A while back the disco merpeople asked me for some examples of books with hook, and I've been thinking about how best to answer that question off and on since.
It's not a problem of lack of choice—nearly all the books published have a hook of some kind (though of course sometimes it's just what someone hopes is a hook, and they turn out to be wrong). The question I've been revolving is which examples would be most helpful to you, the perhaps occasionally confused about hooks reader.
A hook is what makes people with very little information about the book want to read it. They have very little information because no average person is interested in reading a book review or blurb or plot summary long enough to give them more than that.
So here's a question for you: which books have you not yet read, only heard about, but you want to read them? That, right there, is hook.
I am personally interested in trying out 13 Reasons Why, which happens to be by the disco merman. Here are its hooks:
1. It has a great cover.
This is the kind of hook example that is no help at all to you writers. You have no control over this aspect. Even the publisher, who does have some control over this, and is going to try its damnedest to make this happen, may not be able to. Good covers are fully within their power, but a great cover involves some serendipity. If you get one, thank your publishing team, but you should mostly just feel lucky. A great cover is a hook (in case it's not obvious) because humans are very visual animals, and they get a hell of a lot more out of an image that they find interesting or compelling than mere words.
2. It's about a teenage boy who gets a set of tapes from a classmate who has just killed herself. They are labelled Reasons 1-13, and one of the reasons is about him. This is an interesting premise, and it's even more interesting to a book person because book people know it's a tough premise to use without getting maudlin, depressing, or preachy. I'll be very interested to see how it goes.
3. I've heard of the author. That kind of half-impression of the person behind the book—the impression that he's smart, nice, and has a sense of humor—is going to smooth over some of the doubts the reader has, if they have any. I'm a naturally skeptical person, and I hate to be disappointed.
I'm also looking forward to seeing the new picture book that David Small has illustrated, Dinosaurs With Everything. Its hooks are:
1. David Small is illustrating. He's brilliant. People love him; he wins awards.
Again, not the sort of example that means a damn thing to writers, because you may be consulted in the choice of illustrator, but more in the vein of "We're thinking of illustrator X or illustrator Y. Do you prefer one over the other?" If you have serious reservations about them both, you should say so, and say why. But asking for a big-money illustrator is a good way to piss your editor off bigtime.
2. But in this case, I don't care about David Small. This book has a great premise: A kid is facing a whole day of running errands with his mom—this will not be a fun day. But at the doughnut shop, the lady says (I'm paraphrasing) 'Oh, wait. With every dozen doughnuts today you get a free dinosaur,' and brings out a life size triceratops. Every shop they visit is the same: he gets a free, real dinosaur. Now, if you understand the 3-5 year olds at all, you realize that this is the pairing of two things they love: dinosaurs and free stuff. I can just see them peeing their pants in excitement already.
So what's got you hooked these days?
OTHER HOOKS and thoughts on them
Celebrity authors always seem like a great hook. But before you get too jealous of certain actors' and musicians' ability to write absolute drivel and get published, remember that many times the publisher who stooped to this is going to get pounded by their bottom line, because they paid way more money on the advance than they'll ever make back in sales. And the celebrity? Well, I hope all that advance money is some comfort to him when he considers that all the smart people now think he's an idiot.
It shouldn't be a surprise that hooks are different for different age groups. Dinosaurs are beloved of the very short kids. A funny animal sound book would also be great for them. Vampires, on the other hand, almost automatically make a book YA. If you don't know why, do me a favor and don't write about vampires.
Outstanding writing is always a hook, but it's not enough of a hook to stand on its own, because most of the reading public can tell good writing from bad, but they can't tell outstanding writing from just ok writing any more than they can tell the polar bear from the snowstorm it's standing in.
Now, stellar, genius writing can be a hook all by itself. If anybody of lesser talent than Jack Gantos had written The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, it would never, ever have been published. Even so, I betcha the publisher takes a bath on it. Obsessive mother-love verging on the vaguely incestuous? Plus taxidermy? This is the sort of confluence of themes that is less likely to make people say, "Fascinating!" than to make them dance around the bookstore going, "Ick! Ick! Ick! Ick!" It's like using powerbait, but feeling that fishing line is too "obvious" and instead taping the bait to an oar and bludgeoning the water with it, screaming, "Here, FishyFishyFishy!!"
On the other side of this coin, though, is MT Anderson, who thinks, "I'm bored. I guess I'll write a work of lasting genius."