Author Archives: Leigh Galbreath

The All-Important “Wait! What was that?”

I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to revise my beginnings about ten times more than any other part of my stories. It is, in my opinion, the single most important part of a piece of fiction. It’s the handshake, the introduction, the ever important first impression. It’s the moment when the reader decides in a split second if they want to be friends with your characters and make a prolonged visit to your world.

The overriding wisdom where beginnings are concerned is that you should start late, in the middle of something, where some action is happening. This is all well and good, but how exactly does one put that into effect?

Thus enters the hook.

The best definition of the hook isn’t all that great, in my opinion. It’s something that catches the reader’s attention and makes them have to buy your book to find out what happens next. But I’m a girl who likes specifics. So, I had a look at the first paragraph of a bunch of books to see how the experts do it. What I’ve come up with is that a hook is something expressed that makes the reader stop and say to themselves, “Wait! What was that?”

What really catches the attention is when the author insidiously reaches out to a reader’s inner five-year-old and makes them want to ask, “Why?”

First, let’s start with the most obvious hook – the action hook. A good example of this is Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the first of the First Law Trilogy. The first paragraph of this character driven series has Logan, one of the main characters, almost killing himself in his haste to get down a hill. What on Earth is he running from in such a reckless hurry? Read on to find out.

Thomas Harris does this in a less obvious way with The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is running down stairs to reach the division that deals with serial killers, a part of Quantico that’s “half-buried in the earth” (foreshadowing anyone?). She’s disheveled from racing there from training. We ask why an FBI trainee is running to deal with a serial killer without cleaning herself up first. And thus, we are hooked.

Another obvious hook is the “I should have known” hook. In Glen Cook’s The Black Company, the first paragraph has the narrator stating, in his typical dry humor, that, according to the Company’s wizard, One-Eye, there were “prodigies and portents” that should have warned our heroes of what was coming. What happened to these guys that declares itself with “prodigies and portents?” Nothing good, I tell you.

But what about those less than obvious hooks?

How about the slightly off-kilter reality hook? Jack Linday introduces his serial killer hero in Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by having Dexter wax rhapsodic over the Miami night. Unlike the action hook, it’s Dexter’s point of view that gets us. While it starts out innocuous, by the end of the first paragraph, Lindsay’s word choice turns the world into a dangerous place. The starlight has a “hollow wail” and the moon’s reflection on the water is a “teeth-grinding bellow.” Who is this guy and why does he see the world this way?

My favorite rendition of this type of hook comes from Clive Barker’s Galilee and is the only time I’ve ever bought a book from reading the first page. The first paragraph is just the narrator talking about the house he’s sitting in. Not all that exciting, but the devil is in the details. You see, the narrator’s step-mother hired Thomas Jefferson to build it in a North Caroline swamp facing her homeland of Africa.

Let me just state that this book is set in modern days, so we have at least one character who was alive in the late 1700’s, is from Africa, and built her house in a swamp in North Carolina. What the devil is going on here?

Then, there’s the “I’ve got a secret” hook. Jim Butcher uses this in the first book of the Alera Codex series, The Furies of Calderon. A woman is riding a bull, thinking about how the slave collar she’s wearing chafes and she should wear one more often to prepare herself for her next mission. Why is a woman wearing a slave collar when she doesn’t have to, and what’s this mission she’s on? She knows more than we do, and thus has a secret we want in on.

So, what did all these examples prove? Well, basically that it really doesn’t matter how you start your story, as long as that first paragraph makes your reader stop and ask, “Wait! What was that?”


The Balancing Act – Specificity in Action Scenes

Very recently, I took part in a workshop with twenty or so other aspiring novelists in the SF and Fantasy genres, and one of the most common problems I ran across was in writing action scenes. Often the scenes came out jumbled and confusing, or the writer simply skipped it. Writing action can be intimidating. It was for me. My first action scene, I confess, was first written by a friend of mine. He did the draft, and I had to fiddle with it until I figured out how it worked.

For me, action scenes have myriad issues that make it difficult to navigate. Here I’m going to focus on one of those issues – the difficult balancing act of how much detail to include. Too much description is much the same as too little; both will leave the reader confused.

The lack of description, I think, is at least partially based on the fact that we hear, again and again, how too much description slows the pacing down. In most cases this is correct, most description is unnecessary because the reader can assume certain things.

Example: He parked and went into the building.

I don’t put in the step by step detail about navigating the parking lot or getting out of the car- putting his foot on the break, turning off the ignition, unlatching his seat belt, opening the door, getting out, and closing the door behind him. Most people know how to get out of a car, so the detail is unnecessary.

Let’s look at the same idea put into an action scene. Take this example I saw recently: I lunged. He landed on the ground with a heavy thud, and I got back to my feet.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have no idea what just happened. What made the other guy fall? When did the narrator end up on the floor and why? The detail is now a true necessity for the reader to experience what they are reading.

That’s the irony. While, in another type of scene, description can be problematic, it’s necessary for action scenes. Quite simply, most people don’t know what it’s like to be in a gun or sword fight, a space battle, a horse charge, or a kung fu brawl. They don’t have the experience to fill in the gaps, and so the writer has to do the heavy lifting.

The problem comes when the writer moves too far in the other direction. As I said above, too much is just as bad as too little. Get too detailed, and the reader might lose the focus of the scene in all the minutia and become confused anyway.

The way out of this is to be specific rather than wordy. Slamming to the ground, for instance, implies something very different from hitting the ground or slipping to the ground. Also, words that mimic what’s going on can help cut down the word count while still keeping the pacing going. Hard consonants can help a reader hear a gun fight in their heads. Short, concise words echo the pace of a fast moving chase.

Another good thing to remember is the use of paragraphing – shorter paragraphs that describe only one character’s actions can keep what’s going on clear to the reader. Get too long, or put more than one character’s actions in a paragraph, and things start getting muddled again.

So, while finding the right balance can be difficult, it’s by no means impossible. There are plenty of ways to counteract the need for the additional description an action scene requires. The key is to keep the action simple and clear.

You are an Evil Mastermind

Do you know the thing I love the most about being a writer? It’s not the creation of beautiful prose (though, that is a lovely outcome). It’s not the fact that, when I’m finally published and I gain super-author status I will be able to finally stay at home in my PJ’s for a living (hey, it could totally happen).

No, the reason I love writing is because I, with all my inadequacies and failures and social ineptitudes, get to be a villain.

Let’s face it people. From the moment we sit down to craft a story, we become devious creatures. We build human beings of our own devising just to put them through hell for the enjoyment of others. And we do it with a smile on our faces (inherently villainous). We spend days, weeks, and months picking the right words to manipulate the reader into thinking what we want them to (true super-villainy).

My fine friend, the craft of writing is a master class in being an evil mastermind.

Now, you might say that a character isn’t technically a person, so that doesn’t count.

My reply would be that you’ve obviously never been in a room full of Sherrilyn Kenyon fans. To the reader experiencing your story, the characters should always be people. Complex and issue-riddled, they have faults just like the frail flesh and blood variety. The reader has to see them as real people, or they won’t care what happens to them.

So, once the character is complete and real and human, it’s our job to knock them flat, destroy their lives, kill their friends and loved ones, maim them, torture them, and do pretty much whatever we can to make what’s left of their lives as difficult as possible. Then, we become really cruel. We make them figure a way out all by themselves. This paper person must be active, so no shortcuts, no divine providence. Providence, after all, is the realm of gods, and for your story, you are god-a villainous god. And don’t forget, like the arena of old, this is all for entertainment’s sake.

My, my. We are evil, aren’t we?

But the most dastardly part is what we do to the reader. Our entire craft is completely based on manipulation, obfuscation, and downright lying. From the reliance on descriptive word choice and using the active voice, to how characters walk and what’s in their refrigerators, we work to guide the reader’s subconscious perceptions. It’s kinda like when movie theaters used to splice subliminal advertising into their previews to get the audience to go buy things from the concession stand. Done right, the reader never knows they’re being manipulated. But make no mistake. What we’re doing is convincing the reader what to think, how to feel, and when to do both.

I’m feeling a little like Big Brother in an Orwellian kinda way, aren’t you?

Being able to manipulate the reader like this is, of course, a very difficult and delicate kind of manipulation that takes much hard work, years of on the job study, many maligning critiques (yet more proof of my point), and plotting (See? I just made a pun. I must be evil.). It’s not easy, but highly enjoyable when you see all the minions you create who will love you for being the black-hearted creature of darkness you really are.


Don’t forget the Bliss

It is said that everyone has a book in them. Not only is it ingrained in the human psyche to tell stories, but also for most of us, there’s something inside that just can’t stop telling a tale. It’s a passion that keeps us coming back, day after day, to the blank page — a hunger to fill the white spaces.

And like most of people with a passion, we dream of the day when that passion pays off and we can quit our mundane lives to devote all our time and effort into a job that we truly and absolutely love. Like the high school girl who heads off to Hollywood to become the next big movie star or the college kid who quits law school to become a rockstar, we who are called to the written word dream of being the next Bestseller. The only problem is that, unlike movie and rockstars, the bestselling author rarely gets the glamour or the big paycheck that sets them up for life.

We all know this, right? Writing will not make most of us rich.

And yet, we strive and shell out hard earned cash for workshops and seminars and books on craft so that we improve and can one day write that stunning masterpiece that will put us on the map. As we become more and more devoted to that dream, we put more time and effort into learning the business, pushing ourselves out of our solitary writerly existences to learn things like web design and marketing and promotion. All in the quest for becoming a published author. To be quite honest, I don’t so much feel that the “business” side of the writing business is outside my comfort zone as much as, when I do that stuff, I feel like someone is shoving bamboo rods under my fingernails.

I really hate doing that stuff. So much so, that I avoid it as much as possible. For I’ve come to realize that if I pay too much attention to that part of things, I start to forget why I liked writing in the first place. In hearing over and over how much work is demanded to  building a name before a publishing house will touch you, or singling yourself out from the e-mob on Amazon, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with writing. It’s easy to forget the bliss.

In the end, it’s not fame and fortune that really drives us to write — that’s what record producers, TV networks, and movie studios are for. It’s not the ease of the work — writing is just plain hard most the time if you’re doing it right. It’s not the collaboration — even when working with other writers, most the time you’re still working alone.

It’s the passion. The bliss. It’s the drive that won’t let you think of doing anything else, because you just can’t kick the addiction to the written word.

So, strive, make your goals, work hard on that dream to become the next Big Thing in books. But don’t let the work make you forget why you dreamed the dream in the first place. Don’t ever forget the bliss.