Writing your hook

I'm raising myself from the world (or in my case, Woerld) of edits on Miserere to give you a slice of StellarCon 35. I realized there were so many great events going on last weekend, it would be impossible to  cram them all into one blog post. So I've decided to break some of my favorite parts into several posts. These will include people I've met and workshops I got to attend, and I hope to point you toward some speculative fiction authors that I had the privilege to meet.

One thing I've always loved about StellarCon is Allen Wold's Writers' Workshop. The last time I had the opportunity to attend this workshop, StellarCon was still in the single digits. That ought to tell you all you need to know about Allen and me. Like all finely aged things, Allen's workshop has gotten better.

Here's how it goes: The only people allowed into the workshop are the participants. Allen doesn't want spectators in the workshop; his intention is to create a safe environment for novice and experienced writers to share their work. Allen gives the attendees a writing assignment and we have ten minutes to complete the assignment. Then Allen and a panel of talented writers and editors critique the attendees' works.

This year's panel included: Allen Wold, Danny Birt, Barbara Friend Ish (you can also fine Barbara at Mercury Retrograde Press), Debra Killeen, and Darcy Wold.

Allen never tells anyone what the assignment is prior to the workshop to ensure that everyone is on an even playing field. The point of the workshop is for individuals to see what they can produce with a first draft and how they can improve that draft. We were really lucky in that we were able to return on Sunday morning and share our second drafts with the panel.

This year's assignment was to write a narrative hook for a short story by introducing questions that could only be answered by reading further. We were to write approximately one hundred words (or fewer) to introduce a character with a word or two about the character's gender, age, and name. Of course we were to include a setting, time, and place. We had ten minutes to write this.

Everyone did a wonderful job and the panelists made very constructive comments on each individual's work. I can't print anything anyone else wrote, but I will share with you what I came up with during the workshop so you can see how it worked.

Here is the first draft that I came up with on Saturday:

The rain came down like nails on the roof. Billy stumbled through the door to his granddaddy’s bedroom. His granddaddy had promised to give him the shotgun when he turned sixteen, but granddaddy was gone now. Gone like mama and that Naomi-girl from down the road.

The soles of Billy’s sneakers slid on the hardwood floor. The shotgun was nowhere to be seen. He shut the door and moved toward the closet. Quiet, he had to be quiet. Something outside slapped the bedroom window and Billy dived for the floor. The acid weight of fear rumbled through his stomach.

The panel made the following comments:  

  • The paragraphs had no barb to hook the reader (Allen explained that the hook is whatever it takes in first paragraph that peaks curiosity and makes you want to read more. The barb changes what you thought was going on.) So one panelist suggested that I needed to introduce what was slapping the window and bring that back up quickly. Use this point to build and relax the tension throughout those opening sentences.
  • It was also suggested that I use the senses of smell and touch as well as sight and sound.
  • One panelist loved imagery of first sentence, but felt my sentence structure needed to vary. I needed to mix up imagery and structure by varying my sentence structure.
  • Another panelist really liked the invisible hook and the mood of the piece. He suggested in the first draft that I should list the key elements of story, which in this case are: having to be quiet and to stress the quiet in the beginning and keep reiterating the quiet; the hunt for the shotgun. He said I should reduce words that don’t have to do with key elements.

So I rewrote my first draft based on those comments. On Sunday morning I read this:

The rain came down like nails on the roof. Billy opened the door to his granddaddy’s bedroom. Quiet, he had to be quiet. He strangled a sob and eased the door shut, wincing when the latch clicked. Granddaddy promised to give him the shotgun when he turned sixteen, but granddaddy was gone now. Gone like mama and that Naomi-girl from down the road. Nothing left but whispers dying beneath the rain.

Something outside slapped the bedroom window. Billy dropped to the floor. He tried to think of a prayer, but all that came to his mind was Jesus Loves Me. The smell of camphor and old man sweat had soaked into the wood beneath his cheek. Billy felt the vibration of a footstep through the boards.

See the difference?

So in a nutshell, here's what I learned from Allen, Barbara, Debra, Danny, and Darcy about writing my opening paragraph whether it is for a novel or a short-story:

  • Don't just have a hook, but include a barb to change what the reader thought was going on;
  • Engage all your character's senses to describe the world around them;
  • Vary imagery and sentence structure (intermingle short sentences with long sentences);
  • List the key elements of the story and reduce words that don’t have to do with those key elements.

Did you get a chance to attend Allen's workshop? If you did and would like to share your paragraphs and what you learned send, them to me or leave a comment and I'll get in touch with you. If you've posted yours on your own blog, by all means, leave a link to your blog in the comments. I'd love to see what you have done.

If enough people respond, I'll run a separate blog post for each one or combine them into one blog post. Or if you like, tell us what you learned while writing your first draft.