Friday, February 06, 2009

Hook, Line, and Sinker

As you read this, I’m on my way to Birmingham, Alabama, for Murder in the Magic City, a choice little conference sponsored by their local chapter of Sisters in Crime. I met the arranger during Killer Nashville last year, and was asked if I’d like to participate, and of course I said yes. I’ve been hearing about Murder in the Magic City for years, so the invitation was a real thrill.

It’s a short conference, just the one day, so I’m only doing one panel, followed by a signing session. I’ll be sharing my panel with Maggie Toussaint, Elizabeth Zelvin, and moderator Mary Jane Maffini, with whom I also share a publisher and an editor.

Our panel is quite simply called What. There’s also a panel called Who, one called When & Where, and one called Why. When & Where would be the historical mysteries panel, I think, and the one with the exotic locations, while the Who panel is likely for romantic suspense and that sort of thing. Not sure about Why.

The What panel, and I quote, is about …well, what your books are about. All of you have something distinctive, a hook if you will, or a topic that you delve into in your writing. Organization, home renovations, horse rescue, addiction... How did you all decide to write about what you write about? What's your research process? Is a hook necessary in today's writing market?

Since it’s been on my mind, I figured I’d talk about hooks a little. They are, after all, a huge part of mystery writing today. The traditional mystery, the cozy, the type of book that used to be synonymous with Dame Agatha Christie and Dame Ngaio Marsh—synonymous with mysteries in general—has evolved into something more like a cutesy hobby mystery of the kind that I, and so many others, write.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with me and my books, my gimmick is home renovation. That’s the framework into which the story is set. The story, at its heart—and don’t tell my editor I said this—is a love story. (She thinks it’s a mystery. It’s not.) There’s a mystery there, sure. It frames the romance. Layers, if you will. But if every book is about people, and I believe they are, or at least that they should be, then my book is a romance. At its core, that’s what it’s about. The mystery is background for the love story. The home renovation is background for the mystery.

But I digress.

I started writing about renovating because I was asked to. Berkley Prime Crime wanted a series about a do-it-yourself home renovator, and I had the necessary background for the job. As an aside, let me just say that doing it that way helps with the research. Sure, you can decide to write about something you don’t know the first thing about, and learn as you go, but it’s easier if you already have the appropriate background. It cuts down on the time you have to spend researching, and gives you more time to actually write. And when you have deadlines to meet, that’s an important consideration.

As for how Berkley knew about me and my background, it was because I wrote another book. It featured a Realtor, and there was some home renovation going on in that book, as well. That wasn’t the gimmick of the book—it didn’t really have a gimmick—but there was enough home renovation woven through the story to make someone sit up and take notice.

Now, I should mention that that book never sold, and although I can’t say for sure why, I can tell you that as far as my Berkley editor goes, she read it and liked it, but told me it doesn’t fit their focus on ‘crafts and activities.’ Whether that means that it’s necessary to have a hook in order to succeed in today’s market, I’m not entirely sure.

If you want to write cozies for Berkley Prime Crime, then yes. To write a Prime Crime series, you gotta—as the girls in ‘Gypsy’ said—have a gimmick. If you don’t have a gimmick, then forget it. Or send your book to another publisher, or another imprint. There are lots of them out there, and they don’t all publish books with hooks.

So for what it’s worth, that’s what I’ll be saying this weekend. Now it’s your turn. Do you think it’s necessary to have a hook to succeed in today’s market? Is there a hook in your work in progress? Or if you’re not a writer, in the book you’re reading? If so, do you like that fact? Did you plan it, if you wrote it? And if there isn’t, do you wish there was? Do you think there should be?

Since I’m in the car, and can’t check back, play nicely amongst yourselves.

Oh, and just in case some of you missed it, and because I really like it a lot, here's a peek at the cover for DIY#2, Spackled and Spooked, coming on August 4th, 2009! Pretty, innit?


Annette said...

Love the cover, Jennie. And have fun in Alabama.

I don't think I have the kind of hook you're talking about in my current WIP. I did in the two manuscripts my agent has been trying unsuccessfully to sell, but it hasn't seemed to do me much good. So it's a good question. One I don't have an answer to.

Joyce Tremel said...

Great cover! I've said this before, but I think Berkley has some of the best covers around.

I don't think you necessarily have to have a gimmick to succeed nowadays, but you definitely need something that sets your book apart from the rest, whether it be a new twist on a crime, quirky characters, etc. Something has to stand out.

Have fun at your conference!

Anonymous said...

Love your cover. Love your blog topic. But it seems every hook I've tried (so far) comes firmly attached by the line to the sinker. ;) (I couldn't resist!)

Norma Huss

Anonymous said...

I think all books have a hook one way or another, however they seem to have taken over the cozy mystery 'hook, line and sinker'. I've been thinking lately that when I see a BPC book it's going to have a shop in it with some kind of craft being offered. It's okay for one segment of the cozy industry, but I reread Dame Agatha all the time, and I don't remember one craft. Even though Ms Marple gardened, I don't remember one time that we had more than two sentences on what was planted in the garden.