Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The 25-word hook revisited

My recent post about creating a 25-word hook for your book generated a huge response - 115 comments so far. And, as I said there, I was preparing a talk/workshop on the subject, at Wordstock. That event has now happened and I promised the workshopees that I'd blog again and give everyone another chance to pitch a 25-word hook. And here I am.

Do, please read that post first, but I will recap or re-express here what we're looking for in a mini-pitch like this.
  1. WHO? Focus on the main character. Forget the name - we don't care about the name as much as what sort of character it is. Abandoned orphan, vengeful divorcée, insect-collecting stalker - all these are more interesting by a mile than Danny, Susan or John. I'd say only include the name if it's the best and most economical way to do it.
  2. WHAT? Focus on the conflict, the drama the goal, the pursuit. Big it up - struggles, battles, fights are all better than decides, wants, resolves.
  3. OR WHAT? The stakes - what does the character stand to lose if he fails?
The method I suggested in my workshop was this, but this is only a suggestion:
  1. Start with an epithet for your MC: abandoned orphan etc
  2. Brainstorm for two minutes, writing down all the things about your book you can think of - themes, events, climaxes, all the words which describe it or what it's about; some must be about your MC and his/her struggle/personality/emotions.
  3. Circle the ten most important and compelling words or phrases, of which at least 3 must be about the MC.
  4. Circle the 4 most compelling of those ten.
Those four elements plus the epithet are the basis of your 25-word pitch (though of course you can adjust them to fit). You can also use the other six if you want and have room.

Final tip: include wolves. (As we learnt in the previous post, when we realised that Joy hadn't told us about the wolves. Never forget the wolves!) Or, as we discovered in the workshop, hyenas. Wild animals are good. No, seriously: the point is that you need to identify and be aware of the emotional chord-tuggers and emphasise them. Wolves do something to us, as do war, death, magic, dragons, blood, wild moors, abandonment, snakes, the apocalypse and chocolate. Obviously.

Someone asked a very sensible question at the end of the workshop: where would you use this 25-word pitch? Bearing in mind that I've also said that this 25-word thing is an arbitrary (but very adequate and realistic) length, you would use it or a version of it:
  1. At the start of the paragraph in your covering letter in which you describe your book.
  2. At any point when you're asked to say what your book is about.
  3. To store in your heart as you write, so you know what it is that you're doing. It's the core of your book and should be kept at your writer's core: your heart.
Now, would you like to pitch your hook here? Some rules:
  1. If you pitched it on the previous post and received helpful comments, please don't pitch it again -we will just be overwhelmed. Well, I will be.
  2. If yours was one of the ones I didn't have time to comment on before, DO please pitch it again. I apologise for not getting to you before.
  3. If you've never pitched one, please do so!
  4. Please comment on each other's - don't leave it all to me.
  5. If you use more than 25 words, I will IGNORE you and so should everyone else.
  6. Hurry up because tomorrow this blog will be taken over by a competition with prizes of chocolate.
Go hook us!

63 comments:

Miriam Drori said...

A chance meeting and shared adventures help the lower-class slag and upper-class recluse to shed their skins and discover the common emotions hidden underneath.

Elaine AM Smith said...

Hi Nicola
Thank you for this great opportunity. I'm not surprised the number of comments reached beyond the hundred writing the 25-word hook is so difficult.
I have no wolves (this time) but I can offer aliens instead. The trend in movies shows that sci-fi is the hot paranormal.;)

I'm looking forward to your advice.

ENCOUNTERS YA Sci-fi
target audience: girls
target publisher: Harper Teen

Imprisoned and interrogated by MI 8 when evidence of extra-terrestrial technology is incriminating, amnesiac Fion guards the secret of the boy who saved her life.

Dayspring said...

Oh man, this is hard for literary fiction!

Patrick's Broadway career is inspired by memories of his estranged wife, but that's before he discovers her ultimate betrayal - she's kept their child from him.

Rik said...

I knew there was a reason why mine was overlooked: wolves! Does it matter that I don't have any actual wolves in the story?

Anyways ...

"Kal's having a crisis: his friends have deserted him; his city has changed; and the man in whose head he lives knows he exists."

John Ayliff said...

A man who stole his lover's identity must choose whether to fight a pirate, or join her crusade against the machines that destroyed Earth.

Vee said...

What a hard task!

Car loving coma victim can hear everything her family say, which sparks a journey down memory lane to a past she'd rather forget.

Dan Holloway said...

I'm finding this incredibly hard I have to say. What I will say is I think Rik's stands out and gleams. It has exactly the right amountof detail and also pulls that rare trick of conveying the story's voice despite the lack of space.

It's also beaming me images of Being John Malkovich. Which is a very good things

Neal... said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy said...

Hi Nicola, glad the session went well. I'm going to try the method you posted today; in the meantime this is what I came up with last week:

"She'll risk anything to secure her child's future; even history itself.

Now they want to know how she time travels without a trillion dollar machine."

Neal... said...

I like how Miriam's mention of a 'lower-class slag' takes you aback, maybe the upper-class character needs to be described in similarly uncompromising terms. Slag and weirdo might give a good indication of how world sees them...

And I'd love to hear more about the woman in the coma with the opposite of amnesia...Is the car-loving bit essential though?

Neal... said...

I should declare I submitted something before, but that was for a finished project, and this is one for the WIP. I'm hoping to expand it for the submission spotlight too...

The pregnancy test said ‘expecting’ but Rebecca’s uptight dad’s gay sex scandal and recently-redundant husband’s own secret past promise more testing and unexpected times ahead.

Vee said...

Thanks for comment Neal. The car loving hooks into the title of the book. Her memories are attached to cars. But I'm willing to forgo that if necessary to get a good hook!

Josiphine said...

Once a slave to the Irish, this wayward Spaniard now must fight her way home from Norway.


YA historical fiction. Target group: 12-15

Neal... said...

You've got memory lane in there, Vee, maybe you could tie the car element in driving down there...

Vee said...

Courtesy of Neal, round 2:

Coma victim can hear everything her family say, which sparks a drive down memory lane to a past she'd rather forget.

Stroppy Author said...

Rik's is the one that stands out! Why is everyone packing all their words into a single sentence? Neal - 'Rebecca’s uptight dad’s gay sex scandal', that's a very long adjectival phrase to support 'scandal'. There is a real danger of getting bogged down in adjectives that makes a hook read like a taloid newspaper headline (and hard to understand). Nicola, perhaps you should ration adjectives/adjectival uses of other words in this exercise?

Neal... said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neal... said...

Stroppy, you're dead right. I can barely say it out loud, nevermind understand -- trying to do too much...

Rebecca's test said ‘expecting’ but her dad’s gay sex scandal and her recently-redundant husband’s own secrets promise more testing and unexpected times ahead.

Laura Mary said...

If nothing else this has given me a task this blustery lunch-time!


A grieving twin battles to reclaim his brother’s Soul, and avert an apocalypse.

Fate however has other plans for Tom, demanding betrayal and a sacrifice…

Lalla Merlin said...

Help: this is tricky - being too wordy is my biggest fault. But I'll try:

'Prosaic Rose pretends no Shadow-Wolf stalks the border between worlds. Then masked Mab steals her brother, and the Wolf comes in from the wood...'

Laura Mary said...

WOLF! Well done Lalla - you deserve a prize for that alone!

Rik's is standing out for me too :-)

Vee - I much prefer the second version, not much difference between the two it just feels snappier! sounds like a book i'd like to read!

Miriam Drori said...

Thanks for the comment, Neal. I agree that Rik's stands out, although it breaks Nicola's naming rule.

Nicola Morgan said...

All - apologies for not commenting but I'm snowed under. Also, you're all doing a very good job without me! My brief thoughts (and excuse typos and the harsh questions - you've all actually been very brave and I'm being very hasty and critical!):

Miriam - I'm personally uncomfortable (and put off) by the lower-class slag tag, though I realise that shock value is no bad thing. However, even if I'm wrong about that, I find the second half of the pitch too vague. I am not sure that I'd read a book simply to discover that two people have shared emotions. Can you beef it up with something more concrete and less metaphorical about the journey they go on?

Elaine - some good, concrete hooks in that. I'm not keen on "when evidence of extra-terrestrial technology is incriminating" - I'm not sure what it means. Also, what does F stand to lose if she fails to gaurd the secret - her life? The boy's life? World peace? You have some good words there but I'd like them focused better.

Dayspring - "career is inspired" - ? So, is he desperately in love with her or does he hate her guts (before he discovers the betrayal)? "ultimate betrayal" - cliché? And then what?

Rik - nice and economical and fairly concrete. But, what's he got to do about this crisis? Why not leave off the crisis bit from the start (because you then go on to explain his problems anyway) and then you can end with what he's going to do about it. I agree with Dan that you've pulled off the voice trick.

John - very intriguing, BUT: this dilemma of fighting a pirate or saving the world - well, I'm kind of assuming he/she tries to save the world. Not much of a literary dilemma! Can you make it sound more of an equal choice? Is it meant to sound light-hearted (because it does, a little.)

Vee - well phrased but it leaves me wondering whether this story is simply going to be a woman reminiscing. I don't sense the conflict other than the over-vague and slightly clichéd "a journey down memory lane to a past she'd rather forget." I agree with Neal that "car-loving" feels unnecessary. You put it in because it connects with the title but the reader doesn't need it.

Andy - "She'll risk anything to secure her child's future; even history itself. Now they want to know how she time travels without a trillion dollar machine." I'd omit "even history itself" because I more want to know who "they" are and I want to know more than that they want to know something - I want to know what she risks losing when they find out (or what the main goal/conflict for her is).

Josephine - I suggest you look for a stronger and clearer word than "wayward". Also, what exactly does she "fight"? Soldiers? Storms? Her demons? Is Norway powerful enough as an image? Also, the three nationalities feel important to the book but not to the hook because they don't give us real information - they don't give us context, emotion or hook. Do you see what i mean? Imean, so, she's a Spaniard but what does this mean?

Neal - with Stroppy's help, your second one was much better!

Stroppy - re adjectives etc - yes, I largely agree, though it's an exercise where I think adjectives are more necessary than in normal prose. I'd rather people threw them all in and then selected some out, if that makes sense? Yes, writers should remember that nouns and verbs punch as hard.

Laura May - good! But battles what? Betrayal and sacrifice are good emotive nouns, but since we don't know what either exactly involves, possibly better to pick one and big it up? ALso, is it actually Fate (it might well be but I want to know before I'll let you use it) or is that a shortcut for you to say "but as it happens..."?

Lalla - yay, wolves! Lots of mystery but "Prosaic Rose pretends" is too wishy washy for me.

Nicola Morgan said...

Miriam - it's not a naming "rule". I quote: "I'd say only include the name if it's the best and most economical way to do it."

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Here's mine,

Humans and robots get all mixed up. Tess the ‘regen’, and Pandora, the uber-cool robot, fight for the same life-space. Who will win?

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Rik wrote,

Kal's having a crisis: his friends have deserted him; his city has changed; and the man in whose head he lives knows he exists.

Just suggestions...

Kal's in crisis; his friends have abandoned him; his city is (flattened, levelled, nuked,extinguished?) but the man in whose head he lives knows he exists.

John Ayliff said,

A man who stole his lover's identity must choose whether to fight a pirate, or join her crusade against the machines that destroyed Earth.

again, just suggestions,

Identity thief desperado must survive imminent attack from alien invaders or die at hands of pirate. Can he survive and find his lover?

Vee said,

Car loving coma victim can hear everything her family say, which sparks a journey down memory lane to a past she'd rather forget.

You get the idea now...

Trapped inside her comatose body, Jen hears the pleas from her beloved family, tipping her headlong into memories of her nightmare past.

Josiphine said,

Once a slave to the Irish, this wayward Spaniard now must fight her way home from Norway.

Lost and vulnerable in an alien frozen land, the runaway slave must evade her pursuers and survive to fight her way back to her homeland.

Em-Musing said...

Thanks for this opportunity.

Em’s struggling with hot flashes and a frigid marriage, but when a younger Latino thaws her heart and sets her pants on fire—total meltdown!

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

I like that one, Em-musing.

Nicola Morgan said...

Fiona - ever thought of being a writer??!

Jenni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josiphine said...

Try two:

Lost in a frozen land far from the green hills she remembers, Caciana struggles to find purpose in a place she cannot call home.


YA historical fiction. Target group: 12-15

Thank you for the help!

Jenni said...

Yes! My novel does have wolves in it so, apparently, I'm apparently halfway there!

Stuck in a world she knows nothing about, Lexie, a genetically modified soldier who can morph into a wolf, must escape from prison and find her brothers, whilst trying to avoid the people that want to kill her.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Nicola said,

Fiona - ever thought of being a writer??!

I'm wearing the quill pens down to stubs, Nicola, and my head is covered with bruises and brick dust, but one day I shall burst through the wall, (like Fiona's Mum in Shrek 3, ha!).

M Louise Kelly said...

Is a hapless dyslexic spy the best person to out-fox eco-terrorists intent on controlling the world's food supplies? Kip Cusack is about to find out.

or

When eco-terrorists try to seize world food supplies and dispose of anyone who opposes them, hapless young dyslexic spy struggles to bring them to justice.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Josiphine said,

Lost in a frozen land far from the green hills she remembers, Caciana struggles to find purpose in a place she cannot call home.

I love the opening phrase, J, and now, how about piling on the pain...?

"Caciana strives/yearns/ to belong in the crushing/unforgiving/hateful environment she cannot call home."

(I'll leave you to edit the word count down).

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

M Louise Kelly said,

Is a hapless dyslexic spy the best person to out-fox eco-terrorists intent on controlling the world's food supplies? Kip Cusack is about to find out.

This is great, and makes me want to read it, but you can give it even more punch...

Cut out 'hapless' (this is implied by the scenario that follows) and go straight to 'dyslexic'.

You've got two hyphenated words in quick succession. You could tighten up the rhythm of the sentence (and as a result the urgency) by substituting 'beat' for 'out-fox', so that

Is a dyslexic spy the best person to beat eco-terrorists intent on controlling the world's food supplies? Kip Cusack is about to find out.

Stu Ayris said...

Reading the advice of Fiona and Nicola, I have never uttered the words "oh yeah!" so frequently - well not since those days of childlike wonder that engulfed me when I first discovered how to use a washing machine!

Stu
http://tollesburytimeforever.blogspot.com/

Vee said...

Thanks Nicola and Fiona
great help from both.
sorry not to have commented on others, but I found it hard enough to come up with my own, cliche ridden tho it was!

Nicola Morgan said...

Stu - I worry about you! (In a good way.)

Stu Ayris said...

Why thank you Nicola! I am eternally fascinated by things I must admit! I have suddenly discovered all this Blog stuff and it's great! Trying to get my book published is like having two jobs - mental health nurse by day - struggling author by night! And there is something very addictive about watching the counter tick round the amount of page views!

Stu
http://tollesburytimeforever.blogspot.com/

Margaret Morton Kirk said...

Giving this another go, since mine didn't make it last time:

First attempt:

The Girl on Winter’s Hill died eighty years ago. But her killer lives on…and if her grand-daughter can’t track him down, she'll lose everything.

Ro said...

Hi Nicola

I didn't mind at all that you didn't have time to comment on mine. I came up with a pitch thanks to your post, and that was more than enough. Now I'm doubting what I came up with, so I have a question- if your hook is the answer to one of the book's mysteries, which is only resolved near the end, should it be used in the pitch?

Nicola Morgan said...

Ro - it's a good question and one that's hard to answer as a generalisation. However, as a generalisation, I'd say: if that's what makes your book sound "must-read", then go for it. As another generalisation, I'd say that ideally the pitch should focus on the core conflict&journey, rather than the resolution. But I can only honestly say that you have to do what makes your book sound most compelling (as long as it's true!).

Nicola Morgan said...

Margaret - "The Girl on Winter’s Hill died eighty years ago. But her killer lives on…and if her grand-daughter can’t track him down, she'll lose everything." I think this has a lot going for it. I still feel that "lose everything" could be more concrete: risks death/terror/abandonment/capture and torture? I'm guessing that the grand-daughter has to solve a mystery or that the killer is coming after her? Could this be more explicit (if true?) Sounds like a potentially interesting thriller but just needs a bit more concreteness, I feel.

John Ayliff said...

Many thanks, Nicola and Fiona!

My second attempt, without the bogus choice and hopefully capturing the tone a bit better:

"A clone with a stolen name defeats his kidnapper, then joins her campaign of vengeance against the things that killed the Earth."

Margaret Morton Kirk said...

Yay! I wasn't happy with the 'loses everything' bit-felt too woolly-but at least I think I'm on the right track now.

Thanks, Nicola.

John Ayliff said...

My thoughts on some of these:

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Humans and robots get all mixed up. Tess the ‘regen’, and Pandora, the uber-cool robot, fight for the same life-space. Who will win?

I think "get all mixed up" is a bit vague. Do you mean there's confusion about who's human and who's a robot? Can you describe Tess and Pandora in a way that contrasts them? Pandora is uber-cool, so is Tess uncool? I'm also not sure you need the "Who will win?" -- the fact they're fighting already implies the winner is in doubt.

Margaret Morton Kirk said...

The Girl on Winter’s Hill died eighty years ago. But her killer lives on…and if her grand-daughter can’t track him down, she'll lose everything.

I think this is great until the end--can you be more specific than "she'll lose everything"?


M Louise Kelly said...

Is a hapless dyslexic spy the best person to out-fox eco-terrorists intent on controlling the world's food supplies? Kip Cusack is about to find out.

or

When eco-terrorists try to seize world food supplies and dispose of anyone who opposes them, hapless young dyslexic spy struggles to bring them to justice.

The first version seems to assume I know who Kip Cusack is, and doesn't make it clear whether he's the dyslixic spy or not. I think the second version is better but could benefit from cutting some words -- do we need "hapless", "young", and "dyslexic"? Which attribute is most important?

HelenO said...

Great guidelines and a terrific challenge - where did the last two hours go? I've ended up with a handful of pitches that match the Morgan model, though the wordcount's proving a real test. However, I've just come up with something that's horribly non-specific, and in the second person, too. So this is probably an object lesson in how NOT to do it - right? Tell me now and I promise never to do it again.

You can sell secrets to criminals and it’s just work.
You can carry out hits and still sleep at nights.
Provided you keep your distance.

Stroppy Author said...

Just a little point about numbers.... you don't save any words by missing out the name: 'A grouchy old man'= 4 words; 'Grouchy old man Anton' = 4 words. It think it has more interest with the name in :-)

Nicola Morgan said...

Louise - I agree with John that the second version is better. And that "hapless" is not helping. It's a very vague word. Because it's a children's book, "young" is probably necessary and "dyslexic" is important but can you replace "hapless" wth another motif?

HelenO - actually, I don't think there's a strong rule that you should avoid 2nd person. But I don't think it works as well as 3rd would, to be honest. "You can sell secrets to criminals and it’s just work. You can carry out hits and still sleep at nights. Provided you keep your distance." What distance? Distance from what? What will happen? So, the character (M/F?) gets too involved - with whom or what? I do think it needs to focus on something more concrete. So, it's not that I object to 2nd person but I need to know more, including who the 2nd person is - because actually it's not true 2nd person; it really stands for "one", which is third... Sorry!

HelenO said...

Don't apologise, Nicola - I genuinely expected, and wanted, criticism, and what you've said just reinforces the importance of being specific about what's at stake - which I am struggling with for some reason.(Why?)

But it's been a terrifically useful exercise and I'm loving it!

Andy said...

Hello Nicola, thank you for your feedback. It's been really useful to get an outside perspective, the same position agents will be in when the manuscript arrives on their desk. And because they haven't got the story in their head yet, it's up to those 25 words to make them read on...
Thanks once again!

Sarah F said...

Hmm, tricky but worth the challenge!

Into an 1880s colonial town, parched by drought and about to ignite from sparks between black and white, falls a half-Indian teenager from 2011.

Lalla Merlin said...

Hi Nicola - thanks for the comment: you're right - 'Prosaic Rose pretends...' is hopelessly wet. I'll try 'Cynical Rose ignores the Shadow-Wolf stalking the border between worlds. Then masked Mab steals her brother, and the Wolf comes in from the wood...' Reducing a synopsis to 25 words has made me face the fact that the MS itself needs radical streamlining, too. :(

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Thank you John Ayliff, I shall ponder some more...

In particular, if I can save three words by cutting 'Who will win?', I can use those words to indicate the contrast between Tess and Pandora.

Dan Holloway said...

@stroppy - you actually save words because you don't need "man" - "grouchy old Anton" gets that across, and has a rather nice feel to boot!

Stroppy Author said...

My actual hook is very short:

'Home Alone with buboes.'

But after your talk on Saturday, Nicola, I've written a longer 'normal' one as well - thank you for the prompting!

M Louise Kelly said...

Thanks, Nicola, John and Fiona. I wish i could learn to trust my instinct more. I'd noticed the two hyphenated words next to each other and the 3 adjectives in a row and thought 'hmm' and should know by now that this is the sound of alarm bells!!!! *note to self: don't wear ear-muffs while writing*

Sarah F said... You get across lots of concrete information here and it sounds intriguing but sounds like you haven't quite made it flow enough "... falls a half indian teenager". I've a feeling word limits tempt us to use more convoluted sentence structures than we would naturally ( Like being told you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition so ending up saying 'this is something up with which i shall not put' just to avoid it).

John Aycliff said...
"A clone with a stolen name defeats his kidnapper, then joins her campaign of vengeance against the things that killed the Earth."

I can imagine you saying this to an agent when you meet them unexpectedly in a lift, but not as something that would appear on the back of a book jacket. Why do i feel this? is it just me? Is the tone clearly descriptive (it's certainly that) but not enticing? I don't know! but someone might. For me, even changing 'then' to 'and' makes it feel less like the second bit is just the inevitable consequence of the first bit.

Rik said...

Nicola - thank you! Unfortunately I can't process your (and other people's) advice right this minute because somebody's posted something about a chocolate competition ...

Mmmm.

Elaine AM Smith said...

Thanks for your advice
It is sooo hard to keep to 25 words

ENCOUNTERS YA Sci-fi
target audience: girls
target publisher: Harper Teen

Imprisoned by MI 8 when evidence of extra-terrestrial technology incriminates her, amnesiac Fion protects the boy who saved her life: his secret is all she remembers.

Motivation included :)

Now I can get side-tracked by the thought of haggis flavoured chocolate.

Anonymous said...

A career driven boy has his summer study plans scrapped when his impulsive mother wins a competition and uproots the family to sweaty, smelly Italy.

Ro said...

Thanks for the advice Nicola. Trying to work between compelling and revealing!

Here it is-

A genetically advanced rebel is forced to let the tyrannical leader’s guilt-ridden son, who starred in her tortured past, help her bring down his father

Josiphine said...

Try three:

Lost in a frozen land far from the green hills she remembers, Caciana struggles to belong in the crushing place she can never call home.

@Fiona: Thank you so much for your help! I think I'm getting a clearer view of my novel, :)