Ultimate Blog Series on Novel Queries (#4)



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.


RED FLAGS IN NOVEL HOOKS & QUERIES
To continue the previous discussion on crafting a hook, here are a few ways to tell if your hook could be tightened up:

  • Does your hook consist of several meaty paragraphs?
  • Does your hook run longer than 200 words?
  • Does your hook reveal the ending of your book?
  • Does your hook mention 3 characters or more?
  • Does your hook delve into subplots or supporting characters?
  • Does your hook talk about more than 2 plot twists?
  • Does your comprise more than 50% of your one page query?

Here are more examples of hooks, original versus revised.

ORIGINAL HOOK

Reversal of Providence
is an 85,000-word modern thriller, with elements of political intrigue
and spy craft, blended with recent history. Readers of authors like
Frederick Forsyth, David Hagberg, Vince Flynn, and David Morrell’s spy
fiction might enjoy this book.

What if, purely by accident, a
cocky young man stumbles into a terrorist plot that was set into motion
years ago by the fall of the Soviet Union?

And is it just an
accident, or is it fate? Are events in our lives directed by God’s will,
or the wisdom of Allah? Reversal of Providence explores these themes.
In Seattle, a security expert gets in a car accident and stumbles upon a
sinister plot. In Chechnya, a teenager loses his father and is thrust
into a new home that will alter the course of his life.

Security
salesman Ryan Anderson is on his way  to deliver the proposal of his
career when he is derailed by a minor fender bender with a semi-truck.
The nervous truck driver doesn’t want to involve the police, and tries
to ditch him. But bull-headed Ryan is not going away, and a woman he
just met, beautiful attorney Jessica Webb, is soon just as determined to
find the true identity of the truck driver once they are both attacked
by thugs wielding knives in the middle of the night.

Set
primarily in Seattle, the clock ticks for Jessica and Ryan as we learn
of a plan created by factions of al-Qaeda and Chechen militants to
incite an all-out war between their two most hated enemies, the United
States and Russia. The Chechen, Zaman Uzuyev, is taken in by an imam at a
mosque in Grozny, and he matures into a hardened and brutal leader who
will carry out the terrorists’ plan.

Ryan and Jessica must learn
to trust each other as they gather clues and face numerous obstacles,
culminating in their capture by by enemy Zaman in a deserted Seattle
scrap metal yard. As Zaman reveals his plan for the annihilation of two
nations, Jessica and Ryan struggle to escape and fight to defend
themselves. Zaman finally unveils his terrible weapon, and the young
couple must defy insurmountable odds to stop the terrorist, and save
each other.

And they are not your typical spy couple, all sleek
and perfect. Ryan is rash and bold, rough around the edges. Jessica is
cerebral and cautious, measured, yet drawn in by Ryan’s charisma.

At
the close of the book, they foil the terrorist plot so well that they
are whisked to the White House where the president implores them to work
for the National Security Agency. “Spies,” he says, offering them a
job. “You’d be damn good ones.” 

Reversal of Providence is the
first in planned multi-book series featuring the duo of Jessica Webb and
Ryan Anderson. I have completed the outline for the second book,
Refusal to Comply. , and I have included the prologue and first chapter
at the end of Reversal of Providence as a teaser. My goal with this
series is to create my version of a modern, intelligent spy couple’s
adventures, with a broad audience range.

REVISED HOOK

Reversal of Providence is an 85,000-word modern thriller with elements of political intrigue and spy craft, blended with recent history. Readers of authors like Frederick Forsyth, David Hagberg, Vince Flynn, and David Morrell’s spy fiction might enjoy this book.

What if , purely by accident, a cocky young man stumbles into a terrorist plot set into motion years ago by the fall of the Soviet Union?

And
is it just an accident, or is it fate? Are events in our lives directed
by God’s will, or the wisdom of Allah? Reversal of Providence explores
these themes. In Seattle, a security expert gets in a car accident and
stumbles upon a sinister plot. In Chechnya, a teenager loses his father
and is thrust into a new home that will alter the course of his life.

Security
salesman Ryan Anderson is on his way  to deliver the proposal of his
career when he is derailed by a minor fender bender with a semi-truck.
The nervous truck driver doesn’t want to involve the police, and tries
to ditch him. But bull-headed Ryan is not going away, and a woman he
just met, beautiful attorney Jessica Webb, is soon just as determined to
find the true identity of the truck driver once they are both attacked
by thugs wielding knives in the middle of the night.

Set
primarily in Seattle, the clock ticks for Ryan Anderson and Jessica
Webb as we learn of a plan created by factions of al-Qaeda and Chechen
militants to incite an all-out war between their two most hated enemies, the United States and Russia. The
Chechen, Zaman Uzuyev, is taken in by an imam at a mosque in Grozny,
and he matures into a hardened and brutal leader who will carry out the
terrorists’ plan.

Ryan and Jessica must learn to trust each other as they gather clues and face numerous obstacles, culminating in their capture by enemy Zaman in a deserted Seattle scrap metal yard. As
Zaman reveals his plan for the annihilation of two nations, Jessica and
Ryan struggle to escape and fight to defend themselves.
Zaman
finally unveils his terrible weapon to annihilate the two nations, and
the young couple must defy insurmountable odds to stop the terrorist,
and save each other.

And they are not your typical spy
couple, all sleek and perfect. Ryan is rash and bold, rough around the
edges. Jessica is cerebral and cautious, measured, yet drawn in by
Ryan’s charisma.


At the close of the book, they
foil the terrorist plot so well that they are whisked to the White House
where the president implores them to work for the National Security
Agency. “Spies,” he says, offering them a job. “You’d be damn good
ones.” 

[I consider this part of the closing.] Reversal of Providence
is the first in a series featuring the duo of Jessica Webb and Ryan
Anderson. My goal is to create a modern, intelligent spy couple’s
adventures.

Comments: I was able to cut a
lot of unnecessary detail from this hook, though I worry that an
agent/editor will not find that irresistible twist to make this this spy
story memorable. My gut says something more is needed to get manuscript
requests for this (but what I cut isn’t the “more” that is needed). If
we had a sentence or so that made us excited about the spy couple pair,
like some unusual aspect/circumstance that brings them together in a
distinctive way, that could be the twist.

ORIGINAL HOOK

Florence
Allen’s average life of a respected teacher and pastor’s wife crumbles
when her adopted, emotionally scarred son, Scott, is arrested for
assaulting a teenage girl, in my completed 60,000- word mystery, GUILTY
UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT. 

With a mother’s instinct, Florence bucks
the opinion of Peabody’s residents as she sets out to prove that
Scott’s arrest is not an open and shut case. She stumbles through the
role of private investigator and stirs up resentment when she
investigates the victim’s cousin, Amber and her friends.  When one of
the people she is investigating ends up in the cornfield behind the
Allen home, Florence becomes the main suspect of their homicide. 
Determined to identify the culprit behind the crimes, she ventures into
dangerous territory to prove both Scott’s and her innocence.

Florence
clings to the strong foundation of her faith and the unfailing support
of her husband as she experiences tender moments, endures mysterious
accidents, wrestles with family conflict, and when she uncovers
incriminating evidence, struggles with doubt of her own son’s
innocence.  Yet, through all this mayhem, lives change, faith
strengthens, and a bond of friendship springs from the ashes of pain.

REVISED HOOK

Florence Allen’s average life as a respected teacher and pastor’s wife crumbles when her adopted son, Scott, is arrested for assaulting a teenage girl, in my completed 60,000-word mystery, GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT. 

??With a mother’s instinct, Florence bucks the opinion of Peabody’s residents as she sets out to prove that Scott’s arrest is not an open and shut case. She stumbles through the role of private investigator and stirs up resentment when she investigates the victim’s family and friends. When one person she investigates ends up dead in the cornfield behind her home, Florence becomes the main suspect. Determined to identify the culprit behind the crimes, she ventures into dangerous territory to prove both Scott’s and her innocence.

??Florence clings to the strong foundation of her faith and the unfailing support of her husband as she experiences tender moments, endures mysterious accidents, wrestles with family conflict, and when she uncovers incriminating evidence, struggles with doubt of her own son’s innocence. Yet, through all this mayhem, lives change, faith strengthens, and a bond of friendship springs from the ashes of pain.

Comments: Many hooks (like this one) include a paragraph at the beginning or end that emphasize the themes and/or emotional journey of the characters. While the hook should get a reaction out of us (even touch us), telling it in this way is rarely effective. It often seems cliche or overwrought. Whenever possible, the story itself (and the voice of how that story is conveyed in the hook) should hint at the emotional journey or depth. It’s OK to refer specifically to a character’s emotional journey or to bigger meaning, but I advise limiting it to a sentence (do not take a paragraph). Also, similar to the previous hook, I worry there’s not yet a distinctiveness here that will help set this mystery apart from others. (The title isn’t helping.)

ORIGINAL HOOK

The first time her momma goes off with one of the boyfriends for the whole night, ten-year-old Rawling Summer decides she’ll be the one doing the leaving as soon as she knows how. But she doesn’t know leaving your Momma and being free of her are two different things.

A DECENT LIFE is Rawling’s coming-of-age story set in Nordeen, a small southern town, where not repeating your mother’s life is as difficult as avoiding mosquitoes on a hot summer night.

Rawling bides her time, avoiding Momma at home and the bullies at school. By the time she’s fifteen, she’s talked her way into a job at the diner and is living in a room upstairs. When she manages to graduate from high school, everyone in town thinks it’s a miracle. When she gets accepted to college to become a court reporter, no one believes it. But when her mother dies in a car crash and ghosts from her mother’s past come to life, friends can only slow Rawling’s slide backward. And no one, not even Roy, her so-sweet and so-bad boyfriend, can save her when she learns about her daddy.

REVISED HOOK

The first time her momma goes off with one of the boyfriends for the whole night, ten-year-old Rawling Summer decides she’ll be the one doing the leaving as soon as she knows how. But she doesn’t know leaving your Momma and being free of her are two different things.

A DECENT LIFE is Rawling’s coming-of-age story set in a small southern town, where not repeating your mother’s life is as difficult as avoiding mosquitoes on a hot summer night.

Rawling bides her time, avoiding Momma at home and the bullies at school. By the time she’s fifteen, she’s talked her way into a job at the diner and is living in a room upstairs. When she manages to graduate from high school, everyone in town thinks it’s a miracle. When she gets accepted to college to become a court reporter, no one believes it. But when her mother dies in a car crash and ghosts from her mother’s past come to life, friends can only slow Rawling’s slide backward. And no one, not even Roy, her so-sweet and so-bad boyfriend, can save her when she learns about her daddy.

Comments: The voice is so strong and distinctive in the first two paragraphs, and raises enough intrigue, that I’d be comfortable stopping right there, and not further elaborating. The only sticking point is that those 2 paragraphs may not hint enough at the story arc. Some agents won’t mind that. Others will. I would try testing this hook by sending out 3-4 queries, tucking in the first page or two (which need to be superlative), and seeing what agent response is like. If no one bites, then perhaps the most critical elements of the third paragraph can be conveyed in about 1-2 sentences [probably the ghosts from the past? the daddy?], and be seamlessly worked into those first 2 paragraphs. (That’s not an easy task, for those wondering.)

Next up: Hooks of books that sold

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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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4 thoughts on “Ultimate Blog Series on Novel Queries (#4)

  1. Jane Friedman

    @Alicia – I’ve never received a query that was too short, and I don’t believe I’ve ever critiqued one that was too short, either. I suppose a query could be too brief if it said absolutely nothing about the story. But as long as the 3 elements of the hook are in the query, along with the the title/genre/word count, it’s hard to imagine a brief letter would work against you. For me, it’s always like a breath of fresh air.

    @Megan – Good to know! I should probably cover memoir and nonfiction separately.

  2. Megan Sayer

    Jane I’m loving this series too, your advice is excellent.
    Just wondering, I know you’re planning a series on non-fiction next, can you please add memoir to that somewhere? Thanks!

  3. Alicia

    This is so helpful. But I do have a question. Do you get queries that are too short? Mine is fairly short and to the point, but I often wonder if I need to elaborate more, even though everything I’ve read says not to. In reading this series, it seems I’ve got what I need, but I guess I won’t really know if it’s hooky enough until I query you.

  4. Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

    Jane, I’m loving your ultimate blog series as much as I loved your webinar on queries. The seven questions which preface this entry are crucial. I enjoy seeing how your editing tightens each query and makes it much more compelling. Since my mind so often turns to food I’d have to say, judging from your examples, that a successful query is a well-seasoned appetizer rather than a seven course meal.

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