Monday, August 10, 2009

First Impressions

One thing I worry about as a writer is first impressions. And I'm not talking about the impression one makes when you first meet someone physically. I'm talking about when a reader is exposed to that first story or book by an author. That first impression is absolutely critical if that reader is to pick up more of the author's works. Here's a couple of examples of the potential problems from my experience as a reader rather than a writer.

1: I'd been hearing for a while about a publisher called Hard Case Crime. Almost everyone I knew who'd read a book from that publisher raved about it. The covers were appropriately pulpish and cool, and I decided I wanted in on this. So, one day in a book store I picked up The Colorado Kid by Stephen King, which was apparently the initial book in the Hard Case Crime list. What better place to start than with book 1 of a line? Plus, I liked a lot of stuff by King. Unfortunately, this one sucked big time. Although it was mercifully short, I still barely finished it.

And here's where first impressions play a role. Despite the fact that I've been told over and over that King's book was not indicative of the Hard Case Crime list, and that the other books really, really are good, I've not picked up a single one. Intellectually, I'm sure I probably would like some of the other Hard Case novels. But, there are a lot of books to spend my money on. And when it comes time to shell out that money, I have, so far, been unable to persuade myself to take a chance on another Hard Case book instead of a book that feels like it has more promise.

2. Years ago I read Samarkand by Graham Diamond. When I bought it, it seemed like a book that was right down my alley. An exotic setting. A city under siege. Swords and sorcery. But I didn't care much for it (although it was considerably better than The Coyote Kid). Diamond has at least half a dozen more fantasy novels with equally tantalizing settings. I picked up one at a book sale years ago for 50 cents but I haven't read it and probably never will read another Diamond book. When I look at my to-be-read pile, there's just too many books above the Diamond one that promise more.

These are the kinds of first impressions I worry about. What if someone reads one book by me, or even a story by me, and doesn't like it. Will they ever give me another chance? Should they give me another chance?

What about you? Have you had any of these kinds of experiences? Let me hear some of your first impression stories.
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42 comments:

Heff said...

Any props for "First Comment" ?

Scott Parker said...

Re: Hard Case Crime - Two words: Money Shot by Christa Faust. (Well, that's 5 but so what.) I'm a fan of King and I all but hated and loathed The Colorado Kid. It may have been the book to get HCC noticed but it's not anywhere indicative of what HCC represents. Money Shot came out last year and it's fantastic. For reprints, I go with Branded Woman by Wade Miller, Plunder of the Sun by David Dodge, Top of the Heap by A. A. Fair (AKA Erle Stanley Gardner), and Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake. For two other moderns, go with Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas (AKA Charles Ardai, co-founder of HCC). Then there's always the Gabriel Hunt books.

Give HCC another chance, at least one modern book (Money Shot) and at least one reprint. Oh, and sell your copy of Colorado Kit. I listened to the audio so I was able to hit the delete key and forget about it entirely.

Christopher Mills said...

You're really shooting yourself in the foot, Charles. A first impression is a lousy way to judge a line of books by DOZENS of authors. Not only was King's book NOT the first in the line by a long shot, it's probably the worst.

With authors like Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Max Collins - not to mention folks like Christa Faust, David Schow,Gil Brewer, Peter Rabe, Jason Starr... that's like never watching a Warner Bros movie again because you didn't like one.

Seems a pretty thin rationalization for depriving yourself and expanding your reading experiences.

Just my 2 cents.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, I'll drink a beer in your honor this evening. I bought myself some Samual Adams Boston Lager. Pretty decent.

Scott Parker, I've heard others say nice things about Christa Faust. And I'm definitely going to pick up some Gabriel Hunt. Did you know Ms. Faust wrote "Snakes on a plane?" Was that her original book or a novelization?

Christopher Mills, well the post was worth it to bring you out of hiding. ;)
And I'll probably give HCC another go. But here's the thing, I may be missing some good reads, but it's not like I haven't had good reads. It's not that I've chosen to read bad work instead of reading good work. I had to chose between work that I was pretty sure was good, like Gemmell, Michael Connolly, Koontz and so on, against work that I was less sure was good on the basis of their choice of King's book. The blessing/problem is that there's a wealth of good stuff to read,and certain experiences can strongly sway which jewels among the wealth one will pluck.

laughingwolf said...

i read your 'cold in the light' first, though i had the talera series as well at the same time... i still think that is the charles gramlich 'voice', where you are the real you... that's not to denigrate the series, it's just my preference, as you already know... i've enjoyed all your writings to date, and look forward to more

but for the most part, i agree with your above note, must be a LIBRAN thing? ;)

Barrie said...

First sentences. Those are anxiety-provoking too!

jodi said...

Charles, I many times will read 2 or 3 books by the same author. Usually if one is good, then it usually goes 2 out of 3 or so. I will give second and third chances, cuz this has happened so many times.

Leigh Russell said...

I don't know about first impressions, Charles, but as a writer I'm certainly aware of the competition out there for readers' attention. The bookstores are full of 3 for 2 and 1/2 price offers. It makes it very difficult for other books to get noticed and, sadly, cuts the bookshops' profits. The competition is very fierce.
I think books are like people - we shouldn't be swayed by first impressions but of course we all are. It's a tough world and we don't always get a second chance. Everyone is just too insanely busy.

Leigh Russell said...

and what about judging books by the covers... Do we? Do you?

Steve Malley said...

Hi Charles!

'Snakes on a Plane' was a movie tie-in Christa wrote for hire. Right now I believe she's doing something set in the world of Mexican wrestling, but I may be wrong.

I totally see where you're coming from with the first impressions-- if I don't like a book, it'd take strong persuasion from someone whose opinion I trust before I picked up a second.

and, last...

The Tiny Dynamo had this in reverse: I gave her Joe R Lansdale's The Bottoms and Thin Dark LIne to read. Both are edgy, literary and insightful Southern noir. Imagine her surprise when she then picked up zombie/Western Dead in the West! :D

Scott Parker said...

Steve's correct re: Faust and snakes on a plane. Her first book, Hoodtown, I think, was about Mexican wrestling. She might be writing another one. She's also writing one of the Gabriel Hunt books.

ivan said...

Dunno about first impressions.

When Ryerson University published my first story in a literary magazine called The Fifth Page-- laid out for free in the college cafeteria-- I noticed a lot of "remainders".
There seemed to be a lot of yawns as hungry students, largely engineers and fashion designers, perused the books over swiss steak and french fries.
And there was grumbling from some some Journalism '67 rejects from the Fifth Page, which featured pure literature rather than reportage, their forte.
One carping reject wrote:
"No wonder a lot of Fifh Page- published authors seemed to disappear for a week," he hissed. "Serious suckage. They didn't want to be around to be booed and embarrassed."

Well, perhaps so. But I am so proud of that very first published short story.
I was going to unload it on you right here in this space, but it would be better form for me to have somebody else rather than me to hit it again on mmy blog. Click onto Ryerson 1967 in my header. You will find my magnum opus, MARJORIE there, in between some not very remarkable poetry.

Says Donnetta Lee, (whom I have since promoted to Editorial Board of my own Island Grove Press. Heh.)
"Best thing you ever wrote.
I think she's right, though my critics had said it was the worst. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, Cold was definitely my voice at that time. I was coming off a period of writing a lot of horror stuff. I do personally consider it my best work. Glad you enjoyed.

Barrie, aye. I went through that with the hint fiction.

jodi, generally if I read one by a new author I really like I'll immediately read at least one more.

Leigh Russell, yes, that's a large part of my point. There are lots and lots of books out there and in such a market first impressions are really powerful. For me, covers don't mean a thing. But I know they do for a lot of folks.

Steve Malley, I sort of figured it was. I did see that movie, which was pretty bad. Yes, I'd have to have some major promo from someone I trusted. There's just so much available. Thin Dark LIne and the bottoms are very fine. I actually haven't read Dead in the west. I will though.

Charles Gramlich said...

Scott Parker, I will definitely give her a shot.

ivan, critics are like assholes. Everyone's got one.

G said...

I think that first impressions can set the tone in regards to whether you continue to read a particular author or not.

Case in point: L Ron Hubbard. I'm sure he had some good stuff somewhere (maybe?), but after making an attempt at reading "Battlefield Earth" (gave up after 200 pages), I have yet to read anything else written by him.

This is going for about twenty years and counting.

Lauren said...

I know what you mean about first impressions. If I have had a bad experience with an author I would have to hear many good reviews about another book in order to read it. But, then again, I'm not too picky. I've not read many that I haven't liked.

Charles Gramlich said...

G., I read "Fear" by Hubbard, and though it was OK it didn't convince me to give anything else by him a chance. I haven't tried Battlefield EArth, although I have it.

Lauren, I have a fair number I haven't liked but there are a lot of ones that I know I will like when I get a chance to read them.

Erik Donald France said...

I do know that there's a difference between writers and directors -- the latter can get away with more disasters without audiences necessarily knowing the difference.

James Joyce in reverse -- liked some earlier works, but couldn't really get through Finnegan's Wake without skimming.

I'll usually give someone more than one chance, time permitting (might check out from a library first, though).

the walking man said...

I gave a lot of authors second and third chances...with King for example. I read Pet cemetery first before anything else by him...wasn't thrilled by it but then I read Carrie and It and got into him and loved The Green Mile (despite the way it originally was marketed) Then I read the Tommyknockers...that was it for me...haven't read anything by him since. No interest

Grisham...Read his first novel first "A Time To Kill" even though it was something like his third one published but after I found his formula stayed exactly the same with just clothing changes I stopped reading him too. His least popular novel "A Painted House" was my favorite. But I pass him up now, don't even look past the cover because I am convinced I know the story on the pages.

BUT Dickens...Hooked from the start, even though he was the very first formula writer. Still will go back and re-read him.

I don't think a poor story though is enough of a reason to bypass a whole line of books...maybe the second time but *shrug* not every hitter is going to get on base every time up to the plate.

pattinase (abbott) said...

THE COLORADO KID wasn't the first book that HCC put out, just the one that sold the most due to the King name. I loved ROBBIE's WIFE. That's my favorite.

Wil said...

Heff, Reading Is Fundamental. I gotta go, the Bookmobile is outside!

Wil Harrison.com

writtenwyrdd said...

I do feel a reluctance to read something else by an author if the first book (or sometimes even the most recent) were truly awful.

Rick said...

I'm with you on this Charles. I just wished you had written this before I met my ex-wife.

Avery DeBow said...

I give restaurants three chances--maybe the chef's having a bad night; maybe the chef is having another bad night; done. I don't see any difference with authors, especially if the book I've picked up is one of their first. A book has to really rub me the wrong way, in all ways, before I cut the author loose without another chance. Voice, setting, plot, tone, theme, it all has to create a perfect storm of suckiness.

I had the opposite experience with Marion Zimmer Bradley. I read Mists of Avalon and fell in love, went out and bought three other of her books, and realized I hated them all.

Mary Witzl said...

I know just what you mean: if you start off with a book that is less-than-stellar, you're far less likely to go for anything else that author has written. Life is too short and there are far too many really good books to be messing around with crappy ones.

My pet peeve is writers who lure you in with fantastic first books, then turn out a whole string of awful books, no doubt struggling to keep up with deadlines. I want to think I wouldn't do that if I became famous, but who knows? I never will.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

This is a great question. I know first impressions are powerful in life, but weirdly, some of the people that have really seemed awful to me upon first contact have become my closest friends in the long run. Given that dynamic, I suppose if a book is awful, I should give a writer another chance. I know I'd regret it in life if I went by my first feeling.

Natasha Fondren said...

Unfortunately, my pseudonym got her first story published. And several after that. In fact, the first ten are out there.

Every day, I imagine people deciding I suck and moving on, LOL.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, If I’m enjoying an author and then really read a clunker I have a tendency to stop for a long while too, although I’ll recover eventually and try them again.

Mark, I will give HCC another chance at some point. It’s not an active avoidance, more a when I have a choice between known commodties and unknown ones. Tommyknockers put me off King for a bit too, but I did like Pet semetary. I’ve only read one Grisham.

Pattinase, I had heard somewhere it was their introduction but I guess I heard wrong. Maybe the other person assumed it was because of the King name.

Wil, so is “bookmobile” a code word up there for something? Like strip club or porno mobile?

Writtenwyrdd, yes, maybe I should talk about something more than just first impressions.

Rick, lol. I couldn’t have written it before I met “my” ex-wife.

Avery, you are a most tolerant person. I give restaurants one chance at most. I’ve walked in restaurants and walked right back out again without even ordering. Such is my level of pickiness.

Mary Witzl, that’s my point in a nutshell. There’s so much to read and it’s hard to take a second chance on something that may prove sucky. I’ve seen that happen to several writers I really liked, who started out with great books but then in the heat of trying to write 3 books a year they fall down on the job. I hope I don’t ever do that either.

Michelle, that’s interesting. I don’t think I ever give people much more than one chance. I should definitely be more tolerant. I’m probably missing out on some really cool folks.

Natasha, or maybe they’re out there looking for more, more, more!

Randy Johnson said...

The Colorado Kid was certainly my first beg disappointment with King(and it was godawful). It's seemed to set the tone for my feelings on his novels since then. Haven't read one that was fully satisfying after that one(I've had one novel for a year and a half that I keep putting off. I did enjoy his Just After Sunset collection though.
His writing changed after his near death with the idiot van driver. I don't know whether he had a compulsion to get these books out quickly after realizing his mortality.

Cloudia said...

Yes, I've been (wrongly) turned off to something by my prejudice that later turned out to be beloved. What a fool I am sometimes - a salutory lesson!

Aloha, Charles-
Comfort Spiral

Charles Gramlich said...

Randy Johnson, I think too King's writing changed. And I'm not sure of the cause but it did coincide with his accident. I haven't read his collection but I almost certianly will. I've liked a lot of King's short stories.

Cloudia, sometimes it's no doubt a mistake to skip on something. Other times it's the correct choice. It's never easy to be sure which is likely.

Angie said...

I'm the same way. [nod] If I can't get through the first book of Chris Author that I read, I won't try another one unless someone whose opinion I trust pretty massively rants and raves and twists my arm and holds a gun to my head.

Just recently I read a book that was really good except for one thing. There was a conversation between an older character and a younger one, with the older one grouching about something the younger one had been doing, and the younger one said, "I'm free, white and over twenty-one!"

Umm, what?? I'm sorry, but that's not only an archaic expression for someone who was like eighteen or nineteen to use, but it's also horribly racist in its basic assumptions. (That being white does or should give him special privileges about what he's allowed to do.) The older character didn't call him on it, the character's casual racism wasn't a plot point or ever brought up again -- there was no particular reason for him to have used that expression. It was put in casually, no big deal. And the book wasn't set in the deep South (not that that would've given it a pass, but it might've been some sort of explanation, if he'd grown up hearing his grandpa say it or whatever). But it was set in Southern California, and in all the years I've lived here, I've never heard anyone use that expression.

Heck, the TV series Fame dealt with the racism behind that exact expression in one of its episodes back in the eighties -- general awareness of racist issues showing in casual conversation has been around at least that long -- so this shouldn't be news to anyone.

Which leads me to assume that this is a reflection of the writer's racist attitude (whether or not the writer is aware of it) and not just something the writer was indicating about the character.

I enjoyed the story very much, the book was well written, but despite a lot of people I know raving about how awesome this writer is, I'll probably never buy another one of their books. It's possible that this is the one and only place in the writer's entire body of work where a racist expression slipped in, but it made a very bad first impression on me.

Angie

BernardL said...

I read 'Valley of the Dolls' long ago by Jacqueline Susann. That first impression kept me from ever reading another of her novels. Just not my idea of reading entertainment.

Lena said...

When i come to the bookstore, I first look at cover.. Honestly, if the cover does not appeal to me, I won't even take a look at the book.
Apart from this, first lines matter. Then I might go through the book and see if some phrase would catch my attention.
Usually I have luck with choosing books and new authors for myself, but you never know... Though most probably I will never give a second chance to the author who didn't meet my expectations.
Competition is high enough to find other books and discover new authors after all.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I have heard that saying down here but not in quite a while. I remember a story a friend of mine told me, who is quite a bit older than I am, and also black. She was stopped by a cop for speeding when she was a pretty young and then he asked her out. When she sort of hemmed and hawed the cop said, "come on, you're free, white, and 21." I haven't thought about that saying in a long time and it would certainly be strange to have a modern young person use it. would be interesting to know the reason.

BernardL, I think I just read the title of that one and decided it wasn't for me. ;)

Lena, thanks for visiting. Covers can catch my eye but other than that they don't influence me much at all. I usually first read the back cover blurbs, then open and read the first few paragraphs or so. I have a tendency to immediately put down books that start out with dialogue.

jennifer said...

This has nothing to do with writing...

My son was TERRIBLY nervous the first day of school (he is a puker when he gets a case of the nerves - lots of dry heaving Monday morning and NO breakfast). He was pacing in the driveway waiting for the bus. He said "I'm scared." I asked him what he was scared of and he answered "I'm scared I won't make a good first impression." I told him "Son, you met your teacher last week - you've already made a first impression."

He said "How'd I do?"

God love him! He had a great first day and the nerves are OVER.

jennifer said...

THIS comment is about writing...

I LOVE Anne Rivers Siddons. She is my favorite southern writer.

If I had read her non-fiction book, John Chancellor Makes Me Cry (which I was not able to finish zzzzz), I would never have read EVERYTHING else that she has published.

It appears that I like her fiction better than her truth.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Sounds like Hard Case Crime thought they'd get more readers by showcasing Stephen King. First impressions are indeed very very important.

As for myself, with the little bit I've published, I'm sure no one will remember me for some God awful story I wrote; easier to forget than to remember, or at least that's what I'm hoping.

Travis said...

That can certainly happen. As I'm sure you're well aware, you can't please everyone.

I can report that I was hooked on the Talera series from sentence one. So naturally I got the other two books as soon as I could.

I've got about two dozen or so books in my library that I thought were promising, but couldn't seem to get through. There are so many because if it's book one of a series, I often buy the whole series at that time because it can be tough to find the rest of the books. That's a rotten feeling to know that you don't like the first part of the series and you already bought the rest of the books.

Of course, I've found it's worse to love the first book but not be able to find the rest!

Charles Gramlich said...

jennifer, great story about your boy. I love that, "how'd I do?" lol. I've read two of Siddons' novels and enjoyed them both, "Fox's Earth" and "the House next door."

JR,trying to build a writing career is fraught with so many pitfalls and booby traps. I wonder sometimes how many folks I've offended here and there who might have made a difference in my success. But of course such worry is really useless. Still, I'm a natural worrier.

Travis, I've had that problem of finding a series I like and not being able to get some of the other books. Seems like there's always one book in a series that wasn't produced at such a high numbers or something. Thanks for your comment on the Talera books. I'm very glad you enjoyed 'em.

Alex Moore said...

hmmm...well, right or wrong, i let first impressions sway me. i've too little time and there are far too many books to read. so if the one book i've picked up by an author sucks, i don't read anything else...there are a dozen ready to take its place.

and although i used to read whatever i picked up through to the end, anymore i haven't time for that either. if the first couple of chapters don't hook me, i'm done. time is precious little these days ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, I feel the same way. There are so many books that I want to read that I can and will avoid a whole bunch of books based on a bad first impression. I do usually finish what I start, but now days that might just mean a scanning.