By Lisa Amstutz
The past few years, I’ve helped to judge a writing contest. Each judge reads dozens of submissions and picks their favorites. Surprisingly often, there is a clear consensus on the winners. Something makes these submissions stand out above the rest.
This experience has given me a glimpse of what an editor must face on a daily basis. Her inbox is filled with manuscripts, many of which are perfectly nice, well-written stories. She’s already sent 20 polite rejections today: “This story is well-written but it just didn’t grab me.” “It’s a good story, but not right for me.” As she opens yet another email, what could possibly make her jump out of her chair and shout “Eureka!”? In a word: a hook.
So what’s a hook? Editor Frances Gilbert recently posted an excellent Twitter thread on this topic. To summarize, a hook is something so important, seasonal, timely, unique, funny, or extraordinarily well-written that an editor can’t resist it. It’s that something special that grabs a reader’s attention and pulls them in.
Hooks are easy to spot once you start looking for them. Try to identify the hook in the books you read. Go to a library or bookstore and browse the new books. What do you think made an editor fall in love with this story? What made you pick it up?
Next, go home and look at your manuscript. Would it stand out in an overworked editor’s inbox? Would it jump off the shelf at Barnes & Noble? If so, congratulations - you have a winner! If not, look at your story again with a critical eye. Maybe you need a punchier title. Maybe you need to simplify your concept or amp up the humor. Take the time to find your hook and really make it shine. Then toss out your line again—and just maybe you’ll land a contract this time!
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