This week: Opening PagesEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
~ Elmore Leonard
“I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.”
“Fiction is lies; we're writing about people who never existed and events that never happened when we write fiction, whether its science fiction or fantasy or western mystery stories or so-called literary stories. All those things are essentially untrue. But it has to have a truth at the core of it.”
~ George R. R. Martin
Where’s the Tension? Where’s the Hook?
Where's the Horror?
I’ve been picking up a lot of horror novels recently, skimming the beginning—and then putting them back down and going on to other ones.
Their first few pages weren’t interesting enough to keep me reading.
They had average characters in commonplace locations doing regular things, such as these openings:
Jeff Gunhuss, Night Chill
Nate Huckley leaned forward against the steering wheel, eyes searching the colorless brick buildings that slid by on either side of the street. He glanced at his watch and shook his head. He couldn’t believe he was spending valuable time, time he didn’t have, looking for a hardware store in this back woods, one-factory, Pennsylvania town.
Huckley spotted the store. The boy back at the gas station had stuttered like a moron, but his directions had been good enough. Huckley pulled into the small gravel parking lot next to the concrete tilt-up building on which the last remnants of the word “Hardware” clung in tall flaking letters. The lot was empty except for a beat-up VW Bug, more rust than metal, squatted in the far corner. Huckley checked his time and felt the anger churn harder in his stomach.
Guy (angry and mean) in a car, going to an average hardware store, amid the “colorless” buildings of a typical small town. Yawn.
Michael Connelly, The Void Moon
The house on Lookout Mountain Road was set far in from the street and nestled against the steep canyon embankment to the rear. This afforded it a long and flat green lawn running from the wide front porch to the white picket fence that ran along the street line. It was unusual in Laurel Canyon to have such an immense lawn, front or back, and one so flat as well. It was that lawn that would be the key selling point of the property.
The open house had been advertised in the real estate section of the Times as starting at two P.M. and lasting until five. Cassie Black pulled to the curb ten minutes before the starting time and saw no cars in the driveway and no indication of any activity in the house. The white Volvo station wagon she knew belonged to the owners that was usually parked outside was gone. She couldn’t tell about the other car, the black BMW, because the little single-car garage at the side of the house was closed. But she took the missing Volvo to mean that the owners of the home were out for the day and would not be present during the showing. This was fine. Cassie preferred they not be home. She wasn’t sure how she would act if the family was right there in the house as she walked through it.
A woman in a car, stopping at an open house. Both house and neighborhood are mundane and dull.
Where's the mystery? The tension? The eerie atmosphere that should make my skin prickle?
I actually read on for about 10 pages of both of the above, and believe me, they didn't get better.
Both Gunhuss and Connelly are multi-published authors, but I won’t be buying any of their books, nor the books of so many others I’ve recently picked up because they failed to hook me.
Here’s what I did read last night because it hooked me right from the beginning.
Robert McCammon, The Hunter From the Woods
They travel by night.
Along the roads that cut through massive fields of wheat and sunflowers as high as a man’s head, beneath the silent stars and the watchful moon, the caravan of horsedrawn wagons and gypsy trailers creak and groan on their way from here to there. They pass through towns, villages and even-smaller hamlets that have been asleep since sundown, and the dust they raise glitters in the moonlight like diamonds before it returns to the Russian earth. They go on until the circus master, the white-bearded Gromelko, decides to pull his leading wagon to a halt at the centerpoint of two or more rustic towns that have likely never seen a circus since a Cossack first sharpened his saber on a blood-red stone, and there Gromelko uses his hooked nose to smell the summer wind. Then, if the wind is right, he says with satisfaction to his long-suffering wife, This is our home for tonight.
There’s a weird Gromelko character who “smells” the wind to decide where to camp and a gypsy circus in the Russian countryside. Nothing mundane about that. Sign me up! (The short story was excellent, by the way, and I’m looking forward to reading more from McCammon’s collection tonight! )
How to Hook the Reader
You don’t have a lot of time to catch a reader’s attention, whether your novel is in a bookstore or your short story is on Writing.com.
In the opening, you need to give them something unusual, surprising, creepy, or ominous. Something so they know things are not normal and not commonplace.
Here’s some great advice from Dean Koontz on the importance of the first few paragraphs or pages.
Dean Koontz, Writing Popular Fiction
Every category novel must hook the reader's attention in the first paragraph and, if possible, in the very first sentence. It must provoke in him an immediate "need to know" how the situation, stated in the first paragraph, will be resolved.
Once the narrative hook has been planted, the story may hold the reader's interest in one of two ways:
(1) the original situation, which caught his attention, turns out to be the major problem of the story and will not be resolved until the conclusion, after many intermediate challenges to the hero;
(2) the hook turns out to be a minor problem that leads the hero rapidly into his most important bind.
In either case—though (1) is preferable to (2)—the pace must be swift, the danger and the suspense continuous.
So something has to be wrong or abnormal in the beginning to pique the reader's interest. Then you must continue the creepy atmosphere or tension to keep the reader turning the pages.
For more info on how to catch the reader with your opening along with examples of great first lines, read my Horror Newsletter "The Hook"
Coincidentally, an article appeared Tues, May 19 on the Jane Friedman blog (one of the best book resource blogs on the web) that also deals with best ways to start a book. For the article go here: http://janefriedman.com/2015/05/19/begin-with-action/
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some Flash Fiction stories that hook the reader right away – no time to waste when you’re writing flash fic!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "What Readers See" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Vampyr14 writes: A good cover is everything!
Yes it is!
billikus writes: I am on the edge of having too many items in my Port. When you upload a photo, it is yet another item in your queue. This gives me pause. I have so many stories in my Port and I don't want to delete any. I suppose I could upgrade . But this is why I don't use the photo thingys. On another note, your book covers are amazing! Love ya,
If you choose photos from WDC’s collection of stock photos, you don’t have to upload anything or host anything in your portfolio. The images may not perfectly match the story, but any image is more interesting than none. At least I think so.
9 years whew! writes: When I wrote my novel I had an idea of a stack of old letters and a picture of my parents wedding with my mothers blurred as if fading. It would be on a marroon mottled background. It sounded nice to my publisher. Then I sat in on a workshop about covers (it was a "ill check it out as I've been in the other ones offered this hour) What an eyeopener. Derek Murphy shook my out of my kitchey cover and made me think about my target audience. Who's eye did I want to catch. Would a guy want to hold this book? Nope! I changed the covcer to a small town street with a woman seeming to vanish. The title is The Vanishing of Katherine Sullivan by Christina Weaver. I have men and women who love the cover and loved the book. I'm so glad I took that workshop. The cover is just as important as what you wrote inside.
I like your cover, too, Christina! You had the right idea when you chose it. Lucky you went to that workshop, huh?
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