Thursday, December 29, 2005

What's Your Hook?

I recently received a rejection letter from an editor—my second—and have consequently been ruminating on rejection lately. (Anyone who hasn’t read Deidre Knight’s recent column on this topic over at Romancing the Blog should definitely check it out.) Both editors have given very positive feedback, saying that the heroine’s voice was engaging, and they liked the rest of the characters as well. The problem, according to these editors, is that my novel lacks a hook and I can understand why, in this extremely competitive genre, they’re looking for something with an obvious and immediate attention-getter.

I mean, I would love. . .love to see my first novel published. I adore the characters I created, I think the plot is solid and there is a lot in those pages that I hate to think might never see the light of day. But honestly, when I finished that project, I’d been working on it for over two years. I know that literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The chick lit genre is a different place today than it was when I wrote the first chapter and ironed out the plot.

Anyone who is keeping up with women’s fiction in general, and chick lit in particular, knows that the playing field is massively crowded at the moment. The only thing getting published lately are books that have a clear hook—i.e., vampire chick lit, or reality show chick lit or fat girl chick lit. To be honest, part of the reason it took me so long to finish the project in question was that I wasn’t sure exactly what distinguished my novel from the others out there. Jemima J is the one where the heroine loses, like, a million pounds in three months, In Her Shoes is the one with the psychotic sister who ruins the boring sister’s shoes all the time—how would readers describe my book? In the end, it required a rewrite and the sacrifice of several scenes that I adored for me to figure out why my work was different and special. Now I’m confident that, if it ever gets into the readers hands, it will stick in their memories as the book where. . .well, I’m not going to give away the ending, but let’s just say it’s got a unique set of conflicts and resolutions.

That second rejection letter, couched in the friendliest and most positive of terms, made me briefly revisit my insecurities about my work, but once that passed it made me wonder what we’re missing now due to the industry’s insistence that every book they publish have a gimmick. Really, that’s what it boils down to—a creative title and interesting blurb is no longer enough. Chick lit now needs an obvious hook, something that will make readers sit up and take notice. Frankly, however, a fantabulous hook is no promise of an equally fantabulous story. I can think of several books that I’ve picked up recently because of a unique gimmick (I admit it, I’m a sucker for a concept book) that were just. . .disappointing. Not a bad read, but not a classic either.

I’m not opposed to writing concept chick lit. On the contrary, my current project is so conceptual that my character-loving muse engaged in a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallendas in an effort to keep the concept at the core of the story without sacrificing character development. Over the Christmas holidays, I started sketching out an outline for yet another project, one that will most certainly be described one day as “that book where the heroine _______.” But as I sit here remembering some of my favorite women’s fiction, I realize that it’s not the gimmick that holds me, or the snappy titles or even the gorgeous covers. It’s characters I believe in and wish I could go to lunch with; it’s a vivid setting that means I don’t just know the book is set in London because the heroine refers to the transit system as “the tube” instead of “the metro;” it’s conflict that I see reflected in my life and the lives of my real-life friends. I hope that, when the over-saturation of the chick lit marketplace has subsided a bit, there will still be room for a thousand flowers to bloom because that, after all, is what draws me to those strategically-placed tables at Borders every time I cross the threshold of the mall.


Anonymous Tas Jordan said...

It's interesting - and mildly depressing, lol - to wonder what gems are missed because they haven't been placed in a particular setting, or cut to a certain shape. As useful and, indeed, necessary as hooks have become in such a huge market, I find as a reader that sometimes they annoy me more than they make me want to pick up a book. Everything is already subdivided into so many genres that it seems almost redundant at times to slap another requirement on top of that. And characters are the one thing that I can't and won't sacrifice. I'll read an author whose prose isn't entirely to my taste, or a genre that I don't normally enjoy, if the book can bring people alive on the page for me.

Of course, as a writer, I pay a little more attention to the hook. Even if I don't want to. ;-) Intriguing column, my dear - and awfully deep thoughts for the holidays!

9:34 PM  
Blogger Whetam Knauckweirst said...

A family friend once new a guy who had a mystery novel published by Random House. Sometime after this guy's book came out he learned how his manuscript had first been chosen. Apparently, publishing companies have enormous store rooms jam-packed with manuscripts. Not so much slush piles, but slush nations. Once a month an editor took a group of interns to the one in Random House and had them stick their hands in a pile and pull out a manuscript. They were then tasked with writing and submitting an appraisal of it. This guy's manuscript just happen to be chosen one day, and the appraisal written about it was positive... and it moved on up the line.

If you're interested, here is an excerpt from the query letter I sent out for my novel Randham Acts, which was accepted by small press publisher Better Non Sequitur. I had been writing Randham Acts since 1989 and had racked-up more than 50-60 rejections before it was finally accepted:

"After receiving his latest rejection letter, aspiring writer Hugh Longford purchases The BlockBuster™ plot generation software, which analyzes fiction and suggests ways to “punch up” storylines. Soon, Longford consults BlockBuster™ about real-life problems, including a miserable co-worker who makes his job unbearable and a “ball busting” history exam threatening to derail his university career. Meanwhile, the mother of his girlfriend suffers a catastrophic nervous breakdown suggesting she might be capable of violence."

The business aspect of publishing is daunting, and draining on the wind in the sails. Keep at it. You sound like you really have something to contribute!

11:08 PM  
Blogger jason evans said...

Couldn't there be a distinction drawn between a hook and a gimmick? A gimmick cracks you over the head. It invites you to a posh new restaurant and orders braised cockroaches. I'm assuming a gimmick novel must be that from page one.

On the other hand, a hook should be more a matter of marketing and gentle crafting. Surely your book is unique--something you and only you could've written. Can't you pull out that uniqueness and polish up into a hook?

Hooks grab, and I do agree a book needs a good, sharp one. Gimmick's though? I'll leave those to Happy Meals.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Melanie Hayden said...

Jason, I agree. There is a very large distinction between a hook and a gimmick. But with a crowded market, I think some publishers are losing that distinction in their efforts to sign offerings that stand out from the rest in very visible ways. Like I said, I think in time this trend will level itself out, too. But at the moment hooks and their less subtle cousins, gimmicks, are the order of the day.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

I have been told that part of the appeal of my debut book is that it has a very strong marketing hook. People love reading about secret societies. When agents and editors spoke to me about it, they talked about how it was a cool idea and I have a funny voice and it's a strong proposal and intriguing plotline and all that other very hooky stuff."

But when the editor I sold the book to called me to talk about it, she brought up her favorite scene with the main character, which is a very quiet scene in which the main character stands in the bathroom and brushes her teeth. She said that was the scene she pointed out to the acquisitions team. That meant a lot to me, for her to recognize that underneath the hook, there was a character that you could fall in love with.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Melanie Hayden said...

What a great compliment, Diana! Your book is a neat example of a hook that works--you've got the story and the characters to back up what you promise the readers. I'm looking forward to reading yours when it hits.

2:29 PM  

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