Ultimate Blog Series on Novel Queries (#3)



This
is my definitive No Rules series on novel queries. It’s meant
particularly for writers who are new to the query process. (A series on
nonfiction book queries will come later.) Go back to the beginning of the series.


GREAT NOVEL HOOKS MAKE IT LOOK OH-SO EASY!
Whenever I teach a class where we critique hooks, just about everyone can point out the problems and talk about how to improve them. Why? Because when you’re not the writer, you have distance from the work.

When you do come across a great novel hook, it feels so natural and easy—like it was effortless to write.

But great novel hooks are often toiled over. To convey a compelling story in just a few words is the test of a great writer. Generally, I recommend that your hook not exceed 150 words.

Brevity is the soul of wit. Brevity is your friend.

Brevity gets you in less trouble, too. The more you try to explain, the more you’ll squeeze the life out of your story. So: Get in, get out. Don’t labor over plot twists and turns.

Let’s look at some examples and how to improve them.


ORIGINAL HOOK

Roswell Redemption, my 84,000-word historical novel, is told from both the perspective of Jade, a thirteen year old Cherokee Indian girl in 1838, and from Carolyn, a woman in current day searching for a historical home in the town of Roswell, Georgia. Their stories come together in Greyson Manor.

1838 – Jade Hawkins is the only daughter of a prominent Cherokee family who own one of the most successful plantations in the Cherokee Nation.  President Andrew Jackson defies the Supreme Court ruling stating the Cherokee land must remain with the Cherokee and forces Georgia Governor Lumpkin to conduct a land lottery. The Hawkins plantation is taken over by David Greyson, the lottery winner, by force. In one horrendous day, Jade’s life changes forever. Her story takes us through the Civil War and how her strength and sacrifices change the history of several families for many years to come.

2010 – Carolyn Kane searches for a historical dwelling to restore as a restaurant and event facility in the northern Georgia town of Roswell.  Carolyn finds the perfect home to restore in Greyson Manor, one of the only remaining original plantations still standing. The story behind Greyson Manor has remained untold and the current owners have been unwilling to renovate or sell. As Carolyn strives to persuade the Greyson clan, she uncovers a story about an Indian girl that will change the town of Roswell forever.

REVISED HOOK

Roswell Redemption, my 84,000-word historical novel, is told from
both the perspective of Jade, a 13-year-old Cherokee Indian girl
in 1838, and from Carolyn, a woman in current day searching for a
historical home in the town of Roswell, Georgia. Their stories come
together in Greyson Manor.

1838 – Jade Hawkins is the only daughter of a prominent Cherokee family
who own one of the most successful plantations in the Cherokee Nation. President Andrew Jackson defies the Supreme Court ruling stating the
Cherokee land must remain with the Cherokee and forces Georgia Governor
Lumpkin to conduct a land lottery.
But Hawkins plantation is taken over
by force as a result of government decree. David Greyson, the lottery winner, by force. In one horrendous day,
Jade’s life changes forever. Her story
Jade’s story takes us through the Civil War
and how she changes the history of several
families for many years to come.

2010 – Carolyn Kane searches for a property where she can open a historical dwelling to restore as a
restaurant and event facility in the northern Georgia town of Roswell. Carolyn finds the perfect home to restore in Greyson Manor, one of the
only remaining original plantations still standing. The story behind
Greyson Manor has remained untold and the
However, the current owners have been
unwilling to renovate. As Carolyn strives to persuade the
Greyson clan to sell, she uncovers a story about an Indian girl that will change
the town of Roswell forever.

Comments: I took out extraneous detail and repetitive information. We have a challenge for each of the protagonists that’s clearly defined, which is good. To take this hook to the next level, I’d look for ways to incorporate a stronger sense of voice and/or personality behind these characters. Right now, it is direct and plain in expression, without much attitude.

ORIGINAL HOOK

The enclosed sample of my commercial fiction, The Spirit of St. Charles, tells the story of a young woman overcoming personal tragedy to rebuild her community, ruined by a catastrophic hurricane. This story shows how a natural disaster changes a young woman from living like a victim to a person with determination and emotional strength. It is 73,000 words in length.   

Lara Jackson, a young black woman, returns to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She conquers a tragic childhood brought up by a mother who is an abusive alcoholic with a series of live-in boyfriends. Lara carries a fear of men following an attack on the streets of New Orleans when she was sixteen.

Lara has returned to New Orleans to find her aunt and uncle, Noreen and Henry, who have been her substitute parents since she was ten.  During her search, she finds tThey have escaped the flood by moving in with Henry’s brother Phillip in an old mansion in the Garden District. She works with them to rebuild their old house  where they move back to a deserted neighbourhood. 
 
Finding romance with a white musician, the couple must face a rising crime rate in her former fun loving city as they struggle to build careers in the entertainment business. She becomes a strong woman who must face a house break-in and the death of her husband. Conquering her bereavement, she joins the Mayor’s campaign to fight crime and to rebuild the community in memory of Jerome.

REVISED HOOK

The enclosed sample of my commercial fiction, The Spirit of St. Charles
(73,000 words) tells the story of a young woman overcoming personal tragedy to rebuilding
her community ruined by a catastrophic hurricane. This story shows how
a natural disaster changes a young woman from living like a victim to a
person with determination and emotional strength. It is 73,000 words in
length.

Lara Jackson, a young black woman, returns to New Orleans after
Hurricane Katrina. She conquers a tragic childhood brought up by a
mother who is an abusive alcoholic with a series of live-in boyfriends.
Lara carries a fear of men following an attack on the streets of New
Orleans when she was sixteen.

Lara Jackson, a young black woman, returns to New Orleans to find her aunt and uncle, Noreen and
Henry, who have been her substitute parents since she was ten. During
her search, she finds They have escaped the flood by moving in with
Henry’s brother Phillip in an old mansion in the Garden District.
She
works with them to rebuild their old house and move back in. where they move back to a
deserted neighbourhood. 

 
Lara marries a white musician, and the couple must face a rising
crime rate in her former fun loving city as they struggle to build
careers in the entertainment business. She becomes a strong woman who
must face a house break-in and the death of her husband. Conquering her
bereavement, she joins the Mayor’s campaign to fight crime and to
rebuild the community in memory of Jerome.
  [needs to be revised based on answers to questions below]


Comments
: The big question I have after reading this hook: At what point does the death of the husband occur? If it is near the end of the book, it probably shouldn’t be mentioned in the hook. If it is near the beginning of the book, then the hook needs to focus on that death as the protagonist’s challenge. The original hook spends a lot of time on Lara’s life *before* she marries. What percentage of the book is about that story? Is it the key story? Is it just the first chapter or set up? Is her big challenge really overcoming the death of her husband? It’s unclear at this point what the story problem is.

ORIGINAL

Shakespeare’s on death row. That’s the message a magical orb, with the power to shape-shift and time-travel, gives middle-school siblings Jared and Athena Hearne. According to the siblings, no one’s more qualified to be his rescuers than them. After all, twelve-year-old Jared’s a Lego master and killer skateboarder who’s always game for an adventure, and older sister Athena’s a bona fide drama queen: she’s going to be Queen Titania in the school play. They zip to Elizabethan England and spring Shakespeare from his cell.

But talk about a comedy of errors. Shakespeare hijacks the orb and returns to modern times with Jared, leaving Athena stranded in the sixteenth century. Eager to experience his brave new world, the Bard goes on the lam. He “borrows” the high school quarterback’s Mustang and ends up in a tournament at Laser Tag World. Jared gives chase, desperate to nab the problematic poet and herd him back to 1582. Until, that is, the orb is stolen. Now Jared has a new mission: to hunt down the thief. Or else, Shakespeare will be in line for a green card. And Athena’s history.

REVISED

Shakespeare’s on death row. That’s the message a magical orb, with the power to shape-shift and time-travel, gives middle-school siblings Jared and Athena Hearne. According to the siblings, no one’s more qualified to be his rescuers than them. After all, twelve-year-old Jared’s a Lego master and killer skateboarder who’s always game for an adventure, and older sister Athena’s a bona fide drama queen: she’s going to be Queen Titania in the school play. They zip to Elizabethan England and spring Shakespeare from his cell.

But talk about a comedy of errors. Shakespeare hijacks the orb and returns to modern times with Jared, leaving Athena stranded in the sixteenth century. Eager to experience his brave new world, the Bard goes on the lam. He “borrows” the high school quarterback’s Mustang and ends up in a tournament at Laser Tag World. Jared gives chase, desperate to nab the problematic poet and herd him back to 1582. Until, that is, the orb is stolen. Now Jared has a new mission: to hunt down the thief. Or else, Shakespeare will be in line for a green card. And Athena’s history.


Comments
: I appreciate the author’s attempts to better characterize his protagonists in the first paragraph, but this kind of telling isn’t usually effective in a hook. It comes off as a laundry list of qualities that slow us down from getting to the real story. The challenge here is to convey/show this characterization but not weigh down the hook with description. I think the second paragraph might also be condensed/tightened, but the premise is intriguing enough that I don’t see much danger in outlining some of these entertaining twists.

ORIGINAL

Currents of Freedom is a 95,000 word romance/suspense novel.?

After Melinda Smithfield drops her husband, Mark, off at the L.A. airport, she makes a circuitous trip to Ventura Harbor where her new life awaits.  Plagued by nervous nausea for weeks, her handsome but horrid husband gloated at the thought that she was pregnant.  If he’d had any clue she wasn’t going to have his baby and wouldn’t be home when he returned from London, he would have never left town.

Pride can be such an ugly animal. It would have been so much simpler if he had agreed to a divorce. She decided his vicious hands would never touch her again and had no choice but to begin a new life far away from California and, unfortunately, her younger sister. Taking her chances on a seedy broker, she found a deal on a sailboat and headed out to sea. And the adventure begins.  When Mark discovers his wife is gone, the media unwittingly begins a campaign to help him post a $100,000 reward to bring her back.  

Seeking refuge in the beautiful islands of the Pacific Northwest, Melinda finds unexpected sources of friendship and love. After months of happiness, her peace and serenity are shattered when Mark kidnaps her from Little Fox Island. In the fight for her life, Melinda must find a way to escape her husband again to save the new life she has built with the handsome English teacher, Noah. She doesn’t dare believe Mark when he tells her Noah called for the reward money. But, who told him where she was hiding? 

REVISED

Currents of Freedom is a 95,000-word romantic suspense novel.?

After Melinda Smithfield drops her husband, Mark, at the L.A.
airport, she makes a circuitous trip to heads for Ventura Harbor where her new
life awaits. Plagued by nervous nausea for weeks, Her handsome but
horrid husband had gloated at the thought that she was pregnant, but if he’d
had any clue she wasn’t going to have his baby and wouldn’t be home when
he returned from London, he would have never left town.

Pride can be such an ugly animal. It would have been so much simpler if
he had agreed to a divorce. She decided his vicious hands would never
touch her again and had no choice but to begin a new life far away from
California and, unfortunately, her younger sister. Taking her chances on
a seedy broker, she found a deal on a sailboat and headed out to sea.
And the adventure begins. 

When Mark discovers his wife gone, the
media unwittingly begins a campaign to help him post a $100,000 reward
to bring her back. Seeking refuge in the beautiful islands of the Pacific Northwest,
Melinda finds unexpected sources of friendship and love.
After months of
happy refuge in the Pacific Northwest, Melinda’s peace and serenity are shattered when Mark kidnaps her
from Little Fox Island. In the fight for her life, Melinda must find a
way to escape her husband to save the new life she has built with handsome English teacher Noah. She doesn’t dare believe Mark when
he tells her Noah called for the reward money. But then, who told Mark where
she was hiding? 


Comments
: The second paragraph of this hook conveys a level of detail that’s unnecessary to understanding the story problem. The last line offers the most intrigue (and the best twist), in that we have a story where the protagonist doesn’t know who she can trust.

ORIGINAL

Sentimental Journey is a 95,000-word women’s fiction.

Main character Meredith Fields is dealing with guilt over placing her mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s, in a nursing home, and resentment about having to clear out her mother’s house by herself. Her husband, Keith, tells her he’s fallen in love with his young assistant, Caitlin, and wants a divorce.

Her daughter Betz blames her for her father’s infidelity, and her son Michael acts like he couldn’t care less. Her agent is on her case to give him something on her new book, the one she hasn’t conceived yet, although he doesn’t know this. As she explores her mother’s shadowy past, intending to use it as the basis of her new book, Meredith recognizes much of her mother in herself. She begins to understand why her mother related so poorly to her children, and is shaken by parallels in her own relationships with Betz and Michael. She sets out to reconnect with her children and hopefully break the intergenerational chain of destructive and emotionally scarring behaviors.

Sentimental Journey includes the beginning of a novel within the novel, currently titled Hope’s Illusion, which is part of the story line, and which I intend to expand and complete as a separate novel.

REVISED

Sentimental Journey is a 95,000-word women’s fiction.

Main character Meredith Fields is dealing with guilt over placing her
mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s, in a nursing home, and resentment
about having to clear out her mother’s house by herself.
while her husband,
Keith, has fallen in love with his young assistant and wants a divorce.

Her daughter Betz blames her for her father’s infidelity, and her son
Michael acts like he couldn’t care less. Her agent is on her case to
give him something on her new book, the one she hasn’t conceived yet,
although he doesn’t know this.
As she explores her mother’s shadowy
past, intending to use it as the basis of her new book, Meredith
recognizes much of her mother in herself. She begins to understand why
her mother related so poorly to her children, and is shaken by parallels
in her own relationships with her son and daughter. She sets out to
reconnect with her children and break the chain of destructive behavior.

Sentimental Journey includes the beginning of a novel within the novel,
currently titled Hope’s Illusion, which is part of the story line, and
which I intend to expand and complete as a separate novel.

Comments: The series of problems outlined in the second paragraph feel like subplots or secondary complications, and as such, don’t belong in this hook. It might be helpful to be more specific and compelling about what this mother’s shadowy past is, since that appears to be the key problem/challenge for the protagonist, aside from rebuilding relationships with the children. If the relationship-building with the children is in fact the primary challenge of the novel, there is the danger of insufficient forward momentum or lack of high stakes. How will success be determined for this character? How will we know whether or not she gets what she wants?

I’ve also taken out reference to the protagonist writing a novel, and the novel-in-a-novel. While this may very well be something that sets this work apart from all others, most agents/editors aren’t excited by stories about novelists. This kind of plot line might feel too ordinary, or otherwise raise a red flag about the originality of the story line.

Next up: More hook critiques!

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Looking for more great query letter advice? Check out the Writer’s Digest official guide to queries, which includes examples and instruction by genre.

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3 thoughts on “Ultimate Blog Series on Novel Queries (#3)

  1. Laura M.

    Hi Jane,
    I received a WD email re: "Query Letter Red Flags", post #8 in your blog series on Novel Queries. Going back to the start of the series, I found it stopped at #3, with what looked like a broken link to the next posting. Is there a way to access posts #4 – #7 ?
    Thank you,
    Laura

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