12.06.2006

More is not less, no no.

Dear Miss Snark,

This wonderful excercise in creating a 250 word hook has highlighted a potential problem that may arise when I write my query. As my novel "stars" 5 family members as well as 8 other characters essential to the plot, and has a rather complex story line with multiple sub plots due to the 5 family members separating at a point, condensing the hook to something that is revealing about the manuscript's nature without the oversimplification of "1890's family is scattered and tries to reunite, some make it", while possible -- I've managed to stuff into the 250 word count with a shoehorn -- took some serious condensing and possesives. Meaning, every single "the bane of the Snark" became "the Snark's bane" and every possible link of an identifying pronoun was used. It works. I say what I need to say, but it ain't pretty.

So, in order for me to do a synopsis that would get the particulars, nicely condensed, and still show at least a little pizzaz, I'd need about 600-800 words. I can't do a hook that long since pretty much every agent wants 1 page or less and I still have to fit other pertinent info. Which leads me to my question, would you rather know the stroy in a matchbox of "resplendent, exiled, bombastic Zod's bane Jorrel's child, drove him to the humans' genocide" or would you rather see "Daddy never told Superman he pissed this guy off" in a hook?

I can do it either way. Unfortunately, once I start with one "style", I really don't have room to fit flavors of both in.



How to write a hook.

Step one: Ask the question "why would I want to read this book".

Step two: Answer the question.

Step three: Cross out "cause it's a masterpiece"; return to step one.

Step four: cross out "cause you'll love it"; return to step one

Step five: cross out "my novel stars"; return to step one

Step six: review examples of hooks posted on Happy Hooker Crapometer Blog.

Step seven: answer "why do I want to read this book" for the examples

Step eight: apply what you have learned

Step nine: take out anything remotely resembling a synopsis.

Step ten: see step one


PS This stuff is a lot harder than I make it sound. Writing a good hook can take weeks, if not a month. I work on my cover letters for projects I take on for weeks. And I revise like crazy after I pitch it a couple times. There's a reason we've got so much run up time before the Happy Hooker CoM.

44 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another question the author might also consider, which is one I'm struggling with, myself:

What is the story about?

Pretend someone just asked you that. They're standing there looking at you expectantly. Their attention span is roughly 30 seconds. Now, how do you answer, and do so crisply enough and with enough enthusiasm that your questioner's eyes don't glaze over? ;-)

Good luck. I'm in the same boat.
Cheers ~

G. Atwater

Dave said...

Oh for crying out loud.

Amazon is selling a 1.1 pound paperback (yes, 1.1 pound, that's thick, very thick) with this description:
In the grand storytelling style that is his signature, James Michener sweeps us back through time to the very beginnings of the Jewish faith, thousands of years ago. Through the predecessors of four modern men and women, we experience the entire colorful history of the Jews, including the life of the early Hebrews and their persecutions, the impact of Christianity, the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition, all the way to the founding of present-day Israel and the Middle-East conflict.
And that's only 79 words for James Michener's The Source

Dave said...

Crimea River Redux (tears, tears, tears)

And here's the publishers 95 word blurb for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince which is 652 pages in hardcover:
The war against Voldemort is not going well; even the Muggles have been affected. Dumbledore is absent from Hogwarts for long stretches of time, and the Order of the Phoenix has already suffered losses. And yet...
As with all wars, life goes on. Sixth-year students learn to Apparate. Teenagers flirt and fight and fall in love. Harry receives some extraordinary help in Potions from the mysterious Half-Blood Prince. And with Dumbledore's guidance, he seeks out the full, complex story of the boy who became Lord Voldemort — and thus finds what may be his only vulnerability.


That's less than 1/2 the words Miss Snark permits for your hook.

Dave said...

ok, ok, last teary-eyed, bleary-eyed, hissy fit:
Publisher's blurb on The Echo Maker
On a winter night on a remote Nebraska road, 27-year-old Mark Schluter flips his truck in a near-fatal accident. His older sister Karin, his only near kin, returns reluctantly to their hometown to nurse Mark back from a traumatic head injury. But when he emerges from a protracted coma, Mark believes that this woman — who looks, acts, and sounds just like his sister — is really an identical impostor. Shattered by her brother's refusal to recognize her, Karin contacts the cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber, famous for his case histories describing the infinitely bizarre worlds of brain disorder. Weber recognizes Mark as a rare case of Capgras Syndrome, a doubling delusion, and eagerly investigates. What he discovers in Mark slowly undermines even his own sense of being. Meanwhile, Mark, armed only with a note left by an anonymous witness, attempts to learn what happened the night of his inexplicable accident. The truth of that evening will change the lives of all three beyond recognition.
Set against the Platte River's massive spring migrations — one of the greatest spectacles in nature — The Echo Maker is a gripping mystery that explores the improvised human self and the even more precarious brain that splits us from and joins us to the rest of creation.

208 words

Anonymous said...

Excuse my ignorance, but weren't hooks an synopses entirely different beasts?

Anyway, you don't need to include all the family members and subplots. Only the major plot should be discussed (and a few major subplots if you have the words to spare). Not everything is important enough to make the cut.

M. G. Tarquini said...

There's a reason we've got so much run up time before the Happy Hooker CoM

I thought we needed the time to stockpile the gin.

Bella Stander said...

To the writer: Of course you can describe your book in far fewer than 600-800 words. Publishers Weekly & People reviews do it in 200-300 words; PW announcement listings do it in ONE SENTENCE. (I know because I used to write 'em.) Also look at Amazon book descriptions (usually supplied by the publisher) and publishers' catalogs.

Every communication you make about your book--pitch, query letter, press release, interview, etc.--has to answer the Three Eternal Questions:
1) So what?
2) Who cares?
3) What's in it for me?

Start by answering the above, then see how many words you can delete and still say the same thing. Then take out a few more words, and you should be almost there.

LampLighter said...

Atwater, I once asked that very question of a writer while waiting to start a workshop I was teaching. 20 minutes later, I was still listening to what his story was 'about.' After he sat through my workshop, I asked him again -- and he had it in 4 sentences. Sometimes life is good.

Catja (green_knight) said...

This stuff is a lot harder than I make it sound. Writing a good hook can take weeks, if not a month.

You have my wholehearted thanks for this, Miss Snark.

I get immensely frustrated by all the people who say 'if you can write a novel, you should be able to dash this off easily.' because I can't. It's a specialist skill, and none that comes easily to me.

Anonymous said...

To the person who questioned Miss Snark: I bet a lot of us are in the same boat. I know I'd rather have 600 or more words to write a hook, but think of Miss Snark! She has to read them all!

Zany Mom said...

It took me months to do mine (a while ago) and still took many days to rework it for the crapometer.

For ha-has I started to write a hook for my yet unfinished novel (having only a rough draft from a few years ago).

Yes, it's hard! And that one may not make the crapometer (as in not be ready for it).

kitty said...

The writer's 2nd sentence alone has 109 words!

Heatheness said...

***
1) So what?
2) Who cares?
3) What's in it for me?
***

I snort (repeatedly, and w/coffee-sputtered laughter) in your general direction.

Anonymous said...

Glad to know the hair-pulling isn't just cuz I'm an idiot. It really IS as difficult as I thought.

whitemouse said...

Pick your most gripping storyline. It should probably be the story of someone who does make it through to a happy ending.

Think about the conflicts the characters must deal with. Think about their goals and the obstacles in the way. Figure out what makes this storyline addictive for someone reading it.

Then, communicate just how juicy all those conflicts are, how desperately important the surmounting of the obstacles is.

Mention the other storylines only in how they touch on the one you've decided to focus on.

Then, submit it to Elektra's Crapometer for constructive criticism. :-)

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

The thing about the hook is, it's not all-inclusive; it's really just the one point that really makes your book different than other books. Example: my book is about a divorced woman struggling to let go of the past, embrace the future, hold on to her best friend, deal with her teenagers, find love again in middle age, find out what's making all the children of her small town sick, and oh, yes - learn to come into her own as a new superhero. Um, let's see - what's the hook? Oh yeah. The superhero bit. So my hook became "Divorced mother of two teenagers becomes a superhero after suffering a Horrible Swiffer Accident."

No, it doesn't explain EVERYTHING that happens in the book. But the "divorced mother of two teenagers" hopefully implies that this is a woman struggling with issues that a lot of women her age struggle with - it makes the heroine relatable, in other words. But the "superhero/Horrible Swiffer Accident" part makes you sit up and take notice, gives it the twist necessary to stand out from the other "Mommy Lit" novels out there.

So you have to stop thinking that you have to include everything important that happens in the book in the hook. You can't; you do, however, have to look at the one thing that makes it different.

It's not easy, I know. But one thing I've learned; character-driven novels are really hard to write a hook for (and in my experience, really hard to sell). Plot-driven novels are much easier, on both counts. (Not to say one should ever skimp on character development.)

Anonymous said...

I do also think, though, that if your novel is finished (i.e. you've revised the heck out of it) it is easier to summarize than if it is as a raw stage. Maybe if you're having trouble writing the hook, you should go back and revise your novel a bit more?

The Rejected Writer said...

Said it before, and I'll say it again: from one of my heroes - Mark Twain writing at the end of a letter to a friend, "I'm terribly sorry to have written such a long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one."

TRW

Anonymous said...

Forget your 13 important characters and their thirteen or more important journeys. What are the absolute niftiest things that happen? Pick one or two of them and leave the rest. You don't want to give away all your treasures, do you? :)

My word verification has a cold: ubsbni

Megos said...

I would just like to point out, that if we had 2 more steps, this would be a 12 step program :)

HawkOwl said...

You're just too in love with your work. War and Peace has more characters than you and people still come up with copy for it that fits on the back cover.

Like Miss Snark tells us all the time, try answering "why should I buy this book?" rather than "what's the plot?" And leave the genitives alone. There's no point making your hook ugly and unreadable just for the sake of saving a few words.

Zany Mom said...

Melanie Lynn Hauser said: It's not easy, I know. But one thing I've learned; character-driven novels are really hard to write a hook for (and in my experience, really hard to sell).

Can you expound on this? Curious, as I am yet unpublished but tend to write more character-driven novels than plot-driven. Am I doomed to remain forever unpublished? My writing is tight and clean, but I doubt it's break-out-blockbuster material.

katiesandwich said...

I think whitemouse hit the nail on the head. Oh, and that superhero book of Melanie's sounds awesomely funny and exciting. I so want to read it! You should write your next book about a mother of two toddlers who becomes a superhero. Name her Katie!

Anonymous said...

Think of your book as a train wreck... then impregnate your hook with the same fascination.


Haste yee back

Anonymous said...

Sometimes this kind of difficulty turns out to be a sign of structure problems. I had that same problem with my first "novel" which subsequently died from a terminal case of Sprawling Mess Disease and was laid to rest in a shoebox in the attic. Good luck with yours.

Ryan Field said...

Nicholas Sparks has got it down to eight words or less.

ORION said...

What I have found is this: when you can encapsulate your story in a compelling way in only a few sentences you (at that time) truly understand your novel.
With that understanding comes depth that resonates each time you edit.
The resulting affect of a great hook is that it makes your novel even better. JMHO

Anonymous said...

Perfectly worded question, perfectly worded answer. Thanks to both of you.

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

Well, Miss Snark might have a better or different view (regarding character driven novels) but...in my experience, I had two previously agented, submitted novels that made it to the marketing committee level but didn't sell. And both were labeled somewhat "quiet" novels - the books were about relationships, women who grow into their own - i.e., in my own view, "character-driven" in that events didn't really drive the narrative; the characters' growth and development and reflections did. In retrospect, I'm forced to admit that there was very little plot, to speak of. And I have no better proof of this in the fact that really, I'd be hard pressed to write a compelling hook for either, beyond "Well, these two girls are friends and then they grow up and their friendship changes and then some stuff happens, but they remain friends in the end."

Um, not very compelling.

It wasn't until I wrote Confessions of Super Mom that I really understood that there have to be external events driving the narrative, events that FORCE the character to change (or not; that can be compelling, too). And these events have to be carefully constructed to have a beginning, middle, end, as well as high stakes involved - in other words, you know: A Plot. And once I did this, I was able to finally come up with the hook, the short description of the book I mentioned above. (And also - I was finally able to sell a darned book.) Characterization is still important, of course, and that's where I always start. But there has to be a reason for the reader to keep turning those pages, wanting to know what happens next, and I think - at least in my case - it's much easier to do that when you have A Plot.

There will always be lovely literary fiction without wild plots of the superhero kind, of course. I think it's very hard, though, to break into this business with that as your calling card unless you have some very serious publishing credentials behind you, or some other platform. Again - just my experience.

Anonymous said...

The hook is essentially what will go on the back cover of the book. You'll never get 800 words of space on the back of your book cover, so you might as well think about how to explain the book succinctly and compellingly now.

Zany Mom said...

Thanks, Melanie! I do have a plot, but the find the villain/defeat the villain isn't the focus; how the characters deal with what the villain has dished out is the focus (but there is a plot), and the characters must face and overcome their fears/demons, etc.

I think I get it!

Anonymous said...

Jorrel?

It's Jor-El.

Yes, I'm a geek, but at least I can spell.

Conduit said...

One version of my hook weighed in at a little over 100 words. The problem was, it painted the story in such broad strokes that it came over as very sensationalist - basically, back cover hard-sell blurb. Maybe that's perfect for this Crap-o-Meter? I dunno.

The version that will be submitted was critiqued by the kind folks over at Elektra's Crapometer (there's a link above here somewhere) was very much agonised over but I think it gives a good feel of the novel's plot, characters and even how it will reach a big climax. It took a lot of work to get there.

One important lesson I got from it - it's critical to only say what is important to your story. Only include things the novel couldn't stand up without. I mentioned one aspect of mine at the start of the first 'long' hook and it caused all sorts of questions among the critique folks, and although it was a wrench, it had to be excised because it wasn't essential to the novel and it distracted from the meat of the story. You have to be a little ruthless.

HawkOwl said...

Melanie: while that may be true, I think your bigger problem might have been writing about "relationships, women who grow into their own." That's so done and so boring, you'd have to do it extremely well to sell it. The superhero thing was novel, hence, much more sellable. It's not because it's got more plot, per se, it's because it's fresh and your other plots were stale. IMO. Though it's true that a novel with no arc (or "plot" if you want to call it that) would be very hard to sell, too.

Anonymous said...

"Think of your book as a train wreck... then impregnate your hook with the same fascination."

The best answer so far.

It reminds me of this: "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."

I don't know why. -JTC

The Rejected Writer said...

Just remembered this . . . Hemmingway's famous six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Wired Mag recently gave a challenge to some sci-fi writers and graphic novelists to write a six-word story. Some are pretty danged good. Fabulous exercise for everyone

TRW

judy merrill larsen said...

Melanie is right--even in "character-driven" novels, the characters have to be driven by something.

Keep in mind that a hook and a synopsis are two very different animals. A hook is, in ways, the novel's personal ad--why should anyone pick up this book?

Anonymous said...

Ms. Hauser, your words are brilliant. That is it in a nutshell. Thanks!

Termagant 2 said...

Melanie H, go sell this book. I must, MUST have it. What mom hasn't envisioned a Horrific Swiffer Accident?

Have mercy. Sell it tomorrow and get them to release it next week. I need to read this.

(whimpering)
T2

Martha O'Connor said...

Dutton bought it! And they've just released it in paperback as well.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Um...Melanie has sold the book, Termagant 2. You can order it RIGHT NOW at Amazon.com.

JPD said...

I came a little late to this particular party, but I have my opinions....

I first outlined my hook, then focused on "why" rather than "what" happens next. That yielded me 5 bullet-points, which then became full paragraphs. I spent the next month bouncing between the 249 - 251 words which added the most value to the entire excercise.

My hook has nothing to do with my synopsis, other than to show the subtext and essence of what REALLY happens in the story and why the plot should matter to readers in the first place...

JPD (with his two cents and your own buck added in, you still can't buy a cup of coffee these days...)

A Paperback Writer said...

Y'know, I'm rather new at this blog (I've only been reading it since August or so), but it seems to me that one can get the equivalent of an MFA just by reading the posts and the comments. Happy thoughts. :)
I have been honing my crapometer submission for a couple of weeks, using the knowledge I've gained from reading thousands of junior high school essays where kids can take 50 words' worth of thought and stretch it into 500. I'm so used to reading (and viciously commenting on) this kind of garbage, that I am in great hopes I won't write a hook quite that bad.
I suspect that Miss Snark may have been a junior high school English teacher in a former life; she sounds like one.

Termagant 2 said...

YAY!

Thanks for the heads up, Martha and m.g. I'm gonna go find my MasterCard.

T2