Today’s publishing world is all about the hook. Just take a look at PW’s roundup of recent deals for any given week.
“It’s a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility.”
“It’s a gender swap of Gone Girl.”
“It’s Jaws meets Catcher in the Rye.” (Okay, that might be interesting. Is the shark a phoney too? Will it cost Holden an arm and a leg to find out?)
Don’t get me wrong…I love a good hook. It can be make or break for a submission. It’s a great way for editors to pitch a book to sales reps and accounts. It helps make a book memorable. It can be the cornerstone of a marketing campaign. But creating the right hook is even more important than having a hook in the first place. Some things, like Jaws and Catcher in the Rye, just don’t go well together (unless you’re as anxious to see Holden Caulfield get eaten as I am). You want your pitch to fit the book, but not seem campy, confusing, or forced. So how do you master the art of the hook?
First things first. Go to SlantLetter.com and sign up for the wonderful Stephanie’s Smith’s newsletter. As she says on her website: “The best writing out there, I believe, is slant writing. Because if content is king, the angle is queen—and she is one classy lady! An angle is simply this: it’s a fresh frame for timeless truth. It’s creative, unexpected, a pinch provocative, and able to power up vital conversations people are compelled to join. It’s the signature of great writing. And it makes all the difference in standing out beyond overdone, underdeveloped, dime-a-dozen concepts.”
Second things second. Follow these five exercises to determine the hook for your book.
1. Find your comps. Comps, short for “competitive titles,” are books that are similar to yours in the marketplace. Use the magic of Goodreads and other sites to hunt down titles that are similar in content or style to your book. If you can determine books that have been successful (e.g. bestsellers), put those at the top of your list as best comps. You can then create pairings of those titles to encapsulate the core of your story. *Note: you can use films or televisions shows as comps, though most editors like to see literary references in there too.
2. Subvert expectations. Think about what makes your book different from other novels in the genre. Do you have a unique character, such as a deaf pianist? Are you writing a story that deconstructs the classic hero archetype? Use your hook to show how you are pushing the boundaries of literature.
3. Harness the twist. Every good book has a twist…or two or three or four. Figure out what the twistiest part of your book is, and make that your hook. This works especially well for suspense novels. For example: “The editor thought life was going great…until her red pen ran out of ink.” Not writing a thriller? You can still capture the interesting and unique circumstances of your character with a twist.
4. Write the logline. Even if your book doesn’t feel hooky, you can practice writing your logline, a one-sentence summary of the entire work. Write five to ten different versions of a logline, then ask friends and family to read them. Whichever one gets the most votes for “most intriguing” wins the spot of the hook. If you want to take the exercise one step further, also practice writing your tagline, the cool, suck-you-in one-liners that grace book covers and movie posters. (Learn about loglines and taglines here!)
5. Create an elevator pitch. Can’t sum up your book in under five words? Work on your elevator pitch and get your entire synopsis down to a thirty-second spiel. This procedure is akin to coals being pressure cooked into diamonds. Once you are forced to distill your story down to the barest of bones, you’ll find the gem that’s been hiding in there all along.
For more ways to create your hook, check out these resources: