Hooking Your Reader Workshop I
We’re All Hookers Now
No, I don’t mean in the sense of standing on a corner, with our mini skirt and our lipstick saying “Hey, big boy” – though as a side-branch of the entertainment industry, we’ve always done a bit of that too, metaphorically speaking. And hey, if you do it non-metaphorically, you probably have a lot more money than the rest of us. (Though some of you would look mighty funny, particularly you, in the back, with the beard.)
I mean, in the sense of writing.
It’s always been pretty important to hook your reader up front. It was particularly vital for newer writers, who needed to catch the attention of a distracted and often hostile gatekeeper. Once you’d broken in, even if you were a lowly midlister, you had more time to hook that reader, though. The editor knew you, (and depending on you and the editor either was more or less hostile because of that) and the readers too. You had a certain baseline of readers (twelve. I’m looking to make it a baker’s dozen) and they talked to their friends about your book. So that first line, first page, first chapter was somewhat less vital. You could start with the weather or the fish your character ate last night.
That’s all changed now. I know most of you have heard me say that most of the writing books on my shelf are useless now, because we’re not being filtered through gatekeepers anymore. that’s true.
HOWEVER learning to hook hte reader is more important than ever. Not to say all books on how to do it are right. Most of them, after all, catered to the prejudices of a very small group. Now you have to hook the public at large, because, unless you get to be like Meyers or Rowling (and even then) you’ll always be in the position of getting new writers. The market is that large.
So, this is a workshop on how to hook your reader. I’m not saying I’m the world’s best at this, but I am pretty good, and I had to learn it from a position of being far worse than most people. Because of my generally sunny personality and how well I hold my temper in public forums (You guys have seen that, right?) I have always needed to put more effort into it than most of my colleagues. I was dealing with hostile editors almost every time, and I had to keep them glued to the page from the first word. Therefore, I learned a few tricks.
What we’re going to do is I give you guys those tricks, then set you homework (mwah ah ah ah ah ah… er… that is, you see… er…) Which you guys can send to me sometime during the week. The next week what I’ve seen in homework might influence the lecture, but I won’t name names. I WILL send you back personal reviews of your work. (The email is firstname.lastname@example.org)
We’re going to start with the easiest trick I know to hook the reader: Start with something seemingly impossible or nonsensical in the first line or couple of lines.
The best two openings I’ve read were one in a submission sent to me, and another one from a friend in a workshop. One didn’t pay off, the other one did, at least partly (I never saw the finished story.)
The one that didn’t had the first line “The Stealth Chickens were back again.”
The one that die had the first line “It was Tuesday, and Smith was dead again.”
Now, I’m sure you can come up with ten nonsensical lines on the spur of the moment, but this line has to pay off AND the line is only a hook. What do I mean by this? Well, the story has to relate to that line in some way. You can’t start with the line, say “Vampire strippers turn me on” and then spend your time talking about the manufacture of cheese on an alien planet. That line has to be explained and echoed in the story, in a way that makes sense. Also, immediately after that first line, you have to anchor the reader in the story, by giving them something they can visualize and relate to, to – as it were – reel them in. So after “Vampire strippers turn me on,” you can’t segway into “their vorbles wobble enticingly, their snords are gnard.” EVEN if you have explanations for that, what your read is getting is “wonka, wonka, wonka” and that will not keep them reading till you explain.
Both the hooks above actually reeled in quite nicely. The Stealth Chickens one went on with “There were invisible feathers in the sugar. Invisible eggs splatted on your from the rafters. Roosters screamed you awake.” – the problem with it was the pay off. It got stuck in all the fun things pertaining to (ghost?) invisible chickens, and it never bothered to have a story – like, why the chickens were there, or why we should care for the two householders afflicted with Stealth Chickens. In fact, those were just surprise-deliver-devices, and not real people.
The second one paid off – though I can’t remember how. It’s been ten years. The reeling in was also perfect, hitting us with the easily pictured after the startling. I don’t have the story and don’t remember it exactly (it’s been ten years) but it went something like this.
“I could see at once he had been dead at least three days. There were three newspapers on the stoop, the mailbox had at least two days worth of mail, and, when I got in, the dog was starving. I gathered up the papers and the mail………….” etc.
Hopefully that gives you an idea what I mean. Now it’s your turn. Send me one, or two, no more than two mind, openings with a startling line and the reel in. No more than a page, please. Then add in a paragraph about how the line is justified in your story.
Now, go. Hook!