Hook? If you don’t cross that line, it’ll sink ya (or, what’s the deal with the ADHD?)

Posted by Barb, who is finally in Maine

millikenI met Maureen Milliken through Sisters in Crime New England–I’m not quite sure when. It was awhile ago. I’m pretty sure it was before she moved back to Maine and before I started writing about Maine. We saw each other at the Maine Crime Wave this spring, and I was delighted when Maureen offered me an Advance Reader Copy of her debut novel, Cold Hard News.

Here’s what I said about it:

“In Bernie O’Dea, Maureen Milliken has created a one of the most complicated, compelling heroines I’ve read in ages. Deeply flawed, but strong in both heart and nerve, I’d follow Bernie anywhere. More, please!”

Truly, it was one of the most sure-footed debuts I’ve read in ages. Plus, creating a protagonist who can carry a book and a series is so challenging. I loved this one. Now Maureen is here to tell us the courageous story of how Bernie O’Dea came to be.

coldhardnewscoverIt was one of my many epiphanies as a first-time novel writer. If you’re ever been one, you know the epiphanies can come fast and furious. I was at one of those soul-destroying agent pitch sessions when the agent interrupted my tortured elevator pitch.

“What’s the hook?”

Um. Wait. What? I stumbled on for a couple minutes as she looked at me with undisguised disgust. I slunk away before the five-minute session was done. At least that’s how I remember it.

The problem was, my mystery novel, Cold Hard News, DID have a hook. I was just too chicken to use it.

The same week my book was “finished” five years ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD. The doctor, who specialized in it, even told me my case was “the most severe he’d seen in some time.” Yay! I win again.

While it was a relief to know that my “wackiness” had a name other than “You are so (impatient, annoying, loud, interrupting, disobedient, messy, difficult, anti-social, etc.),” it wasn’t really something I was anxious to share with the world. But – epiphany No. 1 – it explained a lot about the main character, Bernie O’Dea, and her behavior.

I vaguely thought about giving her an ADHD diagnosis, too, since she obviously had it. But it seemed too personal, too revealing. Too embarrassing.

Flash forward to the agent pitch session later that year. I knew what a hook was. I knew I had one. I also knew it wasn’t in the book.

I hemmed and hawed about doing the revision. I thought it would be quick and easy writing-wise (I turned out to be wrong), but I didn’t want to “out” myself. It’s not a sexy disorder to have, and, as I point out in the book, people really don’t want to hear about it.

But – epiphany No. 2 — a writing acquaintance set me straight. “If you’re going to write from the heart,” he said, “you have to write from the heart. That means digging deep. Or you book won’t be as good as it ought to.”

He was right, of course, so Bernie O’Dea – and I – were both outed as having adult ADHD.

A hook is important – it’s what sets a book or series apart from the others. It’s part of what makes a book unique and interesting, and part of what makes people want to read it.

I didn’t set out to write a character with ADHD, but she definitely has it. And that’s a big part of her and what happens in the book. So it was a natural, correct fit, and acknowledging in print that she has it made the book a lot better.

The funny thing, though, is not one person who’s read the book has asked me about it. The nervous, hyper-aware part of me says it’s because they’re embarrassed, too.

But the more rational part of me says that maybe it just wasn’t that big a deal, all the hemming and hawing was for nothing.

In any case, if anyone ever asks me again what my hook is, I have one. And I’m not afraid to say so.

Barb again. So I loved that Bernie had ADHD. It’s a great flaw for an amateur sleuth. But more than anything, I loved how Bernie handled it. She is an adult person who struggles to manage a chronic condition. She has the self-awareness to know what she has to do, even if she can’t always get it quite right. (And how many of us always get it right?) Every adult I know struggles to manage something, be it a recalcitrant pancreas, a problematic brain chemistry or a tendency toward addictive behavior. Bernie’s ADHD is unique, but her struggle is universal.

Readers, what about you? Do you like your protagonists to have flaws? What do you think about one with ADHD?

Maureen Milliken is a columnist and news editor of the daily newspapers in Augusta and Waterville, Maine. She grew up in Augusta and worked for a variety of newspapers in New England before returning to Maine in 2011. Her The Bernie O’Dea mystery series debut novel Cold Hard News reflects not only her love for all that is Maine, but also her lifelong affection for the newspaper industry and fascination, of course, with the darker side of life. She lives in small central Maine town, where she keeps a wary eye on the snowbanks.

18 Thoughts

  1. How fascinating, Maureen! I hope you’ll find that agent again one day and finally give him/her the hook, with confidence and a straight back. And I look forward to reading your debut.

  2. Thanks for visiting the Wickeds, Maureen! Putting one’s writing out in the world to face scrutiny is so daunting. Doing so when you’ve added such a deeply personal layer to the mix is even more so. Congratulations to you for daring to do both. I wish you every good thing with your writing career.

  3. I do like when a protagonist has flaws. It makes her more relatable, and it’s encouraging watching how she copes with her struggle(s), or how she overcomes it.

  4. Just ordered it for my Kindle. It sounds wonderful, Maureen. Thanks for the post, Barb! I’m going to see if Suspense will let me write a review.

    1. Thanks, Susan! I hope you enjoy it and if you write a review, please let me know so I can post it on my website.

  5. If most writers said to themselves, “a protagonist with ADHD would be a really cool idea,” odds are that they wouldn’t be able to make the character believable. You can do that because you know the details–and authenticity shows. Congratulations for being brave enough to go for it. I look forward to reading it.

  6. “What’s the hook?” – such a relevant question. You’ve got a good one. Sounds like a great story, Maureen, and from the long-time (and sometimes long-suffering) spouse of a journalist, I thank you for showing some love for the industry. Off to order your book, right now!

    1. Thanks, Ramona. I consider the book a love letter to journalism — that’s probably sounds as scary as it is interesting, though. 🙂 I hope you enjoy the book!

  7. Thanks, Wickeds, for giving me the guest spot and Barb, for enhancing it so nicely as well as for the great blurb. It’s humbling how generous and kind the mystery writing community has always been and I feel lucky to be a part of it.

    1. With pleasure. And totally agree about the mystery community. As Lawrence Block says, “No one has to fail so I can succeed.”

  8. Flaws make each character unique and, therefore, interesting to read. However, they must be done right and not just showy or dropped in every so often. I read a series where it felt like the only time the main character’s ADHD was brought up was to remind us she was flawed. It would be mentioned, and then we’d move on with the story. (I did love that series, but that flaw bugged me in every book.) Sounds to me like you got it right.

    Congrats on the debut!

      1. Totally with you guys on that. I hate it in a book when the “flaw” is not only convenient, but crops up midway through a series or disappears with no explanation. Mine worked because the first iteration of the book, before I’d been diagnosed, my main character behaved in a way that even if I wouldn’t do the things myself, they made perfect sense. Not so much to some of my readers. 🙂 After I was diagnosed, it was obvious to me she had it. When I made the decision to “diagnose” her, I went through and revised, worked it in and refined. it. It wasn’t only a hook, but also a way to explain some of her behavior. That said, I left a whole lot out. She’s a little more stressed out in the next book, so I’m going to work in some more things, but I also want to walk the line between it being a part of her without making it define her or distract from what’s going on in the book. Kind of like real life…

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