Saturday, March 6, 2010

Two sentences is all you get

From one of the writing/editing blogs that I follow, I found a link last week to an author's site called the Bookshelf Muse, where she was offering a "hook" contest. Submit the first two sentences of your manuscript ("the hook"), and her top 3 picks would win free critiques.
I was curious to see what other "hooks" were - there were over 70 people that submitted. Most of them were pretty good, interesting enough that I wanted to read more. There were a few that didn't hook me at all. If one of your story's first two sentences is a description of the weather, that's not a good sign. My idea of a hook is something that raises a question that has to be answered - an interesting question.
So I went ahead and submitted my first two sentences. Well darn it, I wasn't one of the three winners. But, as the author who was holding the contest pointed out: taste is subjective. I was glad to discover I was on the right track as far as raising questions (see below), but I learned that you also have to pack a lot more into those two spare sentences: voice, setting, character and circumstance. Wow!
Keep in mind, taste is subjective, but here were some of the things I looked for when considering each one and the power it had to pull me into the story:--Did the opening prompt questions that I felt compelled to find answers for?--Is Voice present?--Does the hook provide an unusual combination of setting, character and circumstance?

So, here are the three hooks the author picked, along with her comments:

Aria fell. Once, a long time ago, she had dreamed that the sky could catch her. (I liked the lyrical quality of this opener and it made me wonder about the events that lead to this moment as well as the current action.)

Blackstone Farmhouse was the dullest place on earth until about three in the morning, when the screaming started. It had been happening for weeks, but it never failed to surprise Lena. (This one promises something unusual, I think. I liked the clash of the 'routine country lifestyle' and an unexpected disturbing event.)

Three seconds. That's how long it took for my life to end. (short & sweet, a bunch of questions come to mind about the POV character--questions I feel compelled to have the answers to.)

Here's a couple other hooks that didn't win but that I, personally, really liked:

Seasickness, it turned out, wasn't widely tolerated by pirates. Something of a shame, then, that Skully spent most of the past week throwing up.

Let me give you a little piece of advice: never try to eat a snithisser. I've had my share of adventures and they haven't all been catnip and cream.

And finally, here's the two sentences from my novel, Raining Toward Heaven, that I submitted:
Rowen snapped her cell phone shut, annoyed that Pete still wasn’t picking up. Today was their first anniversary, it was already 3:30 pm, and she hadn’t seen him or heard from him yet today.
After reading the winning hooks and some other really good ones, I think mine still needs some work, especially a distinctive voice (e.g. attitude, tone). For me, voice has always been the hardest thing to capture in my writing (in fact I've devoted a few other blogs to this issue).
Here's the first two sentences from my children's fantasy, Valley of the Unicorns:

For the first time in her life, Selty had a reason to be excited about her birthday. Actually, two reasons.

I think that one could still use a little work, too. It asks a question: why is she excited about this particular birthday when her others have given her no reason? It has maybe just a hint of voice, the way she decides she has two reasons instead of just one. But it still lacks something really distinctive that makes it compelling.
Just for fun, here's the first two sentences of my young adult fantasy, A Handful of Scars, which I haven't worked on in years. This first chapter was probably written 7 or 8 years ago.

The gargoyle crouched inside the bucket, snarling. Sidain nearly dropped the bucket back down the well when she saw it.

Now I like to think my writing has improved in the past 7 or 8 years, but I think of all three I probably like this one the best. I think it's the most distinctive, because you don't usually think of finding gargoyles inside of buckets, snarling. Gargoyles are stone sculptures that are fixed to buildings and aren't alive. So that raises a question, too, how can this gargoyle be alive? But yes this one still needs work, too. The question raised isn't what I would call very compelling. Does it make you want to read more?
A simple two-sentence contest, but it makes me realize how much work I have ahead of me to get my writing to a really good, publishable level.On the other hand, a simple two-sentence contest also got me motivated again! After taking the whole month of February off from writing, I am finally back in writing mode again and I've already blazed through edits on chapters 20-27 of the Valley in just a couple days. Yes, I'm backing to working on my first manuscript, even though my plan this year was to get the first draft of Raining Toward Heaven finished first. But I'm starting to think that jumping between two different works is how I am best suited to writing. When I start to lose inspiration on one, I can pick up on the other, and vice versa.
I'm just glad to be writing again.

1 comment:

  1. These were helpful and really got me thinking about my own opening lines. Thanks!



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