Monday, May 2, 2011

A Lead That Hooks Readers (New sample lead)

I've had requests to repeat the post about hooking leaders in the golden 500 words of a novel's lead. Here it is again, with a different sample lead to illustrate the points made at the end of the post. 

Browsers in a bookstore scan the shelves, eyes moving rapidly from book to book. If your books are spine-out rather than face-out, you have only your title and your humble name to get the buyer to pick up your book. If your book is face-out, you have cover art and blurbs in your favor. Assuming you get past these hurdles, the browser then rapidly scans the jacket copy (if hardback) or the back cover (if paperback). Many factors here are out of your control. The editor may change the title you slaved over. You may have little or nothing to say about cover art and jacket copy. Blurbs may come from reviews (out of your control) or advance readers, whom you may have at least selected.Online, you have the cover art, description, and possibly some reviews to persuade the buyer--but online, readers can browse even faster.

If your book is still under consideration by the customer at this point (and sadly, many are not), the hook comes into play. That’s the main tool that you, the author, have under your control. It's roughly the first couple of pages of a book, say 500 words, which is about all a browser is willing to stand up and read in the aisle of the store. Online, you may have a reading sample of thirty or more pages, but if the reader can't get past the first two, forget about the rest of the pages impressing him. If your book is easy to set down or clicked away from before the reader has a chance to become involved with your wonderful characters and plot, then the book will be set down or clicked away from, and the reader will go on to something else. If you can capture a reader's interest right away, chances are they'll still be with you at the next critical point, which is around fifty pages into the book. The "fifty-page fizzle" can prevent readers from finishing your book, and if that's the case, it's not very likely they'll try your next.

You may have even less time to impress an editor or agent, since they are accustomed to rapid decisions. In some cases, only your first paragraph is read to determine whether to spend precious time on the rest. What can the agent possibly glean from so few words? Your professionalism (spelling, grammar, and punctuation), your presentation (paper choice, font type and size, and manuscript formatting), and your prose (genre and your voice, which is a combination of your writing style and the characterization of the protagonist) are all on display to discerning eyes.

So how do you make those first pages bear up under all these important tasks? You can’t do it with a lengthy description of your protagonist's bedroom when he/she wakes up (unless it's a pitch-black, stinking dungeon cell and your protagonist, who has no idea how he got there, is awakened by rats nipping at his nose) or by describing the weather (unless your protagonist is being slammed around by a tornado or carried along in a flash flood, clinging to the remnants of her front door with bloody fingers). Finally, you don’t cheat the reader by having wild happenings occur and then having the protagonist wake up—it’s all been a dream. If you are going to use one of these three overused openings (morning surroundings/routine, weather, dream), then you’ve got to have a totally original, engaging slant to compensate.

A key word in those "don'ts" above is description. Make your description minimal, which doesn't mean it can't be vivid. Focus on a few well-chosen, evocative details and let them stand in for heavy description. Be sure to draw the reader into your story with sensory description that appeals to more senses than just sight.

Try to make your description do double duty in building character as well. Make sure you are not in a headlong rush to explain everything in the first few pages. Prune back-story to an absolute minimum. Many new writers fall into the trap of telling the reader everything they need to know about a character and/or situation in the first chapter. Hold out longer—use the “layers of an onion” approach. Instead of getting bogged down in back story, toss the reader into an ongoing situation and leave the explanation for later. Make the reader wonder about what’s going to happen next by planting the seeds of intrigue right away. That’s the start of a page-turner! Intrigue can result from something as simple yet chilling as a threatening phone call late at night, so don’t reach into artificiality.

One thing your opening should convey is a strong sense of the tone of the book, so let your voice be heard. Introduce a main character (villain or protagonist) in an intriguing way, preferably in an action situation or a situation that hints strongly of action to come. Convey an immediate sense of place. Don’t have your exciting action taking place with the characters floating in a generic setting. Otherwise it's easy to drift away, and if the TV remote is at hand, you may have lost your audience.

Cut to the chase. Sometimes you may write an entire first chapter and find your actual lead somewhere in the middle of chapter one—or even in chapter two or three—because you began with too much explanation. In that case, lop off the unnecessary part to pare down to the true opening. You can always work in all that explanation later, if it was important. Then polish, polish, polish. You'll probably rewrite your lead twenty times or more. Read it aloud. If your voice is stumbling over awkward phrases or dragging, reflecting a glacial pace, you're not done.

AIM for Action, Intrigue, and Minimal 
but sensory description.

ANCHOR your reader in a 
character, a setting, and a situation.

Here's a sample of a lead to a book of mine, printed several years ago, that will be available as an ebook this summer. The title of the the book is Act of Betrayal. Note how it handles intrigue (what is this man doing?), character (just enough backstory to give an initial understanding of character), and sensory description. 

From Act of Betrayal by Shirley Kennett

            Cut didn't have the connections to pull off the murder inside the prison, but now his target was on the outside. The timing couldn't be better. He always associated the summer heat with the day that his boy died.
            It was hot in the apartment, but Cut was used to the heat. His lean body sweated freely and the undershirt he wore was soaked under the arms and down his back. The last week of July in St. Louis was bad enough when a person could lie in the deep shade of a tree and let the breeze take away the sweat. In his long years he'd spent many an hour enjoying such a breeze, the kind that left behind a salty taste on the skin and a hope for more than distant thunder from heavy clouds in the west. Compared to an afternoon under a shade tree, the apartment was a little slice of hell.
            It would have been nice to open the window. 
            Though he had rented the apartment months ago, he had only furnished it with two rickety wooden chairs he'd picked up at Goodwill. That was back in February, and he hadn't noticed that the apartment didn't have air conditioning then. No wonder the rent was so cheap. Even in something as important as deciding where the target would die, Cut was a practical man. No need to part with more money than he had to.
            The linings of the leather gloves he wore were soaked with sweat. He'd worn the gloves every time he was in the apartment. As the weather turned hotter, his palms, encased in winter gloves, responded like the tongues of eager puppies. Smelled like a wet puppy, too, one that had been rolling to pick up odors that were only attractive to another dog. After being sweated in and dried a few times, the gloves had lost most of their flexibility. He was planning to throw them out afterwards, which was a shame because they had cost him fifteen bucks.
            Last week he had brought in all the supplies he needed. Securing the chemicals had been an interesting challenge, something he'd never had occasion to do. Cut spent some time putting the weather-stripping on the door and sealing the heat vents with plastic bags. He'd found a dead mouse in one of them, dried and stiff, and taken it as a good omen.
            On the Big Day, he got to the apartment at seven in the morning, after treating himself to a biscuit breakfast and a cup of coffee at a fast food place. It was a good thing he remembered to bring the insulated picnic jug of water. He took a sip, the cool water mingling with the sweat on his lips and trickling down his throat. He tilted his head back to enjoy the water, like a bird drinking. He pictured himself carousing in a bird bath, fluffing his feathers and shaking the water down to his skin.  It helped some, took his mind off the heat. He wasn't an imaginative man, but when he did get a good mental image, he held onto it.
            A couple of years in Vietnam had taught him that heat was a relative thing. An enlistee at the age of thirty-four, Cut was almost rendered helpless by the heat when he stepped off the plane and into the jungle. Then he put it behind him in his practical way and got on with the business of surviving. He stayed in one country's service or another for fourteen years, moving into covert activities after the evacuation. He wasn't in the U.S. Army after Vietnam, but the action was rewarding and the paychecks were regular. His only complaint was that it seemed like every place he was sent was blazing hot or so cold he began to think that blue was the normal color of his fingertips. 
           He found he had a talent and a love for knife work, both close-in and with throwing knives that flitted like black wings of death, and he earned his nickname time and again. When he started to slow down, he told himself that it was a young man's work and he should get his bony carcass out of the way and let them carry on. But he kept the name because he liked it.

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