Saturday, January 29, 2011

Baiting the Hook

It's been a long day and from your perch on the couch you're watching an HD-enhanced moist, rich chocolate cake float down onto a milky white plate, a drizzle of thick, rich dark chocolate falling from the sky like manna, sliding down the sides of the cake in mahogany rivulets.

And now you have to have chocolate cake. Immediately.

That's the genius of a well-made, well-placed commercial: it hooks the viewer.

And that's exactly what a writer needs to do: hook the reader. Just yesterday I was meeting with a writer friend who was facing the familiar dilemma of how to break into an industry full of jaded editors who have seen it all. With stacks and stacks of manuscripts and article submissions cluttering up their desks, how is a writer going to make their work jump out from the pack?

My suggestion isn't one that will guarantee publication, but it's one that should garner your proposal more from even the toughest editor than the passing thought of using it for garbage can hoops. If you've ever researched writing, you've likely heard this tip somewhere... probably more than once.

Nail the first line!

If there's anything I've heard about my stories many times, it's how the first lines made an impact; how they drew the reader in right away.

It's important to realize that a first line is your introduction to the reader, be they professional or recreational ones. No matter who you're trying to convince about your writing, you can capture them right off by giving them a taste of who you are as a writer and where this story is going.

Think about how many magazines and books there are floating around in the universe. There's such a plethora of information available to people, that you really have to snag their attention. We live in an attention deficit society; one so used to information on demand and continual entertainment that we have to give a really good reason why someone should stop and pay attention to what we have to say.

When crafting that first line, don't just put something sensational down there. Make certain that it comes from your voice and that it lends to the story line. In my original draft of Fireflies in December, my first line was, "I hate watermelon."

Completely uninspiring, right? Nobody really cares that my main character, Jessilyn, hates watermelon. And because of that, they wouldn't have cared why she hated it (because the boys spit the seeds at her!). So when I started to read more and more about the importance of a killer first line, I went to work to dream up a line that would encapsulate more of the idea of my story, and I ended up with, "The summer I turned thirteen, I thought I'd killed a man."

Right then and there, the reader gets a vague but general idea of how I write, what the main character is like, and what she's going to go through. And that's a reason for someone to keep reading.

The same thing holds true for writing articles. Picture someone flipping through their magazine, looking at pictures of makeup and designer clothes, scanning short but sweet beauty and health tips. What's going to make them stop and read through an entire article? You have to capture their attention.

Without a doubt, working hard on the body of your story is key and crucial. Once you've snagged them with the first line, you have to live up to it. But that first line requires your attention just as much. Don't just throw it out there to get past it and into the meat of things. Take the time to do your story justice from start to finish.

After all, if Paul Harvey hadn't started off telling you something interesting, you wouldn't have cared to hear the rest of the story.


Rachel said...

It's funny you mention that. I still remember picking up Fireflies in December, opening the front cover and reading the first line - from that point on I couldn't put it down! I habitually do this with every book I read (a lesson learned from Mama!). If the first line doesn't grab my attention, more often than not, it gets put back on the shelf.

Jennifer Valent said...

Perfect! That's just what I hope for!

ashley_myers724 said...

I definitely agree! Your books all have awesome first lines! They drew me in, and I loved every book!

Jennifer Valent said...

So happy to hear it, Ashley! I'm thrilled that you enjoyed them!