Thursday, July 26, 2007

Work that Hook!

When talking about hooks aren't we talking about the one or two sentence "thing" that will get an agent, editor or reader to read the ms or book?

When you talk about a book being wonderful, or written well, or having a great story, you aren't talking about the hook, are you? Because those are the things you know about the book after you've read it, whereas the hook is the thing that gets you to read it.

I'm wondering what would be the thing in a cover letter for Speak, or Hattie Big Sky, (before they became what they became) or any other title that would prompt you to read the first three chapters? Isn't that what we're talking about when we talk about hooks -- how to pitch one's work so that the hopefully great writing will get read?

I was talking about sales hook, which is what an editor tries to think about when acquiring. You're right, the hook you use in your query letter can't be "great writing" because dammit, the editor will be the judge of that. The sales hooks that depend on someone's judgement don't work until you have the judgement of someone the reader/editor trusts. This is the thing that makes me hate pitch sessions—there's no way to judge the writing, and the writing's the main thing. But any non-judgement-based sales hook works in a query letter.

In the case of a query letter for a book that has no particular hook aside from great writing, two to three sentences of plot description is what you have to work with. But after reading thousands of pieces of slush and who knows how many pitches, editors get really good at telling good writing from bad over the course of a letter. Really.

You're only going to sabotage yourself at this if
a) you overthink it and get all nervous.
b) you don't know what your manuscript is really about.
c) you can't write.

Let's assume it's not (c), and you get a grip on yourself and avoid (a). I see a fair number of people who seem to have a pretty good idea of what their manuscript is about, and are certainly willing to give it their best guess. This is not good enough. You figure: of course I know what it's about; I wrote the thing, right? Wrong.

It's good for you to practice looking at your stuff the way a stranger would. You love all of it, but what's the coolest part? What's the shiniest, prettiest, wiggliest, most shimmering part? ;)
Take Speak and Hattie Big Sky as encouragement—clearly it is possible to get a manuscript read and published without the kind of hook you'd put in a query. But if there is one, use it!

28 comments:

Andy J Smith illustration said...

This whole series on hooks is very useful and insightful. Thanks, EA, for posting it. I am learning lots here, particulary with the variety of information provided! And a lot of what I did know has been reinforced or forced me to rethink it.

Thanks for getting the wheels turning!

-AJS

Anonymous said...

I teach writing, and I absolutely agree with EA that you can tell from the query whether the person can write. The story may be high fantasy and the query may be a one-page pitch, but you can still tell.

In your query, you must nail (b) with no mistakes (without, in other words, falling into (c)). If you must do (a) to arrive at (b) then do, but prune all vestiges of (a) out of the query before you send it. :)

Anonymous said...

I hope I don't upset anyone, because that's not my intent. I often wonder why it is I am constantly buying books that bore me to tears...Hook? What will grab a reader? What will make him/her buy a book? Yeah, you hook a reader, they buy it, only to find disappointment between the covers, and this teaches them to hate reading. I know my thoughts don't go along with the "real world," but why can't you find and publish books that people (kids) will LOVE. Roald Dahl didn't listen to publishers (adults), he listened to the children, his audience, and that genius will live forever because of it. He wasn't about hooks or plots or any other bullsh*t, like books written for adults but styled as children's books. He was about magic...why don't you look for magic? It's what the children love...and it's what lives forever. I've never met a kid that said the story was boring but the writing was wonderful...

nw said...

Roald Dahl "wasn't about plots"???

Deirdre Mundy said...

Um... Roald Dahl was ALL about plot.... And characters.... and being wickedly, subversively funny.......

Magic wasn't the point for him, it was a plot device......

And there are LOTS of horendously dull children's books involving magic... I know... i used to pick them up as a kid and throw them out the window in disgust....

And not ALL children like Magic....

I personally LOATHE "teen problem novels"... I always have.... you know "Bonnie's brother died of cancer and now she gets violently ill whenever she sees a cute guy dressed as a clown" novels......

But I had lots of friends in high school who devoured them like sugar-spun candy.

And I had friends who said "ewww.... fantasy? If it couldn't really happen, why read it?"

Tastes are widely varied... a GOOD hook matches someone who would like your book with the book....

BTW--- if you're ALWAYS buying books that disapoint you, perhaps you should consult a librarian....

They're really good at playing the "If you liked X your will probably also like Y and Z" game...

Many public libraries even subscribe to "readers advisory" databases... The public can access them, and they can find books similiar to ones they've liked.....

but it's unfair to say "all children like magic" or horses, or princesses or glitter or puppies or dinosaurs or trucks, for that matter.......

Children are not a monolithic group, anymore than adults..... or any subset of adults...

If I said "Single women over 30 like soft-porn quality trashy romance with Fabio on the cover,"

I would be flamed to death... and rightly so.....

There's a similiar problem with treating "the children" as a single entity.....


(Sorry about the long rant in reply..... I just get annoyed when people forget that children are just shorter people with fewer years to their age.... not some strange robots with no desires, wants, ideas and feelings of their own.......)

Deirdre Mundy said...

Oh, and as for "the story was dull but the writing was wonderful"...

If Roald Dahl's writing HADN'T been wonderful, his stories would have seemed dull.....

Part of "the magic" IS the writing...

For instance, contrast:

"In a hole in the ground lives a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort"

with:

"Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lives in a comfortable hole."

Same plot elements, but the second has no magic while the first draws you in....

Deirdre Mundy said...

oops.. in both of those, "lived" not lives..... my typing leaves a LOT to be desired......

Anonymous said...

What was the plot of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? What was the plot of James and The Giant Peach? And I meant "magic" in the sense of wonder and excitement and wanting to turn the pages, not poof there's a rabbit! My point: you people talk about a bunch of crap. Kids don't care about this garbage you speak of. Hook? Roald Dahl's writing was simple and magical. Is Criss Cross really a children's book? And what the hell is that book about anyway. Also: Roald Dahl himself said his books were not about plot; he wrote simply to entertain. Yes, his books had plot, all books have plot, or should, but his books were not plotted. If any of you write for children, I'd be real interested in reading your work, because the focus I see here is not about children, but about you and editors and publishers and blah, blah, blah. I'm not a writer; I'm a reader, and my son hates books because they bore him, and you, dear people, if you are writers or editors, are boring young readers to death. Plus, almost every new book is doing nothing but copying what's already out there. Have you read Rick-somethings Titan Curse or whatever. Yes, it popular, and it's a Harry Potter knock off. It's terrible what you folks are doing. Your focus is all wrong and one day you're all going to pay dearly for it. That's fine, yell and curse and me, no matter. I'm the one buying your work and I'm telling you I'm not happy or impressed.

Anonymous said...

BTW, please give me the name of a new children's book that's going to change my outlook. A book that'll transport me and my young son. A book we'll want to read over and over again, like we do Roald Dahl's work. Go ahead. Something newly published this year. Brand new. Not a series. A brand new book and author who is magical and amazing and wonderful. I'm waiting...

Deirdre Mundy said...

"Dragon Slippers" by Jessica Day George was EXCELLENT, but probably a bit too much of a "girl" book for your son.....

Gerald Morris has a GREAT series called "The Squires Tales"--- The most recent one was published in 2006 -- a great retelling of King Arthur, all from a minor characters viewpoint....

And there's always Brian Jacques... The Redwall books DO get a tad repetative (there are a gazillion of them , but they're great rip=roaring adventures--just don't read them all back to back) and his "Flying Dutchman" series is shaping up to be really neat.....

None of these have the same dark edge as Dahl, though.... They're more adventure.....

One problem with looking for "Another Dahl" is that he's totally unique... there can't be another.... he was a genius, and any attempt to mimic him is just pathetic...


Oh, you might also not be familiar with the "John Bellairs" books... the series started in the early eighties.... very dark and scary... after he died, someone else took up the writing and I've been told the new books are actually fabulous! (haven't gotten to read them yet) but they've come out in the last year or so....

Deirdre Mundy said...

Oh! And Diana Wynne Jones had a new one last fall called

"The Pinhoe Egg" -- also a lot of fun...

(And DON'T even THINK of accusing her of being a Rowling Knockoff---- she's been at since the 70s!!!!!!!!!!)

Deirdre Mundy said...

Once again, I really suggest you consult a good children's librarian....

Most authors have their own favorite styles and genres.... a librarian would be better at figuring out what's best for your son...

I can only recommend what I've liked, and right now my daughters are too young for most of these....

They're still in the goodnight moon, Max and Ruby, Dr. Seuss stage......

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Deirdre! Some of these we've tried and they didn't work, but others we haven't, but will. Thanks again! And you're right: He keeps wanting the authors to be Roald Dahl (and he HATES Lemony Snicket, go figure; too much narrative, I think), so we usually put the new books down and pick up James or Charlie or BFG, etc. That man was truly a genius. My son is almost hypnotized when I read these books to him, and it's like he blames me when the new books are "stupid," as he calls them.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Also, would you mind telling me a few recent books that you and your son tried and hated, and why you hated them? That might give me a better grip on your problem...

As it is, you're simply making ad hominem attacks against a group of people you've never met....

The reason we ask about hooks and the like is because we want to know how to get the books we've written, that we're really excited about, into print and into the hands of readers who'll adore them....

The hook think is a technical discussion, not really about what makes great children's literature....

though I'm sure you can find plenty of sites that discuss that on line too....

But again, a librarian is a book-seekers BEST resource... it's what they do for a living and they LOVE to match kids with books they'll enjoy... it's not just a job, it's a calling.....

Deirdre Mundy said...

Lemony Snickett doesn't COMPARE to Dahl...

He's actually pretty boring... I haven't been able to make it through the series.....

One thing that I find helps is checking to see how long it takes an author to write a book... if he churns them out every few months, they're probably not worth reading...

But if he ONLY wants Dahl, you'll probably never find a substitute...

Well, there are the collections of Edward Gorey -- but he might be to young for those, and they're more "graphic novel"

Oh... have you tried Neil Gaiman's "Coraline?" That one's pretty dark too.....

But, on the whole, dark AND funny is almost impossible....

For "not as dark" but still well-written and fun, there's also
Terry Pratchett... he has a series out that starts with "Wee Free Men" -- it makes a HILARIOUS read aloud if you try to do the voices.....

Deirdre Mundy said...

Sorry all... I get out of hand when I start recommending books.... I'll stop now and cook my kids lunch...

nw said...

Eva Ibbotson's books are fantastic. Hard for me to imagine any kid finding them boring.

Anonymous, if you're not a children's writer, I'd be curious what drew you to this blog. Most of us are here because we write for children, and Editorial Anonymous is generously giving us insight into the publishing process. We are talking about "editors and publishers and blah, blah, blah" because (a) this is what we do for a living (or in some cases hope to do), and (b) the nuts and bolts of the publishing business is what this blog is ABOUT.

Many of us also frequent children's literature blogs and chatboards where we talk about the stories that we love. I'm not sure how you got here, but you might find what you're looking for at one of those. I'd recommend Fuse #8 and Read Roger for a start.

ann said...

Thanks EA for the clarification regarding hook. I'm sure there's at least one shiny slithery thing in my book.

And, to anonymous, all I can say is that all of us -- agents, editors, writers -- we're doing the best we can. If you haven't figured it out yet, writing and publishing for children is largely a labor of love. It's a ton of work and few get rich. We do it (as I speak for everyone) because we love books, kids and want to write and publish that work that will speak to your son.

We aren't talking about hooks because we all want to write a great hook and nothing more -- we're talking about hooks because that is just one small and important aspect of this slush-filled process.

I'm sure there are books out there that your son will like. Think of yourself as an editor, reading through the library of slush as you look for it. It'll give you compassion for their work. The work that they do for you and your son.

Anonymous said...

Children's writers are a group of people who love children's books so much that most of us slave away unpaid for years and years, struggling to master our craft, amassing piles of rejection slips. Even when we finally achieve success, the vast majority of us go on having to support ourselves in some other way, because except for J. K. Rowling and a few others, it just doesn't pay that much. We don't need to be snarled at about how someday we'll "pay dearly." Trust me, we already have.

Emay said...

I would love to know what anonymous does for a living, and whether it involves having to listen to angry inquiries (from someone who has never done any work in the field) about why s/he doesn't "just" do something absolutely brilliant, exactly like Famous Person X, only of course completely original.

I, too, wish Roald Dahl were here. He was always great at coming up with suitably unpleasant fates for nasty, stupid people.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you're right, my apologies. I just believe that children's books have become about anything except the young reader. And I came to this blog for reasons of my own. And if I told you who I am you'd freak out...and start editing my posts, I'm sure. I was just curious as to the responses I'd get to some of my comments. Take care, all. And much success with your writing.

Deirdre Mundy said...

By the way, Anon -- have you tried your son on NON-Fiction?

(Not an area where I have a lot of experience, but...)

I know my Roald Dahl obsessed younger brothers had a hard time finding fiction to suit them... but good nonfiction books about their interests could lose them for a whole afternoon....

Just a thought.... one doesn't have to read fiction to love reading, and many boys really like finding things out.....

Anonymous said...

Are you David Copperfield, by any chance? Because it sounds like you expect others to pull magic out of their ass. So I am presuming you can do the same.

Anyone who is not thinking first and foremost about their young readers is going to fail in the marketplace. And as for real writers with real bills to pay from their very real hard work, their eye is firmly on their readership, I can assure you.

And this blog, correct me if I'm wrong, is largely concerned with the business of children's publishing, not the wonder of it.

The presumptuousness of your posts really got under my skin. But now I must get back to making magic.

P.

Anonymous said...

My kids and I hate Roald Dahl. This is not to start a RD war, it's just to point out that every writer has their audience and their non-audience. I think what you need to do is discover who else your son likes (I know, you've been trying) rather than bemoan that there's nobody on Earth but Roald Dahl and he's not around to write anymore.

How about Gregor the Overlander? Yes, it is a series, but a current one; new volumes are released every couple of years. Would he like Jerry Spinelli? My son, not a fiction lover, goes for him. How about Louis Sachar? And how about nonfiction, as was suggested? Many boys who think books are stupid will read nonfiction about subjects that grab them. What's his passion? Can you introduce him to nonfiction on that subject? And do take the advice of others here and make friends with your local children's librarian. She or he can really help point the way. A small children's bookshop might help, too, as they still hand-sell.

Anonymous said...

By any chance -- is your son feeding off your attitude? I mean, does he have your clearly implied agreement that anything but Roald Dahl is stupid? If so, you may be "teaching" him resistance, inadvertently.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Oh.. Louis Sachar is BRILLIANTLY funny.. I used to love the "Wayside school" books as a kid, and Holes was GREAT.

Also, Gordan Korman (not super recent) is really funny... I used to LOVE him..

But you won't be able to find another Roald Dahl... just like there's only one Lewis Carroll, some authors, especially the ones that hang around for generations, are one of a kind.....

One thing you might want to try is a "Three chapter rule" --Someone I know from SCBWI uses it with her daughter... they give a book three chapters before they give up and throw it to the crocodiles...

apparently the first Harry potter book started them on this trend, because they were bored after the first chapter but wanted to see what all the hullaballoo was about....

Anonymous said...

Here's a tidbit to chew on.
Roal Dahl lived next door to my friend when he was growing up in England. Roal Dahl did crazy things and crazy things were always happening to his family. One example was he used to drive his Jag across his front lawn. My friend has always said R.D. took notes on life, finding humor in the ordinary and finding a common laughing point. His brilliance was delivering it to the masses.

Anonymous said...

I sent my MS to a professional editor (I found her on Editors and Preditors, thanks to you) for character and plot analysis. As part of the package, she writes the query letter and summary.

I've never written anything other than school work before and got the impression that the steps to publication are 1) write the book 2) edit, edit, edit yourself and when you think it's done, 3) send to a professional editor then 4) incorporate those changes you agree with. Only then are you ready to submit query letters.

It sounds like you and some of your commenters, who are obviously in the same business, are saying that you should write your own query letter so that it's in your voice and not your polishing editor's.