Category Archives: Authorial Trust

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?”


On the Fictorian Art

The truth is, writing fiction is hard.  No, correction, writing good fiction is hard.  This is borne out by the fact that the majority of new books in any given year are non-fiction.  The last statistics I remember seeing were that three out of every four new books published in the U.S. were non-fiction.  And if you removed elementary children books from the mix, the proportion would be even higher.

At first that seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?  I mean, when I look at a thick history of World War II, or a 500 page comparative theology book, or a multi-volume biography of someone like the Duke of Wellington, I am (reluctantly) impressed, and I think to myself that I could never do that.

Well, that may or may not be true.  But let’s look at this logically for a moment.

What is required to produce a work such as one of my three examples?

1.      The non-fiction author must do a lot of research and fact-gathering in order to lay the foundation for the book.

Does a fiction author have to do research?  If he’s any good, you betcha.  Why?  Because an author has to know the milieu/universe where his story is going to be laid, whether it’s historical, current, future, or fantasy in nature.  (See the posts about world-building.)

2.      The non-fiction author has to organize the researched material to support the thesis of the book.

Does a fiction author have to organize her material?  Yep.  She has to make sure that her story is consistent and has continuity.  Otherwise, people won’t enjoy it.

3.      The non-fiction author has to present the information well to make his case, and to tell the story he wants to tell.  (And yes, many non-fiction authors do tell stories.)

Does a fiction author have to tell . . .  Of course a fiction author has to tell a story!  That’s what writing fiction is all about, isn’t it?

So if the general skill set and methods appear to be so similar between the non-fiction author and the fiction author, what’s the difference between the two disciplines?  Getting back to the initial theme of this post, what makes writing fiction hard?  Or harder than writing non-fiction?

I would submit that it lies in the goal of the writer.

The non-fiction writer writes to impart information.  That’s pretty much it.  Oh, maybe she wants you to adopt a philosophical/political position based on her presentation, but it still comes down to imparting information.

The fiction writer writes to tell a story.  That’s the difference.  But more than that, the fiction writer writes to entertain, to enthrall, to enlist, to elicit, even to addict.  That requires something unique, something not ordinarily present in non-fiction:  the creative voice.

I’m sure there are people who will argue with me, but to me, the level of creativity required to write good fiction takes us out of the realm of craftsmanship and into the realm of art.  No matter how good our writing skills are, no matter how polished our authorial technique may be, if there is no creative voice in the story, it’s a flop.  And not everyone has the creative voice.

That’s not to say that skills and craftsmanship are not important.  They are.  After all, we really should know what the rules are before we can understand when it’s appropriate to bend or break them.  But there must be more than that in good fiction.  And it is the learning to apply the creative voice to the results of the research and the organizing of the material and the presentation of the material/case/story that makes fiction hard.

I’ve read a ridiculously large number of books in my life.  I can tell you with some assurance that I have never finished a non-fiction book, then turned back to page 1 and started over again.  I can, on the other hand, point to a number of fiction books where I have done exactly that.  I can even point you to one novel that I read cover to cover eight times in the first eight days I owned it.  Those authors’ creative voices entertained me, enticed me, drew me into their stories so profoundly that I didn’t want to let go.

That is the Fictorian Art.  And that is what we as Fictorians aspire to-are driven to, in most cases.

Welcome to the Fictorian world.

To Infodump, or Not to Infodump-that is the question

Actually, every writer with any experience at all will tell you that the question is not whether or not to infodump.  The answer to that question is automatically yes.  Yes, yes yes.  The need to provide mass quantities of data to the reader is almost universal.  Especially in longer works.  Most especially in longer works laid in milieus that are outside the reader’s common experience.

No, the real question-questions, rather-is how/when/where/how much to infodump?

And as much as I would like to be able to give the One True Answer to those questions, there is no such critter.

If you were to put three authors in a room and asked them one of those questions, you’d get probably get somewhere between five and nine opinions.

Actually, I misspoke.  There is one answer, but it is not an answer.  (And no, I’m not going all zen on you.)  The answer is . . .

It Depends.


That’s the only answer there can be.

Okay, setting aside the foolishness, here’s the hard core.

Yes, as a writer you have to be able to fill the void of ignorance each reader faces when he/she picks up a new work by you.  My experience is that writers attempt to do this in one of three ways.

1.      The Bulk Transfer Method

Wherein the writer attempts to stuff everything the reader might possibly need to know down the reader’s throat at once.  Two common forms of this are:

The dreaded “As you know, Bob…” conversation, in which one character will recount the history of the universe from the Big Bang all the way through to the ultimate death of heat, coincidentally along the way sprinkling the conversation with little nuggets of data that the reader might find useful somewhere around page 397.

The ubiquitous conference, wherein various talking heads sit around a table and explain to each other things that they already know but are needful for the reader’s understanding.

The problem is that, especially when attempted by new writers, these usually result in large indigestible blocks of verbiage sitting right athwart the plot line, and contact with said block all too often bounces the reader right out of his/her reader’s trance.  This is Not A Good Thing.

2.      The Teasing Method

Wherein the writer attempts to provide subtle hints-a word here, a phrase there-expecting the reader to not only read the written page but also the authorial mind, and somehow pull out of the aether the missing context needed to understand what the author is desiring to communicate.

The bad news here is that telepathy doesn’t work any better between authors and readers than it does between husbands and wives (which, based on personal experience, I’d have to say is not at all), and readers quit in frustration.

3.      The Pay As You Go Method

This is the one that most authors eventually develop, where they learn to tell the reader as much as the reader needs to know at that point in the story.  The trick is developing first the awareness of just what out of the entire back story and world building framework the reader needs at just that moment in the narrative; and second, the skill to add that to the narrative in the right spots and the right proportions.

The frustrating thing is that, like a lot of guidelines, we have all seen successful writers produce successful books that ignore them.  Well, just because they can get away with doesn’t mean we can.

Case in point:  two or three years ago I turned in a draft of a longish story to my editor.  Not long thereafter I got a note back:  “You have committed a staff meeting.”  Translation:  I had a ubiquitous conference in my story, and she didn’t like it.  “You know better than that.  Fix it, and I’ll buy the story.”  I attempted to justify what I had done by pointing to a recent novel by a well-known popular author that had a conference scene that ran for page after page after page.  Her response:  “You’re not him.  Fix it.”  I fixed it.

To summarize:  Option 2 just doesn’t work.  Option 1 doesn’t work well . . . except when it does.  Option 3 is preferred, except for those rare occasions when Option 1 is the best way to go.

In other words, It Depends.

Final word:  whatever technique is used to provide information, it can’t be just a static dump of data.  Somehow, in some way, the presentation of the data must advance the story.  If it doesn’t, we’re just building walls instead of roads to the end of the story.