Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hooking your reader

Camy here, talking about writing a great hook for your novel.

Hooks are not just for contests, because editors will often give you only the first page to interest them. If your story doesn’t stand out for them in your first page, they’ll politely reject the manuscript.

They’re not being mean. It’s just that they get thousands of manuscripts a year, and they don’t have time to read every single one. Outside of doing edits for the books they’ve already contracted and acting as liaison between their authors and marketing or sales, their plates are full to overflowing.

So when they do have time to read new submissions, they’ll give you one page.

Let me repeat that: You have ONE PAGE.

And that’s why hooks are scored so high on contests. Because while not everything in contests is translatable to real life submissions to a publishing house, some things directly correlate. A great hook is one of those things.

How to write a great hook?

Surprise your reader in the first sentence.

Now, I’ve seen some great hooks that last an entire paragraph, but if you can hook your reader by the first sentence, that’s like a golden worm.

(Fishing reference. Hooks? Uh ... never mind. I’m trying to be clever.)

I’m serious. Even if your entire first paragraph is a great hook, also strive to make your first sentence have POW.

It doesn’t have to be “explosions” POW, but it should be some type of intellectual POW.

Surprise the reader. Intrigue them.

Show them something both different and mysterious.

If a reader reads the first sentence and only sees something odd happening, that won’t always intrigue them enough to keep reading (especially a cynical editor who has read thousands of manuscripts in the past year).

But if the first sentence describes something both surprising and mysterious, that will urge them to read on to figure out what’s going on.

What, exactly, is both surprising and mysterious? Well, since we all write different genres and with different writing styles, I can’t point to anything and say, “copy that.” It has to come from you.

Use strong words.

Margie Lawson discusses this in her deep EDITS class and her Empowering Characters’ Emotions class. Use “power words” that convey strong emotions, strong meanings.

Be extremely judicious in your word choice here. Be extremely critical of your words. Utilize a thesaurus with impunity.

Choose words that trigger strong emotional reactions in people, whether a pure visceral reaction or an automatic reaction to certain stimuli.

For example, “rotten” versus “a slimy icing of maggots.” Which produced the stronger reaction when you read it?

Get feedback to strengthen your hook.

Your critique partners/critique group is your most valuable resource. No one else can brainstorm with you or give you honest feedback like they can, because they both care about you and want your writing to be the best it can be.

Make several drafts. Brainstorm several sentences.

And once you’ve got things narrowing down, then call on other writing friends to give quick opinions. Trust their first impressions when they first read your sentence—that’ll be a good indicator of what an editor might think.

If you get lots of different opinions, you’ll need to filter what to listen to and what to toss.

I tend to put more weight on the most critical feedback, since that tends to be more useful to me in the long run. It’s not poor self image, but I need to pay more attention to criticism when crafting my writing, because the people who love it (and usually love me, too) do not always give helpful or objective feedback.

Try, try again.

Don’t get discouraged. Most of the writers I know spend more time on their opening hooks than any other part of the writing process.

It might take time, and it might take lots and lots and lots of drafts and revisions. You’ll get sick of it. You’ll walk away at some point.

But get back to it and keep plugging away. Persevere. Because that fantastic opening hook really is like a golden worm.

Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. Her novel Single Sashimi is out now, and she runs the Story Sensei critique service. In her spare time, she is a staff worker for her church youth group, and she leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels every Monday and Thursday, and she ponders frivolous things. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for monthly giveways!


  1. It was a dark and stormy night...

    Great post Camster...and from the Asian bakery on the corner we have moon cakes and taro buns with a steaming pot of tea.

  2. Hello Camy:

    I loved the start of “Sushi for One?”

    “Eat and leave.
    That’s all she had to do. If grandma didn’t kill her first for being late.”

    When I read these lines I felt right at home. I thought, ‘I know this situation.’ and I wondered how grandma would differ from my own grandma in a similar situation. I think this opening is very powerful but deceptive in its simplicity.

    How many times and how much input did you get before you settled on this opening? The words sound so natural they seem to have just rolled off you pen without a thought. You make it look so easy. But really how hard was it? I’d love to know.



  3. Wow, Camy, talk about scary -- one page to hook an editor -- but talk about true too! Thanks for driving that point home -- I think some writers don't fully realize how vital this is to reel them in at the get-go.

    I certainly didn't. In my original version of A Passion Most Pure (then, A Chasing After the Wind), I rambled on for seven pages of internal monologue, including a rambling first sentence that went on forever. I credit a paid critique with Tracey Bateman at ACFW for setting me straight. She told me I had to hook the editor/reader in the first paragraph, or at least the first page. She suggested moving the action (the opening kiss between Collin and Charity, which was on page 7), up to the front. That opening scene went from page 7 to 4, to 2 and then finally landed in the 2nd paragraph, providing the hook I needed to get the sucker read. Thank you, Tracey!

    Moral of story: One page is all you have -- make it count. And action can help do that.

  4. That is a great first line, Camy. It has kind of a hip, angsty feel, perfect for contemporary romance with a kick of wasabi!

    I get so hung up on worrying about my hook and my first 50 pages that I have a hard time just writing. But thank goodness I'm sort of getting past that with my new book. I keep telling myself I can always go back and work on it later. I'm a perfectionist and can't stand to move on if I know a line or a scene isn't right. But I'm learning to! After all, that's what crit partners are for.

  5. What a timely post!

    Yesterday I cut the first three pages from a scene. And I cringed despite how the scene now immediately begins with conflict. Why is it we often feel the need to explain a character's situation to readers before we get to the action?


    I wish I hadn't cringed when I made that cut. I wish I had happily said, "This needs to go."

    Okay, remember yesterday when Debalicious was talking about one-lines and such? Granted she wasn't just talking about opening line hooks 'cause she did mention summing stories up in one lines, which has to rank right up there with eating Christmas cookies and kissing babies (not necessarily in that order). *snort*

    Anyhoo, Vince shared some compelling first lines. The Nora Roberts one stuck in my mind.


    Really. How stupid is that for a first line? So I walked into my laundry room, opened the dryer door, and paused 'cause a crazy thought hit me.

    Love. It's for moms with newborns, newlyweds walking through butterfly-filled meadows, and aging hippies who still think the pathetic thing comes free.

    Thank God I'm a lawyer.

  6. Oh, thanks Tina for the cakes and buns! They're much more enjoyable than the sight of the ones I had last night when my toddler got out of the tub.

  7. Wow, Camy, you (and the other ladies posting on the subject this week) have me wanting to go back and rework the opening lines of every single one of my manuscripts!!!

  8. I agree with Myra....I feel like I want to head back to the first lines of my WIP...

    So, I think I will.

    I love reading this blog, it's so helpful and encouraging.

    Have a great day everyone.

  9. Very nice post, Camy. And scary too. One page...One much hanging on it.

    I'm just about to hit the editing stage of a book...and because of this week's posts, I'll be paying particular attention to that opening hook...I want it to be a golden worm. :)

  10. Camy is absolutely right on this one page, one line thing. An editor seriously does decide that fast if you can write.

    Every sentence they'd looking at it to reject it. Because they are busy and they need to get through that stack fast when they find a few minutes to work on it.

    That first line and that first page is crucial.

  11. Excellent post, Camy! You've told it like it is. We've got little time to grab the reader.

    Writers can not only tweak that opening line/s after the book is written, but it's satisfying to the reader to have the opening and ending come full circle.

    For example, in my second book, Courting the Doctor's Daughter, the book opens with the heroine in conflict with the hero over his remedy. It ends with the heroine's "remedy" for their HEA.


  12. Oh Camy, but don't you know those first words of my first draft are the best?! I can't believe how long it took me to view words as disposable. Hey, like I thought long and hard about that first 5 pages of introspection! Notice the visuals, the setting, the thoughts. . .BORING!

    I'm with you ladies, open with a bang and never let go!

    Thanks for the great reminder, Camy!

  13. Oh, good stuff. Loving the green tea, BTW.

    I printed out my first page and took it to work, thinking I'd tweak it on my break, but I came home early.

    Anyway, I will have to give it the ol' jaundiced eyeball.

    Thanks fpr sharing!

  14. Great post, Camster. I LOVE thinking of first lines.


  15. An Asian bakery? Oooh - I love the coconut tarts and almond paste buns.

    Camy - your post is so chockful of info.

    I'm working on a contest entry that had a prologue when I pulled it out a week ago but it was the first thing to go. Then I cut out the 'drive to a new town' scene. And finally the 'arrive in a new apartment' scene.

    What I'm left with is the 1st meeting between H/h. The prologue was an integral part of the story b/c it explains their reaction to each other in chapter 2 when they realize...

    Anyway, now I'm trying to weave the back story in and man, it's hard. But I know the ms is better this way. So, I'd better get crackin'. Catch y'all later...

  16. I'm totally in on the moon cakes Tina-baby, but I'll take mine with a vanilla coffee, please.

    And almond tarts, Erica??? Gimme.

    Camster, great job on this. You're so right and we get that drilled into our brains but still have a hard time letting go, going for the instant jugular, cutting unnecessary stuff.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    And I love seeing you guys. My life right now is filled with puppies and small children. Ten Golden Retriever pups and six Golden Doodles have entered my life in the last ten days. It's like having a young family all over again.

    For six or seven weeks until they all go to their new homes with anxious mommies and daddies.

    And puppy treats.

    Deb-meister, your post was wonderful. I got time to read it but couldn't comment.

    Marin's was great. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Didn't get to Monday's because, well...

    Darn ol' puppies!

    Now I must go and tend to the upstairs puppies. Remember the book Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs???

    Well we've got Doodles upstairs, Goldens downstairs. How do you think my boys will react to a huge chocolate brown standard poodle and six pups in their old bedroom when they come home for Thanksgiving next week???

    Should be interesting.



  17. Oh, and I have recently realized I start way too many of my books on 'dark and stormy nights'.

    Gotta watch that.

  18. Janet - your remedy idea is great.

    My only secular book starts and ends with the line, 'Excuse me, but would you marry me, Ma'am?'

    Teen dd says it's corny but the judges like it. (It's the middle I'm having probs with on that one.) LOL

  19. Great post, Camy ;) The first chapter/paragraph is vital if you want to be published, I think. I dug out some of my favorite books by fairly well-known authors the other day, and was a little surprised to find that the first chapters weren't super exciting or anything. Hmmm...But the books were still great and still held my attention, so I suppose it didn't matter.
    By the way, I've loved all of this week's posts! I've already learned so many things to help my writing. Thanks! OK, I'm getting off of the computer. I'm too tired to stay up any later. LOL.

  20. Dark and stormy nights are out? Rats.

  21. I conducted a year-long poll of agents and editors, both in the CBA and in the ABA and my information coincides with what Camy is telling you. I'm not sure if she got her info from my data or not, but if so I also did want to mention that 93% of eds/agents polled said they would only read on if the first page intrigued them. Most knew by the first page whether they wanted to read on.

    A few of them said if they saw a spark in the writing that they might read on to chapter three because some people just start the stories in the wrong place.

    If you're getting hung up on your first line or even your opening paragraph, just write on. You can always come back and fiddle with the first line and perfect it later.

    Get the book finished before getting it right. That way if they DO read'll have a full ms to send them.

    Once you perfect your first page, write every page as though it were your first and you'll be good to go. :-D


  22. Thanks for a great post, Camy!

    And Cheryl, great advice about going ahead and getting that draft done first. You can come back and get it just right later. :)


  23. Hi Camy,
    Loved your post today. Such great info and so, so true. We only have a nano-second to attract an editor's eye. That hook is important.

    BTW, I'm crawling into bed each night with Single Shashimi! Love the story . . . heroine . . . Drake . . . mama. . . grandma . . . the cousins . . . etc, etc, etc. You're great!

  24. Hi guys,
    Sorry I'm late, Tina had to remind me to check in because I've been so busy today!

    Vince: It took WAY longer than it ought to have taken to get those lines. I think I scrapped at least 40-50 ideas before settling on that one, and I still think I could have done a better job and come up with something hookier.

    The moral of the story--brainstorm a lot of opening lines and get a lot of input because it's going to take you a lot longer than you think it will.

    Julie: I remember when you first told me that story AFTER I'd already read the opening chapter and I was like, "WHOA! I can't believe she restructured that opening SO much!"

    Melanie: You're absolutely right, you can always go back and fix it later. In fact, it's usually easier to fix "later" than right at that moment.

    Gina: LOL I love that!

    Myra and Lynn: I totally did not mean to make you guys paranoid! LOL

    Erica: Just take your time on that golden worm. Work on it, take time away from it, then work on it again. Often it happens very "organically."

    Mary: See, I knew I wasn't imagining. If Mary is agreeing with me, it must be right. :)

    Janet: That's a terrific writing tip! I love stories like that, which connect the opening line with the ending line.

    Audra: The sad thing is, I've heard writers tell me that and really mean it versus just being tongue-in-cheek.

    Ann: Let your eyeball be very jaundiced. Um, that doesn't sound right. Well, you know what I mean. :)

    Cheryl: You come up with the BEST first lines!

    Anita Mae: I know it's painful to cut, but good for you for doing it! It's always better to weave in backstory rather than explaining it upfront. Leave a bit of mystery for the reader to figure out as they read.

    Ruthy: Your puppy pics are making me want to get a new dog!!!

    Arianna: The sad truth is that once you're established, often you can get away with sloppier writing, but when you're trying to break into the industry, you need to have stellar writing--including those great opening hooks.

    Also, books written even 10 years ago are very different from what's being bought right now--a few years ago, a hook wasn't as important as it is now.

    Debby: Aw thanks! I'm so glad you're liking the book!