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!