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An Opening HOOK?

-----Original Message-----
"We constantly hear people talk about a hook. I was just wondering, how important is an opening hook? How close to the opening does it have to be? Seriously, how many people pick up a book or story and put it back down after the first sentence or paragraph? Do we have some forgiveness here? I would think that a published, well known author might not need one."
Writer in Waiting

Let’s break this down and tackle each, one at a time.

"I was just wondering, how Important is an Opening Hook?”

How important? Vitally important.
"57% of new books are not read to completion. Most readers do not get past page 18 in a book they have purchased."
--Jerrold Jenkins

This means you have 4500 words to catch your reader's interest in your story. If you can't grab your reader the moment they open to the first page, your chances of them walking that book to the counter and buying it DROP astronomically.

On a story post site, you have ONE PARAGRAPH to grab your reader's interest enough to read more. If you don't catch them IMMEDIATELY, it's all too easy to click on another title to see if that's more interesting.

Just so you know, most potential readers decide what books they’ll purchase by:

-- Cover Art*
-- Back Cover Blurb
-- Inside Excerpt
-- First Page (first 150 words)
-- Last page (A LOT of buyers will not buy a book with an Unhappy Ending no matter how good the meat of the story is -- especially if that book is marketed as a Romance or EROTICA.)

-- In that order.

If your first page is dull and boring, you’re more or less screwed.

When it comes to story post sites, you don't even have that much. You have your opening paragraph -- that's it. (Which is why author notes at the beginning of a story are a BAD IDEA. Put them at the End.)

*Note on Cover Art: Although it is the first thing assessed by a potential buyer, Cover Art actually carries far less weight in the final purchasing decision than any of the others. Cover Art is merely a tool to catch the eye and make the buyer pick up the book for consideration. Most readers have learned that few covers actually have anything to do with what the book is about, so if the cover art stinks, but the rest is interesting, they’ll buy it.

“How close to the opening does it have to be?”

To GET them reading, your hook should be on the first line of the first page. To KEEP them reading, you should have a hook at the end of every single chapter.

Examples from my books:

It was so cold…

Her breath steamed from her lips. Naked and shivering, she rose from her crouch. Her long pale brown hair falling over her bare shoulders, and the tall white dog pressed against her side, were her only sources of warmth.

The windowless basement of the abandoned textile factory was thick with shadows. She couldn’t see the walls or ceiling at all. The only light came from the circular design inscribed on the worn plank floor blazing an eerie blue, all the way around them.

She needed to get out of there.

"Might I have your company for the night?"

"Huh?" Elaine glanced up from her belly-down sprawl across the private compartment’s plush banquette sofa. The art deco lamp directly over her was on, but the polished cherry wood walls made the rest of the antique Pullman car very dark. She blinked. Where did he come from?

A tall man in a nearly floor-length black leather coat stood just inside the deep shadow of her compartment’s door. His hands hung loose at his sides. "Pardon the intrusion." His voice was soft, low, and velvety with a touch of exotic eastern European lilt. He tilted his head toward the closed door. "I did knock, and your door was unlocked."

"This historical mansion is supposed to be haunted. Isn't that cool?"

"What?" The rubber soles of Keiko's pink house slippers caught on the antique, red and gold carpet making her trip. She barely stopped from pitching into the student directly in front of her. With the entire class crammed in the narrow hallway, there was barely enough walking room, never mind room to fall. She turned to her left, and frowned at her classmate. "Tika, did you say, haunted?"

"Yep." Tika smiled, showing the boy-grabbing dimple in the heart of her cheek. The light shining through the warm cream of the rice paper wall they were walking alongside gave her oval face a warm glow. "The ghost of an old samurai is supposed to be watching over the family."

Thunder boomed, rattling the rattan frames of the long rice paper sliding walls on the left.

“Seriously, how many people pick up a book or story and put it back down after the first sentence or paragraph? Do we have some forgiveness here?”

Survey says…!

“As a reader I generally give a new book (before I've bought it) the first paragraph to get my interest, sometimes less. I'll almost always put down a book that starts with a description of landscape, as lots of fantasy seem to.”
“As a reader, I always open the book to the first page and start reading (in a book shop before I buy the book). If the writing style is awkward or the wording is boring I'll put the book down and keep looking.”
“Weather report beginnings are a turn off for me. But something subtle, interesting, or thought provoking, in the first paragraph is enough to keep me reading, for a while.”
“I'll only grant ‘forgiveness’ to an author who has entertained me in the past, and even then I'm not all that lenient.”

Most if not ALL potential buyers have only one interest when buying a book to read: PERSONAL ENTERTAINMENT. If the reader is not grabbed on the first page, your book goes back on the shelf in favor of one that DOES grab them.

The only books allowed to be dull and boring on the first page, are text books designed strictly for education. (They’re expected to be dull and boring.)

“…I would think that a published well known author might not need [a hook]."

Being published and well known does NOT mean that a reader won't put a book down that doesn't interest them, and there are ALWAYS people that have never heard of you.

“If a book is going nowhere after initially getting my interest, I'll stop reading, and never pick up another book by that author again.”
“If I'm not ‘into’ it after 15 pages I usually give up.”
“It's the author's job to keep me interested from the very first line to the very last, because if they can't, there are plenty that can and I'd rather be reading their books.”

Never forget! Your book is in direct competition with every other book in that store, therefore you should avail yourself of every trick you can think of to Get that Reader – and then Keep that Reader.

“What is a HOOK anyway?”

Very simply, it’s what makes the reader turn the page. It’s the Mysterious Circumstance, the Precarious Situation, the Horrible Turn of Events, etc. that drives the Reader to Keep Reading to discover: “What will happen NEXT?” More commonly known as: SUSPENSE.

There is a Reason why MYSTERIES are a top selling genre – they keep the reader guessing right up to the last page.

“But I’m not writing a Mystery!”
 -- So what? I don’t write mysteries either, but I do have a Mysterious Circumstance, a Precarious Situation, a Horrible Turn of Events -- a hook -- at the end of every chapter. And I never give anything away until the last possible second.

“But what if I'm writing Literature? They rarely (if ever) have hooks.”
 -- Once upon a time they didn't, (like 10 years or more ago.) They DO NOW or they don't get past the publication editor. A book without an opening hook certainly won't make it past an agent.

These days agents and editors ask for Partial manuscripts, that's 60 pages - 4 chapters - not whole manuscripts. Not a whole lot of room to impress someone. What they DON'T tell you, is if you don't hook them on the First Page, they won't even bother reading the REST of the partial.

Publishers toss Booker winners into the reject pile.
They can’t judge a book without its cover.

Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale

The Sunday Times, London UK, January 01, 2006

Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors. One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by VS Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel Prize for literature.

The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.

Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul’s “In a Free State” and a second novel, “Holiday,” by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents. None appears to have recognized them as Booker prizewinners from the 1970s that were lauded as British novel writing at its best. Of the 21 replies, all but one were rejections.

Read the Entire Article: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article784051.ece

In Conclusion:
 -- If you expect your manuscript to get past an agent, or a publishing editor, you need to make your story engaging, and compelling to read right from the Opening Line.

If you want to make your READERS ask for More, you you need to make your story engaging, and compelling to read, from Opening Line to the Closing Chapter.

DISCLAIMER: As with all advice, take what you can use and throw out the rest. As a multi-published author, I have been taught some fairly rigid rules on what is publishable and what is not. If my rather straight-laced (and occasionally snotty,) advice does not suit your creative style, by all means, IGNORE IT.
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February 2012

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