Monday, August 15, 2011

How Writing a Good Hook is like Running a Good Con

Recently, I've been watching the show Leverage, and because I have also recently read the first 5 thousand words of 59 separate novels, I've been thinking about what makes a good hook. There were a few that had me by the first line, others that had me by the end of the first paragraph, and still others that didn't really have me until the end of the first chapter.

Was one more "right" than the other? I don't think so. They all accomplished the same thing, which was to keep my attention well enough that the urge to continue reading was irresistible. So, what is the secret to writing the perfect hook?

The short answer is easy: there is none.

There is no single thing that ensures your hook will be a good one. There are no hard and fast rules to depend on because it's the execution of the thing that gives it an edge. A good hook is good because it does something (maybe a lot of somethings) really well and defies the reader to look away.

The longer answer isn't so easy, which is why I'm leaning on Leverage (oh, how soon the bad jokes begin...) to help me out.

For the purposes of this metaphor, the writer is the con-artist and the novel is the con and the reader is, you guessed it, about to get conned.

As anyone who watches Leverage knows, a good con begins before any interaction between the con-artist and the con-ee, which is to say, the con begins before the reader ever sees the first line of the novel. This is the exciting time when the reader is looking forward to something sweet or exciting or intense. They want to get something out of the time they're about to commit to reading, in essence, this makes them an Easy Mark. The con begins when the reader decides to do what they love - read.

Enter the Grifter aka The Oh-so-important First Line
The Grifter comes in with a smile and lovely perfume and says, "I want to show you something... it's a secret. But I can tell by that stack of books behind you that you're the kind of person I can trust. Won't you take a peek?"

Like the Grifter, the first line makes a promise to the reader about what's to come. This is the time for you to bait the hook, to whet the appetite of the reader, and to show them that there is something here worth sticking around for. It's an offering, a hint, and a tease all at once. A delicate balance of information and mystery! And they are worth working hard on because they are what will get your reader to invest - time, effort, energy and imagination - into your story.

And this is where things start to get real.

Enter the Hacker aka Building Your World
You never see the Hacker. He's behind the scenes, pulling strings and staying two steps ahead. He's the guy opening doors and building bridges from disbelief to belief. He's the guy who says, "I'm gonna rock your world and you'll never even know my name."

Yeah. He's cocky like that.

These are the lines that immediately follow the first. This is the time to follow the promise and the tease of that first line with something more concrete. The set is built around the reader and it's the Hacker's job to make them think it's as real the world they live in. Be convincing because this is the backbone of the trap. If they can see where the Hacker has fallen down on the job (leaving gaps in your world-building), they're less likely to trust the story before them. So, ground the reader completely because it's time to steal their hearts.

Enter the Thief aka the Prancing Princess of Plot
Using groundwork laid by the Hacker, the Thief makes the promise of the first line come to life before your eyes. She really works in concert with the Hacker, but she gets her own section because I'm forcing an inorganic metaphor onto an organic process. In reality, this is all extremely messy and entangled, but I like the illusion of order.

So! The Thief weaves a trap as the reader moves deeper into the story, she moves quickly and quietly so that even if they catch a glimpse of her, they didn't realize what she was up to. She does the impossible and says, "It really wasn't impossible. See?" She defies expectation! She balances upside down, on one hand, while breaking into a vault! She leaves little pieces of plot around and thanks to the work of the Hacker, they tantalize and excite because they are not what we expected to find. Exciting!

But what now? Why should the reader care?

Enter the Hitter aka The Stakes
The Hitter doesn't smile. He doesn't apologize for who he is and he doesn't wear pink. In fact, the Hitter doesn't even speak. Frankly, he'd rather punch you in the gut.

This is the guy that convinces the reader that the con isn't fooling around. This is a story that means business and it's not the sort you wanna look away from. This is the time to show the reader what it is about this story that matters. They've already got the set-up, now it's time to introduce the stakes. The Hitter doesn't back down, he bumps everything up a notch until we have urgency! Tension! A reader who is eager and (if the Hitter has his way) even a little terrified.

And so...

Enter the Mastermind aka The Final Note
With all the work that's come before, there seems little left for the Mastermind to do. But his is the crucial moment. The very end of that first chapter, the fulfillment of the promise dropped by the Grifter, the realization of the work done by the Hacker, the Thief, and the Hitter. The Mastermind tracks all of these things and delivers the final note. He sweeps in at the end with a devilish and satisfied grin and says, "Right this way." Because if he and his team have done their work well, then the reader will be helpless. They will thank the Mastermind and move right along to chapter two as if it was their intention all along.

So there you have it. My round about way of saying that all writers are con artists.

(And also that I love Leverage.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Leaning Tower of Critique-a

Remember the time I gave a very public demonstration of my tendency to leap before looking? That would be this post in which I made an open offer of crit to the world at large. Very soon after I put that post up, five g-chat windows opened looking a little like this:

Window 1: ARE YOU CRAZY?

Window 2: YOU ARE CRAZY.

Window 3: Put a cap on it or TAKE IT DOWN!

Window 4: omgomgomgomgomgomgOOOOOOMG

Window 5: O_O

To which I responded, "Oh, pshhhh, you're over-reacting. It will be fine." Because I didn't really think I could possibly get more than 20 or 30. . .  I wasn't just wrong, I was VERY wrong. And I soon decided the best course of action (for my sanity) was not to think about it all in terms of numbers, but to simply move through them as systematically as possible.

It took me a little longer than I thought, but my reading time was punctuated by having previously agreed to 3 full manuscript crits, one busy trip to New Orleans for ALA, and one trip to Minneapolis where I joined Tessa, Maggie, and her husband for a short leg of their tour during which I was made to sleep below the water line in an old tug boat where alligators scratched at the hull by my ear all night long. What? You think there are no alligators in Minneapolis? I think you're wrong! 
But that's neither here nor there, I want to talk about numbers. The stone cold stats of my recent insanity.

Ready? Go!

Total number of 5k submissions received: 59 (which I think should be spelled fifty-FREAKING-nine)

The fruit breakdown: 
Coconuts: 39 (SO MANY COCONUTS!)
Applenuts: 3 (yes, 3 separate people created a new category to break my brain)
Apples: 12
Peaches: 5
Number of characters named Lily: 13 
First crit sent out on 6/14
Last crits sent out on 7/30

Words read: 295,000
Total word count on 59 crit letters: 62,208 <- I feel like I should point out, that is a NOVEL. O_O
Now that I'm done, they're sort of gratifying to see. I don't really want to jump in and repeat the activity anytime soon, but I did learn a lot by doing this and perhaps more importantly, I got to meet a lot of talented writers I might not have otherwise. So, a big thank you to everyone who was brave enough to send me their work! Thinking through your stories has been both immensely enjoyable and immensely helpful and I'm grateful to every one of you!  
And now, I will buckle down and do nothing but write my fingers silly for the next several months.