Get Hooked on A Great Beginning for Your Book

A few months ago, my husband and I curled up with a DVD of one of our favorite BBC mystery series from the nineties: Inspector Morse. Such avid fans of John Thaw and this series were we that we had seen every episode and read most of the books by Colin Dexter from which the series was derived. So it was with absolute shock and disbelief when we realized we no longer had the patience for the slow moving blocking and painstaking theatre of our dearly beloved show.

Life had moved at a pretty fast clip in the intervening twenty years. We had gotten used to television that grabbed you by the throat within the first thirty seconds, racheted up the tension and kept you hanging on by your fingertips for the ride-of-your-life until the climax and, if you were lucky, a respite at the end where the body count and, if there was any to be had, love questions got resolved. I have to tell you we were not watching cartoons since our Inspector Morse days. We love dramas with buckets of dialogue and twisty plot machinations and lengthy character rosters. We watched Lost and CSI and Masterpiece Theatre. Yet, when it came to drama and staging, we had moved on and clearly poor Pagan Morse had not.

I mention this because it’s sort of an example of how audiences and readers can be totally happy and accepting of a sort of style and then, when they get used to something else, totally intolerant. I loved Morse’s character. I still do. I’m tempted to write something for the man that doesn’t fall down dead asleep on the page. Meaning: I want to write something with today’s tempo, today’s pacing.

This brings me to what Les Edgerton talks about in his amazing how-to book, Hooked. This is a book about “writing fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go.” Do yourself a major favor: get the book and go through it with a yellow highlighter and then re-read it and underline more bits after that and then type up all your notes and underlined and highlighted bits and paste it up on a wall or send it to your smartphone and read it in traffic or whenever you have a down moment.

Seriously.

You do this and you will be that much closer to being a better writer and that much closer to creating fiction that readers can’t put down.

Edgerton, who has a very engaging, easy writing style, himself, provides a list of agents and editors explaining why they often reject manuscripts vis-à-vis beginnings. It’s a real eye opener. Here’s just a taste:

Jodie Rhodes, President, Jodie Rhodes Literary Agency: “Unless you grab our attention immediately, your book has no chance. Never open with scenery! Novels are about people, about the human condition…Never open with the villain. We are looking for voice.”

Julia Castiglia, Castiglia Literary Agency: “Never start with weather, dreams, setup or a passive scene that take the reader nowhere. A story must begin with an immediate hook. That first sentence and paragraph immediately draws one into the story and makes it impossible for the reader not to read on.”

Barbara Collins Rosenberg, Literary Agent: “I tend to like books that start in the middle of a scene. I want to be involved in the action right away.”

Get the book and get better. Next week: let’s take a look at that muddle in the middle!

John Braine on How to Write A Novel

John Braine was a famous Yorkshire novelist, considered one of the celebrated Angry Young Men of British literature. He wrote “Room at the Top.” His own life was fairly dramatic in that he rose quite high as a top author of his day and died bitter, alone and in debt at the age of 64. While some of his tenets on writing a novel seem a little old-fashioned compared with the typical advice one reads today, many points are spot-on, and serve to underscore the fact that certain rules of good writing are universal and timeless.

John Braine: “How to Write A Novel:”

• A novel is a story to be read for pleasure.

• As an author, you must write to please yourself and you must be completely honest about the world as you see it.

• Discipline and technique are infinitely more important than inspiration

• The people in your story should astound us

• Before writing your story, write a 500-word synopsis; the more quickly you write this, the better • Your novel should have at least 20 chapters (? Not sure if this is still relevant.)

• Each chapter must end with a hook to draw the reader on to the next chapter

• You must end your novel with a bang—nothing vague about the ending • Limit for length of time the story should occur—one year. (? Not sure what I think about this but may be some validity to it for the most part.)

• Your novel’s aim: show us your characters during a period when, suddenly, almost despite themselves, they start to move and everything they do and say is significant

• Characters should talk and think about the past. (There was much more interior dialogue and ruminating tolerated during Braine’s time. Today’s authors attempt to skillfully (unobtrusively) weave in back story when it’s needed to propel the story forward or explain certain coming action.)

• Always write from experience. A writer must watch for relevant detail, the detail which will epitomize the whole event.

• Writing is seeing. Always write as if the action of your novel were taking place before your eyes on a brightly lit stage.

• Nothing is shown without a purpose.

• People are places and places are people.

Next week, I will do a recap of the first five chapters of Les Edgerton’s manual, Hooked, a book that shows you how to “write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go.”

Which, I feel confident, is something we all strive to achieve.