Sunday, June 14, 2009

For Writers: The Hook

copyright 2009, aaron paul lazar

How important is the first page of your novel? What about the first paragraph? Or even the first sentence?

Do they really have to be different from any other page, ‘graph, or sentence in your book? Does it matter if you grab the reader on page one? Can’t you wind your way up to a wonderful climax? Isn’t it okay to saunter along in your characters’ lives, slowly wending your way to the conflict?

Sometimes. You’ll probably find plenty of bestsellers or classics that do just that. In literary fiction, it’s often the norm.

But if you write a thriller, suspense, mystery, fantasy, or a romance, your readers expect to be intrigued from the start. Reeling in your potential reader, placing him smack dab in the middle of something enticing and juicy, will often confirm the sale of your book after the cover design makes them pick it up, and after the book blurb lures them to the first page.

If your first page is lackluster, if the writing is not tight, if the characters don’t shine – you’ve lost them.

Consider how you buy books. Aside from the authors you already know and love, what is the catalyst that prompts you to pull your wallet out and let the bucks fly for an unknown author? Are you attracted by a clever cover? Does a plain cover turn you off? What about the title? Or, do you turn directly to the first page?

I usually read the back cover synopsis. If that piques my interest, I’ll read the first page. And if the writing style sings and the concept excites me from the beginning, I’ll buy it.

Let’s post some excerpts from our first pages below. I’ve chosen a few from my thirteen books. Mind you, whenever I look back at my old writing, I shudder. But we all have to start somewhere, and I’m trying not to beat myself up too much. It’s better to share and be humbled, than never to have discussed it at all!

In the comments section below, list the first segment of your opening page, fiction or nonfiction. And if you have a lot of dialog, just pick a natural break point.

Case 1

“Damn those Map-it directions!” I gritted my teeth and swerved around a pothole big enough to hold three potbelly pigs. The remote Adirondack dirt road twisted and turned into the wilderness, bringing us further into the boonies. Blue mountains crested the distant horizon, and tall pines hugged the road on both sides. We’d seen no houses, no gas stations, and no people. Our hotel was nowhere in sight, and we’d been on the hilly dirt road for over an hour.
I turned to my husband. “Check the map again, will you?” (From For the Birds, a paranormal mystery, available rights)
Case 2
We’re going to die on our wedding day.
The right wing dipped and the storm raged, battering the massive Boeing 747. Overhead bins snapped open, disgorging travel bags and paraphernalia into the aisle. Cries of alarm filled the air and I broke into a cold sweat.
Camille grabbed my arm. “Talk to me, Gus. Take my mind off it.”
Her complexion waxed green. She brushed damp curls from her forehead and leaned back with her eyes squeezed shut. A bolt of lightning burst against the window and the aircraft wobbled its way toward Paris. (From Mazurka: a Gus LeGarde mystery, coming August 15th, 2009)

Case 3

We're not gonna make it.
I looked across the darkened lake and pulled hard on the oars in the direction of home. Feathers of fog slipped over the glassy water, whispering moist threats.
Siegfried shrugged out of his sweatshirt and handed it to his sister, who shivered in the stern of the old skiff. She tossed him an uneasy smile and put it on.
I took a deep breath and nodded to the ten-year-old twins with more confidence than I felt.
"Don't worry. We'll make it. We're almost to Moose Point."
Elsbeth drew the sweatshirt around her. The sleeves, six inches too long, dangled like limp shrouds. She slid them up to free her hands and peered at me through a mass of dark curls, moving closer to her brother.
"What's happening, Gus? Why is it so dark?"
I cast my eyes around the lake and up to the sky. It had been sunny when we set out for Horsehead Island. Now a thick fog bank obliterated the sun. I answered carefully, feeling responsible for the two since I was a full year older.
"It's just the fog. Don't worry. I'll row to shore and we'll wait it out, okay?" (From Tremolo: cry of the loon; November 2007)
Case 4

Sam juggled four pots of yellow daylilies, squeezing the cell phone between his shoulder and ear. “Where? And why in world do you need me?”
Lou sounded exasperated. “I told you. The Twin Sisters Inn. And I can’t say over the phone, I just need your… expertise.”
Sam frowned. He’d practiced family medicine in East Goodland, New York, for over thirty years, but couldn’t imagine how treating runny noses and chicken pox qualified him to help with a murder. (From For Keeps: A Sam Moore paranormal mystery, future release)

Case 5
Camille sat up with a start and peered at the red numbers on the alarm clock. “She’s not home yet? It’s almost 12:30!” She flopped back on her pillow with a loud sigh.
I answered in a controlled, angry voice. “Nope.” I’d been lying in bed, wide-awake, worried about my teenage daughter. Curfew was 10:30, and Shelby was two hours late. It wasn’t the first time she’d been in trouble in the past few months.
The full moon shone on the floorboards and bounced off the walls. Max snuffled in his sleep, stretched his legs, and thumped his tail against the bedspread. Boris snored contentedly as his hot-water-bottle-body warmed my feet.
“Should we call her cell?” she said.
“Yeah. I can’t sleep until I know she’s safe.”
I reached over to the nightstand and grabbed the cell phone. Flipping it open, I squinted at the tiny letters on the display and scrolled down to Shelby’s number. I pressed the green button and listened to it ring. And ring. And ring.
“Hi! This is Shelby. I’m busy now, but I’ll call ya back. You know the drill!”
I frowned and grumbled into the phone.
“Shelby. It’s Dad. You’re over two hours late and we’re worried. Call me.”
I flipped the phone shut and sighed. (From Counterpoint: a Gus LeGarde Mystery, available rights)
Let's examine each sample.
In Case 1, we’re plunked smack dab into a dilemma. Our narrator and her husband are lost in the wilderness. Will they ever get out? Will they run out of gas? Will they be eaten by bears?
In Case 2, Gus and Camille’s lives are in peril. Will the plane crash on their wedding night, or will they arrive in Paris safely?

Case 3 holds a similar threat. Three children are out on the lake in the middle of a thickening fog. Will they get home before it strands them?

Case 4 is a bit different. This one sets up a question right away, although no one is in danger immediately. The murder has already happened. Sam wonders why his friend is calling him in on a murder case. His friend’s tone is strained, almost hesitant. What is he not telling Sam?
Case 5 brings a situation to mind that all parents of teenage girls have been through. Shelby’s late, by two hours. Is she dead in a ditch? Or getting in trouble with a boy? Did she get picked up for drugs? What could have happened, and how will Gus punish her this time?

Do you see a trend here? Does it make sense to you?

Let’s share some opening passages from your books below. It doesn't matter if you're published or still waiting. And don’t forget to put a link to buy if they’re available. Maybe you’ll win over your next fan!
Aaron Paul Lazar wasn’t always a mystery writer. It wasn’t until eight members of his family and friends died within five years that the urge to write became overwhelming. “When my father died, I lost it. I needed an outlet, and writing provided the kind of solace I couldn’t find elsewhere.”

Lazar created the Gus LeGarde mystery series, with the founding novel, DOUBLE FORTÉ (2004), a chilling winter mystery set in the Genesee Valley of upstate New York. Like Lazar’s father, protagonist Gus LeGarde is a classical music professor. Gus, a grandfather, gardener, chef, and nature lover, plays Chopin etudes to feed his soul and thinks of himself as a “Renaissance man caught in the 21st century.”

The creation of the series lent Lazar the comfort he sought, yet in the process, a new passion was unleashed. Obsessed with his parallel universe, he now lives, breathes, and dreams about his characters, and has written nine LeGarde mysteries in seven years. (UPSTAGED – 2005; TREMOLO:CRY OF THE LOON – 2007 Twilight Times Books; MAZURKA – 2009 Twilight Times Books, with more to come.)

One day while rototilling his gardens, Lazar unearthed a green cat’s eye marble, which prompted the new paranormal mystery series featuring Sam Moore, retired country doctor and zealous gardener. The green marble, a powerful talisman, connects all three of the books in the series, whisking Sam back in time to uncover his brother’s dreadful fate fifty years earlier. (
HEALEY’S CAVE: A GREEN MARBLE MYSTERY, 2009; ONE POTATO, BLUE POTATO, 2010; FOR KEEPS, 2011) Lazar intends to continue both series.

Lazar’s books feature breathless chase scenes, nasty villains, and taut suspense, but are also intensely human stories, replete with kids, dogs, horses, food, romance, and humor. The author calls them, “country mysteries,” although reviewers have dubbed them “literary mysteries.”

“It seems as though every image ever impressed upon my brain finds its way into my work. Whether it’s the light dancing through stained-glass windows in a Parisian chapel, curly slate-green lichen covering a boulder at the edge of a pond in Maine, or hoarfrost dangling from a cherry tree branch in mid-winter, these images burrow into my memory cells. In time they bubble back, persistently itching, until they are poured out on the page.”

The author lives on a ridge overlooking the Genesee Valley in upstate New York with his wife, mother-in-law, and beloved Cavi-poo, Balto. Recent empty nesters, he and his wife are fixing up their 1811 antique home after twenty-five years of kid and puppy wear.

Lazar maintains several websites and blogs, is the Gather Saturday Writing Essential host, writes his monthly “Seedlings” columns for the Voice in the Dark literary journal and the Future Mystery Anthology Magazine. He has been published in Absolute Write as well as The Great Mystery and Suspense Magazine. See excerpts and reviews here:

Contact him at


Kathryn Magendie said...

Enjoyed this post!

s.w. vaughn said...

Great examples, Aaron - and what a fun idea for a post! It's definitely true that a novel opening has to be attention-getting. Fortunately, you don't have to kill someone in the first sentence to grab someone's attention - as you've proven with your intriguing openings. :-)

And I just noticed that four of your five examples open with dialogue, either external or internal. "They" say that isn't supposed to work - but it certainly does for you!

I'll play the hook game! Here's my opening for Hunted:


Sometimes being able to read minds was a pain in the ass.

Grace heard the words bouncing between the security chief’s ears. She preferred the words coming out of his mouth.

"You can leave just as soon as we finish checking your identification and reviewing the tapes. It’s standard procedure whenever a ... guest wins such a large amount," he said. And thought: No way you’re twenty-one. If you’re twenty-one, then I’m Elvis Presley. And I know you cheated, you smug bitch. I’ll catch you, and I’m gonna laugh when they haul your pretty ass off to jail.

Unfortunately, he was right on both counts. She wasn’t twenty-one, and she had cheated. Sort of. She also knew he couldn’t prove it. The knowledge provided little comfort. She tried not to hate him, knew he was just doing his job ... but he didn’t have to be such a jerk about it.

Kim Smith said...

Fresh from the fingers..
“Hello,” I addressed the dark suited man behind the desk. “I would like to know the room number for David Smith, please.”
His nametag said Viktor. “As would everyone here in this building, ma’am. Is Mr. Smith expecting you?”
Oh oh. This wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. So much for Miss Nice Gal. “Yes, he is. I’m his cousin, we’re working together on a project.” I lifted my notebook and showed it to him along with a lot of glittering teeth. “So, if you’d be so kind to tell me where to locate him?”
He shook his head. “Not on your life, lady. You’re not the first to try something like this.”
“Fine,” I shouted. “I’ll have to tell everyone in this place that you have bed bugs. Is that what you want? Everyone—” I cupped my hand over my mouth and turned to yell into the crowd when he stopped me.
“—Lady, I could lose my job!”

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Ah, wonderful openings, SW and Kim!! Thanks for playing the game. Wonderful, intriguing first pages with each of your styles perfectly illustrated. Thank you!

Let's see how many folks we can round up to stop over and share their openings with us!

Marta Stephens said...

Been on vacation! First chance I've had to pop in. Love your picture!! ;)

Okay, here's mine...

"The hour-long sessions started at nine in the morning, twice a week, whether narcotics detective, Sam Harper liked it or not...Internal Affairs had drilled him for three days in a row. Now the police shrink wanteda piece of him."

The opening of my second novel, "The Devil Can Wait" (2008)depicts an elderly man looking for his runaway dog in the middle of cold winter night along a stretch of beach. It's around 200 words--the following shows the moment he finds his pet.

"There you are, you stinker."
Ten yards ahead, the dog stood poised like a pointer barking incessantly at the incoming waves.
"Crazy mutt."
The dog lowered his head and eased toward the water's edge.
"Fogerdy. Here, boy." He clapped his hands to get the pet's attention. "Get over here."
The dog remained fixed; his hackles on end.
"What's gotten into you?" he asked as he bent to leash him. "You're never this …" The man swept the light in the direction of whatever had caught the dog's attention. He squinted, leaned in for a closer look, and recoiled. Disgust hit as hard as the stench that rose from the decomposed body.

Excerpts for both books available at

Marta Stephens said...

Gads! Almost forgot. Here's the opening line to my current WIP GRAVE WITNESS (2010??)

* * *

Bodies were dropping like pants in a whorehouse, but Rhonie Lude wasn’t yet desperate enough to go after the mafia-type thugs who terrorize shopkeepers in the lower east end. Sure, with some serious drive a girl could make a tidy killing sweeping crud off the streets if, someone was willing to pay her price and she didn’t die trying.

Vicki Kennedy said...

Hi Aaron!

Great article with lots of good examples. Thanks for sharing!

Sheila Deeth said...

Oh wow. I'm loving all these openings. My to-read list's just getting so long...

So now I'm looking at my WIP and works hiding after too many rejections and wondering if I dare play the game...

Okay, first bit from Hemlock

“Sigh—obb—hann.” The teacher groaned and looked up from the sheet of new names in the attendance register. “Good grief, who is that then?” she asked. “Where are you, and what on earth am I meant to call you?”

“Please,” said Siobhan from the back of the class, raising a thin hand shyly. “It’s Sh’von. And people call me Vonnie.”

“Sh’von. And how is that spelt?”

Somehow Siobhan guessed that spelling out the letters—s,i,o,b,h,a,n—wasn’t quite what was required, so she ducked her face behind a curtain of red hair and stayed silent.

“Sh’von. Isn’t that the same as She-Von?” asked the teacher a moment later. Yes thought Siobhan, remembering the kids in her last school calling her She Ra and Mrs. Von Helsing. If only she could have had a nice normal name, like Brendan, her big brother.

“And where do you come from Sh’von, to get a name like that?”

“Salt Lake City.” Ah, wrong answer again. “It’s Irish,” Siobhan corrected herself. “My Mom and Dad are Irish.”

“And what does it mean?”

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Great excerpts, everyone! Thanks, Marta, Vicki, and Sheila!

Warren Adler said...

Great post, Aaron. Hope all is well with you.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks, Warren. Lovely to see you here, as always!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...
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