Saturday, June 23, 2007

No Need for Bait If You've Got a Hook

EA, can you explain what a hook is? We all hear about hooks, but is it in the concept (what you can use to sell the book to the sales force, what makes someone pick up the book), or in the writing? There is so much talk of hooks. And I hope it's not one of those kinds of questions that if you have to ask, it means you don't have one. I can see them most of the time in the books I'm reading. But sometimes, not. I just read Twisted by Laure Halse Anderson and loved it. But what is the hook? Maybe you haven't read that book but have read something where the hook was more subtle. Can the hook just be really good writing? Voice? Thanks!

A hook is what is going to make people buy this book when they have so many other choices. Often it’s in the concept. Sometimes, if the writing is very strong, it can be in the writing alone. Occasionally it’s in the author. Usually publishers are looking for books with more than one hook.

But figuring out what the hook is and how strong it is is a matter of much experience. Authors sometimes are very bad at this part of the biz.

Try imagining yourself standing in a bookstore, surrounded by hundreds and thousands of books that people want, and trying to recommend this book here in your hands. The person you talk to won’t know you and won’t particularly trust you. Saying “it’s lovely writing” or “it has beautiful illustrations” will mean absolutely nada to this person.

What will you say? It may not be the thing you love the best about the book—it can be like trying to describe a husband of 20 years to a 20-year-old and trying to make her jealous. It’s easy to convince someone that you love the book. But what would make her think that she might love the book?

14 comments:

Elizabeth Fama said...

In certain vapid circles in our culture, twenty year-olds WILL find your fifty year-old husband attractive if he's rich. (That's an example of a hook.)

Disco Mermaids said...

What would you say are some great examples of No-Bait-Required books with hooks?

- Jay

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Anonymous said...

For everything you ever wanted to know about hooks, go to Miss Snark's late blog, and look up the latest crapometer (contest that evaluates the crap quotient of most submissions) in the Snarkives. She critiques hundreds of "hooks" that authors submitted, some that succeeded and most that failed. Here is her basic hook template:

X is the main guy;
Y is the bad guy;
they meet at Z and all "L" breaks loose.
If they don't solve Q, then R starts, and if they do, it's L squared.

nw said...

Well, you see, there is the confusion right there. Anonymous above is talking about the sort of hook that draws a reader into a story, not the sort that sells a book. (Though there is overlap.)

Anonymous said...

I've read Miss Snark's examples, but they all seemed to be for commercial works. I'm trying to figure out the hooks in more literary books where they might not be as obvious.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark's hooks ARE meant to sell the book. The whole purpose was to write a hook that would get the agent/editor to request pages.

Anonymous said...

Whether a book is literary or commercial, it would seem that something like this hook pattern can help you figure out the essence of your story, if you're not sure. Things like motivation, whether the stakes are high enough, whether you've made things too easy for your MC -- even whether or not you've really got a plot. It's a great exercise if you have to try to sell your book with a 1-pg. query.

nw said...

Sell the BOOK to READERS, anonymous. Not sell the ms. to editors.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the hook pattern is there to help. But as I've found, patterns don't always fit. It would be really helpful if someone wanted to share literary examples where the hook is more subtle. Twisted, Criss Cross, Bridge to Terebithia, The Book of Everything, Looking for Alaska are a few that come to mind.

Qual said...

The blurb on the back of a book should contain the hook, but all too often I find I'm not drawn in.

In screenwriting they call it the logline, and the theory goes, if you can't summarise your plot well in 20 - 25 words, then you need to revisit the storyline. It may not be quite so strict in fiction writing. Either way, it is a difficult exercise.

Lauren said...

Anon, I often verbally sell my favorite literary YA novels to friends of mine who are looking for something new to read. Literary novels, by definition, should be set apart by something in their execution -- the structure, the narration, the language. So that's usually what I highlight when I recommend a literary novel to someone. For The Book Thief, I mention how it's narrated by Death. That always gets a "wow." For The Rules of Survival, I mention a bit of the plot (children are abused by their mother), but also that the novel is a "letter" written by the main character to his younger sister. For Looking For Alaska, I mention the suspenseful "before" and "after" chapter headings. Each of those descriptions communicates something about the stakes in each novel -- if nothing else, at least you can tell they're there, and they're high.

I haven't read Twisted yet (I will soon! I love Laurie Halse Anderson), but from my understanding it's more of a contemporary YA than a literary YA -- its primary goal is to tell a story rather than to explore form or narrative style. It seems like a bookseller's hook for Twisted might be that it's an edgy, upper-level YA, it's about a "bad" kid who's been punished for a crime, and it's narrated by a teen boy. While that's not a query-letterish hook, it does imply stakes, and it shows what makes the book stand apart in today's marketplace.

Anonymous said...

If you're trying to sell a book to readers, you have to know which readers. Readers' tastes vary so widely from person to person that the same hook will never grab everybody. And why should it? The same BOOK will never grab everybody.

As a published author, I've been asked to write the blurb myself on some occasions. I know some writers say they don't worry about who the audience is; they let the publisher worry and let a book just "find" its audience. But the moment you're asked to write a blurb, that goes out the window. I also suspect this matter of just "finding" an audience has become outdated. The public at large is used to short attention spans and high concept, and reads less than it used to. So asking how to help your book find readers is a good question.

The blurb is everybody's best guess as to what will hook a particular book's audience. (So too is the physical package -- title, cover art, book size, type size.)If you don't respond to a blurb, it can be hard to know whether the blurb is bad or whether you're just not the book's audience, but I think usually it's the latter.

Handselling a book, whether in an actual bookstore setting or just recommending to somebody, requires learning a little something about the customer. If she feels you understand her and her needs/tastes, she'll be far more likely to accept your reading recommendation.

What hook works for you? This may be the hook that works best for your readers too. (But may not be the hook that works best for the person standing next to you in the bookstore aisle.)For me, edgier-than-thou, over-the-top wacky, and voice to the point that you can never forget there's somebody telling you the story DO NOT work. Give me brains and heart in a semi-traditional package. THE PENDERWICKS works. THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY works. If you're writing what you'd like to read, I'd say hook readers as you'd wish to be hooked.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lauren and Anon for some great advice and examples. I guess the hope is that our own individual tastes are universal enough to appeal to a wide audience. I never looked at it that way before and it's extremely helpful!