Unpublished Authors’ Mistakes
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This week’s podcast, “Unpublished Authors’ Mistakes,” question comes from Adrienne Press:
What’s the biggest mistake you see unpublished writers’ making?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 She says “What’s the biggest mistake you see unpublished writers making?”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.
The best book I’ve read on this topic is Hooked by Les Edgerton.
Another terrific book on this topic is from Steve’s recommended reading list, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.
About ten years ago, I completed my first manuscript. On Steve Pressfield’s advice, I read Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages.” The copy still rests on my bookcase; it is well-worn and needs a break. As soon as I finished that first read ten years ago, I went back and re-wrote that manuscript from scratch, and I did it after I had just completed the seventh draft. I am grateful for Mr. Pressfield’s advice and for Mr. Lukeman’s book. Both are invaluable.
I completely agree with you Mary. This book sits next to my side when I am writing to remind me of the basics that we sometimes forget. I hope our endorsement (along with Steve) brings more people to this valuable treasure. Thank you gentlemen for another great post.
Thank you so much for the entire series. I enjoy the podcasts but I have gone back to the pdf of each of the first two over and over again. Please keep them ALL coming. I have spent a lot of money on a lot of useless books over the past few years, looking for anything that would kick me in the ass and inspire me to actually put pen to paper. Nada. Steven, you and your cohorts are the first to cut through the crap and make me look forward to facing the blank page. Thank you for bringing it all down to earth, for letting us all in on the fact that we aren’t alone in our battles against the Resistance.
I really appreciate your making transcripts available. I don’t hear well, and the transcripts are SUCH a valuable resource for me. I don’t particularly care how you supply them as long as you supply them, but I think ultimately the PDFs work a little better since they can be downloaded and organized. But seriously, I’m just grateful you provide them at all.
Transcripts, please – either on the blog or as a pdf.
I cannot stand to let video and audio clips randomly reach into my life and suck out chunks of time. Written material I can skim. If iffy, I read the end, and then decide if I should read the rest. But linear formats – not yours in particular, but especially the ones from TV – are padded at the beginning and end, and infuriating because of how they are trained to give you only a tiny bit of actual information.
Besides, your advice is well worth re-reading – and nobody is going to go back and listen again very often.
I love The Hangover, juvenile humor and all. What’s impressive is they managed to do it twice. I haven’t seen the third installment yet, but the scene of the gang waking up in Bangkok made me lose it, which few movies can do.
My own $0.02 for this discussion is the inciting incident doesn’t have to include violence or mortal danger. Mystery works just as well — look at how Lost kept millions of viewers on the edge of their seats for an entire year with a simple hatch. A hatch in the middle of a wild jungle, with a few strange markings etched into the outer metal. What was that, 2004 or 2005? I remember all summer, every TV conversation invariably turned to — what’s in the damned hatch? I wanna know!
Likewise — and I’m revealing my own inner geek here — there was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Royale” in 1989. The set-up: Picard and his crew find debris from an old American/NASA ship in orbit around a strange alien planet. An away team — Riker, Data and Worf — beam down to find a vast expanse of nothing, except for a single bright, rotating hotel door. They enter the door and find…an old hotel/casino bustling with AI characters playing craps and poker. Who the hell made this thing? Why did they make it? And what’s with the ruined NASA ship in orbit? Those were the central mysteries of a classic episode of Star Trek, and for all the crap we Trek fans get, that series was exceptional at using mystery as a hook.
Thanks for the podcast and the transcript! Good food for thought.
I’m new here but I’ve read Steve’s books and find them awesome and inspiring. I like the transcripts because I can focus better. I use the closed captioning on my tv for the same reason.
I would appreciate the transcript in pdf. Agree with Alicia about audio and video files taking too much time. Thanks!
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