The hook is on my mind as I enter Dublin Roasters in Frederick, and no, I’m not talking about the arm of a pirate. I’m referring to the bomb dropped right on time at the end of Chapter 3 in a romance novel. This weapon of word choice is meant to grab the reader’s attention and hit them where it counts—swallowing up their attention. I’ve been there, unable to put a book down and there’s no better rush from a reader’s perspective. I want to feel like I need to turn the page.
This isn’t an easy thing to do. This is the sacred hook.
The more I write, the less importance I place on this catch-all as a necessary means to capturing the reader’s attention. I find the author’s writing style is equally as important to me. Quick, witty banter goes a long way or eloquent paragraphs that make me savor the simplicity and beauty of words are just as powerful. My writing style evolves as the themes of my stories change, I focus less on finding the perfect placement of a problem for my characters and focus expanding their struggles throughout the book. I have major points that need to happen in order to move the story along, but I don’t let a formula dominate the natural progression of tension. I want the hook to be continual and rise steadily throughout the pages.
Coffee connoisseurs are no different than readers. We’re a picky lot. Maybe the term snob is thrown around. I think we’re misunderstood. It comes with the territory of enjoying something to the point of knowing what I like and don’t like (in both cafes and books). The bookstagrammers I follow share a mutual love of caffeine in our mugs. We take photos of our coffee and our books, spreading a sense of our style through a single photo, just like the opening sentence of a book. I know, even before the end of the first page, if I will like this story. If I will like this café. Both have something in common.
By the time I order my single shot espresso, I’m intrigued. A coffee house is tricky. The atmosphere must appeal to a wide range of customers while remaining intimate. My eyes take in the interior. The decor is warehouse-style, decorated in strings of white lights on the ceiling and comfy chairs and tables on the ground. There’s art on the walls and coffee to buy on shelves. A sense of responsibility is present in the fair trade signs and photos of staff trips to coffee farms in Columbia. I see a chess board, which gets points. Coffee and games go together, but what’s important is the concept of this place, much like the way a writer controls the flow of the story. What’s going to make me stay? Is it the big reveal in a book or the promise of a place I want to return and share with friends?
Elements of a coffee drink and writing a book are not that far apart. They’re universal. Each begins with an idea. There’s conflict along the way. Dialogue, communication, and training in each craft are required. Readers need a reason to keep reading. A presence of authenticity is necessary. How the author or business owner spins either one is what makes it unique.
Writer’s today don’t have the luxury of ‘building’ the story. The formula of which readers grew accustom to doesn’t work. It’s dated and overdone. A readers wants to be kidnapped by the plot immediately. There’s low tolerance for an author dragging the story at their heels and it can go against a writer’s desire to let the story take it’s time. I struggle with this as my fingers hit the keyboard. How to remain true to the timing of events in the plot while moving along quick enough as to not lose the reader’s interest. There’s thousands of romance novels out there and a bulk of them are offered for free. It’s tough to know how to proceed. Give in to the market or cultivate something else. There’s plenty of places to get coffee. Neither is no longer a novelty.
I’m comfy in this big leather chair and tempted to put my feet up on the table (which I would never do). I consider the key elements in designing and giving the hook a sustainable lifeline.
I begin with Pacing. Instead of dumping the major problems in the first three chapters, try spreading them out. Give away what’s useful. Tease the reader and hint at more problems to come. Add a couple of twists along the way. Keep the reader hostage by making them think they know what’s coming and give them something unpredictable. Reduce the level of information and let the inner struggles and fears of a character shine. Use descriptions without distracting from the story. Those are some that come to mind.
I haven’t left Dublin Roasters in case you’re wondering. I’m at the end of my drink and I’m not ready to go. The best compliment to an author is that you’ve decided to come back for more and the same is true for this place. I’m hooked.
Dublin Roasters. 1780 N Market St, Frederick, MD 21701
Every cup of coffee has a backstory. From seeds to grinder, there’s a physical tie, a beginning, and ultimately, an ending. Hands work to plant and the rest is a natural growth. There are people behind the scenes, each step of the way, transforming the bean to cup of coffee. Who are these workers? Men and women that I will never meet, but if I met them in a book, I would get to know their details and their story, and by the last page, I would know them.
The past. The present. The in-between. There’s a delicate tug-of-war that takes place for me as a writer. How to move the story forward without the backstory thrust upon the reader in unnecessary places. I have to deal with it, all writers do, particularly in romance where two characters can’t love completely unless they’ve dealt with complications from their past.
Characters and Cafes aren’t so different. I spend a little time with each, sometimes sitting in a coffee shop writing and sipping, or taking out my Kindle with my head slightly bowed and my hand around a to-go cup while I read. Either way, my goal is to focus on what makes each unique. Writer Emily is concerned with the here and now of a heroine’s journey. And coffee drinking is very much in the moment. Diving into her past feels counterproductive to keeping the story in the present. It goes against the rules of writing, to minimize the what was, the what came before I crack open the book and started with Chapter One, unless there’s a prologue inserted, which I have mixed feelings about.
I didn’t know anything about Caffé Nero. There’s one near my apartment in Earl’s Court, right on my way to the Tube. Initially, I brushed off the idea of going in there. Then I saw their logo scattered around the city and instead of resisting the idea of trying out a chain, I went inside–got to know it for myself. Each one is a little different, each one with a sophisticated and comfortable interior, and they all bear the same blue sign with black letters.
The reader requires a gauge, a compass, to understand fully why it’s difficult for the heroine to make the right choice, quit her job, stop drinking, report a crime, say no to the jerk. The writer decides how to show these specific events and there are triggers to accomplish this that can be sprinkled in throughout the story as opposed dominating the pages. Sights, smells, and scenery are all usable strategies. A heroine will remember how the hero’s breath felt warm on her lips. It reminds her of when they first met for an Espresso on a blind date. Now, maybe it all falls apart after that, but, good or bad, it stirs something within her. Smell is a powerful connection to memories.
The same is true for a latte. The same ingredients wherever I go, steamed milk, espresso, and topped in frothy goodness and if you’re lucky, a fancy leaf or heart. The smell of caffeine and milk blended together is mouth-watering to us coffee consumers. As a reader, I get it, as soon as caffeine is inserted as a description. Find what connects you to your memories and use it.
The decisions the heroine makes come from somewhere. Locations and ancestry matters (Caffé Nero’s past includes Italian roots). Everything the heroine needs to become compelling character can be pulled from family and relationship dynamics. Her upbringing, for example. Maybe she comes from a family who owns a big chain of coffee stores or maybe she watched her mother begging for cash to buy herself a cup.
There’s a consistency I come to expect as with characters, just like every Caffé Nero location. I love the stacked cups and saucers, and the baked goods (hello, croissants). A shared experience writers, readers, and coffee lovers seek and I’m reminded about the idea of origins for both coffee and a heroine.
Caffé Nero is over twenty years old with mega experience from planters to tasters to master roasters (that’s right, it’s someone’s job to taste coffee). The founders envisioned a place for people to come together with a high-quality product. They succeeded. It started with an idea, a goal, much like characters. They’re motivated to accomplish, to forget, to feel love and to let go, to forgive…start new and walk inside the café they’ve ignored for the past year. There’s a rawness to a heroine whose dialogue and thoughts slowly begins to change as the past becomes less important. This is where dialogue, encounters, and actions must be appropriate to the plot and move the story forward. Don’t waste page space that isn’t relevant to the heroine. Don’t create a trauma or event that has nothing to do with her current problem, those should be clear early on, and wane towards the end.
The placement of a character’s backstory, just like stepping into a coffee shop, can’t be forced. It must be right. If placed too early, I risk losing the reader’s interest (only because this has happened to me as a reader). If put in too late, the information may be irrelevant or feels like a filler. The where, when, the how. Café Nero told me what I needed to know in that moment. Cozy, clean, and with a touch of class with the bookshelves full of books, floor lamp, long table with benches for large groups to gather around or private tables with wing-backed chairs. I don’t need the entire history and all the details, the décor speaks for itself, as does the product.
Sometimes just a little bit of details is enough. And love the backstory, it is, after all, what gives the heroine a strong voice.
There’s a gorgeous coffee bar I can’t resist. Smack dab in the middle of the Bake Hall and Roastery at Harrod’s—the name alone stirs images of class and fanciness tangible enough to bottle up for a rainy day. I’m at a crossroads between old London and new, on the corner of preserving tradition and stepping ahead. It makes me think about intersections. Not the street kind. The character kind. The first time a hero and heroine meet. No—the first time their gazes lock and they feel a jolt of energy. It’s one of the sweetest moments in a romance novel and one of my favorites. The beginning of their journey is ignited all because she sat across from him. And they noticed each other.
Characters meet in many ways, from disrespectful neighbors to writing letters to each other in a graveyard, to hedging bets. I’ve been told (via a few rejections), that the hero and heroine must meet in the first five pages. I’m not sure if it’s a hard rule in the publishing industry. I’ve read books whose writers follow this guideline and others who do not. I’ve written both ways myself. My stance? I always side with the writer who lets the characters lead and not the trends. Sometimes it’s not realistic for the two mains to meet right away. Other times, it’s necessary and relevant to the situation. I might be stubborn on this point, but I like a little build. I want to savor the moment the hero checks out the heroine and makes his arrogant assumptions about her. Their circumstances of this introduction, whatever that looks like, should be natural. I don’t want forced. Or rushed. I don’t want to be disappointed.
Since the 1940’s, the term Meet Cute has been used to describe this first interaction between love interests. For writers, the question of how these two people meet is an important point…Why? I’m getting there. This all-important moment sets the tone of conflict. Romance novels are rarely love at first sight stories. Loathing at first sight is more like it. The attraction is there, yes, but the depth of genuine feeling comes later. There’s a whole lot of miscommunication to figure out first.
What’s in that special moment? The same as what’s in a great cup of coffee (or chilled espresso Martini from the menu). It’s the details that count.
What does the hero notice about the heroine? Is she seated at the coffee bar checking her phone and crying? Cursing? Annoyed that the hero has taken the seat of the date that hasn’t shown up yet? The latte with the delicate foam leaf sits in front of her, untouched. Will he think of this moment later?
What happens when the heroine meets the hero? Does she overhear him making demands? Is he rude? Cuts in line? Throws money on the counter because he’s too impatient to wait for the bill? She sees he’s on his second cup of Knightsbridge Roast. There’s a mystery to him she wonders about long after she leaves.
It’s the true start of the plot. Among the low-lit atmosphere at Harrod’s, are roses piled high on the centerpiece of the dark-wooded bar and on displays of teas, coffee, and treats all wrapped up with the decadent scents of caffeine and sugar and longing. The setting is right. If only the hero and heroine would give each other a second glance. Just maybe, they already have, and have given the writer a strategic turning point. What the hero/heroine say and do next are critical. They should be described in, or engage in behavior that’s memorable. When the hero leaves, he should think about this woman again. The heroine should have a strong opinion of him. The next time they run into each other, they meet carrying preconceived notions about the other person.
Their interactions raise the bar of conflict. Up until the moment of their first run-ins, the hero and heroine are two separate individuals. They might be interested in someone else, getting out of a relationship, focused on their career or hobbies. The idea of love gets in the way. They should work against each other, proving themselves that they aren’t what they seem. The first meeting is about what stands out. Make it count.