How Not to Hook ‘Em

At a GrubStreet Muse and the Marketplace Writers Conference, I workshopped my novel query “pitch” with a goateed and bespectacled editor from Scribner:

“After her mother spontaneously combusted on the Altiplano between Bolivia and Chile, Fallon struggles to grasp reality. Fifteen years later, her brother, who is bi-polar…”

He sighed audibly and wrinkled his nose under his black-rimmed spectacles. “Your pitch is too plotty. As an editor of literary fiction, I’m less interested in plot and more interested in language and style. What are your ‘comparables’?”

That’s shop talk for authors you might compare yourself to.

I suggested magical realists like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell. That was strike two.

“People in the publishing industry don’t call Karen Russell’s or Aimee Bender’s writing magical realism.”

“What would you call it?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “I’d call it literary fiction that pushes the boundaries of reality.”

OK, I admit it. I was discouraged. I was hoping people would say, “Wow, fascinating, send it to me.”

Part way through the happy hour, we were supposed to mingle. He introduced me to an editor from William Morrow, and she agreed with his assessment. She said, “spontaneous combustion” raised so many questions about whether I was joking, talking about reality, or using a metaphor, that she couldn’t listen to the rest of the pitch. She thought I should simply say, “After the mysterious death of her mother . . .”

My friends all groaned when I related this. They love my opening line.

Later, at the GrubStreet Manuscript Mart, where agents and editors read the first twenty pages of your manuscript and comment, Laura Biagi from the Jean V. Naggar Agency had a problem with my opening lines. She thought I should start with something less confusing, or go into more detail about the combustion, or start in real time in the present with the main character and give us enough about her that we start to really care about her.

I told her my opening lines were making a bow to the opening lines of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” She pointed out that his novel then goes into that scene of the discovery of ice, whereas my first paragraph starts in the past, brings us too briefly to the pub and then goes the previous day. Too much too fast.

Peter Blackstone from Grove also agreed that my first paragraph was front-loading the novel too much.

So, I learned a valuable lesson. Start your query and your novel with a hook, but don’t give people whiplash.

A friend of mine who works for GrubStreet said, “You’ve also learned that the big publishers aren’t adventurous. They say they want something different, but not that different. After all, it has to be something that 100,000 people would like.” He had personally given up on them and only deals with small presses. I’m soon to follow.

I’d love to end this post telling you they were all wrong, and I published the novel as it was and lived happily ever after. Alas, I’m still revising. Just for yucks, though, I’ll leave with my before and after. Judge for yourself.


After her mother spontaneously combusted on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, Fallon turned her head, saw herself reflected, beautiful and male, in the face of her older brother Ovid and fell in love. Fifteen years later, navigating her way across the crowded floor of the North Star Pub to serve drinks to tourists and Wall Street brokers, she was still struggling to disentangle herself from both events.


The road before them dissolved into two sets of tire tracks pressed deeply in the sand, one going to the left and one to the right. The American family of five looked through the front windshield at the greatest expanse of nothingness they had ever seen. Sands every shade from silver to lead stretched in all directions and would have gone on eternally had not snow-capped volcanoes pricked the horizon. Their conical perfection burned the sky, too harsh for reality, too exact for dreams. The tracks represented not so much a choice, as the utter impossibility of choice, rational or otherwise.