Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Baiting the Hook - Applying Lessons from the 21st Century Chidren's Nonfiction Conference

What is sharper than a porcupine quill, sweeter than Vermont maple sugar candy and more essential to life than oxygen?    Have I got your attention ?

It's a good hook! Like a quill, it goes straight to the point and is difficult to remove from the reader's or listener's memory.
Peggy Thomas
Mary Kay Carson
 Like maple sugar candy, it concentrates the essence of your story in a small, digestible package.

To a writer, it is essential, since it is what gets us published.

Mary Kay Carson and Peggy Thomas were the first to mention hooks at the excellent nonfiction writer's conference held this past weekend in New Paltz, NY.  Many thanks to Lionel Bender and Sally Isaacs for organizing it. I came away from the conference feeling like a Macy's balloon: pumped up and floating on a high generated by kindness, generosity and a cache of information substantially exceeding my expectations. I also got a bird's-eye-view of the world of writing and publishing nonfiction for children.

For the many published authors and illustrators present, I have no doubt there was much to learn, especially regarding new technologies and trends in publishing. For newbies, I suspect it was overwhelming. Fitting somewhere between the two, my perspective may be somewhat unique.

I went to this event with a dummy and the hope that I could learn what I needed, and make the necessary connections, to get my first children's book published. I am a published author. I've had articles published in refereed professional journals and I spent much of my academic career writing and editing publications for a variety of audiences. I recognize that any piece of writing takes time, revision and patience to get to press. It also takes a certain amount of good fortune. I won't say "luck," because that implies a totally random element. It seems to me that preparing the way for good fortune to meet you involves some digging and planning, as well as a good deal of work.

I will blog later on the importance of preparation and planning, but in this blog the hook is the thing!

No less than five times, I missed real opportunites to pitch my book to a publisher, because I didn't have a hook. When asked what my book was about, I gave a brief overview and summary of the content and format. But there was no hook, and the bait wasn't pungent enough to attract any of the fish I was hoping to land.

Here is what I now know about hooks:

1. You need one!!
2. A good one will get you, your query letter or your manuscript noticed.
3. Lack of one will lose you in the slush pile or the crowd.
4. It must be short enough to pitch in an elevator ride between floors: No more than 3 or 4 sentences!
5. It must be true.
6. It should use active verbs and few adjectives.
7. It shouldn't give away the story.
8. It MUST leave the reader wanting to know more.

You need to brainstorm with yourself and write something quickly. Make it catchy and energetic. Look at what you've written and check it against this list. Then revise. Revise again. Now read it to a friend. Then revise it again. Think about it after rereading your book/article. Revise the hook again. Read it to another friend, or a total stranger at the library or in a grocery line. Ask them if they are interested in knowing more. Listen to what they say. Revise.

Remember, like the Vermont maple sugar candy, you need to distil the essence of the story and concentrate the message into a tiny package. Once you think you have a really good hook, ask a  writer friend what he or she thinks.  Revise. If you have a friend or family member who is a pubished author, ask them what they think of it. Revise.

Know that if you have 2% sugar maple sap, you need 30 gallons of it to make one gallon of syrup. This needs to be boiled down still further to make the candy. You can see that it takes a lot (of work, revision and thought) to make a little (concise, to-the-point hook).

I'm thrilled that Roxie Munro likes my hook!
Roxie Munro & Nancy Pi-Sunyer

Best of luck with yours. If you want to try it out on this blog for comments, feel free. But don't give away your story!


  1. Replies
    1. I am working hard on both the blog and my writing. Thank you for the encouragement!