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What’s a Hook? The Art of the Pitch

This is the text of my March Writing Tips newsletter, which just went out. If you’d like to subscribe, you can do so here.

My Hollywood agent brought me out to L.A. not long ago to pitch a couple of Big Shot TV producers on an idea for a show they wanted me to create. I figured, why not? I flew out there and got into the meeting with Big Shot Producer #1, wearing my expensive jeans, and started telling him about my idea, the same way I’d tell my editor or my agent.

About five minutes into my spiel he cut me off and said, “Excuse me. No offense, but you’ve never pitched before, have you?”

I confessed I hadn’t, as if I had to say anything. I don’t pitch. I write.

He said, “I can tell. That’s not how you do it. Why don’t you come back in after you meet with the other producers and pitch it again?”

You might think that I’d be embarrassed or annoyed, but the truth is, I appreciated his honesty and respected the guy all the more for it.

Pitching is a specialized skill that has very little to do with whether you can write. But in Hollywood, the pitch is the currency. If you can’t pitch your idea, no one’s buying.

Why should novelists care about the art of the pitch in Hollywood? Because being able to pitch a movie, or a TV show, is the same skill as being able to come up with the “hook,” the “what-if,” the premise of that novel you’re writing. Or that script.

Put it another way: you’re in an elevator with one of the most powerful book agents in New York (or wherever), and you have ten seconds to pitch your novel to her so that she’ll actually want to read it. Can you do it?

Bet you can’t.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Who cares? I’m not going to ever get into an elevator with a powerful agent, and if I did, I’d probably freeze up anyway.” Maybe. But odds are, at some point you will have to e-mail or snail-mail a pitch in the form of a letter or a note.

“So what’s it about?” a friend asks you. You say, um, er, well . . .

Summarizing your story in a sentence or two is one of the hardest things to do, whether you’ve published ten books or none. Don’t forget, we established writers have to pitch our books too, when we’re interviewed on TV or radio. It’s not easy. But it’s essential, and not just to sell a book. I’m convinced that if you can’t “pitch” it in a sentence, you don’t have the story figured out yet. Simple as that.

Years ago, when I was struggling through the first draft of The Moscow Club, I had lunch with an editor. “What’s your ‘What If?’” he asked.

I had no idea. My “What If”? I’d never thought in those terms. But he was right; every book starts with a question that, in the end, it answers. Call it a Hook, call it a donnée, call it a premise. It’s the thing that sucks the reader in and makes him or her want to know what happens next.

Now, a confession: I’ve been writing thrillers for over 20 years, and I still get confused about the difference between a “hook” and a premise. Is a hook the thing that starts the book and grabs you by the lapel and makes you want keep reading? Or is it the concept of the entire book — a definition that veers dangerously into the Hollywood notion of “high concept”?

I’ve done some thinking, and here’s my answer. “High concept” is an unjustly maligned term meaning a story idea that can be easily grasped both by studio execs and by audiences. But a warning: just because you can pitch it in a sentence doesn’t make it High Concept. No — it has to be extremely appealing and commercial, not just succinct. It’s got to have wide, instant commercial appeal.

Yet if a story is all high concept with no follow-through, it’s little more than a gimmick. Take “Snakes On a Plane” — you get what it’s about instantly. You may even want to watch it. But it’s not a good movie. It’s all wind-up, little delivery.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with a “high concept” thriller. In fact, if you have a high concept, that makes it even easier to sell. Take The Bourne Identity, for example. What if a man with amnesia has forgotten he’s the world’s most dangerous assassin? That concept boosted Bob Ludlum’s already large readership hugely, based on the premise alone. And it’s a great one. A couple more great high-concept thrillers: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park: “What if scientists could clone dinosaurs from prehistoric mosquito blood trapped in amber?” Or John Grisham’s The Firm: “What if a high-end law firm turned out to be a Mafia front?

High concept isn’t necessarily cheesy at all — Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, anyone? It’s all about how well it’s executed. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent (prosecutor is accused of the murder of his lover, and he’s the first-person narrator) is high-concept to be sure, but beautifully written and brilliantly plotted.

A hook, on the other hand, is the opening gambit that reels you in — like a fish-hook. Harlan Coben is a master of the hook. (Dan Brown says so.) Tell No One, for instance — a guy gets an e-mail message from his dead girlfriend, who may or may not be dead. I’m there. The book spirals on from there, but that’s the set-up, the premise that grabs you at the outset.

A fishing hook needs bait and a fisherman, though, and a writing hook needs a story. An unusual situation, however intriguing, is not a story. “A family digs a swimming pool in the backyard, and finds a buried time capsule” is a great premise for a novel – but what happens next? “A family’s discovery of a time capsule buried in their backyard makes them the targets of government agents from every country in the world” — that’s a story hook, because now we know that the time capsule sets a chain of events in motion. (Hey, I just made that up, but I like it!)

So, the moral of the story: if you have a high concept for a novel, great. But you don’t need one. At the very least you want a great “what if,” a hook that grabs the reader in the beginning and makes him or her want to keep reading.

In any case, you do want your story to have a simple, easily expressible premise, and until you know how to articulate it, the odds are you haven’t figured it out yourself.

Life Imitates Art Imitates Life Imitates …

The question writers get asked most is “Where do you get your ideas?” I don’t mind that, but the one I wish people would ask is, “What ideas do you wish you’d get credit for?”, because this weekend I read this article from the Associated Press:

Deaths of gamers leave their online lives in limbo

By PETER SVENSSON – 1 day ago

NEW YORK (AP) — When Jerald Spangenberg collapsed and died in the middle of a quest in an online game, his daughter embarked on a quest of her own: to let her father’s gaming friends know that he hadn’t just decided to desert them.

It wasn’t easy, because she didn’t have her father’s “World of Warcraft” password and the game’s publisher couldn’t help her. Eventually, Melissa Allen Spangenberg reached her father’s friends by asking around online for the “guild” he belonged to…

For the rest of the article, go here.

The article discusses two services – Deathswitch.com and SlightlyMorbid.com – that will notify your loved ones and associates when you pass away. Deathswitch.com requires subscribers to enter passwords on a regular schedule; if you don’t enter the password, it assumes you’re dead, and lets your virtual social circle know.

What’s uncanny about this is that it is exactly like a service I thought up for my forthcoming book, VANISHED – except that I called mine InCaseofDeath.com (and yes, bought the domain). In VANISHED, InCaseofDeath.com provides key information about a character who’s missing. Is he dead? Well, you’ll have to read the book. (Out in August, thanks for asking.)

In the meantime, I wish I could figure out how the people at Deathswitch.com are tapping into my ideas – and whether I should ask for royalties.

My Twitter Obsession

They warned me.

They warned me that Twitter would drain my blood like a vampire, sap my vital bodily fluids.

They were right, of course. My friends in marketing at my publishing house thought it might be a good idea for me to start Twittering, or Tweeting (whatever it’s called). My editor and my assistant were dubious — both knew how prone I am to getting caught up in things and spending way too much time on something that, let’s face it, only gets in the way of writing my next book. My editor does tend to treat writers like children who must be kept away from sharp objects lest they hurt themselves.

So I ignored Twitter, dismissing it as this weird thing that other people did, like clogging or snowshoeing or curling.

But I met a couple of much savvier guys at Ben Mezrich’s birthday party a few weeks ago who told me I had to, so I dipped in . . .

And got addicted.

My editor and my assistant both tried to stop me, but it was too late. As readers know, I’m a gadget guy, and I love new technology. Two weeks into this, I’ve already developed a following (everybody develops their own following; it’s not like I’ve gone all Hollywood on you), and my followers post all kinds of fascinating stuff — about books and bookselling, journalism, movies and TV shows. One of them even got me to start watching “American Idol” against my will! Honestly, no hype, I think we’re witnessing the birth of an entirely new type of communication — halfway in between private and public. It’s very strange.

In some ways, too, it’s like being back in high school. Like: I “followed” her, how come she’s not following me back? Some people seem to have nothing to do but Twitter — they don’t seem to have employment. People you’ve never heard of have twenty, thirty thousand followers. Some celebrities, like Ashton Kutcher, have huge followings; other, even bigger celebrities lock down their “updates” so that you can only follow them if you’re approved. (One movie star I’ve written a movie for, for instance, let me into his exclusive, private group of followers, fewer than I have; he seems to use it mostly to communicate with his girlfriend.)

Some Tweeters seem to accumulate followers and follow nobody, or only a chosen few — wannabe cult leaders, I guess. I have no patience for them. (One is a book person I know personally . . . sort of tacky, I think.) They’re treating it like a one-way broadcast medium, which isn’t the point.

At its best, Twitter is a multi-sided conversation. It’s interactive. It’s like a dinner party in some ways, where some people say nothing and just listen, others hold forth way too much, and you meet some great people and you learn interesting stuff. For some people, Twitter seems to be performance art — 140-character haikus — and some of them are quite clever. I do feel a pressure to be entertaining; if I’m not entertaining, people will Qwitter me. (Seriously, that’s what it’s called, and unlike Facebook, I get notified every time it happens.) The really entertaining, really involved writers on Twitter have amassed serious followings. Neil Gaiman has 36,361 followers as of this second, and only follows 179. (Wait, it just became 36,363.)

No doubt about it, there are also the TMI (“too much information”) Twitterers — who update you on their sinuses acting up or they’re standing at a urinal. Clogging your feed with useless trivia: Twitterhea.

It wouldn’t be exactly accurate to say I’m a reluctant Twitterer, but I’m certainly an anxious one. I love it – but it scares me, too, and I’m torn about its cost-benefit ratio. I ask myself, would Charles Dickens Twitter? You bet. He’d have a Facebook page and a TV series and a bigger branded presence than Jim Patterson. No question he’d be Twittering. Mark Twain, too.

Unlike e-mail, where you can take your time answering and filtering your replies, Twitter is instantaneous. You also get very public feedback. For example, I was Twittering at dinner last week, at a fundraiser, saying stuff like, “Sitting across from Tess Gerritsen” and “Michael Palmer just walked in.” And one of my Followers cracked: @joefinder = name dropper.

Yesterday one of my Followers wrote:

“I wonder what a “real” author hopes to gain from engaging in the sick masses.”

I told him I wasn’t sure.

The novelist’s life is a great one, with two major exceptions. First, it’s very solitary; second, the feedback process is necessarily delayed, since by the time a book gets published the author is already working on the next book, or even the next book after that. I’ll get emails asking me about why characters in High Crimes did or said certain things, and I have to go back and look up the answer; I wrote that book ten years ago, and have written several hundred thousand words since.

Twitter addresses both of these shortcomings. I can walk in and out at will; I can check in on the people I follow, and they can check in on me. It’s the equivalent of passing notes in class, or making snarky comments to a friend in a movie theater – did you see that guy in the purple suit? What’s with her today?

It’s also a way for readers to connect with me in a way that provides immediate feedback. You’re reading one of my books, you want to know what a reference means; you can send me a direct message. (You could always send me an email, too, but sometimes it takes me a few days to respond. If I’m on Twitter, you’ll get a response a lot faster.) You can tell me that you like something, you can tell me that you don’t. On a day when I’m writing, it reminds me that I’m not just talking to the wall – I’m writing for readers, and the readers are with me.

But I can already see the dangers of it. It’s more fun to gossip on Twitter than it is to work. I already have half a dozen different ways I can avoid writing when I’m at my desk, and Twitter’s just one more; every link to a great article or piece of new information someone sends me is another justification for spending time on Twitter when I need to be writing.

Twitter creates a sense of intimacy that’s both seductive and dangerous. I’m not a celebrity, but I admit to tweeting about things like what my dog’s doing, or what I ate for breakfast; it amuses me, it seems to amuse the people who follow me, and it doesn’t do any harm … or does it? I’m not stalking any of the 300+ people I follow on Twitter, and I trust that none of my followers is stalking me … but if you wanted to stalk someone, wouldn’t Twitter be a great place to start?

So check it out — follow me on Twitter, where my handle is @joefinder. I promise I’ll follow you back.

But do it soon. Before they take the sharp object away from me.


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