Sisters on the Atlantic

I listen to National Public Radio, not for the news coverage, but for inspiration.  Shows like “This American Life” or “Fresh Air” and even sometimes “The Diane Rehm Show,” have a quality of amazing documentary even with their simplicity.  In today’s rebroadcast of “The Diane Rehm Show,” Diane interviewed Helen Simonson who wrote her first novel, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.”  Helen gave advice to a caller who is struggling to get published.  She suggested joining a writer’s workshop or finding someone who could give her blunt advice about her work to point out if there is a hook needed, for example. 

Coming from a social science background, I thought about this idea of a hook.  Do I know what it is?  I wasn’t sure, but I was sure my English Professor sister would.  So I e-mailed her and was delighted with her advice on hooks:

 I do not have any simple tips about “hooking” your reader like a fish from the very first sentences, except to say that it works the same way in fiction and creative non-fiction as it does for essays!

Think like a fisherwoman.  You have to cast a line—say this is your opening sentence!—and if it’s too long, the fishing line will sag in the water and probably get caught in some seaweed or rocks or an old boot, and with your line snagged, you’ll likely not even feel the tugging at the end of the line, and that’s only if you get a fish to bite, but you probably won’t because the line’s too long… and see?  This was such a boring sentence!  It was too long!!

Now, you cast your line again.  This time you throw the fishing pole behind you and cast a short line.  The hook is so short it’s still on the shore. Right next to your feet.  That’s no good.  It’ll never reach the fish.

OK: Cast again! This time, it’s in the water, not too deep and not too shallow, the line is not too long and not too short.  The fishes are swimming!  Did you bait the hook?  If there’s something glittery and striking and doesn’t look like all the other junk under the sea, then the fishie will look and wonder how this pretty bobbing thing will taste.  And then… the fishie gets hooked!   It can’t get away and it doesn’t even want to!  The hook is just as well-crafted as the bait!  (luckily for your readers,  your hook is metaphorical).

 AAAAAnnnd…… So my dear sister, start with a line that catches one’s attention, that says:  this is a bright thing that will strike you as different from all the other junk under the sea.  In a blog, that can be the image you choose, combined with an intriguing title, and an opening sentence.  You might even think about it like a drama exercise:  imagine what would be a good opening line for a monologue.  That’s usually where hooks come in most clearly for personal writing– there has to be a line that establishes someone’s voice and personality and experience as interesting and distinctive.

Who needs Google when you have an English Professor sister?  Now, I will try to live up to this advice and practice and practice.  But please excuse me if I get it wrong, catching seaweed or my own big toe.  Ouch!