How to Hook the Reader Every Time

no trespassing

The first few words or couple paragraphs of a story are called the Hook. I sometimes refer to the beginning of a story as the “calling” or “invite” where your job as creator is to tantalize the reader and yank them, screaming if necessary, into your tale.

Without the hook, the reader will not care about the line or the sinker.

Here are two terrific novel beginnings from well respected authors, Dean Koontz and Olivia Butler.

Dean Koontz, and the beginning of Midnight:

Janice Capshaw liked to run at night.

This sentence is also the novel’s first paragraph, which makes it all that more ominous. Who runs at night? Isn’t that dangerous? You know because of the importance attributed (It’s the first sentence!) that something bad is going to happen. The tension mounts from the very beginning.

Right off, Koontz hooked me, implanting those questions–the lurking mystery—so I HAD to read the next sentence.

Olivia Butler’s beginning of The Wild Seed:

Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages.

How many villages does Doro have, who is Doro, and what is a seed village?

Both writers grab the reader at the outset, forcing them to continue and answer the questions their well chosen words prompted.

A couple interesting things: each writer named the character immediately Why? A reader identifies with a character, a person, someone like them . . . or maybe not. But the reader does need someone to relate to—this is important stuff; don’t miss it.

In the examples above (and the ones following), the first word(s) is the character’s name, but it does not have to be so—I do encourage writers to name the character in the first sentence, though, or the second at the latest. Readers want to know the “Who” of the story as soon as possible.

Secondly, Koontz and Butler give the reader action and excitement at the start. This is not the place for back-fill, which is often called “Info Dump.” The history of your world and characters, ideally, should be sprinkled in throughout the action, shedding bits of light as the story grows and clarifies.

Reader’s lives are busy, hammered by a myriad of distractions—you must shake their mundane everyday world and pull them into the story you have to tell, and it better be quick.

Here are the beginning two paragraphs of my short story, Nychelle’s Gate.

(In no way do I compare myself to the two masters quoted, but by using my own writing, I KNOW what I tried to do: it’s up to you to decide if I succeeded).

Nychelle staggered through the tent flap, and fell to her knees on the dusty floor. She spun to face her mother and father.

“I won’t do it,” she spat, tasting blood from the Elder’s backhand. The Elder’s slap was not the worst of being “taken,” nor the most painful, and far from the most humiliating. She shuddered and ignored the stickiness down there.           

The opening two paragraphs attempt to accomplish the following:

  1. Introduces the main character, Nychelle, right off.
  2. Gives the setting, at least at this point in the story, being the tent and probably that of her parents. Using “tent” implies the people are nomadic, or at least have not reached the point as a culture of developing towns and cities. Or they are outsiders. Either way, there is some mystery as to the situation of the people populating the story.
  3. Confrontation demonstrated by her dialogue: “I won’t do it” shows a problem and her parents are at the center of it. This confrontation is geared to raise the tension of the scene: it’s called conflict.
  4. There are other hints within these 63 words such as the hierarchy of the culture (Elder), which indicates a clan rather than a kingdom, that she had been struck (tasted blood from the Elder’s backhand), and that she endured something cringe-worthy (shuddered at the stickiness down there).
  5. Speaks to Nychelle’s character: strong and defiant, even against great odds of opposing her parents and the clan elder.

Another from my published short story, The Accomplice.

Deke turned the headlights off and sat for a moment, letting the plan roll through his mind one last time.

What plan? The fact Deke “turned the headlights off” indicates night, and darkness is when trouble happens.

Introduce your character at the outset, give them a problem, and provide a mystery the reader is drawn to solve. Pretty straight forward, and guarantees the reader will read the next part of your story . . . hook, line, and sinker.

See you on the next page,


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5 Reasons Why Every Writer Needs A Blog — Not What You Think

You know who you are. You’re a writer, and you have heard over and over again that you need to have a blog. The “experts” claim you need to build a “platform” to gain an audience, a requirement (they say) to sell future work.

A viable reason, but not why I claim you must have a blog—my reasons are more selfish.

You keep rejecting the idea of starting a blog for the oft-used reasons: I don’t have time, I’m too busy writing things I want to write, there’s too many blogs already, who wants to hear what I have to say, and the host of other negatives darting into your head and puncturing the tender confidence you have built.

Perhaps you have a neglected blog not posted to for months, and maybe only a handful of articles are there for eyes to see. Get busy, and here’s why:

* Writing a weekly blog clarifies thinking and hones your skills.
* Gives a sense of accomplishment (even if your story or novel is languishing).
* Develops a writing habit.
* Teaches you to meet goals and deadlines, even if only ones you give yourself.
* Adds proof and credibility that you are, in fact, a writer after all.

You can blog on any topic you are passionate about: gardening, cooking, the state of current affairs, team sports, religion, jogging, bicycling, anything—there’s room for those and uncountable others. And you can combine topics if you wish—you call the shots.

Starting a blog is not the end-all panacea to being a writer. You may even abandon the blog after a couple dozen posts, but that doesn’t matter because you will find another topic, having built the blogging habit.

There are no viable reasons not to start a blog—it’s FREE. There are no costs (except time, otherwise known as learning curve) to start a blog. I use WordPress, but there are many free options.

Yes, you will have to learn the program, whether WordPress or another (also known as an interface), but they’re pretty intuitive with sufficient documentation to help you along. They are also built to grow as your blogging experience steps into new arenas.

I have been blogging on Knights of Writ for three years next month, and it’s been a wonderful experience. I have met like-minded writers, learned from comments others were gracious enough to share, gained confidence, and most importantly, improved my skills.

Even with nobody out there—except friends and family if you are bold enough to tell them you are blogging (but you don’t have to)—there is a thrill when you hit the “publish” button. You become accountable, which does not exist if you hide your writing on the computer or in a drawer.

At times you will be embarrassed (like last week when I misspelled J.K. Rowling’s name), but it’s all part of the process: we’re not perfect, but we are trying to better ourselves. Looking back over the last three years (and 112 posts), the desire to continually improve is the great mast I cling to that guides my journey.

Writers Write: Authors Submit.

Starting a blog helps to realize you do have something to share with others, and knowledge you take for granted may conjure an “aha” moment for another. That’s a wonderful thing.

Wade into the sea of writers, and in time, you will find readers. It’s a given. There are others like you, people who have the same fears, anxiety, and passion you possess. A blog will help you find them, and in turn, they find you.

The reason for starting a blog is a bit selfish, granted, but you owe it to yourself to move past all those excuses holding you back.

Take the plunge.

All bloggers have been at the threshold where you are now, and if still treading the murky waters, they’ll tell you there’s no place they’d rather be, which is, writing.

See you on the next page,

Rick “C” Langford

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When Life Gives You a Rash . . .

. . . Write about it.

Your job has you down: write about the boss who won’t listen, the co-worker who belittles you, or the company’s greed. There are a dozen stories huddling in the cubicles nearby.

Angered at the political process? Write about the Twit, an out-of-touch congressman, or a cowardly mayor hiding behind position and privilege.

Spiraling into a repressive depression fog? Transcribe how you feel—writing is therapeutic.

Writing is the salve that makes sense of the nonsensical, gives value to society’s downtrodden and valueless, highlights a problem and shines a light on the dark shadowy corners where we hide the things we don’t want people to see.

Take ownership. Most writing is semi-autobiographical in some regard—use it to the story’s benefit. Write with truth, whatever that might be, as long as it’s yours, and do it within a fiction framework.

Fiction can attain perceptions non-fiction cannot by describing societal wrongs portrayed through the stories of characters rather than a preachy, know-everything writer whose agenda becomes obvious in the second paragraph. Weave the moral failings within a story, and tighten the threads through plot and characterization.

Two of my favorite classic fiction writers, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, wrote about social injustices: Dickens exemplified the seedy corners of England’s harsh realities with striking, biting prose, while Twain pointed out failings with humor and don’t-you-feel-dumb satire.

Both styles can be effective.

Names are important to set the tone of your characters. (See more about naming characters here).

If, like Twain, you wish to focus on the world’s ills using humor, perhaps name your lead S. Mal Hands, Mickey Pawn, or the irascible boss, Peck Wood. I’m sure you can come up with better names!

J.K Rowling devised some great character names: Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape are tremendous villain names, but I always wondered about the name Dumbledore . . . .

I worked at the same company with one Harold Butts (you got it, Harry for short)—his parent’s sense of humor was no doubt lost on him. I always wondered why he did not legally change his name; even the bored, dim-witted government employee taking his application would understand why he wanted the change, amidst the giggles.

When I worked at Harvey’s Casino in Lake Tahoe, a Philippine immigrant who worked in the hotel changed his last name to Makingdoublebeds; now there’s somebody proud of their profession.

Don’t underestimate the importance of appropriate names. Then take those rash-causing emotions, imbue them into your specifically named characters, and speak the truth as only you can tell it.

If you want to inject humor in your stories, read Twain, Kurt Vonnegut (who is quoted as saying his goal was to write a joke a day), or Piers Anthony’s Xanth series and John DeChance’s “castle” novels. Non-fiction humorists like Erma Bombeck and Mike Royko can give a different twist on using effective humor.

The thing about humor: not everybody will get the jokes and others will likely be offended. The truth is we live in a society of the thin-skinned, and whatever you write will likely offend someone. Write it anyway, and let the dominoes crash where they may.

A writer needs to be bold when righting the wrongs of the world.

When life gives you a rash, use writing as the balm to heal the soul-scars caused by an unjust world. If you can do it with humor, all the better.

See you on the next page,

Rick “C” Langford

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Life, It Is a Changin’ . . . and an Invitation

*** A Pause in Regular Programming for the Following Announcement ***

After months of deliberation and soul-searching, my wife and I have decided it is time for me to retire . . .

For the last 7 years, I have worked remotely from home for a Fortune 500 company—the above is the email I sent to my manager on September 22, 2017, the first day of Autumn, which I thought appropriate.

The cold touch of technology as the sky darkens and the clouds weep.

In my heart, the sun bursts forth and banishes the gloom—Full-Time Writer!

My mind is a flurry of ideas, to-do lists, and exhilaration of increased time to do what I love—Write On!

I’m giddy with expectation, the thrill of writing challenges laid before me, the only requirements on my time those given to myself (probably with a few “honey do’s” thrown in along the way).

I do not write this as a boasting, but sheer glee after having inhabited the working world for 50 years, about half owning my own businesses. I understand self-motivation and keeping the fires of internal drive hot and glowing.

Knights of Writ will benefit from the additional time now allotted me.

Over the next few months KOW will be upgraded, new features added, links to agents, magazines, and publishers looking for your writing a regular occurrence; writing quotes will return from a too-long hiatus (for we all need a little inspiration once in a while), and other items to help writers grow their craft.

I started Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings for one main reason: to help writers who struggle to create cohesive stories people want to read.

I continued to see the same problems with unpublished stories (or those self-published), whether a short variety or longer novels. I began to make a list of the reasons for the probable failings: cardboard characters, too much backfill, not starting off with an explosion, poor crafting, etc. Sadly, too many published stories also plummet into the same abyss I call The Boredom Chasm.

I scoured the internet daily for writing helps, insightful blogs and sites to assist writers to become better. I found little helpful information dealing with the nuts and bolts of our chosen field. I needed to return to published books about writing in a constant pursuit to improve my skills.

I had too many questions that were not being answered online, and I knew by discussions and correspondence that other writers had the same questions. So I studied, re-read the slew of writing books stacked on my bookshelf, preparing myself in an effort to become a better writer and help others.

Unlike many bloggers, I purposely chose not to name the blog after myself because Knights of Writ is not about me—its about the craft.

I get great joy when a writer responds to the posts, not as a shot of ego boost, but because my humble words impacted another … this is the reason we write. I have been deeply impacted by other writer’s ideas as well.

I have been writing since I was a young child, have sold both fiction and non-fiction, and gleaned a few things along the way. I share the knowledge, in part, to help others reach their goals a bit sooner than I did—that is my hope. I wish there had been more available earlier in my career.

Knights of Writ is an opportunity, a place for writers to meet and share their insights, and all are welcome.

Sign up for Knights of Writ and watch the upcoming changes arrive in your email, and by all means, respond whenever something touches you, for good or ill. We are all learning, will continue to do so if we approach writing with an open mind and fingers poised to create.

An Invitation To All Writers

I want to hear from you; I want to know what troubles you the most, and together, perhaps we can tame the muse into a cooperative tool. So, a couple questions . . .

  1. What part of story creation frustrates you the most?

2. If you could understand and learn one thing to make your stories stronger, what would it be?

Email your answers—I will compile a list and do my best to answer the problems you indicate are the most bothersome. Simply type “Answers” in the subject line and email to I will respond, and by so doing, add you to my list to keep you apprised of forthcoming posts relating to your interests, and if applicable, provide links to other helpful places.

Growing as a writer is each of our goals, and then the dreams can come true.

See you on the next page,


Outlining on the Fly

The debate goes on: to outline or not to outline.

Like many things in life, I take the third option when faced with two. Being a realist, I don’t think in terms of a glass half full or half empty—I’m waiting for the water to arrive before I make a decision.

I am a “sorta” outliner. Before beginning a story or novel, I may list a few high points, a number of plot directions I want the story to take, sometimes (but not always) the climax and end, along with basic character sketches for my main players.

If I outline at all—many times I write without any plan whatsoever—it’s bare-bones because I enjoy the journey, surprise, and mystery of where the story travels. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and that is as true with the art of writing.

Outliners say I’m not in their camp, and non-outliners say I am. So be it.

I always, without exception, outline as I go. What, you ask, does that mean? Well, it’s the third option when faced with two.

Regardless what preliminary planning I’ve done (or maybe nothing), I list the scene actions, plot switches, and viewpoints after I have written the section. There is a critical reason I do this: to ease the pain of editing.

Writing a succinct description of a just written scene helps crystallize the story and its progression. There are even times when the short explanation gives me an idea about a future story event, in which case I make a note at the bottom of the developing outline.

When I’m finished with the story or novel, I have a listing of the story’s progression, the parts each character plays during different scenes—all the daring do’s and dangerous don’ts the characters live through within the telling of the story.

This after-creation outline is a road map where my characters have gone and when they went there, what caused their decision to follow that path, the conflicts beset them, and the outcome.

After writing a scene or chapter, I begin my outline:

Scene 1 (or Chapter 1 if a planned novel)

I. Sam enters his apartment to find his roommate drooped over the couch, dead. (pg. 1)
A. Shot in back, cell phone clenched in hand.
B. Room is thrashed; whoever killed the roommate was looking for something.

II. Sirens getting closer, then footsteps on the stairway. (pg. 3)
A. Sam climbs out the fire escape.
1. As an ex-felon with violent history, figures he’ll be accused and arrested.
2. Realizes whoever killed roommate and thrashed apartment may come back.

III. Sam goes to his friend (Alex) to see if there’s any “word on the street” why his roommate—a known grifter—might have been targeted. (pgs. 4-5).
A. Alex is fidgety.
B. Sam hears rustling in back room, leaves quickly.

Whether you initially outline or not, form an outline (separate from any you made prior, to compare once finished) while writing the story. This after-the-fact outline will clarify where and how the story goes, and will make the all-important editing process exceedingly easier—a glance at the story and character progression will reveal missing pieces, inconsistencies, and will illuminate the flaws you didn’t realize during the actual writing.

Editing is hard, mainly because when faced with pages and pages of text, the pure volume can be overwhelming and tend to blur when re-reading to fix errors. Having an outline based on what you wrote gives you a smaller working canvas—breaking a large project into smaller pieces allows the freedom to take specific problems one at a time.

It does not matter if you outline before writing or not, but outlining during the writing process is essential—unless you enjoy difficult editing sessions.

See you on the next page,


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Why Word Count is Important

The first draft of my story totaled just under 6,000 words; the second draft sliced wordage to 5,191 words, and subsequent editing chopped the story to 4,980, 4,845, and 4,621 words.

Still too long.

I am not obsessed with the number of words it takes to tell a story; what I do care about is succinctly telling a story with the least number of words possible—unnecessary verbiage is my enemy during the editing cycles.

Other people (like editors) do care how many words your story totals, and they can be a bit myopic when it comes to the decision to purchase your story for publication. Why?

When I wrote for newspapers (and also published a couple small zines), I was keenly aware of space limitations, not only for artwork and stories and articles, but for paid advertising, the life-blood of keeping a publication afloat.

When laying out a daily, weekly, or monthly publication, the editor has to find a spot for each of the articles, stories, artwork and/or photos, and advertising space. Decisions are based on logistical space issues as well as aesthetic value—breaking up the publication’s pages and making them appealing while being informative (and keeping readers interested) both fall within the editor’s duties.

Planning a publication is done with a “Mock-Up,” an empty layout where each space is designated by a symbol: large X where art and photos will be placed, the headline’s font and size at the beginning of each article or story, often an arrow drawn down columns or pages for text (or lettered gibberish as in the graphic above), all without the specifics to be inserted at a later date.

So, an editor looks and sees he needs a story or article to fit within each of those arrowed slots, and a quick glance reveals the text on pages 4-7 (wrapped around the planned graphics) cannot surpass 850 words due to space allowance, and the two pages at the back must be saved for advertisers sponsoring future events, and . . . . you get the idea.

In these cases, word count is critical.

While researching a market for your planned story, one of the first delineated requirements is word count (1,500 to 3,000 words), usually following the “types” or genre the publication accepts, as well as what they are not interested in receiving. Pay attention to each guideline, and always strive to accommodate their wishes—to do otherwise will cause your story to be rejected outright, regardless how well it is written.

Note: Book publishers are not normally so defined, but there are still basic needs and guidelines you should follow. Publishing is, after all, a business, and a 225,000-word novel by a new writer will have a hard time finding a house willing to take such a chance.

As far as my story is concerned, cutting needless words—even scenes—has improved the tale. This particular story is being readied for a Writer’s Digest short story contest. The last time I entered the contest, my story placed in the top hundred, but even more importantly, the story was later purchased by a major publisher. I can only hope the same will be true for the current story, this time a fantasy rather than a mystery.

Alas, the Writer’s Digest contest requires all stories to be “no more than 4,000 words” so I have more work to do. Can I? At this point I’m not sure, having been through the story several times, cutting all the proverbial “fat” in the form of unnecessary “thats” and -ing verbs, replacing lazy prepositional phrases with active phrasing, using colons and semi-colons to eliminate conjunctions connecting phrases (not too often or they can make the writing choppy), removing weak adjectives and adverbs, and other little tricks I have learned—all without affecting the story’s central thrust.

All that being said, do not jeopardize your story just to match a periodical length requirements; if a story must incorporate 3,000 words after several edits, and the magazines of interest only accepts up to 2,500 words, find a different publication to submit your work—telling your story the best way possible takes precedence, regardless.

At magazines, deadlines are another part of the process. As writers, we need to define our own deadlines—in an effort to accomplish our goals—even when we are not producing with a predetermined timeline. Nonetheless, the deadline for the Writer’s Digest contest is October, so I better get busy cutting some more weak words and phrases . . . .

See you on the next page,


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Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

It’s hard saying goodbye to a 30-year-old friendship. Emotions run the gamut—sadness (moist eyes, a lone tear escaping onto the cheek), regret and disappointment (the I shoulda’s), anxiety (what will I do without the comfort they give?), anger (face heating up, hands trembling), and a heart-sinking melancholy.

Emotions are what drive people to act and think the way they do. You know this from your own life, and the emotional stability (or instability) should be apparent in your characters as well.

Yesterday we sold our 1971 VW pop-top camper, and lost a dear friend.

The first two paragraphs “seemed” to indicate the lost friendship dealt with a person, but instead, the emotions rattling through my wife and I related to a vehicle we owned and enjoyed while raising our children; as my wife pointed out, “We’ve owned the bus over half my life.”

Mystery and surprise within fiction keeps the reader turning the pages, all-important ingredients we must not forget—make the reader wonder, then shock them.

Emotions are real regardless of their source, and the same is true of your characters: an heirloom conjures happy memories of a grandparent, or a Purple Heart reminds an ex-soldier of friends who died on the battlefield.

Emotions are strong motivators, and every character needs a believable reason why they do the things they do.

The mystery of why and how a character acts—along with appropriate plot twists—fuels a reader’s interest as you dole out bits and pieces during the pages and chapters of your story. Why did they do that? What will happen next? How will they solve the problem? These questions and others should be imparted in small doses to the reader throughout the story.

Think of a TV drama; the lead character is faced with a dangerous situation, an event that jeopardizes their life or the life of a loved one—fade to commercial. This is known as a cliff-hanger, and within literature, is best used occasionally, and normally at the end of a chapter.

The reader sucks a breath, glances at the clock, realizing they need to get to bed, and turns the page to see what happens next. You have accomplished your job as a writer—kept the reader wondering, fearing, and hoping as you disrupt their sleep.

Keep your story mysterious and thrill the reader with surprises of unexpected outcomes to life threatening events.

I have been fortunate to have eight beta readers for my novel, The Returning; each has been valuable at showing what does and does not work in the story. Four of my readers were given only the first two chapters where my initial cliff-hanger took place following a monumental surprise for my protagonist.

Something crashed against the back of his head–blackness.

The response was unanimous: each of the four readers berated me (gently and with good humor) with comments like, “How dare you leave me hanging like that!”

Perfect—just what I wanted.

Keeping the reader on edge, wondering what will happen next, and then fulfilling their anticipation with an undreamed of resolution entices readers to the next page. Isn’t that the point?

Now go write your story, adding foreshadowing hints along the way, and then knock the readers from their comfort zone.

See You on the Next Page,


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