Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Writing Advice Manuals? Get Hooked

I wrote this post over a year ago, when I was reading a lot of writing manuals and decided to post some reviews of some great ones. One I found especially helpful, then and now, is Les Edgarton's Hooked:

It's hard to imagine any fledgling writer who isn't suffering under the tyranny of the Hook.  The Hook, of course, is the snappy lure of your first page, first paragraph, first sentence that "grabs readers at page one and never lets them go" as Les Edgerton's subtitle reads in his writing guide Hooked (Writer's Digest Books, 2007).  

I've rarely read advice by an agent, an editor, or a publisher who didn't say that you absolutely have to have some kind of hook to grab your readers, especially if you are, as I am, writing for a relatively young audience who are just wading into the waters of serious reading. And this makes perfect sense.  There are a lot of other media calling for a reader's time and energy, and I have to admit that I, personally, have never been one of those people who absolutely has to finish a book I've started.  If it doesn't grab me a third of the way in, I'll move on to the next one.  But this poses problems for me as a writer, especially one who has spent too much time as an academic, maybe, reading books by nineteenth century writers -- who, in my students' opinion, take forever to get into their stories.  They were irritated by, Crime and Punishment, for example, because Raskolnikov doesn't brain anyone with his axe for at least fifty pages.

Part of the problem with my first YA effort was that nothing huge happened in the first chapter.  (And no, it wasn't just backstory, which I am sure we'll talk about here some time). And since the first 250 words are what's used to send to critiques and agent queries, I new I was in trouble. (And because the MS, now Snark and Circumstance,was based on Pride and Prejudice, I freaked out because it's not like anything huge happens in it at all.  

So I checked out Edgerton's Hooked (and even bought a copy!).  It's the only guide, as far as I know, that focuses solely on "The All-Important Beginning", the title of a chapter  Edgerton uses to explain why a snappy start is so crucial.   His first bit of advice here, which I think could be useful to anyone, is that most manuscripts he's seen could be wonderful but "start in the wrong place" (that pesky back story problem again).  As the back cover declares, "THE ROAD TO REJECTION IS PAVED WITH BAD BEGINNINGS."

He devotes separate chapters to story structure and scene and what he calls "The Inciting Incident, the Initial Surface Problem, and the Story-Worthy Problem" -- the event that sets off the narrative, the main character's problem in that scene, and the Big Problem that guides the whole narrative.  He uses examples from several narratives to illustrate his points, including the film Thelma and Louise.  (Thelma's surface problem is defying her lunkhead  husband Darryl to go on a road trip with Louise; her story-worthy problem is getting over her subservience to men in general).  He then discusses introducing characters, setting up and combining the initial surface problem and story-worthy problem, and some "Red Flag Openers to Avoid" (like an alarm clock ringing).
I've found this guide very helpful in all of its aspects, especially in regard to inciting incidents and how to set up the "big" problem of the protagonist.  I've also found that in some ways it's made me even more pressured to get the most slam-bang oh-my-god-i-can't-put-this-down-blow-your-underpants-off kind of opening to my own work.  (But the Plot Whisperer has talked me down from that a bit, via books and YouTube videos, and I'll post about her next time.)

All in all, Edgerton's book is very useful for those of us who have a hard time starting with a bang or don't understand the merits of doing so.  He ends his book with many quotes and anecdotes from publishers, editors, and agents who present a clear case for what they are looking for in terms of great beginnings.  I'd say the book is definitely worth checking out.

Let me know what you think, and good beginnings (and happy publishing endings!) to you all.

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