Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hooks

At some point in your writing career you are going to have to come up with a hook. Strike that. At some point in your life you are going to have to come up with a hook. What is a hook? Basically it’s a sales pitch. And everybody sells something. You sell yourself when you interview for a job. You sell your report when you try to get a good grade. You sell your car, your house, and your ideas. So basically a hook is telling someone else why they should buy what you are selling.

If you’ve been in the writing business for very long, you understand how many people you need to sell before the first book even leaves the shelf of a store. If not, let me share a diagram I use in one of my writing classes.




What you see is how many times your manuscript has to be sold. First, you send a query out to get an agent. Once you sell the agent, she has to sell an editor. The editor has to sell your book to the committee. The committee has to sell it to their sales force. The sales force sells it to the bookstores. The bookstores sell it to their employees. And finally the employee sells it to the consumer. Exhausting huh? Of course sometimes you may not go through every step, but most of the time you do. And it all starts with the reason any of these people should look at your manuscript in the first place.

So how do you get someone to look at your book? Obviously you tell them what it’s about. But that’s where the trouble starts. You may have the greatest story in the world, but can you convey how cool your story is to someone else. Take Harry Potter for example. Great story right? Action, mystery, intrigue, snogging. It’s got it all. But what did J. K. Rowling say the first time someone asked her what it was about? It got rejected many, many, times, so it might have gone something like this.

“Well there’s this boy with a strange scar on his forehead. He doesn’t know where he got the scar because he lives under the stairs of his mean uncle and aunt. Oh and his fat cousin, Dudley. They tell him his parents died in a car accident. Only he was really delivered to their door by giant who brought him to live with them when he was a baby. The giant rode in on a flying motorcycle. And there’s a woman who can turn into a cat. And a wizard with a thing that makes lights go out. And the boy goes to a school for wizards, where he is really famous. And he meets a boy and a girl. The girl is a muggle, which means her parents aren’t wizards. Of course there’s a bad guy named Lord Voldemort. Only people are afraid to say his name. The boy learns to ride a broom and plays a game like soccer, only not, and . . .”

See what I mean? How you tell people about your story is every bit as important as how good your story is. Your goal is to give a concise description that convinces people they must read your book or they will never forgive themselves. The hook is what goes into your query letter, and often it is used in one form or another by every person who hears about your book. “What’s that book about?” “It’s a great fantasy about a boy who discovers he is really a wizard and goes to a school where boys and girls learn witchcraft. There he finds out a dark wizard killed his parents and is trying to kill him so he can regain power.” Not perfect. But better than the rambling paragraph above.

So what does a good hook consist of? Four main points:

1) Who is the main character?
2) What are they trying to accomplish?
3) What stands in their way?
4) What will happen if they fail?

That’s it. You have to get to the point. But that can be easier said than done. Action is usually pretty easy. See if you recognize this story. “The sheriff of a small seaside resort town discovers a huge great white shark is killing swimmers. The mayor doesn't want the economy hurt. He must find and kill the shark before more people die and the tourist economy is ruined.”

Jaws. Is there more to the story? Much more. The sheriff is afraid of water. The mayor isn’t willing to keep the beaches closed. The sheriff joins forces with a marine biologist and a crusty old shark hunter to kill the great white. If you have room to add those, by all means do. But many time you must get your hook across in one or two paragraphs. And it’s nice to have a stinger. A single hook line like, “The boy who lived.”

It can be even harder if your book is more character driven. Like a romance for example. What is Twilight about? Well basically a girl falls in love with a vampire. Does that tell the whole story? Not at all. And while that one sentence may sell people who love vampire books, that wasn’t the target audience for that book. It takes work.

So enough about those other authors. Let’s get to selling my book. After all, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing at least a little with this blog. Actually the timing of this is pretty good, because just today my editor asked me to come up with a back of the book synopsis. I don’t feel like I’ve got it quite perfect yet. But I’ll show you what I have and maybe you can give me some advice.

I started with a synopsis of about 450 words. I was going for a different feel with the jumping from one character to the next, but I’m not sure it entirely worked. And it’s probably about twice as long as it should be. Here's the first draft.

Marcus Kanenas. A nobody from nowhere. Found as a baby at a monastery near the edge of the Sonoran desert, the doctors expected him to die from his injuries. Although he survived, he has only one healthy leg and arm and is confined to a wheelchair most of the time. He would be an easy target for bullies at the boys’ schools he is shuffled through if it wasn’t for his abilities. The way he can disappear at the most convenient times, and how he seems to sense danger before it happens. Sometimes he dreams of a land faraway and a friend named . . .

Kyja. An outcast. In a world where magic is as common as air, where farm animals tell jokes, and trees beg people to pick their fruit, Kyja is a mutant of the worst kind. Not only can she not cast so much as a single spell, she is actually immune to the effects of charms, potions, or anything magic at all. Her only friend is Riph Raph a small dragon-like creature called a skyte. She would probably have given in to despair long ago if it wasn’t for the promise that somewhere inside her is a magic more powerful than she can imagine; a promise given her by . . .

Master Therapass. An aged wizard. Able to shift between human and wolf form, he was once the most feared and respected wizard not only in Terra ne Staric, but in all of Westland. Now, after years of battling evil and defending right, he is an old man who walks with a limp and spends most of his time practicing magic and studying ancient scrolls. He is the only one that knows the secret about both Marcus and Kyja—a secret he has protected for thirteen years. Right up until he encourages Kyja to peer into the window of the soul called the aptura discerna and discovers that Marcus and Kyja have been found by . . .

The Dark Circle, a group determined to take control of Farworld and possibly Earth as well. Now it is up to Kyja and Marcus to defeat the Dark Circle. But to do that they will need the help of mystic creatures known as Elementals, the beings who are rumored to control the four bases of all magic: water, land, air, and fire. They must overcome Summoners who can call forth armies of the dead, Unmakers—invisible creatures that are the very opposite of reality, dark mages known as Thrathkin S’Bae, and the fact that no one has ever actually seen an Elemental and they are rumored to disdain all humans. And while Marcus and Kyja can travel to each other’s worlds they could die if they stay more than a few days.

I'm not entirely unhappy with it. It tells the story. But it's not quite snappy enough for me. And as I said. I need to make it shorter. Let's try this again, but in a more standard format. I'm going to shoot for between 200-300 words. Here goes.

Marcus Kanenas. Even his name means nobody. A thirteen-year-old boy trapped in a wheelchair since he was abandoned as a baby and shuffled from one boy’s school to the next. On a world far away, and as different from Marcus’s as could be imagined, lives a girl who is an outcast as well. But for a very different reason. In Farworld, magic is as common as air. Farm animals tell jokes and trees beg people to pick their fruit. But Kyja is not only incapable of performing the least magic spell, she is actually immune to it.

Two orphans living worlds apart. But a secret binds them together. A secret protected for the last thirteen years by an elderly wizard named Master Therpass who can change from human form to wolf. Now their secret has been discovered by the leader of a group of black magic wizards known as The Dark Circle. The Dark Circle is intent on controlling both Farworld and Earth, and the only thing standing in their way are Marcus and Kyja.

Join these two outcasts as they search for the Elementals—mythic creatures rumored to control the four bases of all magic: water, land, air, and fire. The only ones who can open a drift between Earth and Farworld.

To succeed they must overcome Summoners who can call forth armies of the dead, Unmakers—invisible creatures that are the very opposite of reality, and dark mages known as Thrathkin S’Bae. They must travel to each other’s worlds, though they could die if they stay more than a few days. And perhaps most important of all, they must discover that the powerful magic is not what spells you can cast, but what’s inside you.


Farworld—Water, Book One of the Farworld Series

I’m still not sure I’ve captured what I’m trying to get across. But I think it’s better. I’m thinking that my tagline will be . . . Can you guess? Find Your Magic.

What do you think? Would this make you want to read the series? How can I improve it?

7 comments:

Chris said...

I don't think it needs improvement at all honestly! You've got me hooked...no pun intended. Of course, I've worked with kids with disabilities, specifically kids in wheelchairs for the past 7 years, so you won me over with that! This really sounds like such a neat, unique series...looking forward to it! Nice to see the process of trimming down the "hook" too.

Brian said...

Scott-
You said you needed a tagline, so how about something like
"Two outcasts from different worlds are the only ones who can save them both"
How about something a little like that. By the way, now I really can't wait to read the book. Great synopsis!

Worldbuilder Robin said...

This is probably just me, so take this with a grain of salt. But it feels like all the dangers they're going to face are already spelled out, and there's a lot of them. It almost gives it a feel of being too crowded with stuff (think Robert Jordan, only this isn't anywhere near that bad). Maybe if you just mentioned the Dark Circle and the problem with the elementals and hint at the rest of the baddies.

But yes, this does sound great. I'm looking forward to it!

J Scott Savage said...

Chris,

Thanks. Glad I got you hooked. I wanted to have a pair of non-typical protagonists. And Marcus’s disability is more than just a “gimmick”, if you will. You have two heroes with major weaknesses who discover that by turning them into strengths and working together they can accomplish more than they think. But it doesn't come easy. Their disabilities play a big role in the book and the series.

Brian, I like your tag line! I'll pass it on to my publisher.

Robin,

You could be right. It is a long book for a YA (105k words.) But I want to give away enough of the "coolness" factor to pull people in, without giving away the whole book.

And I got to introduce a fuzzy little creature my family has joked about for years, called an Ishkabiddle.

Tamra Norton said...

Scott,

One paragraph inparticular stood out to me--it seemed to sum up the heart of the story. For fun, I took that paragraph and tried to condence it into a few sentences. Not sure I'm satisfied with it, but it was my stab at summing up the heart of the story (from my limited understanding). I can't wait to read your story!

Two orphans living worlds apart but with a binding secret--a secret protected for thirteen years. Now discovered by The Dark Circle, Earth and Farworld will fall to evil rule...unless two orphans unite.

Brian said...

Scott,
What's and Ishkabiddle?
I'm terribly confused.

Melinda said...

Hey,

I am not an avid fantasy reader. After reading your synopsis, I really want to read your book. (I'm not just saying that either because I know who you are.) It sincerely interests me. Your characters sound unusual. The whole idea is very captivating.

I'm impressed.