Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Hook? Oh, no--I'm sorry, I meant Hook.

What's in a name? Not much, it would seem, when it comes to business terminology. I see this all the time in my day job--you'd think that "project" and "role" and "prospect" and "fund" would all be fairly simple terms, yet these words (and their many peers) have an array of nuanced meanings depending on what business unit of what company you are talking to. Be glad you don't have to keep all that straight, at least.

Yesterday it finally dawned on me that this same situation exists in the publishing industry, at least in a few instances. Everyone means the same thing when they say "SASE" or "manuscript" or "agent," of course. But what about "hook" and "synopsis?" These two words in particular seem to have variable meaning depending on who you talk to, and that's something that is important to remember.

When it comes to synopses, most people mean the same general thing--the question here is of length. Some agency websites are kind enough to specify their required synopsis length, but others are not. Sources on the web also vary widely, with some people stating that a synopsis as long as ten (or more!) double-spaced pages is required, while others are noting that a single page double-or-single spaced is as much as you should provide (and that an agent won't want to read more than that, anyway). Bear in mind that I'm only talking about synopses for finished fiction works, here--"synopses" in the context of non-fiction or as part of a proposal for an unwritten novel are something else entirely, and not something I know much about. Feel free to correct me on this, or take someone else's advice if you prefer it, but the best I can tell is that a good length for a fiction synopsis is 1-3 pages double spaced (2 probably being ideal). As always, your mileage may vary.

When it comes to hooks, however, two entirely different beasts are called by that same name. Here again it is a question of length, but it is also a question of use. Yesterday, literary agent Nathan Bransford made a very interesting post on How to Craft a Great Hook. In this post he discusses a different kind of hook from what I've been talking about on this blog--I've been discussing hooks of the sort that were featured in the hook contests at Fangs, Fur, & Fey and Lit Agent X in recent months. In Nathan's parlance (and incidentally, in Beverly Swerling's), a "hook" isn't a multi-paragraph introductory overview of your book that goes in your query letter. In their terms, a hook is just one or two lines--probably fifty words or less. It's the one-liner response that you would give to someone in an elevator.

This is a very different meaning of "hook," and Nathan clarifies the difference in the comments on his blog:

I've always thought of a "hook" as being a sentence or two. So yeah, 50 words or less. And yes, I definitely want to distinguish between a query letter and a hook. A novel should have a strong hook, but that doesn't necessarily need to be stated explicitly in the query letter. All of the things you mention (setting, characters, etc.) should be in the query letter, but they don't have to be in a hook.

This is very interesting to me. It reminds me that you need to have a simple way to very concisely sum up your wonderful concept. If not, your agent will certainly have to come up with a one-liner before they start pitching it to editors. This sort of "one-liner hook" is easier in some ways than the longer "query hook" (because there is less emphasis on detail), and yet harder in other ways (because there is less room to include detail).

I can't post my one-liner hook for THE GUARDIAN because it gives away the central twist, but here's my one-liner for ALDEN RIDGE:

A man struggles to find a home for himself and his young daughter in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by the undead.

That's the heart of the story, right there. Everything else is obstacles or complexity or characterization or themes or setting, and while that's incredibly necessary to the book itself and even to the "query hook" in a more limited way, I'm pretty sure my one-liner says about all it needs to. But who knows. To those of you who are writing/have written novels, what are your one-liner hooks?


Rachel V. Olivier said...

And not to confuse it any further, but I think the vocab gets even more confusing when you discuss screenplays and scripts. I think they call the elevator hook a pitch. And a synopsis for them is like an outline of the story.

Christopher M. Park said...

Yikes, I didn't know that. I'm glad I'm not trying to write screenplays as well as novels!

Anonymous said...

This is a bit like Jim Butcher's old blog post about the 'Story Skeleton' (he credits most of his writing-blogs to an author called Debbie Chester, btw). With this you should be able to boil down your book to the following format:


Butcher provides his first Harry Dresden book, STORM FRONT, as an example:

When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a Warden of the White Council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago Police Department?

Christopher M. Park said...

That's an intereting exercise proposed by Jim Butcher. Thanks for posting that!