Crafting Your Hook
Now that you are no longer afraid of hooks, but are tempted to write one, where do you begin?
Start drafting– beginning with “What is my story ABOUT?”
Echoing Sarah Davies in yesterday’s post, Emma Dryden says, “Authors ought to think of “hooks” as the way in which they answer the question, ‘What’s your book about?’ in under 10 words and under 20 seconds.”
For many of us, the thought of finding ten perfect words causes instant paralysis. So instead, try to answer the question in a hundred. There’s no need to stress. This is a first draft, and you’re going to revise it, a lot.
As you craft your answer to what your story is about, keep in mind these 3 questions: who are the main characters, what do they want, and what is in their way? You may not end up including all these elements in your hook, but they can help you keep focused.
You might include a few details that give a sense of the characters or distinctive setting or that convey the tone or “vibe” of the book.
And try to identify something about your story or the way that you’ve told it that is unique.
When you’ve written your hundred words, try pitching your hook to your critique group. Who else knows your book well enough to say that your hook does or doesn’t capture the story you’re telling? And who else after hearing your hook will gently tell you that if that’s the story you want to tell, maybe you need to revise?
But if you don’t have a critique group, try pitching your book to a friend. Can they follow what you’re saying, and are they intrigued to read it? Can they tell you what grabbed their attention?
Naturally, what follows is to revise and edit, and revise again until you’ve distilled those hundred words into a phrase or sentence or two.
Perhaps you can reference a book or movie that will convey a lot quickly, but you don’t have to. In fact, that can backfire if the reference is overused. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a publisher sales rep say, “It’s HUNGER GAMES meets XXXXXXX.” That might have been appealing two years ago, but now I’m looking for the next breakout book, not a HUNGER GAMES clone.
Which brings us to a key point about crafting your hook–as you’re editing, you should revisit what is unique about your story. Sarah Davies offered two examples of stories that feel unique. The first is a never been done before story, SKINNY by Greenhouse Literary’s client, Donna Cooner.
“SKINNY is about a girl who goes through gastric-bypass surgery, having endured years of listening to her evil inner voice, ‘Skinny’. While she ultimately realizes she will never be thin and that inner voice is very hard to lose, she nonetheless discovers her own voice in a whole new way. It sold at auction and all the publishers said they just hadn’t seen this done before.”
Alternatively, a story may have a familiar idea, but it’s spun in a fresh and different way. Davies talks about Lauren Oliver’s BEFORE I FALL. “ The idea of writing about a girl who must go through a coming-of-age rite of passage that changes her is not new; what is new is achieving that via a framework that entails the girl re-living the same day 7 times over, thus living it differently each time.”
While it is easy to see what is unique about these two books, it can be tougher to identify what is unique in a novel that isn’t “high concept” or contains an element ripped from the headlines. And there are times when what is unique may be important, but it may not be what you want to emphasize in the hook.
For example, THE WHOLE STUPID WAY WE ARE by N. Griffin (Simon & Schuster, Spring 2013) This is the first YA novel I’ve seen in which a teen struggles with a mother who demands that he keep his father’s early onset dementia secret while she grows increasingly isolated and abusive towards her husband.
But also unique in this novel are the characters of Skint, a ragged, compassionate outcast, and his quirky best friend Dinah, and their attempts to do good and enliven their existence in a not-quite-poor town in New England.
The book is about Skint caving under the weight of the secret, and Dinah trying to save him. The hook, as Emma Dryden puts it, the “universally understood emotionally-charged” idea that drives this story, is the catastrophic power of family secrets.
While the parental dementia/abuse plot element is unique, emphasizing the destructive power of family secrets in the hook may be a more effective sales pitch to the reader, because every teen knows their own family has an unattractive secret or two.
I hope you find this post useful and that you’ll share with me your experiences crafting your hook so we can revisit this topic in a future post.
Many thanks to Tami Lewis Brown, Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary and Emma Dryden of drydenbooks for their contributions to this piece.