How to hook your reader in the first 100 words

Friday, 26 February 2016

I'm pretty bad at getting my work critiqued. OK, I admit it - I'm a complete and utter wuss.

In fact, until a fortnight ago I point-blank refused to let anyone read a single word. So who better to deliver my first critique than an award-winning author in front of room of 40 professional writers?

At least you can't accuse me of doing things by halves.

The First 100 Words Challenge Workshop was the first Romantic Novelists Association event I had attended since joining the New Writers Scheme this year.

It was run by Julie Cohen,  author of 2015 Best Romantic Read Where Love Lies and 2014 Richard and Judy Summer Bookclub pick Dear Thing.

Julie started the session by sharing the first 100 words of her own novel.  She showed us how she had subtly prepared the readers' expectations for the main character and what was to follow in the plot, as well as planting a mystery which enticed you to read on. To achieve this, she had rewritten it again and again until she got it right.

Here are some hints from Julie:
  • Agents, editors and readers often don't look beyond the first few sentences of a story, so make sure yours stand out. 
  • Start as late into the story as possible and avoid backstory. 
  • Avoid starting with the protagonist waking up, driving, walking around or talking with her friend about life.
  • Put some conflict on the page to hook the reader. Show your main character's main problem or emotional conflict straight away.
  • Give the right first impression of your characters. What do you want the reader to think about them?
  • Use interesting language which shows your voice right from the start with active verbs and specific detail. 
  • Prologues delay the story and are often unnecessary. 
Julie Cohen (Photo by Rowan Coleman)

Before starting the marathon task of reading out 40 intros, Julie, a confident hat-wearing American, warned us several times that she would be mean. "Not to worry we're all professional writers here," she added.

By this point I was considering the possibility of disappearing into the toilets to avoid public humiliation.

Luckily it didn't come to that, as mine was one of the first to be read out.  Much to my relief I wasn't openly mocked and outed as an imposter.  Nor were there cries that it was amazing and people were desperate to read on.

Instead, there was mainly silence from the room, while the people on my table nodded and smiled approvingly (did I mention what a lovely supportive bunch they were?). Julie pointed out one particularly clunky sentence, but then praised one of my images. She concluded that not much happened and it needed to be more active. As she moved onto the next extract, I breathed a big sigh of relief. I had survived my first critique!

Listening to 40 writers' opening lines soon made it easy to both spot common mistakes and identify those which stood out from the crowd.

Scenes of people walking between places or looking into mirrors contemplatively inspired yawns, while use of evocative descriptions and anything outrageous or funny grabbed the group's attention. One popular intro featured a man dancing on the King's Road in his underwear - until we realised he was actually in his kitchen. Common consensus was that the street would have been better. When it comes to first sentences- the more colourful the better.

I left my first RNA workshop with several email addresses, a coffee date and potential plans to share a room at a writing retreat. Plus a little glow of pride; I'd been critiqued by a girl...and I liked it.

For more of Julie's useful tips for writers see her website here.

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