Dave, lead Storyteller, gave me the heads-up that my latest essay appears on Storytellers Unplugged tonight. (Check out today’s essay — Mort Castle collects some thoughts about ambition.) My essay centers on ‘hooks’ — inspired by my stint as a judge in the recent fangs-fur-fey contest, in which aspiring writers attempt to catch the interest of an agent and a group of various published novelists evaluate those attempts.
It was very helpful for me to reflect on these hooks, and on hooks in general. Beyond snagging an agent — and I did it two different times with two different agents, with absolutely no connection to my advantage other than a hook/query letter*, and I’ve seen a number of talented online writer-friends land agents (and subsequent book deals) also through query letters, so despite the soul-killing rejection rate the bloody things do work — a hook is also extremely helpful in that it forces you to crystallize your own understanding of what your story actually is. I am not talking about jamming your wondrous, innovative narrative into some kind of souldead formula demanded by those fatcat corporate publishers who rule a marketplace that clearly doesn’t understand you. I always think back to something my instructor said at an advanced-novel-writing workshop held through Berkeley: many writers know how to do all the elements of a novel (prose, character, setting, conflict, etc.) — have all those tools in the novelist’s toolbox — and can even do them extremely well, yet haven’t quite managed “a novel that all hangs together”. This made a strong impression on me because I had just proven myself to be one of them: my first agent had just sent me the comments of the editors from all the major houses who had rejected my novel. They said very lovely things about my talent and my characters, but what killed the deal — what prevented the manuscript from getting through even the first phase of consideration, which is when an editor decides to champion the book, and starts collecting back-up reads in order to generate enough in-house buzz to push the manuscript through the weekly editorial meeting (which decides who does and does not get awarded one of the extremely few publishing slots each imprint has for the year) — were profound problems with structure. (As one editor put it — very kindly, I think — “the story unfolds rather awkwardly”.)
I didn’t know what my own book was about. I didn’t even know what the book was partly because I didn’t understand who I was as a writer. Looking back, I realize what I’d tried to write was a literary erotic thriller, but because I didn’t yet realize that I am, essentially, a writer of thrillers, despite the supernatural trappings and elements I bring in from other genres (horror, mystery, literary, whatever), I branded the novel as ‘literary’, which also enabled me to excuse the book’s flaws as proof of its ‘literariness’. Structure? Who needs that? Plot? Get away from me with that silly, silly word! I laugh in the face of it!
My agent once made a similar observation about the manuscripts she ends up rejecting. These are the full manuscripts she’s requested because the hook intrigued her enough to request 50 pages, which intrigued her enough to ask for the full book. So clearly these writers are doing something very, very right in order to rank among the disconcertingly small percentage that gets that far. She spoke about one manuscript in particular that she had actually really liked, considered the writer fresh and talented, yet something kept bothering her — and when she reached the book’s end, she said, “I finally realized why I can’t offer representation.” The manuscript, she said, was “just too muddled at the core”. The writer didn’t really seem to know, at heart, what the story was truly about. The book didn’t “hang together”. My agent then mentioned that this seemed to be the biggest problem among the manuscripts reaching the final stage of her consideration — a lot of strong elements, all undermined by a lack of clarity and focus at the heart of the book. The center cannot hold. The thing falls apart. The agent (or the editor) says no.
Writing a tightly-structured, compelling hook forces you to cut to the heart of the story — to find that center and see how it holds everything together, because that is exactly what conveys to the agent that you the writer understand how to write a well-characterized**, well-structured novel.
In fact, after judging the hooks I immediately went to my own work-in-progress — an outline of the next book I’m hoping to sell to my publisher — and started asking myself those questions that sometimes seem so basic and obvious, so Storytelling 101, that you forget to actually ask them. What do my characters want? How are these wants in conflict with one another? Which led me into issues of character motivation more complex and interesting than the ones I’d assigned them so far. The outline immediately took on more depth, texture and resonance — and also more tension, as I started seeing other opportunities for conflict amid the characters to give the story line-by-line and page-by-page tension (different from the overarching conflict, or main story question, that drives the throughline of the novel). (My agent, by the way, also cites “the absence of line-by-line tension” as a common reason for rejecting otherwise highly competent, well written manuscripts.) What is my story about? This is a supernatural-thriller story, about three young people very different from each other, being held hostage in a rambling California beachhouse by multiple ghosts, including a very hostile one, who all want something from them — and from the one, psychic girl in the outside world who can communicate with them and uncover the answers that will free them.*** Beneath that, though, it’s about severely damaged parent-child relationships and how we sometimes have to make our own home, our own family, in order to survive the ones fate gave us. So this is the material from which I’d form my hook, spending a bit of time on my protagonist (the psychic girl investigating the mystery behind the deaths of the ghosts, which of course puts her own life in danger), the setting, the conflict, what’s at stake, the antagonist(s), etc.
The fact that I haven’t actually started writing this book is a total bonus — I’m going into it with a deeper, sharper sense of what the story is and who the characters are, which will save me a lot of frustration during the process of writing and also some time in revision.
One of the things I noted in the essay was the lack of attention many writers gave in their hooks to the actual conflict of the story — who is in conflict with whom (or what), and why? (Character motivation in general also tended to fall by the wayside.) Rarely — at least in the batch of hooks that fell into my email inbox — was there any sense of a clearly defined, vividly realized (ie: giving me enough specific information to invoke an intriguing image of the character in my mind’s eye, making me curious enough to want to know more) antagonist.
I was thinking about this again after a conversation I had with someone who evaluates screenplays for part of his living. He remarked that one of the mistakes he saw over and over again in scripts was a weak and/or poorly developed antagonist. He pointed out that one of the reasons why this is a major problem is because your protagonists are only as good as the antagonists they go up against. If the antagonist is not a serious badass — and interesting to boot –then how will your protagonist get the chance to prove that he or she is an even better, more interesting badass?
I would add another reason. Your antagonist is your opportunity to cut loose in fun and fascinating ways. There are no limits in creating this character (other than the criteria of believability and full-bloodedness that apply to all characters) — not of morality or sanity or social graces. Skilled, powerful antagonists can say or do whatever they want, including the things we audience secretly wish we could but are too sane and moral to dare try. It’s why the great villians of pop culture — Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector, Freddy Kruger spring to mind — have such a grip on our collective imagination, years and years after they were first presented to us. (It’s also why I especially love it when readers of my book BLOODANGEL email me and say their favorite character was Asha, the book’s villian, who was also the most difficult character for me to create. She didn’t come ‘to life’ for me until the final draft, when I finally figured out what she was about — which also led to a different fate for her than the one I’d been planning.)
It’s also a chance to explore a little bit of the psychology of evil, if your antagonist is indeed ‘evil’ (however you choose to define the word) — including how that character perceives the world, other people, life in general, and especially him/herself (since even someone like Ted Bundy would consider himself essentially good, misunderstood, etc. — villians don’t perceive themselves as villians, but rather as suffering hero/martyr/victim).
Love your bad guys. Shower them with thought and attention. A beautifully realized antagonist will vault your manuscript many levels higher in the agent or editor’s estimation — and if you can convey that sense of antagonist in your hook (along with stakes, conflict, and equally interesting protagonist), then I bet you’re golden.
*Which was ironic with the second agent, since by the time I’d written BLOODANGEL I’d been writing, submitting and workshopping for a decade or so, and had a couple of near-misses, which meant I actually had accumulated a few personal contacts and connections. I assumed I’d find my agent that way, and wrote the query letter as a lark. The connections didn’t pan out; the query letter did.
** Accomplished in a hook through stating what motivates your characters (other than the fear of imminent pain and/or death) — what your characters want or need, or how what your characters think they want isn’t actually what they need — we are our own worst enemy, after all, on top of every external force we’re already dealing with….
*** I kind of think of it as “Stephen King meets VERONICA MARS with a dash of THE BREAKFAST CLUB” . Which reminds me of how I used to describe my upcoming novel UNINVITED (MTV Books/Sept 07) as “Kind of like LOST BOYS, except really, really different.” Which makes me think I’ve been in LA way too long.