Saturday, March 20, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake

A friend/colleague attended some vaguely hippie-sounding conference/retreat recently in California, where she ran into Gary Schmidt, who is all kinds of awesome. If you haven't been reading Mr. Schmidt's books, you may want to continue to avoid them for fear his awesomeness won't inspire you as much as give you a huge insecurity complex.

Unfortunately, Mr. Schmidt got up in front of the group of aspiring writers and told them that he hated the word "hook". Mr. Schmidt, if you're reading this, you know I love you. I'd rank you in the top ten novelists working in children's books today. But you're giving me such a headache.

I know, there's a lot of confusion about what qualifies as a hook. And if that's where you're coming from, ok, I sympathize. I hate terms that have no useful definition as much as the next dictionary-reader.

So here you go:

hook / noun : the reason people will read your book.

No, really. That's what it means. Go back and read it again if you have to.

Now, in the case of writing like Mr. Schmidt's, the hook--the reason people will read his work-- is that it's brilliant, and there are lots of people willing to tell readers it's brilliant.

Writers like Mr. Schmidt (or Mr. Anderson, or Ms. Anderson, or Ms. Lockhart, or Mr. Alexie) don't need to worry much any more about hook, because once a wide segment of the book community realizes that whatever these writers write will be worth reading, such writers have hook at their fingertips.

So Mr. Schmidt, you're doing new writers a terrible disservice when you tell them it's ok to dislike and disregard 'hook'.

You are, in fact, sounding a great deal like certain French princesses, who when informed of the peasants' concerns about lack of bread hook responded, "Bah, 'bread' 'hook'. I never worry about bread hook, and neither should those peasants aspiring writers. If they are so hungry trying to be published, let them be published because they are acclaimed writers like me."

Fortunately for you, writers are a hell of a lot more optimistic than your average French peasant, and they'll get all the way home intending to eat their cake before remembering that they don't have any of that either.

Consider this before you advise people against the importance of hook. And before you go to your next writers' conference, take my advice and check for guillotines.


Lisa Schroeder said...

Love this! And best definition of "hook" EVER!!!

Greg Pincus said...

As one who was at that hippie-sounding conference, I thought I'd add a little to your post. Yes, Mr. Schmidt does hate the word "hook" in this literary sense, but I think he'd agree with you that there needs to be a reason people will read your book. My suspicion is that "hook" has come to mean more of a high-concept thing from his point of view: can you sum your book up in a sentence for a TV guide blurb/back jacket flap? Instead, he talked about "aboutness" or the book's "guts" as ways to approach the same issue.

As you note, if we all wrote like him it wouldn't matter. He swims in "aboutness" and it shines through. But I think he just wants writers to think more deeply rather than less since that's what worked for him. (I could be wrong, but since he's not a blog kinda fellow, I don't think he'll weigh in to correct me!)

Michael Grant said...

Yeah, he's wrong. You're right. He's forgotten that his "hook" is his name on the cover.

More generally I wonder whether established writers are really helping newbies with advice.

Join a writing group? I never did, and I never would. The very idea makes my flesh creep.

Read, read, read? The only time I read YA or MG is when I have to do blurb. I read history.

Ignore the market? What? In what universe? If you want to remain unpublished, by all means ignore the market.

It's not about money. Yes it is. It's about money. If there's a contract then guess what: it's about money.

It's about connections. We'd already published more than 100 books before we ever met an agent or editor face-to-face.

I'm more and more uneasy with handing pabulum to aspiring writers. My advice is:

1) Have the good luck to be born with some talent. Sorry, but it's not just hard work and nose to the grindstone. It's DNA and environment and if those two forces didn't conspire to give you some talent go do something else and stop torturing yourself.

2) Have something to say. Have some stories. That's what we're doing: telling stories. If you're having a hard time "coming up with an idea" go do something else.

3) Learn your job. Words, sentences, punctuation. More importantly learn how to use those tools to manipulate other people's emotions and keep their interest.

4) Learn your business. Your business is books, bookstores, publishers, e-books, movie rights, merchandise, marketing, advertising.

5) Stand up for what's right sometimes and roll over other times. Pick your fights and emerge on top.

6) Don't be a dick because people in publishing never go away. That editorial assistant will be an acquiring editor some day.

7) Understand that this is a career not ego validation. You work in isolation. You never know where your next paycheck is coming from. You are your own boss. You have no safety net. There are a million people who want your slot on the shelves at B&N. Just about everyone in the business will lie to you and try to screw you. Not all, but most. You are only as good as your last book and the computers at Bookscan or B&N can open up and swallow you whole one day, you and your entire career. So before you waste a lot of time ask yourself if that's the career you want.

Unknown said...

Gary Schmidt is one of my professors and he absolutely thrills and terrifies me in the same breath. I don't think I have ever heard him speak on hooks, but I do know he once informed me that he doesn't believe in writer's block. So when I am stuck I remind myself that it isn't that I am blocked, I am just coming from the story in the wrong way.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Well said. And it's good to have you back, EA.

Sherryl said...

I agree, EA. And if you don't like the word 'hook', then at least think about what your reader does want at the beginning of a story - engagement? tension? mystery? voice? They are all kinds of hooks, too.

Anonymous said...

She's back!

(I know you're anonymous, but I get this 'she' vibe.)

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

At first sight, Mr Schmidt sounds like one of those people who makes a provocative statement to see if anyone dares contradict him. Disputing the need for a 'hook' seems total idiocy - as proved by everyone's spirited and eloquent responses. I have to wonder, have his remarks been reported incompletely and perhaps out of context? But thanks, Ed Anon, for a worthwhile and meaty debate!

Jean Ann Williams said...

Well, here I was all worried I'd miss too many of EA's posts. She was editing. I was writing. I'm so backed up on my Internet reading, but I'm happier that I'm writing.

Always enjoy your posts.

Liesl Shurtliff said...

The world of writing is full of contradictions, and that does not exclude the advice we get from successful authors.

One such best-selling, award-winning, critically acclaimed author once told a group of hungry amateur writers that he never wrote more than one draft, otherwise it turned out to be manufactured and dry. Okay, so maybe this guy is just mega-talented and a genius and can write amazing stuff in one draft. But seriously, I really hope 99% of the people in that room worked up a deaf ear, because I still go by Hemingway's advice, you know, about all first drafts being sh*%#.

“Don’t listen to advice. Even mine.” Karen Cushman

Claire Dawn said...

This is simply brilliant! Wonders what my hook is...

You now what would be great, EA, if you gave us a post with what you think the hooks of major chilren's novels are.

Debra McArthur said...

Having worked with Gary for a very intense MFA semester, I will hazard a guess about his intent...

I think he rejects the gimmick of a hook that draws the reader in, but deceives him/her into thinking that there is depth in the work. A "hook" in the opening pages will keep the reader going for a few chapters, but it isn't enough to carry a book that has no real emotional "meat."

Anonymous said...

I'm with Michael Grant's idea -- "... He's forgotten that his "hook" is his name on the cover..."

There are certain writers who write anything and can get it published. Even the same plot with practically the same characters. Over and over again. Other writers need a hook.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Perhaps, as Gregory K suggests, Mr. Schmidt was simply using other words to mean hook because he thought "hook" meant something other than it does. In that case, I hope the definition in this post has been helpful.

Or perhaps, as Debra suggests, Mr. Schmidt was exhorting authors to inject more emotional depth and meaning into their work, rather than to rely on superficially enticing premises.

If authors followed this exhortation, I for one would weep tears of personal joy and professional repletion.

But you know who else would weep? The readers who like fluff and will pay for it.

As a reader, you (and I) can cast whatever aspersions we like on such books, but as citizens who think the habit of reading is far more important than only reading Good Literature (because that would mean, for some people, that they read just one book in their whole lives), it's not ok to say that all books must be Deep and Meaningful.

Some of them should simply be Fun, and for those books, a superficial premise can and will get the reader through the whole book. For those books, the cheapest and most obnoxious definition of hook is still not something to look down your nose at, because it is the thing that keeps a segment of our reading public reading.

Amy said...

I sympathize with Mr. Schmidt (who is indeed awesome; my son and I loved "The Wednesday Wars"). Yes, every novel needs a hook, but in the past few months I've read several novels that had great-sounding hooks, but the stories themselves were awful. Flat characters, cliche settings, plots that were serviceable but it didn't matter because I couldn't bring myself to care.

The trend makes me fear that publishers are chasing the ultimate hook to an extent that they don't care about anything else. I wonder how many books with weaker hooks but better storytelling were passed over in order to publish the "gimmick" books I was suckered into buying. I guess the gimmick books can be considered successful. After all, they lured me into buying them. But they left a bad taste in my mouth and not much enthusiasm for going back for more.

Tamara said...

Thanks for stream lining the definition of the 'hook' for me. You wouldn't believe how muddled it got over the past couple of years!

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