Your Hook: the On/Off Button in Your Proposal

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

After at trip to the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS), Christian publishing’s version of the general market’s Book Expo America (BEA), which Rachelle Gardner reported on here, I served on the writers track at SpeakUp, a conference for aspiring speakers, leaders, and nonfiction writers. One thing I noticed in my 15-minute meetings with many writers was a misunderstanding of the purpose of a hook, so I thought you might also appreciate a review and tips for writing a powerful hook. The kind that will grab agents’ full attention and eventually cause editors to drop everything they’re doing to read your book proposal.  Hook_044224-glossy-black-3d-button-icon-sports-hobbies-fishing-hook-sc48

How do you accomplish this? By communicating the book’s unique angle for your topic or story—in as few, perfectly chosen words as possible–for added punch. Have you noticed how some one-word book titles “speak a thousand words” and connote the gist of the book? The same concept applies for a creating your proposal’s hook.

Agents have back-to-back, 15-minute meetings at conferences and many proposals waiting in their submissions folder. Yours might be the fifth, tenth, or fifteenth proposal an agent has opened that day. While we spend an afternoon going through proposals, our primary agent responsibilities continue to pile up. We need to make decisions quickly. You have one chance to convince an agent to continue reading. That’s the power your hook wields.

The hook is the first impression you give agents about your book because it’s one of the first things we read. It will either intrigue us or be the first step toward disconnecting with your proposal. Here are eight tips for writing your hook: the on/off button in your proposal:

  1. The hook in your proposal should be one or two sentences, max. All the better if you can capture it in one or two brilliant phrases or clauses. When referring to your book, the hook can be several paragraphs. I think this difference is where confusion has occurred for many writers. Remember that you have only 30 seconds to attract an agent or editor to continue reading your proposal. If you can’t condense the hook to an attention-grabbing sentence or two, their perception may be that your story or topic isn’t strong or unique enough to warrant further reading. Before you think agents and editors are cruel and insensitive, remember our stack of proposals waiting to be read and precious little time available to do so. It’s an unfortunate reality in the industry.
  2. Use strong, active—never passive—power verbs that convey the emotion or pressing need in your book. Always use present tense.
  3. Novelists should focus on the main plot, main character(s), and the main conflict or crisis. Nonfiction writers should point to the primary issue at stake. If you can wrap the essence in a few potent words, great! Use them in an illusive, edgy, bold, or passionate sentence—whichever type corresponds with your book. But don’t explain the conflict or crisis. That’s the job of the synopsis.
  4. It isn’t necessary to refer specifically to the protagonist but if you do, use his or her name. It can create a personal connection with the character in an instant.
  5. Sometimes it’s more intriguing to make a passionate but general statement that conveys the central theme.
  6. Use colorful nouns; eliminate adjectives.
  7. Use questions to draw readers’ attention in the first page or two of your book or in back cover copy, but questions usually don’t pack the power necessary in the hook of your proposal.
  8. Unlike the synopsis, do not reveal the ending of your novel in the hook.

One way to begin creating your hook for your proposal is to jot down some sentences about the main plot or topic of your book and the main characters (fiction) or ideas and intended readers (nonfiction). Search for a few strong words that capture the theme and conflict in your story or message and distill from there. Get a few ideas on paper and then maybe step away from the process for a while. When you go back to brainstorming, the perfect words might ring in your mind. Don’t rush it. You’ll know when it’s right. It will pop.

What do you find to be the hardest part about writing a hook for your proposal? What approach works best for you in narrowing down your words and phrases? What are your favorite power words?

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63 Comments

  • Thank you for this excellent advice, Mrs. Keeley. You have illuminated an aspect of writing that is a challenge for most.

    I would like to add a suggestion, consistent with the fishing analogy –

    Where there is a hook, there mus be bait.

    The bait may take two forms, dependent upon context – whether it is spoken or written.

    Consider one of the greatest hooks ever written, that created by Erich Segal for “Love Story”. It is, as you recall, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Now note that I have deliberately buried that excellent hook within a verbose paragraph. Its effect is rather diminished.

    Next, consider Mark Bowden’s hook for “Black Hawk Down” –

    “Leave no man behind.”

    Isolating the hook, making it stand out, and making the words easy on the eye so that its meaning can be felt, and not merely read – that is the bait. That is the magic.

    Delivering a hook in person uses the same technique. Instead of letting it flow into a previous or subsequent sentence, give it a “two beat pause” at the beginning and the end.

    At the beginning, maintain eye contact with your audience, and smile. Give them anticipation.

    At the end, the pause is a placeholder – do not make it too long, letting it become a void to be filled with expected praise. That is the wrong kind of fishing.

    The creation of a hook is a process to be enjoyed; there is an Arabic proverb that God does not deduct from one’s allotted years the time spent fishing.

  • Micky Wolf says:

    So helpful, Mary. Thank you! :)

  • I loved this, Mary. I needed it. :) I’m not very strong at writing hooks. In part because of a lack of confidence that I can nail it. :) But, I’m working on this. Your suggestions make a lot of sense and are helpful. Thanks so much for addressing this topic!

  • Oh MAH WORRRD, hooks are HARD!!

    I just looked up my hook in my proposal and weird, I feel queasy all of a sudden. Huh.

    For me, writing out a few hooks and then having my writing peeps help me out is always very helpful, especially if they have no experience with the story. Fresh eyes and thoughts help bring new colour to the hook, and having peers help to refine it is both fun, and beneficial.

    I like what Surpreet said, “where there is a hook, there must be bait”. Excellent!

    The punch factor is so important. I mean, what is more enticing, or baiting?

    “The house is a mess, people are coming to visit…so should she clean?”
    Or?
    “A sparkling home is the sign of a Mother In Law’s arrival, and Lola’s house can be seen from Mars.”

  • This is great, Mary. Why is present tense important? Does it feel stronger?

    On that face to face meeting … after the “hook,” do we go on to explain the rest of the book in that 15 minutes? Do you like that to remain in present tense, as well? I’m not sure how the words would come out of my mouth … you can edit your writing, but not your words as much. :) I’m sure it would take practice.

    I’ve not had to do this … do most people seem “practiced”? And with added nerves …. I am sure there is a balance between practiced and heartfelt. Striking that balance is the challenge, I would imagine.

    Do agents ask questions in that 15 minutes, or does the writer have the full floor? I’m clueless here.

    Thank you, Mary.

    • On my first pitch, I think I used up a full three minutes shaking and trying to remember my name.

      You’re not clueless, this is simply something new.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Good questions, Shelli. Present tense puts the agent and editor into the action, where they can sense the tension “live.”

      In a 15-minute meeting agents usually begin the conversation with an ice-breaker to help the writer relax. You may find it helpful to memorize your pitch before the conference and practice saying it in a relaxed, natural voice in front of a mirror. Nervousness tends to flare at meeting time. Knowing exactly what you are going to say in the beginning helps many writers to relax, and the rest of the pitch to flow smoothly. Use the appropriate verb tense in your conversation with the agent when you aren’t taking him or her into your story.

      Yes, agents do ask questions during the meeting. Plan your pitch for about 10-12 minutes to ensure you get the most important things said between the beginning introduction and the wrap-up at the end.

    • At Mount Hermon, the dining table can become a pitch fest. Many faculty ask each person at their table to introduce themselves and tell a bit about their book. I’ve found that a megaphone helps in situations where you’re across the table from the professional :-).
      Not really, but it’s a good idea to practice projecting, because you may have to speak loud enough to be heard over the din of the diners.

  • Thank you for the “review and tips for writing a powerful hook. The kind that will grab agents’ full attention and eventually cause editors to drop everything they’re doing to read your book proposal.” When I hear the word “hook” my mind starts to get anxious, knowing that it is super important. The tips will serve as a wonderful checklist to make sure I am on the right track.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    Love this post, Mary. Very clear and detailed. A well needed road map for me.

    Does anyone know how Andrew is? I have been praying every day.

    • Praying for Andrew, too, Jim.

    • Jim, we’re in the midst of loss and grief at our house, but I wanted to jump in and add I’ve been praying for Andrew, too.

      I believe he’s focusing on his health, as well as some writing projects.

      If you’re reading this, Andrew—I hope you know your Books and Such friends are praying blessings over you. (Jeremiah 29:11)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      I’m sure Andrew appreciates our prayers, and hopefully, he’ll soon be back commenting on his writing experience.

    • Jim, and everyone – thank you for the kind thoughts and prayers. Dealing with a bit of physical trouble, blood loss – concentration’s hard. Tough to focus on words.

      Cindy, my heart goes out to you in this time of sorrow. You’re such a rock of encouragement – I hope that we can offer some small balm to you, with our love and some reflection of God’s grace.

      Great topic today, Mary.

      All I can add is this –

      Any hook should implicitly reflect the glory of the God in whose service any worthwhile tale is told.

      • Andrew, you are a blessing, and you are missed here. I even included you in one of my more recent blog posts. You are special, and we are praying for you.

        A hook for the glory of God! I’ll remember that.

      • Christine Dorman says:

        Andrew,

        You are in my prayers. I hope you will be feeling much better soon.

      • I’m with Shelli, Andrew. You are a blessing and an encouragement. I love your description of a hook. I’m definitely keeping that one in mind.

      • Jim Lupis says:

        Andrew, It is good to hear your “voice” again.

      • I am honored, and humbled.

        In earlier days I doubted the resilience of an online community.

        I could not have been more wrong.

        My thanks go out to all of you, and to the Books & Such agents and staff for making this community possible.

        It has made a difference for me in many difficult days, more of a difference than you will ever know.

        And – let us use the power of our combined prayer, gathered in His name, to surround Cindy and her family with love, light, and an eternal hope.

      • Very encouraged to see you here today, Andrew. I (as one of many) have missed your insight and gracious heart. Continuing to pray.

  • Oh, Mary, I so much appreciate your advice to use the type of sentence that corresponds to the book. When I was preparing my pitch for last year’s ACFW, I received feedback from a suspense writer. My hook came out edgy and intense, yet that wasn’t really the feel of my story. I appreciated the help in condensing the idea — it was wonderful to have such personalized assistance! — but I should have made the tone of it my own. Thank you for the great tips!

  • The comment by Mrs. Major, above, about her first ‘pitch’, is giving me thought for the following.

    I once had the responsibility of coaching novice presenters and narrators for broadcast and recorded programmes.

    One method I used was to film the speaker as he or she presented to a group of listeners in a practice session, with cameras capturing both the speaker and the listeners.

    This gave a speaker immediate feedback, both to the technical points of the delivery, and its effect on those hearing it.

    For example, it is surprising how many individuals do not realize that they speak more softly as the reach the end of a sentence, or that they remain static – gesture is an important part of effective communication.

    Perhaps this technique might be useful in preparing for a personal interview with an agent.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Thanks for your professional suggestion, Surpreet. Yours is the high-tech, multi-dimensional upgrade from practicing in front of a mirror.

      • Precisely, Mrs. Keeley.

        If I may add this – the presentation to an agent should be designed, plotted, and edited with the same care taken for the manuscript. Timing, inflection, and gestures should be choreographed, emphasizing the hook.

        This may be going against the grain for many, because there is much in American society about being “natural”, and “being ones-self”.

        A first draft is natural, and may have a rough charm. A fist draft does not, however, sell.

      • It sounds like one should approach the valuable time with an agent like one would approach public speaking.

      • That would be my approach.

  • Writing the hook was– hands down– the hardest thing for me to write. I read a lot of successful query letters, generated multiple hooks, and then tested them out on other writers.

    It was HARD, but it worked!

  • It was nice to meet you at the conference! I wish I could’ve made it to your session. I was booked elsewhere at that time. Thanks for the great tips on creating a good hook!

  • Michelle Lim says:

    Great tips, Mary!

    The hardest part of the hook for me is finding that dramatic irony that makes the hook strong.

  • Thanks so much for this post, Mary! Just thinking about proposals makes me nervous. :) I love saving these types of posts for future reference.

  • Just received this from a: Linkedin Children’s Discussion Forum.

    The Five Laws of Library Science: INFOGRAPHIC
    USC Online has created an infographic called, “The Five Laws of Library Science,” which explores five principles which can help guide the practices of librarians.

    http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/the-five-laws-of-library-science-infographic_b87544

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Lest any of us underestimate the exposure your book can receive via libraries. Thanks for sharing this link, Donnie.

      From time to time we Books & Such agents have mentioned Library Insider http://www.libraryinsider.com and the many benefits and helps it offers authors for marketing their book to libraries. Visit the website early in your writing process and make plans to utilize it as your book’s release date approaches. It will be an important addition to your marketing plan in your proposal too.

  • Before my first ever writer’s conference(ACFW 2013), I practiced pitching to my mirror, and although the feedback from my audience was fantastic, and once the applause died down to a dull roar…I stopped ugly crying.

    I had a friend help me iron out the first 50 pages, and the hook, and the grown-up behaviour part of things, but I decided that a pitch seminar offered would be a good investment. The one and only Michelle Lim helped me, and a few ladies at my table, learn how to pitch like a pro. Okay, maybe not a pro, but at least without fainting.

  • Mary,
    This is exactly what I needed to read today as I work on polishing my proposal while trying not to ugly cry. ;) I loved all the comments and will follow this great advice. Thank you!

  • Thanks for the great post, Mary.
    At a recent writer’s conference, Lane Shefter-Bishop suggested you pretend that every word in your hook costs $15,000. That really helps cutting back on verbage. I found myself asking, “Am I willing to pay $15,000 for that one?”

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