Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Hook




Hello, friends and writers.

I'm back from my trip to Massachussetts where I delivered my dear daughter, Melanie, to Cambridge for her masters program in Music Therapy. She's already come and gone to a camp in New Hampshire for her orientation class, and is back in town getting everything situated for the coming school year.

Her place is cute - just off Mt. Auburn by the river and walking trails. Nice hardwood floors, lots of light. Small, but it's perfect for her. It's a safe, quiet neighborhood, and is only about a 5 minute walk from Harvard Square.

We had a rough day Friday. Oh, the drive out was easy, a nice straight shot from Rochester, about 412 miles. It was when we got to the city that things fell apart. I probably can chalk it up to not having driven much in Cambridge as a youth. It's been 27 years and I almost always took Mass. Ave from the southeast expressway, then parked and walked to the love-ins on Cambridge Commons. I'll always remember the bands that played there for free in the good old days - Alice Cooper, Chicago, and great local bands like Eden's Children. Anyway, we circled around for over an hour trying to locate and then access her street. Part of the problem was that street signs were missing, we didn't have a good Cambridge map in the beginning, and Mapquest's directions were less than ideal. We were challenged by one-way streets and the inability to get off Memorial Drive or take left turns when needed. You get the picture. My ancient knowledge of the city used to be based around my college (NU), and even when I had a car, I'd hop on the T to get downtown.

So, although I recognized some street names and of course the Harvard Square area, I was just as lost as any wide-eyed country boy in the big bad city. It took us about an hour and a half to find her place after arriving in town and we missed catching her roommate (she had to go to work), but she hid the key for us so we were able to get inside. Where there was a nice bathroom. Thank God.
We unloaded the van and fortunately there was a "prohibited" parking space we were allowed to occupy with a special permit that her roomate left out for us. We set up her bed and unpacked almost everything, but discovered there was no light in Melanie's room. Plus Toby's (her dog) retractable leash broke the minute we arrived. And she needed food - there wasn't much in the fridge!
So, with no one to guide us and a horrible lack of knowledge the area, I stopped folks on the street to ask about a local food market or a Walmart.

The first fellow I asked had just arrived from Rochester, NY. Can you believe it?
His daughter lives a few houses down from Melanie. Well, we found the Star Market (0.8 miles away) and then went on the adventure to find (in the dark and rain) Target at a nearby mall. We finally found it after a gazillion wrong turns and after stopping for the third time at a gas station. Ladies - don't believe the rumor that all men won't stop for directions. I couldn't WAIT to find someone to ask!
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We grabbed a bite to eat, then went back to her place, which we couldn't approach the same way as before because of the no-left-turns and one-way streets, but at that point we had a street map and we found a "back way." By the way, you can't buy a street map of Cambridge in Rochester, NY, so we were relying on Mapquest maps to get us around initially. Big mistake!

We unloaded all the stuff we bought - and then I kissed my dear daughter goodbye and headed down around 9 o'clock to my mom's in Lakeville in the WORST thunder/rainstorm I've ever experienced. I couldn't see anything - and that was on top of not being familiar with the exits/new names/highways etc. Things are so different since 1981. After gripping the wheel so tightly I could barely feel my fingers, I made it to Lakeville, where I went through a HUGE lake in the middle of the road (couldn't see it, but how appropriate, driving through a lake in Lakeville!), but the engine didn't stall - and although I could barely see the road, I finally found her place.
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I collapsed when I got there at 10:30. But, we had a wonderful four days with family after that - walks, gardens, cooking together, laughs, memories - a great time. I also got to work on FIRESONG: AN UNHOLY GRAVE, one of the my older books that will be coming out after MAZURKA is released this fall. More about that later.
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So now that I've caught you up on the news, let's talk about writing. The following is a piece that deals with the "hook," or opening page from your novel. Let's work on these like we did the synopses, shall we? And don't forget, you can still submit synopses to that article for us to help you with.

***

The Hook

How many times have you picked up a novel in the bookstore, read an intriguing blurb on the back cover, and gone to that final step before purchasing - the quick read of page one?

That's how I always do it, whether it's for a review request or if I'm buying for pleasure reading. If the first page has any awkward phrases, flat dialogue, or bores me silly, I put it back on the shelf. Why would I want to do that to myself? Literary torture. Not exactly something we should aim for, right?

Now, I'm not saying the words have to be beautifully crafted sentences that sing so loud you have to cover your ears. There's a place for that, like in Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series (they are inserted like little gems throughout his works.) Just plain old good writing is fine with me. And if I "notice" the writing, that's usually the first clue that it might not be a good book. Sometimes folks try a bit too hard, and when they insert extra fancy words that don't need to be there, my brain stumbles a little. What I really want is simple. I need to be entertained with a good story, loveable characters, and seamless flow. I'm sure you know what I mean.

As I was working on FIRESONG during my vacation, I kept beating myself up.

"This stinks," was frequently uttered in the wee hours of the morning.

I wrote this book seven years ago and just recently realized how long it had been. No wonder it stunk. Well, maybe it didn't outright reek, but there were sections that were mildly odiferous.
Stepping out of your usual surroundings is a good thing. It brings a new perspective. When I read the same opening passage in chapter one that I'd tweaked and tweaked a thousand times, I suddenly realized it wasn't as good a "hook" as I wanted. At least I think so. Maybe you can help me decide.

I'm going to share this with you, but be kind, okay? (grin).



FIRESONG, one of the many "original" opening passages:

Chapter One

Reverend Nahum Hardina paused for breath and frowned at the ceiling. Hail clattered overhead in a devilish attempt to disrupt Sunday services in the East Goodland Methodist Church, one of the oldest establishments in upstate NY. He shrugged and smiled, smoothing his wispy gray hair. After only three minutes of preaching it was already tousled, signifying a powerful sermon.

I glanced up, wondering if the roof shingles would hold. Pine branches slapped hard against stained glass and the wind howled like a mournful coyote.

My grandson squirmed beside me. I shot him a warning glance. He blew his forelock in boredom, then pushed his nose into a pig snout, snorting so loud that everyone turned to stare.

"Johnny!" I said. "Shush."

He squealed and snorted again. I cringed and smiled an apology to our neighbors, but before I could catch him, he flung his arms over the pew and gawked at Dorothy Mason. A gentle sigh escaped her lips. This was the third time Johnny had turned to stare at her cornflower blue hair.
Pitching one leg over the backrest, he nearly toppled onto Dorothy. Sweating now, I locked my arms around him and dragged him back.

I stared intently into his mischievous eyes. "Johnny. Sit!" My words hissed over the congregation, bounced off the big crucifix in front, and returned with a sacrilegious sizzle.
He plopped onto the seat with shoulders slumped and eyes down.

Reverend Hardina shot me a glance of empathy, raising his voice over the wail of the wind.

"And now, let us turn to the quiet temple deep in our hearts. Prepare to worship the Lord from this region of inner peace. May the radiance of the Lord flow into your hearts and minds as our acolyte comes forward to light the candles."


***


Okay, that's the beginning of chapter one - last week's version. A tornado is about to hit, but I didn't want to make this article too long.

After being at my mother's to rest and relax a bit, this next version is what I came up with. Is it better? Am I fooling myself? My brain is never satisfied, so forgive my constant pursuit of perfection - a quest that is never fulfilled.

Chapter One

If I'd known what surprises Mother Nature had in store for us that summer, I might have been more prepared. As it was, the Boy Scouts would have turned their heads in shame. I was ambushed by the same force of nature that soothed me with her spicy-scented Asiatic lilies, the soft hoot of the mourning dove, and the tangy sweetness of Shiro plums. Who would expect such violence from Mother Nature, especially in upstate New York, during Sunday morning church services?

Nevertheless, pine branches tapped a tango against the antique stained glass windows of our church, as rhythmic as a frenzied woman beating a rug. I glanced up from my hymnal, wondering if the old glass would hold under the assault. The storm had kicked up in the last few minutes, and the unsuspecting farmers in the parish were hopeful-praying for rain after an uncommonly dry spring. At the end of June, the prospects for good cash crops were drying up as fast as the parched and shriveled corn withering in the rolling fields of the Genesee Valley.

Dirt devils skittered across the East Goodland Methodist Church parking lot, swirling sand and gravel in mini-cyclones of dirt and debris. The wind howled like a mournful coyote, hurling pellets of hail against the old wooden clapboards.

Behind the pulpit, Reverend Nahum Hardina paused for breath and frowned at the ceiling, as if the hail clattered in a devilish attempt to disrupt his service. He shrugged and smiled, smoothing his wispy gray hair. After only three minutes of preaching it was already tousled, a sure sign of the compelling sermon to come.

My three-year-old grandson squirmed beside me. I shot him a warning glance. He blew his forelock in boredom, then pushed his nose into a pig snout, snorting so loud that everyone turned to stare.

"Johnny!" I said. "Shush."

He squealed and snorted again. I cringed and smiled an apology to our neighbors, but before I could catch him, he flung his arms over the pew and gawked at Dorothy Mason. A gentle sigh escaped her lips. This was the third time Johnny had turned to stare at her cornflower blue hair.
When I turned my head for a second, my grandson pitched one leg over the backrest and nearly toppled onto Dorothy. Sweating now, I stood and locked my arms around him to drag him back to his seat.

His brown eyes glinted with hints of mischievous deeds to come. I lowered my head to his level and stared intently at him.

"Johnny. Sit!" My words hissed over the congregation, bounced off the big crucifix in front, and returned with a sacrilegious sizzle.

He plopped onto the pew with shoulders slumped and eyes down.

Reverend Hardina shot me a glance of empathy, raising his voice over the wail of the wind.

"And now, let us turn to the quiet temple deep in our hearts. Prepare to worship the Lord from this region of inner peace. May the radiance of the Lord flow into your hearts and minds as our acolyte comes forward to light the candles."


***

Okay - that's it. Let me know what you think, and if you have a novel or short story you'd like us to take a look at - copy and paste the first page into the comment section, below. We can offer (kindly) and unbiased opinions that might help add zing to it, or perhaps inspire you to write an even better hook.


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If you'd like to read any of Aaron's books, stop over to his website(s) at:

6 comments:

Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

I actually like the first opening better. The simplicity of the writing, the clarity of the image of the Reverend. I was hooked.

The second attempt was, I felt, overwritten and didn't hold my attention as well.

The storm is important but too much focus in the opening paragraphs takes away from the people action.

Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

By the way, your daughter is beautiful and your story about the internal storm Boston's roadways and map quest generated, followed by the deluge, was a delight to read. I don't know if you're like me but when things so wacky and wild I think "This will make a great story."

Kim Smith said...

I like the second opening. This :
Nevertheless, pine branches tapped a tango against the antique stained glass windows of our church, as rhythmic as a frenzied woman beating a rug is perfect and the best description I have read.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks, Beryl and Kim! You know, I worried about "overwriting" and felt a niggle of concern over that. Which is probably why I posted this for your comments. Kim - I tried for a long time to think up an image that reminded me of the tapping of branches on windows during a huge storm. I'm glad this one worked! I think I'm all edited out on this book - gotta go back to my quick write style and see if I can't just recreate it without so much thought to the writing itself. (eye roll) Thanks!

T.S. Franklin said...

I gotta go with the first one. I agree with the first individual -- the simplicity hooked me first. I could see myself in the same situation. The second one lost me with too many descriptors. But then again, I'm easily distracted by shining objects :)

T.S. Franklin said...

I'm taking you up on your offer to offer opinions for zing! I'd love to know what you think (either here or on my web site -- www.tsfranklin.com -- under the book excerpt section).

Thanks!

*****
Chapter 1

Seattle, Washington

The predator had become the prey.

Though he couldn’t see anyone following him, 37-year old Alex White sensed a malevolent presence closing in as he sprinted through downtown Seattle. Even with the cool night air and light rain, sweat poured from his face, mingling with tears of frustration and fear. Despite being in exceptional physical shape, the muscles in his legs screamed in agony as Alex pushed himself past his natural limits.

He paused a moment, again chancing a fleeting look over his shoulder. Still nothing. Maybe he’d lost them. He leaned against the corner of a building, breathing heavily as he tried to catch his breath.

Looking up, he froze as a man and woman crossed the sidewalk in front of him. Was it his imagination, or had he seen them before? Alex wasn’t sure, but something appeared odd about the couple. Maybe it was the way they seemed to walk purposefully toward him, or the way the man’s jacket looked like it bulged slightly near the right hip. A holstered gun? Or maybe his imagination was running wild and they were just lovers out for a stroll in the drizzling rain.

Then the man’s eyes lifted and he stared straight at Alex. The fiendish gaze pierced his soul. The man raised a finger and slowly made a slicing motion across his throat. Horrified, Alex immediately burst into a run, his cramping legs fueled by terror. His feet slammed against the pavement, puddles of water splashing as he fled.