HH Com 417

After writing the great American novel of the 21st century, Katrina Ludlow develops a chronic case of writer's block. Though she has quit her day job to pursue writing fulltime, once it becomes obvious that her much-anticipated second book is nothing more than fiction (and not the good kind) she decides something has to change. Katrina enlists the assistance of bestselling romance novelist, Lynette Hughes, who agrees to mentor her in the literary world and her love life.

Katrina begins to start dating again, something that a normal twenty-four year-old should do, regardless or not of their has-been status. This leads her to meeting pharmaceutical tycoon, Steven Shaw, who ultimately turns her world upside-down.

While Steven has charisma, wealth and political ambitions, it is the fact that he accepts Katrina for who she is, not who she once was, which sets him apart from previous boyfriends. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to their romance, one that Katrina ignores because great power and wealth are great motivators.

Despite that Steven is nearly twice her age and is cheating on her, Katrina stays with him. Though Katrina realizes something will have to give pretty soon, it's not until her stepson, Seth, comes for a late night visit, which she realizes that her days are numbered. When Seth turns up dead, no one seems to bat an eye that Steven was one of the last people to see him alive. Katrina soon realizes that no one leaves Steven, at least not alive.

It doesn't take much to get me to stop reading a query letter. Sometimes I'll let one howler go by on the off chance it's inadvertent, or the author just didn't know something. Two is my max. Here are yours:

"great American novel" at age 24
"enlists the assistance of a romance novelist"
"has been status" at age 24
"great power and great wealth are great motivators"
"no one leaves Steven, at least not alive"

If you don't understand why these are howlers, pay attention to the comments column. You're going to probably hear some things you don't like. Get over it and pay attention.


jamiehall said...

This hook makes me think Katrina is a passive dimwit. Very few readers have the patience to read about MCs who are passive dimwits, so on your rewrite of the hook, try to think of a way to make her sound better.

Also, where is the main focus of the plot? Is this a find-your-voice novel for young women? Is is a stalker/abusive boyfriend novel? A murder mystery? You keep changing focus just when it seems you have settled on a particular direction.

shannon said...

I'm sorry, but this made me laugh. It's a comedy, right? No? It's not even a good Nicci French rip-off.

Usually, "the great American novel of the 21st century" won't be recognised until long after the author's dead. That's just the way things work. Usually. From your description of Katrina's character, she doesn't sound like she'd have the life experience, knowledge or even talent to write such a book. And no one likes a show-off.

I find it hard to believe that some genius 24 year old writer suffering from writer's block would enlist the help of a romance novelist. If she's really such a great writer, she'd be more likely to go overseas for a considerable amount of time and start experiencing a new culture etc for inspiration. Writer's tend to like to broaden their horizons in a less narrow-minded way. I would.

Oh, Steven. Wow. A pharmaceutical tycoon. Isn't she a lucky girl. A "has-been" at 24 after the greatest one-hit-literary-wonder and he's STILL attracted to her? So shocking! Frankly, he sounds like a prat, all shiny money and "political ambitions" - I don't believe a literary genius would fall for such an obvious kind of person. Hey, there are always exceptions, but I don't BELIEVE.

Now, your main character has written the great literary novel (you don't say literary but that's what it would be), but your own book is a sad, predictable, non-suspenseful murder mystery thriller type thing. To me, they don't seem compatible. Maybe it's the whole presentation thing, and all the other quibbles already mentioned, but it just seems funny. Oh, and she married the guy! That's hilarious.

"it's not until her stepson, Seth, comes for a late night visit, which she realises that her days are numbered." Apart from the bad grammar, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Don't make me guess. I'll come up with something silly just to relieve the tedium.

Again, the whole "no one leaves Steven, at least not alive" reminds me of Nicci French, but they can make theirs work. This doesn't. It's not even about rewriting the hook. It's about rewriting the whole idea.

Virginia Miss said...

I liked "nothing more than fiction (and not the good kind)" but then I stopped reading at "enlists the assistance of bestselling romance novelist..."

In the immortal words of Miss Snark, SPLAT

If someone has written the great american novel why oh why WHY?

When something makes no sense, I have no reason to keep reading.

Anonymous said...

"bat an eye"
a world turned "upside down"
"something will have to give"

This is highly cliched writing and highly painful to read.

MWT said...

"Katrina begins to start dating again,"

I see this a lot. "... begins to start to [something]." Choose one or the other, not both. "Katrina begins dating again" or "Katrina starts dating again."

I used to catch myself writing this a lot, too, as a way of not coming right out and just saying something. Be bold, author! Don't be afraid to say what you mean.

Getting on to Miss Snark's points (though Shannon covered them already, lemme just add my own $0.02 in case two voices are better than one ;) )...

24 is very young, and highly unlikely to write anything that qualifies as a "great American novel." Especially if she's had a standard U.S.-style middle class life the whole time. I'm not seeing anything in the hook to suggest otherwise.

Why is 24 too young? It's a matter of time, number of years spent living and experiencing things, where there really are no shortcuts. I'd say someone has to be at least 30 (and probably 40+) before they start to develop the kind of wisdom in the ways of the world, to write something insightful enough that it might qualify as "great American novel."

Seeking help from a romance novelist in the literary world ... okay, that's stretching things ... (a lot...) ... but to mentor her personal life? I think that was the point where my own "suspension of disbelief" gave out.

I think what you have in the first paragraph is a general lack of understanding about how writing works. The writing process, the "literary world", and what kinds of decisions a real writer in Katrina's situation would make to combat things like writer's block.

So what's the story really about, once we get past that first paragraph?

Katrina, a struggling writer, meets Steven Shaw, a pharmaceutical tycoon. On the surface he looks great, and Katrina is attracted to his wealth and power. Then he turns out not to be so great after all. Then he kills her stepson Seth (so, he kills his own son?).

That's the summary I'm getting out of the remaining three paragraphs. Okay, so why does Steven Shaw want to kill her? What's he motivated to do? This is where Miss Snark's little formula comes into play. X is the protagonist Katrina who wants to be a writer, Y is the main bad guy Steven (who wants to do what exactly?), they (Z) get married and then Seth dies (L). Keep going... ;)

Anonymous said...

Might one suggest, as well, that Katrina might not be a very good choice of name for your protagonist...?

Anonymous said...

I think this could work if you clean up some of the problems.

I think you need to clarify WHY she'd enlist the help of a romance novelist, and WHY she'd date/marry someone like Steven. I think you need to CLARIFY the whole "great american novel" thing and clear up the "has-been status"... Obviously you can't do that in a hook, because it'd be unhook like, but first step - I agree that you need to determine what your story REALLY is and tell it.

Perhaps it'd work if her writing career is backstory and the book is about her relationship.

Or her Writer's block was where we begin but the romance is where it leads.

Either way, Katrina needs to be more aggressive or her passive nature needs to be explained.

Regardless... The Hook should be KISS - Keep It Stupidly Simple. save the complicated storylines for the book... or not.

I think It's just hard to

dancinghorse said...

There is one way a depiction of a 24-year-old has-been can work: If she published her first book to huge acclaim at, say, 15, and that was it, that was all she wrote. Literally.

The history of publishing is full of one-book wonders, and most are never heard from again. If they're very young, they can be washed up by the time they're out of their teens. They're the child stars of the book industry.

That being said, the writing needs a lot of work, and the book needs much more research and thinking through before it's ready for prime time.

Michele Lee said...

Unless it has a good dose of comedy or is nonfiction I hate it when writers write about a writer main character. Okay, maybe not, but when the entire drama of the book being about her trying to be a successful writer screams of MarySue-ism. I live that life, I don't want to read a fiction novel about it.
Misery wasn't about the writer trying to be successful, it was about fandom. There are lots of writer characters out there, but few fictional tales of writing. That's an almost faster splat for me than the over used "abused as a child".

I Said said...

Okay, so Carson McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at age 21, so I can believe the great novel part. But the rest, as has been mentioned, goes into romance and mystery and conflicts with the protagonist's own initial ambitions. Perhaps if she wrote on a more saleable level, i.e., romance or mystery, it'd be more likely to ease into your story. It also appears that she doesn't return to writing a great novel, so why make a big deal of it--especially in the hook or query.

Anonymous said...

Dancinghorse, I semi-agree with your suggestion of making the success at, say, age 15. Something written between 15 and, say, 22 might be popular, might capture some aspect of an era in a bright, shining voice, but it still wouldn't be "a great American novel". Not the way I think of that phrase, anyway. So if the author goes that route, I would need an adjustment in the status of her past success. Bestseller? Okay. Hot topic? Okay. But for me, "great American novel" will absolutely not work for someone in their early twenties or younger (for the reasons MWT already stated).

Also, saying it's "the great American novel of the 21st century" doesn't work no matter what her age, unless this is set a lot closer to the end of said century. At least at the midpoint. But six years in?

Wonder Boys did this stupendously. I urge the author to read it (or rent the fine film) for an example of a one-hit author struggling to strike gold again.

Shanna Swendson said...

This sounds like two different books crammed together. The beginning of the hook sounds like possibly a romantic comedy or chick lit book. There are some fun possibilities in the concept of a young literary one-hit-wonder having to turn to a working, three books a year, no matter what, romance novelist for help on learning how to write even when the muse isn't working. (But the idea of a romance novelist teaching a young author how to write while also meddling in her love life has already been done brilliantly in Sarah Bird's The Boyfriend School.)

And then it turns into a psycho killer/abusive boyfriend story. If that's what the story really is, then it doesn't matter how she came to get involved with this guy, and I'm not sure how it matters that she's a literary has-been at 24. Not for the hook, at least, unless one of his motives for wanting to kill her is by making her unpublished novel suddenly more valuable and he gets the rights, or something like that.

You probably need to stick to one consistent tone throughout the hook.

jerico said...

So a young author sells a first novel to high acclaim and lousy sales. Two more books follow. They disappoint both the critics and the bean counters. Young author's career is dead. That, I can see.

She decides to change her name and to try something that will sell. So she seeks help from a top-list romance author. That, I can see.

The rest of it, the rich guy, the stalking, etc. That, I don't see.

You've got two stories here. The first one is mildly interesting but quiet. Maybe if you gave the young author leprosy or something....

The second story is hackneyed. Dump it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's almost better to make her a tennis player or gymnast, some profession where girls burn out early and can actually be a has-been at 24. But the overbearing millionaire that doesn't want anyone to leave him while they're alive is a plot that's been done to death. Maybe if she fell for the guys son and then he got killed it might make it spicier.

Anonymous said...

Giving benefit of the doubt, perhaps "I wrote the great american novel" and "I am over at 24" are intended to reflect the character's attitudes (opinions of themselves) as opposed to facts about what the character has done or is. Still, once you get to love affair with a tycoon twice her age who won't let her go and a dead son, it is looking like a lot of piled up cliches.

Anonymous said...

I can buy a twenty-four-year-old Wunderkind washing out after wild literary success, but not that she would get mixed up in some dark romantic thriller situation afterward. More like she would turn to whiskey and have an affair with a rodeo clown. The character as presented in the first paragraph seems at odds with the character as presented in the last few.

Anonymous said...

The deeper I wade into this Crapometer (And I am about 150 entries behind right now), the more apparent it is that not reading seems as big a problem as poor writing.

Around the time Katrina Ludlow's grandmother would have been in school, Frank Sullivan wrote a series of New Yorker pieces in which his "Cliche Expert," Mr. Arbuthnot, testified on all manner of topics (love, baseball, science, etc.).

Had he read this hook, he would have jumped on...

-- "the great American novel"
-- "develops a chronic case of"
-- "quit her day job"
-- "much-anticipated second book"
-- "something has to change"
-- "turns her world upside down"
-- "the fact that"
-- "accepts Katrina for who she is"
-- "sets him apart"
-- "a dark side to their romance"
-- "something will have to give"
-- "pretty soon"
-- "her days are numbered"
-- "turns up dead"
-- "bat an eye"

I don't mean to pile on here, but you have to read -- not just to recognize a cliche when it shows up on the page, but also to learn how good writers convey the same idea without cliches.

One example. In "Guys Like Us," Tom Lorenz's young main character also longs to quit his day job (in his case so he can drink beer and play softball, not write a follow-up to the great American novel). He jumps out of a moving ride-on lawn mower in order to hang from a particularly inviting tree branch, thus destroying the tractor and his parks department career in one leap. The incident takes less than a page, and the phrase "quit his day job" never occurs.

It's hard as hell to force yourself to come up with fresher, more energetic ways to convey a common idea, but you have to be able to recognize what's stale first. You do that by reading. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Listen to Shanna Swendson; she gave you excellent advice.

I like the initial hook about a washed up writer and, yes, Bret Easton Ellis's debut novel was hailed as the Great American Novel of his generation, so it's plausible.

I really like the breezy opening of a romance novelist nurturing her, especially when one considers the constant friction between "the hacks" and "the literati." Go to Tess Gerritsen's blog to read all about it. Or Jennifer Weiner's blog.

Would you consider rewriting your manuscript so it has a more consistent tone and storyline? I'd buy that book.

Anonymous said...

Wow, is your main character ever ripe for being called a Mary Sue!

Also, beware. If you have a protag who is a stellar writer, you have to be one, too. You're not (yet). You might become great, but even then, it's sooo tricky to have a super-successful character. Others have cited the problems for "Studio 60" when they try to pull of the perfect, biting wit in their sketches... only they're not even as good as SNL itself these days.

Maybe this can be a first, "trunk", book. Work on your next. Writing's a process, and most of us apply for publication well before we're ready. Doesn't mean we'll never succeed.