Sunday, July 22, 2007

What's Hooked You?

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."


Anonymous said...

As the mother of a four-year-old, I have to disagree about "free stuff" being something that three- to five-year-olds love. An eight-year-old loves free stuff. Ten-year-olds love free stuff. Grownups love free stuff. Three- to five-year-olds could not care less about free stuff, because as far as they know, EVERYTHING is free.

Deirdre Mundy said...

The book I'm currently dying to read (but haven't managed to get out to a store/library that's kept it in stock yet) is the first "Beka Cooper" book by Tamora Pierce....

So I guess the hooks here would be (tell me if I'm wrong)

1. Tamora Pierce - A beloved author from my childhood who's still writing

2. Beka Cooper - The ancestress of my favorite Pierce Characters (George. And his daughter from the "trickster" books)

3. Plot sounds like a fun romp through ancient Tortall

Hmmm.... but now I need to decide -- what would be the hook for someone who WASN'T already a Tamora Pierce fan? (Tough one, because all my friends grew up on her too, so all I have to say is "Hey, did you see that Tamora Pierce has a new YA out?" and they go running to the store.....

But then this really isn't a helpful hook for a new writer, since she's already made a name for herself...

So let me think back to "Alana: The first adventure"

-Girl doesn't want to go to charm school, brother doesn't want to go to Knight school, so they swap places.

-They have a secret "Gift" that lets them do magic

-Can girl hide her identity and defeat the bad guys?

The hook for me, as a child, was all plot -- magic, adventure, and a girl pretending to be a boy so that she can be a knight...

As a pre-teen girl, one of the strongest hooks for me was a fantasy setting anf a strong female main character...

Which I assume is still true for girls today (at least the ones who read fantasy) --but now there are a LOT more books on the market that fill that niche.....

So why does one make it and another not?

(sorry about the long ramble... I've had inadequate amounts of sleep recently....)

Anonymous said...

Why do I suddenly see the slush piles getting flooded with "Donny the Diapered Dinosaur" and "Flatulence on the Farm" manuscripts? ; )

Deirdre Mundy said...

"How do dinosaurs use the potty?

They're very polite -- they're never snotty.

They nicely excuse themselves from the table

And pee in the toilet as best as they're able....

And every dinosaur understands

That he must always WASH HIS HANDS!"

(Because EVERYONE wants to start their week off with bad doggeral about the bodily functions of Sauropods! =) )

Lauren said...

Some things that hook me now are quite different from what hooked me when I was a kid. These days I read so much publishing industry info / gossip online that I'm drawn to books that have interesting publication stories, or books from authors whose blogs I read. Like you, Edit Anon, I'm really interested to read Thirteen Reasons Why. But that book is only on my radar because I've read so much about it on forums, blogs, etc. I agree that the premise is really intriguing, though.

I don't usually read fantasy, but I'm dying to read Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely. The pre-pub buzz was huge, and so many other YA writers and fans, fantasy lovers and non-fantasy-lovers alike, have had such good things to say about it.

Stellar writing has been a hook for me since I was a middle-grade reader. At age 9 and 10, I was all about reading blurbs, getting recommendations from the librarian, and using the Newbery list as a to-be-read checklist. What I was searching for, really, was something that challenged me -- whether it was a writing style that encouraged me to read sentences 2 or 3 times to truly appreciate all that they held, or a format that was something different from the norm (loved those epistolary novels). I moved on from the YA shelf to the adult section at a pretty young age mostly because I felt I'd read all the hard stuff that interested me. I read fluff sometimes (and had a whole shelf of Sweet Valley books at home to prove it), but a book with a reputation for being intellectually challenging could always pull me away from those wacky Wakefield twins.

Editorial Anonymous said...

First commenter: fair enough. 3-5 year olds often have no conception of money. Gifts and ownership, though, are concepts they get, wouldn't you agree?

Anonymous said...

I wish I like M.T. Anderson, but I don't. I REALLY don't. Heck, I don't like J.K. Rowlings, either. I'm obviously the odd man out, but these two authors put me to sleep faster than Unisom. Sorry. And no, four and five-year-olds (at least mine) know the concept of free and their daddy having to spend money.

Disco Mermaids said...

"I'm a naturally skeptical person, and I hate to be disappointed."

Sounds like a challenge!

Tell ya what, E.A. If you let me know where to send it, I'll send you a free galley of Thirteen Reasons Why. And we all know editors are worse than 3-5 year olds when it comes to freebies.

Of course, that'll require you to give up some otherwise anonymous information to me. But you can trust me!

- Jay

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the anon who doesn't like MT Anderson. This business is so subjective it's scary. I love about half of the new, different, edgy, brilliant, etc. stuff that's published and think the other half sucks. And one author can fall into both camps (loved An Abundance of Katherines, hated Looking for Alaska.) What hooks me is intelligence, a balance between character development and plot (no character studies where nothing happens, no scenes of utter destruction before we know the characters, a la The Alchemyst), and some sense of virtue or depth -- a hopeful or spot-on theme, for example, or a sense of family or community among the characters that makes you want to join them. Of course, you run into books sometimes that override your personal list of hooks or render them contradictory, such as Criss Cross. I loved it because of its theme -- the many ways in which people just miss connecting. But plot? Zip, zero, zilch.

LindaBudz said...

RE: 13 Reasons Why ... I agree, what a great hook! As I noted in my blog's review of the ARC, I think it will be the Blair Witch Project of YA novels on that basis alone. And IMO, the book DOES live up to the hook.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Disco Merman:
Tempting offer. And kind of you; thanks. But I didn't give Betsy any clues, and that was tempting too. I'll find myself a copy of your book on my own. :)

Anonymous said...

My YA book about a 14-year-old girl with a schizophrenic mother will be coming out in spring of '08.

Is that hook enough...or do I need more to attract readers?

Editorial Anonymous said...

That's not a hook. People don't go out of their way to read about dealing with schizophrenia. What else is going on in the book?

Anonymous said...

Ooooh, I hated Looking for Alaska as well. Talk about boring. Jeeze. I've been so disappointed with new releases that I've resigned myself to go back and re-read all my favorites. Saves money and disappointment. I recently purchased Lisey's Story by Stephen King and I simply did't understand what the h*ll that book is about??? And the reviews have been glowing??? I gave the book away this morning.

Anonymous said...

Thanks EA -- although, I wish a girl with a crazy mother was hook enough. It's not that nothing else is going on in the book -- the narrator takes up running, has a first date, a first kiss, realizes the importance of friendship, and courage, and loyalty.

You know -- the book has all the stuff of a good story -- character transformation, suspense, tension, worry, and tears. Most importantly, as I've been told, people care about the characters at the end. But, every good story has these elements. I'm sure these aren't the makings of hook.

I'm writing ya character novels -- stories about teens being able to triumph in the face of difficult circumstances without resorting to self abuse to get through. Maybe I just need to write a couple of good books to make my name the hook.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Then I hope that it's awesome writing and is received as such by the review journals. That's what it'll take.
Much luck!

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