Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Anatomy of a Hook

This morning, I was thinking about Six Word Stories. You know, the writing exercise inspired by Earnest Hemingway's famous short, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."  After lying dormant for decades, these literary bon mots surged back into popularity a few years ago. Here are a few of my favorites from the Wired Magazine collection:
"Longed for him. Got him. Shit." - Margaret Atwood
"Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so." - Joss Whedon
“I couldn't believe she’d shoot me.” - Howard Chaykin
"Tick tock tick tock tick tick." - Neal Stephenson
"Epitaph: He shouldn't have fed it." - Brian Herbert
Personally, while I enjoy reading Six Word Stories, I always objected to calling these things stories. With the exception of Margret Atwood's spectacular entry above, none of them have plot or characters. Nothing changes, no tale is told, therefore, I put forth that these short pieces (however clever) aren't stories at all. They're hooks, and when done right, they represent a perfect encapsulation of what makes us want to know more about a story.

"Hook" is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot in writing about writing. You can't even search about "how to get an agent" or "how to write a book" without someone telling you that you have to hook your reader, often from the first line. And for the most part this is true, good advice, but when you use a word, especially a metaphor, so often and so exclusively, its meaning begins to leach away. That in mind, I thought I'd take a few words to stop the dilution cycle and talk about what the hook does mechanically in a story.

What Does the Hook Do?
As its namesake implies, the purpose of a hook is to "catch" a reader's attention. The starting point for all narrative is interest. Even before they've read a word, readers can be attracted by an evocative cover or a clever title, but the real kicker with hooks is that one is never enough.

This is where the fishing metaphor breaks down. Readers are not trout. You can't just have one powerful hook to pull them into the boat and leave it at that. Rather, you're enticing them to climb into the boat of their own accord, first with a good title, then with a good first line, then with good tension, then with plot twists. It's never done, it's always hook hook hook until they've reached the last page, and then you've got to hook them again for the sequel.

I actually wrote about this eternal hooking process in a post called Story Velcro. The basic idea is that if you want your reader staying up all night and turning pages, you have to keep sinking hook after hook into them until they're stuck to your book like velcro. And, of course, with so many hooks, you need to vary it up to make sure the reader doesn't get bored and the hooks become less effective as a result. So, let's take a look at what types of hooks we have to work with.

Because I enjoy dividing things into categories, I like to separate my hooks out into 3 broad classes: Big Ideas, Suspense, and Wit.

Big Idea hooks are exactly what they sound like: big ideas that capture the imagination and then use that thrill, that inspired curiosity, to make you read more. Because of their inherent Wow! nature, Big Idea hooks are often high concept, like the opening line to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan novel, Peter and Wendy, "All children, except one, grow up." This hook immediately sets out an impossible situation that makes the reader want to know "Why doesn't this child grow up? What's going on?" It also, coincidentally, meets the criteria for a Six Word Story. See how that works?

But the Big Idea hook doesn't have to be highbrow or complicated. It can just as easily be straight and to the point, like the exceedingly simple and highly effective "Snakes on a Plane," which is quite possibly the greatest hook of our generation. (Seriously, they sold the entire movie, millions and millions of dollars, on that line alone. Now THAT's a hook!) The essence, however, is the same. We hear a big idea, and we immediately want to explore it.

Sometimes the Big Idea is the core of the novel as well as the hook, the central spoke that everything else radiates off. Other times, the Big Idea is just one of several cards in the writer's hand. However it's used, though, the Big Idea hook packs the biggest bang for your buck. As Snakes on a Plane showed, people will put up with some pretty awful drek if they love the Big Idea enough. That said, Big Idea hooks rely on execution (i.e., how well you actually explore and use that Big Idea to tell a story) and can overshadow the narrative they're supposed to be pulling the reader into if used incorrectly (see the final two Matrix movies for an example of how Big Ideas aren't everything).

Long story short, the Big Idea is the Dirty Harry gun of hooks, and should be treated accordingly with respect and caution.

But while the Big Idea hook is the most flashy of the three, the Suspense hook is by far the most prevalent and omni-useful. The Suspense Hook is a line that rouses curiosity by implying an interesting situation without giving away the details. Going back to our Six Word Stories, Joss Whedon's "Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so," Howard Chaykin's “I couldn't believe she’d shoot me,” and Brian Herbert's "Epitaph: He shouldn't have fed it," are all examples of Suspense hooks. Each one is a tiny peek into a much larger, more complicated situation, a tantalizing hint of a vastly interesting story, and we as readers can't help but read the next line to find out what happens next.

"What happens next?" is, in fact, the core of what makes the Suspense hook work. You are hooking interest via that most powerful of human drives: nosiness. We always want to know what's going on, what are people doing, even if those people don't actually exist. A good Suspense hook grabs that curiosity and turns it into a page turning engine.

This sort of thing is the bread and butter of the Mystery and Suspense genres, but human curiosity exists everywhere there are people. So long as your reader is human, you can count on enticing them with a leading, suspenseful hook. Keeping them, of course, will require actually making that suspense pay off.

(On a side note, "Weather Report" openings (i.e., "It was a dark and stormy night") also fall into the Suspense category since they are there to create atmosphere, interest, and general What's going on?-ness in the world at large. That said, they tend to do this badly, because unless there's a hurricane bearing down on our heroes, weather is not in itself very interesting. There's a reason these openings get a bad rap, so unless you're dead confident you can knock it out of the park, I'd avoid trying to make weather into a hook.)

Finally, we come to my personal favorite hook: Wit. Wit hooks are exactly that: bits of writing so charming and interesting and well done that we will keep reading just for a chance at more. Jane Austen was a master of the art, and several of her Wit hooks are now well known lines everyone repeats. Even people who haven't read Pride and Prejudice know that "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." That's how good her hooks are, they hook themselves out of her book and into our cultural consciousness.

Of all the hooks, Wit is the hardest to pull off. It's a delicate and highly creative art that's insanely easy to mess up and depressingly dependent on individual taste. What one reader considers witty, another might consider overwrought or cutesy. That said, when done right, it can win you readers like nothing else. Even if they're bored stiff with the actual story and characters, people will keep reading so long as the text is packed with enough witty hooks to overcome the rest, which is a claim none of the other hooks can make.

That said, wit is not the same as good writing. Granted, many good writers are witty, but there's so much more to storytelling than being a good wordsmith. Your story should stand on the strength of its characters and narrative, not just because there's enough wit in the language to keep the pages turning. There are plenty of successful authors who survive by wit alone, but I wouldn't call them good writers, and I don't tend to keep their books past the initial burst of witty pleasure (or finish them at all, actually).

Special Addendum: Mixing Hooks
Just like in Food Science where the best recipes rely on mixing fat, salt, and sugar into ever more complex concoctions, the absolute best hooks come when you mix two or more of these hooks together. My absolute favorite novel opening of all time is the beginning of Deanna Raybourn's, Silent in the Grave.
"To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor."
This is an absolute perfect mix of suspense and wit. I want to know every single thing about what's going on here, and I am still grinning like an idiot over how charming it is. I bought the omnibus of her first three books on the strength of this line alone. A highly effective hook.

But as with everything in writing, the more you try to do, the better you have to be to pull it off. Mixing hooks is a delicate alchemy, and can easily blow up or fall flat if you don't get it just right. But again, as with everything in writing, the more you know about what you're doing, the easier pulling it off becomes.

Hey girl, this sounds great and all, but who appointed you grand poobah of putting things in boxes? Why do hooks have to be categorized, anyway? You're one of those crazy people who labels everything, aren't you?

... Maybe...

While I confess to a slight obsession with dividing nebulous ideas into workable categories...(What? Nebulous ideas defy examination by their very nature, and without examination, how can we improve? I must catch this cloud and pin it down...FOR SCIENCE!!!)

Ahem, anyway, the point here isn't that these three branches I've outlined above are some kind of Holy Trinity of Hooks. Quite frankly, while I of course hope that you like my categories and find them helpful, I don't really care one way or the other if use mine or make your own or say screw it all together. The point of all this, my dear reader, is to take the washed out, overused, high-school-lit-class-vocab-word hook and turn it into something useful again.

Though hooks are one of the most important concepts of writing, constant flogging has robbed the term of all its meaning, and the only way to get that meaning back is to divide, dig in, and examine. If this article has done nothing but make you pissed at how wrong I am about all this, then it's still done its job, because you were thinking critically about hooks, and that very act pours meaning back into a vital term that deserves so much more than an off the cuff, "everyone knows what this is" comment on a writing blog.

It's hard for me to express how angry I get when I see so many people talking about hooks, and yet saying nothing. "Something that hooks the reader" isn't enough. You can't define a term with itself, especially when that concept is the make or break point for a novel. It doesn't matter how good your book is, if you haven't mastered your hooks, no one is going to get past the first page. If there was one thing I would tell new writers to master above all, it would be the hook, because the hook opens the door to everything else.

Whew, that got long and technical, but still, I trust, enjoyable. If you're a writer, I hope this breakdown of hooks helps you find new, more effective ways to use them in at your own writing. If you're a reader, I hope this insider knowledge helps you realize when you're being tricked into reading a bad book supported by hooks alone (because who has time to read bad books?). Thank you as always for reading, and please feel free to leave your thoughts, good and bad, in the comments!

Yours as always,

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Odds and Ends

Okay, no more contest posts after this, I swear, but I still need to hear from Jessie and Amy. Come on, ladies, send me your stuff so I can send YOU stuff! Everyone else's books are signed and going in the mail, so you should all be receiving them soon. Thank you everyone for helping me spread the word about FORTUNE'S PAWN!

In other, non-contest-related news, fellow Orbit author Michael J. Sullivan has written an absolutely amazing guest post over at Bookworm Blues about his decision to go back to self publishing and the challenges the publishing industry is facing. If you care about the publishing game at all, it is absolutely worth your time to read through this post. Highly recommended!

Monday, October 21, 2013

FORTUNE'S PAWN Raffle Grand Prize Winner and Contest Wrap-up!

Well folks, what a lovely little contest this has been! Thank you so much to everyone who took the time to plug my book. If I could, I'd give books to you all!

But all good things must come to an end, and so it is my pleasure to announce that, after entering everyone's numbers into my spreadsheet one last time, the random number elves have chosen.......Hannah C! Hannah, you are our Grand Prize winner!!!


Please let me know where you'd like the book/$50 gift card mailed and whom you'd like me to autograph it to and I'll get it (and the rest of this here prize pile) sent off post haste.

Again, thank you EVERYONE for participating. You are all my favorite people who have ever lived, and I hope you'll all give my new series a shot on November 5th!

Love always,

Sunday, October 20, 2013

FORTUNE'S PAWN raffle Day 6 Winner!

And today's winner is..........Jessie! Yaaaaay! This means, GASP! We've only got 1 day left!

Jessie, please let me know where you'd like the book mailed and whom you'd like it autographed to and I'll add it to the mail pile! And please remember you're still eligible for the grand prize at the end, so YAY!

Today is day 6 of our 7 day contest, which means tomorrow I will be picking our grand prize winner for a signed book and a $50 gift card! To give everyone maximum time to enter, I'll be doing the drawing at 5:00 PM eastern standard time. Everyone in the comments is eligible to win! (But if the magic number elves pick someone who's already won, I'll just give them the grand prize and pick a new person to win the daily prize.)

A huge thank you to everyone who's already entered! Thank you all for helping me make this give away a success! Please keep spreading the word over these final 2 days and letting me know on the original contest post so I can keep track of everyone's entries! Thanks for playing and good luck!

- R

Saturday, October 19, 2013

FORTUNE'S PAWN raffle Day 5 Winner!

And today's winner is...........Courtney Richards! Yaaaaay! I am "Anderson Cooper with an obscenely fat cat" levels of happy for you!

I've been waiting the entire contest to use this gif!

Please let me know where you'd like the book mailed and whom you'd like it autographed to and I'll add it to the mail pile! And please remember you're still eligible for the grand prize at the end, so YAY!

We're getting downt to the wire now! But if you haven't won yet, don't worry, we've got 2 days of books left to go! Every day is a blank slate, so keep spreading the word and letting me know on the original contest post so I can keep track of everyone's entries! Thanks for playing and good luck!

- R

Friday, October 18, 2013

FORTUNE'S PAWN raffle Day 4 Winner!

FORTUNE'S PAWN raffle Day 4 Winner! And today's winner is...........Ezzie! Yaaaaay!

Congratulations! Please let me know where you'd like the book mailed and whom you'd like it autographed to and I'll add it to the mail pile! And please remember you're still eligible for the grand prize at the end, so YAY!

Halfway there, folks! If you haven't won yet, don't worry, we've got 3 days of books left to go! Every day is a blank slate, so keep spreading the word and letting me know on the original contest post so I can keep track of everyone's entries! Thanks for playing and good luck! - R

Thursday, October 17, 2013

FORTUNE'S PAWN raffle Day 3 Winner!

And today's winner is...........Chihuahua Zero! Yaaaaay!

Congratulations! Please let me know where you'd like the book mailed and whom you'd like it autographed to and I'll add it to the mail pile! And please remember you're still eligible for the grand prize at the end, so YAY!

And if you didn't win, we've still got 4 days of books left to go! Every day is a blank slate, so keep spreading the word and letting me know on the original contest post so I can keep track of everyone's entries! Thanks for playing and good luck!

- R

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

FORTUNE'S PAWN raffle Day 2 Winner

And today's winner is...........Amy!

Congratulations! Please let me know where you'd like the book mailed and whom you'd like it autographed to and I'll add it to the mail pile! And please remember you're still eligible for the grand prize at the end, so YAY!

And if you didn't win, we've still got 5 days of books left to go! Every day is a blank slate, so keep spreading the word and letting me know on the original contest post so I can keep track of everyone's entries!

Thanks for playing and good luck!

- R

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

FORTUNE'S PAWN raffle Day 1 Winner

And today's winner is...........Deshipley!

Congratulations, lady! Please let me know where you'd like the book mailed and whom you'd like it autographed to and I'll add it to the mail pile! And please remember you're still eligible for the grand prize at the end, so YAY!

And if you didn't win, we've still got 6 days of books left to go! Every day is a blank slate, so keep spreading the word and letting me know on the original contest post so I can keep track of everyone's entries!

Thanks for playing and good luck!

- R

Monday, October 14, 2013

Official FORTUNE'S PAWN raffle!!

Oh yes, it is time...

Devi Morris isn't your average mercenary. She has plans. Big ones. And a ton of ambition. It's a combination that's going to get her killed one day - but not just yet.  
That is, until she just gets a job on a tiny trade ship with a nasty reputation for surprises. The Glorious Fool isn't misnamed: it likes to get into trouble, so much so that one year of security work under its captain is equal to five years everywhere else. With odds like that, Devi knows she's found the perfect way to get the jump on the next part of her Plan. But the Fool doesn't give up its secrets without a fight, and one year on this ship might be more than even Devi can handle
With a little over 2 weeks until the offiical launch of my new SF series, it's time to give away some SIGNED BOOKS! So, I'm giving away seven signed copies, one for each day until Monday, October 21, plus a grand prize of a $50 gift card at the end! And, because the Goodreads book giveaway is only open within the US (and because the FP paperbacks are waaaaay smaller and lighter than the Eli ones), this giveaway is open WORLD WIDE


Now, if you've ever seen a contest on my site before, you know the drill (different name, same rules), but here they are again because copy+paste is my super power.

Official FORTUNE'S PAWN Raffle Rules

To enter to win these amazing prizes, all you have to do is spread the word that FORTUNE'S PAWN is coming out on November 5th! Post about it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, your blog, or any other social platform of your choice. Drop me a note in the comments below letting me know what you did and I'll enter you into the pot.

This is a raffle, that means you can enter multiple times. Every time you spread the word somewhere on the internet, put it in the comments below with a link. Pin the cover, post on Twitter, and mention the book on your blog? That's 3 entries! Tell me so and I'll enter your name 3 times. Telling people about this contest also counts as an entry, to be sure to spread the word!

I'll be drawing from the comments on this post every day, including today, so the sooner you enter, the more chances you have to win! You can also keep promoting the book every day to increase your chances ever further. Winners will be announced the morning of the day after they win, so today's winner will be announced tomorrow morning, etc.

The grand prize drawing will be one week from today on Monday, October 21 at 5:00 PM, east coast US time (EST). After that entries will be closed and I'll be mailing out a lot of books!

Boring Rules Stuff
As I mentioned earlier, this raffle is open WORLD WIDE! Only one entry per social network per day (so no posting it a million times on Twitter for a million entries :P). Readers who win one of the earlier signed copies are still eligible for the grand prize gift card at the end, but since they already have a book coming to them, I'll pick a new winner to get the extra copy.

If you have any questions about the contest, the rules, or the books, please contact me! If you want to learn more about Fortune's Pawn, you can do that here!

Good Luck!
And please spread the word of the contest around. If I get a ton of people, I'll just give away more books to keep the chances even. Let's win some books!

Friday, October 11, 2013

New Website and book giveaway!

Good news, everyone! I made a new website to support my multiple personalities different pen names! It's pretty and you should totally check it out!

More importantly, however, I have a giant box of FORTUNE'S PAWN paperbacks sitting in my living room! Is it time for a... GIVEAWAY?!

You heard the demigod! So, starting Monday, I'll be giving away copies of my new book plus a grand prize of some sort, so check back and win yourself something!

See you then!

- R

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

FORTUNE'S PAWN - book giveaway, early reviews, and the official word on why I changed my name

First up, Goodreads and Orbit Books are doing a giveaway for my new book! Go check it out and enter to win yourself one of twenty-five free copies (US residents only)!

I've been pretty busy lately getting everything ready for new book, FORTUNE'S PAWN, to launch in November. There's a lot more involved with setting up for a new series than I expected: updating Amazon/Goodreads/Social Media to reflect my new pen name, a new website to support the addition of an entire new name, obsessively searching for reviews, etc.

All of this was made more complicated by the fact that the name on my new book is "Rachel Bach" not "Rachel Aaron," a decision I've gotten a lot of questions about, so I though I'd go ahead and give an official explanation...

Why my new Paradox Science Fiction novels are listed under "Rachel Bach" and not "Rachel Aaron" -- the long answer.
I am very very proud of my work in The Legend of Eli Monpress. To this day, I still consider SPIRIT'S END to be one of the best books I ever wrote. That said, FORTUNE'S PAWN is most decidedly not an Eli book, and I don't just mean it's Science Fiction and not Fantasy. Devi's story is told first person in the head of a very blunt, very violent space marine. Sex, cursing, booze, and violence are all present front and center (though it's not a dark or gritty series by any stretch. This is still me we're talking about.) That said, since my Eli Monpress books enjoy a younger audience, my publisher decided right off the bat that I'd need a new name/brand for this new series. And so I became Rachel Bach, Science Fiction author to the stars!

There were other reasons for the required name switch on my publisher's end (mostly having to do with marketing and sales), but branding was what sold the decision to me. Do I wish I'd gotten to keep my Rachel Aaron name? Well, yes, but I can understand why the decision was made to change my name, and part of working with a publisher means listening and trusting when they say "we need you to do this."

So does this mean Rachel Aaron is retired?
Absolutely not! Rachel Aaron is still my name for all new fantasy projects, including the (AWESOME) one I just finished and will be telling you all about as soon as I can!

So you're just writing books under two names then? And both names mention you write books under the other name? That seems kind of silly.
Yes, yes it is. Welcome to publishing!

I loved your Eli books, do you think I'll like the new series?
I certainly hope so! They are very different, but they've both got the same light, semi-humorous feel. Think of it as two meals made by the same chef. If you like one, chances are, you'll like the other, even if Science Fiction isn't usually your dish of choice. In any case, I sincerely hope you'll give my new series a try. I loved writing it a lot, and I think people are going to get a real kick out of Devi.

Speaking of! Here are some early reviews!

Felicia Day gave me a 5 star review and I just about died - " I JUST LOVED IT! Perfect light sci-fi."

That said, this review by Lexie is probably my favorite yet - "Devi is AWESOME. She's stubborn, impractical and justifiably arrogant and I love her to pieces. I want to hang out with her (even if I'd probably wind up dead). I want to hire her to protect me (even though I would likely wind up in debt to my ears AND dead). And I really want to go drinking with her (even though I would likely wind up with alcohol poisoning then dead)."

A few other links to round out the picture:
The Lazarus Project calls Devi "Samus done right," which is about as good a complement as I could ask for.

Sporadic Reviews loved it! "If you like Firefly/Serenity, Mecha Corps, or Alexander Outland: Space Pirate - Fortune's Pawn won't disappoint!"

While Tolerably Smart didn't care for the romance portions of the book, he liked the rest. - "If you’re in the mood for science-fiction promising epicness and love kickass heroines, give a Fortune’s Pawn a try." 

And finally Romantic Times gave it 4 and 1/2 stars! The review is only for subscribers at the moment, but here's a quote, "Bach's space opera is a fantastic, action-packed and accessible exploration of deep space. Devi is hands down one of the best sci-fi heroines I've read in a long time...Fans of Douglas Adams, Scalzi and Forde will absolutely devour Fortune's Pawn."

There are more of course, but that's plenty to get you started. And if you want to try the book for yourself, go over to Goodreads and enter to win a copy! The contest is open all month to US residents (sorry, rest of the world ): ).

FORTUNE'S PAWN comes out November 5, and I sincerely hope you'll try it. Until then, I remain your author of two names, Rachel Aaron/Bach.