You're at a writer's conference, and as you take the elevator to the twelfth floor for your afternoon nap, you find yourself standing next to the editor that just got through talking about how desperate his company is looking for THE EXACT BOOK YOU JUST WROTE!
You strike up a conversation about how you loved his talk, and how he described your book perfectly. "Oh, really?" He says. "What's it about?"
You go into your prepared elevator speech, get to the main conflict of the story when "DING", the door opens and the editor shakes your hand, thanks you, and offers to have someone's admin read your query letter.
Did you sum it up or go into the character development of the main character and why the conflict she faces is so true to life?
A couple of days ago I talked about creating a sense of urgency. That conflict is the heart of your hook - that which is going to make the editor's ears perk up and say "hey, that's kinda cool." It's easier than you think, as long as you don't over-think it.
Now granted, there are hundreds of pages of advice on writing a hook or summing up a book (in screenplay terms it's called a LOGLINE). And each of them may be slightly different, so here's my take on it for free.
1) The character(s) must do x before y creates z. That's the basic algebraic formula. Now you can fluff it up with descriptions and so on, but that's basically what the listener wants to know: who's in trouble and what's at stake? For example: "Two eleven year-old boys must use a time travel pocket watch to stop an evil Professor from changing the past before he destroys their future."
2) Keep an eye out for the following, they may indicate you going off in an unnecessary direction: "Only to find" or "BUT". For example, "Two eleven year-old boys must use a time travel pocket watch but are trapped in an altered present because their arch-nemesis has changed the past and now they must find him and stop him before the new present becomes a permanent reality." That was an earlier version. Too long. Why? Because I threw in an OBSTACLE. Editors and Agents will assume there are obstacles, otherwise there'd be no story. "Only to find" or "But" tend to lead to an obstacle, and that will bloat your summary. I say, leave out the obstacles. That's for a detailed synopsis or for when the editors read the actual manuscript.
3) Keep it focused on the protagonist and antagonist. In my example above, I probably could've gotten away with just saying "An eleven year-old..." but since the book is written in dual first-person, there's really two protagonists. But notice I didn't mention their sister, father, or the mentor character at all. Superfluous. There's no time. The two characters you describe are also probably the two characters that face off in the final act. Harry Potter and Voldemort. Percy and Hades. That kinda thing.
Now, one final note: this applies to commercial fiction only. I haven't studied literary fiction, where the conflicts or urgency may be more internal and may be a harder log line to write. If you're interested, I'll take a look and see how you could sum up "The Great Gatsby" or "Catcher in the Rye". Those senses of urgency aren't as obvious and may make the logline different. Till then, if anyone would like me to read a summary or two, feel free to pass 'em along...
Hope this helps!
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