By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 9, 2013
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This week’s podcast, “Unpublished Authors’ Mistakes,” question comes from Adrienne Press:
What’s the biggest mistake you see unpublished writers’ making?
We’re going to put the transcript inline on the post this week. If you preferred the PDFs like we had been doing, let us know in the comments.
Steve: Shawn, I have a question for you. This is coming from Adrienne Press. I’d really like to hear the answer to this too. She says “What’s the biggest mistake you see unpublished writers making?”
Shawn: I hate to hit the same point over and over again, but it’s really when you begin reading a novel or even a proposal, there’s no promise. There’s no inciting incident, there’s nothing that grabs your attention. If you do not have something at the very beginning of your story that is so compelling that you just can’t help yourself continuing to read, you’ve got a very big problem. The beginning hook, again if you don’t hook somebody, nobody’s going to want to continue reading the book. And this isn’t about line by line writing either. Some of the best hooks are written by people who aren’t the best pro stylists in the world, but they have an ability to set something up that is just so incredibly fascinating or scary, that you can’t help continuing to read.
And I say this all the time when I’m working with writers on book proposals. A lot of people who want to write non-fiction or a book proposal, there’s this recipe that I have to complete, I’ve got to do the marketing section; but the reality of the proposal today is if you can’t write a great introduction, a great forward preface, maybe 1500, and again this isn’t a long piece of work. It’s 1500 words. You need to put together 1500 words that are just so stunning that by the end of that 1500 words, the editor really wants to start photocopying it and giving it to other colleagues to read because he wants to acquire the book. So the biggest, the very biggest mistake and the one that you can never, ever write yourself out of is the beginning hook.
Steve: Ahh. Now that’s great. Let me kind of add a little bit to that to define kind of what the hook is or to what Robert McKee calls the inciting incident. Let’s go back to the movie Gravity for a minute because it’s a great opening hook. You’ve got the two astronauts in space, suddenly the space station is blown up by this debris, and there they are floating in space. There’s the hook. If you’re watching that, you’ve got to say “How are they going to get out of it?” So that kind of brilliant propels the story.
Another I thought fantastic inciting incident was in the first movie The Hangover. We have these guys that go to Las Vegas, you know that they’re going to be partying this one night and then so they start on their partying, they toast each other on the roof, they’re about to go out on the town and then cut to the next morning; they’re waking up, there’s a tiger in the room, there’s a little baby in the room, they’ve lost their friend Doug and they can’t remember a thing. Now that is an incredible hook. If you’re watching that, you just go “I’ve got to find out what happened. How did the baby get there? How did the tiger get there?” So those are sort of examples of great inciting incidents that propel the story forward. I agree with you, Shawn. You’ve got to have that.
Shawn: Even the classics of literature. Look at the opening hook of Moby Dick. You’ve got a guy who needs to get a job, and he goes into this famous whaling town and all the people that he meets are talking about this obsessive captain and just how crazy this guy is. And he goes to bunk and there’s this very strange Native American beneath him that has all these weird spears and things. So it’s a very alien world, so you’ve got the outsider entering an alien world, and then you just can’t wait until he gets on that ship. And he gets into the hands of Captain Ahab. It’s just the beginning of that novel just sucks you right in.