As an agent with a large social circle of writerly friends, I often find myself in that awkward position of helping pals polish up their query letters. I don’t mind. Chances are, if you work in publishing, you’ve been here. It’s the sort of thing I’ve been doing since college, when I was the English major stuck reviewing essays for friends.
I’ve come to accept this as simply the next stage in my English major evolution.
The one issue I’ve seen pop up time and time again, whether it’s when I’m helping friends with their query letters or critiquing queries at conferences or mentoring my MFA students during my day job… is the issue of writing “the hook.”
That is, being able to sum up your book quickly and succinctly in a sentence. Or maybe two. But preferably a sentence, ideally with a comparative title or two.
“But that’s impossible!” You scream from your stone tower, where you’ve been working on that epic novel that words simply cannot describe. “Nothing compares to my book. Nothing!” Lightning crashes.
First of all, stop screaming at me, and secondly, what is the rent like on that cool tower you live in? Can I get in on that? Who is your landlord?
Listen. It is possible. And it needs to be possible. Otherwise you may have written something that isn’t quite sellable. Or at least, you haven’t figured out how to talk about it in a way that’ll make it sellable.
Look at the jacket copy on your favorite book. All books get summed up quickly, no matter how wild and unique the premise. Yours needs to be able to do that, and I’ve got some thoughts on the whole thing.
Let’s work on taking the fear out of this sometimes-intimidating part of the pitching and querying process, dig into why these are so important, and share some examples that worked, shall we?
1. It Makes You Stand Out
Look, I get it. You’ve spent a ton of time polishing up those early pages (and hopefully the rest of the book please) to get someone interested. Your query letter is flawless. You’re not terribly interested in writing that hook. But let’s pause for a moment, and talk about why hooks are so great in query letters.
One, consider how much email your typical literary agent gets. Me, I’m still a new-ish agent, so I usually get a dozen or so queries a day, sometimes more if there’s an article with me in it or a conference happening. My agency as a whole gets a lot more, and every agent reads every query.
So let’s say… a hundred queries a week. Infinitely more for bigger agents. I’m still a baby.
A hook is going to help you capture the attention of an agent-on-the-go faster than just a standard long query letter. Reading a query on their phone? There’s your quick, one-to-two sentence hook, right away, pulling them in. Back from a long conference? That hook is going to get them invested faster.
A good hook makes you stand out from all the other submissions, in an industry where agents and editors are getting a constant stream of projects sent their way.
2. It’s Practice for Social Pitch Events
Right now, as I write this, the excellent Beth Phelan is hosting her #DVPit social media pitch event. It’s an event for marginalized authors and illustrators to get their work in front of the eyes of the agents and editors of the industry. Beth is a human who is too good for this world, and you all should be following and pitching her.
During #DVPit, people pitch out the premise behind the book… in 140 characters. ONE-HUNDRED-FORTY CHARACTERS, you guys. Your entire book, that book that means so much to you, summed up in a single tweet.
An example? One of my authors, Samira Ahmed, absolutely got me with this hook. Her book will be out next year.
If you’ve already got a hook prepared, you’re way ahead of the game. Do a little bit of trimming, and get it ready to tweet.
There are a lot of these kind of pitch events. #PitMad is a great one, and I’ve found authors through that. But you’ll need to know how to sum up your project quickly.
But please note, you don’t need to use a social media pitch event to query your book to someone. It feels a little easier, but remember, agents take submissions through their query box.
3. On Considering Comparative Titles, It’s Not About Plot
Every good query letter should have some comparative titles. It gives the agent or editor reading it an idea of what to expect and an understanding of where the book might live in the marketplace.
“But my book’s story is entirely unique!” You bellow from inside your favorite café, where you often do your writing. “None can compare! None can—”
Now that you’ve been kicked out of that café for screaming, let’s talk about this frequently raised problem, and an important solution.
It doesn’t have to be about the plot.
After-all, if you’re re-writing a book that already exists, you’re doing it wrong. Your book should be unique. It should stand on its own in a crowded market. Of course! Your comparative titles don’t have to be about plot. They can be about the themes explored in your book. Here are some examples, from projects of mine.
While pitching around Rebecca Phillips’ upcoming book, my hook for editors was:
“These Things I’ve Done is a non-linear 78,000-word YA in the tradition of issue-driven contemporaries like The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Infinite Moments of Us by Lauren Myracle, and All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.”
For Dave Connis’ next novel, our hook was:
“Suggested Reading is a story about the unfathomable impact of books and the strength of friendship, and reads like a mix of Andrew Smith, David Arnold, and A.S. King, with a little bit of The Book Thief sprinkled in.”
These comparative title hooks don’t say that either of these books have similar plots to any of the titles listed, but have similar elements. Rebecca’s is to emphasize the popularity of issue-driven YA novels and quiet YA (one of my absolute favorite kinds of YA contemporary). Dave’s hook is more about the tone of the book and the writing style.
You don’t have to compare your plot to anyone else. But themes, tone, style… absolutely. This should, I hope, make that part of the process feel easier!
4. It’s Practice for In-Real-Life Events
There are scores of publishing conferences going on around the country throughout the area, and many of them will have editors and agents come in to take in-person pitches. These can be a great way to get feedback immediately, and are great for those of us not quite comfortable with the whole pitch-on-social-media thing.
However, at these kind of events, you generally only get ten minutes with an agent or editor. You want to have your hook ready. You want to be able to sum that book up fast, not just to get them interested right away, but so there is room to actually have a conversation.
5. It’s a Great Way to Personally Connect
You’ll see a lot of notes in query letter tips about how it’s important to make some kind of personal connection to an agent when you’re pitching. That you saw them mentioned in this article, that they represent this author you like, etc.
And those are good tips! I’ve had querying writers send me pictures of their corgis. I approve of this tactic.
However, your hook is also a way to make this happen. Plenty of agents talk about the books they love and often talk about wanting to find books somewhat like them. Just scouring the #MSWL hashtag for example of that (please check out Manuscript Wishlist if you’re not familiar!).
Saying that your book is [This] meets [That] when querying, and using something you know the agent loves, is an excellent way to get their attention really quick. Just, you know, make sure it’s actually like that. Don’t lie a little just to get someone hooked.
For example, I talk about how I like to cry on social media. A lot. I often talk about how much I love certain authors. Offering up a hook that dishes out comparative titles that I’ve discussed making me tear up? A great way to make that connection.
I hope you found these tips helpful! To sum up!
A great hook will:
- Help you stand out amongst the scores of queries that are coming in.
- Is great practice for social media and in-person pitch events.
- Gives agents and editors an idea of what they can expect, in terms of tone, style, and themes.
- Makes a personal connection to whoever you’re pitching.
Good luck out there!