During my first semester of graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was working on a novel about a very anxious girl beginning her freshman year at a very intense prep school. I really loved this anxious girl, and I really loved her science-obsessed best friend and her kind, stressed-out dad and the adorable, math-genius boy who had a crush on her. But…well…not a whole heck of a lot happened in the novel draft. And it definitely didn’t have a catchy premise I could sum up in a sentence.
When I started my second semester of grad school, my new advisor told me there were a lot of wonderful things about this character, her voice, and her world, but what I had written didn’t yet qualify as a story. That was a little bit hard to take. I mean, lots of things qualify as stories. An off-the-cuff monologue about some silly thing that happened on the subway ride to work could get categorized as a story. But my novel-in-progress couldn’t?
My new advisor helped me identify a true inciting incident that would happen early on in a new draft and shake up this poor anxious girl’s world. We realized that everything I had written so far was like a prequel. The true story should begin a full year later.
Determining where to start the book was a great first step. But my advisor also encouraged me to raise the intensity of the set up. “What if the girl’s overachieving brother died when they were young and that’s why getting perfect grades and being the perfect daughter is so important to her?” she suggested. “Or what if at the end it becomes clear that she’s been hospitalized for an eating disorder?”
I wanted to take my advisor’s advice (she is indisputably brilliant), and I certainly wanted to improve my book. But I really didn’t want to give this girl a dead brother or an eating disorder. That was partly because I didn’t envision this book being a grief novel or a novel about body image issues. It was also partly because I haven’t had to deal with an eating disorder or the death of someone very young and close to me, so I didn’t think I could write that kind of story authentically.
Eventually, after I’d started the story over a few times and it still wasn’t working, my advisor said something that sparked an epiphany. She explained that readers tend to expect that the main character in a novel will be going through something bigger than what they themselves have been through. If you don’t give the main character something significant to work against, readers might not feel as invested in his or her journey. I didn’t have to use the dead brother or eating disorder idea—she wasn’t saying I had to choose one of those. But I couldn’t just rely on character and voice, even now that I was starting the story closer to an inciting incident. I had to figure out how to give my character a more specific, significant obstacle to work against.
A couple of years later, when I was ready to send out queries for a book I’d started my third semester (I put the one from first and second semester aside for a good long break), I began to read a lot of agent interviews and blogs. This Publisher’s Weekly article “New Trends in YA: The Agents’ Perspective” suggests that a strong contemporary realistic submission has two key things: “a strong voice and a good hook.” Suzie Townsend shared a similar recipe for hooking an agent in this great blog post (which happens to reference one of my favorite books, Saving Francesca). She explains: “Voice + Character + Set up = Hooked!”
I think the “hook” or “set up” agents describe is similar to what my second-semester advisor was talking about when she encouraged me to start my novel-in-progress in the right place and develop specific, significant obstacles. But I still wonder: how can a writer be sure that her hook is hooky enough? Especially a writer like me, who loves character and voice first and a dramatic story second?
In the same blog post, Suzie Townsend offers a helpful explanation of a hook. She says that starting in the right place is crucial, and she adds, “Great first lines are a definite plus and a set up that can be summed up in a concise sentence or two (this is also called a logline) is even better.”
Beyond this, different people seem to have different opinions about what makes a hook hooky enough, which certainly isn’t earth-shattering news, since reading tastes are subjective. I’m probably not ever going to be the kind of writer whose books have really dark and edgy or glamorous-splashy hooks. That’s not to say that I have anything against dark and edgy or glamorous-splashy books! That just isn’t my style. When I was querying agents, I would read successful query examples and lament over how many of the books that had landed agents had hookier hooks than mine did. Now that I have an agent and my book is on submission, I like to read Publisher’s Marketplace sales reports and worry that the books that are selling all sound more dramatic than mine.
This is probably not a wise thing to do. What I probably should do is try to make sure that my stories start in the right place and have specific, significant obstacles and a set up that can be described concisely. I can also be on the look out for books that fit my sensibilities and have strong hooks, so that I can learn from the work of other authors. Some contemporary realistic books I’ve read (and loved) recently that feel like my kind of book and have especially effective set ups include Corey Ann Haydu’s OCD Love Story, Sara Polsky’s This Is How I Find Her, and Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando’s Roomies. And I can push myself to expand my ideas of what kinds of set ups I could pull off authentically, by finding ways to connect the experiences I’ve had with the experiences I’m imagining for a character.
That sounds much wiser, doesn’t it? I’d also love to hear about any other effectively hooky books you’ve read recently or any thoughts on what a hook is and what makes one strong!