for a plot? Browse these imagined book covers and strap lines for ideas.

Lovers and Losers

book cover beach people paperback

This is an imagined book cover, created with a royalty free image. The main typeface is ITC Anna.

Contact me if this image would be suitable for your novel (title and author changed of course) and if you’d like to use this design. Costs vary depending on whether it’s an ebook or paperback but around £80 ($100) is a good guide.

Short of an idea for your novel? Browse these imagined book covers and strap lines for ideas.

The original photo file is from my own library – taken in North Devon. The photo is from the early 1980s and taken on 35mm film stock. The digitised file has been cleaned to some extent.

original lovers and losers

Behind Closed Doors

book cover with woman hiding behind door

This is an imagined book cover, created with a royalty free image. The main typeface is Amazone.

Contact me if this image would be suitable for your novel (title and author changed of course) and if you’d like to use this design. Costs vary depending on whether it’s an ebook or paperback but around £80 ($100) is a good guide.

Short of an idea for your novel? Browse these imagined book covers and strap lines for ideas.

The original photo file came from pexels.com. I did have to tweak the colour a little and extend the door, but otherwise as I found it.

original file of woman hiding


The Lying Tree

paperback or e-book cover with tree and water and sunset

This is an imagined book cover, created with a royalty free image. The main typeface is Celebrate the Day.

Contact me if this image would be suitable for your novel (title and author changed of course) and if you’d like to use this design. Costs vary depending on whether it’s an ebook or paperback but around £80 ($100) is a good guide.

Short of an idea for your novel? Browse these imagined book covers and strap lines for ideas.

The original photo file came from pixabay.com. It was a wonderfully bright image but too complex and the wrong orientation – it just needed cropping. It would make a great wrap for a paperback.

original image file for book cover


Plots and storyboards

plot a novel on cards

My first novel was planned meticulously
I had no idea how ‘real’ authors developed their plots. Previously I had tried to write a novel with very little planning and my plot got confused, I got confused – even the characters in my novel got confused. So I set about working out everything beforehand.

Here is my nerdy, old-fashioned, personalised method of plotting.
You will need…
Hundreds of small bits of cardboard
Two coloured felt-tip markers
(blue edge on a card for a chapter head and date, red for a chapter summary)
A pen of your choice that doesn’t smudge easily
A roll of clear sellotape
A cup of tea (coffee is an acceptable alternative)
Patience

The advantages of this method (which I still use in a modified form)
You only need to know three or four things in your plot, scribble them on bits of card and put them on your table.

You don’t have to imagine a whole plot in one go. Once you’ve started you can move them around, add ideas, even push some to the side. Before you know it the story will grow in front of you. Sellotape them together before the wind blows them all over the floor (it happened to me once).

Don’t let it rule you
In my work process this is produced as a guide only. Once I start writing everything changes. But you can just cut up your bits of card and replace them with new strands and characters as they appear. You can see my scribbled character spider in the top left of the picture.

Software options
There are software programs that emulate this method and probably give you more options, but…
1) I don’t have a computer screen as big as my table.
2) Getting away from the screen can liberate your imagination – it’s a touchy-feely method.

Firefly

paperback book cover for firefly

This is an imagined book cover, created with a royalty free image. The main typeface is Futura Light.

Contact me if this image would be suitable for your novel (title and author changed of course) and if you’d like to use this design. Costs vary depending on whether it’s an ebook or paperback but around £80 ($100) is a good guide.

Short of an idea for your novel? Browse these imagined book covers and strap lines for ideas.

The original photo file came from unsplash.com. I cropped and overlaid two images for this effect.

original images for firefly