Hook Me: Common Problems


I recently did another round of Hook Me, an exercise I do with my followers where they send in fake query letters and I critique them. 

A query letter is a short summary of your novel (a “hook”) that is used to pitch a novel to an agent or editor. Anyone who wants to get published needs to know how to write one.

So here are problems I saw in the majority, though not all, of the query letters I received.

1. My Story Is About…

Don’t use any of the following phrases in your query letter:

  • My story is about…
  • My story features…
  • This story is…
  • The main character is…
  • Throughout the story these characters encounter…
  • This story features themes such as…
  • This story has characters who are…
  • In a world where…

When writing a query letter, every word counts. Just jump right into it. Instead of starting with:

  • My story is about a spiteful, long-haired kitchen manager named Abbie who must track down the vampire who bit her and kill him to avoid becoming one herself.

start with: 

  • Abbie was just bitten by a vampire. To remain human, she must track down the one that bit her and kill him before the seven-day transformation can be completed.

And let the story speak for itself. Don’t just tell me that your story features the trials of friendship or that you have three lgbt characters or that it deals with heavy themes. Show me. In the manuscript.

2. Unnecessary Character Descriptions

I don’t need to know that the main character is a red-haired spunky teenager with three piercings and freckles and a knack for math. I don’t need to know these useless details.

Only tell me what I need to know about this character. What is relevant to the plot? To their motive? One of the few descriptors that you can add that may not be entirely relevant would be the age of the main character.

3. Comparing Your Story to The Wrong Thing

Your story is not like Star Wars or Harry Potter or Twilight or The Hunger Games. Nor will your story appeal to any of those audiences.

Those audiences have millions of people. Many of those people fall outside of the initial target audiences. Many of those people don’t particularly like fantasy or sci-fi or vampires or anything like that, but when something gets as popular as the series above, it draws all kinds of people.

Don’t compare your story to some of the biggest franchises in the world. This doesn’t tell agents or editors anything about your target audience. It can also show you don’t really know your genre. If you write a sci-fi and only compare it to Star Trek and Star Wars, then it’s likely you haven’t read a lot of sci-fi.

4. Vague Blurbs

I don’t need a blurb or a vague logline. I’m not sure why you would include one. Unless you’re writing a screenplay, you really do not need one at this stage.

5. Too Much

I need the protagonist and the main conflict. That’s it. Don’t give me the back story of every major character. Don’t tell me about subplots. Don’t tell me ¾ of the book.

And do not tell me the ending. Never tell the ending in a query. The point is to hook someone. You’re trying to get someone to read your story. You’re trying to intrigue them. Telling me the ending does not do that.

Also falling into this category is too many details. You need to learn how to cut down that background information into succinct sentences. Only give what is necessary. You shouldn’t spend a whole paragraph describing your protagonist and their world before you even mention the main conflict.

6. Too Little

In contrast with #5, some of you did not give me enough information. Or, at least, the information you gave was vague.

I need to know the plot. Describing the protagonist and the themes and some of the other characters and how their friendships might be in danger does not tell me anything. I don’t care about their relationships yet. I need to know the actual conflict.

7. Did Not Follow Directions

When writing a query letter or when submitting your writing, you have to follow directions

If you wanted a private critique, I asked you to put “private” in the title. I didn’t say to put it in the body. I also asked you to keep your submissions open so I could reply. Few people followed these directions.

It may seem nitpicky to complain about this, but you have to follow directions when submitting something. 

Some people ignore anything that ignores directions because they have a lot of submissions to get through and it’s an easy way to filter out people they don’t want a business relationship with.

Some people need certain words in the subject line so that submissions don’t end up in the spam folder or so the interns know which submissions to open.

Follow the directions. Show that you’re serious enough about writing that you took the time to read the directions.

8. Lack of Voice

Your letters need to have a strong voice. The mood and pacing needs to match the book. If you’re writing a query letter for a murder mystery, the voice should be suspenseful.

Putting this here for later!~


Book update #2: I have a (very rough) draft!

Here’s a celebratory screencap! I thought of printing off the pages and taking a photo of them all stacked up for the sake of ~aesthetic, but 248 pages is an awful lot of paper just for a photo, especially since I’m at a stage where the next step is more typing, not writing stuff in red ink in the margins. So you’re getting a screencap and some thoughts about writing instead.

(Previously: Book update #1: I’m writing a book about internet language!)

To put this achievement into context, my target wordcount is 80k words, which is a typical length for a book in the pop science genre (and in fact, pretty typical for fiction as well). For example, that’s halfway between the lengths of the first and second Harry Potter books. So 100k words is exciting because it means I definitely have at least enough to say about internet language to fill a book! I mean, I thought I did, that’s why I signed a contract to write it, and Penguin thought I did, or they wouldn’t have offered it to me. But it’s nice to know for sure.

However, these are not final words — I still have a lot of work to do on them. The way I’m going about drafting is that I first created a document with all the chapter divisions that were in my book proposal, and then I started throwing in rough thoughts and freewriting and snippets from various blog posts and my research document in under their appropriate chapters, making further subheadings as I went along. This let me see how much material there was in each chapter, so I ended up splitting one chapter in half, recombining a couple others, and changing the ordering several times. I had a daily wordcount goal, NaNoWriMo-style, to keep myself focussed on getting ideas down on the page, and so I wouldn’t get distracted about things like precise wording or capitalization and punctuation.

The next step, what I’m working on now, is to do the part where I take all these assorted thoughts and sort them out into real paragraphs that follow each other in a logical sequence — in the process hopefully cutting at least 20k words. After that, I can start showing the draft to my editor and various beta readers, since at the moment there’s no point in someone telling me “um this is not how you paragraph.” It also doesn’t make sense to use wordcount as a target anymore, so I’ve switched to keeping track of pomodoros and sections instead.

Content-wise, I can’t say much yet, but a big overarching issue that I’ve been working on is how to write a book about the internet that won’t be out of date before it’s even published. One way I’m addressing this is by making the chapters about the themes and the problems we’re trying to solve in internet language, rather than the particular ways that we’re currently solving them.

For example, I’ve talked a lot about emoji, so several people have (very reasonably) asked if there’s going to be an emoji chapter. But just like emoji are currently displacing emoticons, emoji themselves might get replaced by some newer thing in a few years. So instead of an emoji chapter, I have an emotions chapter. Of course it’s going to include emoji, but it’s going to put them in a broader context of other ways that we convey emotion online. Emoji might just be a trend, but emotions have been around for all of recorded history and presumably earlier — I feel like they’re a pretty safe bet.

Here’s a distinctly uninformative ~sneak peek~ of some things that will definitely not be in the next draft:

“idk” 32 times
“lol” 122 times
“wtf” 25 times

“so maybe i’m just swapping the order of chapters 9 and 10? idk [cut for spoilery discussion] hm k i buy that for now, done, moved. k battery officially dead”

(Some of the idk/lol/wtf instances are examples and will stay in, but since one of the ways I deal with writer’s block is by codeswitching into internet slang, well…there are definitely more of these than necessary at the moment. 10/10 would recommend codeswitching as a writer’s block strategy though.)

The writing advice I’ve found most useful as I’ve been working on this is from a quote that I saw on tumblr but of course I can’t find it now (it might have been by Neil Gaiman?). Anyway, it goes something like: “How do you write a book? Well, I don’t sit down each day and think ‘I need to write a book.’ I think ‘I need to finish chapter three’ or ‘I need to figure out what’s going on in this section.’ And when I add all those tasks up together, I’ve written a book.” If anyone can find the original version of this quote, do let me know! In the meantime, perhaps this paraphrased version will be helpful to someone.

I’ve also made a book update email list, so you can put your email here for very occasional book updates if you want to make sure that you don’t miss it on social media. (The signup link is embedded on the All Things Linguistic facebook page, but that was just the easiest way to host a MailChimp signup form if I didn’t want to inflict annoying popups on you all — it’s not actually a facebook thing.) Also, I won’t spam you or do other nefarious things with your email, it’s just for a couple book updates.

While we’re at it, the regular kinds of updates, as usual, can be had as daily blog posts via rss, tumblr, twitter, facebook, or google+; as monthly summaries via wordpress/email; and as mostly but not entirely linguistic thoughts at unpredictable intervals on my personal twitter (I made a great garden path joke there yesterday, so you should definitely check that out).


Good continued booking!

Ikea’s “Bookbook,” Soy Milk vs. Milk-Milk, and Like-Liking. What’s Going On?


I’m on Lexicon Valley using the viral Ikea “bookbook” ad as an excuse to talk about contrastive focus reduplication. 

Once you’ve heard of contrastive focus reduplication, you’ll notice it EVERYWHERE: in gifs from Community Channel, among family members, and even in this adorable gay cowboys cartoon. (Edit: also in the Timbuktu episode of Cabin Pressure.)

The original Salad-Salad paper is really quite accessible, and contains even more highly entertaining examples. 

Yeah, this is pretty rad! I’m fascinated by ongoing linguistic processes like this. I’ve also been thinking a lot about Common Ground lately, i.e. the stuff we all know that ends up being a tacit part of our communication (and why some twins or people who hang out together constantly sometimes seem to be speaking ‘their own language’: they just have so much Common Ground that most of their conversation can remain unsaid). I think Common Ground is pretty much necessary for this contrastive focus reduplication to really work. Like, you need to know that “like” can be used to mean both having a positive outlook towards a person and wanting to smooch them a bunch, for “Do you like him, or do you LIKE-like him?” to work.

And that’s even more true, I think, for some of the other examples in the excellent paper linked to in the post above. Like the person who said, “Oh, that’s BEACON-STREET-Beacon-Street!” (omg) when realizing the famous Beacon Street in Boston was the same Beacon Street in West Newton. Like, saying “oh that’s beacon street beacon street” makes no sense unless both the speaker and the listener are aware of the Beacon Street in Boston. For example, I had never heard of Beacon Street in Boston, so this sentence was initially incomprehensible to me. Bam, common ground.

What I’m wondering now is, where is this going to go? Will it become a more productive and pervasive part of English? it seems to be heading that way, which I think is super neat and interesting. Living languages! Another question is, are some of these reduplicated forms going to end up lexicalized into standalone words? A lot of other languages have tons of reduplicated forms (they tumble out of every crevice in Japanese, for example, even though I’m not sure Japanese uses reduplication for contrastive focus like this!).

The only lexicalized reduplicated word in English that I can think of that might already follow this pattern is ‘no-no’, as in, ‘picking your nose in public is a big no-no’. Do you think no-no means “really very no, in a way that we will probably all agree on”? Or am I off track here?

Ikea’s “Bookbook,” Soy Milk vs. Milk-Milk, and Like-Liking. What’s Going On?