My Novel: Hook Issues

I think I’d mentioned that a friend from college reached out and we ended up swapping manuscripts.  Well, the friend has finished their review and it leaves me with an interesting issue.  It’s one that I knew already, but this kind of highlighted it, which is that I should probably strengthen the first chapter of my book.

I’ve done a few things to fix it already.  I had dialect in that first chapter and have now eliminated it.  It wasn’t necessary and I think it prevented readers from connecting to the main character.


And I’ve done the general tightening of language that I did throughout the book.  (Oh, and just to clarify something from my post on filtering.  I definitely was filtering a lot in my book.  What I did only four or five times in the book was use it to describe the POV character noticing some micro movement of another character.  Those are the filters that I left in to make it clear that the POV character was noticing them.  And I left in some other filtering, too, when I thought it just read better.)

Anyway, back to the issue.  What I haven’t done is a massive rewrite of the action in the scene.

My friend is an aspiring writer working on subbing their second novel, so has a very strong belief in making the first ten pages zing.  Since that might be all an agent sees, my friend believes it should grab them by the throat and not let go.  To show this, my friend provided a rewrite of the first scene.  And it’s definitely more powerful than the scene I wrote.

Problem is, that’s not the type of book I wrote.  So, if I were to go with that rewrite it would make the entire rest of the book a letdown.  Chapter one the guy incinerates everyone in his path (I had him fleeing for his life).  Well, now what?  The action would need to go up from there not down.

So, the question is how do I rework that first chapter to grab a reader without creating a false expectation for the rest of the book?  I had intentionally started the chapter in a down moment, so if I move it back or forward a bit that might help.

But, at the end of the day, those first few pages set the reader’s expectation for the rest of the book.  So, yes, I need to hook a reader, but I also need to be true to the nature of the story.  No one likes the bait and switch.

And in one sense I think this beta’s feedback highlights an issue that may doom the book.  (Besides my inability to write.  Hahaha.)  In a sense, I was writing a book that was anti-Western attitudes.

What I mean by this is that in most Western books there’s this belief that someone arrives and they fix things.  They take action and change the world.  But sometimes people don’t want to do that.  My main character is tired of being used for what he can do.  He just wants to be left the hell alone.  And he could care less what kind of world he’s living in as long as no one bothers him.  So, yeah, he has power, but he doesn’t want to use it.

And the precocious kids in my book that go off and get in trouble aren’t rewarded.  They’re very much in danger of being killed for failing to conform.  No one’s telling them that, but this is a world that doesn’t allow for individuality.  If someone isn’t going to fit, they aren’t going to live.

It’s quite possible I don’t have the writing chops yet to pull off a story that goes against conventional expectations.  And I will say that this beta had very different reactions than the other betas, so it could be an individual thing.

At the end of the day, there’s only one way to know and that’s to sub it and see what people think.  If I get requests for partials, but no requests for fulls, then I’m going to need to revisit that opening.  (More than I already plan to.)  But I can’t change the opening so much that it might as well be part of a different book.  (Same with the query.  The query needs to be true to what the book is, too.)

Anyway, random thinking out loud.  I added a pretty picture to make up for it.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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5 Responses to My Novel: Hook Issues

  1. Keri Peardon says:

    I understand your dilemma. When I’m reading (or watching a movie, for that matter), I don’t want a long, slow set-up of all the characters, etc. I want some action. At the same time, you HAVE to have that set-up (it’s especially long if you have a fantasy world, which takes longer to explain) or nothing will make sense.

    What I ended up doing in my novel was some teaser action. I put in a Prologue that sets up the war that is going to follow. There’s a brief bit of action–just enough to hopefully make people curious about what will happen to the characters–and then I spend the rest of the Prologue and a few subsequent chapters setting up my world and the main characters. Then the action comes back with a vengeance and really doesn’t let up.

    My Prologue:

    And your plot doesn’t sound unreasonable. It’s called an anti-hero. (I assume that your MC will, eventually, be forced to use his power to save the world?) There are popular books and movies out there with flawed heroes–people who don’t want to be heroes or who are normally bad people–but for whatever reason, they save the day. And I think those become very popular characters because people (Americans especially, I think) want to believe in the concept of Robin Hood, the noble savage, honor among thieves, etc. They want to believe that even a bad person can make the right decision when the chips are down, can have compassion on those who truly deserve it, etc. You don’t root just for the hero to win against evil, but also to win against the evil (or weakness) inside him.

    • mhleewriter says:

      And I think that’s where it doesn’t follow those traditional lines. My character wants to be left alone. And he doesn’t think things are all that bad. He probably will at some point, but not in this novel. He has nothing of value other than his own life until the end of the book. And he’s not going to risk that for “ideals.” And why should he?

      I’m not sure I agree with having to set a lot of backstory up early. I’ll admit, a few of the books I’ve read recently were too short on back story and had me playing a little more catch-up than I’d like, but I far prefer those to the ones that spend too much time on explaining the entire structure of the world or society. It could be the type of reader I am. I generally read for the character development rather than the idea (with the exception of China Mieville). Ideally, a book has both, but character development is first and foremost for me.

  2. Dave Higgins says:

    Your story does not necessarily sound anti-Western so much as a non-North American. The typical US model of stories coming out of pulp fiction into film is BANG! and the hero does things and BANG! he gets beat then KAPOW!! he smacks them back. Even romances have a quite snappy style. This feeling that a book should be like an action film is becoming more pervasive.

    However, there are other models (for example Scandinavian literature) which take a much slower approach. Possibly you need to aim for as more literary audience to overcome the need for immediate gratification that the smart-phone et al. are building.

    One of my favourite films is Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Solaris. It begins with a car driving along a road for five minutes, just a car driving along an ordinary with nothing else happening, before it transforms your opinion of the journey with a big reveal. The reveal would be just another trying without the five minutes of “flat” event.

    So do not buy into the idea that the story has to grab the throat; it could grab the mind or the heart instead. Maybe you could write your protagonist’s flight to make the reader feel as if they are fleeing with him.

    • mhleewriter says:

      Good point, Dave. You’re absolutely right that it’s more a U.S. issue than a Western issue.

      And, theoretically, I wrote it so the reader is with the main character as he flees, but that’s where we get back to having the writing chops to pull off something that grabs the readers’ minds or hearts. I think that’s harder than showing something flashy and I just may not be there yet.

      I have to just keep reminding myself that not all novels will appeal to all readers, so maybe with this beta it just wasn’t in their interest range so they kept trying to force it back to what they’re used to. (For example, I have a female authority figure and the beta wanted me to add boots and cloak and whipping a braid around to show authority. Not that kind of world.)

      • Dave Higgins says:

        Sounds as if your beta has certain firm views on action fiction.

        It reminds me of an apparently serious rant I encountered on how female editors had ruined science fiction by forcing authors to include characters with feelings. 🙂

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