Hook and Title

February 24, 2011

At the writer’s conference this past weekend, I noticed a consistent problem with the authors I spoke to: lack of a hook and titles choices. Oddly enough, both go hand in hand in that they are designed to capture readers’ attention.

Hook

After reading author’s pages, reading their synops, and talking to them, I found myself asking, “yabut, what’s your hook?” And this is where the struggle began because I was basically asking them to justify the viability of their book.

A hook, simply put is a point in a story that grabs the reader’s attention. It’s the difference between mundane and exciting. Your hook is tied into your plot, which should have some sort of struggle going on (conflict).

For example, I spoke with one author whose full I’d read a while back. I liked the story but felt there wasn’t a big enough hook to draw in readers. It was about the life of a beleaguered principal who faces a group of unruly teachers. The problem was that nothing was really happening. The unruly teachers is the foundation – the starting point of her plot – but she needed to have a hook, that sit-up-and-take-notice grabber. So we talked over breakfast (another great reason to attend conferences), where she told me her MC was frustrated at not being able to fire the teachers.

Ah ha.

So his ultimate struggle isn’t with the teachers, but a deeper, immovable object. The teachers are the foundation, but that personal struggle gets exhausted pretty fast, and she can’t sustain that for an entire book. However, if the MC decides to take on the teacher’s union, NOW you’re talking a hook. She was aghast. “It’s so controversial,” she said, fanning herself with her napkin. “Exactamundo,” I replied. “Never, ever fear controversy – it sells, baby.”

Controversy is a fabulous hook because it gets people talking, discussing the issues. Even though her book is fiction, the book is steeped in truth. Additionally, she has a terrific platform of thirty-five years in the classroom (now retired), and a platform means publicity. With the current strife going on in various states about unions, hers is a very timely book – and she is right smack dab in the middle of it. Now I’m seeing radio interviews, TV appearances, and personal appearances because there is nothing on the market like this book, and her perspective is quite unique.

This book was going nowhere fast – yet a short breakfast together turned that all around. Yah, hook is that important.

So take a long, objective look at your book. Can you determine what your hook is? Is it big enough? Are there controversial elements that you can exploit? Can you confidently answer the question, “What makes your book viable and unique?”

Titles

Equally important to capturing attention is your book’s title. I saw quite a few misfires this past weekend. If I can’t guess the genre based on the title, then it could be a title misfire. If you’re writing nonfiction, your title should be clear and adequately describe the book’s content. And, of course, be catchy.

I had a one-on-one with an author whose title and subtitle made me think it was Self Help. Her pitch, however, made it clear it was a memoir. The first thing I did was suggest a new title that personalized her book. Oddly enough, when we began discussing title options, it actually began to alter the focus of the book from memoir to possibly Travel Essay. Funny how a simple thing (and, in truth, there is nothing simple about titles) can change your book’s perspective. Titles be powerful things.

Recently we had title changes on two of our books. Our sales folks felt the original titles lacked power and clarity. Above all, a title needs to set the tone for the book. Our first book was titled Anomaly. I’d really waffled on it at the outset because I knew there would be a populace who (sadly) didn’t know what anomaly meant. And who or what is the anomaly? The cover art wasn’t enough to identify what the book was about. In short, the title had to go.

So we noodled around with different titles. The sales and marketing folks asked me the gist of the story. “Well, it’s about Chris Baughman, a dedicated and passionate detective, who leads a special unit whose job it is to take pimps off the street – knocking off the head of the beast by arresting them, bankrupting them, and seizing their millions of dollars of assets. But he goes a step further by taking the girls off the street and putting them in touch with professionals who can get them into shelters, school, etc.”

“So,” they said, “it’s Off the Street.”

Bingo.

Our second title was originally called Violence: The underbelly of the National Football League. I thought it a powerful title, but after talking to author and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers president Gay Culverhouse about the scope of her book, I felt the title didn’t adequately describe the content. Neither did the sales and marketing folks. So after long talk, whammo, presto change-o, the title became Throwaway Players: Concussion crisis from PeeWee football to the NFL.

And don’t be afraid to use a subtitle…especially with nonfiction. Publishers have all sorts of tricks to get the point across. You’ll note that Off the Street doesn’t have a subtitle, but if you look at the cover art, you’ll see that we added a byline: “prostitution is not a victimless crime.” This tells readers exactly what the book is about in a matter of nanoseconds.

And this is what you’re looking for; a catchy title that describes the book.

Obviously, fiction offers more freedom to be artistic and vague – but personally, it drives me nuts when I can’t glean the contents from the title and cover art. So choose your catchy title with care. It should be representative of the book, not too obscure, and, of course, catchy.

Sadly, there is no formula to a great title, so it’s a lot of trial and error. And feedback.

And don’t freak if your agent or editor changes the title. They’re not doing it to ruin your day, but to make the book more marketable, memorable. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read advanced submissions to books with weak titles, yet there, among the pages, I noticed a much more powerful title  lurking about.

There is nothing sweeter than being able to suggest a new title that excites the author. Am I brilliant? Ah, I’d like to think so, but alas, it’s only because I’m an unbiased observer and can see things the author can’t.

If you find yourself stumped with a title, go no further than your manuscript. The answer is in there. Really. It makes no sense, but I do get excited when a query comes in with a great title. Right or wrong, I think that if the author thought up a great title, the content must be equally amazing. And that, my dear writers, is the same psychology that attracts readers.

So don’t downplay the importance of Hook and Title. They are the face of your book. Considering the plethora of great books running about, you can’t afford to take shortcuts.



Memoirs: What’s your hook?

April 28, 2010

Remember that show called What’s My Line? Ok, I’m dating myself as part of the Early Dawn of Man, but I loved that show because they always had great guests whose odd occupations made it easy to stump the stars [also because half of them were buzzed].

Well, writing a memoir is much the same thing. What’s your line? Or really, what’s your hook?

Many memoirs that cross my desk aren’t marketable because they lack a hook. The #1 reason for that is because the author is too close to his own story. Most of us lead interesting lives [well, except me, of course, where I live out my existence chained to a desk with a boozy beagle who refuses to file or answer phones] and think our lives or experiences would make a great book. As a result, I see a lot of the:

  • “I grew up on a farm and milked a cranky cow”
  • “I survived cancer by eating pecan pies”
  • “I went to Tibet to study Buddhism”

These are  “so what?” stories. They aren’t interesting because they lack a hook. While they may be mildly entertaining to the author’s family and friends, agents and editors are looking for something that knocks us out of our chairs.

How do I know if I have a hook?

Funnily enough, most authors don’t stop to ask themselves this question when it comes to a memoir. They just sit down to write about their lives with no particular direction.

And that’s the key: Direction. Where are you going with your story? What’s your point? Is this a story with no road map? If so, how are you going to know when you’ve reached your destination? And if you do, will anyone care?

There has to be a purpose, a direction to your story. That is your hook. Let’s look back at the “I went to  study Buddhism in Tibet” example. So what, right? An agent or editor may think it’s another story of seeking spiritual or religious enlightenment. But what if the author says, “Going to Tibet to study Buddhism was less about spiritual awakening than it was in my relentless pursuit to get laid.”

Wha’? Ok, that makes me sit up and take notice because the two ideas are so contrary. That’s a hook. Now whether that hook is marketable is another issue, but at least it got my attention.

Categorize me!

There isn’t a “Mindless Wandering” category in the bookstores or any place in publishing, so what do our sales teams say when pitching to a genre buyer? The first thing they need to do is give a category. Look at your memoir; does it have a category?

  • Inspirational?
  • Educational?
  • True crime?
  • Travel essay?
  • Humor – a la Erma Bombeck?
  • Family issues?

Yes, yes, authors HATE to be categorized, but really – get over it. First thing anyone asks is, “what’s your book about?” It’s a lot easier to explain if you’ve pigeonholed yourself because now we have a frame of reference.

Have a Message

Memoirs of famous people have their own hook by the merits of their fabulosity [yes, I know it’s not a word]. But most of us walk with both feet on terra firma and breathe the same air, so I look for a memoir that says something, has a message. This is meat I can sink my teeth into.

Look at the list above and decide where you fit. Then ask yourself whether you have a message. You can have a travel essay, but what is the message? If your story is about buying a house in Rangoon and discovering it’s infested with pygmy mice, then what is the message about your travel essay?

Readers are looking for a story that makes us think long after they’ve finished the book, makes us care, so you want to consider whether your story makes an impact. And the way to do that is to have a message. I love a good memoir that forces me to look inward, to look at my own life with a different perspective.

Example

For instance, my dear mother married my dear father and discovered too late that he had this crazy side that said things like, “Hey, darlin’, Parsons Corp. has a jobsite starting up in Baatman, Turkey. Let’s go!” Now this is in 1953-ish, so there’s no town, no hospital, no school, no nuthin’.  But Mom, good soldier that she is, sez, “sure, sweetie.” Mind you, they have three small kids [I’m not quite a glimmer in anyone’s eyes yet].

Now what kind of brain slippage does it take to say yes to this adventure? But they went and had an incredible experience. They tell stories that make my sides split – like my brother drinking Mom’s perfume – her last vestige of civilization – and he didn’t have the good grace to even barf it up. Or the time Mom, who was forever fishing my sibling’s toys out of the toilet and sink, reached into the toilet to retrieve a dropped frog, only to discover it was real. I’m sure she left a dent in the ceiling.

Then there are the poignant stories about how my father gave money to a village so they could grow crops  and survive. For hundreds of miles, villages knew of my dad, and would always make sure they were safe and always protected. When my sister got scarlet fever, people traveled for miles to make sure “the American girl” was ok. Still chokes me up.

All told, Mom is an incredibly good sport, and I love her adventurous spirit and love for my dad that she’d say yes to something that would have most people grabbing for a Xanax. Her experiences of Alice stepping through the Reality Glass with three young kids are great fodder for a memoir because there are so many elements that create the hook, the category, and the message.

Hook: “Stick with me, kid, I’ll show you the world!”
Category: Travel essay
Message: True happiness is how you handle life when it spills its guts in your lap.

Take another look at your memoir and ask yourself three basic questions:

What’s my hook?
What’s my category?
What’s my message?

As for Mom, I think she’s certifiable, but I do adore her more than anything.


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