Choose my book hook and win a $10 Amazon book!

“Follow my heart,” an editor said, not knowing how wild my imagination is. She never saw the critical comments that led to my latest rewrite. I don’t trust my heart anymore, so I’m asking my blog readers’ opinions. It seems young teens prefer action first. At least the majority of the 7th grade class I visited last year said so. But parents buy the books for most twelve to fourteen-year-old teens. Please take the time to tell me how you would begin my book, an upper middle grade fantasy.
It’s more than the dilemma of whether to start with action or characterization that’s driving me crazy. Once I got those critiques mentioned above, it was obvious the tone of the Earth chapters differed too much from those on the other planet where my character travels in chapter 5. How do I marry the serious stuff with the more lighthearted world where a turkey-size bluebird named Bea Beaking sings the blues and a gummy bear becomes a Cub Scout? I decided I needed to change my readers expectations from the outset. Now my book starts with three paragraphs of my character talking from a point later in the book: 
1. In Media Res:
If I’m the first person ever to die from man-eating sweets, I’ll have my mom to thank. She’s the one who gave me the Talents that got me in this mess. On the Monday before spring break, my pointy ears, just like hers, heard something no one else did. Being a hero sounded cool at the age of fourteen—until another Talent I got from Mom sent me to a place where ordinary sugar could be turned into a lethal trap. It’s no comfort that I might have created the trap. I wish I’d never found this strange land where sweets aren’t the only thing to die for—where other evil things crave human flesh.
I can’t go home unless I finish my mission, but I hope to live long enough to teach Earthspeak to others. Then if I fail, someone else can take over my job. See, as my three older brothers and I grew up, Mom taught us all to speak in rhyme. But she became obsessed with verse after my oldest brother Brand died almost two years ago, as if she thought her poems could bring him back. He didn’t come back, but I wonder if she knows the real power of words. I’m sure my brothers don’t know, and I can’t tell them from here. So I hope you to keep reading long enough to learn Earthspeak because I need your help. Just be careful what you say because your words really might come back to bite you in the end.
This is a revision of a shorter opening that got complaints from people who want to see the man-eating sweets right away, and the next 4 chapters happen on Earth with only a few brief glimpses into the other place. But how else do I prevent shock when readers land in something more like James and the Giant Peach than Harry Potter? The Earth chapters deal with bullies, loss of a brother, a mother obsessed with rhyme, and a mental takeover. These things cause my main character to do the things he does, including traveling elsewhere, and they all affect the plot to the extent I can’t skip any. So I added the second and third paragraph to focus the interest more on what happens next. But I’m worried that I revealed too much, taking away the mystery.
So, would you keep the In Media Res opening as is, or leave out certain elements (please say which ones), or not at all? If not at all, do you like to get to know the character before something bad happens in order to care about him, or do you want something to happen first and get to know him afterward? A couple months ago, the following paragraph was my book opening. It’s still my second favorite.
2. Original opening, action first:
Light flashed down onto the snowy canyon trail, shining straight through my glasses into my brain. Looking up, I pinpointed the source before it disappeared from between two boulders far up the southern mountainside. The urge to investigate—alone—was so strong I couldn’t resist turning uphill, away from the other Boy Scouts hiking down towards the trailhead.

With very little conversation with his best friend, my character goes uphill and finds something that changes his life. He has a lot of problems which, along with the thing he finds, lead to his traveling to another planet in the 5th chapter. But other critiques said they didn’t care what happened to my character unless they got to know him first. Those led to this opening.

3. Characterization first:
Saturday, one week before spring break, my best friend Loa and I were following the other Boy Scouts in our troop down the snowy canyon trail towards the trailhead. I have most of the outdoor survival skills down, but it’s not like I can quit Scouts if I get bored. Dad said I can’t get my driver’s license until I make Eagle Scout. I’m Star rank now, close to Life. I guess that makes Loa my lifesaver since he’s the biggest reason I still enjoy Scouts. And I mean huge. Loa is a Polynesian, larger at fourteen than most men.
For the next two pages, the friends talk about Morgan’s problems: his mom, his dead brother Brand, bullies, and his plan to beat the bullies in a race through the woods which will earn Morgan his Orienteering merit badge. Maybe that’s too much getting to know him before the bad thing below happens. After working a month to add all the characterization before the action, most of my new local critique group thinks the characterization is info-dump and the next paragraph is where the story should start. If you agree, this could become my action opening (with a sentence or two to clarify the setting before it happens):
4. Possible Action first:
As I stepped over a patch of ice, the old familiar nightmare filled my mind. Petals of fire bloomed before my eyes in a slow motion explosion. Fire devoured an army vehicle carrying my oldest brother Brand, who died almost two years ago. Blinded, I slipped and then felt Loa’s hand grab my elbow.
A conversation with Loa explains that Morgan has this same nightmare almost every night, and he wasn’t even there when his brother died. To make choices harder, I thought of combining two scenes into a mix, sandwiching characterization and conversation between action scenes:
5. Possible mix. Here are the first two paragraphs (edited 5/8 because of comments from peope who like #2.)  
Monday after school, a blinding light flashed from dark clouds above the woods east of Utah’s Air Force Base. Waiting for thunder to follow, I kept my head low as I rode my bike through the slush. All I heard was a  whistle, so high-pitched only I or a dog could hear it. The closer I got, the more I felt the need to hurry. I didn’t want anything to ruin my plans to  combine earning my Boy Scout Orienteering Merit Badge with beating the jock bullies. I had challenged them to a race though these woods using only a map and compass.

My heart thumped when I saw my chosen entry-point across a snowy field. Slewing to a halt, I felt slush splash my pants, but that didn’t bother me compared to the woods. I pushed up my new glasses to see better. Deep inside the treeline, I saw a glow. Fire! My fear broke out as sweat, but it seemed a life or death matter for me to get in there. I dropped my bike and ran towards it.

My character’s friend arrives and stops him. They talk over the problem until the storm breaks and puts out the fire. Then they joke a bit to relieve the tension before they go in the woods to investigate and set up the course. Smoke causes my character’s waking nightmare of his brother’s death before he discovers the thing that changes his life. I could use this right after the In Media Res part if most of you choose to keep it.
Keeping in mind the nature of the other planet, in your comments please tell me your age group (young teen, older teen, or adult) and which works better as a book hook for you and why? If you want me to keep number one, please say how much, and which other should follow. Even if you don’t want me to keep number one, please give at least your first two choices in order of preference, or list all of them in order. If you don’t like any of my ideas, please give me a better one. Who knows? You might be the one whose suggestion ends up in my final copy.
The most convincing comment will win a book or e-books of his or her choice up to $10 from Amazon. I’ll give it until the end of my 600 follower contest before I decide. That contest is still open on my “win chocolate and books” page where you can see about half of the books available, but I’m also placing the form here. Ignore the part where it says to comment on any other post. That’s if you enter from the contest page. If you enter here, please comment here with your book hook choice and reason. Thanks!

All done entering? Then enjoy all the other book giveaways in the Got Great Giveaways blog hop hosted by Kathy at I am a Reader, Not a Writer, where you can find new contests every Wednesday!

Share A Heart

Indie author-friendly freelance editor, children's book blogger for picture books through YA, kid lit, SF/fantasy lover with special fondness for middle grade, pun-loving SCBWI member, meter-maid for poetry and rhyming picture books.


  1. I like them all.. not much help I know, but I think each has a unique, and interesting thing to introduce. One thing that reading your blog intro brought to mind is the ‘Ice Monster Prologue’ that Dan Wells talks about when he does his 7-point system to writing a story.

    I think that might work with your story since you go 4 chapters as is.. maybe a tease to get them interested and to say, “See, there’s something cool coming so be patient” and then introduce your character and setting in the way that feels most natural.

    Not what you are looking for, I know.. but honestly I’m horrible at starting stories.. cause I go back and forth a dozen times. I’m sure you’ve seen/heard the 7-point pitch before, but it’s what jumped to my mind. 🙂

  2. Sorry for taking so long to come over. Crazy day!

    I’m going to go with #2, the original opening. I’ve always been privy to a fast opening sequence to a good story. On the other hand, I like it when the story opens up blazing and quickly goes into character mode (learning about the players right from the start). The play Romeo & Juliet is like that.

    BTW, trust your heart. Forget about everything around you and listen to that still small voice within you. You know the truth. You just have to believe it!

  3. I think my recommendation would be to open with what is the most important element(s) or theme(s) of your book. If you’re going for heavy character then show me character. If story/plot is your primary focus then toss me into it right off the bat. I love nothing more than a book that comes full circle. And if you can entice me right off (action or not) then I’m helplessly yours throughout.

  4. Okay I am vacillating between #1 In Media Res and #4 Possible action.

    I liked #1 as it started with a bit of tongue and cheek humor. I think the taste of humor with an adventure is very important, especially in the target age group. For me personally, well past the target age group LOL, I like it when starting the journey makes me smile. What was less appealing to me about #1 was the almost borderline too silly. I do not think we can underestimate the target audience reading maturity. I will say, however, that I definitely wanted to know more of the story and would love this to be a segue-way into character introduction and action.

    I also liked #4. I had a little adrenalin spike with the beginning. However, this makes me anticipate a much more serious read and if the sugar humor is going to come in, it might be a little shocking with the presented expectations for the story with this beginning. It does speak to a more mature MG reader, although I would hope given the age group some tongue and cheek humor would still be included. I would like to see this beginning with a gentler introduction/explanation to/of the sugar LOL. This beginning also left me wanting to continue on and find out what was going to happen on this journey.

    Frankly both beginnings, to me, sound like totally different books. The #1 target age mid to younger MG reader and the #4 the more mature MG reader.

    I am not sure if this was the type of opinion you were interested in, but hey I just like to read and, for what it is worth, I enjoy reading MG books targeted to the more mature MG. However, I still want that taste of humor. In recalling what I purchased for my son during his MG reading years #4 would have been at the top of his list.


  5. I’ve been replying by email since I watched Kevin’s video link. It’s like attending a writer’s conference without all the expense.

    Awesome comments so far, and as varied as my critique partners’ choices, but with reasons behind each that I didn’t always get before. All your points are well taken, so I’m now officially thinking, and thinking, and yeah, more thinking…

  6. I’m an adult fantasy writer, and I follow midgrade literature closely due to my job as an English teacher. I really like 2 and 3 and I wonder if there’s some way you can combine them.

    2 suits me because I like the way it starts off clearly grounding me in where the character is and what he’s doing. 3 does the same thing, but 2 takes it a step further by having the character go off on his own, away from his troop. That tells me something about him as a character. I think watching him interact with Loa would be a good thing as well. Could Loa chase after him in the 2nd hook, instead of them just having a short conversation?

  7. I hate to disagree with Stephanie but I like #3 the least. It’s too slow and there just isn’t any tension in the narrative. I like the idea of #5 the best. It seems like a good way to tie in the past and the present while giving the readers some action and moving your character forward in the plot. Good luck!

  8. Sheryl, you already know some of my thoughts on this. I’m not big on too much action at the beginning until we’ve gotten to know your MC enough to care. But there’s nothing wrong with having a little excitement at the beginning. #5 allows you to let the reader know something is going on quickly and set the mood of the book, but then gives you time to demonstrate character before things really start to happen.

  9. I’m in the US and am in my early 20s. I like #5 the best it opens with a bang but gives me a character to work with too. #1 is funny and I think teens would like it but doesn’t grab me the same way.

  10. I’m international and I’m adult, over 20.

    I liked the opening 2 the best, because it made me instantly interested in what the light source was, where did it come from, why was it falling and what would happen to the character if he went to see what that was. It’s true I’m not much involved emotionally if anything should happen to the character, as I don’t know him well yet, but I’m hooked on the mystery to read on and to learn about the character later.

    Opening 1 is my second choice, as I feel I’ve met the boy, and it makes me interested in what happens to him next. But maybe there a bit too much new things to take in one short opening. As I don’t know the whole book, I really can’t say which ones are not so important and could be left until a bit later.

  11. I’m a writer in the US and am an adult over 40.

    I definitely liked opening #2(your original)the very best! For me their was no second choice. Choice #2 brings the reader right into the action, and I want to know what it is that your character discovers first, as well as discovering from that action, who your character is. Characterization can be distributed throughout. There’s a lot of merit to going with your first instinct or gut feelings as a writer. #2 is clear, exciting and entices the reader to find out about him and his world. I feel it would be the best one for your audience (readership).

    I feel the other choices get bogged down in too much detail that you can reveal gradually.

  12. The first one is definitely the best, as soon as I read the opening line I was hooked and really wanted to know more! I am 23 and I love in the UK x

  13. I vote for the second selection. Here are thoughts on all five:

    1. This would probably be my second choice because it sets the tone/voice for the story that follows. The issue is that it hits the reader with too many small things at once (talents, rhyming, older brother, dangerous sweets, Earthspeak, etc.). If you go this route, stick to one or two main points.

    2. It’s straight-forward and easy to understand what is happening.

    3. Too much Scout information to start with. While that does play a part in his character, it’s not the sole focus of the story.

    4. Nope. It changes too much. From action to description to flashback…it’s not cohesive.

    5. This is forward-moving action, but it just doesn’t grab me. The syntax in #2 is more clear. The first sentence of #5 introduces too much at once: time (after school), location (the plateau south of Utah’s Air Force Base), and setting (windy, cloudy, and dark). Because of this I don’t know what is most important. Pick one idea the sentence is to convey and focus on that, it will be more effective to break this into several sentences.

  14. Thought I would give them another read! No 1 catches my attention immediately, No 2 is alright, No 3 is a bit boring (sorry) I would be speed reading already, No 4 confuses me – is he remembering his brother dying? Is it a flashback? Don’t get it! No 5 is also okay. No 1 is definitely the one that grips me though 🙂

  15. I’ve made the decision to keep some form of No. 1 hitting a couple points as Rick suggested. But after watching comments mount in favor of No. 2, Rick’s gave me a brainstorm to combine 2 with 5 for the section that will follow No. 1. If you see the edited version, that’s my first attempt at a hook that will sandwich characterization between action scenes. Let me know what you think. Thanks!

  16. Deciding whose comment would win as most helpful was a such a tough decision, I actually had to finish rewriting my chapter and then come back and read the comments again. It was still tough. Rick’s comment influenced me the most because has the advantage of having read more of my book, so I eliminated him from contention and proofed his children’s story for him. I still had to split my decision between Denise Z, who addressed my biggest concerns of age group differences in tastes, and Doville who did a good job of explain why she felt the way she did, including the questions the section raised and its problems. You’ll both receive notice by email and a blog announcement tomorrow. Congratulations!

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