HOW TO WRITE A STAND-OUT HOOK
Because so many writers self-publish today, it is easy to fall into careless habits and writing techniques. For those who have enjoyed the collaboration with an editor when publishing with a traditional house, this is not the time to forget what we’ve learned. Many authors still seek critique partners to review their manuscripts in progress before they engage a freelance editor to do a final polish of their work. Those who fail to do either prior to submitting their manuscript to a Print-on-Demand service risk negative book reviews, the death knell of book sales in a market that turns to everyday readers to separate good writers from boring ones, rather than relies on publishing house standards to distinguish the difference.
Writing the story isn’t the end of the process. It’s the beginning, and there are things we can do to empower our manuscripts and lessen damaging criticism if we follow them.
IN THE BEGINNING . . .
In the 1980s, editors were willing to look for talent and develop authors for publishing houses. By 2,000, they banked on literary agents to sift through the haystack to find the sharpest best seller for them.
When we sought agents to represent us, often our first chapter was what caught their attention. It either hooked them or they rejected it. A harsh reality, but I’ve learned more true than we care to know. Once Keith Kahla, a highly regarded senior editor at St. Martin’s Press, told me he only read the first paragraph, and if the writer turned him off at that point, he didn’t read the rest of the agent’s submission on behalf of the writer. I was shocked, but he explained with the number of manuscripts passing his desk per day, he had to be ruthless.
As a result, as an editor and as a writer, I’m tough on opening scenes because I know they are our nanosecond of opportunity to sell us or reject us. I picture Keith Kahla with his red pencil on the other side of the desk. The challenge is to hook him with the first sentence, never mind the whole paragraph. How quickly can I engage him and lock in his attention?
SUSPENSE . . .
Most creative writing tutorials want your first sentence to provide a clue about who the character is, what he or she does as well as raise an immediate question in the reader’s mind.
Let’s look at these two possible openers for my novel in progress:
Rhys Jamieson hid his reaction from the two gendarmes guarding the unmarked crates and resisted the urge to pinch his nose.
Rhys Jamieson froze.
Which grabs you more? The set-up of a scene or your immediate empathy with the character?
IMMEDIATE EMPATHY WITH THE CHARACTER
I want readers to ask why Rhys froze before they wonder who he is.
Let’s look at the opening sentence of the second chapter. I had two choices:
1) It had happened again. Kendra Warren glanced at the oven clock and stared at it in disbelief.
2) Kendra Warren glanced at the oven clock and stared at it in disbelief. It had happened again.
Which combination would you use? I chose Number 1 because I wanted readers to empathize with the character’s shock. What happened again? To whom? Oh, Kendra Warren. If she can’t believe how much time has passed, what happened to her?
Taking this approach, I immediately introduced readers to the character’s Point of View (POV) rather than a narrator’s.
Admittedly, spy thriller novelists like Robert Ludlum set up his chapters from the Omniscient Point of View before he moved to the more personal POV of his character. He panned from the wide angle to the close-up.
As you can see, I’ve decided to make an emotional claim on my readers. You may have a different purpose, but you must decide how you are going to hook your readers with your first sentence? And that means you have to decide on which POV you are going to use for each scene.
Here is a list of self-edit words that agents and book editors hate to see unless nothing else fits. In revisions, I universally seek these words and decide if I can replace the sentence or word with something stronger: was, then, that, very, over, against, so, great, felt, just, would, could, by the fact that.
For words ending in “ing,” I first check the antecedent to make sure the participle or gerund matches with it. Often “ing” means changing the imperfect past tense “was working” into the simple past — “worked,” thus eliminating another “was.”
Hope this helps.