Monday, April 05, 2010

Hooks & Sinkers: The Writing Advice that Sparked a War of Words

Last week, I read an excellent post on Things to Avoid in Your Novel’s Opening Page from the Kill Zone bloggers. The post in question dealt with the hook – those critical 250 words that make or break a book. (It’s worth reading. Check it out. I’ll wait…)

The Inciting Incident: Book Hook No No’s

“Why is a hook so important?” you may ask.

Good question.

The short answer is: only about 250 words will fit on the first page of the average book. If they don’t grab your reader’s interest, then the reader won’t turn the page. If that happens, dear friends, then your book is dead in the water.

It won’t matter that you have a killer scene in chapter 3. It won’t matter if you have encapsulated all the angst in history in your protagonist. It won’t matter if you have written The. Funniest. Sidekick. Ever. If the hook doesn’t make the reader turn the page, no one will know.

The Kill Zone blog is the labor of love of 7 acclaimed thriller & mystery authors who use it to educate and inspire those of us who may not have ahem made it yet.

The "Opening Page" blog post referenced earlier is written by James Scott Bell, bestselling novelist, non-fiction author, and contributing fiction editor to Writer’s Digest Magazine. So, you know, he has some credibility.

Bell lists 5 specific no-no’s that can ruin a book hook. These include:

• Don’t have a character alone, thinking.
• Don’t do an exposition dump.
• Don’t start with a dream.

The Catalyst: A Facebook Fan Page Link

Because I’m always on the lookout for useful information, I posted a link to this piece on my Facebook Fan page. (Note the selfish plug. I’m shameless, really.)

A few people wrote to thank me for the useful information in the link. Others, however, took exception with how the advice was presented.

You see, J.S. Bell gave an example of What Not to Do and explained that it was a poor choice for a book’s hook because:

I don't care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care... The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset. They won’t... We all got troubles. What else is new?

One reader of the piece appreciated Bell’s honesty and posted:

I just looked at my first page again. I reworked it with his advice, and it looks lots better. Thanks for the link.

However, the advice & rationale struck a nerve with another reader. She posted a mini-tirade against Bell, called his credentials into question, blasted the genre he wrote in, and defended beginning her book with One of The Forbidden Five.

As you can imagine, a lively discussion ensued. Tune in tomorrow for a look at why one person’s comments about the words we write can trigger a maelstrom of emotions usually reserved for people who make disparaging remarks about our children.

Has a person’s criticism, advice, or suggestions for changing something you’ve written ever sparked a firestorm or fury from you? Please comment below on your experience.


Anonymous said...

I read the blog post. Then I read the first page of "The Bishop's Man" by Linden MacIntyre, which won Canada's priciest literary award this year. Page One pretty much flagrantly breaks every single rule in that post (except starting with a dream). But I think literary fiction really does transcend those rules, because people who pick up a literary novel generally have more patience and don't expect to be plunged into the action right away. (He does introduce his main conflict within the first couple of pages, but page one is all interior thought by the character, alone, reflecting on his life and giving us a lot of exposition along with it).

Claudia Putnam said...

Why do we have to have post after post everywhere on the web about this ruleset or that ruleset? There are no rules. Only conventions and aesthetics. Some writers will prefer to conform to conventions, and others will challenge them. Some readers will expect certain conventions to be upheld and will feel disgruntled and even angry when they are not; others will be exhilarated when they are violated.

Some people read for entertainment, though why these people don't just go watch a movie beats me. The writers who write for them can listen to Bell all they want. Some people read for something more. The writers who write what *real* readers read have an obligation to listen to their own muses.

Everyone get back to work.

RedHeadedQuilter said...

I'm confused Claudia... Are you saying that "real readers" (whoever they are) don't want to be entertained? Or that there is something inherently wrong with wanting to be entertained by a book?

I'm a reader and a writer. I want to be entertained and I want to entertain. I think the line between commercial fiction and literary fiction is in some ways an artificial line. I personally enjoy both types of writing although I lean more toward lit fic most of the time. To each her own.

Ami Hendrickson said...

I believe that readers of any genre -- from "literary" or "pulp" -- want to care about the characters they encounter. We writers owe it to our characters and our readers to make them care.

If I write about a character that I deeply care for, but I fail to engage or move my reader in the same way, then I have done both character and reader a disservice, and I owe both more effort and a substantial re-write until I get it right.

That rule, in my opinion, is immutable.

Play nice, everyone, and keep writing!

RedHeadedQuilter said...

Ami - I know you and I have had the character vs. plot discussion before. I can think of many books* where I enjoyed the setting and plot, didn't really care for the characters as individuals, but still loved the books. In some cases I've re-read them. I guess I'm not a typical reader. ;)

* Off the top of my head: Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, The Stand, 1984, The Road... (Hm, you think I may have a thing for end-of-the-world scenarios?) ;)

Anonymous said...

auugghh, just posted a really long and detailed comment and got it eaten by the computer. Will try again.

I think, RHQ, that you are an unusual reader -- not that that's a bad thing -- and that you and I are probably polar opposites. I'm completely character driven both as a reader and writer; I've finished reading many books where neither the plot nor the style of writing engaged me but I had come to care for characters so that kept me reading.

I don't think we can ever MAKE readers care for characters but we have a responsibility to make them real enough that readers will feel strongly one way or another. The real question is: what will make readers get engaged in this way. The linked blog post suggests that plunging them into the conflict quickly will do this, and for some it will. Other readers are willing to take more time to allow character to unfold gradually.

I'd suggest that's somewhat a divide between readers of "literary" and "commercial" fiction (the latter being, I think, those that Claudia identifies as reading "just for entertainment") but of course those categories aren't hard and fast.

I think "rules" like those in the linked post aren't really about engaging readers at all -- they're about catching the attention of agents and editors. Which is important too, of course, because you're never going to get to readers if you don't get through agents and publishers first .But readers, in general, are a more diverse bunch and less interested in whether you follow "The Rules."

Claudia Putnam said...

In general, I don't think the writer has any obligation whatsoever to the reader. The reader can stop reading whenever he or she wants. Does the painter have an obligation to the viewer? The musician to the listener? So why even have this conversation? Oh, wait, here I am again. :)

@redheadquilter, I feel that real readers love to read, by which I mean that reading is an active sport. So I would say that a "real" reader enjoys the hard stuff, just as a real skier enjoys the black diamond runs. That's how you *define* entertainment...the challenge.

That's not to say that people don't have fun on blue runs. But someone who has no desire to improve is not *really* a skier.

I love gourmet chocolate and I also have a thing for 3 Musketeers bars... but that doesn't mean I don't know the difference. And if all I ate were the latter, I could make no claim to being a chocolate fan, and certainly no claim whatsoever to knowing ANYTHING about chocolate. Just saying.

I've written about reading from a few angles on my blog. Here's my manifesto, should you be interested:

Claudia Putnam said...

What obligation? Why? Does a painter have an obligation to the viewer? The musician to the listener? How silly.

@redheadquilter, I would define a real reader as someone committed to the "sport," I guess. Not a blue-run skier.

That is, your definition of "fun" is: was it a challenge? If you weren't on the edge, you weren't entertained.

That's a real skier, a real rider, a real reader.

Not everyone defines entertainment the same way.

Now, I would define "rest" and "escape" differently from how I would define entertainment. I would go to the beach for one reason and on a ski vacation for another.

And, perhaps, to a museum for yet another.

But often, even when I am seeking escape, I still want to think. I can't help it. That's what's fun for me.

I do read a fair amount of genre fiction, by the way. Because while I love gourmet chocolate, I also have this thing for 3 Musketeers bars. But I don't get them mixed up in my mind. And if all I ate were the 3 Ms I wouldn't claim to know ANYTHING about chocolate. So that's the thing that bugs me about these genre writers going on about rules for writing.