Mark Terry

Friday, January 12, 2007

Writing And Your Hook

January 12, 2007
I was reading the Publishing Contrarian blog today and she had some interesting things to say about hooks.

The Catch-22 in Publishing: A book by an unknown author has to become successful on its own before the publishing company will do anything significant on its part to add to the success. Even worse, the truth is that most publishing companies are much too content with a book selling well on its own to ante up any extra marketing money in an effort to boost sales over the top. “Next book, please!” So if your book-in-progress can’t already boast a hook, you’d better add one. And if you already have one or better, two, (good for you!), you’d better hit the people whose attention you’re trying to attract over the head with it.

Never forget that you have to sell your book to the literary agent; the literary agent has to sell your book to the editor; the editor has to sell your book to the publisher; and the publisher might have to sell your book to the president of the company. Not to mention that once it is published, your book has to be “sold” to the marketing department as something other than the usual fare worthy of no more than the usual ho-hum effort. (Get those 300 ARCs ready to blast into oblivion!) Even if you self-publish, a good hook will get you in the door of independent bookstores where you live and where your story takes place, Starbuck’s where you live and where your story takes place, libraries where you live and where your story takes place–wherever the hook fits well.

Now, I have to confess, I'm not really sure I "get" hooks and how to write them. Rather inadvertently I may have come up with several good ones with the Derek Stillwater novels--that is to say, 1) biological and chemical terrorism, 2) extremely tight timeframes, 3) Derek's panic attacks and general ambivalence about a job he does rather well (more Spiderman than Superman, I guess).

And I think sometimes writers just write the story they want and happen to be lucky that the story has a hook. I kind of doubt that the author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter thought, "There are 350,000 people with Down syndrome in the U.S., and most of their families will read my book and talk about it." No, I suspect the author thought, "I want to write a story about someone with Down syndrome that treats the disorder as something besides a cliche."

Still, given the current state of the publishing industry, it's probably a good idea to think about your hook. A genius detective with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, anyone? Oh yeah, "Monk."

Mark Terry


Anonymous Lynne W. Scanlon said...

Hi. Mark. Thanks for linking to me.
I think that even if an author doesn't consciously create "hooks," his literary agent and/or editor better find some in the finished product. Hooks are usually there somewhere. Some are just stronger than others.
Lynne AKA The Wicked Witch of Publishing

5:52 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Hi Lynne, thanks for stopping by.

Well, my gut suggests that good agents and editors are looking for hooks, which is why writers probably should try to think about them, or, at least, identify them in their own work.

I had this driven home lately when my agent suggested I put together a proposal for a YA novel series (sorry, no details to be released yet), and as soon as she suggested it to me, my first thought was, "Wow, what a great concept." The second thought was, "This has been done, right?" But some research indicated it hadn't.

And I guess a good hook can pre-sell the book in a way.

6:20 AM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Lori Wilde has a great workbook on creating a hook, called "Got High Concept?"

Really fabulous. I feel like I've read every book under the sun on writing, but her book goes beyond all that. She's straight to the point (no wasted time or rambling), hands on, and you can't get from the beginning to the end without several well-crafted hooks for your work.

(Not saying you need it, LOL. But for the rest of us who are struggling to write those things!)

8:09 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I'll have to check out Lori's book. Sounds interesting.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

There's too much reliance on hooks. Couldn't we all sit down and dream up fifteen hooks in the next fifteen minutes? The problem is putting something on
the hook.

Usually, too, what's actually enjoyable about a book isn't the hook, or the concept, but rather what happens, the characters, the way the thing is written etc etc etc.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I agree with you, Eric, although you might be chagrined to know that I was considering talking about your and Mary's books in regard to this. There are a lot of hooks to your books, but I'm not sure, based on reading them or from all our correspondence over the years, that you guys were thinking of hooks.

TV shows are particularly good at hooks, I think. "Monk" and "Psyche" and "24" and "Bones" and "House" all have hooks. But they have to deliver. "24" could have been a mess in someone else's hands and Kiefer Sutherland has been giving brilliant performances in a number of movies for years before everybody woke up to just how good this guy is. (Don't think so? Check out his testimony scene in the movie "A Few Good Men," as the hardline marine who says he has two books on his nightstand, the Holy Bible and the Marine Corps Manual. Jack Nicholson might be remembered for his "you can't handle the truth" line, but honestly, the actor I remembered most was Kiefer Sutherland. [not Demi Moore or Tom Cruise]).

So yeah, what the hook does is it allows people an easy handle to try and sell your book. "Hey, we've got a book about the Grand Chancellor to Emperor Justinian. Should appeal to anybody who liked 'Gladiator' or 'Rome.'"

Or we've got a book about a troubleshooter for Homeland Security who's always trying to stop terror attacks just before they happen. If you like "24" you'll love these books.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

"Hey, we've got a book about the Grand Chancellor to Emperor Justinian. Should appeal to anybody who liked 'Gladiator' or 'Rome.'"

Yeah -- I admit, although that's not how we came up with the idea -- We were long before 'Gladiator" -- that's what we thought. Unfortunately no one seemed to latch on. Maybe eunuch Lord Chamberlain didn't equate to Russel Crowe.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

A hook! A hook! My kingdom for a Hook!
My problem is I write the stuff halfway...let it sit while I play with something else...then poof! Someone else puts my idea on TV.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Well Aimless, I think it's all in the approach.

I suspect most writers of commercial fiction have written something only to have it bear some similarity to a book that comes out later. I wrote one that bore a kind of odd similarity to Grisham's "The Firm" before it came out, one I never finished that resembled Tess Gerritsen's "Gravity" and one that resembled James Rollins "Amazonia." I don't think my ideas or theirs were generic, and actually the only thing really similar were the kind of "high concept" description, e.g., bacteria/viruses from outer space go crazy on earth (and Crichton did that years and years ago, too).

Ultimately that's the biggest problem with the "high concept" pitch. "Obsessed sea captain hunts down white whale to his destruction" doesn't quite tell you what "Moby Dick" actually is, any more than "Young prince avenges the murder of his father" describes "Hamlet."

10:06 AM  
Blogger Marie said...

Dear whomever may be reading this,

I am writing a YA novel series. People keep telling me that I need to think of a great hook to keep the readers interested throughout the series.

Is it really that necessary? I personally thought that my characters and situations were strong enough to carry the series.

Although, i guess having a good hook would help with the pick up of my book from a publisher and it would help with the popularity of the books.

Are you familiar with the popular YA novel series, Twilight? The hook is that a normal human falls in love with a vampire. The vampire loves her back but tries his best to keep her out of danger not only from other dangerous persons, but from himself too. How much more of an exciting hook can you get?!

Do I need to try to add something to my series to make it more sell-able? Or will my complex characters and dramatic scenes be enough?

I understand that it may be beneficial, but must i waste any more of my time thinking of a great hook? Do you think it would be detrimental to not have a great hook?

If you think i should continue to ponder over what hook I should use then what reading material should I look over? what other writing books besides "Got High Concept?" should I read?

Any advice for me?

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