My Husband Married a Hooker

No, this is not an Oprah-esque tell-all. I’m talking about writing hooks. I thought I’d share an abbreviated version of the writing workshop I recently gave for the NECRWA Let Your Imagination Take Flight Convention. Next week, I have a victim–oops! I mean ‘volunteer’–for our regular Red Pencil Thursday, so I hope you’ll mark down to visit me again then. Now for the lowdown about hooking, writer-style!

What’s the nicest thing a reader can tell you about your book? “I couldn’t put it down!”

This is the accolade every writer longs to hear. And the best way to earn this ultimate compliment is by peppering your prose with hooks.

The dictionary describes a hook as a stratagem for snaring someone and writers need to snare their readers hard, fast and securely if they want to keep them turning pages. If a writer sprinkles her prose with hooks, she creates a path for her readers to follow through the narrative. Hook your readers using your title, your opening line, chapter breaks, embedded hooks and even the final sentence.

And hopefully hook your readers into searching out your backlist!

Why do writers need to be hookers?

  • We are an “entertain me” now society. If our book doesn’t grab a reader from the get go, it’ll never make it out of the store, let alone to their bedside table.  They want to be surprised, delighted, titillated, or terrified. Disappoint them at your peril.
  • Time—There’s never enough of it. If a reader puts the book down, does it matter enough for her to pick it back up? Hooks will make her race back to it when she has a spare moment.
  • Editors are readers too. If you want your work to leap off the slush pile, hook your editor.  Setting hooks shows you understand the writer’s craft. You know what makes a reader turn pages.  Donald Maass says it’s imperative to hook your reader in the first 5 pages.

Hooking with your title ~ Make ‘em pick up the book! The title is your foot in the door. It’s the first chance for you to show the reader what kind of story they’re going to get. CL Wilson’s Lord of the Fading Lands isn’t likely to be mistaken for a contemporary comedy.  Why? The title is too reminiscent of Tolkein. This is one place where it’s ok to be like something else. You want to call an image to the reader’s minds that will tell them where your book falls.

  • Authors have no say on the title, but make up a good one anyway. When I sold STROKE OF GENIUS to my editor it was on the strength of a paragraph and the title. Why is it a good title? My editor liked the play on words and double entendre. My hero is an artistic genius in this sensual tale.
  • Use something familiar—Lots of authors use a play on
  • Movie titles: Karen Hawkins Sleepless in Scotland, The Scot who Loved me. Kieran Kramer: Cloudy with a chance of Marriage
  • TV shows: Elizabeth Boyle’s How I Met My Countess.
  • Song Lyrics: Susan Elizabeth Phillips Ain’t She Sweet?
  • Familiar sayings: First Comes Love by Mary Balogh
  • Series titles— Use a running unifier for a good hook.
  • Numbers: One for the Money by Evanovitch is a prime example of this, as is Sarah MacLean’s 9 Rules to Break when romancing a Rake, 10 way to be adored when Landing a Lord,  & 11 scandals to start to win a Duke’s heart.

    The alphabet works in the same way, a la A is for Alibi Susan Grafton

    A repeated word or phrase: Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Serpent Prince, The Raven Prince, & The Leopard Prince is a good example of this strategy. So is my Touch of a Thief, Touch of a Rogue and Touch of a Scoundrel.

  • Alliteration—People respond to patterns. Christie Craig’s Divorced, Desperate and Dating illustrates this perfectly, as does Mary Janice Davidson’s Undead and Unpopular, the tale of a teenage vampire with limited social skills.

Opening line ~ Begin as you mean to continue. No bait and switch allowed!

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of your first line. It sets the tone for the whole book. It’s so important even reviewers take note of it. Here’s what Alpha Reviews had to say about the opening of Touch of a Thief.

First Sentence Hook:

Touch of a Thief by Mia Marlowe

Click image to order!

“On any given day, someone writhed in exquisite pleasure at the home of the most sought after courtesan in Amjerat.  Unfortunately for Captain Greydon Quinn, on this day it wasn’t him.”

Wow, you have to admire that– heat, humor, and an exotic setting all in two knockout sentences.  I mean, “writhed”— that’s a word with punch, you know?

Even better, this opening is a lovely kernel of Quinn’s character and how he relates to the heroine, as you learn while it unfolds.

While Marlowe’s story doesn’t exceed typical genre boundaries for sex and violence, she makes a bold move by putting them both in the first five pages, and she doesn’t mess around with tentative versions of either one.” ~ Long & Short Reviews

Obviously, you’re in for a sexy adventure with Touch of a Thief. If I’d tried to make it a serious tear jerker, there would have been problems with this opening.

How many times have you seen readers thumbing through the first pages of a book only to set it down? You MUST hook them on the first line. Surprise them. Make them shiver. Do something to elicit an emotion or raise a question that compels them to read on.

End of Chapter hook ~ Who really needs 8 hours of sleep anyway?

Mary Higgins Clark made a fortune writing short spare chapters and ending each one with a hard hook. Her books are called fast reads because no one can put them down. A hook is a tantalizing bit of information that compels the reader to keep going. The best compliment my editor ever gave me was sharing that she always had to stop mid-chapter when she was editing my work because if she got to the end of the chapter, she’d have to go on.

  • Bridging hook- Connect the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next.
  • Danger, Will Robinson—Ending chapters with physical peril may be a cheap trick, but it works almost every time it’s tried. If you have a fight scene or a dangerous situation, use them to pull your reader forward by not reaching a satisfying end with the chapter break.
  • L’amour—Same goes for a love scene. End the chapter with a kiss of promise and your reader will keep turning pages. Similarly, don’t end with the cigarette moment or worse, having your couple fall asleep. Something else needs to happen to keep the momentum of the story going or the reader will turn out the light and wake up her husband!
  • Make it matter—Anything that raises the stakes is a hook. If the bank is about to foreclose, the sheriff shows up on the doorstep at the end of the chapter with the notice.

Embedded Hooks ~ Tease, prod and seduce your readers into turning the pages.

As writers, we know everything about our characters and our story and it’s tempting to spill our guts. Don’t. Ladle out the most interesting information in small doses. I wrote a YA story in college in the one writing class I took there about an underage character sneaking into a hospital. The police had just left after taking another boy’s statement about the accident and my little hero had to see his recovering friend.

To find out what he’d told them.

And that’s all I said about that for several pages. But it was enough to make a reader want to know what really happened.

Drop in a little tease here and there and your readers will love you for it. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code was brilliant in this regard. By dropping little nuggets of information, it almost seemed as if he created a path in his prose to pull his reader along. Sort of like literary breadcrumbs a reader can follow all the way home.

Last Line Hook ~ Leave ‘em with a way to believe the characters adventure continues…

Why would you hook on the last line? The story is over. But if you’ve done it right, the characters live on. The best hook in the world is a character readers love. And your readers want to imagine their new literary friends having more adventures.

How do you hook at the end? Reference something important in the story. MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions has the hero and heroine riding off into the Himalayas with the hope that they just might find the hidden valley his old nurse dreamed up for him as a boy. Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels ends with a recurring dare the hero and heroine have flung at each other throughout the story, usually before a sensual escapade. “I should like to see you try.”

The other reason to hook at the end is you want the reader to run out and look for your backlist. Or sign up for your newsletter so they can buy your next book on the day it’s released. Hook them on your fictive dream and they’ll come back for more.

Congratulations! You’re all officially happy hookers now!

Any questions?

9 thoughts on “My Husband Married a Hooker

  1. Beth Carter says:

    This is SO great, Mia. I savored every word and cannot wait to tell my husband he’s married to a hooker!!!

    I think I’m pretty good with opening hooks but really need to work on my chapter hooks. I do have my characters going to bed (to sleep, no less) or leaving a restaurant at the end of several chapters. Not good. Thanks for the great advice and all the examples.

    I’d like to include an excerpt of this on my blog with all credits to you, of course, as the source and with a mention of your newest release. Is that okay? You can email me at bethcarter@hughes.net. I won’t do it unless you approve.

    Thanks again.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Oops! Wake those characters back up and have something bad happen. Donald Maass said our primary job is to “make it worse” for our characters.

      Of course, I’d love it if you excerpted some of this mini-workshop on your blog, Beth!

  2. Thank you, Mia. Plenty of food for thought here.

    Mind if I bring up another aspect of hooking the reader? It’s when an author tries too hard—one of my pet peeves. When she’s obviously trying to snag our attention and doesn’t care if it sounds contrived, or worse.

    Some years ago I opened a romance—I can’t recall the title or author, which is just as well—and read the first line: “She had to lose her virginity, and fast.” Yuck! That line really made me wince.

    I figured maybe I should overlook that clumsy, absurd opening and read on. Maybe the story would improve.

    By the end of the first chapter, it hadn’t. I never made it to the second.

    The night before last I began reading a newly-released action romance—no, not one of yours—that opened with a barrage of explicit, highly-detailed sex and violence. That’s probably pretty common nowadays.

    But I don’t care if “everyone’s doing it”. It still turns me off. The next stop for my copy of this novel is the used book store.

    Yes, as both a reader and a writer I dig hooks. But only if they’re done right.

    What I mean by that would require a longer post than I’d care to write or you’d care to read. But I can say it does NOT include hitting the reader over the head with graphic sex and violence. Not this reader, anyhow.

    I’m looking forward to next week’s Red Pencil Thursday. Keep up the good work!

    1. Mia says:

      Thanks for your comments, Mary Anne. I agree that while hooks should be intentional, they shouldn’t be obvious.

      The point of the opening hook specifically is to set the tone. It’s the writer’s promise to her readers, letting them know what sort of story they’re in for. To that extent, the example you sited was at least an honest opening. Of course, you shouldn’t wallop your readers with sex and violence if it’s not going to be a sensual, adventurous tale. But you should try to surprise them, seduce them, invite them to enter your fictional world in a way that’s true to the rest of the story.

      1. I’m sure that romance that walloped me at the opening with graphic sex and violence really is full of more of the same. That’s why I’m not going to read any further. And if I’m wrong about the rest of the book—well, I’ll never find out!

  3. Sandy says:

    Great lines, Mia. You’ve got me thinking. Smile.

    1. Mia says:

      Setting hooks is fun once you start thinking about it, Sandy.

  4. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Mia,

    Thanks for sharing your seminar. Your opening lines are awesome! You’re right, writhing is a catchy word!

    1. Mia says:

      Thanks, Barbara. I always have fun giving this workshop, even online.

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