Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: hooking the reader

how to sell more books, trends in fiction, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, Camp NaNoWriMo, dramatic writing, how to get more readers, The Martian Andy Weir, hook, writing hooks
Image courtesy of Randy Heinitz via Flickr Creative Commons.

How do we sell our stories? That is the big question. It is the reason for craft classes and editing and cover design and agents and editors and all the time on social media. And while platforms and covers and algorithms do matter, there is one tried and true way to sell more books.

Write a great story.

And not just any story, but a story that hooks from the very beginning and only continues to hook deeper.

Think of great stories like concertina wire.

The danger of concertina wire is not just in one hook, but hundreds or thousands. And it isn’t even in the thousands of hooks. It is the tension created by the coiled structureIf a person is snagged even a little, every effort to break free (turning a page for resolution) only traps the victim deeper in a web of barbed spines.

Now granted, this is a morbid visual, but y’all are writers and there is a good reason our family doesn’t like us talking at the dinner table.

So I was researching sucking chest wounds today and, hey, pass the spaghetti please?

Moving on…

We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. Many new writers finish their first novel, and (I know as an editor) that odds are more than good that I’m going to chop off the first 50-100 pages.

We dream killers editors call this the fish head. What do we do with fish heads? We toss them (unless you are my weird Scandinavian family who makes fish face soup out of them).

 hook, writing hooks, how to sell more books, trends in fiction, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, Camp NaNoWriMo, dramatic writing, how to get more readers, The Martian Andy Weir
Image courtesy of David Pursehouse via Flickr Creative Commons

Often, when I go to do this kind of cutting, new writers will protest. “No, but you need this and the story really gets going on page 84.”

My answer? “Then let’s start on page 84.”

Too many stories fall flat because they lack the barbs necessary for snagging the modern reader who has the attention span of an ADD hamster with a meth habit. Additionally, a lot of us writers fall into bad habits of assuming readers are stupid, that they need all kinds of brain holding to “get” what we are talking about which means we not only lack barbs…but necessary tension.

I will prove readers are really smarter than we give them credit for 😉 …

Hook with a Problem

 hook, writing hooks, how to sell more books, trends in fiction, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, Camp NaNoWriMo, dramatic writing, how to get more readers, The Martian Andy Weir

One morning, on my way to take Spawn to school, as I stopped at my stop sign at a major business highway, a VW van passed at 50 mph and another car pulled out in front. BAM! Car parts, exploding glass, tearing metal, right in front of me. One driver screaming because his legs were crushed and he was pinned. All of this in less than 15 seconds.

Do you think I was hooked?

Did I need to know the history of the drivers, where they were going, what had the one driver so distracted that he would pull out into traffic? Did I need a description of the balmy, normal morning and a weather report? A description of the pale azure sky? Nope.

Now this is an extreme example, but it shows how even in life, we stop everything in light of a problem. A scream, a child crying, someone falling over a curb. We immediately halt everything.

Good fiction always begins with a problem because that is ALL fiction really is. Prose and descriptions and symbol and theme are all various delivery mechanisms…for PROBLEMS.

I cannot count the number of new manuscripts I read where the author spends most of her opening playing Literary Barbies. We really don’t care as much about your protagonist’s flaming red hair as much as we care about that warrant for her arrest. This is drama not a doll house.

Go look at books that have launched to legends and you will see this.

Andy Weir’s The Martian:

I am pretty much f**ked.

That is my considered opinion.

F**ked.

Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it has turned into a nightmare.

We don’t start the book on Earth or in the astronaut program at NASA. We don’t even start when they land on Mars and hint that trouble eventually will come. Nope. Weir tosses us face first into a problem.

Hook With a Question

 hook, writing hooks, how to sell more books, trends in fiction, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, Camp NaNoWriMo, dramatic writing, how to get more readers, The Martian Andy Weir

I have a mantra that all modern novelists must live and die by.

Resist the urge to explain.

One of the reasons emerging writers get that fish head is they do a lot of flashbacks and explaining and “setting up” the story and they are unwittingly destroying the single strongest propulsion mechanism for their story—curiosity.

If we look at the opening page of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, the opening paragraph has a small character hook but six lines down we read:

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

When we craft any story, we are wise to harness the power of human nature. Humans are curious. Heck, we are downright nosey. Imagine sitting at a Starbucks and prepping the computer to write. Two women sit nearby chatting and one has obviously been crying (hooking with a problem). We might eavesdrop a little, arrange Post Its, set out our lucky thesaurus but the second one of the women says, “He would kill me if he ever found out.”

There went the writing.

Then we would be doing “research” 😀 .

Hook with Question and Character

 hook, writing hooks, how to sell more books, trends in fiction, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, Camp NaNoWriMo, dramatic writing, how to get more readers, The Martian Andy Weir
What the HELL, HANNAH?

Sometimes the problem or question isn’t so obviously stated and there is a lot left between the lines. We humans love to fill in the blanks, so LET US.

We will use an example from my all-time favorite book Luckiest Girl Alive.

I inspected the knife in my hand.

“That’s the Shun. Feel how light it is compared to the Wustof?”

I pricked a finger on the blade’s witchy chin, testing. The handle was supposed to be moisture resistant, but was quickly going humid in my grip.

First of all, this is a great opening line. It hooks, but then it leads to another hook and another and another. The character is testing the blade. Why? A blade being moisture resistant obviously is a plus if you are planning on stabbing someone because less chance of slippage (Stuff Writers Know).

Who is she planning to stab? How is she planning on using the blade? What has her so nervous her hands are going moist?

And on PAGE ONE we realize the protagonist is out looking at knives with her fiancé. Why? That is unusual. China? Normal. Curtains? Normal. Knives? Not normal.

Especially since in paragraph FOUR, we read:

I look up at him, too: my fiancé. The word didn’t bother me so much as the one that came after it. Husband. That word laced the corset tighter, crushing organs, sending panic into my throat with the bright beat of a distress signal.

Don’t Eat Your Own Bait

 hook, writing hooks, how to sell more books, trends in fiction, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, Camp NaNoWriMo, dramatic writing, how to get more readers, The Martian Andy Weir
…or drink it.

There are any number of reasons we as writers are failing to gut hook with our stories and often it is because we are falling prey to the very bait that is going to trap a reader. Problems bother us (because we are human) so we feel a need to “lead up to” something bad. We don’t like questions. We want to know…which is why we feel the urge to explain.

Just know that that clawing feeling inside that is driving you to pad the text is a good sign you are probably doing something right. Coil that barbed story all around and no escape until you’re cut free.

A FANTASTIC resource for teaching how to hook (other than me 😛 ) is my brilliant and brutal mentor Les Edgerton and his book Hooked. Read, learn, bleed, cry, grow.

If you’re wondering if your pages are hooking and, if not, how to remedy that? I am running my Write Stuff special. This is 20 pages of INTENSIVE content and line edit with an analysis included all for $55. Only ten slots are available and they fill up quickly, so get one today.

Your time is valuable and expert eyes are incredibly helpful to ensure you’re fixing the right things, or maybe letting you know to leave the pages ALONE that they are FINE. Work smarter, not harder.

Ain’t no rest for the wicked 😉 .

What are your thoughts?

How long do you give a book? I give ten pages max. On audio books I am more generous simply because I am a member of Audible and can return the book. I might give an hour. But I don’t have a lot of time and sure not spending what little extra I have on a dull book.

Does this post make the notion of the ‘hook’ make more sense? Oh, and by the way a book is like crochet, we need to hook through the entire thing. NO LOGICAL PLACE FOR A BOOKMARK.

Bookmark=DEATH.

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of April, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

March’s winner is Ben Gardner. Please send 5000 words in a WORD document double-spaced Times New Roman font, one-inch margins to kristen at wana intl dot com. CONGRATULATIONS! Thanks for the immoral support by commenting! Here is my gift back to you!

Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.

And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get both Plot Boss and Art of Character in the Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND). Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN! 

Have to write a query letter or synopsis? Conference season is coming!

Pitch Perfect: Crafting a Query & Synopsis Agents Will Love. Class is May 3rd 7-9 EST and $45 for over two hours training y’all how to do the toughest parts of this job.

I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.

The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, Author Kristen Lamb, Kristen Lamb novel, Kristen Lamb mystery-thriller, Romi Lachlan

Shakespeare Twitter

I love to think of myself as an author, blogger, warrior princess in my own mind and? TALENT SCOUT! I also love collecting talented people, which recently my attorneys informed me this is technically called “kidnapping” and is a “felony.” Oh well. Anyway, when I ran across Alex, I couldn’t wait to share his talent and voice with you guys. He is smart, funny, brilliant, and, since he is a W.A.N.A. he is also unusually good-looking.

It is a curse we all bear….

*heavy sigh*

So to mix things up a bit, Alex is going to be helping me through the holiday season. This is a guest post by Alex Limberg from ‘Ride the Pen.’ Please welcome him with thunderous applause! His free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story helps you create intriguing novels and shorts. And today, he is here to inspire us to look at plot in a new way. Take it away, Alex!

*insert thunderous applause here*

****

You might think social media is a pretty new thing; and there is no denying it:

Edgar Allen Poe didn’t tweet his anxieties, Jane Austen didn’t present herself seductively on Instagram, and William Shakespeare never even wrote a single Facebook entry!

Or did he?

Let’s put it this way: While social media didn’t exist centuries ago, its underlying psychological principle is as old as mankind. And that principle is: The audience loves drama.

The tickle people nowadays find on Facebook and Pinterest, they could 400 years ago find in Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, in Shakespeare’s times, dock workers were watching his comedies laughing and slapping their thighs.

So what better to study for drama than Facebook and Shakespeare?

And as Kristen’s blog is about creative writing, out of the two we should pick Shakespeare. Let’s take one of the most famous plays ever written and see how a masterful dramatic plot comes about: Let’s take a look at Macbeth!

Plot? What’s Plot?

Macbeth tells the story of a nobleman (Macbeth), who receives a prophecy from three witches that he will become King of Scotland one day. This might have sparked his appetite for power, for he subsequently murders the king and rules the kingdom with malice. In the end his tyranny becomes so bad an alliance of nobles has to get together to defeat him and behead him at his castle.

Monkey

 

Now let’s start out by explaining why an apple is an apple, i.e. answering the question: What is plot?

Plot is the movement of characters over the chess board of the story; it shows us what the figures do and what happens to them.

Good plot is plot that is moving the audience: It makes them feel suspense, laughter, anxiety or whatever else (Side note: If it’s a comedy and they only feel anxiety, you have it the wrong way). Plot is everything that happens, on a broader scale.

Additionally, plot will lead to POSSIBILITIES not acted out, which are very important as well, because they make the audience ask themselves QUESTIONS, e.g. the extraordinarily important question: What will happen next?

What MIGHT happen is often more thrilling than what actually DOES happen– you are aware of this if, for example, you have ever been out doing your thing while wondering whether you turned off the stove before leaving the house.

Excitement comes from what IS and from what COULD BE. What actually is reality, is a little less exciting, because, well, it is already. It’s the unknown that excites us the most, it’s the possibilities: How will your cat and your new pet canary get along? What will Grandmother say when she finds out your new boyfriend works for Burger King? Will drinking horse urine really improve your health?

Questions upon questions.

Once you get the answer, things might become very exciting for a short time, but the joy or desperation will wear off quickly. A question left hovering, however, could tickle you forever…

What REALLY excites your audience is not the answer to the following question, but the question itself: “WHAT THE $&*% IS GONNA HAPPEN NEXT!?“

So how do you make a plot really fascinating for the audience?

You do it by letting them wonder about as many QUESTIONS as possible. You see, this is the trick about creating a thrilling piece of plot: The game is about QUESTIONS! The more QUESTIONS the audience are asking themselves and the more urgently they are asking them, the more they will love your story.

Suspense is created by QUESTIONS the audience directs towards themselves (because, well, there is absolutely nobody better around to direct them at…).

Solving these questions, in turn, leads to new questions, and it is also essential to ask those new questions BEFORE the old ones are resolved! This way you are making sure you have your audience hooked constantly and without any gaps in between, which would mean a lagging plot, or, in the common man’s words, a really boring story.

While the plot constantly develops in a dynamic way, new burning questions will arise.

Your questions should also come up in your story NATURALLY. They should never feel as if they are just there because of the godlike will of the author. If a prisoner suddenly finds a file on the ground, and there is no cake around it, your audience might feel manipulated and won’t buy into the illusion of your story anymore.

You say so far this all sounds very theoretical? Now let’s take a look at how Master Shakespeare did it!

McDonald's Meme

Shakespeare didn’t have to post his dinner on FB– Look how he hooked the reader instead…

First act, first scene: Enter witches. First immediate QUESTIONS: Are those bitches crazy?

Speaking weird sh!% in rhymes, running around under thunder and lightning in wide open space, probably with hunches, crooked fingers and dressed in rags. QUESTION: What the *&%$ is this?

Well, it’s an unusual and very powerful way to start a play: Notice how an original setting immediately raises a LOT of questions, before even a single word is spoken (Who are they? What are they doing out there? What’s gonna happen next?), while also providing visually exciting elements on stage for entertainment-hungry 17th century, Twitter-less eyeballs (storm, lightning, open space, eerie women). Good sh!%!

Cut to second scene. We hear war cries and see a king and a bloody warrior laying out a recap of the battle– it’s all very dynamic, but you don’t see the actual fight. So the play even spares the director the hassle of having to stage the battle, which in turn saves him a couple of stuntmen.

Immediately, questions arise: Who is fighting against whom? Who is winning? What do they want? Who was killed? What happened? What’s the king’s mission?

See how the plot starts to unfold almost unobtrusively, while questions, atmosphere and characters engage the audience’s interest and spark their excitement?

We hear about Macbeth before we even see him for the first time– this is, combined with the play’s title, a very effective way to spike curiosity! Question: Who will he be?

We can’t go through every single scene here, or else you will have to witness me chew and digest my copy of Macbeth out of sheer madness, but you get the picture:

On a micro-level, asking questions works to engage the audience in a single scene, or maybe in an act.

On a macro-level, asking questions works to engage the audience in the whole drama and to overall wow them.

In the third scene of the first act the bitches witches, predict Macbeth will become king. With their prediction perhaps the two most intriguing QUESTIONS of the whole drama come to mind:

  1. Are those crooked women indeed capable of predicting the future (read as: Does fate exist)?
  1. Will Macbeth indeed become king eventually?

Those two questions essentially amount to the same single one. They will be resolved in the beginning of the third act, when we see Macbeth appearing as king for the first time.

Notice how by then, there will have been some urgent NEW QUESTIONS established, to never let the audience off the hook for even one second (Will the nobles ever discover that Macbeth has murdered the king? How will Macbeth cope with his own guilt? Etc…).

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Please don’t do it this way…

They say you only really value something once it’s gone. So I want to make you value Shakespeare’s plot by cold-heartedly taking it away from you. This is how Shakespeare should never, ever have done it, no way.

Had he done it like this, they would have booed him off the stage, which would have made him so depressed he would have spent the rest of his lifetime on useless crap like twittering about his digestion all day long (Btw, twittering back then probably worked with REAL birds, as in messenger pigeons).

Macbeth Done All Wrong

1st Act

The king, Duncan, in his castle, doing his thing (Instagram or whatever). We see him interacting with his sons and with nobility. He is friendly with them. No problems given, no questions asked, no solutions needed. He has a nice convo with Macbeth about the weather. He has supper with the nobles. He farts and goes to sleep.

2nd Act

In a short, easy-going monologue, Macbeth tells the audience he has killed the king. He is wearing the crown and is now the new king. Lady Macbeth is happy.

3rd Act

We see Macduff coming towards Macbeth’s castle, some soldiers behind him. Suddenly a soldier appears on stage and announces he has killed Macbeth.

THE END

ShakespeareDisappointed

Granted, Shakespeare’s play has much more content, but nevertheless the main point presents itself here in all its glory.

Notice all of the interesting questions missing: Will Macbeth murder the king? Will his guilt kill him? Will the predictions come true? How will Macduff react?

Much of the basic plot still happens: The king is murdered, Macbeth bullies the country, Macbeth gets killed. But there is no alluding to future events, no uncertainty around the acts or characters, no hovering possibility of doom.

No witches. No questions. No fun.

The Good-Bye Part (Summary)

I hope that from now on you will think of great plot in terms of QUESTIONS rather than in terms of events.

Create an outstanding plotline by raising intriguing QUESTIONS. Raise new QUESTIONS before you answer the old ones– this way your audience won’t ever be let off the hook!

With this new way of thinking, your readers will just have to know what happens next. You will get them eagerly turning the pages, completely addicted to your story. And you might, yes you just might…become even more important than Facebook to them.

 

Photo, Alex Limberg

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Create intriguing stories with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story or check out his creative writing exercises. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

Thanks, Alex!

What are your thoughts? Do you go too easy on your characters thereby tanking your plot? Do you kind of wish they had Instagram back then? How cool would it have been to see an Attila the Hun Selfie? What historical figure would you have loved to follow on social media? Do you find that unanswered questions are actually WAY more interesting? Do you know the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Alex is going to be guest posting a few more times, so if there are any other topics you’d like HIM to explore, put them in the comments!

Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of NOVEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

OCTOBER’S WINNER is M DELLERT Please e-mail your 20 pages (5000 words) in a WORD document. One-inch margins, double-spaced, Times Roman font to kristen@ wana intl dot com and congratulations!

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Last week I gave FIVE editor tips to help you guys know if you needed revision. One of the most CONFUSING mistakes (in my POV) is the notion of “Starting with too much action.” I know all of us have heard the “Start in the action” “You have to HOOK” and so we devise car chases, bombs, funerals, etc. in hopes that we will engage a reader.

Before we start, I will add a caveat. Genre might affect the first pages of your novel. In a thriller, mystery, mystery-thriller or suspense, it is common to begin with a body or a terrible act.

In The DaVinci Code, we begin with a horrible murder in an art museum.

BUT, this scene is often NOT a scene with the protagonist. When it comes to the protagonist, we need to begin in what is called in medias res.

The first scene with the protagonist in The DaVinci Code involves the hero at a lecture, which is interrupted by a problem.

Protag’s Goal: Complete lecture, sign some books and maybe have a nice dinner in Paris and go to bed early.

Antag’s Goal: Drop everything and come check out this crime scene. We need your expertise and you don’t have an option of declining.

Note the scene antagonist is not a bad guy but his agenda trumps what the protagonist wants.

The Trouble with In Medias Res

In medias res quite literally means “in the middle of things.” This is a literary tactic that has been used since the days of Odysseus. It is a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.

Ah, but this is where we writers can get in trouble. I see writers beginning their novels with high-action gun battles, blowing up buildings, a heart-wrenching, gut-twisting scene in a hospital or at a funeral, all in an effort to “hook the reader” by “starting in the middle of the action.” Then when they get dinged/rejected by an agent or editor, they are confused.

But I started right in the action! What is more “in the action” than a high-speed chase through Monte Carlo as a bomb ticks down to the final seconds?

Bear with me a few moments, and I will explain why this is melodrama and not in medias res.

Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities

For many centuries, there was a literary tendency to begin “in the early years” leading up to the story problem. Authors would wax on rhapsotic about the setting and spend 10,000 words or more “setting up” the story. The reader was privy to “why such and such character” became a whatever. There was a lot of heavy character development and explaining the why of things.

This, of course was fine, because in the 18th century, no writer was competing with television, movies or Facebook.

Thus, if a book was a thousand pages long, it just meant it must have been extra-awesome. Also, authors, back in the day, were often paid by the word, thus there was a lot of incentive to add extra fluff and detail, layer on the subplots and pad the manuscript more than a Freshman term paper. Writing lean hit the author in the piggy bank, so most authors lived by the motto, No adverb left behind.

Then Hemingway came on the scene and…well, let’s get back to my point.

In medias res was not employed by many early novelists. They started the book when the protagonist was in the womb (being facetious here) and their stories often took on epic proportions.

Modern writers can’t do this. Yes there are exceptions to every rule, so save the e-mails. Just trust me when I say that modern readers have been spoiled by Hollywood and iPhones. They are used to instant gratification, and most modern readers will not give us writers 15,000 words to get the the point.

These days, especially when readers are deluged with choices, our sample pages are more vital then ever. We need to get right into the heart of the action from the get-go. But if “the heart of the action” doesn’t involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?

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Example from Life

In medias res is the front gate of Six Flags over Texas.

Do we need to start in the years that Kristen was too young to go to Six Flags? How she would see her teenage cousins leave for a day of roller coasters and cry herself to sleep in her toddler bed for not getting to ride the roller coasters? How she vowed at four that she, too, would one day brave The Shock Wave?

Uh…no.

Do we start the story on the biggest loop of the roller coaster? The screams and terror mixed with glee?

No, that’s too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION–like car chases, bank heists, etc.) then we risk the rest of the book being anti-climactic. If we blow up a building in scene one, do we later blow up two? Three?

So where do we begin?

We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.

We see young Kristen in the back of the station wagon and as her parents pull into the giant parking lot. We are present when she catches a glimpse of the Shock Wave (story problem) in the distance. Wow, it is bigger than she thought. We walk with Kristen through the line to get into the amusement park, and get a chance to know her and care about her before she makes the decision to ignore the Tea Cups and take on the roller coaster (Rise to Adventure).

Kristen could have totally chickened out and stayed on the baby rides, but that would have been a boring story. Yet, because the Tea Cups are in the context of the larger ride, it means something when she decides she MUST ride the roller coaster.

In medias res means we start as close to the overall story problem as possible.

Beginning With Action

This term “action” is often misunderstood, so I hope I can clear it up. There are two components to fiction, the scene and the sequel. The scene is simple. Our character has a GOAL, then someone stands in the way of that goal (antagonist) and there is a setback (or a victory). Most often there will be setbacks because setbacks ratchet tension. The protagonist needs to be one step forward, ten steps back.

The sequel is the processing of some event/setback that just occurred. This is where our character can do some thinking, emotional processing or even discussing with others.

What new writers often do is they begin the book with the sequel, yet a sequel can only come as a result of a scene.

Scenes are action. The character is wanting, needing, doing something. This is a place where we as readers can empathize with the character and connect with the protagonist and begin to root for him or her.

For instance, Les Edgerton is a pal of mine and his book Hooked is the bible of beginnings. He was kind enough to look at the first chapter of my novel and…he SLAYED ME. But, the cool part about Les is he teaches WHY he kills what he kills.

Now, I thought I got into my “action” quickly. I began with my character, Romi, cooking half to death in a parking lot. She’s dreading the Unemployment Office. She is funny, self-deprecating and we do feel sorry for her.

Les chopped off ALL OF IT.

Though only about three pages, Les told me that I began my story in the wrong spot. He chastised me and told me that, while my writing was hysterical, it had to GO.

My actual story began when Romi pushes through the door to the Unemployment Office and realizes Angry Bird (what she’s named a dreadful bureaucrat who treats her like dirt) is working that day. She wants a job. She wants an ally, someone who will help and not judge her. What she gets is a roadblock.

We feel sympathy for her. Most of us know how badly it sucks to look for a job, and that the Unemployment Office is humbling and even humiliating. This is a small event, but one that pulls the reader to the side of my protagonist. Within five pages, she meets another setback.

She finds out she has been blackballed because she was engaged to a man who pulled an ENRON and stole over a half a billion dollars then vanished (and also wiped out all her bank accounts leaving her so broke she can’t even afford to eat).

She’s given a challenge. “Find your ex. Find the money or you will never work anywhere that doesn’t involve a toilet brush and being paid in cash.”

Thus, I hope you can see how the initial setback isn’t massive. It isn’t a funeral or a car crash. It’s gutting it through the front doors of the Unemployment Office and dealing with someone who is supposed to help, but who is sarcastic, rude and a tad cruel. The scene gives us time to empathize, yet it is interminably linked to the major story problem.

Protagonist’s Goal: Get a job before being evicted.

Antagonist’s Goal: Keep her from finding work to starve her into finding missing money.

When Romi enters the Unempolyment Office, she is hopeful this day will be different. She will find a job. She leaves ten steps back. Not only is she unable to find a job, but she never will and has no clue where the missing money is or even where to begin looking. She’s out of money and is out of options. She has to fall back to the ONE place she vowed she’d never return…home with her crazy trailer trash family who resents her for leaving home to go to college.

Also note, (again) that the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil. His father was one of the investors fleeced out of millions. He believes Romi knows where the money is, and he’s using what sway he has for “justice.” Problem is, Romi really is innocent.

I hope this has helped you guys understand what makes a great hook. Begin with a problem (scene), not THINKING (sequel). The problem doesn’t need to be earth-shattering, and if it is, make sure it’s something you can outdo later. Don’t have the biggest loop of your roller coaster at the front of the ride or everything else will be anticlimactic.

What are your thoughts? Any lightbulbs? Did this technique confuse you guys as much as it did me?

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have TWO classes coming up to help you!

Upcoming Classes

BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.