Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Guest Post: Lori Mortensen on Hooking Readers

By Lori Mortensen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

After judging nearly a thousand entries for recent writing contests, I’m reminded once again of the importance and power of effective opening hooks.

Start out swinging, and readers can’t wait to read more. Meander around and readers will quickly lose interest.

The truth is, authors have mere seconds to capture an editor’s heart.

So what makes an effective opening hook?

Start with originality. As I read hundreds of manuscripts, I was amazed at the number of people who wrote about nature’s beauty, but barely skimmed the surface by settling on general ideas about flowers, trees, mountains, rivers, etc.

Nature can be a grand subject, but to rise above the piles of other manuscripts out there, your voice and unique point of view needs to shine from the beginning. So dig deeper and look inside. What unique conclusions have you drawn about something that could be shaped into an original theme?

If you want to capture an editor’s heart, don’t send them macaroni and cheese. Send them Banana Foster Flambé.

My upcoming picture book Chicken Lily, illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden (Henry Holt 2016) is a good example of a story with an effective opening hook.

Instead of opening the story with any old chicken that lived on a farm, I created a unique character with distinctive characteristics.

Chicken Lily was a lot of things . . .
a careful colorer,
a patient puzzler,
and the quietest hide-and-seeker.
She never made a peep.
But Lily was also something else . . .

Because the opening is fresh, focused, and unique, readers want to keep reading to find out more.

 In this instance, Chicken Lily is . . . chicken! Raise her hand in class? Forget it! Eat something new for lunch? No way! Chicken Lily is a fun, unique character in the barnyard of children’s literature.

Next, tighten your story so it fits together like a puzzle. This is especially important for the opening hook. Authors that settle for easy, obvious rhymes, or use multiple paragraphs to say what they could have said in one paragraph, will quickly lose readers’ interest. Let your drafts run wild, but when you’re ready to submit, your opening hook should reflect a fresh and focused manuscript.

My upcoming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion, 2016) is a good example of a strong, rhyming opening hook.

Cowpoke Clyde poked at an ad.
“Looky, Dawg, at this here fad.
It says that when my chores are done,
I’m s’posed to ride a bike fer fun.”

In four short lines, the reader meets a unique character, Clyde, a cowpoke who is going to learn to ride a newfangled bicycle. Each line makes sense, each word has a reason to be there, and the rhyme reads effortlessly.

(How to create fresh, effortless rhymes is another story, but if you want a successful manuscript, don’t settle for less.)

So if you’re scratching your head over a manuscript, take a look at your opening hook. Does it make you want to keep reading or, wonder what’s in the fridge?

Hmm . . . macaroni and cheese? Or Banana Foster Flambé?

Cynsational Notes

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles.

Upcoming titles include Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Bloomsbury) and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

Other titles include Cindy Moo, illustrated by Jeff Mack (HarperCollins), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault, illustrated by Raúl Allén (Random House), a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children, 2010, and In the Trees Honey Bees! illustrated by Cris Arbo (Dawn), a 2010 NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Book K-12 Winner.

When she’s not removing her cat from her keyboard, she follows her literary nose wherever it leads and works on all sorts of projects that delight her writing soul. Lori lives with her family in Northern California. 

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