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A Crash Course on Being a Hooker (Part II)

Last month, in my Crash Course on Being a Hooker Part I, I discussed the importance of using hooks in your writing. I promised to finish today with Part II—pointers on crafting that all important first page. Please, allow me to apologize in advance for how long this post is. My only excuse is these tips should help in polishing your Golden Heart entry so that it’s just as dynamic as the great openings we’ve seen this past week the Ruby’s Make it Golden contest

However, before you follow any of the 15 upcoming tips, my first piece of advice is to finish writing the damn book before you worry about how great your first page is. Many authors get so caught up in rewriting and polishing the opening to their book they spend a week crafting hooks and rewriting passages that might eventually need to be deleted or changed once the novel is finished. Anyone who’s ever written a complete book knows how often the story changes and how frequently the first scene needs to be reworked.

TIP 1  Have a specific purpose for choosing a particular style of opening for your book.

In all genres, the goal is to suck the reader into the story, but there are many different ways to accomplish this. The decision about which sort of opening would be best is influenced by the type of plot. For example, in a family relationship romance it might be best to concentrate on characterizing the hero or heroine with dialogue, introspection, or narrative; whereas, in a suspense or adventure novel, presenting setting or an action scene could be more effective.

To find the best beginning for your novel, try writing several different types of openings and possibly a different POV and/or hook. Here are some examples of different openings and the advantages to using them:

Dialogue

Readers pay more attention to dialogue and retain the information revealed better than through narrative. Our eyes are naturally drawn to quotation marks. Dialogue reveals the character’s personality and immediately engages the reader. The ping-pong effect of dialogue creates a fast, easy pace.

Action

Action is exciting and creates immediate conflict and is full of description that paints a vivid picture. However, not all plots have a chase scene, murder, or a fist fight. An action opening can be as simple as a character cooking dinner–and burning it. (conflict)

 Observation of action or event. I actually consider this a subset of action because something is actively happening, but the POV character isn’t involved.

Philosophical or Thoughtful

“To be or not to be?”  A philosophical question or observation can draw the reader in and give insight into the characters or theme.

Character

This opening is frequently presented in omniscient POV and gradually moves into the character’s head.  It allows visualization of the focal character.

Setting

In some books, the setting plays a larger role. Sometimes it almost becomes a character. Opening with a creative description of setting can establish mood and paint a picture of a locale the reader might not be familiar with.

Introspection

Offers a more intimate relationship with the focal character and lets the reader know details that can’t be revealed naturally through dialogue to set up the story. WARNING: Resist the urge to include a lot of back-story in this kind of opening or use it as an info-dump.

When a character’s outward actions or words might seem unlikeable, introspection gives insight to the character’s true motives and feelings and helps the reader to sympathize with the character despite his or her less than heroic behavior.

Five senses opening. I consider this a subset of introspection because the experience is in the POV character’s head.

Epic or Narrative

This kind of opening can present a broader view of the situation. Narrative openings are frequently written in omniscient POV and gradually zoom into a specific character’s POV.

Retrospective

This opening is one that starts in the present with something exciting that takes place in the middle of the story and immediately steps back in time to a less compelling moment that’s vital to understand the story. The plot then moves forward to that more exciting moment. This kind of beginning enables the author to hook the reader by making him or her curious as to how the hero or heroine ended up in his or her predicament. Think of it as anauthor presenting a train wreck and then going back to establish who is on the train and why.

TIP 2  Lure the reader into the story with a compelling hook and set readers’ expectations.

Make your first sentence/paragraph one that grabs the reader’s attention. It should establish the tone of the book and set readers’ expectations.

The first page makes promises to the consumer. Nothing irritates a reader more than to buy a book that begins with a sinister, action-packed murder, only to discover on page five that she’s actually purchased a character-driven marriage of convenience romance.

Know your target audience. Is the story dark, dramatic, light, emotional, etc? Make the hooks and tone of your opening fit the kind of story you’re writing.  If it’s a suspense novel, include tension in the opening. If it’s a comedy, be funny. If it’s a paranormal, make it eerie, etc.

Some Possible Tones are: Humorous, Insightful, Action-packed, Suspenseful, Spooky, Dramatic,  Emotional or Poignant, Lyrical, Reminiscent or Evocative

TIP 3  Establish setting as soon as possible.

Don’t pull your readers out of the story by making them wonder when and where the action is taking place. It’s not necessary to provide the actual location (town/state, etc), but a vague sense of the environment is required. Otherwise, the characters will become talking heads with nothing to anchor them to the story. The initial setting can be as simple as placing the character outside his or her home or in a specific room. This can be accomplished by simply including a few key setting details in a speech tag or beat. Be selective in which details you offer so they provide as much relevant information to the reader as possible in the fewest amount of words.

Another fast and dirty way to establish setting quickly is to insert a log line under chapter heading with the date and location. This technique is more frequently used in historical or futuristic novels. It’s also applicable if it’s necessary for the reader to know if your scene is occurring at a specific time and place, such as in a suspense novel, when knowing the exact time events are occurring is an important clue to solving the mystery.

TIP 4  Hook the reader by showcasing the author’s voice and style.

Your first page should sound different than any other author’s. Seeing as you’re starting 1/3 of the way down a double-spaced page, you get less than 20 lines to WOW the reader into believing you can entertain them for another 300 or so pages.

TIP 5  Avoid opening with back-story or flashbacks. Only include information that is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the present action in the story.

Back-story should be sprinkled throughout the book like a seasoning at precise times when knowledge of those facts becomes pertinent to the reader. Learning a character’s history and what makes him or her tick is part of the joy in reading a novel. If you tell the reader everything up front, she’ll have no reason to read the rest of the book.

The more mystery an author can maintain without frustrating the reader, the more driven the reader will be to turn the pages. Make her wonder why. Generate questions in her mind. For the same reasons, also stay away from using a prologue unless the reader’s knowledge of a past event is vital to understanding the story. Suspense and thrillers tend to be the exception.

It’s particularly difficult to reveal back-story slowly during a romance in which the conflict hinges on the the hero and heroine’s past relationship. For a masterful example of how this can be accomplished, read Susan Elizabeth Phillips novel, Ain’t She Sweet. While you’re reading it, highlight every passage where she gives you a piece of back-story. You’ll be amazed by how she feeds the details in, with a sentence here and a paragraph there, and little snatches of flashbacks.

TIP 6  SHOW don’t TELL

Refrain from lengthy introspection or too many internal monologues. Rely heavily on dialogue and action and less on description. Description TELLS. Action and dialogue SHOW. Bury descriptive information in beats and speech tags between the dialogue and action. Instead of writing, Marcy was nervous about taking her driving test, replace it with Marcy’s sweaty hands trembled as she gripped the steering wheel and waited for the DMV’s examiner to fasten his seat belt.

TIP 7  If the scene is written in a specific character’s point of view, make the focal character clear to the reader and remain in that character’s POV throughout.

Eliminate TELLING words that distance the reader from the focal character’s POV like: thought, heard, felt, wondered, saw, discovered, realized, etc. except to establish the POV character at the beginning of the scene. Telling words work well in the scenes opening paragraph because ONLY the focal character can hear, feel, wonder, etc. So if those words aren’t establishing the POV, get rid of them. Instead of saying, Marie heard the door slam in the foyer, simply say The door slammed in the foyer. If you’ve already established that the scene is in Marie’s POV, it’s not necessary to state that she heard it.

To avoid confusing the reader, steer clear of introducing more than three or four characters in the first scene. And don’t use similar names for characters (starting with the same letter or similar spelling, such as Dara and Nora). Those two names may seem different enough to you, but to a reader who is unfamiliar with the characters, they’re not. The RA at the end of two female, four-letter names my confuse readers as to which woman is Dara and which is Nora.

TIP 8  Set your opening hook by making the reader care.

The best way to get the reader invested in the story is to create likable or sympathetic characters and give the reader the opportunity to root for the hero or heroine. Establish a goal for your characters ASAP, even if it’s just a temporary or bridging goal (like finding a set of lost keys) until you can establish the overall story goal. And then suggest the potential for conflict for achieving that goal. You don’t have to spell it out in the beginning, but the reader needs to know there will be roadblocks ahead.

TIP 9  Reel the reader in.

End the first page with a hooky ba-dum-bump sentence as enticement to continue reading. Then continue to do that for every scene and chapter in your novel.

These last six tips are ones you can use to improve, not only your first page, but your entire book.

TIP 10  Don’t include pointless scenes that have no purpose in driving the plot forward, no matter how entertaining they might be.

All scenes should have at least three reasons for their existence. Some of those reasons are to: reveal character; establish goals; explain, motivation; develop, escalate, or resolve conflict; provide setting; add sexual tension; entertain; provide character growth; develop the theme, etc. If you can’t think of three STRONG reasons you need a scene, get rid of it—especially if it opens your book.

TIP 11 Use realistic, interesting dialogue that moves the story forward.

  • Vary the sound of the dialogue and word choice for different characters and make it appropriate to each individual.
  • Avoid mundane conversation.
  • Keep speech tags simple and use them sparingly and judiciously. Relevant beats (character’s actions) are as just effective as speaker attributes, and they also anchor the reader to the setting. However, don’t use pointless beats like: She scratched her nose.
  • Rarely let characters address each other by name.

TIP 12  Use sophisticated narrative to set your writing apart from an amateur’s.

  • Vary sentence length and structure, and avoid passive voice. (i.e. Jane carried the laundry upstairs—not—The laundry was carried upstairs by Jane.)
  • Find echoes and substitute appropriate synonyms that sound natural.
  • Refrain from using ING words and AS to begin sentences as much as possible.
  • Keep simultaneity of characters’ actions to a minimum. In other words, make sure you don’t have them doing things that are physically impossible, such as simultaneously walking to the car and opening the door.
  • Don’t become repetitious or go into overkill. Providing information once is usually enough. Otherwise the reader will feel as if she’s being treated like an imbecile.
  • Avoid being overly descriptive. Use precise adjectives sparingly and shun adverbs.  Use powerful nouns and verbs rather than modifying weak ones. Be selective in what you choose to describe and make it pertinent.
  • Use pronouns judiciously.
    • Avoid repeating character’s names too often.
    • Don’t confuse the reader by using too many pronouns.
    • Make sure pronouns refer to the proper antecedents.
  • Use creative rhetorical techniques for special effect
    • Enhance with alliteration and harmonic sounding words.
    • Employ well-placed, unique metaphors or similes that do double duty, and twist or punch up mundane phrases. Make sure those metaphors fit the characterization of the POV character.
    • Make use of anaphora (repetition for emphasis—the magic of three).
  • Reject clichés unless you can make them fresh.
  • Use creative syntax and paragraphing to showcase your voice and make it distinctive.
  • Use short paragraphs and sentences to speed up the pacing and make reading easier. Readers love seeing lots of white space. Try to limit paragraphs to no more than 8-10 lines (in Times New Roman 12 font.)
  • Make the first and last sentence of each paragraph the most important.
  • Whenever possible, rework sentences and paragraphs to end with a vibrant, muscle word that resonates and evokes a response in the reader.

TIP 13  Adjust the pacing to fit the story and each individual scene.

Pacing is probably one of the least understood concepts for authors and also one of the top five reasons editors reject books. When a novel receives reviews that say, “I was up all night reading this story. I couldn’t put it down,” it’s clear the author nailed the pacing.

However, fast pacing isn’t optimal all the time or in all stories. Love scenes should have a slower pacing. Readers want to savor those intimate moments between the hero and heroine. The scene following an action or danger scene should have a slower pacing to give the reader a chance to rest.

If you think a scene is too slow, you can speed it up by making sure you’ve entered the scene as late as possible and ended it as soon as possible. Nothing kills a story faster for a reader than when the author drags things out and becomes repetitious in order to fill the pages. To speed up a scene use shorter sentences and paragraphs. Change the balance of the scene by cutting back on the narrative and description and increasing the dialogue and action.

TIP 14  Proofread to make sure the manuscript is clean, properly formatted, fact-checked, and devoid of mechanical (spelling/grammar/punctuation) errors and typos.

Let someone else proofread it and give you feedback.

Finally—have another person (who knows nothing about your story) read it ALOUD to you so you can hear the inflections and cadence in a cold read. If it’s different than you intended, change the paragraphing, punctuation, etc. so that it reads the way you meant it to.

Now, proofread AGAIN! (Are you seeing a trend here?)

TIP 15  Don’t over polish your work until it’s no longer fresh and lacks voice.

One of the things experienced authors have learned is when to stop. No novel will ever be perfect. It’ll probably be published with a typo or grammatical error or two. Don’t sweat it. As long as you make your manuscript as clean as you can, you’ll do fine.

Now I’d like you to share some of your pet peeves when you judge a contest entry. What mistakes do you see made over and over that weakens a manuscript. Please feel free to share some of your tips for creating a winning entry.

LAURIE’S OPPORTUNITY FOR SHAMELESS PROMOTION: One of my Golden Heart Winning books, The Memory of You is only 99 cents for a limited time at most major e-book retailers. (Yes, it’s finally available in e-book format at Barnes and Noble for all the Nook owners who’ve previously complained that they could only buy it in paperback.) So if you’ve never read it, this is your chance to get it cheap, cheap, cheap.

Laurie Kellogg is a two-time winner and seven-time nominee for the Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart® award, the winner of Pacific Northwest Writers Association® Zola award, and a Romantic Times® American Title I finalist. She began writing to avoid housework and has since resorted to naming the dust-bunnies multiplying as fast as real rabbits while she plots love stories that are Steamy, Heartwarming, Romantic Fun! Laurie also writes red-hot romantic comedies under L.L. Kellogg, which she’s branded as A Little Naughty and a Lot of Fun!

28 responses to “A Crash Course on Being a Hooker (Part II)”

  1. Greta says:

    What an info-rich post! Thanks, Laurie.

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  2. Piper says:

    I agree with Greta, no apologies for the length are necessary. I’m trying to get my chapter together for SYTYCW and this will be of great help. Thanks!

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  3. jbrayweber says:

    Awesome post, Laurie. These are tips we all should take as gospel. Very informative and very true. One pet peeve I see a lot when judging contests and editing is the adding of scenes, large and small, or extraneous information that have absolutely no purpose for driving the plot forward.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    • Amen, Jenn. I know a lot of writer who have incredible voices, but no sense of plot. They’re consistently finalists in short writing contests because they write a great opening scene, but then they can’t sustain the forward motion of the story.

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  4. Wow! Great post and worth reading many times over! Thanks for taking the time to offer this up.

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  5. Tamara Hogan says:

    Great info, Laur. I’m bookmarking this one.

    Ruby readers may remember that I’m a fan of deep point of view. One craft issue I’ve been seeing lately in contest entries I’ve judged relates to your Tip 12, and pronoun usage. Using a character’s name too frequently while we’re in their POV – in dialogue tags, or particularly in interior narrative – really pulls me out of the scene. (Would someone who’s deep in thought refer to themselves by name? NO.) For more on my perspective on point of view, see my recent post called Deep Third, Demonstrated.

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  6. Elisa Beatty says:

    Terrific, helpful post, Laurie!!

    A pet peeve of mine is definitely backstory dump. Yes, we need a few threads woven in early on so we have a sense of the stakes for the protagonists, but (as you say) part of the pleasure of reading is getting those pieces bit by bit as we come to fully understand the characters.

    On the other hand, I’ve also read a couple things lately in which there aren’t quite enough threads….things get hinted at a bit too cryptically for too long, and then I don’t feel like I’m inside the characters’ heads quite enough. (I even saw one recently where the main character’s NAME was withheld for a long time.)

    As with so many things, it’s a balance.

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    • Absolutely, Elisa. Authors need to develop a knack for giving enough, but not too much. One of the ways I can tell I’m holding back too much is if I find myself skirting around an issue. If something needs to be kept from the reader until late in a story, it’s best to just hint at it from the beginning and include an additional conflict to drive the story until it’s the appropriate time for the big reveal of the secret.

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  7. June Love says:

    Wonderful post, Laurie. I love writing tips. What I’ve had to learn, and because I’m stubborn it took more years than it should have, is to write the book first. Get the words on the paper. Then, apply the tips and rules of the trade. You’ll be surprised how much you’ve learned automatically comes out in your work. Honestly, I’m still having trouble doing that.

    As for contests…I’m with Elisa on being to cryptic. Don’t try to keep things hidden too long from the reader. Give them enough snippets to keep them turning the page. If you withhold too much for too long, their frustration may have them losing interest.

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    • I need to take my own advice more, June. In recent years, I’ve been letting my internal editor get in my way . I think the problem is that I’ve learned TOO much about writing, and I’m trying to fix everything as I write.

      I’m hosting my local chapter’s Book in a Week workshop given by April Khilstrom on October 6th at my home. I’m hoping she’ll be able to give me some pointers on silencing my internal editor. If anyone has tips for that, I’d love to hear them.

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  8. Fabulous and detailed info! I’m thinking you could make it into a nonfiction book about writing… 😉

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  9. I’ve often thought about writing a nonfiction book on writing. The problem is I’d need to do it in a PDF format because I tend to use a lot of diagrams.

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  10. Rita Henuber says:

    Such a great list. All of us can use it as a refresher. Honestly I feel it is a weakness of mine and need conctant reminders.

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  11. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Thanks, Rita. We all need one sometimes.

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  12. This is great, Laurie, like a little mini-course. And its time for me to re-read “Ain’t She Sweet”, one of my favorite books.

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  13. Greta M. says:

    As far as contest judging goes, my only pet peeve is people who submit entries in NYT 10 or 11. Too small!

    As far as tips go, I’d say that a clean entry (no typos) really stands out. They are rare.

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    • Nowadays it’s rare to find a book–even from the big publishers–without typos. 🙂

      I’ve actually submitted entries in New Times Roman 13, Greta, because I had a page or so that I hadn’t used toward my limit, and I didn’t have another good hook for three or four pages. It made the entry so much easier to read. And anything that does that can’t help but give the judges a better attitude toward your entry.

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