It’s never too late to change everything you’ve written into something else altogether.
If you’ve ever wondered how to revise a novel, your wondering is over. A Light Inside is featuring a series on novel revision—born from the turmoil of Jenna’s actually having doing it. The posts are the more interesting in that they embody an approach I’d honestly never thought of before.
I’m a bit obsessive-compulsive about revising, in a non-clinical way. My usual way of revising is haphazard, like a horde of uruk-hai smashing through a garden plot—reckless and unstoppable, leaving nothing unmarred, confident in its own greatness. As one author confided in me, ‘There is no final draft until someone pries the manuscript out of your hands.’
So Jenna’s ordered, thoughtful, and sensitively ruthless approach has been fascinating to read.
I begin, in no particular order, spontaneous meditations on the series so far. Other concepts will appear for discussion in future posts—after I’ve crash-tested them on my own manuscripts—so for now we begin with a hook.
The whole matter of a hook intrigues me. At university, the working definition of ‘hook’ (other than the Captain variety) was the opening sentence. The pithy, pointed declamation that somehow obsessed your readers or hearers, the words that fill the precious five seconds you have to acquire someone’s interest. We scrawled lines of power and beauty, such as
There was nothing he could have done.
It was the worst day of my life.
Though my personal favorite struck me in a moment of exhausted inspiration:
There is no gorilla in the room, you ape!
These things were subjected to grades. Discretion may be the better part of valor, but ingenuity is often the lesser part of genius. After reading and hearing any number of works all attempting to grab my attention, I did wonder. The hook was all very well, but too often it seemed we’d do much better by jumping up and down on a desk, yelling, ‘Emergency! Emergency!’ Or, better yet, ‘Nobody look!’
Jenna’s definition of hook, however, is more introspective. It’s part of a series of questions the writer should ask himself at the start of revision. The hook, she says, is the essential oil of the story, the premise at its heart that will grab. What makes this a story worth telling? What makes anyone want to read more than the first line?
That sort of question can get interesting answers. The hook of Doctor Who for instance—not just of an episode, but of the Whoniverse itself—is a guy who travels through space and time in a blue public call box. The hook for The Princess Bride, according to Rob Reiner, is a grandfather telling his sick grandson a story about true love.
Please note, these tell you nothing whatever about plot, characters, themes, imagery, whatever. Which is why there can be eleven Doctors, and counting. And why The Princess Bride defines the word ‘classic’ without trying.
‘The heart of a book’ can, theoretically, be divorced from the events of a book. But that’s doubtful. There’s clearly a sub-hook, something implied in the hook, that makes the story or sorts of story it spawns necessary.
So, anyone who can fly through time and space with eleven different bodies must be a bit wacky—and can change shape somehow. Then it’s obviously SF, so you gotta have alien races trying to destroy the universe. Enter elaboration Give them plungers and a monomaniacal superiority complex, and we’re all hiding behind the sofa.
I’ve heard it said that for a story to be a good story, it must have a single sentence summary that moves you as deeply as the story itself. But that’s absurd. If that we’re true, we could run around writing single sentences. Perhaps only Myth, as Lewis defines the term, can ascend to that level. The story gives birth to itself. The self gives birth to the hook. At the end of the day, the story is its own heart.
There is no summary in the room, you ape.
I would hardly have the chutzpah to claim the concluding sentence above is the best ever written. It isn’t a bad one, as such things go. But it raises a difficult, and therefore potentially illustrative, question.
Who is the ape? Is it anyone in particular? Anyone in your neighborhood? Anyone in government?
No, no, and no. It ties neatly to the cryptic and metaphysical ‘hook’ mentioned above, that is all. It reflects on the nature of summaries and essences, that is all.
In other words, it is itself a sort of summary essence, drawing all questions of hooks into its hear.
The ape is no one.
And perhaps that way lies the answer to the riddle…