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Tips for Writing the Perfect Hook

April 30, 2012 by Kiersi

Tips for Hooking an Agent or PublisherWilliam Nolan, author of the award-winning dystopian novel Logan’s Run, described the process of editing for Gamma magazine as far back as the 1960s at the Write to Publish 2012 convention this weekend:

Every Thursday I went into the office to go through the slush pile of manuscript submissions for the magazine. I reached the point where I’d open each box or envelope, slide out the first page, and just read the first couple of paragraphs. That was all the time an author got to impress me and convince me to keep reading.

With the advent of email submissions, agents and publishers increasingly find their inboxes swamped by unsolicited manuscripts–leaving them even less time to wade through backstories and prologues to get to the action, the theme, the meat. This is true even for query letters. I’ll leave that topic for another day.

Here are some suggestions I picked up at the Write to Publish conference to help you clean up your manuscript for submission.

Start with a grabber. We all heard this back in the days of college entrance exams: try to hook your reader with a catchy first sentence. The same is true for book manuscripts. You have a mighty important story to tell; give that agent or publisher on the receiving end a clue as to your wit and the magnitude of your tale. A number of editors that appeared on the Write to Publish editing panel could recite from heart their favorite opening lines, including, “Inside the bellies of the dragons were men, and inside the bellies of the men was whiskey.”

Get to the point. Tell us enough about the character to get interested, but avoid vomiting up a backstory. Don’t play coy with the reader; make sure to provide enough relevant details about the character and environment to make the writing cohesive. It’s a fine line to walk, but I trust you to walk it. The goal is to give the reader a sense of your plot by the end of the second paragraph.

Action! Action doesn’t mean gunfights or explosions (necessarily); the type of action depends on the type of manuscript. If your book is a thriller, well, by all means–start with a top-secret mission or a car chase. Just make sure you give the reader a situation to care about. This emotional investment and interest on the part of the reader keeps her reading.

Always follow up. Sure, those first few paragraphs were great; but now that you’ve got an agent or publisher’s attention, you have to hang on to it. Find beta readers (avoid friends and family) to look over your work and find the “reading lines,” or places where the manuscript might lose a reader, and buff them up. Make sure you keep up the tension after that kick-ass introduction.

Just read a book with a great hook? I’d love to hear about it!


4 Comments »

  1. Dostoyevsky – Notes from the Underground
    I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.

  2. Jim Snell says:

    Read a thriller by a guy I kinda know – more acquaintance than friend – and one of his books starts (I’m pretty sure this is the first paragraph) with black-suited ninja style SWAT team bursting into the windows of his home and capturing him.

    I was kinda hooked.

    So in my book – far into my book – one of the characters at one point wonders if a black-suited ninja SWAT team might be about to bust in and capture him. It’s just a little nod to his book and doesn’t happen in mine, but kinda fun to throw that in…

  3. I judge books I’m considering buying the same way. You really do need to draw the reader in ASAP. Otherwise, that person won’t commit to reading more. Great post!

  4. Jesse says:

    Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”:

    “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family it dead.”

    I love it because the paragraph starts out so plain and normal and then just starts to spiral into this bizarre, mysterious, and slightly unsettling place.

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