If you’ve pursued publication for any length of time, perhaps you’re already aware of tips and tricks on how to grab an agent’s attention.
Maybe you understand the importance of building a presence on social media and learning how to market a book. Maybe you’re even continuing to enter contests and submit to publications in hopes of expanding your credentials. These efforts show your dedication to becoming a well-rounded author, which will help you appear professional to an agent.
However, though these areas are essential to a career, they shouldn’t be an aspiring author’s main focus. Even if a writer establishes an impressive platform, creates a detailed marketing plan, and accumulates a long list of credentials, if her pitch is weak, an agent won’t request to see more.
Yes, the landscape of the publishing industry has shifted over the past couple decades. And yes, writers need to prove that they’ll work hard to stand out amid a crowded market.
But, ultimately, you’re trying to sell your story. Not your platform. Not your marketing strategy or your numerous publishing credits.
So how can you write a story that attracts an agent?
Reeling in Agents
When I sift through submissions at Hartline Literary, my decision to further evaluate a submission or discard it depends upon the hook.
With a strong hook, you can capture an agent from the outset. If the agent chooses to represent you, he/she will likely use your hook to shop the story around to editors as well. And your hook’s versatility doesn’t end there! Once an editor is interested, he/she may dangle your hook in front of the pub committee to get them on board with the project. Then, if the publisher offers you a contract, your hook will play a part in marketing and pitching the book to retailers.
Your hook might be small, but don’t underestimate its power and potential to “reel in” the right individuals. People who could open doors for your publishing dreams.
You only have a brief amount of time, and a few words, to snag an agent. How can you make the most of this limited space? And what should you keep in mind as you distill your story into a sentence or two?
How to Craft a Powerful Hook
First, I should clarify the definition of a story hook. This is typically the first sentence at the beginning of your query letter. It’s your high-concept book idea. After an agent reads it, he/she might say, “Ohh, that sounds intriguing! I want to hear more.”
If you hope to prompt excitement from an agent, here are ten questions to ask yourself after drafting your story hook:
Does/is the hook…
- reflect the uniqueness of the story?
- adhere to the theme and genre?
- possibly include irony or a play on words?
- evoke emotion?
- capture the book’s essence in an engaging way?
- consistent with the story’s tone and mood?
- remain true to the actual story?
Still unsure where to start? Below are some taglines/pitch sentences that might spark inspiration. While reading each one, I challenge you to place yourself in the shoes of an agent. Would you be compelled to read the entire query letter if this were the opening hook? Why or why not? Based on these hooks, what do you assume each book’s theme is? (Feel free to post your answers in the comments!)
ROOMS by James L. Rubart
What would you find if you walked into the rooms of your soul? One man is about to find out.
UNWRITTEN MELODY by Tessa Emily Hall (This is my novel—and yes, I did include this hook in my book proposal.)
Can the end of one melody be the beginning of another?
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG by Karen Kingsbury
What if you could see into the future and know what will happen tomorrow, if you really walk out that door today?
THE RULE OF ONE by Ashley Saunders and Leslie Saunders
In their world, telling the truth has become the most dangerous crime of all.
HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place for the latest match.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis
What does it take to survive aboard a spaceship fueled by lies?
THE WINNER’S CURSE by Marie Rutkoski
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love.
BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver
What if you had only one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life?
If you’re doubtful that your hook is effective, I’d advise testing it on your friends, family, beta readers, and critique partners. If it’s met with only a mediocre reaction, you’ll know you have more work to do. Keep experimenting with the sentence. Refine it. Go through the above checklist again and again. Repeat this process until someone begs you to let them read your book.
Taking the Time to Win Over Agents
As you’re developing your hook, remember this: Don’t rush! Trust me. It’s not worth sacrificing quality.
Sometimes a shorter, more concise phrase is the hardest kind to write—but it will give your book a shot at publication. So allow yourself to spend as much time as necessary perfecting it.
If you’re struggling to craft an enticing hook, perhaps that’s a sign your story premise is lacking. Consider returning to the drawing board. Rework your plot structure until you’re confident that your premise could sell your book and make it distinct.
The truth is that your novel might be beautifully written yet still receive rejections because the premise isn’t appealing enough. The key to achieving publication is to write a book that combines both: beautiful writing and a captivating premise.
The competition in today’s marketplace is undeniably tough. Agents receive hundreds of submissions per year, many of which are boring, cliché, or overdone. So be the writer who simplifies an agent’s task. Reminds us why we love our job. Send us a hook we can’t resist.
Do you have any advice for crafting a solid hook? What is your favorite book/movie tagline? Share it with me in the comments!
Tessa Emily Hall is an award-winning author who writes inspirational yet authentic books to remind teens they’re not alone. Her first teen devotional, Coffee Shop Devos, released with Bethany House in September 2018. Tessa’s passion for shedding light on clean entertainment and media for teens led her to a career as an Associate Agent for Cyle Young at Hartline Literary Agency, YA Acquisitions Editor for Illuminate YA (LPC imprint), and Founder/Editor of PursueMagazine.net. She’s guilty of making way too many lattes and never finishing her to-read list. When her fingers aren’t flying 128 WPM across the keyboard, she can be found speaking to teens, decorating art journals, and acting in Christian films. Her favorite way to procrastinate is through connecting with readers on her blog, mailing list, social media (@tessaemilyhall), and website.