How to Be Hooky

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Hookiness. It’s what a good book is all about, really. When I look at the books I really enjoy, that I burn through, they’re (a) pulling me in and (b) pulling me on. But how do you do that? How do you grab a reader? How do you KEEP the reader? How do you entertain a reader enough that she will go on to read the next book? How do you (I) consciously do those things better?

A while back, I was writing a book, FIERCE (Not Quite a Billionaire) that was quite different for me. KU2 had also just begun, paying authors for the first time by pages read. That meant you wanted, more than ever, to have people finish the book. I wrote that book thinking hard with every chapter about pulling the reader along. About making them want to turn the page. Here were some things I thought about:

Start strong. Chapter One really matters! Even though not all my books have lots of “action,” I start most of the New Zealand ones, especially, with a more gripping scene. Since the book is called “Escape to New Zealand,” that chapter is usually what the person is escaping from. Something pretty important should be happening in Chapter One. The reader has to be engaged from Page One.

Here’s the first line of FIERCE:

Have you ever noticed how, when you’re around certain people, you seem to grow an extra thumb, and not in a good way?

That hooks the reader, because she’s immediately relating it to her personal experience (I hope). It also establishes the conversational, almost confessional tone of the book. FIERCE was my first book written in first person, and I wanted it to feel like your entertaining friend was telling you a story about this guy she just met–the kind of story where you can’t wait to hear what happened next.

My first book ever, JUST THIS ONCE (Escape to New Zealand), starts out,
Wow. Welcome to New Zealand.

And then the heroine almost dies. I honestly think that first chapter is what made my career.  You want to say, “BOOM. Here is the book.”

Last lines of chapters. Every chapter is a cliffhanger, even if it doesn’t end with action or whatever. There need to be questions asked to which the reader wants an answer. In the case of FIERCE, it was mostly, “What will Hemi (or Hope) do NOW?” I realized that I always spend a lot of time on the endings of my chapters, trying to pull the reader along in the story.

Here are some last lines of chapters from FIERCE:

So, yes, you could say I was at a low point that day I met Hemi Te Mana. But it wasn’t as low as I’d go.

Nobody should be treating her like that. Nobody should be doing anything to her. Nobody but me.

“Be ready,” he said softly. And he left.

I pay attention to this on the paragraph level as well. If there’s a new thought, a leap–that happens at the beginning of the next paragraph. If there’s something the hero or heroine is going to find out, I don’t telegraph it.

Story arc. This seems simple, but you really have to be building to something. It does NOT always have to be conflict. One of my best-reviewed books, JUST FOR FUN, has almost no conflict in the whole second half between the hero and heroine, but it has plenty of drama. When I first wrote it, though, it didn’t have enough of a climax/resolution. My best friend said, “Something else has to happen.” I called another friend and wailed, “But the whole POINT is that she trusts him! She isn’t going to do one of those ‘misunderstanding-run-off-things!'” She suggested something with their son that she’d wondered about–whether he wouldn’t react strongly to the thing that had happened. BOOM. In another hour, I’d written three chapters of nail-biting tension, then resolution and weepfest, that totally worked and drove the story to the finish line.

Which brings us to . . .

Pacing. It’s about waves. I shift mood a lot within the book. That’s partly because romance is all about eliciting emotion. I want to make the reader laugh, cry, think, steam up, be scared, be excited, and sigh. So–different chapters will do different things. I actually think of my pacing sort of like waves. If I were to draw a diagram, the mood would go gradually up in a series of smaller waves, gradually increasing. The peaks of the waves aren’t just sex (which for me happens about 40-65% through the book)–they’re also action, danger, or just strong emotion. But I want to have quiet, sweet, and funny times in between those. In JUST STOP ME, there’s a really sexy chapter followed by a funny chapter where the hero messes up. Then a sexier chapter. I think the “rest periods” actually help intensify the stronger emotion periods–keep the reader from getting numb by it being all nonstop action. I don’t like that Disney-movie thing where it’s just racing, racing, racing–you know, when Cruella’s chasing the dalmatians around all the corners until her car goes off the cliff.

The waves build to up to a great big wave at the end, and a fall down to a sweet, satisfying wrapup. The last 20% or so of the book should be building, building, building, with the reader pressing the “next” button on the Kindle pretty frantically and staying up late to finish. At least that’s the goal! But again–not all the same emotion. I want there to be a buildup of suspense if it’s suspense, then that climactic scary/action thing, then a big, sweet emotional scene, then a wrapup, then another sweet emotional scene. Suspense, fear, tears, satisfying tie-up-in-bow, tears, The End.

But that’ll be different for different genres, of course. Just one example of how suspense might look. Like a conductor, like a piece of music. Building, building, building. The climax. And then the tailing off, the sweet finish.

Oh, and . . .

Take out the boring stuff. If nothing really important is happening in the scene, it probably doesn’t need to be in the book. If there are lines or emotions or information that are necessary, maybe they can go at the beginning of the next chapter or something. [Of course, people who don’t like your book will always say it is “boring.” My most common negative review is “slow and boring.” (Well, that and “too much sex.”) But lots of times, you can spot your boring passages/chapters and remove them.]

BUT–it’s personal. Your personal voice and style. That thing that turns some people off, but what turns others ON. That first group? They’re not your reader. You’re writing for yourself, and your reader. My books don’t gallop along at breakneck speed, nope. Because if I’m going to read about two people falling in love, I want to SEE them falling in love. And that means, yep, talking, not just thinking, “He’s so hawt.” :) I’m pretty darned leisurely for a romance author–but I try to make sure every scene is moving the story along.

When I say “boring,” I mean this. Originally, in JUST STOP ME, I wrote this whole thing showing what the Iain’s house/neighborhood was like, where the beach was, how you got to the grocery store, etc. Editing the book, I thought, “Gah. Rosalind. Who CARES?” I could show the reader how you got to the beach when the bad guy was chasing Nina there. A little more interesting in that context!

Instead, I put Iain and Nina in the grocery store already having their intense conversation while Iain stares at the pink lamingtons (squishy coconut thingies . . . never mind). Take out whatever you realize your story doesn’t need. Whatever isn’t advancing character or plot or story. Which YOU will be able to determine for your own story.

And finally . . .

End strong. The ending sells the next book. Think back to some books with “blah” endings. Even if the rest of the book is good, it doesn’t make you want to buy the next book. For me: I want readers to cry! In romance, you want a happy sigh at the end, that lingering feel-good hum that makes the world look a little brighter. 

Another common criticism I’ve had is that my endings are “rushed.” I write terrific epilogues if I do say so myself, but I’ve been told that my final action scenes could allow more time for savoring. My loyal readers have also mentioned that they want it ALL. They WANT the proposal. They want the wedding. They want the dress. They want the ring. That’s what they’re reading for, and dammit, they WANT it. So in this latest book, NO KIND OF HERO (which by the way, yep, is done and ready to release!), I gave them the works. That doesn’t mean everything wraps up in a perfect bow. Not every conflict will be solved. You will feel sad for one character (if you don’t, I haven’t done my job). But that is life too.

For a thriller, you want a nice solid recap that reminds you that Good won. I swear, one my favorite parts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the epilogue, where you find out who married whom, that Sam is with Rosie and they have a daughter. Where you get to savor that it worked out, and you get to linger in the book a little longer before you say goodbye. If it’s good, you don’t want it to be over. Not quite yet.

Those are my tips. What are yours? Feel free to comment and share!

About rosalindiiams
  1. Great advice for writing a book that can’t be put down! Have you taken writing classes or figuring out as you go and from being a reader yourself?

    • Rosalind James says:

      No, I just kinda decided to try writing a book and . . . wrote it. (That was JUST THIS ONCE.) The rest of it has been trying my best to get better during the five years since (just finished Book 23). Writing different kinds of books (suspense, mystery, first-person, women’s fic or just popular fic mashed up with romance, etc.) has helped. Pushing myself past my comfort zone, even if the results aren’t quite there. I finally wrote a really good mystery on my 5th try, for example.

  2. This is without a doubt the best summary of how to write hooky writing I’ve read. You’ve really hit the nail on the head!

  3. Sheila Mackey says:

    For your sister. Love a nd Family make a difference. How wonderful of your whole family to cuddle her in your nest.

    • Rosalind James says:

      Thank you. It is just as much for me as for her, though. I love having her (and her family) so close.

  4. Mary Guidry says:

    Yep. Hooks abound! You are really, really good at that, especially at the beginning of your books.

    And, yeah … don’t rush the ending. Savor. That’s a good word.

    :)

    Mary

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