May 27, 2015 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh
Welcome back to Erin’s Tuesday blog on craft! After a few weeks off to accommodate back-to-back conferences on my part and an extremely important Bad Poetry Contest, I’m back to blogging and, inspired by my experiences at the aforementioned conferences, am starting a new series on the aspects of your craft you especially need to hone before taking your work to a conference. To kick things off, we’re talking today about finding the “hook” in your project so as to be better prepared to get an agent or an editor interested in seeing more.
You’ll hear a lot of different advice about what pieces and parts you should take to a writer’s conference– one-sheets, proposals, writing samples, your “elevator pitch,” etc.– and there’s really not one right answer as to what’s appropriate. Some agents want to see your one-sheet, others are only interested in the writing; some editors want to see the full proposal, while still others only want to talk about your platform. Whatever you decide to take to a conference, either on paper or as a prepared spoken pitch, the purpose of it should be 1) to gain the interest/curiosity of an agent or editor as quickly as possible and 2) stand out (in a positive way) from the crowd as much as possible. The “hook” of your project isn’t some elusive, magical tagline that you have to get exactly right or else you’re doomed– don’t get distracted by the jargon. When someone says they’re “hooked” on a book or tv show, they mean that they feel compelled to find out more/keep watching that story, so the trick with conference pitches or materials is to highlight all the most compelling/memorable elements of your project in order to gain an editor or agent’s interest to this extent. Hooks are going to be pretty short, sometimes one or two sentences, sometimes a short paragraph, but focus on keeping it tight and purposeful rather than on keeping it to an arbitrary word count or sentence limit. As long as it’s interesting from beginning to end and they can read it or you can speak it in a minute or so, it’s not too long. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the most common mistakes I see people make in their conference materials/pitches.
1. Too much background info. Just like the beginning of your book, the beginning of your one-sheet or proposal or pitch should not be an info-dump of backstory and detail. That’s all old news– you’re trying to sell me the story of what’s happening now, so why would you make me read three or four sentences about what’s happened in the past and risk losing my attention before I get to the really interesting part/what the story’s actually about? The here-and-now of your story needs to be front and center of your conference pitch. A good rule of thumb to finding your “hook” is to find the place the story actually begins by finishing the sentence: “When ___(something happens)____, ____(so what?)____.” “When” pulls us into the story immediately by fast-forwarding directly to your inciting incident.
For example, if I were writing a “hook” paragraph for Toy Story 3, I could start out by summarizing the events leading up to the third movie: “For 18 years, Andy’s faithful toys have stood by his side, helping him navigate the perils of childhood (such as sleepaway camp and moving to a new house) and sticking with him through adolescence, even as his interest turned to other things. Now, though, the toys face their biggest challenge yet as Andy heads off to college. Will he take them with him? Who will be left behind? Can the toys find a way to help their favorite boy one last time?”
The problem with this description is that the first half of it is telling my reader about a different story without saying a word about the actual events of THIS story. If I start out instead with a “when” statement, I can get right to the inciting incident and tell the reader about the action right away. “When Andy’s toys are mistakenly donated to a maximum-security daycare center…” BAM, right away we know what kicks off the action in this story.
The “so what,”or second half of a “when” sentence gives the reader (who in this case, remember, is an agent or editor) another important element of a “hook” sentence or paragraph, the stakes. Make them care about the outcome of the plot right away by telling them what the danger is/why the struggles of the characters matter. “When Andy’s toys are mistakenly donated to a maximum-security daycare center they have to overcome feral preschoolers, gangs of evil toys, and childproof doorknobs to get back to Andy.
2. Too vague. The hook is not the time to be coy about what happens in your book. You’re trying to convince someone who already has 20 manuscripts to read to add yours to the queue– they’re going to be more interested in reading yours if you tell them about the twists/surprises/major events right off rather than trying to entice their curiosity with vague language and allusions. Tell me what’s interesting about your book, don’t just hint at it.
Continuing with our Toy Story 3 example, the description could continue: “But Andy is going through a crisis of his own, and when the toys finally find their way back to him, both the toys and the boy they love will have to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about their priorities and the future of their relationship.” Yech. This sounds melodramatic and high-stakes without actually telling me anything about what happens, the result being that I read this sentence mostly as “blah blah blah.” “A crisis of his own,” “everything they thought they knew,” “their priorities;” these are all empty words! They pull me out of the action and events of the story and into nebulous territory where each of these phrases raises a question mark in my head, and not in a good, “oh, I can’t wait to see what happens!” way, but in a, “now there are a bunch of blanks where I’d prefer there to be a clear picture of what this book is about and what makes it memorable” kind of way.
Remember, I don’t know your characters or your story yet, so it’s going to be hard to make me curious about internal conflict or personal struggles– you’re better off telling me about the unique events and actions of your story and letting my interest in those draw me in to the extent that I will read your manuscript and discover the rest for myself. “But even if they make it back, Andy is headed off to college, and only a few toys can go with him, if any. An encounter with a daycare girl with a big imagination causes the toys to consider how much more they have to offer to a child than to the man Andy has become. Together, Andy and the toys have to figure out, when is it the right time to say goodbye?” This description gives me the specifics of the personal crises the characters encounter while still framed in the context of the events of the plot, keeping things concrete and interesting.
3. No hint of voice/uniqueness. Now, “voice” and “uniqueness” don’t necessarily speak to the same quality in a manuscript, but both speak very clearly to how memorable a book is, and since one of the questions I’m asking when I read a hook paragraph or listen to a pitch is what makes this book stand out from the other manuscripts I’m reading in this genre, it’s to your advantage to be memorable/stand out right from the hook paragraph by alluding to what’s going to stand out about your manuscript. If you have a really interesting setting, someplace that hasn’t been seen in a lot of books before or that you think readers will find intriguing, I should hear it mentioned in the hook paragraph. If your main character has a crazy, quirky family that features largely into the subplots, introduce me to a few of the most memorable folks in the hook. If your writing is hilarious, there should be some humor in your hook paragraph. If you have a beautiful literary voice, there should be some artistry evident in your hook. Take stock of your story, make a list of all the most memorable or most unique elements of your story– characters with unusual professions, interesting places/hobbies/situations featured, fun or surprising plot twists– and of what elements you believe best define your voice, and make sure your hook paragraph includes several of these.
In our Toy Story 3 example, my reference to a “maximum-security daycare” gives the reader an immediate picture of the kind of setting we’re dealing with– a kid-friendly takeoff on a prison, fairly unique and, I’m hoping, memorable to whoever’s reading the hook. The list of “feral preschoolers, evil toy gangs, and childproof doorknobs” communicates a sense of “my” (in this case, the filmmakers’) voice by making what’s obviously supposed to be a humorous description of preschool children as “feral” and wryly including “doorknobs” in a list of the dangers facing the toys– this communicates the tone of the film, the tongue-in-cheek nature of the “perils” involved, etc. Finally, my last sentence about “the man Andy has become” and “the right time to say goodbye” lets the reader know that there are some deeper themes to this story even though it’s going to be funny and clever along the way, ensuring that I’m not underselling or overemphasizing any one aspect of the book and causing some editor who wanted funny and fluffy from beginning to end to be disappointed when they encounter deeper content upon reading the manuscript.
In the end, your hook paragraph or “elevator pitch” should be dripping with color and driven by action, without wasted or empty words, and should give an editor or agent enough information to know whether or not this is a story they want to read, as well as help them decide right away whether your story is going to stand out in its genre/the market– why an editor or reader is going to buy THIS cozy mystery or historical romance over THAT one. Give them current action, concrete information, and voice/uniqueness, and they’ll be better equipped to know whether they want to read the rest of your book.
As always, this series will last until I run out of material, so if you have a craft question specifically related to conference materials or preparing your writing for a conference, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to answer it in the next few weeks. Thanks for reading!