Several of the Bad Girl posts to our former selves have been philosophical musings ranging from the torture of waiting to how it gets harder to how we get better. I’m going to focus on something tangible that nearly lost me the chance at an agent and a publishing deal.
THE BIG HOOK
Two and half years ago, when I set down in front of a blank page to write my first book, not only did I not know I needed a hook, I had no idea this elusive hook thing existed. Even now, six books and two publishing contracts later, searching for The Big Hook feels a little like getting dumped out in the middle of nowhere on a snipe hunt.
When I was brainstorming ideas for my first book, I took the advice ‘Write What You Love to Read’. I love Regencies, so why not write one? Several that I loved revolved around Regency spies, so why not write about that? (The other implied lesson here is that if you are reading a bunch of books about X, then X will most likely be played out by the time you finish your masterpiece. Just sayin’…)
My first two Regencies did well on the unpublished contest circuit. They both finaled in the Golden Heart® in 2014. But, even though (I think) they are quite good, my agent almost passed on them and me. Her biggest criticism had nothing to do with my plotting, my characters, or my craft. No, my books lacked the dreaded BIG HOOK.
When I refer to a hook, I’m not talking about an opening line, or the last line in a chapter. I’m talking about what’s unique about your book or series. How you can sell your book and make it stand out in the crowd.
There are four books in my Regency series. I wrote all of them in a vacuum. They connect, sometimes loosely, through characters not concept. My awesome agent Kevan Lyon signed me but issued a warning. She wasn’t sure she could sell my books, because they were difficult to pitch. Honestly, I think she signed me based on my potential to produce salable books and not on these two books in particular.
Don’t ask me for an elevator pitch of my Regency series unless we’re headed to the penthouse of the Petronas Towers. I can’t sum up the series in a concise, hooky fashion. I got lots of editor rejections because (are you catching on?) my book series didn’t “hook” them.
Luckily, I found an editor who loves my stories and characters enough to overlook my lack of a hook. But, when the editor and I discussed what to name the series…I was stumped. We eventually settled on SPIES AND LOVERS even though Book 4 (which I hope she’ll eventually contract:) has nothing to do with Spies. Do you see what I did to myself through my ignorance of the marketplace?
My strength is the ability to learn from my mistakes. I’ll continue to make mistakes, but not the same ones, dang it. So, when it came time to brainstorm my next series, a contemporary this time, I set the series in a small Alabama town. The heroes of the trilogy would be the coaches of a high school football team seeking redemption. My hook was small town Southern football. (Cue the halleluiah chorus!) I framed my hook as Friday Night Lights meets Steel Magnolias. It’s common and useful to cross two popular movies to describe your series. It took nine months to sale my Regencies. This series sold in four weeks. That’s the difference a hook can make.
Yet another level to this whole thing exists. (Cue the groans!) My series has a hook but is it High Concept? Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. Here’s a good definition of High Concept. High Concept is even more elusive than The Big Hook, but if you can corral it, I will envy you.
Although, I did manage to get my Regency books contracted, I will always keep The Big Hook in mind when starting new projects. You could have stellar writing and an engaging plot but have difficulty selling your project to an agent or editor without a hook.
How about that advice ‘Write what you love to read’? Sure, but do it with your head in the game and with your eyes open to the marketplace, especially if you are going after a traditional deal.
And now, as a reward for reading my post, and because I’m watching The Voice, I give you…