Justine: A Text Lesson in Hooking Your Readers

My critique partner, Jenn Windrow, now teaches a class called “How to Be a Hooker,” which shows writers how to write an exciting hook for your book…basically the first 50-150 words. Catch your reader in those first few words, and they will hopefully keep reading. The idea is to lead with a hook. Something that gets the reader thinking, asks a question, or presents a challenge that the reader wants to figure out.

Back in the fall, I entered a contest for the first 50 words put on by the Ruby Slipper Sisterhood and Jenn helped me polish my entry. Below is our text conversation where I gave her intros and she gave me feedback, and I think it’s very insightful. At the end of this post, you can read the final version.

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And here’s what I finally came up with:

Seven years ago, Nate Kinlan, Earl of Rainsford, left the house in which he now stood, forced to abandon an inexperienced young lady to the vagaries of her dishonest uncle. Tonight, he’d face her again. There at the table, her dark, upswept hair shining in the candlelight, sat Susannah Cressingham. His best friend’s sister. The woman he betrayed. The woman he must now marry to keep safe.

If only he could convince her not to kill him first.

So, what do you think is necessary to make a hooker-worthy intro? And what did you think of mine? Would you keep reading?

7 thoughts on “Justine: A Text Lesson in Hooking Your Readers

  1. It’s fascinating to watch the interplay between you and Jenn!

    In class, Jenny said to always open with conflict, and your opening definitely does that.

    FWIW, I think it has more impact when it’s not watered down with a lot of extra verbiage. I would concentrate on conflict, rather than setting the scene. Your reader has the cover and the back cover copy to know that it’s historical. All you really need to do for setting in the first paragraph is to not do anything to disrupt that expectation, i.e. no anachronisms.

    And now I’m looking at the first paragraph of my new WIP and realizing I should take my own advice. It’s “Around you, you’ll see Hell, please keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times” instead of “Hang on, we’re in for a hell of a ride.”

    • What’s so funny is I stumbled upon that entire text exchange searching for something else. As I read through it (originally for nostalgic reasons) I realized that there was a pretty good lesson there in getting to a good hook and decided, rather than synthesizing it, to just post it as is.

      During the writer’s cruise last fall, we all got to read our first 500 words and get feedback from the agent and editor that were there. My original opening to the book was very…setting-oriented. While I got great feedback on my language and writing and imagery, they both said I wasn’t starting in the right place (i.e., get to the effing monkey). It took awhile for me to figure out where that right place was, and even longer to figure out exactly how to open the book with a hook, but now that I have figured that out, it seems rather plain to me where my next book should start (basically whatever crap I have written for the first 2 pages I need to toss and I need to start on page 3). I seem to have to get the setting all out of my head first, then the conflict comes. At least I know my problem, right?

      • I think most of us have that problem. We have to write ourselves into the scene, find a place to stand, before we can start telling the story. And that’s okay.

  2. Just a grammar nit – the verb tenses are throwing me off a bit. Seems like a lot of switching in such a short space, especially for the opening. And I think you have to add ‘had’ where appropriate: “Seven years ago…had left the house…” “The woman he had betrayed.” Those sentences tripped me just for a split second, enough to pull me out of the story, so they might do the same to other readers. As always, YMMV :-).

  3. Really cool to see your process!

    (-: Don’t discount the power of a cat to hook, though. Although, of course, if Nate is more of a dog person (loyal, loving), it’d mislead the reader. But if he’s more of a cat (agile in body and mind, a tiny bit fickle with his loves up to this point, and a stealthy hunter), it might be a good intro as well as hooking all the cat people in the world.

    • I’m such a dog person that if I ever put a cat in the beginning of my novel, I think my very close friends and family would think I’d been possessed by another being! I’ll keep the cat/dog thing in mind, but I would think the animal would have to have a pretty significant role in the story to make it into the first few paragraphs. 🙂

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