Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Creative Writing 101: The Hook and the Start aka The bouquet of Nuclear Flowers

     Firstly, let me apologise for the delay in service! Been a busy week, but normal ‘viewing’ should resume from today!

     Is the hare really faster than the tortoise? Did the chicken come before the egg? Green means go, red means stop, but yellow means something in the middle – so half a stop, or half a go? What I’m trying to say is that everything starts somewhere. As writers, we have the godly say-so to decide everything about how our stories start.

     The most important thing to consider, in my opinion, is the fact that you need to open with a ‘hook’. The ‘hook’ is something that needs to grab the readers’ attention and will them to read on. There are various ways of doing this, from intrigue to conflict. Take for example, George R R Martin’s ‘A Game of Thrones’ (side note: I’ve yet to actually read the books, but I’ve read the first chapter and seen a bit of the series, so his hook has stayed with me long enough to convince me to read them at first opportunity). The first section the reader is introduced to is (without going into spoilers) the ‘out of the ordinary’ going’s on in the North. This is the opening hook – delivered in a dynamic scene. It’s a full chapter, and most importantly, it raises a question, a conflict, intrigue…the need to read on.

     For a writer, the hook is crucially important to those hoping to pursue the route of traditional publishing. As a general rule, agents request submissions of the first three(?) chapters / 50 pages / 10,000 words. If you’ve managed to land your manuscript on an agent’s desk, the only way to keep it out of the shredder is by instilling the ‘need to read’ (I hear bribes work too – that or a ‘shotgun read-through’ similar to a ‘shotgun wedding’).

     You’re opening has to catch the agent’s eye. An agent is a hunter-killer, not a hunter-gatherer. It’s natural habitat is the wild frontiers of the office, roaming the desks and outback of coffee-cup stains. It feeds on the hopes of freshly printed manuscripts, devouring printer ink, sparing only those worthy of passing through its territory. Prey is many, peers in prose are few to the predator. The only way to placate the agent? Lure it into a placid state, inspired by a story, delivered with a strong right hook! Agents have an acquired taste, they know what they’re looking for, and you have to prove that from the get-go.

     Don’t info dump at the start. Purple prose is not your friend. Info dumping is a tendency (read: DROP IT!) of writers (particularly fantasy and Sci-fi) to fill a character’s / situation’s / world’s backstory in a oner. A huge wall of text that’d send even the Hubble telescope cross-eyed. Without going into this in too much detail (and thus committing info dumping, myself) think of it like this: ‘you need to feed your reader a starter, but hold off on the main course. Don’t overfeed the reader, or they’ll grow bloated and will leave before desert; but don’t let them starve or they’ll bail early and go for a burger at the nearest fast food chain!’

     The opening needs to set the tone and the standard of the novel. Your reader has arrived under the pretence of a genre/story/idea that you have pitched, but if you stray from this oath you’ll likely lose them. For example, if your story is chick-lit, why start with the death of the world in some apocalyptic explosion caused by a power hungry maniac, wielding a bouquet of plutonium grown flowers. Don’t do this! 1) Because it’s my idea and I want to write it now! 2) because your reader is expecting something of a different vein.

     …3) I smell a bestseller! Move over Mr Mercury, or whatever your name was. I’ll even help you pack up your paddle.

     Lastly, let’s go back to firstly (chicken or the egg approach – see what I’m doing here?). The ‘hook’. The sharpest part of any hook is the point, and in this case, the first sentence or the first fifty words or so. No, ‘The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the grass was green, the bunny rabbit hopped through the wood, and the ruddy ice cream van ran me over whilst the puppy dog farted.’ That’s a little odd, and I’ve massively strayed from the point, but it’ll do. As a writer, I favour an opening hook in the form of dialogue, or a character’s inner monologue. Take for example ‘hooks’ from some of my own work:

From Man to Man Part 1: 'I never meant to let you down.'

From Man to Man Part 2: 'So, it's come to this?'

From Man to Man Part 3: 'Any coin's a coin.'

And, as a treat, the opening to It Began With Ashes:
     “Are we being followed, father?”
     “No, Astartes, we are not being followed.”
     “How can you be sure? You didn’t even look!” Astartes whined. Struggling to turn in the saddle behind his father, Astartes craned his neck to look back through the night.  The dirt track meandered this way and that, winding through the Emberfen Forest. The path was hard to make out amongst the muddy browns of the woodland, made all the more difficult by the thick canopy obscuring the glow of the stars and moon overhead.
     Nicolas shook his head, scratching idly at his flame-red moustache. “Don’t let your eyes play tricks on you, son...there’s nothing out there.”

     Now, to the red, the egg, but then again maybe the chicken, the finish line where the hare or the tortoise is waiting. Use your hooks wisely, keep ‘em sharp, but if all else fails resort to nuclear fertilized shrubbery. You’ll have to excuse me now as I’m off to pick me a bouquet of flowers from this glowing patch of dirt, charming little garden mind you. Saw a three eyed dog there the other day.


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