Create Your Own Familiar

We've been traveling around the country visiting schools and at each one the students have created their own Familiar Story.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Big Book Hook

Blog Post on Project Middle Grade Mayhem

Published authors love to give advice to aspiring writers. Whether they have one book to their name or a store shelf filled with best-sellers, they share their wisdom on everything that led them to their success. Write from the soul. Be determined. Read, read, read! Write, write, write! More generalizations flow like write from the heart, have great execution, and never giving up. These bon mots are more like self-help mantras than secrets to getting your book published.

So, what are we going to tell you that you haven’t heard before? Well, authors rarely talk about the importance of the idea. The big idea. A hook that will grab a reader, agent, or editor right from the query letter. Here’s an exclusive, firsthand piece of advice we’ll pass on from an anonymous publishing industry insider: hundreds of manuscripts come across his/her desk each year, and only a handful have a sellable big book hook. Meaning, the major publishing houses are looking for books with big ideas that can be featured at giant retailers, get adapted into movies, and become best-sellers. Not just stand-alone books, but series.

In Hollywood, the major movie studios are looking for 4-quadrant, tentpole, franchisable ideas. Ideas that appeal to the broadest possible audience, that can justify the biggest possible budget and marketing plan, and can have sequel after sequel. The book industry is searching for the same thing. If this sounds crass, or makes you wince because of its commerce over art leaning, it shouldn’t.

A few of the biggest (and best) books from the last few years:

"Harry Potter" – an average boy is rescued from his ordinary, unlucky existence to fulfill his destiny at a school for wizards.

"The Hunger Games" – in a futuristic society, a young girl must survive a deadly game in which teens fight to the death in front of live TV audiences.

"Twilight" – a teenage girl risks everything when she falls in love with a vampire.

Now, I don’t want to dissuade anyone from writing about their coming of age, or their dysfunctional family, or their marriage or divorce. But, as our insider shared with us, it is stories like these that make him/her happy that self-publishing is so much easier today. Because the big publishing houses have a much harder time getting their marketing machine behind the smaller, hookless ideas. (*Big disclaimer here: of course there are exceptions! At the end of the day, a wonderfully written manuscript is still the MOST important factor in getting published.*)

New York Times YA and children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson says write the flap copy before you write the book. This exercise is a fantastic way to iron out your big book hook and make it impossible for that agent or editor you’re querying to pass. After that, see if you can pitch your idea to your husband or wife or co-worker in a sentence or two. Did they get it? Could they turn around and pitch it to someone else? Take it a step farther and imagine the book cover, too.

We’re not encouraging you to write something derivative and soulless. We’re just saying find the character or theme or story that you’re passionate about and find a big hook to sell it on. The Transformers, a billion dollar grossing popcorn extravanganza, was originally pitched by Steven Spielberg as a story about a boy and his first car.

So, before you begin the long journey of writing your manuscript (and rewriting it over and over again until it is ready to be submitted), take a long, hard look at the idea. Does it have a big book hook? Could you see the cover on a display at your local bookstore? How about a movie poster at the neighborhood megaplex? If you can answer yes confidently to those questions, then congratulations. Now you’re just 60,000+ words closer to getting published.

1 comment:

  1. High Concept ideas work really well when there is great story behind it. I agree, guys, you need to have that hook. Young readers have so many options of things to do, give them a book with a hook that they can't put down!