Monday 25 November 2013

THE CRAFT OF WRITING: Are you a fisherman or a landscape artist?

By Anne Hamilton

Every nine seconds, the celebrations begin: fireworks go off, the party poppers explode, the streamers fly skyward and yet another email campaign begins as another book is launched onto an unsuspecting world! 

Yes! Every nine seconds! Maybe significantly less by now. The stats I found to figure this out are a few years out of date. Even global publishers with their multi-million dollar budgets are finding it hard to get any cut-through. 

While selling books is tougher than ever and many bookstores are closing down, it’s not necessarily true people are reading less. There are more books than ever before being produced annually. It’s estimated over half the books available in the USA alone today are effectively self-published through some avenue such as CreateSpace or Smashwords or Lulu. 

However consumers are getting more savvy. The reputation of Smashwords is falling dramatically as readers find it hard to find the cherries amongst the slush. Many readers are growing increasingly like the commissioning editors at big companies who discard a manuscript before the end of the first paragraph: if you don’t have a hook to engage them by that time, your chance of being picked up is gone.

Of course, if you’ve got JK Rowling’s reputation, you don’t need to worry at all about your opening paragraph. But until you reach that mega-stellar status (or if you decide to follow Rowling’s lead and use a pseudonym such as ‘Robert Galbraith’), you might want to consider a ‘narrative hook’ to reel your reader into the following chapter. 

Two styles are illustrated here: the puzzle and the hint. Often these overlap as in the following examples where an intriguing flavour immediately pulls the reader beyond the first sentence: 

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea. 
Mortal Engines’, Philip Reeve 

Prince Kaspar Kandinsky first came to the Savoy Hotel in a basket.
‘Kaspar’, Michael Morpurgo 

Ever since Jack’s funeral, Sandra had been covered in glass.
‘Knitting’, Anne Bartlett 

Expect the worst! Phil re-read the text twice. Oliver must be exaggerating. It can’t be that bad.
‘Motive Games’, L.D. Taylor 

Heidi Jordan preferred to make resolutions at the start of each new month.
‘Heidi’s October’, Penelope McCowen

When my workday is over, and I have closed my notebook, hidden my pen, and sawed holes in my rented canoe so that it cannot be found, I often like to spend the evening in conversation with my few surviving friends. 
‘A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Carnivorous Carnival’, Lemony Snicket 

In general, these are not new examples from recent books. Beginning a story with a description of the landscape around the protagonist went out about a century ago. If you’ve got a tendency to be a landscape artist in that opening paragraph of your writing, it’s time to change professions. Become a fisherman. 

If you know any great hooks of the mystery or hint type, I’d love you to share them. Old or new, it doesn’t matter. (But don’t be tempted to offer that famous Kingsley Amis one. If you know it, you’ll know why. This is a G-rated blog.) 

Over at Omega Writers, this month’s writing challenge is to craft your manuscript’s opening paragraph – either fiction or non-fiction – so it has a nifty narrative hook. 

Deadline for entries is 20 December 2013. Entry is free for members of Omega Writers and $5 for non-members. A cash prize of $25 plus 3 new books from Light the Dark and a cool award for your CV awaits the winner. 

Send your entries to registrar (at) wordswithwings (dot) net 

Anne Hamilton is the current President of Omega Writers, a support group for faith-based writers across Australasia. She is an award-winning author and the Australian sub-editor of the popular devotional, The Word for Today.


  1. Great post Annie. Love the imagery.

  2. One of the opening paragraphs that hooked me was Sara Donati's in Into the Wilderness. 'Elizabeth Middleton, twenty-nine years old and unmarried, overly educated and excessively rational, knowing right from wrong and fancy from fact, woke in a nest of marten and fox pelts to the sight of an eagle circling overhead, and saw at once that it could not be far to Paradise.

  3. Annie, excellent post! I'm one of those readers who stop reading after the first paragraph if I'm not intrigued by the story. I've learned that if the first paragraph and page doesn't hook me, the rest of the book probably won't be any better.

    The narrative hook I've always remembered (and memorised for my high school final year English exam) is Jane Austen's famous opening line in Pride and Prejudice (1813). "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

  4. I think the following opening paragraph from 'Gilead' by Pullitzer prize winner Marilynne Robinson is intriguing--and breaks a few rules along the way(!): 'I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.'

    But I think my favourite first sentence is the following (!):
    'There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.' From The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C S Lewis 1952

    1. I love the C S Lewis one, Jo-Anne!

    2. I was hoping someone would add the opening of 'Voyage of the Dawn Treader' - it was tempting to include it in the original post...

  5. Terrific post, Annie! (she said, hastily revising the opening paragraph of her WIP)

    How about this?
    'He was dead. However, his nose throbbed painfully, which he thought odd in the circumstances.'
    First 2 sentences from Diana Gabaldon's 'Voyager', her third book in her 'Outlander' series. Apparently it won 'best opening line' from EW magazine, (even though it's actually 2 sentences).

    She also won several awards for 'best last line' ( a beautifully romantic one, too) from the fifth book in the series. I think last lines are almost as important, especially in a series, and simply to make the reader grind his/her teeth and hope there's another book immediately available by the same author.

    Right. (Write?) Back to the revisions ...

    1. Hi Andrea
      That's a great one you've quoted. I agree last lines are just as important... in some ways, I think more so. Once you've hooked your reader, you need to keep them.

  6. Great post, Annie.

    I once spent hours with a crit partner reading the first lines of new releases on Amazon. We wanted to know how many started with narrative, how many with dialogue. In the end, it didn't matter if it started with one or another. The books we 'oohed and aahhed' over, come with a decent hook. We went through about 20 books in as many minutes and vowed to never waste a reader's time with uncooked starts. Or middles, and ends for that matter. :)

    Great competition. I'll have to come across and see what's happening at Omega Writers. :)

  7. My favourite is Anne Tyler's "The fortune teller and her grandfather went to New York City on an Amtrak train, racketing along with their identical, peaky white faces set due north" (from Searching For Caleb). And pretty hard to beat is, "A sealed envelope is an enigma containing further enigmas." (from The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Perez-Revere). Rhonda Pooley, blogging at ScribingIt.

  8. This is something I always battle with and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite but just checked some of my books and couldn't see any I liked enough to write here - especially after the great examples already.

    1. I battle myself with this, Mary. The only time I really succeed was with Merlin's Wood.

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  10. I liked this opening. 'Marina told me that we only remember what never really happened. It would take a lifetime to understand what those words meant. But I suppose I'd better start at the beginning, which in this case is this end.' This is from Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and I was hooked by that first paragraph.


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