Today is the last day to enter Debra Erfert's drawing for a $10 Amazon gift card. Click here and leave a comment and you are entered! (Plus you can read her review of my novel. Sneaky I know!)
I was so interested in today's critique because it talks a lot about the hook which we can all work on for sure. Thank you so much to Angela and Brian for today!
by Brian Henkels
When the iPhone buzzed to life at seven minutes to eleven that evening, it scared the sh** out of Dale Gibson. He had forgotten about the small contraption that he carried in the breast pocket of his tweed overcoat. These days it had become more of an accessory than necessity.
Fumbling to retrieve the goddamn thing, Dale feared his trip to Erma’s All-Night Café for a corned beef sandwich, side of fries (with mustard for dipping, not ketchup), and slice of pecan pie was going to be put on hold, if not totally cancelled. Only a select few had this phone number and those who did wouldn’t use it to discuss petty issues or smalltime bullsh**. And it wasn’t that long ago, prior to the tragedies of September 11th, that anyone seeking Dale at this hour would have received anything but his voicemail. Those were the good old days for the Bureau. They functioned with near autonomy, they showed up at the crime scenes when they saw fit, collected any and all evidence and intelligence they deemed important, and were sure to take as much credit for arrests and seizures as possible. But those days were a thing of the past. Nothing more than an icebreaker a crusty veteran might tell a greenhorn about while sucking down a few pints of ale at Mickey’s Pub.
Dale ran his fingers through his disheveled hair and his sunken eyes peered back at him in the rearview mirror of the department issued Buick Regal. Working six straight fourteen-hour days had taken a toll on one of the more handsome men to wear the badge. An incoming e-mail icon marked URGENT alerted Dale to its presence. Logging into the classified account, a jumbled mess of letters and numbers dominated the message.
This opening has nice atmosphere. The reader gets a sense of the character and the setting. However, it’s a lot of information to take in (and a bit wordy with the details in the opening paragraph—consider splitting sentences or trimming a bit on the details). A reader trying to navigate the information from September 11 to Erma’s diner to the good ole days of the Bureau without the anchor a more solid hook provides may end up feeling a little adrift. (More on the hook later.)
There are also some conflicting signals being sent. To start with, Dale’s tweed overcoat. This gives the impression of a nerdy college professor. So later on, when the reader is told that Dale is “one of the more handsome men to wear the badge,” we suddenly have dueling images. Is Dale handsome (fills his dark suit well, looks good in dark glasses, square jaw) or is he slightly rumpled around the edges? Age seems too vague given these potential discrepancies as well.
Another area of conflicting images/messages is Dale’s response to his iPhone in light of his law enforcement background. Here’s the inconsistency: if you have an iPhone and you are getting your email on it, it implies you are at least basically tech savvy. However, Dale is portrayed otherwise. That’s not necessarily a problem. Except that given his line of work (Bureau implies FBI or some other large jurisdiction government agency), it would be expected that he is quite familiar and up-to-date with the latest technology. Now I realize you may be trying to go for the John McClane angle (Live Free or Die Hard) where you’ve got the tough, lone wolf veteran that can kick A with the best of them but doesn’t know an IM from a hard drive. But in that case, he probably wouldn’t have the iPhone at all. And this scenario works for McClane as an NYPD detective, but for an FBI agent, it doesn’t quite ring true—or at least won’t to many potential readers.
Getting to the heart of the story
The details – down to the meal that Dale plans on eating at an all-night diner – provide textual interest. However, at this point, we have little context to place it in. Perhaps give us more of a hook first, if you can, and give us an idea of the story-worthy problem, and then details won’t be a problem. Details are good; just make sure they are in the right place at the right time. As it stands right now, the reader doesn’t get the sense of any concrete conflict. Ideally, you want to hook us in the first paragraph, but at least in the first page. Dead bodies, bombs, car accidents, even getting fired for mouthing off at your c.o.—or something else personal—might all qualify, but a ringing phone may not quite do the trick for many readers. Granted, it is a curiosity-piquer, and then we do have some interesting writing as you nail down Dale, so it could work. Genre expectations will play into this heavily, so you could get away with it; but at the same time, if you aren’t an established writer, the competition is much stiffer if you want to break in. So if you want to up the ante, make your hook more solid on the first page (perhaps more personal or more dramatic or just more intriguing because we have the right info framing it).
Another reason the hook sort of dissipates is likely because the phone is buzzing in the first sentence, but Dale doesn’t get around to checking it until the second to last sentence (aside from losing our attention on the hook, this can be a jarring moment in trying to re-find our place in the story). Even then, all the reader knows is that it is classified and possibly coded. It would be more exciting if the reader actually knew what the message was about (unless it’s just a reminder to pick up the dry cleaning). So go ahead and reveal the message, because I’m assuming that’s the inciting incident that’s going to get the momentum of the story going full-force. Put it in the first paragraph, and you’ve ratcheted up the stakes right away.
Hot and he knows it
The point of view is handled well – right up to the part about him being handsome. It’s not his good looks (or former good looks) that are the problem. It’s that you’ve established the beginnings of a good third-person limited pov, where the reader perceives the narration as Dale’s own thoughts and feelings, and this phrase breaks that stride. Unless Dale is rather conceited, he isn’t going around thinking of himself as handsome. This line actually jars the reader out of the story, clashing with the mental picture of the protagonist they’ve been building. Depending on the tone and direction of the story, you can still mention Dale is handsome, but you’ll want to try it from a different angle. I’d recommend going more low-key here. “There was a time when he’d turned a few heads, but working six straight fourteen hour days had taken a toll on his looks.”
To swear or not to swear, that is the question
Even in today’s language-permissive society, there is no consensus. Some of your readers will be fine with swearing, but just as many will not be. The thing is, the readers that are fine with swearing will probably be just as fine without it, but it doesn’t work the other direction. So I’d temper the swearing if you’re unsure of audience. For a hard-bitten cop, thriller, or spy novel, I think you’d be fine with some swearing – enough to give it some flavor. But if the reader notices the swearing rather than the story, it’s a sign you need to dial it back. If Dale is cussing about something as mundane as the phone, what does he do when he gets to the crisis? Overuse of profanity dilutes its effectiveness. So if you really feel compelled to let the reader know Dale’s stance on cussing, put one on the first page (but try to keep it to one). Of course, you may lose some of your readers, so maybe you want to do a sneaky and tuck it in a little later, after you’ve hooked the reader. As author, part of your job is to act as a translator—you are describing one community to a different community which means you must use language that best resonates with the bulk of your readers. Obviously your genre may make the swearing quite expected—assuming it fits in the standard slots—but if you’re thinking of breaking genre lines or drawing in a broader audience than just genre readers, the notes above are something to consider when deciding on how much swearing to include.
Small changes, big results
To sum it up, you’ve got solid POV, interesting details, and the possibility of an even greater hook. Just consider tweaking this page in a few places and your story will be off to a great start.
Thanks again. We'll see you next week!