Getting Hooked Before You Throw in a Line

by Erin Brown

There are a few things that a writer must decide upon before embarking on the journey that I like to call “Writing a Novel.” Okay, most everyone else calls it that too, but I just wanted to sound high and mighty for a brief moment (at least I’m honest). As an editor, I give countless recommendations to writers during the revision process—work on your character arc, tighten the plot, delete this scene, make every line of dialogue count, kill the hero, don’t use 34-point font, make your historical novel longer than 30,000 words, etc. You know, the usual. But there are some issues that you should really decide upon before you ever put pen to paper—or fingers to keys. There are three things that I believe you must establish from the get-go in order to create a novel that is unique, has a chance to sell, and won’t entail going through every single line one by one after the fact in order to make minute changes (and please note this is my opinion, so feel free to think of your own things and curse my name while feeling superior: “Duh, she didn’t even think of that one, stupid editor.” Of course, that’s not very nice, but I digress).

First things first before you begin: establish your hook. And no, it has nothing to do with live bait or crocheting. What is a hook, you ask? It’s what “hooks” your reader. How is your book different than the hundreds of thousands of titles that are already out there, especially those within your genre? Perhaps it’s a very unique trait of the main character, a distinctive setting that takes center stage, an exclusive writing style, a plot that is completely out there! If it’s non-fiction, your topic should be fresh, your platform solid, and your selling points exceptional—otherwise, why would someone pay good money for your book over all others? Figure out a way to set your book apart from all the rest. Remember that an agent has to sell this book to an editor, who has to sell this book to their boss, colleagues, including marketing and sales teams, as something worth buying and publishing. It’s simply not good enough anymore to have a book that is well-written and interesting, with solid characters. Damn, those crowded shelves! It must stand out from the pack and bring something new to the table. You simply can’t take this aspect into account once you’ve finished the book—this is an issue that you must, must establish from the get-go. Find your hook and reel those suckers in!

Second, find your character voice. No, I don’t mean hire a soprano or speak more deeply in order to sell the book. Instead, your main character should have a unique voice that comes naturally to you, as the writer, and is appealing to the reader. Sometimes, it’s yourown voice—if you’re sassy or to-the-point in your own life, usually that’s translates to the page. But you should also realize that if your voice is rather ho-hum, you’ll want to find a different voice for your narrative or main character. You should create a distinctive voice and personality for your main character. This is true, of course, in third person limited POV, but especially true if you’re writing in first person POV. You’re asking the reader to get inside someone’s head for the entire novel, so make it an interesting head and voice! No one wants to spend four hundred pages hanging out with Debbie Downer or that guy at the New Year’s party that talks for an hour about his herb garden in a monotone voice that makes you want to zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Oh, sorry, where was I? Ah yes, voice. Remember, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. “Come over here, young man, I am upset with you” or “Get over here, you lily-livered sack of rotten sheep guts before I wallop you from here to kingdom come.” There’s a difference. The first character voice would be annoying at times, while second one would send you into therapy for twenty years.

Third, decide on your tense: Most readers prefer past tense. There, I said it. You should have a very good reason for using present tense. Hey, some novels are very successful in present tense (hello, Hunger Games­!), and I know it’s becoming the “in thing” lately, but if all your friends jumped off a bridge would you do it too (“Thanks for that one, Mom!”)? Bottom line is that present tense is best if you need a sense of urgency or immediacy. Writing in present tense may even seem easier at first, especially for first-time writers, but it’s actually much more difficult to write an effective story. Telling a story in past tense is more natural for a writer (most of the time—there are exceptions to every rule), and it’s definitely easier to read for your audience. When I open a book that is written in present tense, it immediately jumps out at me, it’s distracts me constantly, and often, I have to stop reading and take some Tylenol. This is not to say that you are not allowed to write in present tense or that your book will be a stinker because of it. However, make sure you have a very good reason for using present tense, think about it again, try and talk yourself out of it, and then, if you must, proceed…but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Now, of course, you should think of myriad things before beginning your book, but these are three things that are the most difficult to remedy once you’ve completed the manuscript. I’ve suggested to many an author to go back and rewrite the entire book in past tense, and trust me, it’s not a fun endeavor. And I’m sure most of them have crafted voodoo dolls in my likeness. But 99 percent of them agreed that it was the right (write?) decision. I’ve also had hundreds of manuscripts come across my desk at the publishing houses that I couldn’t buy, even though I enjoyed the writing, plot, and characters, because there was nothing special or different about it. There was no hook that I could use to sell it to my team at the publishing house, and therefore to readers. And voice can make or break a book. Not only your narrative voice, but your main character’s voice as well. Make it count and make it unique. So go forth and write!! But not until you’ve figured out these three things...I promise, you’ll appreciate the advice when every agent begins to tell you that they “liked it, but just didn’t love it.” Man, don’t you hate that tired old line? Then rewrite it: “Wow, Mr. or Mrs. Writer, what a great hook! What a great voice! What a fantastic use of tense! I can get you a million dollar advance!” Okay, fine, substitute out that last line for “$15,000 advance” and you’ve got a realistic and fabulous scenario.

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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