On hooks and segmented marketing
Angie Fox led a panel at Archon this weekend which discussed the importance, obvious and subtle, of the first five pages of a manuscript. Thought-provoking stuff ensued. One which stuck with me was the need for those pages, and preferably the first page, to have a hook–something that distinguishes the manuscript materially from those of similar genre and subject.
What constitutes a hook? I think it’s the author being upfront in taking a chance at turning off a reader, in exchange for the opportunity to turn another reader on. A hook that tries to work for everyone ceases to be a hook and becomes background noise. “But Jeff” I hear you say, through the miracle of rhetoric, “what about those monumental bestsellers? Don’t they have hooks that work on everyone?”
Nope. Even the biggest of blockbusters have detractors…or do when we’re talking about adult releases.
I am beginning to think one reason fantasy YA titles do so well is that younger audiences don’t have the ingrained tastes of adults, but moreover, I think most have a hook that DOES work on the majority of its intended audience: the tween/teen protagonist no one understands, or no one normal, anyway. That stuff works better on the target demographic than stink bait on a catfish farm, because it’s as close to a universally shared sentiment as there is.
I’m not saying all twelve year olds are alike, or all fifteen year olds. But they are all going through the same kind of trauma at the same time, and that sense of commonality is the reason Harry Potter wouldn’t have made J. K. Rowling a billionaire if she’d written it for grownups, even if she were the second coming of Tolkien edited by Maxwell Perkins. By the time a young person hits their late teens and early twenties, the commonality is gone: some kids go to college, some get married, some join the military, some die young for the usual stupid reasons. That’s one reason I’m dubious about the success of “new adult” as a marketing ploy, or whatever it is they’re calling fiction aimed at the 18-22 year old market–that and the aforementioned issue of taste. By the early twenties people have more of a sense of what they like and don’t like, and what hooks will work and what hooks won’t.
I don’t write YA. I kind of wish I did, since I have pretty strong memories of being that protagonist (as do most adults who read YA on the sly, perhaps). So I have to pick my hooks carefully, with malice aforethought. Yes, malice. If I don’t piss someone off in the first few paragraphs, it likely means I’m not sucking in the people with opposite tastes the way I want.