Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Chris Eboch on Does a Book Need a Hook?

A girl in ancient Egypt uncovers a plot against the Pharaoh as she hunts for her missing friend (The Eyes of Pharaoh)

An orphan explores his magical powers at a school for wizards. Twins discover they are really genies. Death narrates a World War II story. The young descendants of Sherlock Holmes tackle one of his unsolved cases. A boy discovers a world of monsters, where he has superpowers. Twins deal with pirates, some of them vampires.

A hook—in this case the “high concept” idea—can grab the reader’s attention and make a book stand out. Here are the books with the above hooks.

Harry Potter series, by J. K Rowling
Children of the Lamp series, by P. B. Kerr
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.
The 100-Year-Old Secret, by Tracy Barrett
Billy Hooten, Owlboy, by Thomas E. Sniegoski
Vampirates series, by Justin Somper 

Do you need a hook? Well, in today’s competitive market, it sure doesn’t hurt. It’s a quick way to summarize your idea for an editor or agent, handy for writing conferences. So how do you figure out what yours is—or if you have one?

One option is comparisons—I So Don’t Do Mysteries was described as Nancy Drew with a Devil Meets Prada makeover by the publisher sales team trying to sell the book to bookstores and libraries. After Die Hard, action movies were often described as “Die Hard on a plane” or “Die Hard on a boat.” Be careful with comparisons, though—you don't want to name a book or movie that isn't familiar to the editor, or that wasn't successful.

On the jacket flap, books often used an “except” or “but” twist. The second part is the twist on a common plot. — A girl thinks the new boy isn't human, but it turns out she's the one with strange powers.

If your book isn’t trendy, don’t despair. What hooks the reader is individual to that reader. Some may read any book set in a certain time or place. Some may love talking animals or sports stories or geek girls. Don’t try to make your book sound like it fits some hot trend, if it doesn’t. Instead try to hook your readers. Who are your target readers, and what will draw them to this book?

A Mayan girl challenges the high priest trying to take over her city (The Well of Sacrifice)
A good hook is simple and short—sometimes it’s referred to as a one-sentence synopsis or an elevator pitch (from the idea that you might have 30 seconds in an elevator to grab an editor’s attention). It’s not long-winded, where you try to cram everything into one run-on sentence. The hook doesn’t necessarily tell you the plot, but it gives you the flavor of the book and arouses interest. It may be simply the premise or the most unusual aspect of the story.

EXERCISE: For practice, name a favorite or recent book—how would you describe it to a friend? Would you pick it up if you heard that description?

EXCERCISE: Write a simple synopsis of your work. Don’t worry about length or clarity. Jot down the who, what, when, where and why.

EXCERCISE: Describe your book to someone else. Let them ask questions. Then ask what they found most compelling about the idea.

Now you have some idea of the most interesting aspects of your work. Time to turn it into a one-sentence synopsis with your hook. It may help to ask, What is the conflict, in terms of X versus Y?

A brother and sister travel with a ghost hunter TV show and try to help the ghosts, while keeping their activities secret from meddling grownups. (Haunted series)

Once you have your hook, you can expand upon that one-sentence synopsis for a query letter or longer conversation.


  1. Thanks for the tips, Chris! Hooks are oh-so-important for those query letters :)

  2. I like the exercises here. Getting the hook explicit is so important--not just for agents/editors, but anyone interested in knowing about your book.

  3. Hooks are so important. It's great to have one even before you start the story.

    1. That's a fair ideal, Dee, but for me it would drive me to the nut house, and I have enough real life issues taking me there and back as it is, I don't need the writer in me having an identity crisis on this on a regular basis with no break.

      If I did that with Gabriel, it would never have been written, so I think it's fair to point out that different books have different processes.

      I think the better you are with pitching innately plays a role here.

      Writing "About a book" isn't always one to one with writing the actual book, and not all of us are in marketing outside the context of publishing, so it stands to reason this skill isn't necessarily interchangeable. But I do get that for some people this pre-writing works,

      I'm sadly not one of them. I know I sold Gabriel on the merit of the actual sample chapters, but I still composed the best query letters I could.

      That said, while I was able to break into a small press a fellow author friend reccomended to me, I know I'll need , so I must continue to face the query drama, but I think it's important for writers in general to know (or to be REMINDED) that struggling with query letters doesn't mean the actual book's mess. They're two different things, even if the both require pro-level quality.

      After all, there are many people who could advertise like pros, but not necessarily have the skillsets to write what they advertise.

      That's why many who excel at nonfiction don't feel they can write fiction, and vice versa, in my case. Fiction and nonfiction require pro-level skills to sell/reach readers, but despite all the points to the contrary made, not all nonfiction skills are directly transferable to fiction, and the same just as true the other way around.

    2. EDIT: "hat said, while I was able to break into a small press a fellow author friend reccomended to me, I know I'll need an agent for my long-term career, so I must continue to face the query drama, "


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!