Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The elusive HOOK

A few months back a writer pal of mine sent this video of author Erin Dealey’s The Writer’s Rap to me. If you’re not familiar take a look! I love this for so many reasons (you will be singing it all day), but it brings up one of those writing terms for me that sometimes feels a little sketchy (not unlike edgy) - having a hook.

What is “having a hook” exactly? The one sentence blurb that makes you want to run out and buy the book? The artfully done cover? The idea? Voice? The magic combination of it all?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot because the last two books I read didn’t “hook me in” immediately. I wasn’t sold on the opening paragraph or even the first page. I’m not even sure I was hooked after the first chapter. I committed myself to reading the books as a bit of an experiment. Could I stay with them, put myself in the writer’s hands and experience their vision?

The first book, Lynne Rae Perkins’ 2006 Newbery winner Criss Cross, did NOT hook me in from the first page. It intrigued me and the writing, in a word, was mouthwatering, but I didn’t have trouble putting it down. I did however look forward to picking it back up. For some reason it took me awhile to finish it. While reading, I couldn’t really answer the question “where is this going?” but I didn’t care because I truly fell in love with the voice. And I trusted this voice would take me to a place that would be satisfying. And it did. Can I tell you in one sentence what the book was about? No. I loved it anyway.

The other book, Tombstone Tea by Joanne Dahme also did not hook me from page one. I was intrigued, for sure, and the writing was superb, but I didn’t feel the need to tear through it. Again, I can’t tell you in one sentence what it was about, but I would certainly recommend it to a tween who enjoys reading paranormal stories.

Hook seems to be one of those agonizingly subjective terms. What hooks one reader, editor, or agent might not hook another. And while you might think a hook is great – teen vampire falls in love with clumsy, ordinary girl whose blood he can’t resist – there’s probably another person who could care less. And if you can’t put a hook into a one sentence sound byte – does that mean there is no hook at all? And while we’re at it, just how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

Kidding aside SCBWI homies - I’d really like to know, what’s your definition of hook? And is it something you think about before, during or after you sit down to write?


  1. Glad to hear someone else was not "hooked" immediately on Criss Cross. I did put it aside for a while, but as you say, the voice brought me back.

    I think you've defined the hook in all its aspects in your second paragraph. I know for a picture book to be a big seller, all those things are necessary - as well as a rhythmic first couple of sentences about a character or situation that grabs the reader's attention immediately. Not easy.

  2. GREAT post, Robin. Yes, the elusive hook. What is it? Is it just a great idea that draws a reader in it? If that's so, then what about after you're in? What if the writing doesn't hold up? What if the story is predictable and unsatisfying? A good idea alone doesn't make a good book (thought it might sell a lot).

    Maybe good writing unhooks the hook? CRIS CROSS is a beautifully written story. Like you and Gale, I didn't race through it. I was confused by the character's ages, and found myself wondering what the story was all about? Not much happened in the story. It was quiet. Yet it won the Newbery.

    You are right, Robin, what hooks one reader, editor, agent might not hook another. That's why we all have to write our own stories and perhaps the hook is to hook ourselves. I don't mean that in an egotistical/narcissistic way, but there HAVE to be other readers out there like me who want a good story, with compelling characters that makes them think about something other than a hook.

  3. I've been reading so much about "hooking the reader" lately I started to question it myself - what is it exactly?

    I was worried I was getting a little bit of literary ADD, if something doesn't grab me immediately - well, then maybe it's not worth sticking with - and I don't think that's always the case. Sometimes it is, but usually if I take some time with something - it does end up grabbing me - but not necessarity in an immediate manic way!

    I've been grappling with "hook" as I work on my new WIP and sometimes I think it makes me freeze up. While I think it's important, I don't want to obsess about it too much.

    Thanks for commenting Meg & Gale!

  4. Hmmm. I tend to think most books, even the most lushly layered, literary novels, can be boiled down to the hook. But, like all writing, you may need to search for the perfect words to describe the hook.

    I just finished reading Jennifer Donnelly's, A Northern Light. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it. It is so beautifully layered. There are so many plot layers that to say the hook is "farm girl dreams of escaping her dreary life and moving to a world of books and learning in New York City" would tell you next to nothing. Which of the many plot layers would you include in the hook? Which of the other characters?

    Is it that writing a hook -- and I mean writing that two-sentence description of the hook -- is like writing a PB? Every word counts and you have to craft it just so.

  5. Here's my stab:

    For a reader: Hook = a great voice, plot, characters, or any combination of the above that keeps you turning pages.

    For an agent: Hook = a great elevator pitch.

    For an editor: Hook = a manuscript that won't require a lot of editing.

    Heheh. Kidding about last last one.