The Best Hookers

A couple of years ago I signed up for an Algonkian writer’s workshop.  I was interested in the workshop because I wanted to see how my writing stood up to the scrutiny of others, but also because I wanted to see what the competition looked like:  What were other first-time novelists writing about?  How captivating were their characters and plot?  Was my writing as good as the other writers competing to find an agent (and thereby a publisher)?

The workshop turned out to be very worthwhile (I recommend it, especially if you’ve become bloodied by a agent/query/rejection shark attack).  I gathered a great deal of information on other debut authors and how I compare.  But, one of the most valuable exercises I did was part of the prep for the workshop: The Best Hooker.

I’d like to share that with you, in the hopes that it may shine some light into your writing (as it did mine), and get you thinking about your own great hook.

The challenge:  Read the first ten pages of at least five new novels and take note of what the author did to get you hooked.

Here are the novels I choose, and the hooks (or absence of ) I found lurking in the first ten pages:

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel (Walls)

  • Narrator: 1st person POV – present tense
  • Tag: “The old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.”
  • Hook: 10-year-old girl saves siblings during flash flood (1900’s)
  • Sympathetic: Lots of hardship but protag doesn’t feel sorry for self
  • Original: 10-year-old girl on Texas ranch in 1900 (Author’s grandmother): yes

The Help (Stockett)

  • Narrator: 1st person POV – present tense
  • Tag: “Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step…”
  • Hook: 1960’s black maid in Mississippi taking care of petty 24-year-old socialite who ignores her own baby.  (No inciting incident.)
  • Issue: Some of the words are phonetic (makes it harder to read)
  • Sympathetic: Feel sorry for protag being oppressed, but she doesn’t feel sorry for herself.  Dislike detached mother, hope for baby, happy that narrator has something she cares about
  • Original: no?  Toni Morrison-like characters (which is not bad!)
  • The writing is strong, but I didn’t feel like there was a hook.  I also didn’t find the title intriguing.  (But I loved the book. 🙂 )

Last Night in Twisted River: A Novel (Irving)

  • 3rd person POV – Omniscient narrator – past tense
  • Tag: couldn’t find one
  • Hook: unusual drowning (kid under a carpet of logs in a river)
  • Introduces: the dead kid, the man who broke his arm trying to rescue him, the cook and the cook’s son.  Uncertain who main character is?
  • Original: logging camp in the 1954, harsh conditions: yes
  • I finished the book, but I don’t think it’s one of Irving’s best.

The Lovely Bones  (Sebold)

  • 1st person POV – past tense
  • Tag: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”
  • Hook: In second sentence narrator says she was murdered.  Rape on p. 3
  • Sympathetic: Dead Jr. High girl – smart, sassy, and murdered.
  • Original: She’s in heaven telling the story of her death: yes!

Still Alice  (Genova)

  • 3rd person narrator  (Alice) – past tense
  • Tag: couldn’t find one
  • Hook: neurons are dying in her head, foreshadowing her decline
  • Sympathetic: 50-year-old Psych Prof at Ivy League College gets Alzheimer’s, married to distracted scientist husband with estranged daughter.
  • Original: yes?
  • This book was originally self-published!  It’s excellent.

Wolf Hall: A Novel  (Mantel)

  • 3rd person present – omniscient
  • Tag: couldn’t find one
  • Hook: A boy lies on the ground as his father yells at him and kicks his head.  (This did not hook me.)
  • The grammar is odd, the story difficult to follow, the words awkward to read.  I don’t like it.
  • Sympathetic: A little.  The boy has a fondness for a dog that is also abused.
  • Original: yes?
  • I didn’t read past the first fifty pages.  To this day, I wonder how the book won an award.

I went on to read and finish all of the books except Wolf Hall, which never hooked me (and I found difficult to read).  I tried to get through it twice, but stopped reading pretty early on.  I usually enjoy historial novels, but this one stunk like a dead fish.

Also, I didn’t end up reading The Help until after I’d read (or attempted to read) the other books.  It also did not hook me at the beginning, but I liked the writer’s voice and ended up loving the book.  Now that the book is a best-seller, not having a strong hook probably doesn’t matter: which is to say, you can write a great book AND have it be successful WITHOUT a stong hook.  (But that’s swimming with sharks, and you do so at your own peril.  I wouldn’t recommend it.)

I also discovered that although I prefer “1st person present” point-of-view, once I got into a book, I didn’t really care if it was written in first person or third person, as long as the writing was strong.

In any case, the exercise brought into focus the importance of reeling in your reader in the  first ten pages of your novel.  I encourage you to try the same exercise and see what you discover.  If you give it a try, please let me know what you learn.  Maybe you’ll end up catching a whopper?