Last week I wrote a guest post on the blog of the fantastic suspense novelist Rachel Sargeant about my long and winding journey to publication. You can read all about the highs and lows, rejections and celebrations, here:
I love a quiz, so let’s start with one...
This is taken from an exercise I came up with when I was teaching a Novel Writing course at Quad Arts Centre in Derby – partly as an ice-breaker for my class, and partly to kick off a discussion about novel hooks.
Can you identify which novels I'm describing here? (Disclaimer: they are not necessarily the blurbs that the writers or publishers themselves have used, or would use!)
What if your teenage son committed an unthinkable crime?
What if your memory was erased every time you went to sleep?
What if you were accused of your wife’s murder, but suspected she was the one framing you?
What if you could watch your family trying to come to terms with your death?
A botanist stranded on Mars must use his skills to survive.
A woman with Alzheimer’s tries to track down her missing friend, and instead unravels a mystery from her past.
A man and his son set out on a perilous trek across post-apocalyptic America.
A naïve young bride tries to find out the truth about her husband’s seemingly perfect first wife.
A professor of genetics who favours routines and efficiency sets out on a systematic mission to find love.
A happy-go-lucky woman is employed to show a man that life is worth living after a terrible accident.
The ‘big’ question, moral dilemma, or life lesson
Should science ever seek to reverse death?
Would you stay with the man you loved even against your most treasured principles?
Sometimes you have to travel a long way to realise there’s no place like home...
The answers are in the comments below this post!
What do you think of the three categories I’ve divided the hooks into? Do all novels have a hook that can be expressed in one of these three formats, or are there others? Could you sum up the central theme of your work-in-progress, either as a ‘What if...?’ question, a quest your character embarks on (physical or emotional), or a dilemma or lesson they will face?
I find that doing this really helps me, both when I’m planning and developing a book idea, and when I’m preparing to pitch it. A strong hook helps publishers to market a book, but it also helps the writer to identify the heart of their story - what it's really about, what's at stake, what the main thing is that the characters are trying to overcome, or achieve.
It’s also useful to me in the later stages of editing, as it reminds me to keep linking things back to my hook. For example, when I was re-drafting The Downstairs Neighbour, I kept returning to my question, ‘What if a threat to your family forced you to doubt the people you were living alongside?’ – and realised there were multiple ways I could connect the story to this idea. This definitely helped my sprawling plot to feel more unified as I re-worked it!
Considering your hook can also help you to come up with a title… something I’m going to have to write a separate blog about because I find them SO HARD! Watch this space ...
This is a bonus post - not on a Tuesday! - in the form of a link to a piece I wrote for the magazine Crime Reads. I re-read Thomas Hardy's wonderful book, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, while I was writing my debut The Downstairs Neighbour, and noticed all the cunning ways in which he builds tension and suspense to almost unbearable levels. Read the piece to find out what I learned from a writer who isn't primarily associated with supense fiction ... but who is undoubtedly a master in disguise.