Mark Terry

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Writing 201: HOOK (conversation)

December 10, 2009
As you read through today's conversation with The Divine Miss O, you might discover that I struggle with hooks, which is today's topic. Maybe we all do. Read on, friends, read on.

MARK: When I first think of "hook" I think of high concept, right or wrong. At its most effective high concept is the ability to describe your story in a sentence or two. Say: "Young boy discovers he's a real magician from a long line of magicians." That describes your novel MAGICKEEPERS, but to me it really doesn't quite differentiate it enough. I know in Hollywood they tend to pitch high concept as "Think of it as 'Harry Potter' meets 'Leaving Las Vegas.'" (God, what a concept). But to me, although this is a start, it doesn't quite do it. Hooks are tough and I struggle with them. I think I sort of fell into a good one with the Derek Stillwater novels—“Troubleshooter for Homeland Security whose expertise is biological and chemical terrorism, must stop horrible terror attacks before they begin.”

I think if I want to expand on that, I can add things like "reluctant troubleshooter" or "emotionally damaged troubleshooter" to give a sense of the character and to differentiate Derek from a thousand other action heroes. I'm still not quite sure that pins it down, though. I wrote a manuscript I'm still fairly high on, HOT MONEY, and I described the book like this: "When a politician needs a problem spun, they hire a political consultant; when they want a problem to go away, they hire Austin Davis." I could further describe it as: "Austin Davis is like a private investigator, only his clients are all politicians."

I still think that's a good hook, actually, but how to define "hook"?

ERICA: Okay, so can I tell you I love that "problem to go away" bit. Love it! That's a hook for something I would read.

To me, there is a difference between what's come to be known as the "elevator pitch" (your book in 40 words or less) and a hook. That difference is definitely in the details. You used MAGICKEEPERS . . . I'd add in details of their Vegas show and hiding in plain sight and the Russian element and Rasputin and the hunt for relics.

I think there are levels of hooks. Level one is a pitchy little hook sentence. A single sentence. (The one like you-- and all of us--mock a bit . . . Harry Potter meets Leaving Las Vegas.) Then as you spin the hook a bit into a paragraph, you are weaving a mini story. But the end of which the hook must generally feel new in some way, or if not new, then edgy (serial killer masks his killing life by marrying and having a baby--Dexter), or over the top or . . . something to hang your hat on, something for an agent to sell, something for an editor to pitch to committee.

And two sure ways you know you don't have a hook? One, you have to fumble because there ISN'T a unique element--as you describe it, you realize . . . crap, it sounds JUST like every other detective fiction out there (want to hear about a hook, think of Chabon's Yiddish detective novel--like NOTHING ever published). And two, you fumble because you can't sum it up. The book is too ethereal with nothing to hold onto but all your pretty words.

MARK: Hmmmm. Yes, I like that. The devil's in the details. I know we're going to talk later about freshness, but there's something to that here (folks, I'm pretty sure when we're talking Writing 201 they overlap a lot in most cases). I just latched onto something you said here, so I'm going to emphasize it:

"You have to fumble because there ISN'T a unique element--as you describe it, you realize . . . crap, it sounds JUST like every other detective fiction out there."

This is tough, really, really tough. One of the things I want to emphasize to people visiting today is that in today's marketplace writing "just another genre novel" even if you write it really, really, really well, isn't necessarily enough to get published. I think it's why cozy mysteries have been strong in recent years, the hook is so easy: interior decorator solves crimes; wedding planner solves crimes; professional beekeeper solves crimes; FILL- IN-THE-BLANK solves crimes. Sometimes they drive me crazy, but the fact of the marketplace does seem to be that if you can find some career/activity people might be interested in reading about that hasn't been done, then there's probably a market for it.

And I suppose I can see how that might work in romance novels as well: beautiful archaeologist falls in love with handsome treasure hunter while searching for Anasazi ruins in remote Utah desert; geeky computer hacker is romanced by computer security expert.

The trick might be outside those two genres, particularly if you're interested in stories that involve cops, soldiers, private eyes, etc. How do you keep them fresh, what's the hook?

Don't you think at least part of Dan Brown's phenomenal success was nobody had written about a "symbologist" before? I found The Da Vinci Code introduction of the movie a revelation, when Tom Hanks is putting up slides of swastikas, pitchforks, etc., and asking what people thought, then showing how the symbols got distorted over time. That was the hook, even more than the Sacred Feminine aspects.

ERICA: Exactly. Because I wrote chick lit for a while, I was often asked to read for this friend of a friend of a friend or the other. What struck me is that these writers would feel the "hook" was single young girl with witty gay best friend from England has to have a fake boyfriend for ex-boyfriend's wedding. And that might have been fine as you rode the wave at first, but sooner or later every genre turns and writers just aren't bringing a hook anymore--until the next audacious idea or next hook comes along and people have these "ah ha" moments and start flocking that way. I also think you are very right in the bar being raised ever higher.

MARK: Which brings me to my own problem, I think. I'm working on a novel that could be described as: True crime writer tracks serial killer. The first victim was his brother.

That's a good start for the hook, I think. But in order to make it more, er, novel, I need to go past it, and I'm not sure I'm really doing it well. So, the character, Parker Marks, is what I would describe as a Texas good ol' boy who drinks too much and is a womanizer; he likes to sit in with bar bands. But I'm still not sure I'm differentiating him enough. One quirk that came up, though, is he's in his late 30s and he's hooked up with a 21-year-old goth chick. Their relationship started out as a one-night stand, but she sort of stalked him and inserted herself into his life and he likes it, although there's a lot of friction there. So if anything, the hook may be their relationship more than anything else. The only other quirk I'm seeing at the moment to help with the freshness has to do with the drinking, which in some ways is almost reflexive with him, but he and Mandy were fighting about it and she argued that he seemed to be actively going out to get drunk and he raised his glass and, putting on the Texas drawl really hard, said, "'cause that's when the ghosts come out, darlin'." And I wondered if that was also another part of the hook. He commented once that his brother was the victim of the serial killer, but how his death pretty much killed his parents, and everywhere we turn, the more we learn about Parker, the more we see the wreckage of his own life--and maybe the success of his own life, which could cause some guilt--comes out of not only his brother's murder but the fact that his parents died from the grief and stress of it. Survivor's guilt, maybe.

Does this make sense? Is this a hook? How do we get to that point? (And we've wandered into characterization). One of the things that makes me most leery of hooks is the tendency to say, "Well, we need a hook, so I'm going to make a female, black, lesbian, paraplegic attorney." And it all starts to feel like those Sunday Night Mysteries TV shows in the 1970s: the married rich detectives (Hart to Hart), the senior citizen detective (Barnaby Jones), the Texas cowboy in New York City detective (McCloud). TV does this pretty well, but sometimes they don't feel organic, they feel like a bunch of character tags.

ERICA: Ok . . . is this "offline"? Because here's the thing . . . I don't think a relationship is a hook. I think the hook has to lie in his character much more so, and I definitely hear you. Maybe . . . maybe it's that you are not thinking "big" enough. By that I mean when everyone was doing chick lit to death . . . here were two of mine:
--an editor who must coax a sequel out of a recluse (think J.D. Salinger) whose novel changed the face of literature
--a chef, the only granddaughter of 17 grandsons of the last of the old-time reputed mobsters, who, through circumstance, ends up being tailed by the FBI who think her restauraurant is a money-laundering front

In both those case, I didn't restrict the novel's character to any ordinary life. So maybe Parker Marks is bigger than who you think of him. Maybe he wrote the seminal book on serial killers, and when someone copycatted it--and killed his brother to boot--he retreated into the bottle and an OBSESSIVE need to research crime. I mean maybe that's NOT it, but maybe his mythology needs to be bigger.

What say you?

MARK: Shit.

Given that I find this difficult, let's see if we can characterize questions you should ask yourself, or a step-by-step process to creating a hook or evaluating your hook.

1. To start, can you describe your plot in one or two sentences?
2. What about your character is unique? Ie., if it's a cop, is it a sunny, happy cop with a PhD in sociology? Is the cop an obsessive- compulsive (Monk)?
3. Is there a bigness to the concept?

What would you add?

ERICA: I would add what is the quest of the hero/main character--what is their obsession? Even chick lit can be boiled down to obsession (get married, land a boyfriend). Thrillers tend to be (catch the terrorist wreaking havoc with my life) also. I think in real life, people have passions, but in books they have to go large and be far more consuming.

MARK: Just to wrap this up, I was thinking about this this morning (yeah, in the shower, go figure), and I’m probably like a lot of writers, I find an idea, I think it’ll support a book, keep my interest, I like it a lot, so I start writing. I don’t necessarily think: hmmm, is there a hook? Is this really different? How does this differentiate itself from the 100,000 books published each year? And I’m here to tell you, I’ve paid the price for my lack of thinking about the hook.

And further, I was thinking about author David Morrell. When you look at many of his books, you can really see the hook. Two orphans raised as brothers, were adopted by a spymaster who raised them to be spies and assassins. When the adoptive father sacrifices one of the brothers, the remaining brother vows revenge (Brotherhood of the Rose); A top-level assassin, sick of what he’s become, joins a monastery and takes a vow of silence. When mysterious assassins wipe out everyone in the monastery and he alone survives, he goes out on a mission of vengeance (Fraternity of the Stone). It's fairly easy to get a sense of what the hook is, what makes these stories just a little bit different than what's been done before.

So I was thinking, as an exercise, people might pick successful books by their favorite authors and write a couple sentences describing those books’ hooks. It might be a revelation.

The floor is open to comments!


Blogger Heather Lane said...

Okay-- I am having trouble spinning my story into a one-line hook. Maybe something like:

Ana escaped life by daydreaming, now she wishes she could escape her apocalyptic daydream world.

But it's not all that dark--it's absurd. There is a grumpy Leprechaun and many version of fairytale characters. Silly girls and quixotic boys. And evil guys and a giant girl bully.

6:27 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

That's really weird. Is she stuck in the daydream world?

6:38 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thoughts for Erica today. Here's from her Facebook wall:

is asking for urgent prayers from all faiths. My housekeeper's one-month-old baby is near death and my housekeeper has no one and has asked me to come to the NICU to be with her as the baby passes from this life to the next. Pray for the family, pray I am woman enough to watch a baby die and offer comfort, and . . . this is a season for miracles, so pray for Baby Guadalupe. PLEASE.

6:43 AM  
Blogger Heather Lane said...

The premise is that we all have dream worlds that we populate as we dream and daydream. This girl ends up captured by her own worst figments of her imagination, on her own dream world. She has to stop being all damsel-in-distressy and fix the war on her world. She has to become her own 'Dream Queen'. (The working title)

I think I write in a slightly different genre. (this one's YA fantasy)

6:44 AM  
Blogger Heather Lane said...

Oh--that puts all things into perspective. I'm sending fervent prayers.

6:47 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I saw that on FB. Perhaps we continue this discussion tomorrow? I think I need time to think and absorb all this anyway.

But I agree, the hook is important, and I think it's important to think about fairly early in the process, though some people discover their hook through writing.

7:15 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I left a comment on Facebook for Erica. Definitely a sad situation.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Paul Greci said...

My thoughts are with Erica and her housekeeper.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Paul Greci said...

My thoughts are with Erica and her housekeeper.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Being Beth said...

I'm praying for Erica, baby Guadalupe, and the mother. What a difficult day for them all.

This is a good discussion, but I agree with Starbucks, perhaps we could continue this discussion tomorrow?

Thanks for posting Erica's request for prayer. I wouldn't have known otherwise. Guess I need to friend her on FB.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi all:
Thanks. I will see you all tomorrow. I found a priest who spoke Spanish, had the baby baptized . . . and as her new godmother, held her as she took her last breath, and then we all took turns holding the baby.

When people let you into their private grief, it is an honor--I had never held a dying person before, let alone an infant. But I was really comforted by so many prayers and messages today. Thank you, and see you tomorrow.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Michele Emrath said...

FYI- I awarded a book for my 40th follower, and she chose your "The Serpents Kiss!" Check it out at my blog.


8:44 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

My niece Sara sent me this comment re. hooks that I thought was very interesting:

I read your "hook" post the other day, and thought it was very interesting! Then I read this description of the Pioneer Woman, and thought of how great of a hook she has for her blog and cookbook (which are wildly popular).

"After years of living in Los Angeles, I made a pit stop in my hometown in Oklahoma on the way to a new, exciting life in Chicago. It was during my stay at home that I met Marlboro Man, a mysterious cowboy with steely blue eyes and a muscular, work-honed body. A strict vegetarian, I fell hard and fast, and before I knew it we were married and living on his ranch in the middle of nowhere, taking care of animals, and managing a brood of four young children. I had no idea how I'd wound up there, but I knew it was exactly where I belonged."

It made me think that a good hook has to be 1) something that evokes a fantasy for people - they have to want to join the main character on the journey, and 2) it taps into some metastory and grand narrative. For instance, leaving the city behind and moving to the country. Or career woman gives it all up to marry a cowboy, be a housewife, and raise 4 children in a big house in the country. These are fantasies many many people in the United States have... Oh, and tension. That helps too!

8:49 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

That was very kind, Michele. Thanks.

6:33 PM  

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