Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hooks and Platforms

No, this post is not about fishing (though I have been fishing in my youth; my father taught me to bait a hook and we fished for sunfish and catfish in the shade of some trees along a still river in Georgia during the summers sometimes. I also went fishing for bluegills with a friend in high school once.) but is instead about the terms "hook" and "platform" as used primarily by agents. I'm not an agent, nor do I play one on TV, but I have an agent and I can at least pass on what he's told me about hooks and platforms.


There are two different ways this term is used. In queries, the hook is the part of your pitch that catches the agent's attention, that makes him sit up and say, "Oh, that's supercool!" It is the premise, the idea in your story that makes someone want to read it. "Zombie president" is a hook. "Father and son fighting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world" is a hook, if you like that sort of thing. "Innocents venture into hell to save the world" is a hook. "Sleuthing monk tries to solve a series of murders in a monastery" is a hook. Whether or not something is a hook depends a great deal on the agent's taste.

To sum up: a hook in a query is the idea/premise/sentence that grabs the agent's attention. The hook in my own query was "A sideways retelling of 'Hamlet' as told by Hamlet's best friend, Horatio." There was more to it, but essentially that's my premise and my hook. You're either intrigued or you're not. There are no universal hooks.

Hooks in queries are important because they say what's cool and different about your book. They should spark interest and excitement, because you want an agent who is interested and excited about your book. Agents will take their interest and excitement to publishers and hopefully pass along that interest and excitement, resulting in a book deal for you. Which means that you should be interested and excited in your book when you write your query. If your hook doesn't hook you, it won't hook anyone else.

In the book itself, a hook is something in the writing that gets you to keep reading past the first page. This is a very vague area, because there are no universal hooks here, either. Genre, style, reader's taste and more all figure into this. Essentially, though, the hook on the first page of the book is something that gets the reader to follow the writer into the story. It doesn't have to be an event; it could simply be the way the story is told. Though most commonly, and in the broadest sense, the author gets the reader to ask questions about the story, and to demand the answers to those questions. "This is interesting," the reader says. "I have to see what happens next!" Sometimes beautiful, confident prose is enough to hook the reader. Sometimes it takes sparkly vampires. As I say, there are no universal hooks.


Think of platform in its literal sense: something to stand on that raises you above the crowd and draws attention to you. If you are an expert in a field and write a non-fiction book about your area of expertise, you have name recognition and the authority to write on that subject. Your expertise, your credentials, are your platform.

Are you a celebrity? Your celebrity is your platform and you can get $3.5 million like Tina Fey for your memoir.

If you are a fiction writer, though, platform is a bit more amorphous and hard to come by. Mostly, it still means name recognition. Has anyone heard of you? If they have, that's your platform.

People ask a lot these days if a website or blog is a good way to establish a platform, as it's certainly an easy enough way to thrust yourself into the public eye. The only thing is, everyone else out there has a website and/or a blog, so you've got to have a lot of traffic to have your site/blog considered a real platform. How much is a lot of traffic? Try a minimum of 25,000 regular visitors/followers/readers. Why so many? Because most of your blog readers won't buy your book. Maybe 1 in 10 will if you're lucky, so if you have 4,000 followers, that translates into maybe 400 book sales, which is not an impressive number.

Platform is also recognized authority as a writer, which is a fancy way of saying publishing credits. Have you been published anywhere that has a wide readership? And by "wide readership," we're talking numbers in the range of thousands rather than hundreds. Firebox 5000 or Granta or GlimmerTrain or Paris Review or Asimov's Science Fiction and Fantasy sorts of numbers. However, it's always a good idea in a query to list any pub credits you have, especially if you were paid for it. The fact that someone paid money to print your work is significant, which is also why print media have more weight than web-only publications. No matter what the media, you should try to get something published, as often as you can.

"You're a good writer," my agent told me. "I can't believe you haven't been more widely published."

"Thanks," I said, smug as can be.

"That's not a compliment," he said. "You've been lazy."

"Oh. Well...oh."

I realize that what I've said about platform seems disheartening, but remember what every agent says, and I know it to be true: platform is nowhere as important as simply writing a good book. You should build your platform as you can, but you should focus most of your energies on writing the best book you can.


  1. Thanks.

    I've just written an outline query letter for my WIP novel on the basis of this blog.

    I found that it also helped me focus on the core of the novel.

  2. Scott, this is really interesting and helpful, particularly the platform issue. With my original blog, I think I was trying to combine the fiction/non-fiction platform rationales--more than readership, I was trying to show "street cred"--as in I write stories that concern themselves with how gender and religion intersect and the sticky situations that result when you throw people of different cultures and religions together. A lot of my writing plays out amoung South Asian and Muslim characters and so I blogged, originally, about those issues--Muslim feminism, South Asian culture, my own experience being married to a Pakistani American. My plan was to mention the blog in cover letters, even for short fiction, to "prove" that I was qualified to write the kinds of stories I write--that I know what I was talking about even though my name is "Jennifer" and not "Asma" or "Rabia."

    But then the blog became its own can of worms, complete with a stalker and some hate-filled comments, and it didn't seem worth it anymore. So I password protected it, moved to a temporary site, and am still trying to figure out what to do with it all.

    I think for now I am hoping that a well crafted story doesn't need any author street cred--that if it works, I don't need to prove that I know how to make it work. If that makes sense.

    But you have me thinking again about the other platform-y reason for blogging (readership). So thanks for this very timely post and sorry for this very long comment. :)

  3. That should say know what I "am" talking about. Sorry, typo would have driven me nuts.

  4. Scott: Thank you for this! It's enlightening and frustration at the same time to learn about platforms. I sometimes want to rip my hair out over it, but in the end there's not much a writer can do but keep writing and trying to sell. I am still young and new at this whole novel thing, so it's frightening to think of what I have ahead of me. But it's exciting too!

    Great information on hooks, too. I know I have a lot of work to do on mine. I like to go read the NY Bestseller list once in a while to read the hooks there. That's inspiring at times to see how others have done it on that level.

    Jennifer:No worries for long comments! I'm sorry to hear about your blog. Is there any way to just open the blog back up publicly and moderate the comments? That way you can just weed out the stalker's comments? I think this might made for a good post for us - dealing with hurtful comments from readers, or debates in the comments box, or something along those lines. *shrugs* Not sure if it would help. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Hmm, interesting fishing history. I don't care for all the rest of the post, though. Scrap it or replace it with more fishing history.

    Okay, I'm done. Sorry, Elder Bailey, but after talking with you about this stuff so often via e-mail, I'm a worthless son of a pistol.

    But listen to him, folks! I know I've submitted a few short stories after talking with this brainy fellow.

  6. Michelle,

    It makes sense for you to check the bestseller lists; I figure most of those books hooked an agent with used-car-salesman like speed. Unfortunately, some of the prose in said books gives me indigestion.

  7. Justus:Yep, I must agree. It's sad what ends up on there, really. But I'm also super picky. The hooks, though, are helpful. Fortunately I'm a smart fish. I think... (although Twilight caught me, darn it all! Luckily, a pulled free of that hook soon afterward)

  8. Great post. I don't think you're lazy, you're just a procrastinator.

    Always remember the procrastinators' creed:
    "Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow."

  9. When we start this journey (especially as a fiction writer) our platforms are small. But I would give more credit to a blog than you do. It's a start. At least prospective agents will know you have the concept of platform on your radar.

    Good information!

  10. Tess: The "25,000 blog readers" number isn't mine; it's from my agent. And actually, he said "25,000-50,000 readers."

    The main thing is, queries and platforms are overrated. They are never as important as a well-written book.

    I have essentially no platform. My query was pretty much, "I wrote a book about X, and I think it's cool. Wanna read it?" What mattered is that I wrote a good book.

  11. Scott,
    Thanks a lot for this information. I've had vague understandings of these concepts, and this post has clarified things for me, especially on platforms.

    I agree that writing a good book is the most important part of the publication process. Unfortunately, I do think that some good books get buried due to other factors. Having a platform can help in that sense.

    As for hooks, I think being able to come up with one is important. Just as Martin says, it helps to focus your own ideas of your novel, and it allows you to convey the importance of your novel in a short amount of time.

  12. In other words, I should not spend near as much energy with this blogging business as I do with my novel. I've been wondering about that. I still think it gives me a minuscule edge over those that don't do them, if for no other reason than I've learned a lot through blogging.

    I do need to spend more time on my primary writing though especially since I am essentially rewriting the whole thing right now.

  13. Interesting post, especially the numbers. I don't agree that a writer is lazy just because they haven't been published yet. Maybe they've just become a good writer after taking the time to learn the craft. Maybe they weren't interested in writing or publishing articles or short fiction. You weren't lazy. If you were, you wouldn't have written a great book, right?

    Lynnette Labelle

  14. Lynnette,
    I agree with you that just because a writer hasn't been published doesn't mean they're lazy. A lot of good writers are not yet published. I'll defend Scott's laziness though! He's got strong stories that are completed. He's interested in publishing them. He just hasn't been submitting them, and he should as soon as he has time.

  15. Davin's right (as was my agent): I've been lazy. It's haaard to research literary journals and find who's accepting what, and what their submission guidelines are. It's not hard. I've just been lazy. But after Memorial Day, I'm going to revise some of my short stories (I've got loads of them sitting around) and submit for publication. Davin and I are going to have a submission contest for short stories. Oh, yes we will! And you're all invited to join the fun.

  16. I've been trying to refine my query, to come up with that sentence that knocks 'em off their feet. Maybe now I will! :)

  17. Robyn: I don't know if you need to knock them off their feet so much as just get them to say, "This looks like something I'd like to read."

    I also think that it's better to spend time researching agents who represent books like yours and write a letter directly to them, for them, than it is to try to write a brilliant query letter to send out to 60 agents. I don't know which path you're taking; I'm just speaking in generalities.

    My own query letter was not an example of sparkling wit and brilliance. Here, have a look:

    [personalized greeting and why I chose to query this agent--he represented a couple of books I like that are similar to mine in some ways]

    [my pub credits next]

    "So Honest A Man" is a completed 80,000-word novel, a skewed retelling of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" through the eyes of Horatio, a bright but poor student at the University of Wittenberg, Germany, in the late 16th century. Marginalized for his Catholicism and foreign ancestry, Horatio sees little opportunity in Wittenberg to feed his ambitions after graduation. When prince Hamlet of Denmark comes to the university and befriends him, Horatio uses his association with the prince to improve his own station, traveling to Denmark with Hamlet and ingratiating himself at the royal court of Elsinore.

    But when Hamlet disgraces himself in battle and is removed from the line of succession, Horatio can no longer depend on his friendship with the prince to open doors to a court appointment. As Horatio's own plans fall apart, he becomes involved with a plot to overthrow the king. A bloodbath is coming to Denmark; a great number of heads will be struck from necks. Horatio is determined that his will not to be one of them.

    I'm inserting, below, the first five pages of "So Honest A Man." Please let me know if the novel interests you; I would be happy to send you the complete manuscript.

    Sincerely, etc
    And that's that. No amazing gimmicks, just the bones and central conflict of the story. I'd probably write it differently today and make it even shorter. I also noticed just now that my query had a typo in it. I fixed it for this post, but I wonder if my agent saw it? Anyway, the letter got him to read the first five pages I'd attached, and that led to a request for the first hundred pages, and so on.

  18. I've been trying really hard lately to make sure I don't overwork my hook. It's hard to balance simplicity with Oh-My-God-I-Must-Read-This.

  19. Very interesting post. Thanks for the education. :)

  20. My husband recently said something along the same lines of what your agent told you.


    But true.

    Gave me a kick in the pants, for sure!


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