Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writers are Hookers

I used this title for my post because I wanted to get your attention. Writers have to grab the attention of readers.

Your opening words must reach out and grab readers fast or you'll lose them for sure. Sometimes a reader will stick with you for pages, maybe even chapters. But you can't count on it.

How do you choose a book in a bookstore? Read the back cover? Maybe scan the cover flap? Flip through the pages, checking the "white" to see if it contains mostly long, narrative writing or fast-paced dialogue? Read the opening paragraph?

Picture this: someone runs into the bookstore to grab a novel to read out on the beach or on a cruise. She hurries down the aisle, scanning book after book, reading the opening pages to see if it sounds interesting. Would your words reach out from the shelves and grab her?

Okay, let's back up a step. An agent (or editor), bone-tired and ready to call it quits after a long, depressing week, picks up a stack of manuscripts to take home for the weekend read. He sticks yours in among the 30 others. Will he open it, read the first page, the second, and not be able to put it down? Or will he read the first page, sigh, and fall asleep?

There are always exceptions, but readers (and agents and editors are readers, too) don't want to read pages or even paragraphs describing the weather or what a character is wearing or the bell tower (or whatever). If you put that in the opening sentences, it better be exceptional writing and intricate to the plot. The background story on the protagonist may be necessary to understand his arc, it may be essential to explain his actions, but is it essential to put it upfront? Is it worth losing readers? Could it be sprinkled in later?

Remember to start each scene--and your story as a whole--as close to the end as possible. A lot of times that means cutting the first chapter or maybe a whole chunk of pages. We write the first draft, then go back and realize the novel begins slowly because we've started the story way too early. We've given too much background or delayed the action. That means we haven't given the reader any reason to keep reading.

So many times when I’m editing for clients, I get well into the first chapter or even further into the book and I suddenly come across the opening. I’ll leave a comment like: This is where your story begins. The pages before that point are usually back story or a slow build-up. A lot of readers won’t get that far. They’ll quit and put the book back on the bookstore shelf.

And we really, really, want them to keep reading. To keep them turning pages you, the writer, must be…a hooker.
 Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its eleventh year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Bookmark and Share


  1. Very sound advice, Helen. You describe what I call the "fish-cleaning approach to editing." Cut off the head and the tail of the book, of the chapter, of the scene, of the line of dialogue.

    Of course I don't mean to literally cut that much, but, like you, I often tell my clients that the story is starting halfway through chapter one, and sometimes not until chapter two.

  2. A good reminder, especially when you start rewriting.

  3. I see that a lot, too, Maryann.

    Thank you, Heidi.

  4. Love it! The title alone made me leap right over to this blog as soon as I saw it. You also make really good points - I like "start as close to the end as possible"!

  5. In school we learnt that there is no (living) fish without head and tail. Maybe there is? Since you (and other bloggers) discuss the hook from time to time, I have become more aware of it. Whenever I start on a new book, I ask myself "where's the hook?", and "what make me read this book?". Anyway, very interesting post >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  6. Helen, you definitely got my attention! Great post. Thank you :)

  7. Your title worked for me:)) When I first started to write, I found I gave way too much backstory and now try hard to start where it needs to.

  8. I laughed as soon as I read the headline to this...but all amusement aside, this is a valuable post. Thank you Helen.

  9. I liked that hook, too. One of the things I enjoy doing on my own blog is to explore the "killer first sentences" I find in the books I purchase or pick up at the library. After great cover art, I think great first sentences convince me to read the book (or at least give the first 50 pages a fair read).


  10. Editors are often saying, there's not hook or you've started this in the wrong place or wrong pace. We're farther from the piece and are not so invested in it so we can see problems the writer can't.


  11. I can't tell you how many times I've rewritten chapter one, of every book, I've written. In fantasy, you must start with the ordinary world. At least if it involves ordinary people like us. How to convey that, create that hook, keep the reader interested until the big bang at the end of the chapter when they enter the special world is always a challenge.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  12. I have heard this so many times before and I totally agree. However, I have still hated my first chapter for quite some time now. I have rewritten it several times from different angles and nothing is working. But while I was reading this (information I already 'knew'), something just clicked... and now know what it is that I hate about my first chapter and exactly how to fix it. I have some really cool rearranging to do! Thank you for giving me the inspiration I needed!

  13. Great post, Helen! Readers today have fast-moving brains and short attention spans, me included.

  14. Nancy what you're saying reminds me of The Writer's Journey.

    Yay, Michelle. I'm very glad you've had an epiphany.

    So true, LJ. What worked in the past, may not work in today's world.

  15. Spot-on, Helen. I edit books for clients, and I, too, often discover the beginning of their stories very late in their books.

    I remember going to a Michael Ondaatje reading once, at which he said that he writes his stories in no particular order. Then he spreads the pages out on the floor to see what goes where. Not everyone can or should operate that way, but it's a good reminder that great stories rarely begin at the absolute beginning.

  16. Excellent advice, Helen. This post reminds me so much of Ms. Snark... A typical critique would have a "Start Here" comment sometimes half-way through the piece. And knowing the "hook" was vital.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  17. Your title is a real grabber and the info is helpful.
    Donna V.

  18. Great advice. I've heard agents say that many stories start on chapter three. I think I'm at the point that I no longer have to rearrange my manuscripts to rid the beginning of pesky backstory.

    I thought this post was going to tell me to become a hooker to make money to write. Whew.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...