Critique Technique, part 5: Weak or Missing Hook

Before I begin, some thank-yous and a reminder. The thank-yous go to other members of the Cochise Writers Group because while I’m the one writing these posts, I didn’t come up with all of the topics. My fellow Cochise Writers contributed plenty.

Second, remember that for each of the items from now on, you have four questions to ask:

  • Did it happen?
  • Exactly where did it happen?
  • What exactly is the problem?
  • What can the author do to fix it?

OK, so what is a “hook” and how can it be weak or missing? Whatever you’re writing—fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose—you need to catch and hold your reader’s interest: you need to hook them. And you need to do it early. How early? Well, in a poem it has to happen right away, in the first few lines, since a poem is likely to be brief. But this is true even in a longer piece. In a book, you have a few pages, in a short story, maybe no more than the first paragraph.

The hook has a lot of work to do. A weak or missing hook doesn’t do that work, or doesn’t do it well.

To tell if a hook is present or absent, weak or strong, ask yourself questions like these:

  • Do I know who the important character(s) is or are?
    • If the answer is no or you’re not sure, why? Did two or more characters seem to have equal weight, for example? Did no one stand out?
  • Are the characters people I immediately become interested in? Do I care about them right away, even in a negative way? Uninteresting characters are FAR worse than unsympathetic ones—ones the reader doesn’t like. Writers want their readers to respond to their characters, even if it’s to hate them. But if the reader’s response is, “meh,” that’s a problem the author has to fix.
  • Do I know what the characters’ problem is? As a reader, you may not know the full scope and extent of the problem right away. Indeed, that may not be revealed until the very end, but the reader needs to know there’s a problem—and a big one—right from the beginning for at least one of the characters. If that isn’t happening, tell the author.
  • Do I at least have some sense of how big and important this problem is to the characters?
    • What’s at stake for them if they fail to solve it? What do they stand to lose?
    • What’s at stake if they do solve it? What do they stand to gain?
    • If you cannot positively answer at least some of these questions, then the author hasn’t identified the stakes.

A hook involves more than plot and characterization, however. The author’s “tone” or “voice”—how the piece sounds in the reader’s head—is also part of the hook. This is particularly true in poetry and so-called “literary” fiction, but it applies across genres and forms. Note that there is no “right” tone. Whining and sniveling, done well, can be as attention-catching and –holding as a slam-bang shoot-’em-up opening scene. Note, too, that “done well” is not the same as what you personally prefer. The question is not whether you LIKED the opening but whether it the grabbed and held your interest. If it didn’t, again, you need to identify why.

Pace, or lack of it, can also make a hook strong or weak, but it’s not a matter of fast or slow. A scene that goes screaming by may not be a good opening. If it fails at some of the other tasks we’ve already discussed, it may not hook the reader. Similarly, a slow scene won’t be boring if it succeeds at those tasks. Again, the questions are:

  • Did it catch and hold my interest?
  • Did it make me want to keep reading?
  • If not, why not, and what can the author do to fix the problem?

The hook also needs to introduce the piece’s setting and mood: when and where it takes place, what the physical, spiritual, and emotional environments are. A weak hook doesn’t establish these. For example, “It was a dark and stormy night” is a poor hook because:

  1. Nights usually are dark—it’s one of their defining characteristics, so this statement is redundant and silly.
  2. We have no idea where this dark, stormy night is happening.
  3. “Stormy” is vague. What kind of storm? Rain, snow, wind, dust? Was the storm physical, emotional, or psychic? From this line alone, we don’t know, and have to hope the next few lines will tell us more.

Wow! That’s a lot to demand of just a line, a sentence, a paragraph, or a few pages. Yes, it is, but that’s a measure of how important the hook is. If the opening doesn’t hook the reader, he or she will go on to something else, meaning a lost sale, or at least a lost fan. On the other hand, a strong hook will launch the reader into the piece. If they have to keep reading past the opening, the hook has done its job.

In your mind, what makes a hook strong or weak? Have any examples you’d like to share?

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Rainy Day Dithers

Sleep late. Read. Read of doing something other than sleep in bed. And is the bed big enough for two. Or three. And how to protect the mattress from the oil if there are four. And there was that time of falling off the bed when there were just two. And the rain-stiffened muscles. Got to move and stretch and slink the bones along the body pillow. Roll over. It’s still raining and almost too dark to read and turning on the light would fully awaken. Body pillow is hot against the back. Roll over. The pillow is cool between the knees and full and sensual and too soft to be human. In the book there were people, but in the mind, not clasped against chest and belly and thighs. A clap of thunder. Lightning and rolling thunder. Hard rain. Too dark to read. Back to sleep.

Keeping It Fresh

Last Friday evening, I was walking the streets of Bisbee, Arizona, the copper-mining town turned art colony in the Mule Mountains. I was soliciting–not trying to sell my body but distributing call-for-submissions fliers for Mirage Arts and Literary Magazine, published annually by Cochise College.

Most of the Bisbee galleries were closed, but the eclectic and amazing SamPoe Gallery (Sam Woolcott and Poe Dismuke) was open. I asked the man who was painting T-shirts just inside the door if I could leave a Mirage flier on the gallery manager’s desk. He said sure.

Turned out the T-shirt painter was Poe. It was great to thank him for the art he and his wife had submitted to Mirage in the past, including Sam’s “High Road House” on the cover of the 2008 issue.

I remarked that this was the first wearable art I’d seen in the gallery. He told me something that made my writer’s radar perk up: They were always trying new things as a way of keeping their creativity fresh. Consciously. Deliberately.

I walked back to my car, making a mental list of ways to do what Poe suggested.

  • Do something in a completely different art form. I recently took a ceramics workshop. I hadn’t played with clay since the third grade and found it refreshed my writing. It reminded me that I used to draw or paint as a warm-up. It was mostly abstract doodles, but creating them stimulated some part of my imagination. I thought I ought to get back in the habit. Repotting plants is good for my creativity, too.
  • In your usual artistic milieu, approach a topic or style you’ve never tried before.  In my fiction, I’ve written in the first person as a man who kills his girlfriend in a jealous rage. That was a stretch. I’ve written a lot of landscape poetry–and switched to domestic issues such as writing with the “help” of my parrots.
  • Try your usual topics in a different form. Free verse can be great, but sometimes the structure of a sonnet or the repetitions of a pantoum can pull my ramblings together and suggest better directions. I’ve tried the same piece about being thrown out of a canoe in a whirlpool as non-fiction, poetry, and finally fiction, where I think it worked best. Each approach showed me something different.

Thanks, Poe, for your art and your help.

A Dream of Spiders

It was a warm afternoon in sixth grade Geography class at Spuntford Heights Grade School in Chulaska, SD. The classroom was stifling, the air close and stuffy. The kids, like sullen cons waiting to be sprung from solitary, languished in their hard wooden seats. Spring filled the air with inviting scents, putting Charlie Kinslow into a somnolent doze. The blackboard blurred. His head dipped; his breathing slowed. . . .

. . . before his trudging feet lay a mountain pass through which he could see a green and yellow tree-lined meadow that beckoned to his ravaged spirit. To reach it he had to cross a chasm. While feeling his way across a fallen tree bridging the chasm and looking downward to assure his footing, he blundered into what seemed at first a giant net. He pulled back but the net came with him; it was stuck to his face and clothing as if it had bonded glue-like against him. Recognition dawned instantly. In a panic he sought to pull his arms free from the sticky webbing and realized it was hopeless and his agitation was being transmitted like Morse code to the creator of this glutinous immensity that held him fast.

Terror enveloped him as the web’s shaking vibrations foretold the immanent arrival of its rapacious maker. He tried to look upwards but his head was stck. A dry, feral stink enveloped him, and before he could even recoil cold pincers pierced his flesh and held him firmly while two enormous fangs sank into his chest, pumping jets of caustic venom into him by the quart. In passive shock he felt his insides emulsify and his limbs grew cold and unresponsive. Clawlets on two of the spider’s free legs began turning him along his perpendicular axis to enwrap him in silk.

Hyperventilating with fear, Charlie Kinslow began moaning and panting rapidly and twisting stiffly in his seat in an effort to find release from this day-mare to the wonderment of his nearby classmates. Before he was entirely cocooned he let out a despairing wail of terror, and awoke in a sweat, gasping for breath.

Panting shallowly, he saw that the entire classroom was turned and regarding him with a mixture of curiosity and amusement. The teacher, Mr. Sagner, as well. Charlie shook his head and sagged in relief.

Mr. Sagner handled the interruption smoothly, allowing Charlie to pant his way to relative normalcy before inviting him to share the events that restored him to consciousness. Embarrassed at first, he recounted the entire dream with a few embellishments and had the room laughing hysterically by the time he was finished. The teacher was similarly amused and had him go out in the hallway and splash cold water on his face. It was the most terrifying dream he’d ever had, more real and graphic than anything he’d ever experienced while conscious.

That night he stayed up late, waiting for exhaustion before risking a slide into unconsciousness once again.

Pixie

The package came in plain brown wrapper. I wasn’t sure it was really for me until I saw it moving. Just a little. Rocking, actually, side-to-side. As if something inside were running back and forth. I didn’t want to pick it up, but had to get it off the porch. So I kicked the package off the side where the railing was broken away. It bounced onto the grass with a thud and a squeak. Then I knew for sure it was for me.

A strange little catalogue had come in my mail a month ago. As a Halloween present to myself I’d sent off for a pixie. A cleaning pixie, actually. Pixies are small for cleaning houses, but I have a small house. My dog died last year so I didn’t have to worry about Fido chasing, or eating, the pixie. And my house was might dirty.

So I brought the package indoors and opened it. The pixie was tiny, of course, and not real cute. But he did speak English, like I ordered. And he was willing to clean.

Now, two weeks later, my house is a lot cleaner, though I still have to do the laundry myself. The place smells kind of funny, however. Guess I’ll have to house train the pixie.

Support Your Local Writer

Just a quick post today to give a shameless plug for local Arizona writer/blogger/editor/teacher/all-around-good-guy-to-know Harvey Stanbrough, and not just because he just let me provide a guest post for his Writing the World blog. The guest post is about how to subscribe to blogs using Google Reader, a tool I’ve gotten to know and appreciate, but there’s A LOT more good stuff–better stuff–on the rest of his site, which is why it’s included on our blogroll. Hop on over (click here) and take a look.

Getting the post to post turned out to be quite an adventure, requiring rassling and roping recalcitrant electrons for several days and leaving me ready to sing the old hit song I Fought the Baud (And the Baud Won) before we finally figured out all the tricks. (OK, OK, I admit it: the other reason for this post was so I could get that pun out.)

Finally, the next Critique Technique post may be delayed a day or two.

Happy reading and writing!

The Purpose of Revisions

Revision is on my mind these days because I’m revising my memoir, tentatively titled Love Life, with Parrots. Thinking of this as the final revision (I hope!) before it goes out looking for an agent has sharpened my scalpel. I’ve excised material that’s survived several revisions–darlings I hadn’t been able or willing to kill.

Actually, I had to write a lot of material before I could narrow down what the story was about. My fellow Cochise Writers’ Group members get a lot of the credit for helping me to focus on the core of the story and pare away the excess. (Is this a shameless plug for critique groups? You bet!)

During a previous revision, I was finally able to verbalize something that had been nagging at the back of my brain. The general goal of my revisions was to improve the manuscript. I needed to determine what the specific purpose was of each revision–the guiding principle.

How did I conclude that I needed this direction? By wasting time and energy. When I didn’t have a clear idea what I was supposed to be doing in a revision, I defaulted to the relatively easy task of line editing. That was great for catching dropped words, awkward phrasing, and homophonic misspellings that my spellchecker had passed (“complement” instead of “compliment,” for example).

Useful, but it didn’t strengthen the manuscript in essential ways. Here are a few of the more difficult tasks I needed to use as purposes in revisions:

  • Remove backstory from the first chapter and weave it into later ones.
  • Restructure the chapters more logically.
  • Create page-turning chapter endings.
  • Cut material that was boring or didn’t focus on the story arcs.
  • Clarify the failed problem-solving attempts that left me farther from the accomplishment of my goals, rather than closer.
  • Use stronger verbs .
  • Focus on the sensory implications that would create emotions in my readers.

Now I’m going over every chapter more than once, each time with an eye toward a particular purpose. Slow work but worth it, by my own lights and those of my critiquers.