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?

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.

 

Critique Technique, part 4

In the last couple of posts, I’ve written about recording and reporting your emotional response to a piece as the first, and easiest, way to start providing feedback to your fellow author. (Which leads me to wonder, what the heck is the feminine counterpart to “fellow?” Fellah? Fellette? Fellesse?)

Now it’s time to get down to the “nits and grits”—the nitty-gritty details—and this is going to keep us busy for many weeks to come. We’ll look at Things Needing To Be Fixed and Things That Worked Well because both are important to an author.

In the area of Things Needing To Be Fixed, we’ll look at beginnings and endings, characters and characterization, setting, plot, flashbacks and backstory, dialog, narrative, pace, description, mechanics errors, and general story-telling technique. Whew, that’s a lot! “But wait, there’s more!” Much, much more, as you’ll see in a minute.

In the area of Things That Worked Well, we’ll cover a lot of the same territory but focus on why something worked, rather than why it didn’t. This is important! Writers need positive strokes, to hear that something they wrote actually “worked,” that it moved the reader in some way. This is why “critique” is not criticism—its point is NOT to merely find all the ways a work failed, didn’t live up to its potential, etc., but also to identify the successes so the author can, we hope, repeat them.

For all of the Things Needing To Be Fixed, you’ll want to ask and answer the following four questions:

Did this problem happen? I know this seems like an odd question, but starting next time we’ll get into the 50+ (yes, 50+) different potential problem areas. As you’re reading a piece, not all of them will come up. At least, let’s hope not! So you’re going to be on the lookout for all of those problems. When you find one, and your brain goes ping! (or ah-ha!, or uh-oh), that’s when you’ll move on to the next question. Does this sound hard? Don’t worry, it is, at first. That’s one good thing about introducing the problem areas little by little: you only have to absorb one or a few at a time. And with practice, it does get easier.

Where did it happen? Be specific! Identify the spot right on the manuscript. Then, in your notes in the margin (you DO write margin notes, don’t you?), you’ll answer the next two questions.

What was the exact nature of the problem? Again, be as specific as possible. WARNING: this requires actually thinking about the writing, not just letting it go in one eye and out the other! J Seriously, this is a very writerly task, and it’s a learned skill, not one that comes easily or naturally to a lot of people. If it takes you some time to learn it, that’s OK. As you do, you’ll find yourself applying it to your own writing as well, and that’s the most powerful benefit of critiquing other people’s work.

What can the author do to fix it? Another tough question! This one’s tricky, too, because it’s not your task to (re)write someone else’s piece your way. Instead of saying, “If I was writing this story, I would have written…,” go back to bullet #3, try to determine what the writer was trying to accomplish, and then propose a way that he or she might do that. This is also a learned skill, so don’t be concerned if you have trouble doing it at first. If you’re a member of a writers’ group, listen to your fellow writers and how they try to accomplish this task. What seems to work? What doesn’t? The author’s verbal and non-verbal responses to these suggestions—and your own—will tell you a lot. There’s one last thing that makes this task tricky: the author is free to ignore your suggestions! Even if you think you’re right right RIGHT, if the author thinks you’re wrong wrong WRONG, guess who wins? Not you. At least, not in the near term. Do your best, then tell your ego to sit down and be quiet. Everyone will be happier for it.

OK, that’s it for this time. Next time we’ll start looking at problems with beginnings and endings.

When you critique or review a piece, are there any overall techniques you use or questions you keep in mind?

Blowing Up Your Style

When I was forty-five, I lived in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, where I took up snowboarding. It wasn’t as hard as it might sound. I’d been a slalom water skier. As a teenager, I’d been a skateboarder.  This was in the days when you and a friend split a pair of roller skates, filed down the rubber spacers so you could carve better turns, and nailed the skates to whatever wood you could find in your father’s scrap pile.

One thing I loved about the sport was that shredders and shredbetties of all ages helped each other in ways I didn’t see two-plankers do. So I wasn’t surprised when a knuckle-dragger I had seen around Pajarito Mountain caught up with me on the slope, told me my turns were getting good (“you’re starting to ride your underwear”), and offered me some advice: “You need to drive your right knee forward more.” I rode regular, as opposed to goofy-footed, so that was my back knee.

I knew he was right. I’d known for a while that my turns would be stronger and more controlled if I drove the knee. So why hadn’t I incorporated that simple technique change? Because a single change can blow up your style for a while. Your confidence collapses.  You ride like a grommet (beginner kid). You start falling down again. I hated that.

But then, when you’ve finally done enough repetitions–when your synapses and muscle fibers have integrated the new technique–you ride better. Sometimes a lot better.

Fast forward twenty years to my realization that writing is the same way. I was agonizing over the opening of my memoir about the men and parrots in my life. At the behest of my writers’ group cronies, I picked up Les Edgerton’s Hooked, about writing short story and novel openings. I’d already borrowed some fictional techniques, so it seemed like a reasonable read.

Once I was thirty pages or so into it, I sat down at the computer to compose an entirely new opening, beginning at what fiction writers call the inciting incident. You would think I’d never written a scene in my life. All those new ideas hurtling around in my head–how to use them? I couldn’t put together a sensible sentence. For twenty minutes, I slogged through a dozen possible beginnings before giving up.

The next day wasn’t much better, or the day after that. But then something shifted. I’d done enough repetitions that the ideas were beginning to integrate, meaning I knew how to use them. The dust from my blown-up style settled, and I could write again. Not a lot better, but a little, if for no other reason than knowing where to begin.

Improving any skill is likely to involve blowing up your style, integrating, and moving on to better performance. The temporary discouragements are worth it in the long run. Writing is no exception.

Critique Technique, part 3

I wrote last time about keeping track of how a piece of writing makes you feel when you’re reviewing it. In this post, I was going to explore why it made you feel that way but I discovered I should introduce another topic first: “Is that what the author wanted me to feel?” Both questions—that one and “How did this piece make me feel?”—need to be followed by the questions “Why did the piece make me feel this way?” and “Why did the author want me to feel that way?”

Now, of course, you can’t have perfect knowledge of the author’s intent if you’re not the author  but some elements of common sense can apply. For example, if a scene seems like it’s supposed to be sad but it’s making you giggle, that’s a problem. Conversely, if the scene is supposed to be funny and you’re not even getting the slightest hint of a chuckle out of it, that’s a problem, too.

You will always have some kind of emotional response to a piece of writing. ALWAYS. “Emotional” doesn’t mean extreme emotion—uncontrollable sobbing or rolling-on-the-floor laughter. Boredom is also an emotional response. So are frustration, confusion, delight, even sexual arousal. “Emotional” covers the full range of reactions.

What factors drive or create your emotional response? First and foremost, character behavior.

  • What are the characters doing, thinking, saying, and feeling?
  • How are they interacting with each other, their environment, and their situation?
  • Are their behaviors consistent with or contrary to their situation or environment?
  • Are their behaviors what you expected, or did they surprise you?

Other things will affect your emotional response, too. Setting comes to mind, as do the story’s structure, the writer’s tone, even story’s pace, but the primary driver will be the characters.

To summarize, then: your job as a reviewer is to capture for the author where he or she:

  • Got it right—where the writing, the intent, and your response all came together; or
  • Got it wrong—where what the author wanted you to feel isn’t what you felt; or, perhaps most important,
  • Left you confused or not knowing what to feel—where the intent was unclear, the intention and the writing didn’t match, or the intention was clear but the writing didn’t accomplish it.

Then, you need to identify why you responded that way. This requires that awareness—”right now I’m feeling [emotion] because [the characters are doing/saying/feeling/thinking X, for example]”—and the ability to write that awareness down.

Finally, when the writing isn’t successful, you should try to suggest to the author how he or she ways he or she could achieve that success.

In later posts, we’ll get into the details of characterization, structure, setting, pace, tone, dialog, and narrative that will help you explain your response in more detail. As a new reviewer, however, this much is enough for you to be helpful to your fellow author.

What techniques do you use to track your emotional response to a piece of writing? Share them in the Comments below.