Julian knew the exact price of everyone’s pants in this nightclub. His own pants were a shabby APO Jeans knockoff ($17), purchased in a muddy alley from a toothless Chinese man, that Julian had hand-stitched with needle and thread ($2) until they’d pass casual inspection.
On any other night, Julian would feel like a fraud in this glamorous world of $275 jackets and $180 jeans – fake it ’til you make it – but he’d smile like he was a rich businessman’s kid, not the son of an $18,000-a-year drycleaner who was dealing coke to pay his tuition ($38,439 per semester). Any other night, he’d be discreetly swapping out his water ($6 a bottle, plus a splashy-generous tip) with a smuggled flask of Popov vodka ($16.99 per gallon), drinking to muffle this horrid idea that maybe – just maybe – being rich was something in the blood, and you could never ever buy success no matter how many deals you cut.
But tonight, he’d snorted Flex. And Julian saw numbers everywhere.
Hot lights flickered over bodybuilders draped in velvet, each flexing into new hypermasculine poses at set intervals – an experimental art exhibit he and Anathema had stumbled into, lured by tumbling streams of statistics. The gallery patrons plucked toothpicked pieces of brie ($1.50 apiece) off of silver trays ($49.95 from Williams-Sonoma). Each tray had wasplike blurs of probabilities hovering over them – the secret knots that tied the future together.
Magic. He had snorted crystallized magic.
Ferrett Steinmetz writes:
The truth is, I hate prologues.
But the structure of my book demanded one, alas. The magic system in Flex is a fairly complex one, and the whole thing that drives the first half of the book is that my protagonist Paul doesn’t understand magic very well. Alas, I needed an introductory sequence that showed how magic works, and more importantly how magical drugs work, to some ordinary schmuck who – spoilers! – does not survive his encounter with them.
Yet if I had to make a prologue, I reasoned, then I would make it the hookiest damn opening I could. You can’t see it here on this web page, but I rigged the manuscript I sent out to agents so that “Magic. He had snorted crystallized magic” was the last line on the first page.
The last line? Aren’t hooks supposed to come up-front?
Trick is, like any good fisherman, you have to set the hook deep so they don’t wriggle away.
See, when I started writing, I would have thought a starter sentence like “Magic. He had snorted crystallized magic” would have been a strong start. But it isn’t. It grabs your attention, sure, but it’s a candy attention, a quick rush of sugar that fades too fast. The nourishing meat and vegetables of any novel consists of a heaping tray of who is snorting this crystallized magic, why they’re doing it, and what unwise decisions they are about to make as a result of this inciting incident.
But a fatal prologue makes that introduction more complicated, giving you an intrinsic struggle: You want to make the first person your reader meets sympathetic, but so obviously flawed that there’s a subliminal undertone of don’t stick around too long. The danger here is in getting your reader so attached to the first person they see that they lose interest once you kill them off, and hence put the book down.
So what I needed was to convey the desperation of a kid who was in a fix, and out of his depth. I knew he was in a fancy nightclub. I knew he was miserable. So what would make you experience this club as Julian saw it?
When I’m trying to get into character, I put a character in a situation and then ask: what thing about this setting is something nobody else but this character could possibly notice? That detail is not only a significant window into how a character thinks, but it’s also often a good initial hook – as when a character fixates on an odd detail, the reader tends to go along with them.
In this case, I realized that a poor kid fronting his ass off in a rich nightclub would know money. Nobody knows costs better than poor people trying to pass above their paygrade. And so the opening sentence of “Julian knew the exact price of everybody’s pants in this nightclub” was born.
The trick of putting the prices in was a really low-weight way of adding detail. It’s almost subliminal, as your eyes tend to skip over prices, but it’s also a way of mirroring Julian’s thoughts. Early readers (particularly E. Catherine Tobler, a fine writer in her own right) wanted me to emphasize the dollars, adding more of them for every proper noun, which worked.
So that was, uh, the first paragraph.
The second paragraph was where I had to build sympathy quickly. One of the things any fiction writer has to answer, and answer quickly, is “Why should I care?” Sure, Julian sees prices in everything, but unless we root that in some good reason for people to have sympathy for him, then that becomes a meaningless quirk. So I churned out some backstory quickly, to establish why he’s poor and desperate, and a pretty poor coke dealer. And right at the end of the second paragraph comes that cue that little Julian isn’t going to end so well – he’s convinced that maybe he’ll never be happy, and in fact he’s absolutely correct.
And from there, I could do a bit of descriptive scenework as the bridge to that more important punch.
Five paragraphs. The hook’s at the end of the fifth, and every good writing book will tell you to start off with the strongest start you can.
But the trick is not getting the reader’s attention. It’s getting them to care, as quickly as possible. And once you’ve maneuvered your poor reader into place long enough that they have stakes in who this person is and what they’re doing…
…then you reel them in.
About the author:
Ferrett Steinmetz’s debut urban fantasy FLEX, described as “A desperate father will do anything to heal his daughter in a novel where Breaking Bad meets Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files,” is out in bookstores. It features a bureaucracy-obsessed magician who is in love with the DMV, a goth videogamemancer who tries not to go all Grand Theft Auto on people, and one of the weirder magic systems yet devised. Ferrett, a prolific short story writer, has been as nominated for the Nebula and the WSFA, Tweeters at @ferretthimself, and blogs entirely too much about puns, politics, and polyamory at www.theferrett.com.
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