Friday, April 25, 2014

Friday Forays in Fiction: Les Edgerton's Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Go -- Book Review

Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Go
by Les Edgerton
Writer's Digest Books (April 12, 2007)
256 pages

My experience with this book is a good example of one of its precepts: the abstract won't reach the reader where she lives only the particulars that allow you to live the scene along with the protagonist will.

I received a free ebook of Hooked in early November 2011 as a NaNoWriMo participant.  After NaNo that year I began the book but got distracted half way through the second chapter.  A few months later I began it again and didn't finish the first chapter.  Half a year later I started over again and may have finished the second chapter before other books and passions preempted Hooked yet again.

I think there may have been a time or two after that.  I never got beyond the second chapter.

This time was different.  This time I had a purpose.  A very specific purpose.

When I began it again at the beginning of April it was specifically to get help for the structural rewrite of my story Blow Me a Candy Kiss as I knew the biggest problem with it was the beginning since several of my early readers had expressed issues with it. And I confess I was uncomfortable with it and also with the ending which is why I never submitted it anywhere.

This rewrite is my Camp NaNo project for April so my focus has been on it all month.  My usual method to prepare for working on a story is to daydream in the storyworld until it feels as real or more so than reality.  When I began Hooked again this time, I'd already reread the story twice and had been dreaming the story for several days while jotting down thoughts, insights, questions.  That is what made the difference for I was soaked in the particulars of the story and especially the opening scene.

Thus it was that as I reread the first two chapters again I was applying every suggestion, explanation and example to Candy Kiss and making notes on paper and marking up my hardcopy as I experienced on Aha! moment after another.

I am feeling fairly confidant now that I see where I went wrong and why and how to fix it.

The amazing thing is that I was much closer than I thought to being on the right track.  It isn't going to take a major rewrite only some tweaks scattered throughout, a change of emphasis here, a new image there, an added phrase or three, a new sentence or four or five and maybe three new paragraphs besides the rewrite of the opening paragraph.

The breakthrough for me was Edgerton's explanation of the difference between the surface problems and the story problem: The first can be encapsulated by a photograph but the latter exists deep in the protagonist's psych and any attempt to depict it other than telling the whole story would be nothing but abstract psychobabble or monotonous stream-of-consciousness navel-gazing.

But, goes on, the first surface problem triggered by the inciting incident needs to be rooted in the story problem.  And every surface problem thereafter stems from the failed attempt to resolve the previous surface problem. Neither the reader nor the protagonist is aware of the story problem until its resolution in the final scene but the author MUST know before she begins.

I must have had good instincts back in 1989 because I identified the inciting incident in my first paragraph just where Edgerton said it should be but I had intended that first surface problem to be the story problem.  Consciously anyway because I found evidence scattered throughout the story that I was developing the story problem all along.

And that explains why I got so confused when the story seemed to reach a good resolution without that final scene I was so attached to because it had been the storyseed for me: the image suffused with raw emotion that catapulted me into the story and served as its north star.  Because of that I couldn't bear to part with it and had to tack on that little epilogue like a tree that had been pulled up by its roots and replanted in a too small pot.

I finally realized that I'd set out to write the story in which the first surface problem was the story problem which would have made that final scene its resolution but the real story problem was also peeking out by the third paragraph.

I have, as well, developed a second story featuring Greg and Iris with Greg as POV protagonist which might carry that original storyseed scene.  Unless it turns out to belong to a third or even a forth story. Their story has been growing in my heart for decades and I've long suspected there might be a short novel's worth of story left; or a novella's length collection of short stories centered on Greg and Iris.

After I finish the Blow Me a Candy Kiss rewrite, I'm going to start moving through my fiction files taking each story or novel one by one, applying the inciting incident/surface problem/story problem paradigm.  I expect this to give me breakthroughs on every one.  At the very least I believe it will eliminate that fear I have of going back to play in my plethora of NaNo messes.

Yes Mr. E.  I used that word on purpose.  I understand you hate it.  I imagine you have good reason.  But I won't let you murder a perfectly good word because you've seen it misused by dozens of newbie fiction writers who probably plucked it out of a thesaurus with no true understanding of its dimensions in meaning, connotation, history, etymology and typical class/education level of it users.

I could go on.  But that would belong in a separate post.

The core reason for my defiance is a refusal to allow yet one more fear to be added to the already overabundance of fears I have about sending my stories out to be read.  That's exactly all the  knowledge that you, editors, agents and, in fact, every reader has a handful of trigger words that makes them stop reading is worth.

But, as usual, I digress.  So, in closing, I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your little book. It has already had a profound impact on my concept of story-craft.  Only two others rank above it: Janet Burroway's Fiction Writing which I was reading for the first of many times as I wrote the first draft of Candy Kiss and Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream which taught me the storyworld dreaming method I've used for over a decade.

Burroway taught me how to make and use the jigsaw pieces of all the disparate elements of good story telling.  Butler taught me how to make the story live.  You have taught me how to arrange the pieces and put them together.

From the Publishers:

The road to rejection is paved with bad beginnings. Agents and editors agree: Improper story beginnings are the single biggest barrier to publication. Why? If a novel or short story has a bad beginning, then no one will keep reading. It's just that simple. 
In Hooked, author Les Edgerton draws on his experience as a successful fiction writer and teacher to help you overcome the weak openings that lead to instant rejection by showing you how to successfully use the ten core components inherent to any great beginning. You'll find:
  • Detailed instruction on how to develop your inciting incident 
  • Keys for creating a cohesive story-worthy problem 
  • Tips on how to avoid common opening gaffes like overusing backstory 
  • A rundown on basics such as opening scene length and transitions 
  • A comprehensive analysis of more than twenty great opening lines from novels and short stories 
  • Plus, you'll discover exclusive insider advice from agents and acquiring editors on what they look for in a strong opening. 

With Hooked, you'll have all the information you need to craft a compelling beginning that lays the foundation for an irresistible story!

From the Book:

  • This is the only scene in the story that the protagonist doesn't enter with the goal of resolving some type of problem, and that's simply because it's the opening scene's job to create the initial problem in the first place.
  • A good, quality story beginning is a microcosm of the work entire. If you capture the right beginning, you've written a small version of the whole.
  • What transforms a story is the inner psychological problem of the protagonist being laid bare on the page.
  • once the story-worthy problem is introduced, nothing can take precedence over it
  • As the author, you should have a firm understanding of your story-worthy problem before you begin writing

Les Edgerton

From the author bio on amazon:
Les Edgerton has published fifteen books, the latest being two novels from StoneGate Ink, the noir thriller "Just Like That", the thriller, "The Perfect Crime", the short story collection, "Gumbo Ya-Ya from Snubnose Press, and his latest, the noir thriller "The Bitch" from Bare Knuckles Press. His most popular book is the writer's text, "Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go." His own favorite is his collection, titled, "Monday's Meal," which received a glowing review from the NY Times in which he was compared favorably to Raymond Carver.
He has a blog on writing at: he invites you to visit.
He lives with his wife Mary and son Mike in Ft. Wayne, IN. He has two daughters--Britney and Sienna--from a previous marriage. He teaches a private writing class online as well as a class via Skype for the New York Writer's Workshop. In the past, he has taught creative writing for the UCLA Extension Writer's Program, Trine University, St. Francis University, and was Writer-in-Residence for the University of Toledo for three years.
Edgerton is an ex-con, having served two years of a 2-5 sentence at Pendleton Reformatory in the sixties for second-degree burglary. The sentence was the result of a plea bargain where it was reduced to a single charge from 182 burglaries, two strong-arm robberies, an armed robbery, and a count of possession with intent to deal. Today, he's completely reformed and you can invite him into your home and when he leaves you won't have to count the silverware... Prior to this little "trouble" Les served 4 years in the U.S. Navy as a cryptographer who had "up close and personal" experience with the Cuban Crisis and the beginning of the Vietnam War.
After making parole from Pendleton, Edgerton obtained his B.A. from Indiana University (Honors of Distinction), where he was elected Student Body President, and then received his MFA in Writing (Fiction) from Vermont College. He teaches workshops nationwide on writing, specializing in classes and seminars on the writer's voice and story beginnings. He also coaches writers on their novels and the fee is $100 per hour.
He was born in Odessa, TX on Feb. 13, 1943 and grew up in a variety of places, including Freeport, TX and South Bend, IN. He is the oldest of five and has two surviving sisters (his sister Jo passed away) and a brother. Growing up in Freeport, his family ate all their meals at his grandmother's bar and restaurant, and before the age of twelve, Les had worked every job in the bar, including serving alcohol and food (those were different times, before the government assumed the job of parenting and protecting us from ourselves). When he turned 12, his grandmother told him he was old enough to learn the taxi-cab business which she owned and he began his first day on the midnight shift. An hour after he began, one of the cab drivers shot and killed another driver who was tormenting him with a rattlesnake, and he made the call to the police. Later, he was called on to testify at the man's trial and the defendant was found innocent as he was acting in self-defense.
These days, he's working on a memoir, a new writer's how-to, several novels, several nonfiction projects and appearing at various workshops. He invites readers of his work to contact him. His contact info is on his blog at His newest novel is a noir novella forthcoming from New Pulp Press titled "The Rapist.
His novel "The Bitch" was a finalist in the Snubnose Magazine "Best Novel" in the Legends category and was the winner of the best novel in the 2011 Preditors & Editors award. His first novel, "The Death of Tarpons" was awarded a Special Citation from the Violet Crown Book Awards.

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