Razor Mountain Development Journal #44

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I wrote a rough draft of the last chapter and started getting into revisions on Chapter One.

The Hook

As I talked about in a post earlier this week, I spent some time refining my first sentence, first page, and first chapter. I started with the hook.

In the rough draft, my opening paragraph is this:

The cave was a dark, low tunnel, crowded with formless shapes. Christopher struggled to identify his surroundings through eyes bleary with sleep. There was a long roar, followed by a thump. A buzzy, persistent rumble emanated from the darkness around him. Christopher rubbed his eyes and blinked several times, breathing deep and trying to clear his vision.

The first thing I did was get rid of the roar and the thump. I originally intended them to be the sound of other passengers jumping from the aircraft, and the door shutting behind them, while Christopher is still out of it. There’s no more mention of it later on, and it just ends up being confusing and slowing things down slightly. I rearranged and reworded almost all of the rest of it, although the meaning changed very little.

The cave was night-dark and claustrophobic, crowded with indistinct shapes. The cave was night-dark and claustrophobic, crowded with indistinct shapes. Christopher struggled to identify his surroundings through eyes bleary with sleep. All around him was loud buzzing; it permeated his body. He pressed his palms to his eyes and breathed deep, trying to clear his head.

Hopefully the question of where Christopher is and what is happening is enough to hook the reader, without being too confusing. Part of that relies on me quickly revealing more about what’s happening in the remainder of the first page.

The First Page

My goal in the first page is to get across a couple of ideas:

  1. Christopher feels strange, as though he’s been drugged.
  2. He realizes that he is not in a cave, he is in the passenger cabin of a small plane.

Next, as quickly as possible, I need to reveal that the passengers are missing, the pilot is missing, and Christopher is in a world of trouble. This leads naturally into the rest of Chapter One, which is all about answering the question, “what is he going to do about it?”. I think the rough draft does this decently well, so I worked on saying more with fewer words, rewording each of the next 4-5 paragraphs.

This is what my first page looks like, after some revision:

The cave was night-dark and claustrophobic, crowded with indistinct shapes. Christopher struggled to identify his surroundings through eyes bleary with sleep. He was surrounded by loud buzzing; it permeated his body. He pressed his palms to his eyes and blinked repeatedly, then breathed deep, trying to clear his head.

Although his surroundings were shadowy, Christopher could make more sense of the shapes around him as he blinked away his grogginess. The hunched, round shapes were seats. He fumbled around, felt the thin padding beneath and behind him, felt the arm rests.

Christopher’s perception shifted and he understood what he was seeing. Not a cave; an airplane cabin. Why had he thought it was a cave? Moonlight faintly illuminated the outlines of the small, round windows. The prop engines buzzed. Now that he thought about it, Christopher could feel their vibration through his seat.

He tried again to blink away the sleepiness that clung like cobwebs. Even when he had pulled all-nighters in college, he hadn’t felt this discombobulated. This was more like a bad hangover.

Christopher had been skeptical when one of the other salespeople in the department warned him not to sleep on planes when traveling. Better to hold out and hit a new time zone running, one of the veterans had said. Christopher had thought he was exaggerating.

He tried to stand and found himself still seatbelted. He fumbled the clasp open and stood fully, immediately banging his head on the sloped ceiling above. Christopher felt a sudden head rush from standing too quickly, but the pain of his bruised scalp helped to cut through the fog of his thoughts.

It was too dark in the passenger section of the little plane. Before he had dozed off, Christopher recalled little LEDs along the aisle between the seats; recessed lights along the seam between wall and ceiling. He had to turn around to face the front of the plane. Unlike the large passenger planes Christopher had flown on for other trips, this little plane had seats back-to-back, with some facing forward and some facing the rear of the plane. There were only eight seats in the passenger area, and Christopher’s was near the back, facing the tail.

The seats were all empty.

The First Chapter

To revise the rest of Chapter One, I looked at the order of events and made sure I was happy with everything that happened, and what order it happened in. I did end up making some small adjustments from the outline, which is to be expected.

Next, I took several more passes through the chapter to look specifically for some of the things I mentioned in my “firsts” post: adjectives and adverbs, sound, character voice, and pacing. It’s a long chapter (although it’s getting a little shorter in editing), and I still need to spend more time with it to get through all these improvements.

After that, I’ll pass it to my first reader/editor — my wife — and I’ll make more revisions based on her evaluation.

Cover Work

I’ve also been looking at options for cover art. As long as I’m experimenting (and not strategizing for an Amazon e-book bestseller), I thought I might try to make a cover myself. However, when it comes to visual art I’m a somewhat enthusiastic dabbler. I have no formal training. I just occasionally make things for my own enjoyment.

So, I tried making a cover, and I didn’t much like it. Then I started digging more seriously into other options, from paid services to DIY. I can say right now that I won’t be spending a ton of money on a cover (and boy can you spend a lot of money on a cover), but I’m still looking. More to follow.

Results

I revised Chapter One, with special attention to the opening. I spent time creating a book cover that I didn’t like, and then evaluating other options for book covers.

First Sentence, First Page, First Chapter

As I’m working on my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I’ve reached the point where I have a rough draft of the first two chapters. In some ways, each of these is a first chapter — each one introduces a separate point of view character, in a different setting and vastly different time periods.

I let these chapters “rest” for a week or two, and then came back to revise them. There are many different ways to revise, but today I wanted to talk a little bit about beginnings, and all of the “firsts” of the book — the first sentence, first page, and first chapter.

If there are any parts of a novel that are more important than the rest, they are the beginning and the end. A good ending will often buy the reader’s forgiveness for weaknesses in the middle of the book. A good beginning, on the other hand, is vital to get the reader interested in the first place, and to tee up all of the wonderful stuff you have planned for the rest of the book.

Consulting Some Books on Writing

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while is probably well aware that I am a collector of writing advice, tips and tricks, so I looked through my collection of writing books and pulled out some pertinent ones. If you can build up a little library of books and writing resources that you like, it can be very helpful to focus yourself by picking out a few related books and skimming or reading the relevant sections before you embark on a particular task.

When I buy a book on writing, I do try to read it right away and internalize what I can. However, I have plenty of these books that I last read five or ten years ago. I’ll be the first to admit that I only have so much storage space in my internal memory to hold on to that knowledge. But that’s the great thing about books — all that knowledge is still there, in external (paper) memory.

I first pulled out The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by the New York Writers Workshop. In the chapter on fiction, it has this to say about story-opening strategies:

The purpose of the beginning of a story is to introduce character and conflict. Another purpose is to catch and hold the reader’s interest. One way to do so is to raise a question in the mind of the reader. Another way is to quickly immerse the reader in the action of the story, to eliminate boring exposition…conflict, when effectively dramatized, also catches the attention of the reader.

This hits a lot of the points I was working toward when I initially planned the beginning of the novel. However, now that I have a draft, I need to make sure that I actually execute my plan effectively. I’ve set up clear questions at the beginning: why does Christopher wake up groggy on a plane where the passengers and pilot have vanished? I need to make sure that I quickly jump into the action of him making this discovery and then attempting to deal with the situation. I also need to show some of his character through his thoughts and actions in this stressful situation.

Next, I moved on to The First Five Pages, by editor-turned-agent Noah Lukeman. This is a text all about beginnings, and while it focuses on crafting an opening that will appeal to agents and editors in the traditional publishing world, the bulk of its advice applies to any fiction opening, regardless of how you plan to publish.

Lukeman suggests several things to trim and improve:

  • Adjectives and adverbs — This is pretty common writing advice. Replace them with better nouns and verbs, find more unusual or evocative modifiers, or swap-in an analogy, simile or metaphor instead.
  • Sound — This encompasses myriad vague things: sentence construction and the use of punctuation like comma, semicolon, em-dash, and parentheses; “echoes” like the repetition of character names, pronouns, or unusual words; alliteration and the repetition of specific sounds in close proximity; and resonance, the sound of the language separate from its meaning.
  • Dialogue — An overuse or complete lack of dialogue, dialogue as artificial infodump, melodrama, or just generally difficult-to-follow exchanges.
  • Showing vs. telling
  • Viewpoint, narration, and consistent character voice
  • Characterization — Not skipping over properly introducing characters in the hurry to move the plot along.
  • Pacing and progression — Do the individual parts of the story flow together in sequence?
  • The hook — A really interesting or exciting first sentence that still fits with what comes after.

There are many other sections in the book, but these were the things that stood out to me as I skimmed through it this time.

The Hook

The hook is typically considered the first sentence, or less often the first couple sentences. It is called the hook because that’s what it should do to the reader: hook them and pull them into the story.

The first sentence and first paragraph should be concise and exciting — although you can decide what exactly exciting means for you — action, dialogue, or an interesting premise. It will help if that beginning leads the reader into those key elements: holding interest and elucidating character and conflict.

My intent with Razor Mountain is to start the story with Christopher on the plane. He wakes up (which is admittedly a well-worn trope for a book opening), groggy from being drugged. It is dark. At first, he thinks the poorly lit passenger cabin is a shadowy cave. It is only as he looks around and regains his senses that he realizes where he actually is. I’m also hoping to achieve some symmetry with this opening, where the beginning and end of the first act involves a character in a cave. Likewise the beginning and end of the entire book.

The First Page

The first page or first few paragraphs are an extension of the hook. A hook can be exciting and hold the reader’s interest with all sorts of tricks, but that will only take the reader so far if it doesn’t lead naturally into the rest of the book. The first page is an expansion of the hook.

The hook drops the reader into the story and shows one, maybe two important things to get the reader invested. The first page gives you more space to work, but also demands more. The reader needs to be anchored to a place, or people, or more likely both. Enough of the setting and characters has to be described, in order for the reader to start to envision what’s happening. All of it still needs to keep the reader engaged and pull them along.

The First Chapter

When the reader turns that first page, you’ve achieved an important milestone. You’ve hooked the reader. For the rest of the chapter, you’ll be doing largely the same things, on a broader scale.

The first chapter is a sort of promise. Whether you’re intending it or not, the first chapter promises the reader an idea of what the rest of the story is going to be like. Since it’s happening either way, you had better lean into it, and make that promise count. Maybe you’ll hint at exactly what they’re getting by highlighting the style of the book or introducing important characters and settings. Maybe you’ll foreshadow future events. Or maybe you’ll be subversive, setting the reader’s expectations, only to shock them with a plot twist later on.

Razor Mountain Firsts

Later this week, I’ll talk more about working on the first sentence, page and chapter for Razor Mountain, as well as all of the other revisions I’m working on for Chapters One and Two.

Learning from Great Hooks

The “hook” is the opening of a story: the handful of sentences where a reader is willing to completely suspend judgement and open themselves up to a new world. It’s called a hook because it’s the author’s opportunity to reel the reader in. To grab hold of them and refuse to let them go until the story is done.

Hooks are among the most daunting things to write. A hook needs to pull the reader in, but it’s also a promise of what’s to come. If the hook captures the reader’s interest, but does it in a way that’s at-odds with the rest of the story, it will feel like a betrayal. A bait-and-switch.

Today, I want to look at hooks from a few books I like and see what I can learn from them. How are they structured? As a reader, how do these introductory sentences pull me in? What do they promise about the story to come?

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once. And the King, who by now had almost forgotten the old Queen and had scarcely looked at the baby, agreed and thought no more about it. And that would have been the end of that baby girl, but that her nurse, Matulli, came to hear of it. Now this nurse was from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time. So she turned herself into a black bear then and there, and picked up the baby in her mouth, blanket and all, and growled her way out of the Bower at the back of the King’s hall, and padded out through the light spring snow that had melted already hear the hall, and through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep.

This lovely rush of words is only five sentences. Most of them start with conjunctions, making it feel like one long, breathless run. So much is happening.

It’s clear from the first few words that this is going to be a fairy tale, and that’s further confirmed when we see that being able to turn into an animal is treated as no particularly impressive feat. We can also tell that this is no light and fluffy fairy tale. It begins with the almost casual cruelty of the king and queen.

This opening also makes it clear that this girl is the protagonist, and she will not be living a normal life. In this single paragraph, we see her lose her birthright, saved by a bear-woman and brought to live in the woods. It’s hard not to be curious about what will happen next.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman

You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonour that she had brought to my family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.

I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.

This opening starts in the second person, drawing the reader in by including them in what seems to be conversation in progress. A conversation with us.

We start with a few fragmented sentences, already waist-deep in mysteries. Where did you leave him? Who is he? What did you do? The daughter clearly didn’t run away to the city, so what happened to her?

The viewpoint character is already being defined here. He’s someone with strong emotions – a fierce temper that more or less caused him to disown his daughter, and his shame when he discovers this still unexplained truth of what really happened to her.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

“That’s what you said about the brother.”

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

“Not if the other person is his enemy.”

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”

“If we have to.”

“I thought you said you liked this kid.”

“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”

“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Starting with dialogue puts us in the action immediately. It also tells us that whoever these two disembodied voices are talking about is probably important to the story. Dialogue like this, without tags attributing it to a character, is a dangerous choice because it can be disorienting to the reader. In this case, it works because we don’t have to care about these two speakers, only the information they’re conveying really matters.

The first sentence sounds like standard Messiah fare, but it’s immediately subverted. We understand that the target of this discussion is being observed and tested (in a very invasive way), and his brother and sister were subjected to this treatment as well. These voices are willing to be cruel to him if it’s required to make him into this messianic figure and save the world. The stakes of the story are already being established on the first page.

There is a little mystery here as well. What are the buggers, and why does the world need to be saved?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

It goes on like this for another page and a half of prologue, which meanders right into the first chapter. I found it hard to pick a cut-off point.

To me, this is the most interesting example we’ll look at today. It doesn’t introduce any of the main characters, or anything about the situation or setting (beyond Earth in general).

It does tell us that it’s science fiction, it’s not going to take itself seriously, and it’s going to be looking at everything from a rather skewed and unexpected viewpoint. In fact, what it’s really introducing is the the author’s incredibly distinctive voice and tone. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you’ll know that his narrative voice is almost a character in its own right (even if it isn’t from an actual character’s perspective). This series includes plenty of chapter-length digressions and asides, and is undoubtedly better for it.

In short, the story can afford to wait a bit, because it’s so damn entertaining to just listen to what Adams has to say.

Give it a Try!

I’d encourage every writer to do this exercise with some favorite books. One of the wonderful things you’ll discover is the sheer variety of forms that a hook can take. You don’t need to feel forced into a formula — there are a plethora of ways to pull readers into a story. By analyzing the hooks of stories you love, you might discover some great ideas you can apply to your own stories.