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IWSG: My Hook Needs a Tune-Up

October 3, 2012

 I did it! I’m in the final lap of revision number two of this blasted novel and am finally seeing some pieces fall nicely into place. My scenes are clicking right along, my characters are cooperating, and my critiques are complimentary. That’s great, right?

Wrong! I worry about every little thing, and that’s why I belong to one of the most prestigious writing outfits on the world-wide web, The Insecure Writer’s Support Group hosted by the fabulous Alex J. Cavanaugh. We hobnob on the first Wednesday of every month when we give each other big virtual group hug. If you want to join us, cruise on over to Alex’s blog hop on this here linky.

So what’s my hangup this month?

I’ve hit roadblock when I try to revise this all-important  opening scene.

They call it a hook. Those crucial five hundred, or three hundred, or even two hundred and fifty words, are supposed to hook my readers so firmly that their fingers are twitching to grab their credit cards and buy this fine story. These words need to impress an agent so much that she sends a corporate jet to pick up this manuscript before anybody else gets their hands on it.

Instead, I have this.

Would you want to take a ride in this beater? Would you trust it to get you to your final destination all in one piece, without making pit stops for tire changes and stopping to fill up the radiator?

I don’t think so!

But this is how the first few hundred words of my novel feel to me. All my clumsiness is on display for the world to see: clunky sentences, odd bits of dialogue, passive voice, awkward description, even an insidious info dump or two.

In contrast, consider the clean cool lines of an opening like this:

‘It was a pleasure to burn.’ ~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Or check out the classic invitation to enter the world of Captain Ahab and his quest to confront the great white whale:

‘Call me Ishmael’ ~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

How about the sheer fuel-injected horsepower of:

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.’  ~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Okay, so I’m not writing the next classic here, but I would rather the beginning of my novel be a sports car, sleek, trim and whizzing past like a bat out of hell. I want my readers to get behind the wheel and grab that stick, and not stop until they get to the end, wheezing and panting for more.

Something like the sinister invitation of:

‘“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”

“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.’  ~ George R.R. Martin,  A Game of Thrones

Or how about something more straightforward, but also a best-seller:

‘When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.’ ~ Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games 

The thing is, once you get into my jalopy, I think the novel picks up nicely. The engine runs smoothly; the seats are comfy, and it’s got a rockin’ stereo with a CD player.  I just seem to have trouble backing it out of the driveway and into the street.

I need my words to grab my readers by the throat and show them how great the rest of the story is going to be, and I have no idea how to fix this. Have I started in the wrong place? Do I need to polish my sentences? Is it bad to start a novel with dialogue? With the weather? With internal monologue? Or am I just making this all up to avoid getting on with the critiquing phase?

Where do I turn to get this novel opening a tune-up?

So, insecure and secure writers alike, I ask you, how might I tackle this revision debacle? How might I trade this clunker in for a modern, fuel-efficient, speedster?

  1. October 3, 2012 2:57 am

    Openings are hard 😦 I feel your pain honey, I really do!

    The first MS I wrote I opened with a suicide, then fast forwarded in time (by a few weeks) to start the story. Critiquers said it worked. In my second MS I started with dialogue, which I thought worked, but, didn’t really (the wrong dialogue)?. With this 3rd one I’m about to start (for Nano) I haven’t got a clue how to start it lol.

    What have your Beta readers said?

    Good luck honey, you’re not alone 🙂


    • October 4, 2012 11:20 pm

      Thanks. 🙂
      I’ve had a few people look at it and offer suggestions, but they were mostly about better ways to set up the scene. I’m thinking about a major revision, starting with a different scene, or really tightening up the one I have.

      It sounds like you have a good system worked out for finding a place to start!

  2. October 3, 2012 3:19 am

    The jalopy has character. HAHA. Ok, I understand what you mean. I was told to read other great hooks to find out the appropriate tone for your own, so you are doing good. Keep working on it and when it sounds good to you, you will know.
    Oh, and thank you for giving me something else to worry about. I appreciate it. 😉

    • October 4, 2012 11:24 pm

      LOL. Sorry about that!
      I think you’re right though. I will know. And right now, it doesn’t feel like it’s what I was looking for. Good idea about analyzing other stories, especially ones similar to my own. Perhaps that will give me some perspective.

  3. October 3, 2012 7:07 am

    Openings can be tough. It’s great when a great opening scene is what inspires you to write the story – then you nail it the first time. But when it’s not… :\

    If it’s any consolation, I rewrote the opening chapter of my first novel 4 times before I got it right. And I’m talking major re-writes each time.

    The fact your crits are shifting to complimentary is something to cheer about. That’s a very good thing. Ask people who know the story what they think about the opening. Maybe they can give you some ideas that will spark the final revision epiphany.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. 🙂

    • October 4, 2012 11:26 pm

      Thank you. These are great suggestions!
      And that’s the thing. I’ve written a few stories after this one where the opening is, like you say, the impetus to write the whole story.
      But not this one. I might let this rest until I have some distance and can see the story as a whole.

      I always enjoy your blog. 🙂

  4. October 3, 2012 8:45 am

    It looks like we have another quandary in common! I’ve been reworking my first pages the past two weeks. I try so hard to get it right: Not too much exposition, immediate action, effortless ‘world building’ (as I learned in a webinar recently). But then I go and pick up a book where the first forty pages are expo! I’m pulling my hair out.

    I think as long as your opening works for you and your story, do what you think is best. Every individual story has its own flow and pace. I bet you its better than you think it is.

    • October 4, 2012 11:31 pm

      Yeah, we might be over thinking this. 🙂
      But there is just so much pressure to get those first few pages right. It almost seems disproportionate, because the reader is going to remember the story, and not the precision of those first five hundred words.
      All I can do is keep banging away at it, and hope I don’t break it in the process!

  5. October 3, 2012 10:04 am

    Dump it completely into a “clips” or “fodder” folder.

    Read over the beginning of the story from where you’re happy with it.

    Rewrite what leads into that as necessary. (You may find you don’t need much of anything.)


    Do. Not. Be afraid of the infodump. I have started paying attention to the openings of all my favorite books and you cannot be afraid to tell. The story needs what the story needs. The moniker “infodump” means it wasn’t needed.

    • October 3, 2012 10:34 am

      Liana, This is excellent advice. Dump the beginning and see what you have. I’d add, step away from your work for a couple of weeks. I mean – don’t look at it at all. When you come back, read it without the first part, then read the first part you took out (as per Liana’s advice), and see how you feel. Also, if you have a trusted reader, ask for feedback. Sometimes someone else can help, but be careful they are honest with you. You don’t want someone to tell you it’s great if they don’t think so.

      Good Luck.

      • October 4, 2012 11:39 pm

        I’m fortunate to have some honest and smart trusted readers. This is such a help.

    • October 4, 2012 11:37 pm

      I really like this advice. 🙂
      I’m prepared to cut or slash whatever it takes to get it right–but I want to make sure that I slash out the right parts!
      Very true about the infodumps. I’ve become so sensitized to them, that even one sentence of ‘tell’ sets off my critique radar. I’m not a big fan of lengthy exposition, and I love the ‘white space’ I get from dialogue, so I should probably stop worrying so much about it.

      I’m so psyched to try this.

  6. October 3, 2012 10:07 am

    Also, “Show and Tell Redux” by Patricia C. Wrede

    • October 4, 2012 11:43 pm

      Great article! Opened my eyes. 🙂

  7. October 3, 2012 10:31 am

    I AGONIZE over openings. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve rewritten first lines, or cried when I could no longer use the awesome one I’d come up with before I even started writing the book. Good luck

    • October 4, 2012 11:45 pm

      Yes, I have lines like that. Unfortunately not for this book.

      I even save them up, in case they can be recycled elsewhere!

  8. October 3, 2012 1:03 pm

    Beginnings are the worst for me because everything flows from them. I’m learning that the most important thing, whether you start with action or setting the scene, is clarity. Don’t try to sound memorable. Just write the scene as close as you can to what’s in your head. If what’s in your head isn’t clear, that’s the problem that needs to be addressed, not the words.

    Look over those opening lines and you’ll see what I mean. It all starts with clarity.

    My two cents (and yeah I’m still trying to apply this myself).

    • October 5, 2012 6:45 am

      Good point. I do have the setting and scene clear in my head. What isn’t as clear to me is why I started with this scene, and that might be the beginning of my dilemma.
      And, yes, I’m hung up on writing something memorable. I think I might need to remember the mantra of modern architecture: Form follows function.

      I’m glad you stopped by, Amy. 🙂

  9. October 3, 2012 3:44 pm

    Well, you’ve succeeded wildly in getting me hooked on your blog post, here! I wonder that you have this problem to the degree you think. 😉 Although, I understand what you mean by how hard hooks are to write. I’m sure my current MS opening is pretty weak. I plan on figuring out how to get that mule into bronco status!

    • October 5, 2012 6:48 am

      Hi Cathy,
      Welcome to A Scenic Route. 🙂
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It was fun writing it!
      As this is my first book, I really want to make the opening rock, and that might be part of the problem. Nothing will ever sound good enough.

      I might have to let others judge how well it works and go from there.

  10. October 3, 2012 4:21 pm

    If it makes you feel any better I have never written an ending. I know what it is but I didn’t think it was the right time to right it with other things in the draft needing strengthening…almost there though! Beginnings….aren’t they fun? Maybe take your muse on a date somewhere nice and pretend you are writing it from scratch and see what you come up with? I read somewhere if you are stuck with a scene you should close your eyes and visualize the story and once you find yourself smiling by what you see you know what to do! So I say muse date and rewrite it just in case it sparks something. It might just be a freeing exercise and make you realize your current beginning doesn’t need a tune up at all 🙂

    • October 5, 2012 6:54 am

      I love this idea! How freeing to just write it all over from scratch without the baggage of all that has come before. It is true that I like a lot of what is in the scene, I’m just not crazy about the words on the page right now. I’m going to go to the coffee shop or the park and try this.

      Strangely enough, I am happy with my ending. It is the one thing that remains constant through all my revisions, and I will not part with it. 🙂

  11. October 3, 2012 4:56 pm

    I’m not very good at openings either . . . thankfully I have an editor to help me now and saw past my first page! Good luck with it!

    • October 5, 2012 6:57 am

      Now that is cool! I remember reading your opening and it is very smooth and engaging. A real sweet ride. 🙂

  12. October 3, 2012 5:22 pm

    Oh yeah, those crappy opening sentences! Took me until my second book to even halfway figure out a good opening line. You’re smart in that you looked at other books – now you have an idea of what works. And I’m sure you’ll come up with something great.

    • October 5, 2012 6:59 am

      Thanks, Alex, I sure hope so!
      I think I’m going to take a look at quite a few more, as this seems to have become an obsession for me.
      Might have to check out that second book of yours … 🙂

  13. October 3, 2012 9:41 pm

    I don’t know if it will be useful at all, but I find it helpful to adapt a drama exercise: write the first line as though the novel were a western, a thriller, gothic, Shakespearean, Seussical, etc. Then when the pressure is off and my brain is in “anything goes mode” I often get a useful flash of inspiration A turn of phrase that can be adapted or whatever.

    • October 3, 2012 9:41 pm


    • October 5, 2012 2:25 pm

      This sounds quite useful. Playing with something might be just what I need to take the pressure off. I know part of what I’m dealing with is stage fright, pure and simple. So a drama exercise could be the solution.
      In any case, it sure sounds fun!

  14. T.F.Walsh permalink
    October 4, 2012 12:25 am

    I always struggle with openings too.. so hard to make them attention grabbing. I tend to rewrite mine a million times over before I’m happy with it.

    • October 5, 2012 2:27 pm

      At least you’re happy with it when you’re done with the rewrites!
      Sometimes I feel that I’ve got 999,999 more tries before I get there. 😉

  15. October 4, 2012 2:52 am

    There’s some terrific advice in these comments already so I’ll just say, I feel your pain. I’ve definitely been there. My opening scene still starts in the same location as it always has but the emotion of the main character is totally different. The other possibility is that you’re over-thinking it and your beginning is great the way it is. 🙂

    • October 5, 2012 2:32 pm

      Hi Cally,
      Yes, I’m amazed by all the good advice I’ve gotten so far! It really helps to know that I’m not alone with this, and that I have so many writers who are willing to give input.
      It gives me faith that I will get to a point where I’m happy with what I’ve written.

      And, welcome to A Scenic Route!

  16. October 4, 2012 3:49 am

    I have ditched trying to write a good opening on my MS because I lack that efficient writing style those writers have. I think Liana’s clips idea is good start. Also keep the ideas flowing but don’t be afraid to ‘brain dump’ and then sift through it. That sounds gross…but you know what I mean. Cheers

    • October 5, 2012 2:34 pm

      Liana is an awesome writer, so I’m eager to try her ideas!
      Brain dump, hmmm … doesn’t sound gross at all. Sounds kind of fun actually, especially now that Halloween is right around the corner. 😉

  17. October 4, 2012 12:15 pm

    Heck, I have two different opening sentences I’ve tried and, the problem is, I like them both. But, they steer the first scene in slightly different directions. This is not a good thing.

    After reading your blog I’m reminded I will have to deal with this problem – soon.

    BTW, congratulations on being so close to completing your revision!

    • October 5, 2012 2:40 pm

      Thanks Nancy! I’m nearing the end of Lesson Seventeen, but as you know, there a few more to go after this one. How’s your revision going?

      I wish I had even one opening sentence that I loved, much less two. 🙂 But,right now my opening is just this fuzzy scene, with a twist at the end.
      I’m getting some ideas on how to approach fixing it though. 🙂

  18. October 4, 2012 9:38 pm

    My opening paragraph is usually the last thing written. I come back and pull the action forward. It’s hard to admit an MS still needs works, but it’s worth it once you get it tidied up.

    • October 5, 2012 2:43 pm

      Hi Charmaine,
      Welcome to A Scenic Route!
      I’ve got my fingers crossed that once I get to the end of this revision something will come into my mind on how to start my story. I’m a big fan of the ending echoing the beginning, so maybe that’s why this is bothering me so much.
      Good comment, that got me thinking. Thank you!

  19. October 6, 2012 11:21 pm

    Crap, something else I need to worry about :0(

    • October 8, 2012 6:20 pm

      There always seems to be another mountain to climb in this writing journey of ours! But the view up here is breathtaking. 🙂

      Breathe, Papabear! It’s all good.

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