April 25th, 2007


What I learned from judging the FFF hook contest

As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I had the pleasure of judging 20 hooks for the Fangs, Fur, and Fey hook contest, and as promised in aforementioned earlier post, here are the conclusions I came to after judging.

1. Being "hooked" isn't about being objective.

As a judge, I quickly discovered that there were only two things I could comment on for each hook- the writing mechanics/structure of the hook, and whether or not the hook succeeded in hooking ME. The first element is technical; the second is completely subjective. As a judge, I tried to sort out the driving forces behind my reactions to hooks, so that I could offer the hook's author some insight into what did and did not work for me, but at the end of the day, all I could really do- beyond offer advice on hooks structure and sentence construction- is just that: tell people what worked for ME. Luckily, many, many generous viewers of the FFF contest offered their own insights, giving some authors multiple reactions to the same hook. If ever there was a time that I've realized how very subjective this business is, and how important it is to find a good fit with an editor/agent, it's now. If you're in the process of submitting, please remember that! I know the "not right for me" thing sounds like a complete cliche, but sometimes, it really is true.

As a result of #1, the rest of my conclusions are based on trends I saw and points I found myself returning to again and again, hook after hook. Like my reactions to the hooks themselves, they're just opinions, not gospel, but I thought I'd post them on the off chance that they might be helpful.

2. Structure matters.

Cramming the essence of an entire book into less than three hundred words is really hard, but be careful not to concentrate so much on the concepts that you forget about form. Here are some quick tips to help you keep your hook clear and easy to understand.

+ Make sure the transitions from one paragraph to another are smooth. A lot of times, I'd read the first paragraph of a hook and get intrigued, but then the second paragraph went off in a completely different direction, instead of building on the first. All of your paragraphs should be part of a cohesive whole, and nine times out of ten, I want paragraph two to be tied in some obvious way to the end of paragraph one. The second paragraph is the middle of your hook- not the beginning of a new one (unless you're going for some kind of parallel structure between the first two paragraphs, but this is very, very tricky, so proceed with caution).

+ Make sure your transitions from one sentence to another are also smooth. This means two things. First, make sure that you watch your grammar and that the reference of every noun phrase and pronoun is clear given its context in the sentence. And the second one- and this is a big one for me- try to make sure that the reason that one event follows another is clear. If event A causes event B, make sure that's evident to your reader. If you just tell me A and B (and C and D and E) in a paragraph, without providing any connections between them, it's harder for me to follow what's happening and why it's happening- and after a while, your hook starts to look like a list of events.

+ In most (though not all) cases, try to introduce the MC in the first paragraph. If you introduce a character who is not the MC in the first paragraph, it's harder to zero in on the focus of your hook. If you start with something else, such as back story, then it is CRUCIAL that when you do introduce your main character, it is apparent that this is their story. We need to see their connection to the back story and the connection of the back story to the MC's conflict. If you have multiple MC's, then make sure that their relationship to each other is clear; otherwise, it may be hard for a reader to wrap their mind around your story as a whole.

3. Character is the most important thing.

I'll acknowledge that this might not be true for everyone, but it's definitely true for me. If I don't care about your character, then it's hard for me to care about your hook. It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly how you should go about making me care about your characters, but the advice I can give you is that your character shouldn't just be a name. I read some great hooks (both among the ones I judged and the ones I read on the FFF site) that had wonderful premises, but the MC's seemed like placeholders, not people. Your character needs to be more than the person caught up in your plot.

On the other end of things, though, including random facts about your character that don't seem relevant to the rest of your hook isn't a great thing to do either. Ideally, the hook should show us something about your character that enhances our perception of your book's events. For Buffy, the hook wasn't just that there's a girl and she's a slayer; it was that she was a Buffy- the kind of girl who's forever getting killed off in horror movies, and the kind that nobody expects more of than proficiency with a credit card. The juxtaposition of the two is interesting. The characters and the plot should work together, and your hook should showcase that as much as possible.

4. Don't tell me anything I don't need to know.

You've only got 300 words, or if this is the hook portion of a query, possibly even less. Don't spend words uselessly. You don't need to tell us everything that happens in the book. Subplots can be very awesome, and I'm all for books that weave together multiple storylines and have many, many layers, but in a hook, you have to focus. This doesn't mean that every single thing you say has to be directly related to the plot, but if it doesn't contribute towards the central premise/"meat" of your hook, to the tone, or to your character as described above, think long and hard before including it. If you mention your character's best friend in the first paragraph, and the best friend never pops up again, then ask yourself why you're mentioning them. If one of the minor characters has a dilemma that plays a crucial role in your book's conclusion, but doesn't play any noticeable role in the teaser, we don't need to know that either.

Bottom line: important elements in the book and elements that contribute to your hook are not the same thing.

5. Give me something to relate to.

A character, a situation, a dilemma... it doesn't matter, but especially with fantasy, I need to see something in the hook that lets me connect it to the real world in some way. This doesn't mean that your book needs to take place in a realistic setting, or that it needs to have a realistic premise. It just means that even if your book is set five hundred years in the future on an alien planet populated with fuzz bunnies, I want to be going "man, I feel for those fuzz bunnies" or "that fuzz bunny revolution brings to mind the dangers of blindly following orders" or "Jasper the Shy Fuzz Bunny reminds me of one of my roommates."

Anyway, that's all I've got for now. No idea if this was helpful, but there it is.