Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On the Hook - Stage One: Call Me Ishmael

Trying to learn how to write a good book (or maybe a marketable book -- those qualities aren't exactly synonymous) has altered how I read books.

I started a book recently (no, I won't say which one) that *should* have been good, even great.  Stellar reviews, awards & nominations, lovely person as author, theoretically great set-up.  Alas, not a good book.  And even worse, it was bad in all the ways that I'd just spent several weeks trying to eliminate in my manuscript: flabby writing, poorly drawn characters, slow pacing...  I made it a quarter of the way, but wasn't able to finish this book, nominations or no nominations.

So, yes, I can't unring that bell -- maybe I would have liked this particular DNF if I hadn't known how deadly some of the writing was.  Maybe, but I doubt it.  I'm just too cranky a reader.  I was cranky before, but now I'm cranky with a smidge of technical knowledge -- a dangerous combination.

Still, I am having some trouble lining up my reading habits with my new education as a writer.  Are good books good in predictable ways?  Take, for example, the hook.  Everyone says a book needs to have a great hook -- the first line, first paragraph, first set-up -- to pull the reader into the story.

I dunno.  That's not how I buy books.  I never bought a book by an unknown author after reading the first page, say, and was glad I did.  And I have no intention of reading the first lines of a slew of books at Barnes & Noble and buying some just to see if Great First Line = Great Book.

But I did confess to having a substantial number of otherwise-gray TBR books sitting around, so it should be possible to kill two birds with one stone.  I'll look for great hooks and then see if the books that follow live up to the delicious opening. 

Here's what I propose.  I need to log all those books into my TBR database, and while I do that I'm going to post their first lines.  I won't bother to list the title or author (too much work, frankly), but at the end I should have a lot of opening sentences to judge by.  For stage two, I'll read the entire first page of the books with the best first lines, then the entire first chapters of the ones with the best first pages.  Then I'll read the book(s) with the best first chapter(s).  That could be as few as one book, or as many as...a lot.

Oh, and this may take a while, so feel free to comment on any first line(s) that you find intriguing.  That's what they're supposed to do -- get people excited.   (For the purposes of this exercise, I'm treating dialogue a bit more flexibility than a single sentence.  Don't worry, I'm too damned lazy to copy out a lot of text.)  If this works well, I should get my TBR pile cleaned up, several blog posts out of it, and maybe even reduce the backlog just a bit!

Remember, these are in no particular order.  And they aren't exclusively romances, although most of them will be:
  • "What's new with me?  Only everything!"
  • "I never heard your name before.  I don't know you.  I've got nothing to say to you."
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of fortune and passable good looks amuses herself in London with faashion, philanthropic works, and flirtation, until a suitable gentleman makes an offer.
  • Patrick O'Casey stepped from the hotel shower just as the sports news was beginning on WWL Channel Four.
  • As with most things wicked, the war of the magicians began in darkness.
  • "I know Jean Jacques would send word if he could.  Something must be terribly wrong."
  • Sheriff Gaine squinted up at the gallows and thumbed back his hat.  "Well boys, this is your lucky day."
  • "We need to talk."
  • My ordeal began one summer afternoon when I received a phone call from the Archbishop of Canterbury
  • The Earl of Falloden glanced at the visiting card resting on the salver his butler extended toward him.  He frowned.
  • Four hours after his failed suicide attempt, he descended toward Aerodrom Ljubljana.
  • Miranda Chase leaned against the smoothly worn counter and absently curled a finger around a tendril of hair, rubbing her thumbnail along the hump, creating a soft, steady rhythm of sound against her ear as she devoured the words on the page.
  • Rachel Farris came speeding down the dusky two-lane toward Destiny just as fast as she'd left town almost fifteen years ago.
  • Chloe Turner stared down into the black, roiling water, squinting her eyes against the cool spray.
  • To judge from the entrance the dawn was making, it promised to be a very iffy day -- that is, blasts of angry sunlight one minute, fits of freezing rain the next, all of it seasoned with sudden gusts of wind -- one of those days when someone who is sensitive to abrupt shifts in weather and suffers them in his blood and brain is likely to change opinion and direction continuously, like those sheets of tin, cut in the shape of banners and roosters, that spin every which way on rooftops with each new puff of wind.
Okay, I think we'll stop with the sentence-so-long-it's-its-own-paragraph.  But fear not, I have more.

To be continued...


    1. I see the first line of The Wives of Bowie Stone. Read it! It's good. I really like the secondary story line of the schoolteacher and attorney.

    2. This is fun! I really want to know what the book is that's riffing on Pride and Prejudice. I figure that's one I'd try. It takes guts to play off an opening sentence that (justly) famous.

      I noticed is how many started with the heroine's (and in one case, presumably hero's) full name, which seems kind of blah. Some of the more mysterious ones would suck me in faster (though Chloe Turner is from Dahl's Crazy for Love, right? and I enjoyed that one).

      I'm not a writer, but I teach academic writing/English, and I have a hard time taking off those hats as a reader, especially when it comes to sentence-level writing (more people should take my advice to my students and read their work aloud).

    3. Janet W: Oh I like the line starting the Christmas Promise: it really sums it up :)

    4. Hooks are great (I guess?), but I've never judged a whole book on one sentence.

    5. You're all making the same point I was trying to make: how does a "hooky" first line help? Clearly sometimes you can identify the book by its first line (either because you recognize the line, or because, as Elizabeth has pointed out, the first line includes a character's name.

      And I agree with Heidenkind that books *shouldn't* be judged by a first sentence. What makes that ironic is that unpublished manuscripts *ARE* judged by their first sentences. So I thought I'd see what happened when I tried the same thing.

      Elizabeth -- the book riffing on Jane Austen is Janet Mullaney's The Rules of Gentility.

    6. Thanks, Magdalen--and hey! that's in my TBR pile, too. I think it just became less "gray." The problem with a hooky opening is that a lot of books don't live up to them. But a strong opening sentence can make you feel you're in safe hands.

    7. Interesting when you slapped all three of those 'First name/last name went blah blah blah' lines together. It made me feel that it was overused.


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