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A writer's learning curve is like the earth's horizon, it never ends, and that's a good thing. Finding ways to improve a novel's opening line, its 'hook', is something every author continuously works on.
Great authors make it look easy, but writers know better. Who knew, back when I was a virgin reader, that my favorite authors spent minutes, sometimes hours, thinking about the words and flow of a single sentence? Writing well requires a lot of 'moving parts'. No matter where you are on the journey.
James Rollins mentioned in an interview that he still leafs through 'how to' books each time he writes a new novel. That guy is a phenomenal writer, plus he comes up with mind-boggling story ideas, and he's now enjoying eight-digit sales because of it. But he still leafs through writing advice materials.
I have two quality-leapfrog books sitting on a little shelf of advice that I thumb through regularly. Both books are targeted at improving the 'hook' and especially helpful for the mid-learning-curve writer, writers who are getting 'I liked it, but I'm gonna pass' rejections.
Chris Roerden, author of Don't Murder Your Mystery, sums her book up very well in the intro: "Between the large-scale concepts of plot and character and small-scale PUGS and mechanics, a vast middle ground exists. That's my focus in this book." (Her advice applies to all genres.)
My favorite gold nugget take-away from Roerden's book is an incredibly clear look at what the gate-keepers are talking about when they use the word 'hook'. The most eye-opening point she makes on the subject is what she calls the sustainability of the hook. Of course, it takes work and thought to execute her recommendations, but if you don't know, how can you do? Here is an example Chris gives of a great, sustainable opening line (hook), with a couple following sentences so you can see what she means by sustainability. The example below is from Mary Saum's first novel, Midnight Hour.
The phone hit the far corner of my bedroom like a blast out of a shotgun.
Its plastic parts slid down the wall and fell in a heap.
After a few seconds of quiet, it sputtered a final electronic cough, then flat-lined like a dead man's monitor.
"You deserved a slower death, you demon tool of iniquity!" I yelled. I tugged the straps of my push-up bra, part of a fancy set I'd bought specifically for the evening--a truly joyous occasion. It was my fortieth birthday.
Saums goes on with another paragraph that again relates back to the phone that's been thrown across the room, while giving us character development, moving the plot forward and she does it in a fun-to-read way. I bow down to both authors on this one.
Jeff Gerke's book title sums his gold nuggets up in four words: The First Fifty Pages. Jeff points out the 'stop signs' that cause agents/editors to reject our work and what to do about it. I love the way he gives advice on focusing on the first line, the first paragraph, the first page and then on to the fiftieth. And he does it in an 'over the shoulder of the agent/editor' kind of way that's very helpful.
One of the most important things I learned from Jeff's book is what in the heck the pundits really mean when they say 'the opening line must hook your reader, it must start with the action'. Jeff interprets this for us: "...that doesn't mean you have to have a battle scene with action or anything needs to blow up. It simply means it must be interesting to the reader." He goes on to give lots of great ideas and suggestions regarding the 'hook', but for me the most important point was realizing I don't have to blow stuff up on the first line, I just have to make it interesting to the reader. Piece of cake, right? Jeff goes on from there and helps us understand what 'interesting' means.
No matter where we are at on the writing journey, continuing to embrace the learning curve on a regular basis is a good thing. Even the pros do it.
Author of Finding Round