I can’t help smiling when I read a good hook. When it happens, it’s a rush, a little like falling in love.
The hook — those critical initial sentences of a query letter from an author, or the opening of the book proposal itself — are the first and most important words that agents and acquiring editors read.
Hooks that capture and delight us
If the hook doesn’t capture our attention, delight us with sparkling prose, enlighten us with fascinating news, or make us laugh at your wit and surprising twists and turns, then the rest of what you’ve sent is in grave danger of getting dumped and deleted.
A good hook persuades an agent and editor that you’re serious and capable. It’s the first step in convincing us to drop everything and devote ourselves to making a major commitment of time and money on your behalf. Once we’re hooked, we’re ready to go to the next level and be your champions in the lengthy and difficult process of publication.
So it’s not surprising that writers struggle with this. A hook can’t be boring or lack energy. It can’t read like a canned formulaic cut and paste. It has to pop and stand out from the crowd. It’s not easy to do.
Memorable hooks that led to book contracts
I surveyed some friends in the business, all agents, for their recent favorites. Here’s what they sent.
The body comes down the river…
“Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.”
–The opener of Finn, a Novel, by debut author Jon Clinch [Random House]. From his agent Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management
A brother shows you who you are…
“A brother shows you who you are – and also who you are not. Your family has a certain flavor or smell unlike any other. It has an ethos, perhaps even a mythology all its own. You are a ‘we’ with your brother before you are a ‘we’ with any other.”
–The hook for the anthology Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry by David Kaczynski, about his brother, Ted, known as “The Unabomber” [Jossey-Bass/Wiley]. From the agent for the project, Andrew Blauner
Plunged into the world of an American teenager…
“The reader is plunged into the world of an American teenager living in a bewitching foreign city while attempting to rebuild her shattered life after the death of her parents.
She finds herself in the most typical teenage condition – falling in love with the most untypical person imaginable: an eighteen-year-old Resistance fighter who died in 1942.”
–The hook for Sleepwalking, by debut YA novelist Amy Huntington, which sold recently in a major 3-book deal, ($500K and up) for publication in Summer 2011, 2012, 2013 [Harper Children’s]. From her agent Stacy Glick, Vice President at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management
My new book is narrated by a dog…
“I am a Seattle writer with two published novels. I have recently completed my third novel, and I find myself in a difficult situation: My new book is narrated by a dog, and my current agent told me that he cannot (or will not) sell it for that very reason. Thus, I am seeking new representation.”
–The hook in an initial query from “emerging” author Garth Stein, whose novel The Art of Racing in the Rain ended up snagging a $1.2 million book deal and has so far sold more than 750K copies; on the New York Times best seller list for the past 31 weeks [Harper]. From his (new) agent, Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management
A chance encounter with a Chinese Muslim dissident…
“The Beijing ’08 Olympics are over, the war in Iraq is lost, and former National Guard medic Ellie McEnroe is stuck in China, trying to lose herself in the alien worlds of performance artists and online gamers.
When a chance encounter with a Chinese Muslim dissident drops her down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, Ellie must decide whom to trust among the artists, dealers, collectors and operatives claiming to be on her side – in particular, a mysterious organization operating within a popular online game.”
–Opening hook of a book proposal by debut author Lisa Brackmann for Rock Paper Tiger [Soho Press, June 2010]. From her agent Nathan Bransford at Curtis Brown, LTD, San Francisco
A personal training course for amping up your creativity…
“Can sitting in front of a light box increase your creativity? How about listening to Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major? These are, believe it or not, crucial questions to the survival of humans.
In The Creative Brain I’ll present a personal training course for “amping up” your level of creative thought and productivity. The strategies in my book are based on findings from neuroscience that identify seven specific brainsets (the biological equivalents to mindsets) associated with creativity.
I’ll outline techniques that will guide readers to reproduce these brainsets, thus increasing creative ideas and motivation. (And by the way, the answer is ‘yes’ to bright light and “no” to Bach’s Concerto.)”
–The hook from a proposal for The Creative Brain by Shelley Carson PhD [A Harvard Health Publication at Jossey-Bass/Wiley] submitted by her agent Linda Konner.
Hooks to share?
There’s no question that the hook is an essential element in the process of finding an agent and getting a publisher.
What do you say, readers? Have any hooks to share? Any you’re working on now? How’s that going? I’ll watch for your questions in comments.
Alan Rinzler says
Writing a great hook isn’t easy, taking many drafts, edits, and revisions. What you’ve done so far doesn’t say enough about the story, the premise or problem of the novel. You’ll need to study the craft of the hook and keep trying until you get a positive response.
Best of all would be consulting a developmental editor with experience helping authors produce this kind of quick, intriguing teaser.
Faye Lynn says
I am struggling to write a good hook. I have written my first novel and submitted the first 50 pages to an agent. She wrote back asking for a hook, then resubmit. The paragraph below is what I’ve come up with. How can I improve it?
If someone had told her she would live without sex for a decade, she would have never believed them. She liked sex. Loved it really. But sometimes, life gets in the way of things you enjoy.
Garage Capital says
Isn’t there a misplaced modifier in Clinch’s first sentence, arguably, at least?
Nick Black says
Nice post. I believe that Clinch has left Kleinman’s agency for Binky Urban at ICM. He’s got a new book coming out this summer.
Jennifer B. Fields says
Whataya’ think of my latest attempt at a hook for my novel “Hibiscus, Believe”?
How many times do you have to get punched in the face before you’ll admit that fairies don’t exist? Frustrated New York City lawyer, Patrick Dorsey had lost count of the blackened eyes and the bruised cheeks he’d endured in his unwavering search for the sultry woman who plagued his dreams each night.
I think that’s about my thousandth draft, but I like this one.
Thanks for the great outlet and a very informative site.
Barbara Falconer Newhall says
For Tom Tancin —
“My name is Trey Atlas. I’m 17 years old. And I never wanted to be a hero.”
I also like Michelle’s,“My name is not Mara Dyer, but my lawyer told me I had to choose something.”
Here’s one of mine:
Peter likes money. He wants an allowance. The subject came up at the breakfast table.
Jon and I debated. Fifty cents a week? 75 cents?
“Let’s not talk in cents,” said Peter, who is 6 1/2, pushing 7. “Let’s talk in dollars.”
Kat Sheridan says
Oooo, loving all the hooks offered in the article! The one from Lisa Brackmann is fast becoming almost legendary as an amazing hook in a query letter. It always gives me shivers to see it, and to know that because of that great query, the book will be coming out very soon now!
Since everyone else is sharing, here’s the opening pitch in my own query letter:
The past will not stay dead at Tremayne Hall.
When Jessa Palmer journeys to rescue her late half-sister’s daughter from a tyrant of a father, she discovers someone—or something—wants to ensure she is no more successful at escaping the castle on the cliffs than her half-sister, Lily, had been.
Launched on her rescue mission by a mysterious letter, Jessa follows in Lily’s footsteps to a grim castle in the wilds of Cornwall and into the arms of its dark master, Captain Dashiell Tremayne. Bitter, brooding, and tragically scarred, he believes Jessa is a carbon copy of her manipulative, unfaithful half-sister; he’s not about to let another treacherous woman into his home—or into his heart.
When the accidents begin, the danger intensifies, as does the heat between Jessa and Dash; soon, she’ll have to make a choice—follow Lily to a fiery death, or surrender to a man she cannot trust.
Buffi Neal says
Thank you all for sharing your hooks-in-progress. I’m working on one of my own and am stuck between something different and the boring formula. Here is what I have settled on after many revisions.
“Wonderfully Dysfunctional – It Must be Genetic” is the first in a series of memoirs about Buffi Neal, a career woman and single mother of two who joins her four siblings at the bedside of their dying grandmother and begins her journey of self discovery recalling stories of inappropriate practical jokes, abuse, betrayal and juicy family secrets, leading to the realization that her family is far from normal and she is not that different than the woman she wishes would die.
Randy Russell says
Hooks to share.
I used my tagline (it hooked me, after all, into spending months on a first draft) both as a guide for writing the book and as the opening line of my query letter for my debut YA novel (sold to HarperTeen for 2011 release):
“All in one day, 16-year-old Jana Webster lost her boyfriend, started a new school, and died. Not necessarily in that order.”
Gary Anderson says
Thanks for the post, Alan. As always, great advice. Personally, I have bought books solely on the merits of an impressive first line. Certainly, there is an art to it. God knows I have struggled with first lines in my own writing.
In my experience, some agents and editors advise against dialogue as the opening line of a novel. Although I tend to agree, there are exceptions. This is a favorite of mine from Katherine Dunn’s GEEK LOVE (also a fantastic title).
“When your mamma was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”
Evelina Eriksson says
To day we were given a subjekt in the Swedish class. My class mate looked down at his subject and smiled. the task was to create a good start for a speech. So.. (crapy translated to English=P)
From Oliver: The typical Swede, a middelage man coming home from a normal, boring officjobb. At home his old Golden retriver greets him wellcome. Across the stereet lives an 62 years old lady with three cats. On the gras in his neghbours garden two cildren plays with their fluffy rabits. Is it good to always live in the same traks? NO! I say; free import of exotik animals!
He made it up in less then 5 min =D
And sorry for the bad english ;)
Writing the book was the ‘ahem’ “easy” part. Writing the query? Agony. Thanks for yet another shot of inspiration. I’ll have a hook ready for the San Francisco Writer’s Conference.
Kim Votry says
Hi Alan, I was at your presentation this afternoon at Elliott Bay Book Store. You were wonderful! Very helpful, informative, and down to earth. I was the one who asked if blogging really was important for an emerging writer, and you have convinced me. Now I just have to get started!
I’m looking forward to learning from your blog. Thank you for sharing your experience and expertise so generously.
Terry Schmidt says
You gave a terrific talk today at Elliott Bay Book Store.
I’ve written 7 books, the last published by Wiley. Each has been increasingly painful to write.
There are still a few in me and you provided some great tips that will energize my production and help me produce quality books without sacrificing such a large slice of my life. Your passion and wisdom and wit were much appreciated.
Aline deWinter says
Shall I try out my own hook? “For some people the most frightening person in the world is their mother.”
No this is not a sequel to Grendle.
Aline deWinter says
I just came back from your wonderful talk at Eliot Bay and checked you out. The minute I saw you I predisposed to like you because you look like Jean Cocteau. To top it off you have a delightful personality. Thanks for all of your great ideas.
One of my favorite hooks comes form Shirley Jackson “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”.
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf…”
Tom Tancin says
The start of the query for my new YA fantasy book “Hippocampus”:
So I bet you think you’re going to read about another poor sap that has nothing going for him. You probably think I’m just another nobody turned hero with a story to tell. Think about it, so many stories these days are about kids with the worst luck in the world. They are orphaned, have only a few friends, the subject of ridicule by the popular crowd, and they can’t manage to please anyone. Then all of a sudden, they magically find themselves thrust into a huge dilemma of epic proportions.
Those pathetic kids manage to find a hidden power, or powers, deep down in themselves and use it to save the day. Suddenly they are heroes and their lives are never the same. In fact, they probably go on numerous other quests to save the world from disaster. Come on, you know the story, it’s everywhere. Aren’t you sick of that?
Well, I’m going to tell you flat out, that’s not me. I’m Trey Atlas and I’m the complete opposite of those poor saps turned heroes. I can hear Dad in my mind “Trey, you have to be able to sell yourself in one sentence”. So here goes nothing. I’m Trey Atlas, I have model looks, a wealthy family, and a great personality. I’m a straight ‘A’ student and a champion swimmer about to go to nationals and become the best swimmer in the United States.
Alright, so it took me two sentences to sell myself but it’s hard to do. You try selling yourself in one sentence. Anyway, that’s all besides the point. Hopefully, based on what I just told you, you can believe me when I say that I had everything going for me. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, it all changed. But before I start whining, which I can’t stand, let me start at the beginning.
This is the story of how my awesome life changed into a nightmare and how I got wrapped up in a fight to save a world that shouldn’t have existed and forced to become a hero I didn’t want to be.
William Plante says
The killer should be hung by his family jewels. Regrettably, the murderess did not have any.
Kendra Bonnett says
I couldn’t agree more. The hook–whether a captivating story, an emotional grabber or a couple opening sentences that you just can’t get out of your head–often determines my outcome. Do I keep reading or shout, “Next,” as a pull another book off the shelf.
My business partner/co-author, Matilda Butler, and I write about and talk with women memoir writers. Matilda often discusses the hook (what we call “the opener”) with the authors and she blogs about this both on our site (http://womensmemoirs.com/category/memoir-writing-interviews/ ) and on Story Circle Network’s blog “Telling HerStories” (http://storycircle.typepad.com/scn/opening-salvos/ ).
We recently talked with Jin Lee about her memoir To Kill a Tiger: A Memoir of Korea. She starts off with the marvelous tale of her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s plight…to be eaten by a tiger. It’s a good opener.
Laurie London says
Thanks for a terrific blog. I recently “discovered” you, when I clicked through one of Rachelle’s tweets.
Talk about a hook. I can’t wait for Shelley Carson’s book about amping up your creativity! I hope it’s beyond the proposal stage and soon to be published.
Here’s the opening line(s) of a story I’m working on:
“This shouldn’t hurt. Well, maybe just a little.”
Alan Rinzler says
Welcome to The Book Deal and thanks for the tweets! Much appreciated!
We frequently point readers to your own blog about your work as an agent. It’s smart and funny, and packed with much needed information and guidance for writers seeking representation.
At the moment, we’re linking to your post “Wake up and smell the coffee: You need to write a better book.” I loved the line where you told someone they didn’t need your advice but a “whack on the side of the head.”
Who doesn’t need a dose of reality now and then?
Alan Rinzler says
I’m pleased to see your hooks! Congratulations to all on your creativity and courage. Posting online is a great way to try out a hook and a good potential market test of whether it’s working or not.
So keep them coming!
I welcome everyone to chime in with constructive responses.
Florence Fois says
Alan, Decided to put this as the first paragraph to grab the reader. I’m thinking the word count and title are standard and by now some agents and readers might be sleeping walking through them. Not my idea. Got it from “Guide to Literary Agents” Best Query Series.
“It’s 1981 and Gail’s arranged marriage has fallen apart. There’s a blizzard raging, her ex is snowed in with his latest conquest and she’s moving back to her parent’s building in a two-room studio her mother calls transitional. No one believes Gail can fend for herself. She can’t find a job, she won’t look for another husband and once again becomes the invisible older sister. While she tries desperately to lose herself in the pages of her latest romance novel and a tub of Rocky Road ice cream, six blind dates are foisted on her by family and friends.”
Getting ready to start sending out the query for this book and your post was timely indeed.
Love the blog and thanks.
Jennifer (Conversion Diary) says
My impression was that the greatest hook these days is: “I have a platform.”
Just kidding — thank you for this great post. It’s so helpful to see specific examples. I’m a new reader and am absolutely loving your blog.
D. Antone says
Rachel, you are so right! I don’t know how many times I’ve gone over the hook, felt satisfied, and cringed later. Thanks for the advice Alan. I really need to attend those conferences. I’ll go out on a limb and share the hook from my YA novel, The Dreamers Atlas.
I’ve known for a long time that I don’t live the same life other kids do. I used to try. I used to think that even though I was bound to an iron chair I could somehow be like everyone else. I’m smart, I’ve got charisma, and besides stairs, ladders, and mountains, I can go just about anywhere kids with working legs can.
Elizabeth Hull says
Connor saves Raven’s life, loses his heart to her, and now the shape shifter must tell his angry love she is laying an egg.
Angela Perry says
I wrote this one ages ago, but it’s still one of my favorites:
“Well into a rousing rendition of Manilow’s “This One’s for You”, Logan Weylan did his best to ignore the mangled corpse of an antelope as it floated through the casino doors.”
Hi Alan, I’m not going to share a hook today… just wanted to say thanks for the terrific article. I usually send out a tweet every time you put up a new post because they’re so valuable to writers. Hope it’s helping drive people to your blog!
Richard Gibson says
Hook in progress – so the advice is most timely and much appreciated:
What does an emery board’s rough surface tell us about Africa’s million-years-long collision with Europe? Should an angler worry about the source of the platinum he or she relies on in casting a nylon line? What ancient life form gives us filters for beer?
In What Things Are Made Of, I recount the mineralogy of everyday man-made objects, delving into the geological story behind economic mineral deposits. Gold in jewelry, copper in plumbing pipes, talc in lipstick, europium in TV screens, mercury in Dr. Rush’s Thunderclappers – each has a complex tale to tell. Rocks are books, and minerals punctuate the pages with riches to lure miners and investors to the far corners of the planet.
M.D. Fields says
Opening to Scars of the Prophet:
I have awakened to my own beliefs about war and its aftermath. I have lived through both and damned each of them equally. There are places in our world where the questions of our existence are lived without answers, where peace is not an absolute but a rare gift from a frozen and unvoiced God. It was man who drew the first breath and within that exchange of air he created a tabernacle of depravity between all men. The first rock thrown in anger gave birth to a new dominion over the world and those men who understood the power of that conflict were insane and without amnesty.
The tossing of that single stone gave rise to war and all soldiers of this world both then and now shall one day stand in judgment before the meek. But warfare will endure without surrendering to such a verdict and no decree will ever right the wrong of it.
Once you have faced the hostilities of combat you come to understand that no one dies in a conflict for their country, men are killed because of the wanton acts of revenge or power and parallel lives are devastated by those immoral actions. Old men love warfare and they crave the bitter tang of battle while standing guard over the dead as vendors without prayer or salvation. The men who fight and die in wars are made promises behind words like honor, duty and perseverance but a solider understands those pledges are nothing more than lies in disguise.
For a brief moment in time my world seemed sane again…but all of that was about to change.
Christopher Rossi says
“Yasmin sold steaming kebabs and Johnnie Walker Black in the brittle shadows of her erstwhile penthouse. The sting of shrapnel and convoy sirens were never as harsh as the nagging shame of living today among pimps and parasites. She stole another glance upward, her fifth in one hour, while a sweaty tea drinker waited to make payment with the stained face of a tyrant.”
The Property of Lost Souls reanimates Saddam Hussein’s fallen harem, the Perfume Palace, with a mortician’s still hand on a corpse bride. This untold story of a lost decade is recounted through the mouth of former “resident” to an American Soldier winnowing away a lost year in an Iraqi desert outpost at the confluence of two mythic rivers.
Currently serving in Iraq and have just finished the first draft. Right now I’m shopping around for a developmental editor (on advice from this blog) and getting ready to go home. I’m an avid reader of your blog and am wide open to suggestions. Thanks!
Rachel J. Fenton says
Whenever I think I’ve nailed it, I look back after a break and groan! My hook still stinks! Aaaargh!
Sally Hanan says
“His pupils focused in on his son’s sleeping eyelids—lit by a trembling candlelight. The eyelashes quivered each time the boy’s breath blew up from his loosely-closed lips. Even at thirteen, Isaac’s face still filled his father with joy, only tonight . . . tonight, a twisting, wringing pain took joy’s place.”
Jumping into the fray with the hook of my YA work-in-progress:
“My name is not Mara Dyer, but my lawyer told me I had to choose something.”
Thanks for such a fun and informative post!
M.D. Fields says
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Sorry Mr. Rinzler, couldn’t resist because that is one fo the greatest openings…ever.
Rosandra M. Davis says
That’s very good advice. My query for my midde-grade novel went through three versions.
Emily McDaniel says
I get goosebumps even thinking about writing to such a literary rockstar as yourself, but I must ask…
Have you ever been hired to help an undiscovered author as an independent editor and been so intrigued by the work itself that you’ve jumped borders in an effort to represent it to your publishing house? And if so, what was it?
Keep the torch lit,
Linda Godfrey says
Here’s the hook to a women’s fic, magical realism novel I’m revising after finally figuring out how to do that. I’m finding that crafting the hook has helped me to hone the ms by showing me what’s important.
When English-major-turned-grocery-clerk Carly becomes the unwitting center of a trumped-up Virgin Mary cult, she begins to receive revelations from a decidedly unreligious apparition. The situation turns deadly when an unbalanced teen stalker sees Carly’s cult fame as a threat to his own psychotic world and lures her into a grisly murder trap. No magical intervention comes to Carly’s aid as she fights for her life, and in the struggle, she learns the difference between faith and her own illusions.
Alan Rinzler says
You’re right. Response to a hook is subjective. You’ve got to test it, so my advice is to be strategic in whom you show it to. Agents and editors are your target market, so try to meet them at a writer’s conference for a “blind date” or other form of short consultation provided. Hand them the query letter or proposal personally, since at these kind of face-to-face encounters you already have their attention, so they’ll respond honestly but politely. If you get a positive response and they keep reading, your hook is working. If they stall and put it down, you have some valuable feedback.
Similarly, you can show the hook to a writing teacher at a class you can take, or to a writer’s group, if you trust their opinion, or a successful writer you know, or a professional editor you hire for a consultation and evaluation.
Try to get a variety of sources, but avoid sending it blind to the first choice agent until you’re sure it’s good enough. Read and re-read it yourself, and edit to keep it shorter than the example you’ve sent, in my opinion.
Richard Mabry says
One of my favorite first lines is from James Scott Bell’s novel, Try Darkness: “The nun hit me in the mouth and said, ‘Get out of my house.'”
Forgot to add, with everyone’s taste’s so different, how do you know if your hook is good enough for even one person’s enthusiasm?
If your last breath came with a rewind button, would you push it?
At 9:59pm on August 20th, 2009, twenty year old rising rock starlet, C.J Greyson, does. Having just been shot, C.J’s disoriented mind folds into the sequence of memories that brought her full circle with the intruder, the truth about biological father, James, and herself.
As a teen, the near fatal beating of mother, Patricia, and the kidnapping and death of younger brother, Matthew—both by evil stepfather, Chuck—drove C.J towards various self-destructive addictions that gave her the love and acceptance she could never find between the rotting Mulberry Street walls. Those same walls decayed almost as fast as C.J’s belief in herself.
With only her savior, devoted Grandma Libby, and (as Libby says) “a good ol’ knack for singin’,” C.J rebounds beautifully, maturing into the successful front woman for Thursday Night Scum, and powerfully optimistic heroine, planning the final battle for her freedom. In 9:59 Rewind, recollections of years past collide with the present day of August 20th, 2009, revealing all that leads up to the last revenge-inspired track on the newly released Thursday Night Scum album, “Payback.”
Rachel J. Fenton says
It’s hard to remember when you don’t want to. Opening the door to an apartment gives a woman the voice she never had in life and unlocks a past her daughter has tried to forget – twice.
Anyone want to publish my novel?
It took me four years to write it, another one to edit but that was easy compared to writing this hook!
Great and timely post for me, Alan, thank you.