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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Great Beginnings

One of the questions I usually ask when I interview authors on my blog (bethgoddard.blogspot.com) is, “What was the toughest part of the writing craft for you to learn?” Of course, we’re all individuals and everyone has a different answer, including how to overcome a particular struggle. My biggest struggle was and still is writing the first chapter, the first paragraph, the first sentence—a good hook. I’ve written first chapters numerous times and never been happy with them. I’ve resolved to tackle this problem with a vengeance and maybe one day I’ll write incredible hooks, so that I can teach a class at the local community college or at a writer’s conference, not to mention hook readers into my story.

First let’s explore why a good hook is vital. You’re a fiction writer. So it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine yourself as a busy Manhattan based editor for a large publisher. Multi-tasking is your middle name. You shuffle about your day while answering emails, playing office politics, completing deadlines, and all manner of editor tasks. Add to that, you have to find the next bestseller amidst the giant stack of agent-represented manuscripts. Still, you can’t help yourself. You simply must skim through the overwhelming mountain of unsolicited manuscripts because you’d never forgive yourself if you missed that one gem.

Already you take work home and read late into the night. You know exactly what you’re looking for—the ingredients are well defined and are your biggest aid in making it through the pile of manuscripts—both solicited and unsolicited. The one you’re searching for will pull you immediately into the story and before you know it, you’ve read ten pages. If it doesn’t, the author isn’t skilled enough to handle an entire novel, no matter the big-name agent representing her.

Now do you see how critical this is? Do you need to rewrite your beginning? Let me encourage you to work through the entire manuscript first if you’re unpublished, then go back to the hook. I spent so much time rewriting my first chapters to get them right, I could have written the entire novel. In my opinion, it would have given me more to work with in terms of writing the hook.

A good hook requires knowing where to start your story and perhaps that’s an article for another day. For the purposes of this article we know where to start the story and now we’re working on how.

The answer of how to hook the reader or editor from the start is to write something that rouses curiosity, makes them ask questions. According to Dwight Swain, “you present your material in terms that indicate you are leading up to something. This demands that you state and/or imply:

1) Uniqueness
2) The unanticipated
3) Deviation from routine
4) A change about to take place
5) Inordinate attention to the common place.

Swain gives us a set of examples that fall into each category. By the way, these categories will almost certainly overlap. Instead of giving his examples, I’ve decided to ask you to consider this an exercise to test your hook writing abilities. For each of the above categories, write an opening hook. I’ll go first.

1) The phone calls began that Sunday.
This Sunday afternoon is unique because of the phone calls.

2) The head of a Rottweiler was mounted on the veterinarian’s office wall.
Seeing an animal’s stuffed head on a veterinarian’s wall is unexpected/unanticipated.

3) Mr. Connors walked past the door to his accounting offices, Connors & Connors, where he’d worked every Monday through Friday for twenty-five years.

Clearly, Mr. Connor’s has deviated from his routine.

4) Her lawyer left an urgent voice mail.

We know something is about to change for her.

5) The air conditioner rattled on in the window, drowning out all other noises.

This is drawing attention to the mundane as though it’s important.

Granted, these are not the best hooks, but you understand what I mean. I had fun writing them. There is no story behind them but already my mind is spinning tales based on these first lines. Don’t limit yourself to this list for writing hooks, these five categories are only meant as a possible starting place.

I recommend reading The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Lukeman says ,“What is rarely discussed is the importance of the hook not only as an opening line but as an opening paragraph, not only as an opening paragraph but as an opening page, not only as an opening page but as an opening chapter.” He goes on to say the hook is equally important at the end of a paragraph, page or chapter. You want your reader to come back for more.

But let’s get back to great beginnings. I’ve listed a few real hooks I found listed on The Edit Café


· You might as well know that Sue Jan and I are fat. I don’t know which one of us is fatter, but we wear the same size clothes.

· Being named in Great-grandma’s will was like hitting bankrupt on Wheel of Fortune. The whole family held their breath while the wheel ticked around and around--or rather while the lawyer opened the envelope. Then they all heaved a sigh of relief when the wheel stopped on Carrie’s name.

· When the desk clerk first mentioned Stefan Lauber's death, I didn't react. The truth is, I was only half-listening.

· No matter how old I get, when I stand in front of the doors of Four Oaks High School, I’m threatened by flashbacks. Some of my high school memories are good, but too many have to do with the rampaging insecurities that consumed me at the time.

· I marched into church on Sunday— not to search for God, but to find a killer.

Have fun trying to come up with a great first line. Then put that much effort into the first paragraph, the first page and so on.

Happy Writing.
Elizabeth (Beth) Goddard


Blogger Lynette Sowell said...

At the last ACFW conference, I attended Krista Stroever's seminar on writing for Steeple Hill. She read quite a few first lines from actual proposals and said why she liked some and didn't care for others. The good part was, she told the group if anyone recognized theirs, they could talk to her and resubmit. :)

7:37 AM  

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