Friday, July 31, 2015

Books with Hooks: The "How Will It Happen?" Hook

What pulls you into a book and keeps you riveted?

That thing, whatever it is, is a hook. It grabs you in the gut and won't let you go until you've finished reading.

One of the most common hooks is the "What will happen?" hook. It's the hook that mystery novels most frequently rely on. The "Who done it?" In other cases it's the plot that completely blows your mind because you didn't see it coming or the premise that twists reality and takes you on a speculative journey. You're glued to the pages because you're desperate to find out where the story is going.

The "What will happen?" hook can be very effective, but books don't have to have a mystery in order to have a good hook. Sometimes the reader can know from the start where the story is going but still be completely drawn in by the process of the plot. In this case the hook isn't "What will happen?" but "How will it happen?"

A superhero's origin story follows this pattern. We know she'll eventually become the superhuman fighter who saves the day. We know who the arch-villain will be. But we want to see how it happens.

Romance is also very commonly a "How will it happen?" story. We know the two leads will get together in the end. The draw of the book is not to see whether it happens but how they get there.

It was a romance that got me thinking about this second kind of hook. My agency mate Caitlyn McFarland published her first book, Soul of Smoke, this past Monday. I spent Tuesday and Wednesday reading it. (If it weren't for a great deal of self control I'd have finished it very late Tuesday night.)

The story is about a college age girl who comes across an injured dragon in human form while hiking in the Rockies. She gets swept away into the dragon's world of war and politics and magic, and in the process one of the dragons becomes magically bound to her. In order to save the world, she must choose to become bound to him in return.

There really is no question whether the human and the dragon will get together in the end. The story is a romance, and that's how a romance works. Besides, the consequences if they fail to do so are too disastrous to contemplate.

So how did this book keep me so captivated if I already knew what the outcome would be? It's because Caitlyn McFarland does a really masterful job with the "How will it happen?" hook. She puts a lot of things in the way of these two characters: personal demons, insecurities, suspicions, etc. And then she makes them work through all these stumbling blocks in interesting, compelling ways.

This is how the "How will it happen?" hook should work. And for Soul of Smoke it does work very well. I'm still enjoying the memory of my journey through the book, and I'm looking forward to the sequels.

What are some of your favorite "How will it happen?" books?

Coming to the End

I used to tell myself that the last thing I wanted was to spend the final weeks of pregnancy in the middle of summer. I basically loathe summer to begin with, and carrying around a space heater at the same time isn't really my idea of comfort. So how did I do?

Well, I've got one kid with a July birthday, and number two is set to come sometime in the next few weeks.

In other words: fail.

Somehow I also picked one of the worst summers to be pregnant too. I'm about ready to pack up and move to Siberia at this point.

Which basically means that I'm eager to have this baby as soon as he can come out. Today would be great, in fact. I mean, for one thing, he'd share a birthday with Harry Potter. And for another, I'd get to add a second pretty red birthstone to my family ring, which looks a bit like a flower. A second bud would look lovely, though I suppose a third leaf will look good too.

But babies come in their own time. My older son had to be evicted just shy of 41 weeks. I could see the same thing happening again.

And in a way that would be good. I had a really quick labor and delivery last time. I'm kind of nervous about getting to the hospital on time if I go naturally.

But on the other hand, oh, the waiting!

They tell you to be ready at any time. It could happen any day now.

Only it probably won't actually happen today, so get on with your life.

But be prepared. Have your bag packed. Make sure you've made arrangements for your kid. Know all the numbers you'll need to call. Have instructions printed out for the grandparents. Have the clothes all washed and ready and the car seat installed.

But don't get too anxious. It'll happen when it happens. So go ahead and pull the kindle back out of your packed bag if you like. Just hope you remember to repack it.

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!

Wait... Wait... Wait...

It's all driving me a bit mad. This is how it goes though. Just one of many things we put up with for love of our children.

Anyway, if I don't post again for a while it's either because I'm hurrying to finish up all my work before the little one comes (which is also why I haven't posted in weeks) or because he is finally here. If I do post again, send me sympathy because clearly I am still in pregnancy limbo.

Wish me luck!

Friday, July 3, 2015


Who remembers Homestar Runner? I'm probably dating myself and/or categorizing myself as a particular sort of geek with that reference. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, Homestar Runner was one of the few entertaining sites on the internet a decade ago. (Along with the singing horses. Were those ever good times.) The highlight of Homestar Runner was, of course, the email, and to this day I can't think of the word email without hearing Homestar say it. Go on. Click over to the site and hover over the email button.

Now you know what I'm hearing every time I see that word.

I have seven email addresses. Se. Ven. That's insane, right? What could possibly have possessed me to sign up for so many accounts? Well, let's see. There's...

1. The junk mail. My very first email account. My one and only hotmail. Ah, the days when hotmail was still hot. Now I use it to sign up for things that require an email address when really, they can have no good reason for emailing me ever. Also, for some incongruous reason, that's where I get the newsletter. Which is about the only reason I ever check that account.

2. The NOT junk sign-up account. For those few retailers I actually want to hear from. And also the library.

3. The "friends and family" account. You know, from back before I realized that having a cutesy email address was unprofessional.

4. The more professional account. Ie, the one I actually use regularly.

5. The joint account. Which I share with my husband for when we both need access.

6. The "for some reason I'm going to sign up for all writing-related promotions and social media with a whole NEW account" account. Yeah, this is probably where I started going off the deep end.

And finally...

7. The account that came with my website. Which will one day be my "this is where my legions of adoring fans can reach me" account. One day... And also that's where I send out my newsletter.

So I may be crazy, but there it is.

The really crazy part though, is that I do not like email. (Unless you are my lovely agent, in which case I always love getting email from you.) So why do I burden myself with so much of it?

Well, the thing is, I didn't always feel that way. I remember the days when email was a new and wonderful thing, and it meant that instead of waiting two weeks for my letter to arrive at its destination, a response to be written, and said response to arrive back, I had to wait only as long as it took my long-distance friends to compose a new email. For a girl whose social life revolved around friendships made at summer camps, that was a big deal.

But then things changed. Email became a place of bills, of advertising, of bombardment by things that maybe only mattered a little. I know a LOT of people who only check their email once a week or so now, and I can't say I blame them. (Except really, who are you people? I always have to know when I get new email.) The very convenience of email is precisely what makes it such a nuisance, especially now that the personal side of communication has moved to texting and social media.

So how do we manage it? How do we make email more effective?

1. Stop sending so much of it! If there is *any* other way to communicate, use it.

2. If you're typing more than a paragraph, reconsider. I have a former team leader who will be absolutely shocked that I'm saying this seeing as I used to send him entire essays over email, complete with complex questions. (His replies were usually a one word "Yes" or "No," and I had to figure out which of the many questions he was answering.) Should I really have spent so much time on an email? No way! If you have that much to say, say it in person. Or, if you have to say it to a lot of different people, print it out and mail it. The process of having to do that will tell you one way or the other whether the information was actually important enough to disperse.

3. Clean up what you do send. I saw an article today about eliminating the word "just" from emails. It was a good reminder. Be clean and direct. Don't hedge. Get to the point. And make the header of the email relevant. I've even seen recommendations that one put ALL relevant information in the header line if possible.

4. Don't expect a reply. If you really need a reply, ask in person. If there's simply no other way to ask aside from email, then make sure the question is clear and up front and not nestled in a bunch of other text.

Maybe one day we will live in a world where email will not be such a nuisance. In the meantime, how do you use email?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cats, Kids and Passion

Ladies and gentlemen, I feel accomplished! Today I successfully took both the cat AND the toddler to the vet and made it home again without my hair standing on end from stress. This is all the more worthy of note seeing as the cat, who needed to be there, most certainly did not want to be, and the boy, who did not need to be there for any reason beyond not being able to stay home alone, was very much interested in getting into everything. Plus, I think I should get bonus points for doing this while seven months pregnant.

I'm definitely getting to the point at which leaving the house requires having a very good reason. It's hot, and I'm carrying around a space heater in my belly. If the toddler breaks away and dashes off, I will look like a penguin scuttling across ice if I try to run after him. In order to get me out of the house, one of three things has to happen:

1. An appointment I really shouldn't miss. I admit it was rather tempting not to worry about getting the cat her shots, but then, this is the most high maintenance cat ever, and if I didn't then something catastrophic would be bound to happen. (Seriously, this cat does not seem to understand that part of being a cat is being easy to manage. She's allergic to poultry, and recently had enough issue with the non-poultry food we were giving her that we were on the verge of having to go home made!)

2. We've played with all the toys, read all the books, have nobody available for a play date, and I can't justify letting the boy watch yet another half hour of Jonathan Bird's Blue World. And even then, sometimes it's easier just to let him throw the dirt in the potted plants onto the floor than bother to leave the house.

3. There's something I'm actually passionate about doing. But let me tell you, the threshold is pretty high. I love going swimming, for example--it's so amazing to feel weightless at this particular stage of pregnancy. And yet the hassle of putting on the swim diaper and the bathing suits and the sunscreen and packing the bag and driving to the pool and making sure the boy doesn't swallow too much pool water and getting showered and dressed in a humid changing room with a boy who doesn't realize the floor is disgustingly dirty and then getting into the hot car and undoing all the feeling of refreshment granted by the pool is really a bit too much to handle sometimes.

It's crazy how many worthwhile things in life require actually having passion before we're willing to do them.

Back in college I joined a group of aspiring game developers. We called ourselves GeeQ, and each of us, over time, earned nicknames. One day I brought a bottle of Passion Fruit drink to the group, and when I finished it a friend of mine asked "So are you full of... passion now?" (Cue eyebrow wiggle.) And from then on I was Passion GeeQ.

A while later my then boyfriend (now husband) and I went on a trip to Haiti to help with some medical work there. We had a lot to do and needed to stay focused, so the team made it clear this was not a romantic getaway. One night toward the end of the trip we were asked to talk about our experience there. The first thing out of my mouth was, "The theme for us this trip has been passion." Of course, I meant it as passion for what we were doing and compassion for the people who came to the clinic, but everyone else chose a rather different interpretation of my words.

So "passion" has been following me around for a good while now.

Lately it's come back again. At the beginning of the year I gave myself two major writing goals to complete before the new baby comes: to write the first draft of a new book and to finish a polished draft of another. I've done both, and with some time to spare.

I didn't count on having yet another book idea spring up on me and beg to be written.

It doesn't make sense to start a whole new book right now. I'm two months from my due date. What with all the appointments and general weariness that come with pregnancy, chances are not good that I would be able to finish this book before baby.

And yet, I feel so passionate about the idea. I simply can't stop myself from writing it.

That's how it is with passion--even if the thing we're doing doesn't make sense, we feel compelled to do it.

So I am. I've started writing. I don't know what will happen or when the book will be done, but I'm going for it.

What are you passionate about?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Research Book Recommendations: Poor Economics and The Bottom Billion

I don't know how I would write without having research materials right at my fingertips.

Actually, no, I take that back. I remember when I used to write without doing research. I remember how awful, how terrible, how truly dreadful those early manuscripts used to be. They were like playing pin the tail on the donkey--I had a vague idea that there was a donkey somewhere ahead, but I had no idea where or how to reach it. So I made things up and pretended that what I made up was a fair substitute for how reality actually worked.


Well, I know better now, though it is still so very difficult to get all the details right.

How do you know when you've done enough research? Someone told me once that you know you're finished when the information you're discovering is all something you've seen before in another context.

Of course, if that's true, there are some topics that would take years to research properly. Sometimes we don't have that much time.

I think I've stumbled upon one of those topics myself lately. I've been interested in the idea of a story set in a very poor environment. But what does that level of poverty actually look like in the day-to-day? I honestly had no idea.

So I've started doing some research, and I began with two books that have each turned out to be quite a revelation.

The first:

Poor Economics

The intent of this book is to explore what sorts of aid (if any) are actually helpful to the poorest populations. What do they need? Food? Chlorinated water? Bed nets? Will they actually use these things? Should the items be free or subsidized or what?

Some great questions, and I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't. So as a side note, if you give regularly to charity, you might consider reading this book to get a better idea of where best to send your money. The book doesn't come right out and list particular charities it recommends, but it does give some insight that you might use to come to your own conclusions.

Where Poor Economics really excels is in detailing how the poor make decisions and why they do things that might seem (to us) to be illogical. After finishing this book I feel so much more aware of how daily life actually works for those who live in extreme poverty.

The second:

The Bottom Billion

This book takes much more of a top-down approach. The major questions asked are: 1) What traps are keeping poor nations poor? and 2) What can we do to help them?

So far I've read only the first part of the book, which attempts to answer question 1 (and which is certainly the more relevant to my research). Whereas Poor Economics gives a good look at the perspective of the individual, The Bottom Billion has a lot of great information on a larger scale. For example, why is it that having one major rich resource can be detrimental for a poor nation? I would have found that idea completely mind-boggling until seeing the data laid out in this book.

So this too is good information for me, because it helps me to think about the setting of the story. (It helps that a lot of the details also fit very well with ideas I already had!)

Together these two books have gone a long way to getting me started on this research path. I probably still have a ways to go, but now at least the framework is laid out for me and I can see more clearly the areas where I might need more information.

So, if any of you similarly find yourselves in a place where you need to do research on poverty, these are an excellent place to start!